I have previously considered the subject of the common intersections of art and commerce in these parts, and two recent BBC art documentaries I’ve recently seen serve to further contextualize that discussion.
In The World’s Most Expensive Paintings, art critic Alastair Sooke (who also produced an illuminating documentary on British war art recently) presents a countdown show of sorts for the ten paintings that have fetched the highest prices at public auctions in the modern history of the art trade. Though the actual subject material of the program does not quite match its extravagant title (many works of art beyond all conceivable financial evaluation are held by public museums, and the undisclosed sums paid in private art sales are speculated to far outpace the publically-divulged auction prices), Sooke’s journey across the globe to reveal what he can about the art that costs its acquisitors so many millions of dollars is nonetheless an engaging odyssey into the secretive world of elite art collection.
The tone mixes wide-eyed aspirational envy of the mega-rich with mild rebukes of their splashy, ostentatious greed (much of the latter is reserved for bronzed billionaire Vegas developer Steve Wynn, who once owned Pablo Picasso’s La Rêve and boorishly put his elbow through the canvas in the process of selling it). Sooke cannot get near too many of the actual buyers of these hugely costly Van Goghs, Rothkos, Picassos, and Francis Bacons, settling mostly for conversations with their auctioneers, art consultants, and acquaintances as well as meetings with less flush collectors and contemporary art enthusiasts. Sooke is affable and knowledgeable when standing before a painting, pointing out its aesthetic valences and secret features. But he never does get terribly close to probing the exact nature of the relationship between art and money, as he promised. If anything, he demonstrates rather conclusively that art needs money. But why does money need art? Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption perhaps provides the only answer required to that question.
A more nuanced and informative exploration of these issues comes from Stephen Smith, whose BBC Four series Sex and Sensibility: The Allure of Art Nouveau delves into the defining visual artistic movement of Europe’s Gilded Age at the turn of the 19th Century. Art Nouveau was characterized by many of the defining features of major counter-cultural movements over years in the post-Enlightenment West. Its proponents in Paris, Brussels, Barcelona, England, and Vienna emphasized sexuality and sensuality in opposition to Late Victorian propriety, natural beauty and dedicated hand-craftsmanship in response to urban and technological expansion and increasing mechanization of production processes, personal expression in the place of the conventions of middle-class taste. It owes a considerable debt to Romanticism, directly inspired the Pre-Raphaelites and Art Deco, and its echoes could be felt in 1960s hippie psychedelia and the organic and artisanal pretension of 2000s indie DIY culture.
And yet Art Nouveau was a product of its own time as well; it defined that time, even, and Smith is clever in his exposition of how it did so. The focus on intricate, hand-crafted beauty in its products made them sought-after household decorative objects at the same time as it inflated prices. The very aesthetic philosophy that sought to set Art Nouveau apart from middle-class consumption therefore made it the preferred target of that consumption. Smith – amusing, self-deprecating, and more immune to Sooke’s species of hyperbole and platitudes – comes back to this part of Art Nouveau’s rich story again and again, dedicating a sizable portion of his episode on the movement’s legacy in Britain to toney London department store Liberty’s exploitation and mass-retailing of the work of artisans in the Arts & Crafts vein of William Morris and others. The store is the Urban Outfitters or Apple of its time, raking in considerable profits selling an image of enlightened consumption as much as a specific type of artistically-fashionable product.
Smith’s narrative benefits from the inherent drama of the lives of the movement’s principal figures. Prominent French designer Émile Gallé took an unpopular contemporary political stance against the persecution of Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus and lost many of his wealthy patrons in the process. Two of the movement’s shining lights in Britain suffered even more greatly: Oscar Wilde was prosecuted and imprisoned for homosexuality, while his friend and sometimes collaborator Aubrey Beardsley, a revolutionary draftsman and artist, died from tuberculosis before he was 30. Even the blazing successes of the Vienna Secession are darkly underscored by the fracturing of its members’ loose partnership over time.
But this latter group’s ostentatious motto “Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit” (“To every age its art. To art its freedom”) is a fitting epigraph to Art Nouveau. In seeking to give art its freedom, the practitioners of Art Nouveau gave their age its art, but it was an art of the age: a mere idealistic glaze of edgy Bohemianism applied to the cynical imperatives of industrialized mass-culture consumerism of the striving middle-class and the wealth-amassing elite. It is in this way that Art Nouveau should be most familiar to a modern world characterized by the prevalence of similarly-pitched subcultures, and to an art world as much in the thrall of exorbitant wealth as ever before.
The Tragically Hip in Bobcaygeon (2012; Directed by Andy Keen)
In the summer of 2011, Canadian rock music legends the Tragically Hip headlined a concert for 20,000+ fans in a farmer’s field outside the small town of Bobcaygeon in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes, north of Peterborough. On one level, it was the sort of large-scale rock festival event that the venerable band has been staging for decades, often in remote rural locations (including, recently, the Arctic Circle) that burnish the salt-of-the-earth bona fides that are the foundation for the band’s resilient popularity.
On a deeper level, though, the Bobcaygeon show was representative of the Tragically Hip’s more profound connections with the Canadian public that has consumed, engaged with, and found meaning in their musical output over the past 25 years. This, at least, is what filmmaker Andy Keen’s hybrid documentary/concert film on the event sets out to explore, showing the band in performance, behind the scenes, and by speaking to the fans attending the show, the locals living near the concert site, and those in the band’s orbit.
Bobcaygeon, as any Canadian who has been in the vicinity of a radio for the past 15 years will know, gave its unusual name to one of the Hip’s most sublime and signature compositions. An acoustic-tinged single from 1998’s Phantom Power album, “Bobcaygeon” is accurately described by one fan interviewed by Keen as “a love story, but also a mystery”. Its surface-level narrative concerns a city policeman from Toronto seeing a woman in Bobcaygeon, a location and a relationship that provide him with a sense of peace and fulfillment away from the contentious tight-packed chaos of the metropolis, an isolated sanctuary where he “saw the constellations / reveal themselves one star at a time”. After a particularly charged riotous evening in Toronto (the key reference is to the Christie Pits riot of 1933, though it is mixed with snapshots from early Hip gigs in the city, too), our cop-narrator thinks of “leaving it behind” for his country utopia. This plotline is about as evident as any provided in the notoriously oblique lyrics of Gord Downie, not least because the song’s music video visualizes it in such a literal manner.
But the buried theme in “Bobcaygeon”, as in so much of the Tragically Hip’s work, is concerned with the animating dichotomy of Canadian identity construction, that of the country vs. the city, the rural vs. the urban. In 2011, as the Hip and their team conceived of and executed the Bobcaygeon show in celebration of some ephemeral, romantic notion of rural living, 81% of the Canadian population resided in urban areas. And yet so much of the traditional sovereign culture of the country – country music in Alberta, Group of Seven paintings of the Canadian Shield, beer ads, hockey culture, widely-recognized Canadian symbols like the beaver, the moose, and the Mounted Police – trade on the wilderness as the essential setting of national identity. Canada clings to its rural frontier self-conception even as its people increasing choose the community of the city.
The Tragically Hip’s music has often acknowledged and negotiated this cleavage between consciousness and reality of Canadian social construction, not merely in terms of population density but also in literature (“Courage”, invoking Hugh MacLennan, the coiner of the vaunted concept of “The Two Solitudes” to describe the gap between Anglophone and Francophone Canadians), language (“Born in the Water” is concerned with Quebec’s protectionist French language legislation), and sports (“Fifty Mission Cap”, embraced as a Leafs Nation anthem, probes the commodification of the superstitions that surround discourse over athletic competition). Furthermore, the band so often discussed as purveyors of Canadian identity have a demonstrated ambivalence to the rough jingoism of their flag-waving devotees, and Downie has often branched out in more international subject matter, setting his evocative lyrics in Vienna, the frigid North Atlantic, and the spooky forests of Russia on occasion.
But The Tragically Hip in Bobcaygeon strips all of that away and presents the Hip as they are and as they have long been: the pre-eminent Canadian musical heroes of the country’s centre-right, rural/suburban white hoser middle class. Keen finds and speaks to a fascinating variety of such fans in the film, and their insights into how the band’s music is received and understood and how the mystical appeal of “Bobcaygeon” is at the centre of the Hip mythos are often revealing and surprising. One couple shares the intimate details of their courtship and how the band’s music underscore their growing fondness; another couple shares a dream vacation to see the Hip in the Caribbean which included repeated encounters with band members; Bobcaygeonian locals tell of how the song has made their hometown instantly recognized across the country; a whole family of fanatical followers show off their collection of Hip-themed tattoos, including a teen girl with an eternal Downie lyrical gem from “Leave” on her ankle: “Change yourself into something you love”.
But the same insightful fan that so succinctly summarized “Bobcaygeon” and keenly diagnoses the Hip as the Canadian Rolling Stones (another group of highly-educated rock musicians who have struck a highly-successful proletarian pose) points to a telling and (for this critically-minded Hip fan) disappointing gap in the Tragically Hip’s artistic discourse. Showing off his shelves of rock n’ roll literature, he bemoans the lack of a definitive compendium on the band, or indeed the absence of much written material on them at all. There is even a literal empty space on his shelf, to be filled by a potential Hip book. The dearth of secondary texts on the Hip’s work has long been a frustrating reality. The best on offer is not a book but a website, the eloquent and intelligent A Museum After Dark maintained in spartan web environs by Stephen Dame (who also makes an appearance in the film). It’s the best source of critical analysis of Hip songs available, and even it throws its hands up at Downie’s inscrutable rock-poetry, choosing to mainly dissect his more specific references.
The Tragically Hip, however else one might choose to (over)think about them, are ultimately a highly professional, directly-focused live rock band. Especially with their ascendancy over Canadian video channels and radio stations faded along with their youth, gigs have become the main deliver method for their product, not that they ever forsook the live setting for other media. Whatever higher pretensions Downie’s lyrics may betray, he and his fellows are a working band above all, and Bobcaygeon settles into a limited concert-film groove in its second half, with full performances of “Grace, Too”, “Ahead By A Century”, “At The Hundredth Meridian” and other classics filmed at the much-discussed show.
Of course, the promised climax comes when the band plays “Bobcaygeon” in Bobcaygeon. But the actual impact is unclear; the constellations never quite reveal themselves, one star at a time. Perhaps it’s because, in this one limited reading of one specific example of the Tragically Hip’s work, Bobcaygeon itself is not essential. It could be any small town anywhere in the country, because it is not more than a symbolic representative of a romantic conception of rural Canadian life that could be filled by any other evocative place name. That the Tragically Hip chose to immortalize Bobcaygeon is neat for the town, but its greater significance is much like that of the band itself: entirely in the hands, brains, and hearts of their fans.
In the midst of the bizarre and incredible story of the escape of Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus, and Michele Knight from 10-year forcible confinement at the hands of the Castro brothers in Cleveland, Ohio, one unlikely player in the saga has grabbed the spotlight. The Castros’ neighbour Charles Ramsey helped Berry and a young girl escape from imprisonment (dropping his Big Mac and kicking in a door to do it) and joined them in calling 911 to summon the police to free the rest of the captives. Hailed as an everyday hero by a media culture that loves to anoint such figures, Ramsey gave a television interview after the event that has already become an internet meme of notable proportions:
Seized upon by the online remix culture almost immediately, Ramsey’s notable catchphrases were macro’ed and his expressive proletarian cadence duly autotuned before you could say, “Hide your kids, hide your wife”. Indeed, Antoine Dodson’s enduring internet meme-fame seems the closest analogue to Ramsey’s, and shares in its shaded outline of doubtful white guilt at the perceived exploitation and mockery of working-class African-American vernacular speech and endemic social problems. There is more than a hint of racial prejudice in the remix reaction to his entertaining interview, certainly; it’s not possible to locate the response entirely in a non-racist context, nor is it prudent to tar all responses with the brush of prejudice.
But there is also a strong underlying note of praise for Ramsey’s “heroism” (a term that Ramsey has waved aside with a modesty born out of circumstances of socio-economic deprivation) that defuses even the most flippant and thoughtless of online racially-tinged jokes. “This man did a fine thing, and he’s hilarious and expressive and breathtakingly honest!” would seem to be a fair summation of the lion’s share of the chatter around his media appearances. His longer and more thoughtful chat with CNN’s Anderson Cooper embedded below displays these qualities away from the madhouse atmosphere of his famous man-on-the-street interview. This is what seems to be grabbing people most about Ramsey, as it does in differing ways in Dodson’s case and in the cases of most of the other viral media clips (which mostly come from the less-filtered quasi-reality of local television news). What’s notable in a media culture of canned responses and cliched euphemisms is how real Ramsey sounds, how authentic he comes across as being.
Or perhaps I should type “real” and “authentic”. I’ve previously considered in this space how these terms have become detached from their prevalent meanings by their use and dissemination as dominant marketing tropes in the discourse of consumer capitalism. From this perspective, it may not really mean anything to say that Charles Ramsey comes across as “authentic”. Even the more precise and less abused adjective “honest” (so often misconstrued as an excuse for the utterance of unfashionable discriminatory opinions, mind you) does not quite serve our purposes, but we have to make do with it nonetheless.
And there is a guileless honesty to Ramsey’s view of the strange events that he finds himself a part of that many appear to find highly refreshing in a popular discourse marked by linguistic obfuscation and diversionary statements. Most noted is his forthright statement at the end of his initial interview about race relations: “I knew something was wrong when a pretty little white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Dead giveaway!” The (white) reporter responds to some inner warning (or to his producer’s voice in his earpiece) and cuts the discussion short at that moment, confirming that this assessment of racial issues, of the inability of fellow humans to see beyond outward prejudices except in moments of great stress and trauma, cuts a little too close to the bone.
But Ramsey’s growing share of televised appearances is full of such quotidian observations, such (perish the diminishing term) homespun folk wisdom. His writerly details about the inoffensive appearance of his deeply disturbed criminal neighbour (that stuff about ribs and salsa music and cleaning his motorcycle) and his own stated haunted feelings about the knowledge of what troubling horrors unfolded right next door to him encapsulate the emotional impact of the story more succinctly and powerfully than any number of expansive journalism-school adjectives could do.
And at the end of his interview below with Cooper, Ramsey holds up his paycheque and states unapologetically how lucky he is to have a job and income in a country where this sort of thing happens to his fellow citizens mere feet from his porch. It may not be as supremely meme-able as any of his more-famous catchphrases from his more emotional initial interview. But this momentary emphasis on America’s fundamental narrative of the tenuousness of economic survival, even in the face of the monstrous violations of the abduction, confinement, and rape case at hand, is a penetrating instance of direct commentary. The memory of Charles Ramsey’s role in this current-affairs crime story will fade, and the internet memes will recede into the rearview mirror. But if not only what he says but how he says it resonates with enough people, the media culture need not be poorer for his being a part of it.
Since Monday afternoon, when two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing 3 people and injuring 183 more, one of America’s great cities and the whole nation and much of the world beyond has been fixated on the unfolding aftermath of what can only be labeled a terrorist attack. As details about the methods of the act and eventually information about the suspects trickled in over the course of the week, it fed not a sense of healing and calm but an edgy mass anxiety tinged with the sting of popular mourning. It certainly could not help that another mid-week large-scale disaster, the deadly explosion of a fertilizer plant near West, Texas, added to the tragic public mood.
This low simmer of unease rolled rapidly into a violent boil of renewed, sustained terror late Thursday night. Late that night and into the early morning hours of Friday, the recently-revealed bombing suspects (and brothers) Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev shot and killed a MIT campus police officer, engaged in a major gun-and-explosives battle with police that left the elder Tamerlan dead, and touched off a tense, overwhelming city-wide manhunt that saw all of Boston locked down and, by 9 pm on Friday, the younger Dzhokhar arrested by the authorities. All of this was reported breathlessly by both traditional television as well as online media, minute-by-minute.
It was fascinating to watch events unfold and reactions unfold with them on real time on social media. The online community was both more timely in disseminating and interpreting the deluge of information on the day of the bombing and of the manhunt than the old media (even cable news, where usual reliable mainstay CNN did not precisely cover itself in glory) and less responsible and certain in this dissemination. Nothing new and exciting emerged about the relative current affairs potential (and pitfalls) of web communities like Twitter or Reddit that we did not basically know before, and if anything was revealed it was how well certain hoary old media giants have adapted to the new formats as opposed to others (the Boston Globe’s Twitter feed was indispensible; their reports were far out ahead of other outlets, and usually proven right in the end).
Beyond the standard analysis of media coverage, however, the events of this past week in the Boston area carried grimmer implications for the American political and social order. The overwhelming force of the ever-growing national-security-complex-enabled police state was out in full force in Boston, as a major U.S. city was completely locked down for the better part of a day due to a single teenager with a gun (who turned out to be grievously injured and sheltering in a boat in someone’s backyard all that time). Coming at the end of a week in which major new gun-control legislation was defeated in Congress, the applicability of the situation to these events was not lost on gun-control advocates.
Nor was the heavy-handed invocation of public safety measures as an excuse to curb constitutional freedoms (of Boston-metropolitan residents as well as of Chechen-descended, Kyrgyzstan-born American citizen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was not read his Miranda rights despite a Department of Justice indication that criminal courts will handle his case) in the name of security lost on civil liberties defenders, of which Glenn Greenwald is the most imperiously vocal. It isn’t simply that constitutional rights or the rule of law are suspended in the face of terrorism (domestic though it may be) and a resulting atmosphere of fear. Nor is it that a vindictive jingoism (the bullheaded “USA” chant erupted in the streets when the living suspect’s capture went public) and xenophobic persecution (a Muslim woman and her child were bullied in public in the city’s suburbs in response to the events) are the most fundamental reactions to any threat in post-War-on-Terror-era America (to say nothing of geographical ignorance; many angry “Real Americans” wanted military action against the Czech Republic once the suspects’ ethnic backgrounds were made public, mistaking the Central European democracy for Central Asian Russian breakaway state Chechnya).
What the Boston Marathon bombings, the hunt for its suspects, and the undercurrent of authoritarianism of the entire exercise has shown is that America has changed deeply in the decade-plus since the 9/11. Or, perhaps, certain darker, more oppressive elements in its national character have simply come out more strongly and inevitably than before. How the justice system and the wider public approaches the denouement of these events will go a long way towards suggesting whether or not the authoritarian impulse is ascendant in American life, or if a civil society can still be reconciled with widespread anxiety over terrorist threats.
Already the most contentious politically-tinged country music song since Toby Keith offered to put a boot in Osama bin Laden’s ass, Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s much-maligned collaboration “Accidental Racist” has been firing the relays of Internet snark and disgust since word of it began to break sometime yesterday. If you’re not familiar, check the embed below (if it doesn’t vanish from YouTube again first) and hear for yourself, if you like.
But I can easily summarize the highly sophisticated lyrics for you. Brad Paisley, Virginia-born country superstar, feels kind of odd and conflicted that the African-American barista who gave him his tall cinnamon dolce latte at Starbucks didn’t take too kindly to his t-shirt displaying the battle flag of the white supremacist splinter state that rebelled against the legitimate American government 150 years ago in order to preserve its wealthiest citizens’ right to own black people as property. The rebel flag is “somehow” “the elephant in the corner of the South” (don’t ask him to explain how, though, he’s missin’ some of that book learnin’). This makes him feel reflective and even mildly apologetic about that whole slavery thing that his ancestors did, but not so much so that he isn’t still proud that they are his ancestors and that they owned slaves and fought and died to keep them. It’s not really his fault anyway, it’s all those dead white supremacists that did it, so why can’t white people and black people just move beyond the past and try to get along? Also, Reconstruction was just a big construction project with a bit of hugging thrown in. He thinks he might have read that somewhere, maybe even in a book.
To support this surely sincere but pretty damned irresponsible string of sentiments, Paisley trots out the compromised husk of a once-fine-flowing MC, LL Cool J, who has not once before evinced the slightest interest in race relations in his considerable musical oeuvre. LL purportedly answers “Mr. White Man” with how “Mr. Black Man” is feeling, mostly worried that white people don’t like his clothes or resent him because William Tecumseh Sherman levelled Georgia in 1864, which he sure didn’t have anything to do with. No, sir, he was just wearing baggy pants in the ghetto. Anyway, LL comes around to saying (or at least implying), your ancestors did buy and sell mine like livestock and gave up the right to do so only after crushing military defeat, and their modern descendants still defend and glorify the war effort while simultaneously disavowing its proximal, massively immoral cause. But I don’t like your hat, so I guess we’re equally guilty.
The always-indispensible Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes Paisley’s explanation of his intentions with the song and then unpacks the precise ways that it is quite non-accidentally racist, so there isn’t much to add on those subjects. But what emerges most clearly, for me, is that the post-Civil War Reconstruction project failed on no count more thoroughly than on that of ideologically restructuring the former Confederate states. There was considerable resistance amongst the remainder of the antebellum social order to increased rights and freedoms for their freed slaves, definitely. The story of the post-Civil War South tends to be told predominantly in terms of the curbing of African-American equality in favour of a re-established plantation hierarchy under the Jim Crow laws and then under segregation. The social malevolence of racial inequality has been gradually and painfully named, legislated, and reduced as far as the American political appetite is willing to allow it to be.
But the sentiments expressed by Paisley in “Accidental Racist” as well as in his defence of it demonstrates that Reconstruction’s failure to address the profound cleavages that resulted from the Civil War did not merely do disservice to blacks in the South, but to whites as well. It took until after the Second World War for the former Confederacy to catch up to much of the rest of the country in terms of economic development and educational output. The inability of white Southerners to face up to and disavow the supremacist ideology of their Confederate forefathers has contributed to a cultural backwardness that was once lampooned by acerbic public voices like H.L. Mencken and is often played off as a Yankee stereotype of the Dixie hayseed. But there is little doubt that the continued contrast between the beliefs and historical opinions of the Southern States and that of the rest of America is related to the Lost Cause perspective being given leeway rather than being forcefully suppressed.
But the astoundingly wrong-headed attempt at reconciliation by Paisley, one of the most prominent names in the vanguard form of neo-Confederate cultural ideology that is country music, puts the glaring, long-delayed need for Deconfederatification into sharp relief. In his mea culpa for the song, Paisley repeats the truism that previous generations committed awful acts and a blameless current generation is “left holding the bag”. The problem with this analogy is that far too often, Paisley and his Stars-and-Bars-wearing confederates peek into that bag, that “burden” of previous generations, and don’t think what’s in there is quite so bad. And, in songs like “Accidental Racist”, once the demonstrative conflicted feelings and half-apologies and platitudinal urgings for tolerance and coexistence are trotted out, they pass that bag on again.
In sad and arresting news for lovers of film and of good, honest, nuanced writing, famed movie critic Roger Ebert has died at the age of 70. Afflicted with a tenacious and ultimately fatal case of cancer in his thyroid and salivary glands, Ebert’s illness transformed his kindly professorial appearance and even prevented him from speaking, but never proscribed his ability to express himself. Indeed, Ebert underwent what we can now unfortunately call a late renaissance as a writer and disseminator of ideas in recent years, embracing the opportunities presented by the Internet to redouble the voice that keenly dissected movies on television and in the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times for decades. His Twitter (now silenced) was an unspoken must-follow, and his website expanded beyond his own reviews to include those of many acolytes (including his last regular television review program co-host, Richard Roeper) as well as essays on politics and other contemporary subjects worthy of his particular commentary. As the cancer that would take his life spread, so did his considered words, his clear-eyed reason, and his legacy.
It’s delusional for me to place my modest critical efforts anywhere near those of the United States of America’s foremost film critic. But I can’t say that I have any doubts that were it not for the influence of Ebert’s reviews in my formative years as a writer, I would not be writing about the movies today, or likely producing criticism of any stripe. If it has not done me much good professionally, then that is my failing and not Ebert’s. In my pre-internet days, I watched Siskel & Ebert and devoured his movie yearbooks, absorbing not only his perspectives on movies (which I often disagreed with) but also the subtle turns of his prose rhetoric.
Roger Ebert did not write the greatest reviews for the greatest movies (although his commentary track for Citizen Kane is a must-listen for appreciators of one of Hollywood’s greatest moments). His opinions on Peter Jackson’s epochal Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, were hopelessly quaint and outdated, and his reviews in general fell in my estimation after he championed the staid and limp first Harry Potter film (“the new Wizard of Oz” or some inert praise to that effect) over the clearly superior Fellowship of the Ring (read Stephanie Zacharek’s take for Salon on the latter for a review shot through with transcendent and erudite awe at greatness). But he could dismantle a poor cinematic effort with velvet gloves and a surgeon’s knife. No wonder that his latter days saw him directing his powers more and more at the fever of Republican madness infecting American political and social life with the same righteous rhetorical scalpel.
More than anything, though, Roger Ebert outlived the public utility of his profession. His stated goal with Siskel & Ebert, with its famously reductive thumbs-up/thumbs-down summary judgements and edited critical discussions, was to bring the often stuffy, smug and ungenerous craft of film criticism to the people. His direct writing on the movies he watched and either loved, loathed, or often found lingering in the liminal space between those poles empowered readers and film fans (present blogging company included) to form and express their own interpretations and opinions on American culture’s foremost entertainment product. His own work spread easily to the internet, and he championed online film writing as a necessary and exciting form even as it rendered the formerly privileged position of the paid traditional media critic almost entirely vestigial. There are some great stories about this sector of his public work at Ain’t It Cool News, a movie fandom site that Ebert spoke glowingly of on many occasions.
Largely due to these efforts of democratizing and decentralizing film criticism, Ebert is likely to be last hugely prominent film critic in pop culture. No longer do filmgoers wait patiently to read what a New York Times critic like Pauline Kael has to say about a movie before judging it for themselves. If they ever did, that is; if anything, film criticism has had to work hard to catch up to the public’s clear-cut assessment of cinematic product, with populist writers like Ebert at the head of that column. Hundreds of critical perspectives of varying degrees of sophistication and positivity can be accessed with a single online search, including those of major media critical voices. The cultural capital of the movie critic has been drained away, ironically thanks to the passion for myriad views on film felt by the man who held more of that capital than anyone else. Writing about movies, as this humble if long-winded blog proves, is no longer merely the province of the privileged. Perhaps Roger Ebert would have appreciated that more than any other part of his legacy.
How, precisely, did I miss the hilarious and weirdly brilliant alternative hip hop single “Thrift Shop” (released last fall and topped the Billboard charts in January) until around about now? Out of touch with certain segments of the culture, I suppose. How ironic it is to have one’s tendency to be situated outside of the cultural cutting edge demonstrated so notably by a song celebrating the act of situating one’s self outside of the cultural cutting edge.
And “Thrift Shop”, by Seattle-based indie-rapper Macklemore and his producer Ryan Lewis (with a chorus vocal assist from Wanz), does celebrate that act, but it does so with such an aggressively loopy sense of the absurdity of resisting mass consumer capitalism that it would be just as easy to argue that it is sending up the act of resistance as glorifying it. Macklemore has spoken about “Thrift Shop” as a parodic refutation of hip hop’s ostentatious displays of wealth. Instead of cruising in Escalades and luxury sedan while wearing expensive designer clothes, his joke is to don tacky second-hand clothing while riding scooters. As far as it goes, it’s a bit of a cheap joke (as was that joke). But the devil is in the details, and those are drawn out to quite hilarious lengths in the song and its accompanied video (embedded below). Batman onesie pyjamas? A broken keyboard? “Damn, that’s a cold-ass honky!” If you squint just a little, it looks uncannily like genius.
As a critique of the ills of consumerism, however, “Thrift Shop” is predicated on little more than bean-counting. What separates the $50 Gucci t-shirts Macklemore mocks from the 50 t-shirts he can get for $1 beyond a pricetag? The components of the consumption of style are not erased, merely substituted. The shopping mania is displaced from expensive items to cheaper ones, and not for the purposes of morally-upright frugality but rather to support even greater consumption. Macklemore and his associates are surrounded by stuff, just as the wealth-obsessed rappers he critiques are, and they seem to intend to purchase a great deal of it. Both the lyrics and the video that visualizes them constitute a litany of consumer goods to be possessed, albeit recycled ones. The argument over the nature of consumption becomes about minimizing cost and repurposing objects, rather than challenging the very terms of the capitalist social contract. The Value Village chic, as “Thrift Shop” expresses it, swaps consumer goods but not the underlying ideology of capitalist consumption.
In this way, “Thrift Shop” and its success exemplifies the oft-elided truth that the core conceit of the alternative culture is little more than cover for the very psychosis of consumption that it claims to be curing. Quite likely, a simple comedic rap tune cannot accomplish even a compromised overturning of any element of the consumer culture. Furthemore, Macklemore’s intention does not reach quite that far in the first place; he is satirizing one particular expression of capitalist excess in popular culture without any larger active designs on ideological insurgency. But in both its subject matter and its own path to prominence (independent release to YouTube sensation to Billboard #1 single), “Thrift Shop” embodies the so-called hipster counterculture’s subservience to more imposing and persistent capitalist imperatives.
As we stumble past the ides of March for one more year, the calendar implies one major thing for sports fans of a certain stripe. The U.S. men’s college basketball championship tournament, popularly known as NCAA March Madness, is set to commence once more. Terms like “Cinderella” and “bracketology” and “Upset City” are being dusted off for another several thousand uses. The hoary old class-tinged dichotomies of power-conference giants versus plucky mid-majors have erected themselves once again (and are especially vehement this year, with once-underdogs Gonzaga receiving a #1 seed as one of the tournament top 4 squads). And on occasion, someone even has the temerity to suggest that the “amateur” college players should perhaps get a cut of the massive television and merchandising profits the NCAA earns with its championship tournament.
But let’s leave aside yearly roster specifics and financial grievances, bracket-filling-in and office-pooling, and get down to brass tacks about what makes March Madness quite possibly the greatest annual sporting event on the planet. The reason the tournament tends to lower nationwide productivity in American workplaces for its first four-day weekend (though perhaps not as much as usually stated) is that it is the most purely, viscerally entertaining showcase spectacle for not only the sport of basketball, but maybe for any American sport. This is not to say that March Madness is the world’s greatest sporting event, or the even the highest-level competition in its given sport (give the NBA Finals that much as least).
No, what makes it special is that, more than any other sporting extravaganza (even more than the Olympics or the World Cup), the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament demands and responds to frenzied crowd cries of “Mach schau, mach schau!” The first weekend, comprising the opening and second rounds of the tournament and eventually reducing 68 competing schools’ teams to only 16, is relentless and overwhelming in its roundball drama, at least by reputation and often in reality too. The games run all day and night with naught but a brief afternoon break for supper and evening news, a cascade of dunks and three-pointers and blocks and dribble penetration that leaves a dedicated watcher dizzy and exhausting.
It’s very tough to be a dedicated watcher in the work-a-day world, but even a brief escape into the realm of buzzer-beating jump shots, court-rushing teammates, and dejected opponents is exhilarating. Much is made of this dense concentration of drama (and avoiding mention of frequent early-round blowouts makes it seem all the greater), of agony and ecstasy and athletic prowess that makes sport an occasionally transcendent but just as often deeply human saga of unpredictable narrative and impressive spectacle.
Never mind that the truly important games don’t even happen until the second and especially third tournament weekend, where the teams are whittled down to the elite programs of future NBA stars, starters, and role players contending for the title. Even if the early games feature basketball of a lower quality (a charge that many NBA hegemons level at all of college ball), the sheer profusion of displays of the game tramples such objections time and again. March Madness features so much basketball that it’s impossible not to come across fine examples of the craft, even in small sample sizes.
March Madness, we can say, contains multitudes. Indeed, it feels as if the tournament’s mostly-irresistible appeal represents and summarizes not only what is great about basketball. It collapses all of sport’s notable characteristics into a focused and unforgiving beast of a competition that captivates just as it embodies all that is questionable about big-time corporate-supported athletic competition. The corporate sponsors and profit-swallowing university bodies rely on free labour, of course; as in college football, the echoes of slavery in a business where white men make millions off of the uncompensated physical effort of young black men are substantial. But they also activate the fundamental tribal allegiances and simmering resentments that animate all sports fandom in a potent way, via scholastic alumni loyalties. Even if one does not have a rooting interest in an alma mater or a rival school, the tournament allows for new favourites to be chosen, as teams that make it further into the competition gain followers gradually, like a snowballing Twitter account.
Whether looked at cynically or with wonderment or with some balanced middle-ground approach, March Madness is clearly an impressive and populist spectacle that encompasses hints of cultural attitudes and practices in a sporting context. But its most miraculous achievement is how little these calculi matter once the ball is tipped and the Madness sets in. However widespread the tournament’s appeal is or isn’t, one thing about it is clear: its Madness is ours, encouraging, reflecting, and complicating our views of it as it spirals into its particular strain of controlled athletic insanity. That’s what makes the tournament great, and keeps us fascinated.
There is little question of how success is generally measured in sports. More than anything else it might be, high-level athletic activity is a business of repetitive accumulation: of goals, points, home runs, touchdowns, awards, championships, stacked on top of one another to make a pile higher than the next. There may be moments of style and wonder along the way, but these are merely the cherries on top of the heaping sundae of amalgamated success. Unlike so many others walks of life, in particular our personal or emotional purviews, the terms of success in professional sports are undeniable and quantifiable. There are clear-cut winners and losers, champions and also-rans, statistical milestones to reach and even firm expectations to be fulfilled (or not). Sporting heroes may sometimes amaze with their acts of physical prowess, but they establish a legacy with accolades and achievements.
But what happens when an athletic star refuses to conform to the expectations of sustained, determined accumulation of success? What if a sports hero of sublime talent decides that following this path laid out for them will not fulfill their hopes and dreams, will not bring them personal or spiritual completeness? Or what if their particular ability is so galactic and outsized that it threatens the ideal of a lengthy athletic career? Do we have room in our considerations of sporting achievement for these kinds of figures, and if we do not, can we make room?
Three of ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentaries focus on stars who raise these questions. All of them are African-American, and all of them took high-profile hiatuses from the game they excelled at smack dab in the middle of their prime, albeit for idiosyncratic reasons. In You Don’t Know Bo, director Michael Bonfiglio examines the briefly blazing phenom Bo Jackson, who was a standout athlete in both the NFL and Major League Baseball before a freak hip injury cut off his astronomical potential. Clips of his exploits (including football runs both bruising and lightning-quick, 500-foot home runs, and ridiculous outfield throws) are interspersed with reminiscences from Jackson himself and those who played with and coached him, as per the standard sports doc M.O.
But where You Don’t Know Bo breaks with the standard assessment of the career of a tremendous talent that is cut short by injury is with its inclusion of the profusion of barely-believable, half-true folk tales that swirl around Jackson. Bonfiglio seems most interested in these stories, enlisting storytellers like Chuck Klosterman and Michael Weinreb to dub Jackson a mythical superhero, a larger-than-life figure whose aura transcended even his not-inconsiderable media and advertising hype.
Anecdotal tall tales pepper the film’s opening, visualized in comic-book drawn animation, lending Jackson’s narrative the contours of heroic folklore: his college baseball coach claims to have seen Jackson leap over a Volkswagen, rumours abound that he once got in trouble for killing either the local minister’s pig or a pack of wild boars by throwing rocks at them, that he could leap a 40-foot ditch or hit a scoreboard with a football. Even his career-shortening injury itself, his incredible momentum while running disconnecting his entire hip bone, fits into this epic framework. The core suggestion of this examination of Bo Jackson’s legend is implicit: championships and scoring records are one thing, but an athlete that astounds us, that seems to be practically super-human, is something special.
Another athlete that astounded sports fans with his feats while also accumulating stats and championships was Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player ever. Like Bo Jackson, Jordan dropped out of the sport he dominated at the peak of his powers. Unlike Jackson, Jordan did it of his own accord. Ron Shelton’s Jordan Rides The Bus documents the Chicago Bulls superstar’s decision, after capturing his third consecutive NBA title and losing his father to a roadside murder, to leave basketball for baseball in 1993. Chasing a dream his deceased father had for his son to play baseball in the big leagues, Jordan was an underwhelming ball player for the Chicago White Sox’s AA club for one season before returning to the Bulls to grab three more championships.
Jordan Rides The Bus raises alternate, conspiratiorial motivations for not only his brief sport switch but also his father’s death (gambling, evidently, which the oft-lionized Jordan had an issue with, apparently). But it seems fairly clear that his stated explanation was genuine. Shelton’s film does a better job laying out the flow of events and the effect that a worldwide superstar’s presence had on a minor-league ball team in Birmingham, Alabama than it does interrogating Jordan’s mindset (the man himself does not appear except in archival footage, but does contribute voice-overs that sound like sports-cliche-ridden motivational speeches). But the simultaneous hubris and naivety of Jordan’s choice to swing a bat instead of dunking a ball is still striking. It must have come from a personal place, because otherwise, how does it make any sense at all?
In the company of practical living gods like Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan, former NFL running back Ricky Williams cannot help but look distinctly human, for all of his obvious athletic gifts. Wonderfully, what Sean Pamphilon and Royce Toni’s Run Ricky Run shows Williams to be is very distinctly human, with all of the oddness and inconsistencies that non-idealized humanity confers. Williams, a Heisman Trophy-winning running back for the University of Texas and flegdling professional star for the Miami Dolphins, retired prematurely like Jordan, but to follow a distinctive and much more ambiguous search for meaning and fulfillment, away from sports altogether.
As well known for his substance-abuse policy violations due to marijuana use as for his on-field exploits, the Williams that emerges from Run Ricky Run is a man misunderstood and misrepresented by cynical sports media conceptions that labeled him “troubled”. Employing intimate and revealing footage shot by Pamphilon during Williams’ hiatus from the game, a picture emerges of an open-minded hippie seeker trapped in the herculean body of a sports star. Williams reads philosophy and new-age spiritual literature, practices yoga, massage, and holistic medicine, has relationships (and children) with multiple women, and gradually opens up about and comes to understand his parents’ divorce as well as his own report of sexual abuse by his father that led to it.
Although all of these films provide compelling alternate possibilities to the previously-explicated terms of sports success, Run Ricky Run is both the most surprising and the most fascinating of the three. The possibility that Ricky Williams’ peculiar narrative presents is that essentially harmless personal eccentricity can have a place alongside the wealth, fame, adulation, and victorious glory that are the expected rewards of professional sports stardom. Success need not entirely trump personality, even if that personality rejects the typical demands of that success.
At the time that this post was published, the Catholic Church had just become, if only briefly, a captainless vessel. The sitting Pope Benedict XVI (the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) had announced on February 11th that he would resign as the head of the Catholic Church effective at the end of the month (call it a holy two-weeks’ notice). As the College of Cardinals assembles for a Conclave to elect one from amongst their august selves to the post of the 266th Vicar of Christ (with the swing vote belonging, in hoary doctrinal tradition, to none other than the Holy Spirit), there have already been numerous considerations, analyses, and accountings of the legacy and meaning of Benedict’s brief papacy, which officially ended today.
Though I can hardly claim to be qualified to assess the pontificate of the outgoing Bishop of Rome in the company of career Vaticanologists (they’re like vulcanologists, only they study celibate old men instead of upswelling magma), there is something of interest in the conclusion of Benedict’s reign at the top of the rapidly ossifying ecclesiastical hierarchy. Ratzinger, upon assumption of the office, was clear about conceiving his time at the wheel of the Popemobile as being a transitional phase after the long and popular papacy of John Paul II. A pinched, detail-oriented German who was the oldest Pope to be elected in 250 years and formerly headed the Vatican’s successor office to the Inquisition, Benedict had neither the inclination nor the evident ability to match his predecessor’s world-spanning celebrity and outreach to the faithful and the unfaithful alike (although he was one of the unseen architects of that opening to the world, ironically enough). That the Church pulled back into itself, focusing on conservative countermeasures to the relative openness of past decades since the Second Vatican Council, was perhaps characteristic of its leader. That this leader spent most of his time wearing the big hat in the throes of the morally-damaging, unresolvable worldwide Catholic priest sex abuse scandal, and who displayed an unwillingness to move the goalposts of justice on the manner very far at all, can be attributed similarly to his rule by inertia.
Indeed, there was something substantially contemporary about the papacy of Benedict XVI, a certain current character dancing above the immovable bedrock of millenia of clerical traditionalism and even the open derision for secular modernity that he often expressed. John Paul II, himself not much more liberal than his successor in many key push-button matters of public Catholic doctrine like ordination of women, same-sex marriage, homosexuality, or birth control, nonetheless projected through his status as the first multimedia Pope the dominant characteristics of the waning decades of the century that his papacy just outlasted. As a dissident figure of an oppressed people who resisted and was a vocal opponent of dictatorial tyranny and lived to bask in the glow of the collapse of such regimes and replacement by a species of globalized, liberalized capitalist prosperity, John Paul II’s papacy was a compressed narrative of the 20th Century. That his shimmering coda of mass adulation (mixed with the begrudging admiration of even his Church’s most vocal critics) was darkly-lined by the spreading sex abuse scandal dovetailed with the tonal mix of anxiety, instability, and inequality of power that has thus far swallowed the 21st Century.
Benedict’s papacy saw a distinct uptick of these darkening feelings, along with a renewed conservative emphasis. Where John Paul II turned his moral-rhetorical megaphone at actual dictators and their oppressive systems (to oft-inflated but undeniably existing effect), Benedict XVI turned his ire, like many a foppish “conservative intellectual”, at the inherently dubious “dictatorship of relativism”. It is never terribly convincing when the acolyte of an institution whose moral and temporal authority is slipping further and further away by the hour blames every ill of the past brace of centuries upon the subjective, self-interested refusal of people around the world to do what he and his fellow Catholic theologians say they should. If our young century has been very much defined by the stubborn firmness of those looking to preserve their prized imbalance of power, wealth, and influence, then the inability of Benedict to keep his institution from backsliding is a rare instance of that act of preservation failing.
And yet Benedict’s Church was defined not only by these anti-modern factors but also by a distinct increase in the corporatization of the Vatican, a consolidation of its activities, messages, and public image into a well-oiled transnational company that should have been expected under the influence of a longtime clerical bureaucrat. But his departing act, his wilful resignation from the Papacy and assumption of the peculiarly academic title of Pope Emeritus, is the most modern and business-world-ish element of his pontificate.
The last Pope to vacate the office while living was Gregory XII in 1415, who abdicated quite against his will so that the Antipope at Avignon could unite the Catholic Church and end the Western Schism (you did not need to know that, but I just really wanted an excuse to write the words “Antipope” and “schism”, as well as link to the contemporaneous but only tangentially related First Defenestration of Prague). No Pope has abdicated entirely willingly since the 13th Century, when Celestine V decided he’d really much rather live in a cave than in the Vatican, thank you very much. But then Benedict XVI did not abdicate, he resigned, like a businessman might.
Though I’m not sure there is as much sinister, hidden intent in this development in papal history as Andrew Sullivan thinks there is (Sully, like many with libertarian leanings, has a tendency to see nefarious institutional collusion almost everywhere), there is something odd and unrevealed about Benedict’s choice to become Ratzinger again. Stated health concerns aside (I have joked that he should have said he wanted to spend more time with his family, har har), perhaps the outgoing Pope preferred influencing the progression of the Church’s glacially-slow evolution from behind the curtain rather than from the dais of St. Peter’s as the Vicar of Christ himself. In a global culture so often dazzled by flashy celebrity (and the Pope, geriatric though the role may inherently be, is as flashy and prominent as religious celebrity gets), the gloved hand that manipulates the tiller is that much more easily overlooked. Ratzinger has seriously influenced the course of the Catholic Church, for good and for ill, for 50+ years. If today marked his retirement, it remains to be seen how retired he will be, even when a new Pope emerges from the Conclave.