Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Creation Museum and the Liberal Response

Stop me if you've heard this one:

1) Christian fundamentalists do something silly, taking Genesis literally and tossing in shots at gays, abortionists and the generally crappy state of our modern, secular world.

2) "Enlighted" liberals mock said silly enterprise and use it as another opportunity to assert their moral and intellectual superiority and talk about how America is a redneck country run by intolerant bigots and their life would be so much better if they lived in Paris and drank cappuccino by the Sienne with their fellow enlightened liberals blah blah blah.

3) The only people who read or hear said liberals are fellow liberals who nod in agreement and members of said silly religious group who are able to use it as proof that America is going to hell and they are an embattled minority being persecuted by the gays, abortionists et al.

4) Both sides are able to sleep at night knowing that they are the morally superior ones while the rest of us are made to feel like outcasts because our beliefs do not fit into a tiny ideological box while nothing gets resolved, nothing ever changes.

It seems that all of the major liberal publications have published their snarky reviews of the new Creation Museum, but I will just link to Salon's. It works best for my purposes here because Salon's letters sections is to idiotic liberalism what City Lights was to the Beats. Look, I agree that the Creation Museum is a stupid idea. And I have laughed at Kirk Cameron's Way of the Master. But, as someone who has known may evangelical Christians and found them, on the whole, to be more open-minded than my harcore liberal friends, I know that things do not break down into such easy categories and seeing such intelligent people thinking so narrowly is disheartening. Both sides continue to to crawl further into their ideological holes and grow more idiotic by the day.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Shakespeare Illustrated: From 19th-Century England to 22nd-Century Tokyo

Another Kismet moment: Killing time in the bookstore today, I came across one of those ideas that is both surprising and inevitable: Manga Shakespeare. Needless to say, I snapped up copies of both volumes, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. Then, after having already finished the R&J volume, I am checking in at The Valve and discover a link to this site.

Let's talk about the Manga Shakespeare first. One one level, this is just an update of the old Classics Illustrated comic books from the '50s. However, it has the potential, at least in theory, to be something much better. When the Classics Illustrated books were published, no one, including the people producing them, considered comic books a legitimate art form. Classics Illustrated was a form of atonement for their usual corrupting of young minds. Today, of course, the "graphic novel" has taken on respectability, and the rise of Japanese manga was largely responsible for this.

Manga Shakespeare is not true manga in a strict sense. The line is produced by a British press and illustrated by English artists working in the manga style. Both volumes take what could be called the "Luhrman approach", using Shakespeare's original text (albeit heavily edited to fit in the word balloons) but setting the story in a hip, modern context. The R&J volume, in fact, should probaby pay some type of royalty to Luhrman. Set in modern Japan, it takes much of its updates straight from Luhrman's film: the Capulets and Montagues are rival crime families (since it is set in Tokyo, they are yakuza), Escalus is a police captain, and Paris is a successful business man. According to the Dramatis Personae, Romeo is also a rock star and Juliet is Sibuya girl, but we see no evidence of this in the actual story.

Manga Hamlet, meanwhile, owes a debt to The Matrix, as it is set in 2107 in a cyberworld created after the environmental destruction of earth. Again, this is all told in the extra-textual prologue and Dramatis Personae and does not have any bearing on the story. In the end, both volumes are not masterpieces of either Manga or Shakespearean adaptation, but they do find a connection between manga's frequent tales of youthful alienation and Shakespeare's moody young protagonists. Having exhausted the two stories that most lend themselves to the Manga form, it will be interesting to see where they go from here. Though this seems to be a PG-version of Manga intended to be an educational tool for teenagers, it would be interesting to see what a true Manga artist could do with something like Titus Andronicus.

After reading these books, it was great to come across the Shakespeare Illustrated website and ponder where they fit in the long history of illustrating Shakespeare. Perusing the images after having recently reread a large selection of the plays, one is struck once again by how much of what we know as "Shakespeare" is not in Shakespeare. Theatre is an inherently visual medium, and Shakespeare left so much of that visual information up to our imaginations that the work of artists and directors in shaping what we know of the plays has been such an integral part of keeping the works alive as living things. That is why I am always excited by projects like Manga Shakespeare, even when they are not masterpieces. They are all a part of the great tradition and cultural conversation.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

More Thoughts on White Trash and Country Music

Kismet moment: in Monday's post, I commented on two articles: Ron Rosenbaum's piece on country music at Slate and Matt Wray's article on "white trash". Intrigued by Wray's article, I tracked down a collection of essays that he co-edited, also entitled White Trash. And, lo and behold, there is a great essay by Barbara Ching entitled "Acting Naturally: Cultural Distinction and Critiques of Pure Country". Ching attempts to explain why country music is so disdained be intellectuals and explains the Catch-22 that many critics put it into. Some critics complain about its simplicity, that it is the work of rural primitives with no understanding of songwriting or musicianship. Others complain that it is slickly produced, emotionally manipulative pablum.

This essay was written in 1993, and in the intervening decade, old-school country music, bouyed by Johnny Cash's Rick Rubin-produced renaissance and the influence of alt-country, has taken on a hipster sheen. This renaissance has romanticized the supposed primitivism of early country and disdained the prepacked commercialism of what has come to be known as "Wal-Mart Country". Today, the alt-country ethos has started to seep back into mainstream country through artists such as Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram and Big & Rich. But there is still a perceived divide between the hipster intellectuals who view old country has the work of charming primitives and the "white trash" who consume country as a regular part of their cultural diet.

This distinction, and the musical cross-pollination between the mainstream and the underground, has put country in a particulary white trash version of a problem common to all popular arts. The best example of this is the case of the Dixie Chicks. To non-country fans, the story is simple: brave artist makes a political statement and is crucified by her simple-minded, Bush-loving "white trash" fanbase. The story in fact is much more complicated. Even before Natalie Maines' famous comment, the Chicks were being viewed with suspicous eyes by many in the country world. They seemed to want to aspire to the hipster street cred of alt-country while keeping the financial rewards of mainstream country success. While on the one hand this alt-country cred meant keeping the rawness of old country alive in the face of the slickness of Wal-Mart country, it also meant taking a slightly superior attitude toward country music fans. The chicks, like other alt-country types, were trying to keep what they saw as the "real" tradition of country music alive despite the effort of country music fans (the "white trash" buying Wal-Mart country) to kill it.

As I said, this problem exists in all popular arts, it just takes on a specific class-consciousness in country music. All popular arts -- film, TV, pop music -- are created for mass audiences by a small elite subculture that considers themselves superior to the masses. Popular artists -- actors, directors, musicians -- are often fans of avant-garde artists who do work that they view as superior to their own. This leads to incidents like The Monkees hiring an unknown Jimi Hendrix to open for them and causing outrage when he simulates sex with his amplifier in front of an audience of prepubescent girls.

This tension will never be resolved and is in fact necessary for popular art to survive. The best pop art will synthesize the best of the underground and the mainstream to create a work that appeals to both audiences. this rarely happens, but when it does it is a glorious moment, and it is those moments--memories of past ones and anticipation of future ones--that keeps us coming back.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A.J. Soprano, Rory Gilmore and the Art of the TV Literary Reference

There has been a lot of talk in the internet TV critic community about Sunday night's Sopranos episode and its use of Yeats' "The Second Coming". Almost all of the critics, in an attempt to keep their literary street cred, have felt the necessity to point out how cliched the poem is. Of course, they then feel it is necessary to point out how brave and original it is of David Chase to use such a cliched poem. This rather stupid argument does raise an important point: what function does a literary reference serve when used in pop culture?

Let's start with The Sopranos. In the episode, also titled "The Second Coming", Tony's mentally unstable, dimwitted son A.J. is sitting in an English class listening intently to his teacher read Yeats' poem. We then see him reading the rest of the poem in his room in the Norton Anthology. The point seems pretty obvious: A.J., endlessly concerned with the problems of the world and struck with guilt about his family's materialistic existence, is affected by the poem's portrait of civilization crumbling. In the context of the show, the poem is also commenting on the final season, in which Tony's life is falling apart.

Now, was it too obvious to use this poem? No. While we English major types may groan when hearing these all-too-familiar words repeated once again, The Sopranos, while appealing to us English major types, is not made specifically for us. It is made for a mass audience for whom this poem may be only vaguely familiar, or not familiar at all. It also makes sense in the context of the episode, as it is exactly the type of well-worn poem that A.J. would be reading an Intro to British Literature class, which the Norton Anthology tells us he is taking. It is also exactly the kind of poem that would connect with A.J. The powerful, horrible imagery grabs even the most novice reader. Those of us who remember first reading the poem in their own undergraduate lit class may remember how we too were shook by the poem and thought we were the first to see its eerie parallels to current events (I took my Survey of British Literature 2 class first semester sophomore year, which happened to be in fall 2001).

In The Sopranos then, the choice is dictated by plot. But what other purposes do literary references serve in pop TV shows. I was thinking about this because, as I have mentioned before, one of my other favorite shows, Gilmore Girls, ended recently. The reason this girlie show attracted a surprisingly large number of straight male viewers like myself is that it took the usual WB melodrama and embroidered it with a stinging intelligence. The show's trademark dialogue took the rat-a-tat rapid-fire delivery of 30s screwball comedies and Billy Wilder films and stuffed it with literary, historical and pop culture references.

Literary references were the show's specialty, propelled by its bookworm lead character Rory, who, especially in the early seasons, was rarely seen without a classic in hand. Literary references on the show ranged from offhand in-jokes (Lorelai, on her society matron mother's party: "I think Edith Wharton would be proud, and taking notes") to colorful background (in one episode, Lorelai's inn hosts an Edgar Allan Poe Society convention). Most significantly, books were relationship markers, as most of the show's relationships, romantic and familial, were signified by sharing a book, from Rory and her grandfather bonding over Menken's Chrystomathy to Lorelai remembering lost love Max when she finds his copy of Swann's Way.

What is the purpose of the literary reference in this context? The literary references were mixed in with references to cool music and TV showsand films both high and lowbrow. Gilmore Girls, in other words, attempted to make reading cool. And not just reading, but reading "the classics". Popular writers like Michael Chrichton were treated with the same disdain as lame bands like Linkin Park. For this show, then, aimed at a teenage audience, the references served an admirable pedagogical aim of making reading classic literature part of regular cultural diet. The Sopranos, on the other hand, is aimed at an adult audience who has either already been exposed to the literature being referenced, or, like its lead character, never will be. In this context, it serves as a reminder for those who get the reference and a moment of profundity for those who don't.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Rosenbaum Gets Twangy, LA Times Gets Testy

The simultaneous end of the tax season and the spring semester leaves me with a lot of free time on my hands. And a 21st-century office drone with free time and internet access finds himself reading a lot. I came across an especially interesting crop of articles today that I want to talk about:

  • First up, two of my favorite love-hate objects: Ron Rosenbaum and country music. Rosenbaum outs himself as a fellow mainstream country fan and ponders the recent spate of songs about cancer. He ponders whether or not these songs are honest expressions of emotion or manipulative sentimentality. This is an interesting question for country music which, at its best, can be the most honest and direct form of popular music and, at its worst, can be the most glossy and superficial. This does not come down to some juvenile issue of "authenticity" as defined by music critics and indie record store workers. Country music, more than other pop genres, excells at fictional storytelling, so defining the difference between the emotionally powerful and manipulative can be blurry. The best part of this article, though, is country music being written about seriously in Slate. In the Mobius strip cultural existence that we now inhabit, mainstream country is so uncool among hipster intellectuals that it has almost become cool to declare your allegiance (Stanley Fish came out a few months ago in "Guilty Pleasures of Famous Intellectuals" article in the Sunday Times).

  • Which leads us to our next article, on "white trash" and its history and current reappropriations. As someone whose past few Sunday dinners with the family have been devoted to discussing the fallout of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s departure from DEI, I feel qualified to discuss this. Is "white trash" an offensive term? Wray has a typical academic's lack of a sense of humor is his implication that using the term "white trash" in a joking way somehow implicitly endorses early-20th century eugenic practices. The term, when used among poor whites, is used to demarcate between those poor whites that have respect for themselves and those that do not. A poor white may not have much class or taste, but they maintain a certain level of dignity that those marked "white trash" do not. Is is similar to Chris Rock's famous routine. I won't pull a Michael Scott on you here, but you know which one I am referring to. The troubling thing is how "white trash" is so widely accepted and used by all groups but that other word is strictly off-limits to all but a certain group.

  • Finally a pair of hilariously stuffy and off-base articles from yesterday's LA Times: 1 2. Nothing much to say, they are just pretty damn funny in their grumpy old man-ness. Shickel's article takes one classic approach to the grumpy old man op-ed, taking the worst examples of a new a confusing media form and arguing that it will destroy all that has come before it. Never mind that 100 years of technology rapildy changing our culture have taught us that the emergence of new forms of communication do not destroy old ones but merely take their place alongside them. The pefectly named Darlymple takes an even more idiotic and offensive tack, assuming that consumers of mass culture are mindless automotons that lack the ability process any of the information or entertainment they take in. They believe everyone has the same aversion to irony they do.

Programming note: I have not abandoned the Shakespeare film series and it will return sometime this week just as soon as the copy of Welles' Macbeth I ordered comes in. The combination of the end of school and Welles' Shakespeare films being harder to find than Keyser Soze have put us a little behind the schedule.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Go Suns

The Suns are about to go into battle incredibly shorthanded against their hated rivals with everyone in the country who does not live in San Antonio and is not related to David Stern rooting for them. If they lose tonight, the season is probably over and everyone has another reason to hate the Spurs and David Stern. If they win, not to overstate things, but it may alter the course of NBA history, as the Suns can likely ride this momemtum all the way to the title. Its like the Battle of Agincourt, if Henry V were an Italian with a porn star moustache. I am about to hunker down to watch, but I wanted to pass along this highly entertaining dialogue over at Slate between Neal Pollack and Paul Shirley. I am typically not a fan of Pollack's, as I think his ratio of self-satisfaction to actual wit is high even for a McSweeney's writer, but he's a Suns fan, so we're on the same team right now. Shirley, meanwhile, is a former benchwarmer for the Suns, as well as about half the professional teams in the northern hemisphere, who has established himself as a witty and insightful writer known for giving his 12th man's perspective on basketball. Check it out.

Country Song of the Week: Kerosene

I mentioned Miranda Lambert a few posts ago. She is one of the best things going in mainstream country right now. I remember seeing her on CMT with her innocuous first single "Me and Charlie Talkin". I figured she was the latest in a long line of label-created Shania clones that get a little exposure on CMT based on their looks alone and then quietly disappear. Then I saw the video for the brilliant "Kerosene" and saw her on "Austin City Limits", where she name-dropped Steve Earle and Buddy Lee Miller. It turns out she is a singer-songwriter with undoubted skill and a wild streak, more Gretchen Wilson than Carrie Underwood. This performance of "Kerosene" from the CMAs a few years ago shows why she is among a handful of up-and-coming country artists that can succesfully straddle the divide between and the mainstream, combining killer songwriting with a love of 80s rock show pyrotechnics.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Well, temps in the Phoenix area are now fimly implanted in the triple digits, which means summer is here. School is over, work is boring and I have unwound the ball of stress caused by my mother's inexplicable idea to have a family reunion over Mother's Day weekend. I am now relaxed and prepared to refocus on this blog. I promise to have regular updates, at least every other day, from now until school starts back in August.

Now, onto my summer /viewing list:

  • Cultural Amnesia by Clive James. Started this one about a month ago and have been slowly working my way through it. It is a collection of short essays organized around an A-to-Z list of important cultural figures of the 20th century. The major theme of the essays is the way artists and intellectuals responded to the two great cultural threats of the century: fascism and communism. It is the best type of political criticism, raising serious questions about the moral standards we should hold artists to. They are the types of questions many avoided in the wake of the Paul de Man Nazi controversy but they need to be asked. But this is far from James' only concern and he proves himself to be the best type of dilletante, letting his omniverous intellect range from Dick Cavett to the death of the teaching of prosody.

  • 7 Seconds or Less by Jack McCallum. I have always loved the Phoenix Suns, coming of age as a sports fan just in time to witness their fabled 1992-93 season in which Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle led them to the finals and united the city like no other cultural event before or since. Their renaissance over the past three years has been one of the great sports stories in the city's history. We have long been both a sports and cultural backwater, but the current Suns team has revolutionized the game and simultaneously injected a dash of intelligence, class and innovation into the usually staid, conservative and red-state world of pro sports. Head coach Mike D'antoni is an Italian celebrity who spends his summers at Donna Versace's villa. Leader Steve Nash is a (formerly) long-haired Canadian who reads Marx and favors anti-Bush t-shirts. Leandro Barbosa grew up is Sao Paulo, Brazil and his life apparently inspired the movie City of God. Boris Diaw is a dapper and classy Frenchman. Raja Bell became a folk hero by bodyslamming Kobe Bryant, the epitome of everything intelligent and decent people hate about sports. They are the rare sports team that a lefty book nerd can love unconditionally. Anyway, this is all to say that I am happy McCallum's book has come along to document this wonderful creation. McCallum folowed the team for most of last season, shadowing the coaching staff. It is a fun and entertaining read and a great examination of the job of NBA coaches.

  • Veronica Mars Season 1. I got into this show towards the end of season 1, then lost interest about halfway through season 2. Apparently, I jumped off at the right time, if critics are to be believed. Anyway, I always wanted to go back and watch the rest of the excellent Season 1 and I found the DVDs for $20 yesterday. I figured it is a good way to wean myself off of the equally witty and brilliant Gilmore Girls, which ends tonight.

That is all of my list for now, but more is to be added in the weeks to come. In closing, I would just like congratulate David Stern. Once again, your half-assed enforcement of your own rules is putting the Spurs and Pistons on a collision course in an attempt to break their own record for lowest-rated Finals ever. I don't know why Stern seems intent on punishing clean-playing, entertaining teams like the Suns and rewarding teams like the Spurs, who are only interesting when doing something dirty.

Monday, May 7, 2007

SQC 2.0

April showers bring may flowers and may flowers bring . . .

A brand new Stratford to QC!

Yeah, I know it's only two months old, but I decided it was time to tidy up around here and make it look a little more professional. I started this blog as a way to procrastinate from my "real" writing projects and did not plan for anyone to actually read it. However, I have received some positive feedback that has shown me that people are actually enjoying it and that has encouraged me to spend a little more time around here this summer. I have also found it a liberating experience to write here and it has even influenced the direction my research is taking, so it's been a great experience so far.

I still have one more paper to finish for this semester, so there won't be a full post until at least Wednesday. Until then, a few odds and ends:

  • Did everyone watch The Sopranos last night? Wow. I have a lot to say about this show and have been dying to do the weekly recaps I started, but school has gotten in the way these last few weeks. I will have a lot to say later this week.
  • On a related note, Ron Rosenbaum (whose fantastic The Shakespeare Wars should be on every academic's summer reading list) has a great piece over at Slate on The Sopranos, Tarantino, Abu Ghraib and media violence. He swooped me on a topic I was going to bring up here which I have not seen elsewhere, which is that this season of The Sopranos is self-reflexively focusing on the idea of the Mafia as entertainment, perhaps in an attempt to come to terms with its own troubled legacy.
  • For any of you who still turn your noses up at mainstream country, buy Miranda Lambert's new album. Now.
  • Finally, a request: if you are reading this, drop me a line to let me know what you think of the blog so far. I would love to know what people think of it, what is working and what needs improvement.