Saturday, October 13, 2007

OXYPHENBUTAZONE: As many members of ALOTT5MA on Facebook already know, the WSJ reports today on the awesomeness and popularity of the Scrabulous application. But, um, Matt?
Legal experts say there are risks to Scrabulous, however. Copyright laws allow someone to freely use an idea, "but not copy the expression of the idea," says Anthony Falzone, head of the Fair Use Project at Stanford University. He says the Scrabulous board looks strikingly similar to the Scrabble board, with light blue and pink squares in the same spots denoting double- and triple-word scores. The names might also be too much alike, says John Palfrey, a Harvard law professor.

Hasbro Inc., which owns the U.S. rights for Scrabble, says it doesn't comment on legal matters. Rajat Agarwalla says he emailed Hasbro several weeks ago to notify the company about Scrabulous. Hasbro has not responded, he says. The brothers say they consider Scrabulous to be essentially an online version of Scrabble. "It's not really different," Jayant says.
NO LOVE FOR THE TREMENDOUS UPSIDE OF CORBIN BLEU? Via Carrie, Moviefone lists the hottest 25 actors at or under the age of 25.
LIFE IMITATES ART IMITATES LOHAN: Samaire Armstrong, who plays party girl Juliet Darling on Dirty Sexy Money, is going to miss an episode while she's "deal[ing] with some personal issues in a therapeutic atmosphere." I'm continuing to enjoy DSM, though I'm hoping that (like Brothers and Sisters last year) we wrap up the "big mystery" ("What's William's Secret?," "Who Killed Nick's Daddy?") early and get on to the good stuff (drunken Walkers/Darlings on parade!).
NEXT, GEORGE CLOONEY PERFORMS A BEND AND SNAP: Given the heavily legally minded audience of this blog, figure we need a thread for discussion of two big lawyer-related pop culture events this weekend--Michael Clayton at movie theatres nationwide (which, aside from a somewhat bizarre "Michael bonds with horses" scene, is almost perfect, and Tilda Swinton should be a Supporting Actress frontrunner for her authentically scary performance), and Legally Blonde: The Musical, which is just finishing up on MTV now, and which repeats tomorrow evening. Compare and contrast here.
FRIDAY NIGHT SPONSORS RAP UNEMBARRASSINGLY: I watch a lot of girly TV -- Gossip Girl, Real World/Road Rules Challenge, the occasional Patriots game -- so I'm used to tuning out a lot of dewy, dreamlike commercials for feminine products. That's why this week I'm devoting my entire Friday Night Lights sponsorlove post to the feminine product Designed By Men For Men: Yaz birth control pills. Let's review:
  • Prevents pregnancy;
  • Won't cause your lady friend appearance-related mood-killing catastrophies, like unsightly acne or bloating;
  • Won't induce moodiness or irritability that might get your lady friend "all up in your grill";
  • According to the 92% of the ad devoted to disclaimers, only works if your lady friend keeps herself fit and disease-free, which is nice to know;
  • Makes your lady friend entirely responsible for contraception, leaving you free to daydream about being Jack Bauer kicking Jack Bauer's ass kicking Jack Bauer's ass just so that you can teach him a valuable life lesson and then teaming up with him to foil the plots of the Irano-Franco-femino-terrorist cabal; and
  • Named after a baseball player (although, frankly, you know how I feel both about left fielders and insufferable Red Sox fans, but I'll let it slide).
The only way this product could be more assured of winning the FHM Medicare Part D Product of the Year is if it required beer to activate and let you kill it in Halo to up your rankings. So ladies, if you don't have kidney, liver, or adrenal disease, you are not being treated for or at risk for cardiovascular or chronic inflamatory disease, you have other plans for preventing STDs and HIV, you're not afraid of a minor blood clot or heart attack, you're under 35, you do not smoke, and embrace persistent fatigue as a symptom of living life to its fullest, pop a Yaz and by all means sow those oats.

Friday, October 12, 2007

TOONS. GETS 'EM EVERY TIME: As noted below, Al Gore has built his global-warming campaign through a variety of pop-culture media, but in our discussion (which was more heated than usual precisely because of climate change, right?) we somehow missed a crucial venue for Gore's Nobel-worthy ideas: animated cartoons. Like pop-culture visionaries before him, Gore realized that your story can reach a much wider audience if you tell it with toons.

Filmmakers had experimented with animation off and on during the early 20th century, with Winsor McCay's "Little Nemo" (1911) and "Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914) attracting the most popular and critical attention. By the 1920s, animated shorts had become part of the typical line-up at most movie theaters, and the decade's favorite cartoon character was Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer's Felix the Cat. Felix was a familiar type, a comic troublemaker full of energy and desires, but thanks to animation, he could break the rules of physics and biology at will, as seen in "Felix Dopes It Out" (1924) or the hallucinogenic "Felix Woos Whoopee" (1930). Felix's celebrity was reinforced through licensed merchandising, a clever money-making and brand-building concept that would become standard practice in animation.

By the late 1920s, though, Felix's pre-eminence was being challenged by a new cartoon critter: Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse. At first, Mickey wasn't all that different from Felix; in his sound-film debut, "Steamboat Willie" (1928), he's a rather rascally rodent, spending most of his time abusing animals in order to make them squeal "Turkey in the Straw." But Disney smartly followed the popular mood, and as Depression-era Americans turned away from Jazz-Age enthusiasm toward what Steven Watts calls a sentimental populism, Disney modified Mickey accordingly, making him more domesticated, more human, more childlike. In "The Band Concert" (1935), he's trying to fend off the mischievous pranks of Donald Duck -- pranks that Felix and Mickey 1.0 would have gleefully participated in. Heck, by the late 1930s, Mickey even owns a dog.

Mickey's evolution into a respectable citizen (along with Disney's growing focus on feature-length animation) left the field open for a new boisterous cartoon personality: Warner Bros.' Bugs Bunny. Beginning with 1940's "A Wild Hare", Bugs revived the frenetic, anarchic style of Felix and early Mickey, combining sight gags, wild chases, violence, and of course, cross-dressing; in 1942's "Fresh Hare" (1942), we even get an early-model Elmer Fudd and a bizarre blackface-minstrels finale. By the end of World War II and the classic "Baseball Bugs" (1946), the rabbit and the mouse were arguably animated equals.

I could wrap this lesson up with some profound question about the subversive qualities of animation, the ways in which cartoons allow artists to say things they couldn't say through live performance. But since it's the last class before fall break, I'll end with a much simpler query:

Mickey or Bugs. Who ya got?

Next week (no class on Monday): the studio system, Hollywood's Golden Age, and the movies in wartime.
MY MOM SAYS I LOOK LIKE A LION: My first response to this list of the Top 10 Hidden Performances (actors plying their craft from under a load of latex) was that Eric Stoltz was getting his comeuppance for conning his friend out of that Rube Walker baseball card.
I COULD HAVE DONE THIS FOR $500 OR MAYBE A 12-PACK OF ANCHOR STEAM: Apparently Boalt Hall is going to change its name to the UC Berkeley School of Law. A consultant was paid $25,000 to figure this one out.
GOOD ENOUGH TO FOOL MAURICE J. MINNIFIELD: Forgive me if someone already put this up, but frequent commentator Mr. Heger -- on an issue about which he is considerably more passionate than his interest in climate change, as noted in the comments to a thread below -- sent along this article from the New Yorker, about the provenance of certain Thomas Jefferson-owned wine, wine forgeries, and the world of really high-end tastings.

Also, this passage struck me as odd:

"There are two types of wine counterfeiters: those who do not tamper with what is inside the bottle and those who do. Because the price of a great vintage of fine wine often dwarfs the price of an indifferent one, many forgers will start with a genuine bottle of, say, 1980 P├ętrus and simply replace the label with one from 1982. (The ’82 vintage is especially coveted and expensive.) With a good scanner and a color printer, labels are easy to replicate—one former auctioneer I spoke with called it “desktop publishing.” "

Note that the quotes there are in the original. "Desktop Publishing." WTF? It's as if desktop publishing is some secret thing here, previously unknown to the New Yorker audience. Or, perhaps, this is an editing tick at the New Yorker, like their consistent use of the diaresis? "I toured the pits of the Kane County Motor Speedway and found Jack Oliver fine tuning a machine that uses the exaust gases of the engine to help power the engine -- the fellow at the Kettle Corn booth called it a "turbocharger." "
GETTING SO MUCH WARMER ALL THE TIME: Al Gore has just won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on global warming. We tend to avoid political matters here, so I would ask that you try to be non-partisan in the comments. Personally, I thought An Inconvenient Truth was a good documentary.

The United Nations was also awarded the same award this year. The only pop culture related observation I can make is that I enjoyed The Interpreter.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

STRICTLY SPEAKING, WE DON'T HAVE ONE, BUT WE'RE WORKING HARD ON THAT: So, obviously Sorkin + Hanks + Nichols in an awards-season film? Obviously going to have some interest around here. But I'm not sure quite what to think of the trailer for Charlie Wilson's War, which, along with Elizabeth: The Golden Age and American Gangster, are Universal's big awards hopefuls. In particular, casting Hanks as a character who's less than completely likable is certainly a risk, as is giving Julia Roberts the chance to wrestle with Sorkinese.

Also--related prediction--the big box office hits of the Thanksgiving/Christmas season will be American Gangster, National Treasure: Book Of Secrets, I Am Legend, and Enchanted.
THIS IS LIKE CHOOSING BETWEEN THE STRENGTH OF MIKE DITKA VERSUS A HURRICANE, WHERE THE HURRICANE IS NAMED "HURRICANE DITKA": Oh, damn you Outside Magazine, which according to Page Six has placed two of this blog's most treasured cultural icons at war -- Anthony Bourdain and Dunkin' Donuts:

RACHAEL Ray is getting a royal dunkin' from Anthony Bourdain for her big-bucks endorsement deal with Dunkin' Donuts. The prickly chef and "Kitchen Confidential" author says of the Food Network cutie in next month's Outside magazine: "She's got a magazine, a TV empire, all these best-selling books - I'm guessing she's not hurting for money. She's hugely influential, particularly with children. And she's endorsing Dunkin' Donuts. It's like endorsing crack for kids." Bourdain adds: "I'm not a very ethical guy. I don't have a lot of principles. But somehow that seems to me over the line. Juvenile diabetes has exploded. Half of Americans don't have necks. And she's up there saying, 'Eat some [bleeping] Dunkin' Donuts. You look great in that swimsuit - eat another doughnut!' That's evil."
For what it's worth, as of Monday, all Dunkin' Donuts baking will be virtually trans-fat free.
BETTER EVEN THAN A GOLDEN NOTEBOOK: Doris Lessing just won this year's Nobel Prize in Literature at the age of 87, becoming the oldest person to do so. I have enjoyed many of her science fiction books, notably the Canopus in Argos: Archives Series (1979-1983), although her work as a whole is quite broad.

Harold Bloom is not a fan of the Academy's decision, noting that "her work for the past 15 years [has been] quite unreadable ... fourth-rate science fiction."
THE MINKMAN JOKE RESEARCH LAB: On the eve of the presentation the 10th annual Mark Twain Prize for lifetime achievement in the field of funny to Billy Crystal -- and, yes, I'm still bitter about who he's receiving it ahead of -- the WaPo's William Booth profiles the crowd pleaser from Long Island and encapsulates my disappointment with this award in one sentence: "Billy Crystal is not going to take you somewhere strange."

Still, I recognize he has a lot of fans here, and you'll enjoy the piece.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

I WAKE THE DEAD, I BAKE PIES, I LEAD A SHELTERED LIFE: I think Pushing Daisies demonstrated tonight that yes, it can keep that tone up (though the third episode, which apparently had major budget cuts, will be the true test. Sure, it's not perfect--the first act has a lot of recap of the pilot and the "rules" for Ned's gift, and Kristin Chenoweth apparently was made up to look frighteningly like Amy Sedaris. But how can you not love a show that has a (completely inexplicable) song and dance number to "Hopelessly Devoted To You" halfway through an episode, and uses a knitting needle rather than a gun for Chekov's famous maxim of writing?

Southwest Airlines Boarding School

MUCH LUV: Okay, I'm psyched: Southwest is ditching the camp-out-in-line part of the boarding process, and now assigning a boarding group and number upon check-in.

America's most awesomest airline just got better.
I THINK THERE ARE ONLY THREE THINGS AMERICA WILL BE KNOWN FOR 2,000 YEARS FROM NOW WHEN THEY STUDY THIS CIVILIZATION: THE CONSTITUTION, JAZZ MUSIC, AND BASEBALL: So says cultural critic and frequent Ken Burns talking head Gerald Early. Yet while this blog has witnessed numerous discussions of the first and third items on Early's list, there's been relatively little conversation about jazz -- which is, according to PBS, "America's Music." So why the neglect of jazz on a pop-culture web site? Is jazz even "popular culture"? Was it ever?

When jazz first emerged in the early 1900s, it certainly wasn't "popular" in the sense of being widely disseminated. It began in black New Orleans, drawing on African American musical forms like ragtime, blues, and spirituals while also incorporating European influences in composition and instrumentation, and always spotlighting the interplay of individual performance and group collaboration. By the 1910s and 1920s, jazz musicians had migrated to Northern cities like Chicago and New York, bringing the new sound with them. Pioneers like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington attracted growing audiences, both white and black, through live performances, recordings, even movies.

Yet critics found jazz distasteful, vulgar, and dangerous. Racial stereotypes lay behind many of these attacks; in 1924, for instance, the New York Times declared that "jazz is merely a return to the humming, hand-clapping, or tomtom beating of savages." Still, white middle-class audiences found the new music vital and exciting, so savvy marketing minds once again took a popular black cultural form and domesticated it for general consumption. Bandleader Paul Whiteman proclaimed himself the "King of Jazz" while offering "sweet," refined dance music that was more Tin Pan Alley than Tipitina's. (Whiteman also commissioned George Gershwin's 1924 classical-jazz hybrid, Rhapsody in Blue.) By the mid-1930s, the most successful performers played "swing," a variant of jazz emphasizing bigger bands, tighter arrangements, and more tuneful melodies (often sung by vocalists). As David Stowe notes in his book, Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America, swing did encourage some more progressive possibilities in American life, especially as several prominent bands began integrating their ranks. At the same time, though, swing bandleaders like Glenn Miller made their mark less as musicians and more as businessmen, using corporate sponsorship, saturation radio broadcasting, and the new promotional opportunites of the jukebox to turn themselves into pop-culture celebrities.

Obviously, after World War II, jazz lost its place atop the pop-music heap to rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll, and their descendants. But this doesn't fully explain why, over the past few decades, jazz has become almost "highbrow." Today, jazz seems to live on primarily through public radio, elite cultural organizations, and yes, PBS and Ken Burns. So, is jazz still "pop culture"? Why or why not?
BOY, THAT WARDEN SURE IS AN A-HOLE/IF YOU EVER GET OUT, GO TO ZIHUATANEJO: It may be old, but it was new to me--Shawshank in a Minute. (Language NSFW, but man it made me piss my pants.)
RAINBOW CONNECTION: You may have heard that the new Radiohead album dropped today. So, how much did you pay? Me? I'm somewhat ashamed to admit I only ponied up a pound for it.
A SUMMER ASSOCIATE PROGRAM LIKE THIS WOULD BE MUCH MORE FUN: Last night's House is worthy of a thread to discuss Dr. Hizzy's further quest for replacement Cottages. (Though, seriously, did we need to be headed toward replacing Cameron, Foreman, and Chase with three characters who are looking more and more like clones of them?) Kathleen York as PodCuddy was also most excellent. Related: Michael Jackson apparently has lupus. It's a safe assumption Dr. House would disagree.
SOMEWHERE, H.R. PUFNSTUF IS WEEPING: Even though he's previously played a character whose name was drawn from the show, I'm not 100% sold on Will Ferrell starring in Land of the Lost: The Motion Picture. Also, the concept of such a movie with a 100M+ budget seems wrong. Also, Wikipedia has entirely too much information about Land of the Lost for its own good.
NEOPHOBIA, AND ROCKIN' BROCCOLI: According to new research, a child's skepticism towards new foods is mostly based on genetics, not parenting and environment. The Times' experts have some theories on how to get your kids to branch out more, from "meals should be served family style, with no separate foods for children," to this: "Giving food cool names can help. In one experiment, Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, found that when peas were renamed 'power peas,' consumption doubled."
WE SURVEYED 100 AMERICANS, TOP FIVE ANSWERS ON THE BOARD, HERE'S THE QUESTION: So, I was shelling a hard-boiled egg for Lucy's breakfast this morning, and the same sensation hit me which always does in such circumstances -- for whatever reason or childhood trauma, I just find its smell to be overwhelmingly loathsome. Overwhelmingly. As in, would rather not be in the same room. And I recognize that this reaction is disproportionate -- millions of Americans, including my wife and daughter, enjoy hard-boiled eggs.

So that's your question for this morning: name something for which the smell causes you to have a disproportionately bad reaction. (And then rewrite this question to have it retain its grammatical validity while not sounding as awkward.)

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

"THIS IS NO LONGER A CUTE THEORY ABOUT HOW THE OAKLAND A'S ARE WINNING WITH A SMALL PAYROLL. THIS IS THE 21ST CENTURY OF BASEBALL MANAGEMENT": Interesting post by Dave Cameron over at USSM about the provenance of the GMs whose teams remain in the hunt for this year's World Series title. Over the course of the year and through an unusually two-sided dialogue with beat writers, USSM has advocated a stats-and-scouts combination, process-oriented analysis, a focus on talent to the exclusion of "intangibles," and rational understanding of defensive value. The team that USSM follows has, by contrast, adhered to a philosophy that values scouts and disdains most statistical analysis, engages in results-based analysis, overvalues experience and chemistry, and undervalues defense.

Today's post points out (in a little bit of results-oriented analysis, but we'll excuse that) that one of the four GMs left is a Moneyball profilee and the other three are disciples of John Hart in Cleveland -- four GMs who evaluate all available information (whether statistical or scout-based) and use process-oriented analysis (and, though the post doesn't say it, value talent and defense more than leadership and experience). It's not looking good for the Phillies or the Mariners for the next few years, that much I'll say.
NERD HERD, RESCUE ME: I spent most of the late afternoon and evening last night in pitched battle with a virus/malware program known as WinAntivirus, or Winfix, with a secondary infection from Web Buying. These are the kinds of viruses that disable the uninstall feature, burrow into running processes, embed themselves in startup routines, and hide in registries. As a result, the only thing that seems to work well on my computer is the heavy metal music (the bad kind) that I can't turn off since I can't identify any running program or process that is causing it. I'm about *this close* to throwing in the towel.

Coincidentally, the only television for which I had time last night involved our favorite big-box tech support guru, Chuck. I'll confess that I liked this episode less than the first two. The actors seemed to be phoning it in, the novelty of Sarah in her Wienerlicious uniform is wearing off, and Yvonne Strzechowski is distractingly unable to fight (worse than Season 1 Sarah Michelle Gellar), but the worst thing is this spy-of-the-week rhythm that we're already in. I lived in LA for almost 9 years, and as far as I could tell, other than Ahmad Ressam getting stopped 1600 miles away on his way to LAX, the type of political intrigue particular to LA involves whispered allegations of neck-wrinkles; the incendiary devices of choice are venti drips and cell phones. The odds of an assassination plot, government-security data theft, and arms deal all being planned for a three-week period during pilot season are slim and none, and slim just got pulled for retooling during sweeps. I've always been partial to the X-Files model, which tries to balance both long-term plot ("mythology") episodes with single-episode ("monsters-of-the-week") plots ( a model used well in Buffy and Alias, among others). I suspect Chuck will get there soon -- clearly, the mysteries about Bryce, Sarah, the NSA goons, and Stanford are being prepped for mining, so I'll try not to complain too much, but I fear that waiting too long will start to try the audience's (my) patience.

On the credit side of the ledger, though: Casey is increasingly creepy, with his abruptness and his "spy humor," and Schwartz keeps doling out the pop-culture throwaways (last week: the "state secret" that "Oceanic Flight 815 was shot down by ..."; this week: Bob Ross, potshots at Monet, the "Canzonetta sull'Aria" allusion to Shawshank Redemption).

Oh, and by the way, I haven't seen last night's Prison Break, but I am aware that a certain act about which I am very squeamish was performed on a certain character about whom I am fond. I understand why it was done, but nonetheless I am forced to say: Boo.
EVERYBODY HATES PAUL: Did I miss the memo on this being "Crap on 'Ebony and Ivory' Week"? Yesterday, the song, which did more to further the cause of racial harmony in this country than any other pop song since Sly and the Family Stone's "Don't Call Me N----r, Whitey," made the the list of worst music collaborations of all time.

Today comes news that based on poetry like "Ebony and ivory/ Live together in perfect harmony/Side by side on my piano, keyboard/Oh lord, why don't we?" Paul McCartney, the person largely responsible for "Eleanor Rigby," "Blackbird," and "Penny Lane" has been named one of the 40 worst lyricists of all-time by Blender Magazine. While Paul is way down the list at No. 38, the top spot is reserved for the Nabokov name-dropped Sting. The Police frontman is followed by Rush's Neal Peart, Creed's Scott Stapp, Oasis' Noel Gallagher, and Dan Fogelberg (ooo, that should be a controversial pick).

Missing from the list? The man who wrote: "Rock and roller cola wars/I can't take it any more."
YOU KNOW YOU LOVE THIS: While we don't have a winner in the "first show to be cancelled" sweepstakes yet (though Journeyman and Cane are making strong bids, with Big Shots only a little behind because it airs later in the week), we do have a winner in the "first show to get a full season order" sweepstakes. That winner? No, not the high rated but awful Big Bang Theory, or any of ABC's much-hyped newbies (though I expect Private Practice to get a back 9 in the next couple of weeks), or Bionic (But Still Really Boring) Woman (which, dollars to donuts, is moving to Mondays in a few weeks), but the CW's addictive teen soap Gossip Girl, which, though it's barely a blip on the radar of overall ratings, apparently does very well among younger women. So, yes, we will continue to have excuses to type "Serena Van Der Woodsen" for the whole year, and watch Leighton Meester show a strong ability to give good bitch despite an inability to actually act.

Hired scrubbers clean the college crowd's crud | Philadelphia Inquirer | 10/09/2007

AND MOST RECENTLY OF ALL, A "ROMAN TOGA PARTY" WAS HELD FROM WHICH WE HAVE RECEIVED MORE THAN TWO DOZEN REPORTS OF INDIVIDUAL ACTS OF PERVERSION SO PROFOUND AND DISGUSTING THAT DECORUM PROHIBITS LISTING THEM HERE: I'll just quote the Inq: "Thankfully, a new array of services - there's also DormMom, CollegeBellhop and Soapy Joe's - has cropped up recently nationwide to cater to able-bodied kids who can't seem to maintain minimum standards of sanitation."

Monday, October 8, 2007

TRICYCLE? Just an okay episode of HIMYM, as I just don't find Cobie Smulders-centric B-plots that interesting. You knew they were going to wuss out with the ending of the episode, and while it's nice to see Danica McKellar and Busy Phillips working again ... that wasn't as much fun as a good half-hour of tennis on the Wii, was it?
NOT SUCH PERFECT HARMONY: It's hard to argue with "Ebony and Ivory" topping this list of the worst music collaborations of all time. More worthy, though, is the list of the top music collaborations (not just duets), which is lead by Sinead O'Connor and the Chieftans' "Foggy Dew" off of 1995's masterful Long Black Veil (seriously, go spend $9.99 at iTunes now). "Fairytale of New York" and "Under Pressure" deserve the praise they get, too.

It's interesting to note that besides landing at No. 3 on the best list with "Pressure," Bowie lands on the worst list twice ("Dancing in the Streets" and "Little Drummer Boy"). If this Bowie-Arcade Fire collaboration ever makes it to record, I think Bowie would have to grad another spot high on the best list.

I couldn't find the larger list on the Google, but feel free to leave your faves and leasts in the comments.
BECAUSE IF YOU ACTUALLY WERE AS INNOCENT AS YOU PRETEND TO BE, WE'D NEVER GET ANYWHERE: When you stop to think about it, it's bizarre how much of our popular entertainment revolves around crime. We tease apart murder mysteries, we idolize violent gangsters, we reduce homicide to a plot device. Such criminal-minded popular culture first arose in the 19th century, when a growing secularization allowed writers like Edgar Allan Poe to examine crime not religiously but aesthetically. By the late Victorian era, the classical detective story was in full flower, most famously in the Sherlock Holmes tales, which were just as popular in America as in Arthur Conan Doyle's native Britain. The traditional formula of the detective story -- sharply analyzed in John Cawelti's Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture -- presented a brilliant sleuth for whom crime was merely an intellectual puzzle of witnesses, suspects, and clues, not a matter of moral concern. The victim and the criminal existed outside the detective's "normal" world and served only to push the plot along; crime was confined to the case at hand, and the detective's solution neatly reasserted the existing social order.

By the 1920s and 1930s, however, the popular mood had shifted. In an era of political corruption, economic chaos, celebrity criminals, and widespread lawbreaking by ordinary Americans, the Victorian ideal of the gentleman detective bringing order out of confusion became unsustainable. Instead, American audiences embraced two new pop-culture heroes -- the gangster and the hard-boiled detective -- each of whom reflected society's more cynical view of crime and punishment. As Robert Warshow explains in his landmark essay, "The Gangster as Tragic Hero," moviegoers often identified with gangsters, seeing them as classic American Dreamers who had simply transplanted their dreams to the world of crime -- seemingly the only avenue open to upwardly mobile strivers in the Depression. The early 'thirties saw dozens of gangster films, the most prominent being Edward G. Robinson's Little Caesar (1930), James Cagney's The Public Enemy (1931), and the original Scarface (1932), starring Paul Muni. Although these films purported to present gangsters as a "problem," they invariably made their heroes the most attractive figures on screen, and the main character's inevitable demise only slightly undermined the broader celebration of criminal achievement.

A few law-enforcement heroes did fight back against the pop-culture crime wave, most notably the dashing detectives Nick and Nora Charles, of the Thin Man books and movies. But fittingly for the times, the most popular detectives of the 'twenties and 'thirties were not drawing-room wits like Nick and Nora but hard-boiled private eyes like Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. These were no armchair sleuths working out curious puzzles between sips of brandy. Spade and Marlowe found themselves immersed in a violent world of corruption and double-crosses, where partners or lovers could become victims or criminals, and a smart detective trusted no one but himself. On screen, the image of the hard-boiled detective was exemplified by Humphrey Bogart, who starred as both Spade and Marlowe in the film versions of The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946).

So if crime-as-entertainment adapts to fit its time, what can we surmise about contemporary American society from today's pop-culture roster of detectives and criminals? Do audiences in 2007 favor the forces of law and order, or do they side instead with the American gangster?
WHOA, LIKE FAR OUT, MAN: Why do I have the feeling this isn't the last time we'll be seeing the reunited Electric Mayhem band on Saturday Night Live?

In terms of recurring characters to get plugged in around 12:50am, I'm going to place this one as better than the Sans/Fallon/Kattan/Morgan Christmas singers, but still not as good as Tonto, Tarzan and Frankenstein.
FREE TO BE DONE WITH TWEE: Sadly, I am swamped these days -- too swamped to do much imbibing of the popular culture beyond reading and occasionally commenting on my fellow bloggers' posts. But despite my inability to do my customary "watch the pilot of every new show and see what sticks" routine -- the routine that somehow got me hooked on Justice last year before it got cancelled and a much less spectacularly beautified Rebecca Mader was relegated to crying for Francie not-quite-Mrs. Coalhouse Walker, Jr. to help her steal her dead boyfriend's sperm on Private Practice -- I am quite pleased thus far with both of the shows with which I expected to be pleased and thus would like to take a brief moment to comment on them lest our Fearless Leader shut off my Blogger account for inactivity.

  • Dirty Sexy Money. Thus far love it, and not just because of the resemblance between my husband and Peter Krause. (Although anyone looking to further the resemblance by paying my husband $10 million per annum to serve as lawyer-slash-nursemaid to his or her family should speak up.) The only character that really clanks for me -- and that's saying a lot, given the characters comprising the Darling family -- is the Reverend Brian Darling, whose whingey lack of anything vaguely resembling godliness is just a little beyond the believable. Even Tranny Hooker No. 1 of 2 on network TV this fall works for me so far. Sutherland the Elder reminds me just how unsubtle the Younger's work on 24 is, Samaire Armstrong is so wildly different from her role on The O.C. that I didn't even realize it was her until 15 minutes into the pilot, and then there's Krause, who is just pitch-perfect.
  • Pushing Daisies. Everyone who wanted a moratorium on the word "seriously" last year should be summarily executed if they utter the word "twee" ever again. I'm sick of twee already -- apologies to our friends Alan Sepinwall and Matt Marcotte, among many many others -- but there are just so many other ways to describe this show. Like violently stylized. Or acutely precious. Or screamingly Sonnenfeld. (Like Alan, I am very curious to see what the show looks like once the budget-slashed episodes hit the screen.) I agree with everyone around here who loved it and thought it was gorgeous, but I do wonder whether the refusal to touch the audience (along with everyone else) personally will eventually annoy me. Put differently, I just don't see this as the kind of show that does 22 episodes per year for 5 years.

And as long as I'm here, I have a question. It's unrelated to television, but closely tied to the concept of phrasings that I both hate and fail to understand: can someone explain to me the origin of "dropping" as the technical term of art for the release of a new album? As in: "Better hurry up with those bendy straws, Justin, because Shakira's new album drops on October 21." I always thought it was just some sort of painfully trendy hipster-in-the-knowism, but I see it everywhere and just don't understand how this happened. Thanks.

Oh, and one other thing: this coming Tuesday night, Mr. Cosmopolitan and I are taking the heretofore unprecedented step of driving to the Nassau Coliseum to attend the So You Think You Can Dance tour. Hok better be getting his inner hummingbird on.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

PREVIOUSLY, ON SURVIVOR: I can't say I'm totally into Survivor: China yet, but I have to comment on what may have been the worst performance in a challenge since the days of Scout on the "vertical maze" in Survivor:Vanuatu (a/k/a "the season with Chris Daugherty and the Women").

Flip ahead to 4:15 or so on this clip for the description of the immunity challenge (or 5:15 or so for its start), and then just watch Courtney go to "work". (Kudos to the editors for the freeze-frame on the moments of triumph). It's basically the opposite of watching Colby Donaldson or Fireman Tom Westman, and I'm stuck trying to think of other examples of particularly bad challenge performances. Help?
CAPTAIN JACK WILL GET YOU BY TONIGHT: Both because I'm mildly embarassed to admit that I watch it, and because Alan's done such an excellent job of covering it, I've not devoted any blogink to this season of Doctor Who (or of Torchwood, which I'm enjoying a lot more than Alan is), but the Who season finale this week seems an appropriate point to have a thread.

The most significant thing about this season is unquestionably that Steven Moffat has solidified his claim as being a member of the pantheon of TV Gods alongside Bochco, Sorkin, Kelley, Whedon, and the like. Coupling made a pretty good case for his greatness (and HIMYM owes more than a little to Coupling--Barney is something of a Patrick/Jeff hybrid, Robin has a lot of Susan's characteristics, the Marshall/Lily relationship is reminiscent of Susan/Steve, and the shows share a similar predeliction to playing with time, but "Blink" is just an excellent hour of television (and one which you don't need any background on the Doctor to understand). Most of the episode appears to be on YouTube (at least for the moment), and is well worth checking out, full of "timey-wimey stuff" as it is, and with evil that's genuinely frightening, even if it never moves. This is far more Buffy than the old school Who, which often looked like the budget for an average episode was around 40 quid.
PERHAPS IT WAS JUST A LARGER CASE OF CHRONODISPLACEMENT: Look, I know making sure you've got appropriate continuity is tough in a time travel show, especially when you're doing a lot of location shooting (as is clearly the case with Journeyman). But can you spend the few bucks to cover up the large "FedEx/Kinko's" and "AT&T Wireless" signs that appeared during one of our hero's trips to the mid-90s on this week's episode? (I actually really liked the second episode, in that it stopped being just so relentlessly dour, like the pilot was, and had some fun with the situation. Also, the concept that Journeyman has his own Journeywoman following him is an interesting one.)
RIDING THAT TRAIN...: I have a story in today's Chicago Tribune about the most "memorable rail journeys in the history of film." (P. 5 of the Arts Section if you have access to the Sunday Trib, it has a real nice full-page layout)

I was pressed for space (Strangers on a Train and Harry Potter got cut), so I had to limit my choices and I tried to have some diversity, but feel free to leave a plug for your plug for your favorite train film in the comments.
DIAMONDBACKS V. ROCKIES ... YEAH, I'M SURE THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT THE FOLKS AT TURNER SPORTS WERE HOPING FOR: I'm disappointed right now watching the celebration at Coors Field, but I'm not angry or upset. The 2007 Philadelphia Phillies were an endearing, admirable and flawed club, one which overcame a 4-11 start and an unimaginable collection of injuries to capture the NL East title for the first time in 14 years, and make this city a true two-sport town again.

They let us down this week, but they did not let us down this season. So while tonight's a likely farewell to seeing Aaron Rowand in the red-and-white, this team was not a one-shot fluke. With Rollins, Howard (pay the man!), Utley and Hamels at the core, we'll be back in 2008.

As for the Cubs faithful among us, you have my sympathy.