Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Billboard Top Ten (May 25, 1985)

Growing up in Nebraska, late May meant the end of the school year. (Here in the Northeast I've still got another month.) I have very clear memories of the end of the school year when I was in third grade, since it had been a crummy year and I was ready to be done with it. One of my third grade teachers was a martinet who made us eat all of our food before we could leave the lunchroom. I also got all As on my spelling tests, but she only gave me Bs for the course on my report card. Summer meant getting out from under her thumb. It was also a time when the big studio production sound of the 1980s was in full flower. Now on with the countdown!

10. Howard Jones, "Things Can Only Get Better"

This is a very Brit-heavy top ten. Jones is one of the great forgotten pop stars of the 80s, scoring a bunch of hits. Unfortunately for him, his sound was so clued into the times that it aged very poorly. This song's chorus still gets me, though. I hear it and I am immediately transformed to hanging out at the public pool in the summer of '85, when the PA played the local hits station all summer long.

9. Power Station, "Some Like It Hot"



Power Station were THE supergroup of the 80s, including members of Duran Duran and Robert Palmer. "Some Like It Hot" takes the big bang sound of the 80s to its furthest limits. Palmer has the salacious sweat to give this number some extra sizzle with the crack rhythm section of Chic's Tony Thompson and Duran's John Taylor behind him. I imagine this song was huge in the clubs in '85.

8. Billy Ocean, "Suddenly"

Another Brit! Billy Ocean had a huge raft of hits in the mid-1980s. This one cuts against type as a syrupy ballad. Usually his songs had a big happy sound ("When The Going Gets Tough" etc.) or a slightly dark, rain slicked streets feel ("Caribbean Queen"). The structure and melody sound straight out of the late 70s, it's a very unlikely 80s hit.

7. Murray Head, "One Night In Bangkok"



That's right, yet another Brit, performing a song from a musical co-written by Bjorn and Benny from ABBA. Nowadays the Orientalism of the lyrics bugs me, but at the time I loved this song. It has a kind of thumping, sleazy beat to it that was unlike most stuff on radio. Back then I had no clue about the musical and its commentary on the Cold War, or what a "massage parlor" was. Flute solo!

6. Madonna, "Crazy For You"

Madonna's image and presentation were revolutionary but her music has always been kinda boring and derivative. This song was hardly innovative, but was a straight up ballad, as opposed to the dancier stuff that she put on the charts. It's also the first single where I really feel like she learned to use her voice well.

5. Sade, "Smooth Operator"

And now back to the Brits! This song has a funky, skanky feel from the 70s, but a sultry sax tailor-made for the 80s. Sade really gives this song the subtle interpretation that it requires. I was getting into Bond movies when this song came out, and I always pictured the "smooth operator" to be a Bond-like character.

4. Harold Faltermeyer, "Axel F"

How much did we love synthesizers in the 80s? So much that a synthesizer instrumental made the top ten, baby. Nine year old me LOVED this song. It was freakin' ubiquitous back then, from wedding dances to the radio to the background of the hold screen for the local cable access TV station.

3. Tears for Fears, "Everybody Wants To Rule The World"

The production is peak 80s but this song still holds up. Tears for Fears were in many ways the absolute tail end of New Wave, and figured out how to blend those sensibilities with the demands of the mid-80s pop world. (And they were, of course, British.) Their lyrics were deeper than the run of the mill top 40 stuff, but the choruses were still catchy.

2. Simple Minds, "Don't You (Forget About Me)"



More Brits, by way of Scotland. Due to its inclusion in The Breakfast Club, this song has become a metonym for the 1980s. It has the exuberance of youth and that teenage feeling of emotional friction. While the production is total 80s, it still holds up because lead singer Jim Kerr puts some real feeling into and the music itself has some of that gusto in it.

1. Wham! "Everything She Wants"



This one kinda scared 9 year old me. This talk of "you're having my baby" confused and frightened me. Did people who weren't married have babies? (I was a very innocent child, which would soon lead to plenty of taunting.) Needless to say, more Brits! This song is very 80s in its tale of personal ruthlessness. Some people want to use you, some people want to be used by you.

Monday, May 21, 2018

A Requiem For The Faculty Office

I have a new piece at Tropics of Meta, which as far as I'm concerned is the little scholarly website that could. Read their stuff, it's pretty fantastic.

My latest article is a response to a piece in the Chronicle about the attempts to replace faculty offices. My piece is both a defense of faculty offices, but also a call for professors to be aware of how their privileges (like offices) will not last unless they take collective action.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Regret

This poster grabbed my imagination back in '84

[Editor's Note: I wrote this as a submission to an online film magazine asking for pieces on reconsidering films we once loved. It didn't get accepted, but I still want to share it with you, dear reader.]

I was born in 1975, meaning that I am of a certain cinematic generation that grew up repeatedly watching certain movies that were taped off of television broadcasts onto VHS. It is hard even to recall now the state of home video in the first two-thirds of the 1980s when VHS copies of movies were priced at about a hundred bucks in 1980s money. In those dark days movie studios figured most of their films were being sold to video stores, so they needed to make sure that they got their due and proper.

Being a kid at this time meant that your parents got ultimate veto power over the films rented from said video stores, and parents were not too keen on renting films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom over and over again, no matter how much the kids liked it. That’s where taping movies off television became a lifesaver. I became an expert at timing the pause button so that I could cut out the commercials while not shaving any time off of the movie. It is a now useless skill that many of my fellow Gen Xers possess.

I would watch the weekly TV listings in the local newspaper like a hawk, always ready to add a new favorite to my collection. I was especially delighted when I got to tape Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which at that time I (now embarrassingly) considered to be better than Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Some context is order. Temple of Doom came out in the summer of 1984, and I never got to see it in the theater. It seemed, like Ghostbusters, to stay at the mall threeplex in my rural Nebraska hometown for the entire summer. I would walk by a poster for it at the mall for weeks, tantalized by my hero Harrison Ford holding a sword and a whip, his shirt unbuttoned to reveal a muscular chest. Perhaps my mom considered it too mature. After all, it is the film (along with Gremlins) credited with bringing on the PG-13 rating.

What made matters worse, when I got back to school in late August, Temple of Doom was the only thing anybody wanted to talk about. My friends talked wide-eyed with wonder about monkey brains, baby snakes, and eyeball soup. The banquet scene was the kind of epic gross-out fest that prepubescent boys find unassailably awesome. But that wasn’t all. I heard that there was a scene where the villain ripped the heart right out of someone’s chest. How could such a thing even be possible? One of my friends had a novelization of the movie (remember those?) and the color photos inside tantalized me like little else. I felt like I had missed one of the greatest events of my lifetime.

Of course, once it came out on VHS, an eternity in those days, all of my high hopes were more than fulfilled. No one had told me about the spiked floor and ceiling almost crushing Indy, or the insane shootout at the nightclub, or the river raft sledding down the Himalayas, or Indy cutting the rope bridge over the gorge with his sword. There was a little kid sidekick to identify with, and the coal car chase, one of the most thrilling things I had ever seen. Taping it off of television meant that I could watch it as many times as I wanted to, and I am still not sure of the number. In those times of langorous, long summer days full of hours waiting to be filled, there was plenty of opportunity to dive into the VHS tapes and dig out Temple of Doom.

Temple of Doom soon got eclipsed by Last Crusade, which I saw in the theater on the last day of school in 1989. It was almost a religious experience, seeing an amazing Indiana Jones film with the entirety of the summer just stretched out and lying there before me. I doubt that I will ever leave a movie theater in greater ecstasy than I did that evening.

My viewings of Temple of Doom began to drop off after that point, but it still had a warm place in my heart. Years and years passed, and sometime in my early 30s, while talking with friends about ranking movies, one of them said that Temple of Doom was obviously the worst Indiana Jones movie. Could that actually be? Evidently a lot of people felt this way. Perhaps spurred by that conversation I sat down and watched the trilogy of Indiana Jones films, and realized that my friend was absolutely right.

It was a shattering experience, the adult equivalent of realizing there is no Santa Claus or that American history is a depressing litany of horror. Between my childhood and my early 30s not only had grown older, I had gone to graduate school in the humanities. There is little else that can turn someone into a hypercritical buzzkill than this life path. Watching Temple of Doom I realized that it was, in the dreaded parlance of grad school, “problematic.”

Lucas and Spielberg modeled the Indiana Jones films off of action serials that were old when they saw them re-run on TV in their youth. Those serials, which often featured sinister “oriental” villains like Fu Manchu, were super-racist. So was Gunga Din, the 1939 action hit featuring the title character played by a white guy in brown greasepaint. That tale, set in India, was supposedly one of the influences on Temple of Doom. Both films featured a bloody Kali cult, portraying Hinduism as a religion promoting ritual murder. For this reason, among others, India’s government did not grant Spielberg permission to film there.

In that context the banquet scene horrified me, but in an entirely different and not fun fashion. The monkey brains, eyeball soup, and baby snakes fit into long-standing tropes portraying Asians as barbaric, twisted, “other.” As someone who would gladly eat his weight in lamb saag and nan, I knew that this scene had nothing to do with actual Indian food. (I had regrettably never had any Indian cuisine in rural Nebraska in the 1980s.)

As in Gunga-Din, the British empire comes off as necessary and essentially benevolent. At the end of the film it is the British imperial troops and their red-coated officers who come in and help save Indy. The educated Indian official who challenges the British army officer at the banquet is ultimately weak and easily dominated by the Kali cult. The implicit support of imperialism is pretty clear, but probably so unquestioned that George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg did not really think much about it.

Beyond celebrating an empire whose policies led millions to die in multiple deadly famines in India, there are things that make watching Temple of Doom difficult that have nothing to do with its politics. There’s also the screeching. Oh the screeching! In this movie Indy has not just one, but two sidekicks, and they love to screech. There’s Short Round, the Shanghai street kid, and Willie Scott, the American nightclub singer.

Jonathan Ke Quan as Short Round must have been auditioning for his role The Goonies, which has got to be the screechiest movie of the 1980s. A lot of his response to dangerous situations is just to yell out really loud. Of course, the viewer almost forgets that when confronted by the constant, hurricane-force caterwauling from Kate Capshaw as Willie Scott. Practically every scene involves her shrieking and screaming, a walking parody of male stereotypes of femininity.

It would be easy to blame Capshaw for this performance, but I won’t. Her character was written in a two-dimensional fashion, and Capshaw is simply playing that character to the hilt. When she yells out “AND I BROKE A NAIL!” after a litany of complaints it’s effectively silly and expresses a thirteen year old boy’s understanding of women’s emotions, but she gives the line a reading with much more conviction and humor than it deserves. For that reason my sister (who also loved this movie and watched it on tape with me) would repeat it with a cackle.

In the writing of Willie Scott and Short Round and in the impossibly over-the-top moments, such as the banquet, Indy and Willie falling through several canvas overhangs in Shangai, and to somehow surviving a fall out of an airplane in an inflatable raft I see signs of Lucas and Spielberg’s problems with comedy. Spielberg had previously tried to turn complete outlandishness into jokes in 1979’s 1941, his first failure. That movie is monumentally unfunny. While Temple of Doom’s jokes have a higher batting average, the worst moments have parallels in that earlier film (which also treats women horribly.)

George Lucas’ funnybone, as we all should be well aware by now, goes in some odd directions when he is left unsupervised. Just witness Howard the Duck or the Star Wars prequels. The droid factory scene in Attack Of The Clones might be the most unwatchable snippet in all of the Star Wars films, and it was inserted late in production as comic relief. It’s less reviled than Jar Jar –himself a horrible attempt at comedy- but probably a bigger offense because at least Jar Jar is memorable in his awfulness.

In Temple of Doom, made when both Spielberg and Lucas were under the stress of divorce, some of their biggest flaws as filmmakers are exposed. A lot of the same things dragging this film down are what made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull so forgettable and put “nuking the fridge” into the cinematic lexicon. No child today is craving to watch that film over and over again, VHS tape or not.

That said, Lucas and Spielberg were still young and inventive in 1984, and despite changing my mind about Temple of Doom, there’s still things I love. The coal car chase is an absolutely thrilling bit of action filmmaking, all amazingly done without the use of CGI. The very beginning, with the lush old Hollywood musical touches as Kate Capshaw sings “Anything Goes” is a wonderful Busby Berkely throwback. The shootout in Club Obi-Wan (groan) is a master class in action film-making. 

And, truth be told, when I watch it I am transformed a little into that kid who once loved Temple of Doom. For me I guess it holds the same place those old adventure serials did for Lucas and Spielberg: a trashy bit of fun wrapped in the gauze of nostalgia. Maybe that was their point all along.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Some Narratives For The Democrats (Free Of Charge)

This is the kind of messaging Democrats need to revive

Hey Democratic Party, this election is absolutely crucial. I am not talking about crucial in terms of power, but crucial in terms of the basic shape and direction of this country. We are ruled by a wannabe despot, and your brand of policy wonk centrism has been an absolute failure. Narratives and stories are what move people politically. You need to come up with some good ones, not awful weak tea like "When They Go Low, We Go High."

I am not necessarily the best wordsmith, but you can surely take these narratives and make them into snappier slogans. The underlying narratives are what matters, anyway. Here's basically the language I would use.

"Democrats Care About Your Health, Republicans Care About Making The Medical Industry Rich"

Obamacare has helped millions of people, but the Republicans want to destroy it. They don't care if you live or die or go bankrupt, they just want to make sure that the big health companies make more money, and that the rich and corporations don't have to pay taxes. Not only will Democrats fight to keep Obamacare, they will push for Medicare for All, which will mean a drastic reduction in your health care costs and money you can use for a better life. It will also give you security, and the ability to easily switch jobs without having to worry about losing health coverage for you and your family.

"Democrats Want to Rebuild Our Crumbling Infrastructure, Republicans Want To Sell The Country Off For Parts And Scrap"

Donald Trump promised money for infrastructure, and that was just a pack of lies. Instead he made sure that he and all his rich friends got a massive tax giveaway from the government. The big corporations are not using that to make more jobs, they are using it to make themselves richer. That is the only policy priority the Republicans have: make the rich richer. Democrats want to build a better country, and building infrastructure will also create jobs.

"Democrats Want To Protect Hard-Working Immigrants, Republicans Want To Hurt Them"

The president has repealed DACA, has rescinded protections for immigrants from many countries, and is now breaking up immigrant families. He has also told his ICE thugs to deport law abiding immigrants, even those married to American citizens and respected in their communities. Democrats want to pass a law to protect DACA, and to offer a path to citizenship for those immigrants who have been contributing to this country.

"Democrats Want To Protect You From The Big Banks, Republicans Want The Banks To Rip You Off"

Obama and the Democrats created the Consumer Protection Agency so that the government could protect bank customers from being exploited and ripped off. The Republicans and Trump administration have decided to destroy it, because they take money from Wall Street and they care more about their banker friends than they do about you. Democrats want to more tightly regulate banking so that you get a fair shake from lenders.

"Democrats Think Every Person Deserves Dignity and Respect, Republicans Don't"

Republicans support all kinds of hateful legislation to limit the rights of LGBT people, and use hatred of them to rile up the religious extremists in their base. Democrats think that all people deserve dignity, and that their gender identity or sexual orientation should never be used to justify any kind of discrimination. Republicans also recently got rid of regulations to stop racial discrimination in car loans. On top of that, the Trump administration has been soft on enforcing civil rights laws. Deep down they do not care about discrimination, especially if that discrimination benefits their rich friends.

"Democrats Want To Lower Gun Violence, Republicans Only Care About Appeasing the NRA"

After recent shootings millions of Americans have taken to the streets to say that enough is enough. They are tired of levels of gun violence several times higher than those in our peer countries. It just does not have to be this way. Despite the outcry for sensible gun control, nothing has happened. Why? Because Republicans are scared of the NRA, and they want their money and the money of the big gun companies. The NRA is an extremist organization that wants guns everywhere, but Republicans slavishly do their bidding. That money means more to them than dead children. Tell them that enough is enough.

"Democrats Want To Hold Donald Trump Responsible, Republicans Support His Thievery and Immorality"

The president promised to drain the swamp, but he is in fact the biggest swamp monster. He has been getting bribes through Michael Cohen by big corporations like ATT. He went from using debt to paying cash for his holdings, right around the time his relationship with Russian oligarchs was established. The president is behaving like an organized crime boss, while the Republicans are his enabling toadies. He is ripping you off and robbing the country blind and working on behalf of a hostile foreign nation and laughing in your face. Democrats will investigate and hold the president responsible and impeach him if need be.

****

Of course, a lot of this is predicated on the Democrats being a truly social democratic party. I highly suggest that they get on that.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Classic Music Videos: Sting, "Fortress Around Your Heart"


Different eras have different color palettes. I read a New Yorker article about this once, and it fascinated me. All of a sudden designers of clothing and consumer products will decide that certain colors are "in." This is what gave us that avacado green and sunflower yellow refrigerators of my early childhood memories.

After the earth tone explosion of the late 70s and early 80s, pastels came back hard, but so did gray. Don't believe me? Just check out the original NES system.


The use of neutral colors, especially gray, saturated so much at the time, from suits to appliances. It even extended to the world of music videos. The dayglo fantasia of 80s MTV coexisted with vids that were much more self-consciously "serious." These tended to be made by artists who were both popular and trying to "say something."  (Just think of the U2 video for "With Or Without You.")

Sting, of course, fit that bill perfectly. It is difficult to remember, but at this time he was one of the top pop stars, not yet an avatar for the lamest middle of the road. And to drive that point home, the video for "Fortress Around Your Heart" starts in color, but when he starts to perform, it goes to black and white. But it is a washed out, gray black and white. During the part in color he is cajoled by an oily guy in a bad suit to perform in front a video camera, perhaps Sting's commentary on MTV. Like all serious 80s artists, he must communicate that he is above the machinery of the music biz. It's a thoroughly gentrified version of punk rock values.

Now I must admit that I still like the song alright. It has a haunting feeling to it and the chorus is super catchy. This is not the joyously stupid 80s of partying while capitalism runs amok. It is a relic of the 80s of fears of nuclear war, of fretting over what is being lost in the Reagan/Thatcher onslaught. As tame as the implicit critique is, the pop music world today still mostly churns out hymns of self-affirmation or materialistic party music. The threat of annihilation persists, but now it is the earth itself we fear, and not nukes, and we all know, deep down, this time the apocalypse will not be averted.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Lana Del Rey, "Brooklyn Baby"


Alex Sayf Cummings, internet buddy and proprietor of Tropics of Meta (where I often write) has made me a Lana Del Rey convert. He had talked so long with such great affection for an artist who I'd never really listened to, or just assumed was the usual vapid pop.

Oh no friends, far from it. Recently I was listening to a playlist I made of moody 90s pop songs, and was kind of shocked about how depressing so much of that era's top 40 music was. For example, Sarah McLachlan's "Adia" almost makes me cry every time I hear it, and it was the kind of mainstream "adult alternative" song you'd hear everywhere from the radio to the dentist to the bank.

So much pop music today seems like it's trying too damn hard to have fun. It's written entirely for fun loving teens, not sad sack depressives of an older vintage. It is perhaps fitting that when I sat down to listen to Lana Del Rey today, I did it while grading, a task that hardly fills my heart with happiness.

I have to admit I was transfixed by her voice, which can be both husky and fragile at the same time. It comes from a bygone world of torch singing, and reminded me of nothing less than Marlene Dietrich and Weimar Germany. This is modern day cabaret singing for a decadent society in decline. Her lyrics seem to revel in the decadence, but she also sounds like she's crying on the inside.

I often use pop music to make me feel OK about feeling bad. And these days I must admit that I am feeling bad all the time. This is not so much in my personal life, but in looking out at the hopeless situation my country is in. I have no faith in the future, and knowing that my children will have to live in that future fills me with an awful dread.

So instead I put on "Brooklyn Baby," a song about a hipster doing what hipsters do best: burying their own dread behind their tastes. This song and its torchy singer are made for these dark times. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Welcome Back To The Multipolar World (Iran and Korea in Perspective)

As I have written before, the Cold War is now finally over. After the fall of the Soviet Union it looked like America was the clear victor, and the USA maintained Cold War institutions to create a new global order. Now it is apparent that the United States also lost the Cold War, just 25 years later. Trump tearing up the Iran nuclear deal today is yet another sign that the Pax Americana is over.

After leaving the Paris Accords and now this, how will any country think the USA is bargaining in good faith with them? This might seem like an odd move, considering the upcoming summit with North Korea, but I think Trump has a bigger goal. Recent news indicates a desire to withdraw troops from Korea. And remember, during the campaign Trump basically called on Japan to nuclearize in order to counteract North Korea. He has shown contradictory desires to use military force and to reduce deployments. As far as I can tell he is against outlays of the military to preserve peace, and in favor of them to commit war.

Most importantly, he simply ignores the wishes of our allies. To Trump, these relationships mean nothing. He is a gangster who thinks that brute force and brute force only in the sole acceptable tool in international politics. This is why he has often praised dictators who wield the kind of absolute power that he wishes he had.

This means that as Pax Americana ends we will back to the multipolar world order from before World War II. That is something no one should be happy about. Even worse, the three poles appear to be the United States, Russia, and China. A tripolar world ends in conflict, because two of the powers will always join to together to beat up on the third one. The EU may emerge as another pole, but its relationship to the US has been irreparably harmed.

Barack Obama spent eight years repairing the damage to Pax Americana done by Dubya and his band of neocons. Trump has already destroyed the hallmarks of that repair, from shredding the Iran deal to poisoning the nascent relationship with Cuba. At this point I don't think we will get another chance. The landscape has been permanently altered.