Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

A friend of mine recently told me about how he was helping with a church fundraiser where they were selling second-hand toys. Somebody dropped off a Ouija board, and one of the church ladies freaked out – claiming it was a tool of Satan.

To calm her down, they dumped it in a trash can and that was the end of it.

Here’s my question. Why do people still worry about Ouija boards?

I’m not going to get into the feasibility of an afterlife, ghosts, or contact with the departed. That could be – and has been – the subject of many books. (I recommend “Spook” by Mary Roach. Come to think of it, I recommend anything by Mary Roach.)

I’ve got friends who believe very firmly in the validity of spirit communication and séances. I’ve got other friends who believe just as firmly in the principles of rational skepticism. Call me a vacillating chickenshit, but I’d like to remain friends with both camps.

So let’s just sum up all of the aforementioned topics in two words – it’s debatable.

But the Ouija Board, which Elijah Bond introduced in 1890, was a product of a particular movement calling itself spiritualism that originated in late 19th Century America, peaked in the early 20th Century, and unfathomably still persists in some forms to this day.

I say “unfathomably” because there’s literally no credible historic or scientific debate over the fact that this particular movement was total bullshit. (more…)

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A couple times a year, somebody forwards me the text of this e-mail and it always irritates the living crap out of me. Since I’ve got a blog, I might as well address it.

Ordinarily, I find it particularly annoying when viral e-mails convey some kind of sanctimonious message, wrapped up in a story that’s obviously bullshit. This one, however, annoys me because it happens to be TRUE. This is based on an actual column by Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post that ran in 2007 and won him a Pulitzer Prize.

Let me say upfront that I like Gene Weingarten’s “Below the Beltway” column. He’s a fine writer. I don’t begrudge him his Pulitzer.

I just wish he’d won it for a different story. And I wish people would quit forwarding this condensed version with its ultimate message about how we’re too wrapped up in our petty concerns to appreciate some of the most beautiful music ever composed, as performed by one of the world’s greatest musicians. Because I find that conclusion specious. And, frankly, more than a little condescending.

Here’s the text of the e-mail:

“A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. (more…)

Sometimes it disturbs me when I check out the search terms that lead readers to this blog, because they seem to reflect an intent that’s the polar opposite of what I’m trying to get across.

For example, I wrote a piece about the underlying misogyny in the movie “Revenge of the Nerds.” And some people apparently found that while doing a search involving the terms “cheerleaders” and “topless.”

Actually, that doesn’t bother me too much. I’m not one of these people who believes there’s something inherently misogynistic about porn. If there was, pretty much every guy on the planet could be termed a misogynist. And cynical as I can be about human nature, I’m not yet ready to jump off that precipice. (I imagine the people who stumbled across this blog in a search for topless cheerleaders were pretty annoyed, though. Sorry guys. I could be wrong, but I have an inkling that sort of thing is available elsewhere on the Web.)

I’m more concerned by the fact that one of my most enduringly popular blog posts, in terms of people reading it after finding it via Google searches on related terms, is this one dealing with secret FEMA codes on the back of traffic signs. As you can see, my purpose was to make fun of how batshit loopy that particular conspiracy theory is. I figured the guy who posted that video was the one guy who subscribes to it. Even by conspiracy theory standards, that one’s just too bugf**k insane to have a significant following, right?

But it’s had many hits in the months since I posted it from people apparently seeking more information on this plot to convey information about sinister hidden government bases via secret codes on the backs of road signs.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m not a big believer in conspiracy theories. I’m more of an Occam’s razor guy — absent compelling evidence to the contrary, go with the most basic and obvious explanation.

Yes, conspiracies happen. Yes, they can be widespread and insidious. The reason I generally don’t subscribe to them is because they tend to be based on a presumption of widespread organizational efficiency that’s rare under any circumstances, but especially for government operations. (I used to cover government as a newspaper reporter. Trust me on this one.)

And subscribers to these theories seem to prize them for their comic book theatricality to a point where they’ll pointedly overlook far more likely explanations because, hey, they’re kinda boring.

Prime example. I have a friend who’s very active in his Catholic church. He was convinced that he’d found evidence of a Satanic cult.

Apparently his church hosted a funeral Mass for a young woman who died of a heroin overdose. Her acquaintances — a heavily tattooed and multiply pierced crowd — had been in attendance. Afterward, a number of items such as candle holders had gone missing.

My friend was convinced that the young woman’s friends had stolen them for use in a Black Mass, where they would worship Satan.

My reaction? Yeah. That’s why junkies typically steal shit. To use them as props in Black Masses. Come on. If a bunch of junkies could summon up Satan, they’d probably steal his wallet and go score some smack.

Boy, there sure were a lot of street criminals with Mohawk haircuts back in the ’80s. They were young. Kids, really. And there were DROVES of them out in the city streets, menacing law-abiding citizens. It seemed you couldn’t set foot in an alley without one of them pulling a knife on you.

That was the situation in the comic books, anyway. A lot of movies, too. The streets were packed with violent, youthful predators. And they all had Mohawks.

Which was kind of weird, when you think about it. I mean … yeah, you’d see people around with Mohawks back in the ’80s. But as I recall, they were a lot more likely to be art school students than street criminals. About the most menacing thing they’d do would be to bore you at a party with an annoying rant about what a self-destructive genius Sid Vicious was.

So why all the pop culture street criminals with Mohawks?

My theory? They were stand-ins.

See, the comic books back in the ’80s reflected the fears of their time. No surprise there. They’ve always done that. Around World War II, comic book heroes battled Nazis. In the post-war decades, they took on megalomaniacal villains intent on destroying Western Civilization. Kind of like a bunch of Fidel Castros and Che Guevaras with a more flamboyant fashion sense.

By the ’80s, they were dealing with a rising tide of street violence. In Frank Miller’s classic “Dark Knight Returns,” for example, Batman goes up again street gang that has brought Gotham City to its knees. And yes, its youthful members tend to favor — you guessed it — Mohawks.

This was all happening at a time when crack was starting to break out in the cities, with its resulting violent turf wars. And an ascendent Republican Party under  Ronald Reagan was eminently willing to stoke white, middle-American fears about those scary inner city criminals.

This was a time when pop culture celebrated vigilante violence as just plain awesome. Even necessary. Let the wussy relics of the hippie era snivel about how these kids just needed to be understood. What the inner cities REALLY needed was The Punisher or Batman or Charles Bronson to wade in there and give them a good beatdown.

I guess you see where this is going. The movies and comic books featuring heroes shooting or punching out a bunch of teenage inner city street criminals were obliquely dealing with the crack epidemic, and the era’s paranoia about inner cities.

But they sure as hell couldn’t make those street gangs consist of minority youths. Because then the subtext is right out there, and the whole thing takes on an ugly connotation. Suddenly, Bruce Wayne isn’t just a watchful protector standing between the law-abiding citizens of Gotham City and an onslaught of violence and savagery. You could make the case that he’s a rich white guy who — as a hobby, basically — puts on a costume and beats up poor black kids.

It seems to me that the whole trend of vigilante worship abated somewhat with the Rodney King beating, and the riots that came afterward. As a culture, we got to see a “Dirty Harry”-style fantasy come to life. And it wasn’t awesome. It was ugly as hell.

Lest I sound like too much of a sanctimonious scold here, let me say for the record that I like “The Dark Knight Returns” and the Dirty Harry movies. I don’t believe that type of entertainment caused racism, vigilantism or civil rights violations, any more than “Rebel Without a Cause” or EC Comics caused juvenile delinquency in the 1950s, as some self-appointed guardians of public morality argued at the time.

I believe they reflected some larger trends in society. Trends that still crop up. And it’s important to periodically remind ourselves of the vast gap between pulpy entertainment and reality.

Ah hell. I really didn’t intend to bring up the Trayvon Martin case. I didn’t create this blog to address the big, heavy issues. But I feel that there’s no getting around it at this point.

I’m not going to hash out the details of the case here. And I’m certainly not going to assign guilt or innocence to either Martin or George Zimmerman. I believe in the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.”

Zimmerman is entitled to his day in court, just like anyone else charged with a crime. I also believe attempts to present Martin as a violent thug solely on the basis of his cutting class and smoking pot is bullshit.

Regardless of who’s guilty or innocent in the Martin case, however, one thing’s for sure. The whole thing’s exposed something very hurtful in our society. Something that can’t be glossed over with a car chase, a few explosions and a catch phrase.

Now here’s a Zen question, as profound in its own way as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

Is it possible to intentionally make a grade B exploitation film?

I found myself asking this question after coming across a review on the blog “Stabs in the Dark” concerning a tribute to an ’80s-style slasher film, complete with an accompanying VHS issued for added “authenticity.”

Stabs in the Dark didn’t give the film a very high rating, which doesn’t surprise me. And the reason it doesn’t surprise me largely comes down to the quotation marks I felt obliged to put around the word “authenticity” in the preceding paragraph.

As I guess you’ve inferred from the mere fact that I’m writing an entry on the subject, I’m a fan of the old grade B exploitation films.

Yes, I enjoy laughing at the sheer incompetence of wretched movies such as “Manos: Hands of Fate,” which provided Mystery Science Theater 3000 with fodder all of those years.

But I’m not just talking about ironic goofing on bad movies. This isn’t exactly a strikingly original insight, but there’s plenty of great stuff to be found among the ranks of low-budget horror movies, exploitation flicks and martial arts films from decades past

In his piece “A Hard-On for Horror,” writer Joe R. Lansdale examines what makes for a truly good low-budget exploitationer, such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” In Lansdale’s assessment (and I hope to God I’m interpreting him right), it lies in the unpredictable juxtaposition of genuine artistry and low-budget schlockiness.

If slick Hollywood productions and straight-to-video craptaculars tend to share one trait, it’s their scarcity of surprises. But films that fall somewhere in-between – “Phantasm” and the original “Last House on the Left” come to mind – tend to keep you off-balance. They have an unpredictable, roller coaster quality that makes viewing them a legitimately exhilarating and scary experience.

The bitch is: that’s so hard to do intentionally.

A lot of filmmakers have tried it. It’s easy to find homages to exploitation cinema. The kind of fare made by film students with minuscule budgets and boundless belief in their own cleverness, bearing titles like “Vampire Biker Babes With Chainsaws!” I’ve seen a number of these that turned out to be yawners consisting of little more than a splashy title and lots of “ain’t this zany?” references to exploitation films from past eras.

A few filmmakers have even pulled it off, to some degree. For example, there’s the great “Grindhouse” and two equally great films that it inspired – “Machete” and “Hobo With a Shotgun.”

But much as I enjoyed all three of those movies, they still seemed a little hollow at their core compared to their source material. That’s because their rough-hewn qualities were calculated, rather than incidental. It’s the difference between torn jeans worn on a construction site, and jeans that already had the tear in them when they hung on a rack at a hipster boutique and bore a $200 price tag.

If I was to think of an analogy for the combination of incompetence and skill that comprised the best of genuine grindhouse cinema, I’d evoke a very different type of entertainment.

The early days of television consisted largely of live broadcasts. Occasionally, very talented performers would flub their lines. Sometimes, they’d come up with ingenious improvisations to cover for it. Even when they didn’t, those occasional flubs would give the broadcasts an exhilarating, performing-without-a-net quality that the slicker productions of today – for all they have to offer – simply can’t provide.

Thanks to my buddy Doug for forwarding this to me. This guy explains how local road signs actually include secret codes, which FEMA, NATO, and (Surprise surprise!) the U.N. use to identify the location of detention camps or helicopter landing sites or something. To me, this perfectly encapsulates what a lot of conspiracy theories are about: pattern recognition gone haywire. That’s the great thing about the Internet. You can get the full explanations — which are weirdly fascinating from a purely anthropological standpoint — without having to sit next the twitchy guy dressed all in camouflage fatigues at your local redneck bar, whom all the regulars know to avoid.

OK, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s moon base proposal is the catalyst for this post. But first, I’m going to throw out one important caveat. My purpose here is NOT to judge the proposal, or Mr. Gingrich himself.

The reason I’m so adamant about that is because I work as a newspaper reporter. I cover politics for a living, including the current presidential campaign. While I do have opinions about candidates and their proposals, I make a point of never expressing them publicly.

And as you’ve probably ascertained by now, this blog is just a goofy thing I do to entertain myself. (If you really want to see some of my political analysis, feel free to check out my journalist’s Facebook page here.

So. Newt Gingrich proposes a moon base. And he’s taking a lot of flak about it from both Democrats and Republicans.

The reactions, though often more eloquently expressed, basically come down to: “A moon base? A freakin MOON base? Come on! Do we really need any more evidence that this guy is a couple burritos short of a combination plate?”
I’m not surprised at those reactions. But I do find them interesting, for what they say about where we’ve gone as a society.

See, I’m 45. I’m old enough to remember a time when the idea of an American base on the moon come the 21st century wasn’t considered wacky. In fact, it was generally regarded as pretty much inevitable.

I’m too young to remember the 1969 moon landing. But it was still very much a part of the collective consciousness when I was in kindergarten. The other kids and I would sit in open-mouthed wonder as teachers told us about our own future. How when we were grown-ups, we’d be able to take regular flights to the moon the same as people could then ride airplanes to other cities. (In this alternate future, I wonder if the poor quality of rocketship food would have become a staple for lame standup comedy routines.)

I guess it’s one more example of just how impossible it is for even the most prescient minds to predict the future. For me, a particularly amusing example of this principle can be found in the science fiction movies of decades past — featuring spaceships zipping effortlessly between star systems, equipped with clunky wall-sized computers that include reel-to-reel tape spools.

It’s interesting how the very proposal of a moon base, widely regarded as manifest destiny in my early childhood, has transitioned to “Exhibit A” that a politician doesn’t have his head screwed on right.

That’s mainly because of cost. We just don’t seem to think it’s worth the expense anymore.

Why the change?

There was plenty of practical reasoning behind the space program, of course. Potential military applications, made all the more urgent by the Cold War. Scientific research. The possibility that we might find resources that would be of use to us down here on Earth. And let’s not underestimate the pure, adrenaline-pumping awesomeness of being able to say “We put a man on the moon, baby!”

Still, I assume that a lot of the public enthusiasm for space exploration from previous decades stemmed from a widespread misunderstanding of just what was out there.

I’ve already mentioned science fiction, which (get ready for a big revelation here) is different from science fact. But I truly believe that a science fiction-informed mindset inspired a lot of the early national enthusiasm for space exploration — among the general public, if not among the scientists involved in the space program.

It still amazes me when I read science fiction from the 1960s, featuring unsuited and unhelmeted space explorers having adventures on the earthlike surfaces of Jupiter or Mercury. Hell, the 1960s weren’t THAT long ago! Didn’t people know any better by then?

Similarly, the surrounding cosmos was going to be an exciting, romantic place. It would be chock-full of earthlike planets featuring exotic creatures, dazzling landscapes and hot space babes in silvery bikinis and beehive hairdos.

In truth, outer space turned out to be a lot lonelier than that. There are no earth-like planets within reach. We”ll just have to live without those beehive-hairdooed space babes.

In some ways, I see those dreamy visions of a space-faring civilization as hearkening more to the past than the future. The very arrival of the space age, with the advent of satellites, brought a final end to an activity that had been part of the human experience for millenia — speculating about the mysterious lands beyond the explored edges of the map.

Even in the 1930s and 40s, it seemed entirely plausible that there might be some vast civilization as yet undiscovered out there. A Lost City of Z waiting in the dark reaches of the South American jungle for some intrepid explorer to cross that one final rise and find it. It’s an exciting concept that’s denied us these days. For a while, I think people tried to project that fantasy on a cosmos that ultimately couldn’t accommodate it.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of space exploration. Yeah, it’s a hard sell these days when it comes to the expenditure of public funds (unless you happen to be making a campaign speech in Florida) but I suspect we’ll see the private sector getting more and more involved. And who knows? We might even get that moon base one of these days. I already mentioned how the future has a way of defying the predictions of even the smartest people. (I’d be the first to admit I’m not one of the smartest people.)

For now, though, I’m willing to put the moon base — along with the personalized jetpack and the robot butler — on my list of neato future stuff that I daydreamed about as a kid, but that I don’t expect to get anytime soon.