April 30, 2013

Chatting with servers but not your friends or fellow patrons

Although people are much less socially inclined than in the good old days, especially toward strangers in public spaces, I've noticed that they are still fairly willing to chit-chat with their servers in a food and drink place.

"Still" might be the wrong word -- I don't recall people chatting with food servers that much in the '80s, whether from memory or in TV or movies. They were just sort of there to do a job, and if anything they seem to have been treated more carelessly. Some smartass tells you he wants you to "hold the chicken" between your knees, some bratty kid dumps an ice cream scoop into your apron pocket when your back is turned, some fat bald jerk shouts that the sign says 100% guaranteed "you moron," so you shout back that if you don't shut up, I'm gonna kick 100% of your ass!

So maybe it's more of a replacement of more formal interactions for the more informal interactions of before. You relate to your friends, your bf/gf or husband/wife, and your fellow patrons on a more informal level -- you all have roughly equal power or influence among each other, and you can take another person's perspective because some of the time you're playing the role that they currently are in the group dynamics.

Interacting with a server has more restricted, and more clearly defined boundaries around what's permissible. Less uncertainty, less risk, less having to figure stuff out and negotiate the changing conditions of real life. Also, you can't take the other person's perspective because you're probably not a food server who gets paid to interact with customers yourself. You never play each other's role, or any different role.

There's something of a guest-host feel to the interaction because food and drink is involved, and that's a prototypical scenario for hosting and being hosted. I don't notice people chit-chatting with the employees at an electronics store, a big box store, or really anywhere other than a place that serves food -- not supermarkets either, since they don't prepare you what you're buying. But even in the food service places, the fact that you're paying the servers and they're giving you a receipt to show that the accounts have been settled, kind of deflates the spirit of generosity and gratitude that fills a true guest-host interaction.

Sure, groups of people who show up together may talk a little bit, but it's typically superficial remarks and brief responses that don't build toward a sustained conversation where everyone's taking turns. And if they're born after 1984, they all wall themselves off with their devices, perhaps texting each other or leaving messages on each other's Facebook, rather than turn their faces toward each other, make eye contact, and speak and listen. Omigosh, like awkward, like creepy.

And forget about strangers approaching each other to shoot the bull for awhile -- a superficial remark, a dead-end response, maybe some nervous or forced laughter, and then back to total isolation. I've noticed that even compared to several years ago, strangers in public spaces are less likely to make a request that one of them watch the other's stuff while they go to the bathroom, smoke a cigarette, yak on their phone outside, etc. However minimal, that was still a form of reaching out to someone else for support, the other accepting, the first one acknowledging the other's helpfulness, and the other acknowledging the first one's gratitude. Again, particularly rare if they're from the Millennial generation.

Wait a minute -- public spaces that look abandoned, customers who are disconnected from each other, but where a food/drink server is at least showing them some attention and thought... I swear I've seen this all before. Oh yeah:

Earlier I touched on the theme of drive-in establishments and social isolation during the mid-century and Millennial eras. I didn't notice then that there's also a counterpart to today's reliance on more formalized interactions with the food servers, while being more distant from your peers. That included both same-sex interactions for just shooting the bull, as well as opposite-sex interactions to make it less awkward for men to talk to women, and to make it easier for women to shoot down men if necessary (against the rules). The same-sex interactions were guaranteed not to lead to a real friendship, and the opposite-sex interactions were guaranteed not to lead to dating or marriage, but at least it was something rather than nothing.

In the mid-century, there was the soda jerk; in the Millennial era, it's the barista. Then it was the car hop girl; today it's the Hooters girl.

Just like us, and unlike people from the '60s through the '80s, they were so risk-averse and socially-emotionally avoidant that the more scripted interactions with food servers felt more comfortable than interacting with their peers. The soda jerk and car hop girl became icons of the time, well loved by the general public. We'll have the same fond memories of the Hooters girl and the barista of our time.

But that shouldn't distract us from the fact that their popularity reflects a deeply rooted social anxiety and lack of trust of the average, everyday person, who is after all a stranger. And the absence of similarly iconic servers from the '60s, '70s, or '80s should remind us of how much our fondness for those times derives from the connectedness and sense of belonging across the entire neighborhood, community, and even nation, obviating the need for crutch-like relationships with food and drink servers.

April 29, 2013

The Great Gatsby as chick flick for SWPL Millennials

I'd heard that they were making another movie of The Great Gatsby awhile ago, but hadn't checked in on it until it showed up on the main page at IMDb. Jesus Christ, what a corruption of a classic!

Now, some adaptations are mere failures -- they don't try hard, don't achieve a distinctive look or feel, and generally have no personality or identity.

Then there are others that are memorable, but whose identity is the opposite of what they were meant to adapt. Titanic, a boring chick flick from the '90s, is a good example of one adapted from real events, whose evil rich and honest poor are more from the Gilded Age / Robber Baron era than from the Edwardian / Jazz Age period of the actual Titanic story. I can't remember too much since I couldn't make it all the way through, but that's my distinct impression.

Romeo + Juliet, another boring chick flick from the '90s, is an example adapted from an existing work of fiction. The 1968 Zeffirelli version was full of young people whose hormone-crazed choices bring about their tragic downfall, both in the domains of dating-and-mating and competition among same-sex peers. I can't say I remember too much of the later adaptation from the bits and pieces I caught when it was aired on cable.

But the romance plot had too much of a feel-good tone, where Juliet was basically living a juvenile "fairy tale" swept-off-her-feet romance, and so where her mostly passive role does not implicate her in her own downfall later on. Shakespeare's original, and the Zeffirelli adaptation, portray a Juliet who's much more active in chasing Romeo, even if it's in her own behind-the-scenes scheming feminine kind of way. Her boy-crazy designs on Romeo thus involve both her and her lover in their ultimate demise.

As for the male-male competition plot, there was too much of an Us vs. Them tone, emphasizing the never-ending state of the feuding between rival factions. It makes it seem like the individual murderers and their victims are just passively assuming their role in some hokey script. In Shakespeare's original, the group vs. group dynamics are minimized, and only serve to set up who has a natural beef with who else. But all of the characters are fleshed out as individuals, some more hot-headed and some more level-headed, and it is those personality differences that cause one to get involved in murder or not. That characterization makes it into the Zeffirelli adaptation as well.

Why spend so much time going over an adaptation that I don't remember too well? Because the same director, Baz Luhrmann, is back for the new Great Gatsby adaptation. He also did that boring historical chick flick from the early 2000s, Moulin Rouge (another one I gave a chance but couldn't watch for more than 10 or 15 minutes).

Although the movie is not out yet, we know roughly what to expect based on his earlier popular adaptations. First, the look of the movie will be overly stylized, perhaps based on Art Deco, but probably laying it on too thick and attempting more to beef up its street cred with the vintage-loving SWPL girl demographic. I'm imagining a new Pre-Raphaelite spirit for our neo-Victorian times today.

Second, they're going to give the story a huge chick flick orientation, perhaps even making it the dominant tone. There's nothing chick-littish at all about the novel, where the sub-plot about chasing after Daisy is just one example of an entire pattern of Gatsby's over-reaching ambition that brings about his own downfall.

Third, the female lead will be passive, freeing her of responsibility later on. A key point of characterization in a chick flick, since escapist female audiences don't want to see movies where they're told that their on-screen avatars are partly responsible for their own troubles. In the novel, Daisy Buchanan is not quite manipulative or deliberately controlling of men -- more like, effortlessly hypnotizes them with her speech and gaze, and she's aware of her power. She plays her own part in entangling her suitors into aggressive male confrontation, just as they do themselves with their competitiveness and jealousy.

And fourth, in general the tone will be fatalistic and bleak rather than tragic and stirring, appealing to -- well, I was going to say dumb teenagers, but they're probably college-aged through their mid-20s, only with stunted minds that make them resemble middle schoolers. I imagine one of the main audience reactions to be "Gosh, it's just so not fair!"

Moving beyond speculation, let's have a quick look at some of the knowns about the movie.

The soundtrack is full of indie dorks like Lana Del Rey and SWPL-approved hip-hop acts like Andre 3000. No covers of Jazz Age songs, although there are a couple of neo-Jazz Age, i.e. New Wave-y songs by Bryan Ferry to save the day. The other covers are from the '90s and 2000s, including one of an Amy Winehouse song. Sorry, but some bombastic crackho is not what springs to mind when I think of sweet, danceable melodies and delightful instrumental solos. Why no use of "Promises, Promises" by Naked Eyes, for example? "Edgy" white acts semi-allied with "edgy" black acts is obviously a neo-Beatnik ensemble, and so would be better suited to an adaptation of "Howl" or something equally Fifties in tone. The hot jazz style of the '20s was exciting and engaging, not dull, monotone, and off-putting.

The director, locations, and a good number of the cast are Australian, which is odd for an adaptation of such a specifically American novel. If they were all really into '20s America, maybe they'd be able to pull it off. But they don't, so it seems like too much will get lost in translation.

Speaking of the cast, why is the loathsome, beady-eyed Jew in the story being played by an Indo-Aryan with trustably full eyes? To "update" it for contemporary times, where Jews are more assimilated, while South Asians are looked at the way that Jews used to be? Lame. And South Asians don't have a long historical reputation for producing Meyer Wolfsheim types of characters. Is there some South Asian guy in Australia or the UK who played a major part in a conspiracy to fix their national sport's equivalent of the World Series in baseball? Or are they just going to make some shit up for the movie, to make it seem like South Asians are the new Jews, when they aren't?

Wikipedia notes that, "When asked about the movie, Luhrmann stated that he planned the remake to be more timely due to its theme of criticizing the often irresponsible lifestyles of wealthy people." Oh, I get it -- like, The Recession.

The exaggeratedly opulent production design and the hip-hop songs on the soundtrack suggest that it'll be all about excess, decadence, irresponsibility, etc. Those themes are only in the background of the novel, kind of like the urban yuppie excess of the 1980s in novels like Bright Lights, Big City. That atmosphere exists to tempt characters, who then reveal their true selves when put to the test -- some giving in, and some controlling themselves. It's not there in the foreground to serve as a skyscraper-sized target for the facile moralizing of hack writers.

Man, and I was actually planning to see this when I heard about it way back when. I definitely won't be paying to see it, so I may stand corrected in a few weeks about some predictions, though I doubt very much.

I haven't discussed the 1974 adaptation with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow because I haven't seen it. I've read that it overdoes the "boo, evil idle rich people" angle, though at least the look of the movie is more '20s -- stylish, but not all Pre-Raphaelite and emo exaggeration. And based on who's in the cast, the acting must be a million times better -- Sam Waterston is far more believable than Tobey friggin' Maguire as Nick Carraway, without even seeing their performances.

It seems like no one can make The Great Gatsby into a movie, whether as a faithful adaptation or in spirit. Fitzgerald's portrayals of the social lives of young people seem to do better -- Metropolitan is easy to interpret as a neo-Jazz Age movie about the new Flaming Youth of the neo-Twenties. The tragically ambitious individual has been done in film before, e.g. Citizen Kane, but the tone is usually so somber and dark. The world of The Great Gatsby is more heady and topsy-turvy than oppressive. It was the Roaring Twenties, not the noirish Age of Anxiety. Then when movies go for light-hearted or adventurous romantic dramas, they tend not to incorporate the "individual's tragic ambition" plot as well -- too much of a downer.

Maybe I'm just drawing a blank, but the closest thing I can think of where the movie incorporates both a story about a daring, entrepreneurial upstart whose reach exceeds his grasp, as well as a light-hearted sub-plot about winning over a woman who's already with another man, and also featuring lots of footloose fun while out at dance clubs with a '20s look to them -- is Scarface from 1983.

LOL, I know the tone isn't as tender and wistful as The Great Gatsby, and obviously a lot more violent. But that's my point -- Hollywood and indie studios alike seem so incapable of making the film version of Gatsby that something as distant as Scarface is the closest thing in terms of sharing distinctive elements. Please chime in with other suggestions, though.

April 28, 2013

Paleo bathing

Here is a brief post about the drying-out effect on your skin of taking long, frequent, or hot showers. Add to that the use of anti-bacterial soap, and it's no wonder why today's OCD population looks haggard beyond their actual years.

One thing that stands out so much about people's appearance in pictures or movies from the good old days is how shiny and glowing their skin is (no homo for the pics of dudes). Especially noticeable if the image was taken in warm or hot weather -- the skin looks glistening from the sweat that it never occurred to them to scrub off or prevent from forming.

For the past couple weeks, I've switched to a pretty minimal shower, and you can feel your skin being much less dry afterward. The only time I have the shower head on is to wash my hair and under my arms, maybe five minutes tops. Before that, it works well to just use water from the bathtub faucet to wash the face, feet, and groin. I don't bother using soap on my arms, legs, chest / stomach, or back since I don't roll around in mud on a typical day.

Aside from making your body feel better, you're in and out in much less time. You don't get that soporific effect of immersing your body in warm or hot water, like in a jacuzzi.

Going back to a more bathing rather than showering approach isn't even that paleo -- just 100 or however many years ago, people weren't treating their bodies like grease-caked pans that required 20 minutes of a high-pressure hosing off.

April 27, 2013

Helicopter parents going further to destroy playgrounds

Starting in the early 1990s, the ascendant helicopter parent army pushed for the destruction of good old fashioned playgrounds with dangerous stuff that built up our bodies and our character. Like, we're still here, aren't we? A few years ago, the typical playground had become so infantilized that the swings look like suspended car safety seats, and there are pointless safety warning stickers plastered all over the equipment.

Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, my brother sent me this picture of a new species of playground sign:

Fuck all of these OCD parents and their weak, stunted children too

Can't say I'm shocked, but it's still depressing how far today's parents are willing to go to ruin their children's childhoods and prevent any social group from forming among little kids. How could it when they have no unsupervised public spaces where they could gather, interact, and learn how to treat each other through experience?

Family interactions are fake for character building because of Hamilton's Rule: parents and even siblings will tolerate all kinds of shit that genetic strangers would not. Children need to interact with one another in face-to-face situations to prepare them for adult social relations -- which are not supervised and micro-managed. Sheltering your children from peers stunts their psychological growth just as strapping them in bed stunts their skeletal and muscular growth.

This phony anti-peanut crusade seems to be the application of the anti-smoking bans to the world of children. We all ate plenty of meals in restaurants where there were smoking and non-smoking sections, and like, we're still here, aren't we? Now you can't even smoke within five blocks of any building with more than three people in it. The abrasive and anti-social attitude of the anti-smoking crusade shows that it was clearly not motivated by health concerns, like ones related to the flu, asbestos, etc. Folks with the flu are not banned from leaving their homes, are they? And we know for sure that they're harmful, unlike the questionable / bogus nature of second-hand smoke pollution.

Well, children don't smoke, so how are helicopter parents going to use that same tactic to fragment the community among the under-12-year-olds? It didn't have to be peanuts, since any other food with a flimsy story about the risk posed to everyone or even a small minority would have worked. But the way it's unfolded, the peanut allergy became the wedge.

And let's be clear about what the purpose of the anti-smoking and anti-peanut signs are -- not to lessen the traces of cigarette smoke or peanuts, which is an instrumental or utilitarian goal. It is to poison the informal and easy-going atmosphere of public spaces, to cripple their ability to serve as places where groups of people can come closer together when they might otherwise not ever run into each other. Sober, formal, authoritarian signs like these ruin your mood right away, even if you weren't thinking of smoking or eating peanuts in the first place.

It puts you in that mindset of, "Oh great, this is one of those tightass places where everyone's being tracked by security cameras..." and you're prevented from enjoying a carefree state of mind. With that higher degree of self-monitoring, you can't forget yourself and join in the communal spirit and activities of a public space.

I think one of the first clear signs of the zeitgeist changing direction will be when normal people stop respecting all of these omnipresent, everyday authoritarian bullshit rules and regulations. Not necessarily in a self-conscious, middle-finger-to-The-Man sort of way -- just tuning them out altogether. Walking through grass instead of always adhering to the paved pathways, chilling out while sitting on a fence or rail or hood of a car, going out with no shirt on in warm weather, and all those other normal things that people used to do before we became so rule-bound.

April 26, 2013

Romantic comedies: Self-indulgent vs. other-focused

After watching this review of What's Your Number by the folks at RedLetterMedia and a female guest, I think I've finally solved the mystery of why some romantic comedies are good and others make your brain want to vomit.

In an older post, I took an in-depth descriptive look at how the somewhat enjoyable genre called the "romantic comedy" has devolved into another one called the "chick flick." This reflects the larger social trend away from guys and girls getting along with each other pretty well, and toward the re-segregation of the sexes, not last seen since the mid-20th century.

One way to see that is looking at the IMDb ratings according to sex of the voters. For the most successful rom-coms, those made from 1979 to 1992 were less polarizing between men and women than those made in the past 20 years. Yeah, sure, who doesn't like Big or L.A. Story? But Sleepless in Seattle, Amelie, What's Your Number, etc. make your eyes roll.

OK, but what is it about the movies of the '70s, '80s, and early '90s that make them palatable, even enjoyable, compared to the junk of the past 20 years?

In the good romantic comedies, the protagonist and perhaps also their love interest undergo some kind of personal, emotional, social growth. That growth makes them worthy of the love interest by the end, when at the beginning they were not worthy. In the bad rom-coms, the protagonist doesn't change in any deep way, and so their hooking up with their love interest by the end is more like a trailer park denizen winning the Powerball lottery.

The current state of romantic comedies actually includes more than the chick flick -- there's the schlub underdog movie too. In either case, the point of the movie is to massage the rightfully anxious egos of a target audience that is seriously flawed but wants to hear that everything's going to work out all right, and without them having to make any real changes in their personality, outlook, or behavior.

For chicks, they get to indulge in a juvenile fantasy that they're already a worthy princess, and it's only a matter of time before Santa Claus delivers their dream present. And not because they're going to improve themselves, be a better person next year. But because Santa just didn't get around to it this year. Just be patient, stay the way you are, and you'll get your dream present after all.

For schlubs, their fantasy is no less juvenile: they spend so much effort feeling sorry for themselves that, somehow, cosmic fate hears their whining and decides to take pity on them, and delivers an attractive woman who's willing to look past all of their pathetic self-disgust. Schlub guilt-trips Fate, so Fate hooks him up with a steady pity-fuck partner.

It's that same mindset like when you're six years old, and instead of earning something you want from your parents, you hesitantly address them ("Mom..."), then show some fake humility and cut yourself off ("Nah, nevermind..."), and after being prompted to continue, unload with the self-pity as well as feeling sorry for yourself because you have such an unforgiving parent ("No, really, nevermind... you'll probably just say No anyways...") If they actually do say Yes, it's like, wow, jackpot! -- easy money.

Now, if it's just some first-grader trying to squeeze a couple bucks out of their parents, there's nothing too degrading about that way of getting what you want, at least every now and then. But a romantic relationship, or any kind of enduring social bond, is way more serious than scoring some money to hit up the arcade (or whatever they do with it these days). One of the necessary steps is to dial down your individual concerns and change yourself to better mesh with the other person (or persons if it's a team, community, etc.).

The present obsession with "don't judge me" and "don't worry, it'll all work out in the end" reflects immaturity, as though they haven't even adapted to adolescence, when social bonds are supposed to form more naturally as juvenile egocentrism begins to erode. And so, watching these chick flick or schlub underdog movies can't help but make normal people disgusted -- the protagonist refuses to grow and yet gets rewarded all the same. It stings like a failure of cosmic justice.

And that's precisely why the romantic comedies where characters grow feel more satisfying -- they took at least some responsibility for their situation, tried to change things as best they could, and achieved their goals. The cosmic justice system works. Plus you naturally feel like cheering on someone who has earned their great reward, an urge that is wholly lacking when it's just some bum who happened to buy the right lottery ticket. And isn't that one of the most basic reasons for watching movies -- to resonate with the protagonist?

If the good rom-coms are more mature in their characterization, it shouldn't surprise us to find out that they overwhelmingly feature male protagonists, which might seem odd for a genre associated with chick flicks. Women are just too good at rationalizing, not to mention catty and stand-off-ish, for the average female movie character to take a long hard look at herself and decide to grow toward meeting others' needs.

Um, why would I need to do that when it's like blatantly the other person's fault? I mean, like, blatantly.

Guys are more likely to err in the other direction, wallowing in self-pity. Still, that shows that their general tendency is to be more honest with themselves and take more personal responsibility.

I can only think of three of the enjoyable set of romantic comedies that have a female protagonist -- Hannah and Her Sisters, Heathers, and Clueless. Mean Girls is an OK teen comedy about antagonism among same-sex peers, but there's little interaction between the sexes and hence no real romance going on.

All the rest have a male protagonist: Annie Hall, Manhattan, Big, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Barcelona, Coming to America, L.A. Story, Groundhog Day, My Cousin Vinny, The Princess Bride, Splash, Weird Science, When Harry Met Sally, and so on.

There could be a few others that I haven't seen with female leads (does Moonstruck fall into the enjoyable category?), but you can say the same for ones with male leads.

My hunch is that rising-crime times lead to more of the personal-growth rom-coms, and falling-crime times to more of the I'm-already-a-princess / schlub-underdog type. That's not to say that Audrey Hepburn's character doesn't change at all in Roman Holiday, but not in a transformative way, being broken down and built back up. It leaves you with a similar feeling as Amelie.

But I haven't seen too many of the classic rom-coms of the mid-century, so I can't say for sure whether they're more like those of the Millennial era. Already by 1960, though, they were starting to move in the direction of personal growth and taking control of your life, since that's when The Apartment came out.

You'd think that a movie genre that focuses so narrowly on one of the most important types of relationships would naturally include characters who grow or transform, given that the couple's needs are not the same as the individual's needs. Yet for the last 20 years, and perhaps during the mid-century as well, romantic comedies have starred self-indulgent protagonists instead. That would appear to be part of the broader cocooning trend, not trusting others enough to re-make yourself in light of what their needs are.

April 25, 2013

Movie posters: Cycles between illustration and photography

For lack of a better term, the visual culture of a rising-crime period is more stylized. It's clearly aiming away from photorealism, yet it's not minimalist or abstract, which are other ways of achieving that goal. In a falling-crime period, the visual culture looks more bland and uninspired, whether photorealistic or abstract / minimalist. In graphic design, this means a greater fascination with and reliance on photography in falling-crime times, and on illustration in rising-crime times.

From the turn of the 20th century through the early '30s, there was a golden age of illustration. From the mid-'30s through the '50s, that was out, and photography was back in (like during the falling-crime Victorian era). The Bauhaus movement promoted photography and sans serif typefaces during the 1920s, but nobody paid any attention to them back then. Not until the mid-century did their ideas finally find an enthusiastic audience.

Starting in the '60s and lasting through the '80s, the mainstreaming of Bauhaus was overthrown, as graphic designers returned to the stylized approach of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, with a more hand-drawn illustration look. Since the '90s, the pendulum has swung back toward photography and Helvetica once more. The collage-y look that Bauhaus propagandized for, but that only caught on during the mid-century, is back again, this time with a little help from Photoshop.

You can read about this in any good graphic design history book, with pictures from across a variety of visual domains. Here I thought I'd restrict the focus to something everyone knows something about, but might not have noticed the historical pendulum swings -- movie posters.

Aside from the greater use of illustration during rising-crime times, they're also more likely to use bold contrasting colors and bright-dark lighting contrast. The falling-crime fanaticism for photorealism can go so far as to include screenshots from the movie right there on the poster, not just any old photographs that might entice the audience.

I chose posters from movies that did very well at the box office, to make sure that we're looking at ones that resonated with audiences. Granted, they did well because of the movie itself, but the poster served to lure them in as well. I tried to cover a range of genres and years within each larger phase of the cycle. But to check on others -- your favorites or ones you're just curious about -- the movie's Wikipedia entry usually has a picture of the original poster near the top.

So, here's a quick but representative look at some posters from periods when crime was rising (1900 - 1933), falling (1934 - 1958), rising again (1959 - 1992), and falling again (1993 - present). Click any for a larger image.

Whatever you think of the movies themselves, their posters from the mid-century and Millennial eras sure do look bland in color and lighting, not to mention awkward and obvious in their reliance on screenshots. The photorealistic look doesn't mark itself or the movie it's advertising as something special, out of the ordinary, in the way that a stylized, charming illustration does.

It's not like the rising-crime posters are Caravaggio or Goya, but they're not supposed to be. They're part of our everyday lives, a kind of advertisement. But why shouldn't that stuff look cool too? Within reasonable, expectable bounds -- the studio isn't going to commission Rubens to slave away for who knows how long, just to come up with a large-scale ad for a movie. That still allows for creativity and enjoyment, though.

I can't stand the Puritanical strain in our culture that says we ought to just shut up and accept our boring, lifeless, and joyless popular culture, because none of that really matters anyway in the grand scheme of things. It comes from a seething misanthropy, whether the guy is a Baudelaire-reading emo faggot or a bitter reactionary/traditionalist. It's no different from the radical activist who loves humanity but hates people -- the main reason why "the movement" never lasts.

Whoever thinks that malcontents are going to prove to be any kind of guide out of our cultural mess is in for a real disappointment. If you aren't life-loving enough to enjoy cool-looking movie posters, everyone's going to tune you out when they might otherwise lean toward your side.

April 23, 2013

The '20s, the '50s, the '80s: Persistence and revivals

Some off-hand remarks in the comments section of the post below brought up whether the Jazz Age managed to leave much of an impression on the culture of the 1980s. Or at least, whether the '50s culture enjoyed even greater resonance with the '80s.

I've been meaning to outline some of the major, defining traits of each period's zeitgeist, and to show how they've cycled over time, with the Roaring Twenties and the Go-Go Eighties representing similar phases in the cycle, and the mid-century and Millennial eras representing similar phases on the other end of the spectrum. But that kind of panoramic detail is hard to pull together and display effectively in a post (with pictures, video clips, writing excerpts, etc.). It's more suited to a rambling comment, which I left two of, and won't cut & paste here.

Briefly, though: no, during the '80s, the culture of the '50s did not enjoy a special resonance compared to that of the '20s. Just the opposite. Mid-century retro has instead begun to thrive only within the past 20 years, from the swing / big band revival, to the return of isolated characters in film noir movies, to a renewed interest in burlesque and striptease (complete with Bettie Page wannabe hairstyles), video games reviving the horror comic's staples of gory sado-masochism and voyeurism, butt-kicking babes, fast-talking dames, neo-International Style architecture and design, drive-in restaurants, and so on and so forth.

The Jazz Age may be largely forgotten in 2013, but rewind a mere 30 years and it was still hot in popular culture. Here's the iconic song and music video for Taco's synthpop cover of "Puttin' on the Ritz":

April 22, 2013

Movie voices -- mostly mumbling, some shouting

One of the biggest problems I have with getting into contemporary movies is the robotic delivery of the dialogue. It's usually monotone, which also means low monotone (a steady high pitch being too much of a strain), with a kind of husky or mumbling register, and a self-consciously slow-mo tempo. Examples by genre follow a bit further down.

The words in a movie are meant to be spoken and felt, not appreciated more abstractly by reading them from the screenplay. Speech patterns may not be the high point of the overall sensory experience of a movie, but take them away, and it drains the movie of any power. Speech is such a constant presence in a movie, not like if the handful of action sequences are boring or if a couple special effects look dumb.

It's like when you hear contempo pop music, Norah Jones for example, and you want to tell them to wake up before they start recording the song. It smacks of disrespect for the audience, like "I'm too bored and tired to care enough about you all to sound dynamic, pleasing, or exciting." Turn off the fucking microphone then, you retard.

And while 99% of the speech is mumbling, there's that 1% where they go for broke and turn to shouting or shrieking. I guess they're assuming that they've already put you to sleep with their ordinary drone, so they need to launch a full-out assault on your ears to get your attention -- you know, instead of having it all along.

Again that's what contempo singing sounds like -- mostly that quiet flat tone, with the occasional random brief burst of volume. I think Natalie Merchant started that in the '90s, but it wasn't as bad back at the beginning of the trend. Try making your ear swallow a song by Regina Spektor without spitting it back out.

When so much of a person's speech has no sort of natural inflection, and therefore sounds totally careless as to the context (each context calling for its own sort of inflection), the audience gets the message that the speaker is bored by everything and couldn't care less about others. So when they hear that odd random burst of volume, they interpret it as the boy who cried "wolf." Just some egocentric twit who felt a sudden impulse to whore for attention.

I wonder how much today's audiences respond viscerally to their entertainment. It seems like being presented with such cold, distancing, and unlikable vocal delivery, they'd get turned off. But maybe they're all borderline autistic and their brains are filtering out the acoustic/phonetic detail, and extracting only the syntactic/semantic information.

To document what's going on, I'm certainly not going to go through every popular movie from the last 15-20 years. Just one for each genre, since the trend is obvious enough. Mumbling does seem to play different roles in different genres, though, so each case is worth a separate look. I'll also include examples from an '80s counterpart that show normal human inflection, just to show how recent this change is. The clips will be movie trailers, since they include speech from across the entire movie, not just a snippet from one scene only.

Indie movies: Mumbling as outward sign of inner existential drift

Note to artfags: "ennui" is just "boredom" with a college degree, hence no more interesting and equally irritating as a character trait.

Trailer, The Puffy Chair (2005)
Trailer, Heathers (1988)

Action movies: Mumbling as nonchalant invincibility

The occasional flat-toned wisecrack shows stoicism and cockiness from a vulnerable hero in the face of real danger. Always sounding bored and unmoved shows instead that the characters themselves are aware of being written as indestructible faux heroes in a CGI explosion movie.

Trailer, A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)
Trailer, Die Hard (1988)

Comedy movies: Mumbling as makeshift deadpan

Deadpan is the use of an ordinary type of inflection (any of the many types used in ordinary situations), when an unusual type is called for. Mumbling doesn't sound like a familiar example of ordinary inflection, and so defeats the comic contrast between the expected unusual type and the actual ordinary type. It cheats and says, "We know we're supposed to be showing some kind of emotion, but we're showing no emotion at all," instead of showing ordinary emotion A when unusual emotion B is called for.

Trailer, The Hangover (2009)
Trailer, Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

Romance movies: Mumbling as impaired libido

When characters have so little inflection before they find each other, we don't believe they're all that excitable to begin with, and so not really driven as protagonists toward their romantic goal, nor having much long-term promise as a passionate couple -- which is the whole selling point of the movie. Decreased libido also shows up in the mumbling used to broadcast how not boy-crazy the girl is, and how "whatever" the guy feels about girls. And the occasional attempt to resurrect hall of fame mumblers Bogie and Bacall, wielding it as a weapon in a never-ending duel of shit-testing.

Trailer, Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)
Clip, L.A. Story (1991)

Drama movies: Mumbling as forced reminder of seriousness

Characters find themselves in a predicament, sometimes a frightening one, that will take some kind of personal growth to get out of. All that minimal inflection achieves is to keep reminding the audience of the seriousness of the predicament -- like, yeah, we get it already. Fatalistic mumbling suggests, though, that the characters will just stay trapped in their troubles. A fuller range of inflection suggests that the characters have personalities that are dynamic enough to work their way through their unfamiliar situation.

Trailer, The Sixth Sense (1999)
Trailer, Big (1988)

...And that takes care of the major genres. The others are more or less a mix of the above uses.

You see basically the same picture by looking at the range of facial expressions. Today it's 99% blank -- vacant, mopey, smug, pouty, etc. -- and 1% kabuki mask, where before people showed a normal range of expressions. Now they look distancing by default, and we don't believe them when they briefly deviate by donning their kabuki masks. Before they were believable from beginning to end; some of them you could even relate to. The functions served by blank-face in each of the genres is the same as for mumble-voice.

Again, it makes you wonder how autistic the audience is today if they don't notice, or don't care, that the faces they're spending the whole movie staring at are completely devoid of normal emotional expressions for 99% of the time, and the other 1% are drawn with all the subtlety of pre-school refrigerator art.

These major failures wouldn't be so bad if we were reading a book, where only our own imagination is responsible for hearing the dialogue and seeing their expressions. But in a medium that you're supposed to have a more visceral response to, it's crucial to have speech and body language that you can connect with.

April 20, 2013

E.T. not as memorable as I remember

I watched E.T. last night for the first time in at least 20-25 years, and I was surprised how little I remembered of the plot and visuals. (I saw the original version, not the helicopter parent update.) Most of the main plot points had stuck, but not others -- I didn't remember that during the bicycle flight through the woods scene, E.T. set up his machine to phone home. Even more strangely, I didn't remember at all that E.T. dies near the end.

There were other small moments like that, too, where you think I would've remembered the plot point or at least the image. I had no memory of Elliott and E.T. having an interwoven psychic/emotional connection-at-a-distance, although maybe I was too young to appreciate that the last time I saw it.

I did recall some of the most iconic shots -- the bicycle flight and the shadow of E.T. and Elliott against the moon, Elliott's indignant face when no one believes his story ("It was nothing like that, penis breath!"), the warm-glow lighting of the closet where E.T. is holed up, and the sterilized white tunnel where Elliott makes his getaway at the end. However, I didn't remember the beginning or ending shots of E.T.'s spaceship, the strong dark-bright shots of the tool shed when Elliott and E.T. first "meet," or the entire hospital scene (although I did recall him indignantly ripping off the suction cups). Everyone remembers that E.T.'s fingertip glows, but I didn't remember his heart glowing, even though it's shown just as often.

Overall, it almost felt like I was seeing it for the first time. And '80s fan though I am, I have to say it was a good movie, but not at the level that its reputation would suggest. As in, Best This or Best That kind of movie. It succeeds as a movie that people of any age can enjoy, and without the tentpole pandering of '90s and 21st-century "family" movies. Still, it didn't do that much for me as a grown-up.

The same basic themes, plot, characterization, and visual style were light years beyond in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was aimed more at adults. I can't stress enough how striking movies look when they're shot with an anamorphic lens, which unfortunately E.T. was not. The strong lighting contrasts, use of contrasting colors, shot composition -- the cinematography just looks better overall.

I thought it also did a better job of getting adult viewers to feel for the little kid who makes contact with the alien group. That scene at the end where the boy cries while saying good-bye to his alien friends felt more poignant than when Elliott gives E.T. one last hug good-bye. Maybe babies tug at the heart-strings more than 10 year-olds, I don't know, but it did feel more effective. Ditto for the reaction shot of the parent when she feels her child slipping away -- much more visceral when he gets pulled away in a tug-of-war than when she merely thinks that he's run away from home.

As for what grabbed me most as a child, it was definitely The NeverEnding Story -- unlike E.T., which I may have rented or caught on TV once in awhile, I used to watch The NeverEnding Story at least once a week for a good while there in elementary school. I saw it again a few years ago, and I hadn't forgotten anything, verbal or visual. It also has a catchy new wave theme song by the former frontman of Kajagoogoo.

Labyrinth had that same effect on me. My dad picked up a copy when the local video rental store was liquidating all its Betamax tapes, and I used to watch that over and over. Like The NeverEnding Story and Close Encounters, it was shot with an anamorphic lens (they really used to splurge on visuals in children's movies). After seeing it again for the first time in a long while, I remembered all of the plot, characters, images, and music. Yeah man, talk about catchy synthpoppy soundtracks. I picked that one up on CD a couple years ago, and it's still a fun one to listen to.

I don't mean to dump on E.T. like this, because it is a good enjoyable movie, and even though it's overrated, it's not one of those terrible "critic's darling" kind of overrated movies, where taking it down a peg feels cathartic. But it is worth noting that all the enthusiasm the movie receives is perhaps more driven by its iconic status, one of those movies that everybody has to cherish. While it is a successful fun-for-the-whole-family movie, it stretches itself a bit too thin and doesn't feel as satisfying to the child or adult viewer as a more age-tailored movie would. I'd go with Close Encounters for grown-ups and The NeverEnding Story for kids.

April 18, 2013

Are there any distinctive cultural groups among young people?

Thinking back to The Breakfast Club some more, or Heathers, or Fast Times, or any other classic teen movie, it seems like the social groups that young people belonged to used to have a lot stronger of a cultural group identity. ("When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way.")

For one thing, all sorts of stereotypes pop into your head when you think of a certain group from back then. If they had a mushy, incoherent group character, nothing much would leap out at you. You don't see those strong, instantly recognizable stereotypes in portrayals of young people anymore. You do see personality and physical-type differences highlighted -- an awkward individual, a talkative individual, a whiner, a clown, a hottie, a beanpole -- but they don't stand out as representatives of a larger cultural group type.

I haven't seen every new teen or teen-starring movie, but I pick this up even more strongly in real life. I used to work at a tutoring center and did private tutoring during the mid-2000s, and I've been surrounded by college kids since then.

In the '80s, there used to be the jock, the nerd, the stoner / burnout, the surfer dude, the Valley girl, the prep, the metalhead, the etc etc etc. If you're around young people today, you don't feel like their groups are so well defined. No pack behavior. Not just that they are as distinctive as they used to be, only you are no longer aware of what those groups are these days -- rather, that they don't have a strong group vs. group vs. group identity. As far as social group membership goes, most of the individuals seem pretty interchangeable.

The list of high school cliques in Mean Girls (2004) seems to focus more on individual personality and physical traits more than social group membership ("unfriendly black hotties," "girls who eat their feelings"). The inclusion of "burnouts" and "sexually active band geeks" is a clueless projection of the '80s culture onto the present. Even in 2004, there was no burnout / stoner clique in the typical American high school. Ditto the sexually active part of the band geek description.

In fact, they missed one of the most recognizable youth groups of the 21st century -- the skater dudes. They are one of the few who are part of a clear type, a larger group or culture that isn't about individual traits in personality or body type. Jocks don't have much cohesiveness these days either, not outside of the sport itself. If they're part of a college team, they do hang out more together, but at the high school level where most young people are participating, it's more like something to pad their college application, or an outlet for their desire to do something athletic, but not necessarily to carve themselves apart as a pack.

A major sign of the lack of distinctiveness is how similar the slang words are among young people. In the '80s, each group had its own unique slang -- the metalheads, the Valley girls, the preps, the frat boys, the cheerleaders, and so on. You could close your eyes when watching Fast Times and identify the group membership of most of the characters from their speech patterns and vocabulary alone. Again the skater dudes seem to be the only exception -- they and those near them seem way more likely to use "sick," for example. They're the only group with a distinctive inflection; it sounds vaguely like a descendant of the surfer dude speak of the '80s.

Clothing styles all look pretty interchangeable as well, again with the exception of the skater dudes who are more likely to wear multiple bright colors, when everyone else (especially males) looks so dark, desaturated, and monochromatic. Basically all girls wear dark leggings with slouchy boots or Ugg boots. Everyone has the same hairstyle-- short for guys, maybe pushed forward, and medium-length and straightened for girls. Skaters have longer and bushier hair, again one of the few who stand out as a group. Metalheads do not as a rule have long hair anymore; it seems to be more of an individual stylistic choice, whether they grow it out or not. They've really come undone as a recognizable group.

The metal / goth / emo people still wear all black, but that's about all there is to them. It's not as though they're a cohesive group, and all-black is their uniform. It's an attempt to build groupiness from merely dressing alike, rather than identical dress being an outward reflection of their groupiness.

That seems to be the general pattern these days -- to the extent that you can pick out somewhat distinctive groups, it's minor differences in clothing, and taste in movies / music ( / video games?). They've mistaken the external markers for the solidarity itself.

How could they build up a strong sense of group membership when they hardly interact with each other in real life, let alone go through any kind of ordeal together? The quasi-jocks have some of it from their experiences on the field, and the skater dudes have it from taking risks together, and in public spaces. But the preppies don't have their own distinctive hang-out spots, where they do their distinctively preppie activities. The nerds don't get together and play D&D. The emos don't hang out in the 7-11 parking lot and blast their music, risking harassment from The Man, like the metalheads used to.

So here again we see flimsy group membership attempting to be based on shared personality traits -- what type of individual you are if you prefer Katy Perry over Linkin Park, if you prefer hoodies rather than cardigans. Social grouping is more egocentric these days, in the sense of individuals detecting their closest identical twins, not dampening down their individual identity in order to fit into a larger group.

Once more skaters appear to be the exception, where they seem to come from a wider variety of personality and physical-type backgrounds. Some are overly cautious, some are more daredevils. Some are tall and some short, some anorexic and some beefed up. Some flirt with girls, others find them boring. But they're willing to set those differences aside in order to join in the larger skater dude Way of Life, to speak its shibboleths and display its tribal markers.

In the next post, I'll try to generalize these differences over time into two different types of conformity, and try to explain why one type predominates in some periods and the other type in the other periods.

April 17, 2013

Shopping centers in the 1980s: Before every store was food-related

There sure is a lot more variety in the kinds of food places you can go to these days -- Thai restaurant, Hawaiian barbecue, coffee house, smoothie shack, just to name a few. But we shouldn't mistake all this diversity at the level of food places with diversity at the overall level of our daily commercial destinations, like a shopping center.

It seems like in most shopping centers, food businesses of one kind or another take up 50% or more of the spots. Throw in a reliable handful of hair salons and cell phone stores, and that's about it. There's usually only one store whose business type is not only unique within the other stores at that shopping center, but the only one of its kind within a five-block radius. The lingering ACE Hardware store, the vanishing Blockbuster movie rental store, the odd tanning salon.

Were shopping centers always this monotonous? I mean, it's nice to have so many food and beverage options, but they've crowded out all the other variety that used to be there. They don't have that organic feel where stores offering a wide range of goods and services cater to the local community that they're located in. They're more like the frivolous "lifestyle center" concept, where you just make a quick trip to indulge your senses and then go back home to fart around on the TV, internet, or Xbox for another couple of hours.

I've got a list of stores in and around various shopping centers and malls, for the suburban Columbus, OH area in 1988. I'll leave out malls since that wouldn't be a fair comparison (they had everything). And I'll pick from across a decent geographical range, two on the small and two on the large side. Let's take a quick look at what kinds of businesses you could expect to find within walking / biking / short driving distance, and then sum up the main differences.

If I have time, in the future I might track down what stores are in these centers today, for a more direct comparison. Still, you can't help but notice how much variety there used to be back then. Some of these store names don't tell us or even suggest what they sold, but here goes.

Olentangy Valley Shopping Center (Worthington)

Arbour House Travel
Avant Garde
Buckeye Health Foods
Forever Green Foliage Co.
Franco's Pizza
Hearth & Eagle Tavern
Howard Brooks Furniture
Lola's USA Deli
McKenzie's Supermarket
Roger Perry Realtors
Ski America
Soccer & Sports Outlet
Tom's Hallmark House
Vrables Pharmacy
Worthington Hills Cleaners
Zin Bridal Gallery

There are 5 of 17 that are food businesses, though no obvious chains. If any of them were, they must have been local chains, not national. Ditto for the non-food stores. There are non-immediate gratification services like a travel office, film developer, and realtor. Sounds like a landscaper in there too ("Foliage"). Furniture could be bought in just about any shopping center back then, and sports / athletics were big too. A good fraction of the shopping centers I've looked through had a Hallmark store.

Hilliard Square (Hilliard)

Animal Crackers Pet Shop
[Unnamed] Chiropractor
Christine's Styling Salon
Cord Camera
Coyle Music
Fits-Inn Health Club
Hillard Street Blues
ITT Financial Services
Little Caesars Pizza
Majestic Paint Center
Print Inn
Rosemary's Hallmark
Swan Cleaners
TCBY Yogurt
Video Barn

Only 3 of 16 are food-related stores, all major chains this time. Nearly as many are professional services (chiropractor, financial). What happened to pet stores? Especially ones that weren't a huge chain. Music stores and camera stores were separate, not crappy departments within a big box electronics chain like Best Buy. Most of the paint stores I saw were different, not all part of a sprawling chain (though there was a Sherwin-Williams here and there). For that matter, paint stores had not become another crappy department in Home Depot. Most of the printing centers were unique too; I think I only saw a couple of Kinko's in the lists. Video rental stores were all over too, each with their own selection, almost none of them chains in the '80s.

By the way, when in doubt if it's a chain, the less pretentious, or the more that a store's name makes you smile or giggle, the more likely it's a mom & pop spot that thought the name up themselves.

Dublin Plaza (Dublin)

The Acorn
The Book Barn
Buckeye Federal Savings
Dublin Pet Center
The Framing Center
HER Realtors
Jo-Ann Fabrics
Keith Barnet, LTD
Lee Shoes
Le Flair Boutique
Leo Alfred Jewlers
Lil's Hallmark
Little Caesars Pizza
The Mattress People
McAlister Camera
Patty Jo's
Pip Printing
Roots, Inc.
Roush Hardware
Super X Drugs
Teddy Bareskins (greatest store name ever)
Top 40 Movies

Just 4 or 5 of 26 are food stores (if Patty Jo's is some kind of restaurant). Back then, regular shopping centers sold clothing, shoes, accessories, and jewelry; you didn't have to trek out to the mall or department store if you didn't feel like it. Framing stores were mostly unique, not chains, and had not been swallowed up into wherever they are now. It seems like custom framing is effectively gone, and you just buy the pre-made ones at Target, Wal-Mart, or other big box store. In addition to furniture stores, there were specific stores for mattresses (and waterbeds, naturally). Another mom & pop hardware store, still going strong into the 1980s (Teen Wolf worked at his father's for his after-school job, back when teenagers were workin' for a livin').

Bethel Centre (North Columbus)

Baryo Batik
Ben's Supermarket
Berry's Barbell
Bethel Dance Academy
The Box Shoppe
Busch's Bridal Fabrics
Buzzard's Nest (record store)
Callander Cleaners
Century City Comics
Chase Bank of Ohio
Community Dental Center
Cooker Bar & Grill
Custome Holiday House
Express Tan
First Choice Hair Cutters
Flicker's Cinema Pub
Four Seasons Florist & Gifts
I Can't Believe It's Yogurt (lol)
India Imports Cafe
KDS One Stop Printing
Michael's Music
Morone's Italian Villa
Norwest Financial
O.P. Gallo Formal Wear
Paper Party Outlet
Photo serve
Popcorn Outlet
Radio Shack
Revco Drugs
Saturday's Family Hair Care
Scott Hurt Photography
Serent Office Supply
Skyline Chili
Tangles Hair Designers
Tuy Van's Restaurant
20/20 Vision Center
Vergoff Jewelers
The Video Store

...Phew. Some shopping centers had as many stores as malls did. Now it'd be taken up by whichever three relevant big box stores.  Of the 39 stores, perhaps 6 to 8 of them are food-related, and few or none are chains, at least large recognizable ones. Ditto again for the non-food stores. That's not a Thai but a Vietnamese restaurant. We were still cool with Vietnamese things back then; only when political correctness set in during the '90s did we have to change our tastes because, um, hello, that whole war, y'know? Thai was similar enough, and wouldn't be served with awkward political baggage.

I think roughly 1 out of every 8 shopping locations listed had some kind of dance school. Folks are too unexcitable these days to catch dance fever, though. Comic book stores enjoyed a brief renaissance in the late '80s and early '90s due to a speculators' boom. Lots of services -- dentist, financial, optician, bank, photographer. Not-so-standard goods on offer -- batik, imports, florist.

The office supply store isn't a Staples, the Box Shoppe isn't a Container Store. The home / interior decorating places aren't a Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Only big chain is a Radio Shack, and they were and still are small in size, not a Best Buy. And of course the range of other stores that we already saw in the earlier centers -- two music stores, sporting goods, clothing / jewelry, non-Kinko's printers, video rental store, etc.

This representative picture should serve as a strong reminder of just how recent the whole big box, every-store-a-mega-chain trend is. Target, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Staples, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, etc etc etc -- those only took off in the '90s. Without lists like these, you might have trouble remembering how little homogeneity there was as late as the end of the '80s. No Blockbuster, no Sam Goody, no Old Navy, no Supercuts. Also no trouble finding a mom & pop grocery store, hardware store, or bookstore.

I really miss the specialty nature of most stores back then. With separate stores for TVs, cameras, computers, and stereos, you could talk to four people who all knew something. Now those are collapsed into a Best Buy, where the four employees know diddly squat about everything. And lots of smaller clothing type stores allowed you to browse a wider variety, rather than the tentpole junk you find in Wal-Mart, Old Navy, etc.

Collapsing the specialty stores into a single big-box store also destroys the feeling of variety as you wander from one store to another. It all comes under the design plans of the same high committee. Malls avoided that, indeed combined the best of the single-structure building and independent store configurations. They were more like Middle Eastern bazaars, only in three dimensions (with escalators and glass elevators).

Shoppers these days like to drop buzzwords about liking "boutique-y" shops, but they're full of shit, as usual. Maybe for satisfying their taste buds or getting their hair cut, but everything else takes place in a sprawling mega-chain like Target and Whole Foods, or a neo-mid-century Totalitarian box like the Apple Store.

Despite all the paeans to diversity in the Millennial era, the increasingly OCD population cannot tolerate variety in daily life. Volatility, mystery, and surprise must be squeezed vice-like into a routine. Visiting the range of stores in shopping centers wasn't a mind-blowing pilgrimage kind of thing -- but we need variety as we go about our daily lives, too, not just experience it once a year. Shopping centers used to feel more like part of the overall ecosystem of a neighborhood, way before the New Urbanist crowd began preaching about mixed use. Intentionally or not, their followers have instead delivered us the homogeneous and frivolous "lifestyle centers."

Now shopping centers offer so little to do, so few reasons to stroll around and browse through each of the stores -- after all, today that only amounts to inspecting the menu to see where you'd like to eat before going right back home. We may have more treats to tickle our taste buds, but only by draining out our local commercial and architectural diversity.

April 15, 2013

The social mood toward cops -- informal vs. deferential

Nowhere is the creeping level of everyday authoritarianism more visible than in the general public's relationship with cops, how they think and feel about them, and how they interact with them.

Elsewhere I've touched on popular culture portrayals of the police, and how they change with the trend in the crime rate. To sum up: rising crime rates prove that cops are not omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. People realize that they're human after all, so their portrayals run the gamut -- bumbling, overly skeptical, confidante, vigilante, loose cannon (but not a vigilante), by-the-book, corrupt, whistle-blower, goofball, working stiff, naif, charming sex symbol, good cop, bad cop... See Dirty Harry, Beverly Hills Cop, Serpico, CHiPs, Miami Vice, Lethal Weapon, etc.

Falling crime rates make people think that whatever law enforcement has been doing, it's working. It's such a dramatic decline in such a short time, it's like they have access to some magic wand that the rest of us don't. The simpler reality is that people just start avoiding public spaces a lot more, so they're not as vulnerable as they used to be. Plus the population gets more gray-haired and less hotheaded. But that makes for a pretty boring narrative, where it's more enjoyable if there has been a clash between two sides, and the good guys are winning.

Portrayals of cops become more heroic and sanctifying -- they have the skills to figure it all out, they face few obstacles in executing their plans, and their motives are nearly pure. They're not quite gods, but more like demi-gods, saints, or angels, who act as intermediaries between us mortals and the higher-level forces (secular or supernatural), fighting on the side of the good. We're not interested in watching cops at the movies anymore, but see Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU, CSI, Cold Case, etc.

What other ways allow us insight into people's thoughts and feelings toward the police, aside from the cop-related pop culture that resonates with them?

First, there's slang terms for cops. That's part of the orally transmitted culture at the grassroots. When folks feel that cops are only human, they can acquire nicknames, including derogatory ones. Or not even derogatory, but still tending to put them in their place, and remind ourselves that they can be our adversaries as well as our helper-outters.

Mid-century slang terms for cops is almost non-existent. Not until the '60s do the terms start to accumulate in number and spread in prevalence, culminating in the '80s. The fuzz, pigs, Smokey, the five-O, the po-po, bacon. In the mid-'90s when teenagers tried to cultivate an image of always being hassled by The Man, we still couldn't come up with new slang words for his foot soldiers. "Po-po" was still somewhat fresh, having started in the late '80s, and a new take on "pigs" was someone in the group asking, "Hey guys, do you smell bacon?" when the cops were nearby. Pretty lame, though.

However, by now there are not only no new terms for cops, but the old ones have dropped out of common usage. The only person in a long while who I've heard mention "having to shake Smokey off my tail" is my dad, born 1954. I don't think a Gen X-er could refer to "the five-O" without feeling self-conscious. There are new terms like rent-a-cop and mall cop that put private, petty security guards in their place, but nothing about law enforcement.

Now onto some real-life pictures of cops on the beat. Here is an awesome set of photos of rollerskaters taken around Venice Beach during the late 1970s and early '80s. Several are pictures of the police, and they are always interacting and socializing with the civilians, usually in a pleasant mood, and sometimes lowering their guard to goof around with the civilians (ex). They never try to look intimidating, more like unflappable when they're around the types they want to keep an eye on (ex).

The cops themselves didn't have any delusions back then that they were superheroes or mighty authority figures. Trying to go on a power trip would have alienated the normal people and baited the psychos into striking first. You can tell they're a little nervous, though showing thick skin.

Only during a falling-crime period do they try to distance themselves from civilians and act in a more power-tripping way. Most people have become more socially avoidant, and see law enforcement officers more as demi-gods, saints, and forensic wizards, so they don't really feel like approaching or getting along with the cops face-to-face in the first place. And with the crime rate so much lower, and still falling, compared to the '80s, they're not under as great of a threat from thugs and crazies. They're not as likely to provoke them into retaliating if they seem to be going too far.

Let's take a quick look at the differences between Venice Beach beat cops circa 1980 and circa 2010:

Cops back in the good old days sure were more social, weren't they? The central set of taboos and regulations governing human social behavior relates to dating and mating, so everyday pictures of cops fraternizing with beach babe civilians shows how porous the boundaries were between the two groups. The cutie on the right has a hand on each of the cops' bikes, what today would be a clear violation of the personal space of authority figures. It's even more striking in the pic on the left: one girl is touching the arm of one cop's shirt, with a worry-free look on her face, while the other girl is almost right against the second cop, also touching his arm or clothing.

Cops in the 21st century tend to group themselves apart from the civilians, and you never see people touching their property, clothing, or person. Their facial expressions are more suspicious and scowling, like some group of pro wrestlers hamming it up for the cameras.

Notice also how casually the cops are dressed in the good old days. They've got shorts, a ringer t-shirt, jogging shoes and socks, and ball caps. Their sunglasses are the semi-transparent type, and not always worn.

These days they're still wearing shorts and running shoes, and have a similar utility belt, but otherwise look more serious and formal. The shirt has buttons and looks more like a uniform, they aren't wearing casual socks, the hats look more specially made and not just a generic ball cap, while the bike helmets are the high-performance type. Cops used to wear a light-colored shirt and dark bottoms, like the rest of us. Even more formally dressed cops back then could be seen in a white or light blue shirt, with or without a dark necktie, and dark blue pants, just like a civilian's clothing if they worked in an office (ex). Now their colors are uniform, and uniformly dark. Yeah, we get it: ALL DARK = INTIMIDATING.

Then there's all the insignia markings on the new cops that you don't see on the old ones. In the '80s, they wore a badge on their belt and had inconspicuous "LAPD" letters on their hat and left chest part of the t-shirt. I guess they figured that normal people and criminals alike had enough brains to tell them apart from the civilians, what with the belt holding a gun, night-stick, and walkie-talkie, and their cop-stache. Their uniforms were thus purely utilitarian -- look only different enough for folks to easily tell you apart from civilians -- not symbolic (look even more different to remind them that you come from two separate worlds).

Nowadays cops have all kinds of shit going on with insignia. The badge is larger and has moved more noticeably to the chest pocket, and there's a set of letters over the other chest pocket. The formerly bare shirt-sleeves are now emblazoned with two large markings, while "POLICE" takes up a good quarter of their backs. And now the sunglasses are the 100% reflective type, worn almost always. Yeah, we get it: WE'RE COPS, DEAL WITH IT.

Rising crime rates not only send a wake-up call to civilians about the human nature of law enforcement, but instill a good deal of humility in the police themselves. We're all in the same boat, and we have to be each others' eyes and ears. Remember that the variable most responsible for clearance rates in a police department is interviewing witnesses, not CSI wizardry. Also remember that in a real-world social experiment in Kansas City during the early '70s, beefing up the visibility of police patrols didn't accomplish anything in terms of preventing crime or making civilians feel safer. The per capita level of policemen actually fell during the 1990s in Canada, which didn't stop their crime rate from steadily falling just as it did across the Western world.

It is the quality of the interactions between the police and civilians that makes a difference. They have to be given a fair amount of leeway to fuck up the dangerous ones out there, while being encouraged to mix with the rest of us as though we weren't coming from two separate worlds.

The past 20 years have seen just the opposite trend, toward hamstringing and hysteria about police brutality -- "Rodney King! Rodney King!" "Free Mumia!" "Don't taze me bro!" -- and toward a sharp segregation between cops and law-abiding civilians. That only goes further to confirm how little of the decline in crime has to do with changes in law enforcement itself or in popular attitudes toward law enforcement.

Rather, people just don't venture out into vulnerable situations in public spaces anymore, and lock up their kids indoors until age 25. Not to mention the drastic decline in how lopsidedly youthful -- i.e., hotheaded -- Western populations have become after the Baby Boomers aged out of their crime-prone years.

Once the crime rate starts rising again, perhaps within the next 10 years, we certainly will have more to worry about as far as danger goes, though not plunging us back to Medieval times or whatever hysterical people imagine. On the other hand, our social and cultural lives will return to a state that's more fully human and less insectoid. And the melting away of everyday authoritarianism, like we saw during the '60s through the '80s, will be one of the most fulfilling changes.

April 12, 2013

Evil Dead re-make, torture porn, and lack of empathy

There's no way I'm going to see another terrible re-make of an old horror movie, AKA random people you can't care about get tortured.

But it's worth taking a brief look at the characterization, trailer, and poster to appreciate how different horror movies have become since the '90s. You used to be able to relate to the victims, and their troubles gave a little stimulation to the empathy lobe of your brain. Now you don't relate to them, so you only feel like a voyeur, as though they were examples of some other species.

The original isn't that great, though it's at least watchable. The set-up is pretty simple -- a small group of fun-loving college students head off to a cabin in the woods for a wild weekend, stumble upon a book that unleashes some kind of demonic possession spirit, and have to work as a team against it, with the normal ones having to turn against their unfortunately possessed friends.

The key here is that the characters are portrayed in a likable fashion before they come under attack. Otherwise, who cares what happens to them, no matter how gory? You can learn about people getting tortured all over the world if you want, but unless you already perceive them as part of your in-group, you don't respond emotionally.

Young people must be shown to be driven by an impulse toward socializing and making friends, dating and mating, and rambunctiousness. That tells us that they're normal and healthy adolescents, that they're wholesome. Youngsters who are asocial, sexless, and boring tell us that they're defective in some way, so a normal audience can't relate to them as easily, plus we feel like it's not so great of a loss if they perish.

That doesn't mean that in the good old days, it was only the popular crowd who were the targets of the killer's attacks and our empathy. That was back when there were a lot more "troubled teenagers," and social misfits often showed up in slasher flicks during the '80s, most notably in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, which is set in a hospital for troubled teens. Even though they're misfits, they're shown to have a basic interest in forming relationships, though going about it somewhat ineptly, and turning to desperate measures in frustration. Still, that gives us the impression that their drive toward socializing and courtship are normal and intact.

Fast-forward to 2013, where the Evil Dead re-make is set up by a 20-something girl who's retreating to the woods as part of a de-tox effort, with her friends tagging along for support. Well, we've already left normal-and-healthy behind, so it'll have to rely on the troubled teen trope to make us care.

Yet when was the last time you heard anyone described as a troubled teenager? They're too risk-averse to get into much trouble these days, so this character is not an instantly recognizable type -- like, "Oh, she's one of those troubled teenagers..." She's just some random chick with an opiate addiction. If they'd shown her struggling under the pressure of getting into a good school, and turning to Adderall and alcohol, it might have been somewhat believable. But an opiate addiction in the 21st century? Um, random.

Without a believable set-up, we cannot buy into the more fantastic events that follow. But energetic co-eds set off for a wild weekend, high school camp counselors pair off to get it on in the woods -- that's believable.

How else can we distinguish believable from unbelievable characters? Let's turn to the trailers and have a look at the characters' facial expressions. Here is a very gory trailer for the re-make, and here is the original. In the re-make, when the possessed girl warns her friend, she has her eyes wide open, eyebrows reaching up to her hairline, and mouth agape. It couldn't look more exaggerated and fake. It's like some 4 year-old child self-consciously struggling to make a shocked face when they're not truly shocked, but egocentrically trying to manipulate another child or their parent into believing they are. She comes off like the boy who cried "wolf."

Note to half-children -- you can't show a shocked expression for more than a moment, after that your body (including your face) launches into action to deal with the threat. In the original movie, it never occurred to the actors to plaster a shocked look on their faces throughout their performances. Rather, when the girl is getting raped out in the woods, she's pressing her eyes shut and making a crying/disgusted expression with her mouth. It looks like she's truly in pain, and because she's convinced us earlier that she's a normal healthy person, we feel bad when we see it.

Sadly, the kabuki masks in the re-make are part of a much broader trend over the past 20 years toward self-aware exaggeration in facial expressions, a topic I brought up here and elaborated on a bit more here. It prevents us from sympathizing with the person.

Aside from the trailer, what about the movie poster that's supposed to hook the audience's attention? Here are the original and re-make:

We can't even see the girl's face in the re-make, because her back is turned to us and her head is turned down. Without being able to see it, we know that her eyes are downcast as well, like she's trying to hide it from us. Well, OK then, you dorky awkward wallflower -- don't expect us to give a shit about you when you get demonically possessed and mutilated by your own friends. A self-conscious "don't look at me" pose is just as emotionally distancing as the overly exaggerated kabuki mask.

The poster for the original shows a girl whose mouth isn't agape like on so many horror posters these days. Her lips are open and pulled downward, and her rows of teeth are fairly close together, while her eyelids are squinting and inner eyebrows pinched upward, all creating a clear crying expression. The hand reaching out is something you won't see these days either, since people are so creeped out and/or embarrassed by asking others for help. Or the other hand scratching the earth to resist being dragged down. It shows a normal and healthy will to stay alive, whatever it takes.

Now all you see in horror posters (or the movies themselves) are disconnected individuals, either resigning themselves with a "don't look at me" face, or shrieking out in futility. Again we see their defective will to stay alive in the face of death. Not stoic either, just collapsing in on themselves. But you have to understand that for people in the Millennial era, atomization feels less creepy than reaching out, and self-collapse doesn't risk open failure like making an effort does.

Will our culture ever pull its way out of this swamp of sadistic voyeurism and fatalism? Well, sure: it did before, after the previous nadir during the mid-century, shown most nakedly in the widespread horror / crime comic books of the time. See here and here for a reminder. Horror movies of the mid-century weren't any better at stimulating our empathy, even if they were less gory than comic books. The characters are bland, unlikable, unbelievable, or fake, so again, who cares what nasty things happen to them?

Starting in the '60s with Psycho, and then Rosemary's Baby and Night of the Living Dead, we could connect with the characters for a change. That would continue toward a peak in the late '70s and '80s -- Halloween, Alien, The Thing, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Child's Play, Twin Peaks. Some of those have better character development and acting than the others, but they all convince us that we're watching normal and healthy people like us -- or troubled young people who we could have turned out like, if we hadn't been so fortunate. Not some out-of-the-blue intrusion, some fluke that is of no larger or lasting significance to us.

The key driver behind these social-cultural changes is the trend in the crime rate. When the world's getting more dangerous, we're better at portraying that convincingly on screen, and better at empathizing in the theater. Rising crime is a force that affects us all, and binds us together as we try to help each other through dangerous times. Before the '60s-'80s crime wave, there was the 1900 - early '30s crime wave, and sure enough that was another era of well-made horror movies.

Falling crime makes us feel safer and less in need of others' support, as well as putting the threat of predatory death so far off into the land of make-believe that we can't portray it or resonate with it very well.

April 10, 2013

Schools ban hugging

Here is a 2007 article from Time on the trend of middle schools to give detention or suspension to students who hug on school property. When did it begin? Sounds like the early '90s:

Experts say anti-PDA policies have existed for nearly two decades, although it's not known how many schools and school districts have imposed such rules.

Have things lightened up since 2007? Not as far as I can tell. I googled "detention" "display" "affection" and immediately found many examples of current school handbooks that spell out the consequences for hugging, holding hands, kissing, etc. It ranges from a warning up through suspension, depending on how many times you've offended. One school even allows for expulsion upon the sixth offense. (Here, here, here, here, here, here, ... you get the idea.)

Enforcement must have been lax or only just getting started in the early '90s. I remember girls hugging each other, and guy friends hugging their chick friends. My first French kiss was in 6th grade, spring of '93, inside the cafeteria after school. Groups of us used to hang out in the cafeteria, outside, wherever, without belonging to a club or other activity. And I don't remember getting harassed about it. If they had been dead set on preventing the slightest hint of inappropriate behavior, we definitely would not have been allowed to hang out like that.

Then there was the time when we were coming back from a field trip on a chartered bus, and as usual me and my friends are sitting way in the back. Across the aisle is a couple, and out of the corner of our eye we see her slip her hand into his pants. Word must have somehow reached the front, because after a couple minutes a teacher marched back and asked the guy to move up to the front and leave his gf where she was. He didn't get detention or anything either. That was 7th grade, spring of '94.

I also remember the chaperons trying to impose a certain distance between us when a boy and girl partnered up at the school dances. But we went right back to wherever we felt comfortable once the chaperon had moved on. They don't have to worry about that now because young people have no interest in dancing with each other -- indeed, would feel creeped out by letting another person into their personal space like that, especially with their hands touching your hands or maybe even your body. Ewww, like omigosh -- creepy!

That's only what I remember from direct experience. I'm sure the other kids who went to middle school with me have similar memories. Our group was more rebellious (by middle school standards, mind you), but that couple who got caught on the bus were part of the preppie crowd. I think the only ones who wouldn't have memories like that were the nerdy/dorky groups.

BTW, have you noticed that it's always the dorkies, uglies, and fatties who commit PDA after high school? Not like normal stuff, but exhibitionistically trying to rub everyone else's face in it. Like, "You thought we'd never find anybody else -- BUT WE DID." You know? Like, "Take that, society." Yeah well you're still losers, so go away before you make us barf.

Anyway, my hunch is that the ban on touchy-feely behavior really ramped up once the Millennials hit middle school in the late '90s. Gen Y didn't have helicopter parents -- not only during the '80s when the breed didn't exist, but right through high school and college, when they did. It's like your parenting style congeals forever in the immediate lead-up to the kid's birth and just after, although it may therefore vary from one of your kids to the next.

So our parents weren't too paranoid about us huggin' and a-kissin' in middle school, even though the helicopter parent phenomenon had already taken off among parents of younger children. Once the helicopter parents were parents of middle schoolers, though, it was game over. It seems like the same with high school -- it was definitely lamer in the late '90s compared to the '80s, but not because of meddling parents so much. The whole culture, including young people, was dulling down. Once the Millennials got into high school, though, in the 2000s -- fuhgeddaboutit. Then the helicopter parents could trash high schools as well. Ditto with colleges starting in the mid-2000s.

The Time article does say that there was a surge in writing up anti-contact codes in 1999 and afterward, though they attribute it to a then-recent Supreme Court decision that said schools were responsible for maintaining a harassment-free environment.

Sure, schools must have felt like they were liable and needed a CYA policy, but that didn't need to wait until 1999. That whole anti-harassment witch hunt had been brewing since the early '90s at least. But parents in the early or perhaps even mid-'90s weren't the type to sue over Bobby and Susie hugging each other. Only when the school board met the helicopter parent army did they piss their pants about students hugging on school grounds.

It really is striking and sickening how far the parents of Millennials have been willing to go in order to prevent all outside influences from corrupting the code that they've spent their life programming into their robotic child. You can lock them indoors until they're 25, and keep them from going out on dates -- but what about if they wanted to "date" somebody at school, and get close to each other there, away from your watchful eye? Send in the principals, and crack down. If you've ever wondered why you never see young people falling in love with each other anymore, here's part of the reason.