Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween 2013

Happy Hallowen.

Each October 31st I like to spend a few hundred words pontificating on the holiday. I’ve generally dedicated these posts to expressing my love for Halloween, reflecting on how it exceeds the other holidays on the calendar and on its subversive qualities. To that last point I’ve often emphasized the sexual aspects of Halloween and the way it has become an adult carnival. But this year I’ve got something else in mind. Halloween isn’t just celebrated by adults in provocative costumes engaging in debauchery. It’s also celebrated by families and children and in that context it takes on other dimensions, ones that I’ve generally ignored but are worth reflecting upon.

The origins of Halloween and especially the “Trick or Treat” tradition are supposedly rooted in ancient beliefs that on one night of the year the dead return from the grave to visit their loved ones. Extra places would be set at the table and food would be left out to placate the returned spirits. In this sense, Halloween has a strong element of family bonds, one that is continually relevant today.

In modern times the “Trick or Treat” ritual is one of children dressing in costumes and going from house to house, soliciting candy from the neighbors. As silly as this tradition may be, there is a value to it, especially in these fearful and paranoid times. The act of getting out of the house and going from neighbor to neighbor allows for socialization and community building that seems to be increasingly rare. Although we live in the age of Facebook and Twitter, in which we are privy to minute-by-minute details of each other’s lives, there is also a curious isolation to contemporary life. Trick or Treat cannot be done over the web (although I’m sure Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg are working on it) and the fact that it requires children and their parents to get out of the house and meet the neighbors can potentially strengthen community bonds. No other holiday requires interaction with strangers (even if the strangers live next door) like this, making Halloween unique in American life.

Aside from Trick or Treat, the other major activity of Halloween is watching movies, and especially horror films. Movie viewing is a part of Halloween in a way that is unique from other holidays. There are certainly motion pictures that can be linked to other holidays, especially Christmas, but the extent to which the act of watching scary movies is linked to Halloween, the sheer number of titles available, and the way in which cinematic characters and images show up in costumes and decorations makes Halloween a distinctly cinematic holiday.

Viewed from a distance, watching horror films does not make sense. For that matter, neither does riding a roller coaster. Both horror films and amusement park rides are experiences in controlled trauma and both serve similar functions. One is simple diversion; the rush of adrenaline and the thrill of stimulation couched in a context in which our wellbeing is never really at stake. But horror films have other functions too. When we watch these pictures with others, it is a shared traumatic experience. Watched with a romantic partner or even a platonic friend, there is a subtle bonding that happens between viewers that creates an unspoken solidarity. The same effect can be had among family members as well but with some added impact. Viewed among older siblings and parents, a very satisfying horror films can strengthen family bonds.

There is a particular impact of horror pictures and of Halloween in general that can be special for parents and young children. One aspect involves the ritualistic aspect of storytelling. Many horror films are like the tales told around a campfire and the television set and the Blu-ray player have taken the place of oral traditions. Although presented in more comfortable settings and with advanced technology, the messages these tales impart are often timeless and assist in an important parental role.

Parents (and for that matter older siblings) have things to tell their children. Among them, life is of a limited quantity and the world is a dangerous place. Parents have to warn their children and prepare them for the difficult world that awaits. Scary stories are a way for people to begin to cope with this and many children will first encounter the concepts of hardship, violence, and mortality in the context of a narrative. In the documentary The American Nightmare, Wes Craven, the filmmaker of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, refers to horror pictures as “boot camp for the soul,” which is to say that when young people submit to a horror film they harden themselves in a healthy way. These stories are a beginning to coming to grips with life’s difficulties and disappointments.

There is also a—for lack of a better word—spiritual aspect to Halloween. I don’t mean “spiritual” in a necessarily religious sense. But as the world becomes increasingly secular and the community transitions into a post-religious period, we do lose the possibility of viewing the world with a specific kind of awe and risk severing ties with traditions and rites that are psychologically satisfying. Scientists sometimes discuss the boon they get from discoveries and epiphanies but that is a categorically different experience from the kind of mystical experience people once got from religious traditions. (The wonder conveyed by art is probably much closer.) Halloween provides the possibility of magic, the kind that children believe in when they play pretend, and a way to act out deeply embedded traditions and rituals, even if they are done in a self-aware manner.  

Because of its mature themes, Halloween celebrations tip toward adults, especially those who are free spirited and unbound by the responsibilities of parenthood. But the holiday also functions for a much broader constituency. Halloween has become a valuable holiday—perhaps the most valuable on the calendar—because it takes the fear and anxiety that underlies so much of life, physicalizes it, and allows us to face it. This potent combination of ancient and modern traditions provides something that we need and crave. It has become the family and community unifying sacrament of a post-religious age.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Slut Shaming of Miley Cyrus

After watching from the sidelines for the past few days, I’ve decided to wade into the fracas over Miley Cyrus’ performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. As shocked as some people allegedly were about Cyrus’ stage antics I’ve been much more surprised by the staggering amount of blog posts, tweets, editorials, and television coverage that’s been produced in response to it. Normally I’d ignore something like this—celebrity gossip is for rubes and philistines and I gave up on MTV long ago —but this occasion merits comment. And before you click away, this isn’t another blog post bashing Cyrus or even MTV, at least not primarily. No, my real target is you.

For those who missed it, Cyrus performed her hit song “We Can’t Stop” while dressed in a leotard and occasionally bent over and twerked for the crowd. This was immediately followed by a duet with Robin Thicke of his song “Blurred Lines” for which Cyrus stripped down to a flesh colored two-piece and spent the song grinding against Thicke’s groin. You can watch the full performance here.

Social media users immediately responded with memes and posts, mostly mocking her performance. The ridicule was deserved. As anyone watching the performance can see, it was crap. This young woman has all the stage presence of a wet t-shirt contestant and there really wasn’t any dance choreography aside from the twerking (and I don’t think that counts). For “We Won’t Stop,” Cyrus sang along to a prerecording, making little effort to synch her raspy voice to the auto-tuned vocals piped through the sound system. For “Blurred Lines” she didn’t really sing much at all but stomped around the stage, shaking her ass and wagging her tongue as though the audience had never seen a twenty year old woman’s midriff before.

And that is why the outrage over this performance is so peculiar. Both “We Can’t Stop” and “Blurred Lines” have been among the most popular tunes of the summer and nothing on the stage was far from the lyrical content of the songs or the images in the music videos. Further, nothing Cyrus did on that stage was unprecedented in the history of MTV. Near or partial nudity, outrageous costumes, public grinding, drug metaphors, and sexual simulacra are par for the course at the VMAs and in mainstream American culture. In fact, Madonna’s 1984 VMA performance of “Like a Virgin” was and still is far more provocative, not to mention better sung.

But singing is not the issue here. Cyrus’ performance, and for that matter the Video Music Awards themselves, are not about singing, music, or videos. They are a platform for pop stars to gain media attention. And when someone as bereft of talent as Miley Cyrus takes the stage, she has to put on a show that will distract the audience from the fact that she can’t sing.  And she did that. After all, few were actually complaining about the quality of the musical performance. From Twitter users ridiculing the diminutive size of Cyrus’ backside to media figures calling for MTV executives to be fired, the discussion about the performance was strictly within the parameters that Cyrus and her handlers intended.

All of you who took to social media to complain about the morality of Cyrus’ performance gave her exactly what she wanted. And you were glad to do so. After all, she enabled you just as you enabled her.

Let’s be honest: you didn’t hate the performance. Secretly, way down in places you won’t admit around the water cooler and not even on Facebook, you loved it. And you loved it because it enabled you to participate in one of America’s most enduring pastimes: slut shaming.

Obsessions with public morality go back all the way to the puritan root of this culture. One of the key aspects of puritanism is a constant paranoia that one is not pure enough. When virtue is mistakenly taken to be synonymous with self-denial it quickly leads to public abstinence contests in which the most inured and emasculated party wins. But this kind of conspicuous abstinence is not virtue. It’s sadomasochism.

The masochistic impulse manifests itself in slut shaming. The moral crusader needs the sinner to construct an illusory moral hierarchy in which he is able to place himself at the top or at least above other people. That’s done by belittling others. The fallen woman is a popular target of the moral crusader. In a society that still propagates the myth of virginal purity and in which the worth of a woman is associated with the integrity of her hymen, the supposedly virtuous woman represents our highest ideals while a fallen woman is held as a threat to the social order.

There is a compact between those who entice puritanical vitriol and those who do the shaming. Entertainers like Cyrus offer themselves up as a social pariah to be condemned by the usual moral authorities. When that happens, her public image gets a boost and the audience gets to feel superior. This is consensual bullying and that’s what public morality campaigns are all about.

Miley Cyrus is not a victim of slut shaming. She is a willing participant. Only the most na├»ve entertainer would plan and carry out that performance without anticipating what the reaction would be.  She played the system and won. For that she deserves some begrudging respect. But I’d suggest that the next time Cyrus performs in public she should show up dressed like Hester Prynne, complete with a scarlet “A” appended to her outfit. At least then audiences and performers in this masochistic paradigm would have to be honest with themselves and each other.

All of you who spent time and energy this week expressing disgust for Miley Cyrus gave her the social media spanking that she wanted. And let’s be entirely clear: none of this vitriol was about protecting the soul of America, advancing the dignity of women, or preserving the innocence of children. That’s a smokescreen of self-deceit intended to heighten your own ego. The slut shaming of Miley Cyrus was about taking shots at a willingly fallen woman in order to feel better about yourself.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Clare Daly on Obama

First, yes, this blog is still active. I realize that posts here have been irregular over the past six months. Due to other commitments I had to concentrate my writing efforts elsewhere. But I'm back to regular posting.

Second, check out this clip of Irish politician Clare Daly in which she criticizes President Obama during his recent trip to Ireland.

I'll have more to say about this in the near future.  But for now consider this: conservative bloggers and partisan media figures have formed a circle jerk around this clip but they seem to have missed the fact that Daly is a member of Dublin's Socialist Party. The critiques she's making, although levied at Obama, are of his embrace of right-wing policies like extrajudicial assassination and the decision to arm the Syrian rebellion. In short, she's not on your team.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Chris Hayes on the AP Phone Records Scandal

Check out Chris Hayes' statement regarding the recent AP Phone Records Scandal. For those of you unfamiliar, the Department of Justice was recently exposed for secretly--and possibly illegally--seizing the phone records of Associated Press journalists in an effort to discover the source of leaks and informants.

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Hayes statement is an important one. In the midst of so much manufactured outrage and partisan rhetoric, it is easy to become jaded to accusations, especially when they come from the other side. It is important that figures like Hayes, who are ideologically predisposed to defend the Obama Administration, speak truth not only to power, but to their viewers as well.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Steven Brill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us

I recommend you take time to read Steven Brill’s piece “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us” at TIME. The story is lengthy but an important piece of journalism, one I wish had been written three years ago when the country was embroiled in the health care debate. As Brill points out in the piece, the discussion about healthcare that we had in 2010 was limited to who ought to pay but ignored the critical issue of health care’s escalating cost. As he writes, Obamacare “changed the rules related to who pays for what, but we haven’t done much to change the prices we pay.”

The piece exposes how and why heath care costs have risen and it has quite a few quotable lines and some enraging case studies of average citizens struggling with medical bills. One of the most interesting sections deals with so-called non-profit hospitals that are often anything but. Brill writes:
In fact, when McKinsey [& Co., a consulting firm], aided by a Bank of America survey, pulled together all hospital financial reports, it found that the 2,900 nonprofit hospitals across the country, which are exempt from income taxes, actually end up averaging higher operating profit margins than the 1,000 for-profit hospitals after the for-profits’ income-tax obligations are deducted. In health care, being nonprofit produces more profit. . . . Under Internal Revenue Service rules, nonprofits are not prohibited from taking in more money than they spend. They just can’t distribute the overage to shareholders — because they don’t have any shareholders.
The fact that non-profit organizations are generating tremendous income highlights the core of what is wrong with American health care and the degree to which politicians and the news media have missed the point. The examining table is tilted but no one seems to notice.

Brill concludes that the fundamental debate to be had over health care isn’t about nonsense like death panels or partisan talking points fearing a government takeover of the medical system. His final argument is one that that is essentially conservative: restoring the integrity of a free market system. Brill writes:
The real issue isn’t whether we have a single payer or multiple payers. It’s whether whoever pays has a fair chance in a fair market. Congress has given Medicare that power when it comes to dealing with hospitals and doctors, and we have seen how that works to drive down the prices Medicare pays, just as we’ve seen what happens when Congress handcuffs Medicare when it comes to evaluating and buying drugs, medical devices and equipment. Stripping away what is now the sellers’ overwhelming leverage in dealing with Medicare in those areas and with private payers in all aspects of the market would inject fairness into the market. We don’t have to scrap our system and aren’t likely to. But we can reduce the $750 billion that we overspend on health care in the U.S. in part by acknowledging what other countries have: because the health care market deals in a life-or-death product, it cannot be left to its own devices.

Put simply, the bills tell us that this is not about interfering in a free market. It’s about facing the reality that our largest consumer product by far — one-fifth of our economy — does not operate in a free market.
It’s my modest hope—and as modest as it is, I’m afraid it’s too much to hope—that if we get into another health care debate during Obama’s second term or during a future presidential administration, the issue of cost and the fleecing of patients and taxpayers becomes the central issue. Fixing the health care system need not only be a concern of liberal bleeding hearts. When capitalism is functioning it maximizes institutional efficiency and unleashes human potential. But when it malfunctions it becomes a tool for exploitation that ends up dragging the entire society down.

Brill appeared on The Daily Show to discuss his article:

Part 1

Part 2

Monday, January 28, 2013

Sounds of Cinema: Best and Worst of 2012

On yesterday's episode of Sounds of Cinema I counted down my picks of the best and worst films of last year.


1. Samsara

2. Life of Pi

3. Argo

4. Django Unchained

5. Take This Waltz

6. Looper

7. The Sessions

8.The Raid: Redemption

9. Zero Dark Thirty

10. Moonrise Kingdom

  1. Project X
  2. The Devil Inside
  3. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2
  4. Playing for Keeps
  5. Piranha 3DD
  6. Last Ounce of Courage
  7. Bachelorette
  8. One for the Money
  9. 2016: Obama's America
  10. The Watch
You can find more information, including rationales for each film and lists of honorable mentions and cinematic trends of 2012, here.