Thursday, April 26, 2007

Culture Shock 04.26.07: Virginia Tech tragedy is latest excuse to attack popular culture

After any tragedy like the one last week at Virginia Tech, you can be sure two things will happen.

People who don't like guns in private hands will agitate for tougher gun-control laws. And people who think popular culture is a cesspool of decadence and violence will attempt an end run around the First Amendment.

I don't have much to add to the gun debate, but I have something to say about the idea that books, TV, movies and music breed mass murderers.

They don't.

Within days of Cho Seung-Hui's April 16 rampage on the Virginia Tech campus, during which he killed 33 people including himself, reporters and armchair psychologists were searching for telltale clues in Cho's class schedule and written assignments, as well as in the rambling, videotaped manifesto he sent to NBC News.

Cho took pictures of himself posing threateningly with a hammer. News reports and Web sites like the Drudge Report quickly drew comparisons to the award-winning South Korean film "Oldboy," in which a man who has been held prisoner for 15 years seeks revenge on his tormentors. One of the film's best-known scenes features the hero wielding a hammer against an army of attackers.

Soon after, reports surfaced that Cho had taken a class called "Contemporary Horror." He presumably read Joyce Carol Oates' "The Female of the Species: Tales of Mystery and Suspense"; "Men, Women, and Chainsaws," a study of gender issues in horror films; and "The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre." He then sold those and other books on an eBay-affiliated Web site.

Without a doubt, Cho was interested in horror and the macabre, otherwise he wouldn't have taken the class. But a lot of people are interested in dark fiction, and few of them ever kill anyone. Like Cho, I read "The Best of H.P. Lovecraft" for a college class, which also included a book by Stephen King. To the best of my knowledge, I've never killed anyone, and King's books have topped bestseller lists for decades without triggering an apocalypse.

Then there are Cho's own stories, which his professors describe as "disturbing." They may be, but based on what I've read of them online, the best words to describe them are juvenile and amateurish.

Cho was a failure before he became a killer, and that is a more likely explanation for his actions than his reading and viewing habits are. There are few things more dangerous than a person whose mental calculus tells him he has nothing to lose.

Popular culture took a similar beating after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. Families of some of the victims sued several computer and video game companies, claiming that violent video games had led to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's rampage. That lawsuit, like many before it, was thrown out of court.

Some studies claim there is a link between media violence and real-world violence.

One such study by University of Michigan psychologist L. Rowell Huesmann claims there is a connection between violent acts and violent TV viewing. But even Huesmann cannot answer the obvious question: Does media violence cause real violence, or are naturally violent people drawn to violent media?

He simply asserts that his explanation is "more plausible."

But people aren't blank slates. They make decisions based on innate personality characteristics and a lifetime of experiences so varied that it is impossible to trace causal links.

Looking to the culture to explain random incidents of violence is good for only one thing — shifting blame away from where it belongs.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Culture Shock 04.19.07: Vonnegut, Bob Clark leave enduring legacies

Writer Kurt Vonnegut and filmmaker Bob Clark are two men whose names you'd never expect to see together in a single sentence.

And you wouldn't see them together now had Vonnegut and Clark not died within days of each other.

Vonnegut died April 11 from brain injuries he suffered in a fall weeks earlier. Clark, along with his son, died April 4 when his car collided with a sport utility vehicle driven by an alleged drunk driver.

In books like "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "Breakfast of Champions," Vonnegut voiced the disaffection both of his own generation, which fought in World War II, and of the Vietnam era. You know "Slaughterhouse-Five" is important because it is both required reading for students and frequently banned from public schools.

Clark's importance is less obvious. As a director, he'll never rank among the top tier. But his films are easily among the most culturally significant of the past 30 years.

I was still in high school when I read every one of Vonnegut's books the local library had. They included "Breakfast of Champions" and several of his lesser efforts. I didn't get to the undisputed classics like "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "The Sirens of Titan" until later.

His short, declarative sentences and black humor are tailor-made for cynical teens. It's only when you're older that you can appreciate the underlying humanism of Vonnegut's works. He's mad at the world because he wants it to be better, even if he really doesn't have much hope for that.

My favorite of his short stories is "Harrison Bergeron," reprinted in "Welcome to the Monkey House." It begins, "The year was 2081, and everyone was finally equal."

The story is as strong an indictment of the implications of socialism as you'll ever read. And Vonnegut was an admitted socialist. Which probably explains why he was so bitter.

Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, when the Allies firebombed the city, an event central to "Slaughterhouse-Five" and to Vonnegut's whole worldview. He faced his own mortality long before it faced him.

When he died, my friends filled their online journals and blogs with Vonnegut quotes, most dealing with death. Several quoted from "Slaughterhouse-Five." In it, a race of extraterrestrials, the Tralfamadorians, can see in four dimensions — the fourth being time. Since they can see any moment in a person's life, they view death as no big deal. There are always moments when the person is still alive. As the Tralfamadorians say of death, "So it goes."

"Galapagos," a novel often cited as Vonnegut's worst (or least good), has one amusing conceit. A few pages before any character dies, an asterisk appears beside his or her name.

Put the two books together, and we're always alive, but with asterisks floating beside us. Like all true Americans, Vonnegut was full of contradictions.

And so was Clark.

He started out directing low-budget horror films. His 1974 movie "Black Christmas" became the model for slasher films, predating John Carpenter's more famous film, "Halloween," by four years. And like most good horror films, Hollywood has remade it.

Clark then directed 1982's "Porky's" and its sequel, "Porky's II: The Next Day," thus inventing the modern teen sex comedy. "Porky's" lineage leads directly to the "American Pie" franchise.

But Clark's defining moment came in 1983, when he directed "A Christmas Story."

Based in the stories of Jean Shepherd, "A Christmas Story" is now a holiday classic, aired 24 hours straight on Christmas Day, a role formerly reserved for "It's a Wonderful Life."

From there, Clark's career descended to "Rhinestone" and "Baby Geniuses," but he'd already made his mark on the culture.

"Black Christmas," "Porky's" and "A Christmas Story" make for one improbable resume. But those films form a legacy that will keep Clark with us for years to come.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Culture Shock 04.12.07: Reliving the era of exploitation

It was a golden age, when anything seemed possible.

Throughout the 1970s, teenagers swarmed to rural drive-ins to make out beneath a flickering glow of horror and exploitation. New York City's 42nd Street was a den of iniquity, where seedy "grindhouse" theaters screened everything from kung-fu films and soft-focus porn to blaxploitation and revenge yarns like "They Call Her One Eye."

Zombies, madmen, criminals, cannibals, prisons full of violent women with lesbian tendencies, Nazis and hormonally charged teens mingled on the silver screen in an orgy of celluloid sin.

Then it ended. Multiplexes drove the drive-ins into the ditch, and former New York City mayor and current presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani turned 42nd Street into a sanitized tourist trap — a Disneyland without the lines.

But nostalgia for the grindhouse era is in full bloom, and not because of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's aptly titled double bill "Grindhouse." It opened last week to positive reviews but disappointing profits, in part because of its three-hour-plus running time, and in part because no one in the South or Midwest knows what a grindhouse is.

Grindhouse. n. an often shabby movie theater having continuous showings especially of pornographic or violent films.

Those of us in rural America grew up with drive-ins, not grindhouses. But the movies were the same.

Boutique DVD labels are raiding the vaults of long-gone movie distributors in search of exploitation films no one has seen since the first generation of mom-and-pop video stores liquidated their worn VHS stock.

Synapse Films has found a niche selling DVD compilations of exploitation movie trailers. To date, there are three volumes of "42nd Street Forever." The first two cover a cross-section of trash cinema, while the third, adults-only disc focuses exclusively on movies with lots of heavy breathing, if you know what I mean.

Books like Jacques Boyreau's "Trash: The Graphic Genius of Xploitation Movie Posters" celebrate the lurid, pop-art posters that once lured people into theaters showing "Blood Feast" and "The Centerfold Girls."

But not everyone is celebrating.'s Grady Hendrix writes, "The affection people have today for exploitation movies is misplaced, because these movies stink."

There's no accounting for taste, but I'll take "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" over "Titanic." And who can deny that a truly bad movie is more entertaining than a merely mediocre one?

Hendrix makes one point that is almost true: "Exploitation movies are as dead as disco today because every movie is an exploitation movie."

Yes, recently we've seen a revival of exploitation, including "Hostel" and Rob Zombie's "House of 1,000 Corpses" and "The Devil's Rejects." But these gory, mainstream throwbacks are tame compared to, say, "Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS." Even low-rent, direct-to-DVD films don't go there.

Modern filmmakers can get away with only so much. If it's Nazisploitation you want, you'll have to settle for Zombie's fake trailer for the nonexistent movie "Werewolf Women of the SS," sandwiched between the two features of "Grindhouse."

The most extreme '70s exploitation films are morally challenging. They make audiences complicit in the onscreen acts. A viewer who walks out of "I Spit on Your Grave" unshaken has missed the point.

At the other end of the spectrum, exploitation movies, however bad, are just plain fun. And they're fun in ways their modern, direct-to-DVD descendents are not. Maybe it's because they were shot on film rather than on videotape, and maybe it's because their actresses didn't have silicone enhancement. But there is an authenticity to '70s exploitation that '00s exploitation can't match.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Culture Shock 04.05.07: You know, I learned something today

Books with titles like "Monty Python and Philosophy" and "The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy" fill bookstore shelves.

For some academics, it's symbolic of a commercial culture that trivializes important subjects. But for others, it reflects how popular culture translates big ideas into a language the average person — who has never so much as cracked open a copy of Aristotle or Wittgenstein — can understand.

You can find pop-philosophy books dealing with everything from "Star Trek," "Harry Potter" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to "The Simpsons," "The Sopranos" and the films of Woody Allen.

Chicago-based Open Court Publishing dominates the market with its Popular Culture and Philosophy series. Open Court is a mainstream philosophy publisher. The company's editorial director, David Ramsay Steele, is author of the heady tome "From Marx to Mises: Post-Capitalist Society and the Challenge of Economic Calculation." (I've read it, and it's serious stuff.)

But as the company's chief executive officer told a Forbes Small Business reporter in 2004, Open Court stumbled onto a financial bonanza in 2001 with its first pop-culture volume, "Seinfeld and Philosophy." It sold 7,000 copies its first year, which doesn't sound like much but is a respectable figure for a philosophy book.

Success breeds imitation, which is why there are two books titled "South Park and Philosophy," one from Open Court and one subtitled "You Know, I Learned Something Today" from Blackwell Publishing, which has its own philosophy/pop-culture imprint.

No pop-culture subject is immune from serious philosophical scrutiny. Superhero tales are, for the most part, morality plays dressed in capes, and "Superheroes and Philosophy" spends a lot of pages examining the ethical and political implications of vigilante justice. The book's best chapter is former Auburn University professor Aeon J. Skoble's essay on the graphic novels "Watchmen" and "The Dark Knight Returns."

Of course, some works of popular culture are explicitly philosophical, like "The Matrix" and its sequels.

The sequels get bogged down in self-importance, but the original manages to touch on several major philosophical controversies without forgetting to entertain. "The Matrix and Philosophy" examines many of them, my favorite being the question of whether living in a virtual-reality simulation is a rational alternative to life in the real world.

That problem has stumped freshmen philosophy students since it appeared in late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick's 1974 book "Anarchy, State and Utopia," arguably the 20th century's most influential work of political philosophy.

Nozick calls his thought experiment "the experience machine." He asks that we imagine ourselves as disembodied brains connected to a machine that can give us any experience we want. As he sketches his argument, he shows that such experiences, however pleasurable, are inferior to life in the real world because there are things like truth that are more important than mere pleasure.

But I know of at least one philosophy professor who, year in and year out, has freshmen classes who overwhelmingly say they'd prefer to spend their entire lives hooked up to Nozick's experience machine. That alone tells me we need philosophy books aimed at a popular audience. Otherwise we'll have a generation of college students who welcome their robot overlords!