Category Archives: pop culture

Orange You Glad: How I Almost Overlooked the Perfection of Orange is the New Black

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Here’s some advice: watch Orange is the New Black. Wait a few weeks. Then read this article. Or, if you prefer a short cut, just read this:

Even on the frustrating days, when a script was due and I was convinced I was a talentless hack, I consoled myself by trusting that it felt important to be telling stories about women who are largely ignored in the mainstream media. In my more assured moments, I knew that we were attempting to give a voice to the miles that fall in between black and white, gay and straight, good and bad. That is: giving a voice to most humans.

-Lauren Morelli, Orange is the New Black staff writer

I never really took the time to deeply consider Orange is the New Black, in the same way no one really takes the time to consider the entire can of Funfetti frosting before swallowing it whole along with the spoon. I was so inexplicably absorbed with the show that, for 13 episodes and 2 days, I forgot I was a feminist, I forgot I was an ally, I forgot I was a screenwriter. I was just a fan.

I think that’s something of note: that a fierce feminist and ersatz media scholar such as myself forgot to notice that the show bucked all the good stuff:  gender scripts, racial lines, heteronormativity, body shame, beauty standards, etc. That the show passed the Bechdel Test with flying colors (of orange).

All I could think was, “!!RIGSJNHJGNH11!!!! WHY IS THIS SHOW SOOOO GOOD?!! ACCENT ADROIT, BITCH!!!!!” If I hadn’t stumbled across the above-mentioned article, I’d still be adding !!! to that train of thought.

The fact that I forgot to overthink this show is entirely a testament to the storytelling. The writers did not create this show as a soapbox, nor these characters as poster children. Shows suck when they try too hard to make statements…see The New Normal, see The Newsroom, see the second season of Girls. Orange is the New Black does decidedly not suck. Instead of trying to make a point about race, or sexuality, or the state of the American penal system, it sets out to do nothing else but tell a human story.

That isn’t to say that Orange is the New Black doesn’t speak to larger themes. Because human stories, by their very nature, speak to race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomics, and all those words that make people want to roll their eyes when dropped in a blog post. But the show doesn’t spoon-feed its audience any particular morals or messages. It just sits them down to tell a story.

That being said, now that I’ve read this article, I would like to attach a few more !!! to my review for some other reasons:

  • !!! for strong, complex female characters
  • !!! for a female-dominated writing staff
  • !!! for the relationship between Poussey and Taystee, between Ms. Claudette and Piper, between EVERYONE AND EVERYONE
  • !!! for Nikki’s hair
  • !!! for Dascha Polanco who is hot as all hell
  • !!! for Sophia Burset, and Laverne Cox as Sophia Bursey
  • !!! for the fact I can’t decide whether I want Piper with Larry or Alex
  • !!! for !!! for !!! for !!!

But really…!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(hey, those sort of looks like jail bars)

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The Hipster Vortex: I love the Irony of Mumford and Sons’ Self-Irony So Unironically

Since its release like…three seconds ago…I have watched the Mumford and Sons’ “Hopeless Wanderer” video about a trazillion times. Or, for those who don’t accept hyperbolic made-up metrics, about as many times as Mumford and Sons wear tweed and knee-high goulashes. Or, for those who don’t like similes: a shit ton. I have watched this video a shit ton.

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It’s not exactly difficult to pinpoint the reasons why this video is so virally contagious. It’s a little more difficult to decide which reason is my favorite, but I have whittled it down to a short-list:

  • 1. Jason Sudeikis’ earring.
  • 2. Ed Helms’ “I’m cold” shiver in the boat.
  • 3. Will Forte’s beard. And the fact that Ed Helms kissed that beard.
  • 4. Not only does this video feature a same-sex kiss, but also that same-sex kiss is somehow not the most talked about part of the video. This is less to the credit of Mumford and Sons– who did admittedly turn to homosexuality for humor– and more to the credit of like, the shifting culture in general. So good for you, culture. Good for you.
  • 5. Tear-licking.
  • 6. The barbershop quarter dance, which I have very promptly memorized and mastered to show-off at dance parties. Don’t worry, my roommate has learned it, too, so I won’t look silly bowing to and skipping by myself.
  • 7. Fist-playing the piano.
  • 8. EVERYTHING. THIS VIDEO’S EVERYTHING.

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I think this self-parody is exactly the right move for Mumford and Sons to make. Before this masterpiece, the band has garnered some serious criticism for popularizing and polishing folk culture for the masses. But this video, by winking at their own hipster-by-number image, re-imagines the group as self-aware in their hypocrisies as a mainstream indie-folk band. Mumford and Sons has become to hipster culture as Ke$ha is to club culture. Lady Gaga to pop idols, and Nicki Minaj too..well…no. I haven’t figured her out yet.

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But the point is, our culture has become so post-modern that successful bands have to market themselves as self-parodies and campy caricatures. Which is weird. Like, if I start to think about this video too long, I get caught up in a vortex of irony: hipsters being ironic about being ironic is like facing a mirror to a mirror, infinitely disorienting but also inexplicably mesmerizing. I just can’t look away.

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And with that face staring back at me, who would want to?

Now For the Story: Arrested Development and the Comeback Cult

In case you’ve been living under a rock—or a Bluth model home in Iraq—the critical and cult darling of the early 2000s, Arrested Development, returns to its loyal fans this Sunday on Netflix. You would think that seven-years of separation would have subdued the fanaticism surrounding the series, but the years away from Fox and broadcast television have actually sired a rabid fan base through DVD sales, Netflix, and other online streaming sources. Like Van Gogh, Kafka, and I guess George Sr. that time he faked his death and watched his own funeral from the attic,* Arrested Development  has earned posthumous fame and fandom. In the years following its cancellation, Arrested Development has gestated its cult status, a status that will reach its apotheosis tomorrow.

Even for those who don’t enjoy scholarly pursuits, Arrested Development is easily–if not somewhat vaguely and esoterically–identified as a “cult classic.” Entertainment Weekly, for instance, ranked Hurwitz’s series 3rd in its list of 26 Best Cult TV Shows Ever. In its explanation, EW stresses the metatexuality, in-jokes, and heightened absurdism as its cult characteristics:

WHY IT’S CULT The critically acclaimed comedy jacked up the bar on what to expect from a network show: fast, delirious, interlocking jokes that don’t pander to the masses; winky gags (e.g., fake preview scenes for the following week’s episode); and a cast of absurd characters, including a mama’s boy named Buster (Tony Hale) who has a hook for a hand because a seal in a bow tie bit it off.”

But is that what it means to be cult? Witty lines and winking-eye alcohol suggestions? Where does that leave the unironic but undeniably cult Casablancas, or the straight sci-fi Star Wars?  This definition rules them out, while media scholars and semioticians have repeatedly referenced both as paradigms for the cult construct. What gives, cult? What gives?

According to Sara Gwenillian-Jones and Roberta E. Pearson–popculture specialists and two chicks who were clearly born at a Renaissance fair– cult texts can be assessed in the following three fields:

  1. textual characteristics (archetypal appeal, completely furnished world, meta-textuality, etc.)
  2. reception (audience participation, fans quoting and quizzing)
  3. mechanisms (nontheatrical distribution, independent film, and television exhibition)

The reason EW’s analysis of Arrested Development is problematic is because it only focused on the first field, textual characteristics. I mean, duh, Arrested Development was written as a cult text. Umberto Eco (really, the parents of media scholars must own one trippy babyname book) speaks of cult texts as “a museum, so to speak” saturated with references, narrative clichés, and genre expectations. It’s not exactly straining to find such things in Arrested Development. The show’s very structure–right down to the Ron Howard narration and mockumentary aesthetic- plays with genre convention and narrative structure. The show boasts both intratextual references (hop-ons, hands, Lucilles and loose seals, etc.) and intertextual references (Barry Zuckerkorn doing the Fonz, Rita’s post-surgery picture , and perhaps most obscurely Buster’s Mr. Roboto dance). Furthermore, Hurwitz made a conscious effort to build a continuous, completely furnished world–although the Bluth world is ironically, but intentionally, shoddily furnished as a nod to the limitation of TV sets and bogus model homes. In fact, the model homes’ less-than-model workmanship is another example of an intratextual reference, as well as an effort to establish continuity in the world through running visual gags–from Cloudmir Vodka ads to Tobias’ blue handprints wallpapering the mise-en-scène…sometimes both!

The density and, god help me, texture of Arrested Development‘s textual characteristics initiates the second cult characteristic–reception. Good ol’ Mr. Eco says that a cult text  “must provide a completely furnished world so that fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world, a world about which one can make up quizzes and play trivia games so that the adepts of the sect recognize through each other a shared experience.” Oh, you mean quizzes like…this? Trivia like this? Or this? “The performance of the audience becomes a sort of supertext with its own rules and constraints,” Phillipe La Guern explains, “implying a complete apprentice through its assumption of previous knowledge of the film and its dialogue.” In other words, it is literally the personal mission of every single person on the internet to prove that they are Mr. Manager of Banana Stand, President of the Bluth Company, Coverstory of the proverbial Poof.

The third cult characteristic of Arrested Development, mechanisms, is pretty boring to analyze…that is, until you consider its 2013 revival. Save a few webseries such as Dr. Horrible, Clark and Michael, and Childrens Hospital–the internet isn’t generally the mechanism for initial release of cults; it is the mechanism for tetriatary texts like fanfic, memes, and gifs as well as the mechanism for post-release binge watching and audience participation. The choice for Arrested Development to return not as a film–the most mainstream medium–but as a straight-to-Netflix webseries represents the choice to fully embrace its countercultural, and thus, cult status. With its online, simultaneous, virtually-free release,  the new season caters to its cult following entirely. It promotes obsessive consumption, repeat viewings, and Easter Egg hunts. Most of us have committed ourselves to a Memorial Day under house arrest, playing the AD Drinking Game, while restaurants and cooking blogs prepare eight-course meals featuring Mayoneggs, Hot Ham Water, and $10 bananas. Goodwill employees everywhere scratch their heads at the inexplicable spike in denim cut-off sales.

The marketing and pre-release hype mirrors the embrace of cult status, as Netflix, the AD cast, and virtually the entire internet cultivates the supertext performance of the audience. Promotion has been anchored in interactivity: insert Tobias into any movie, record your own #chickendance, hunt for hidden easter eggs on a secret Netflix page. Wait for hours in line for the pop-up, peel-down Bluth Banana Stand, run by Jason Bateman and Will Arnett themselves. (Mr. Bananagrabber didn’t make an appearance…I don’t think they had animation rights.)  The show has snuck up everywhere, as ubiquitous as Gene Parmesan. And sometimes as ineffective as Gene, too. In catering to the cult fandom, Arrested Development may have jeopardized the exclusivity and countercultural element definitive of cult. Some people are starting to backlash against the over-saturation online, and one writer declares the series “the internet’s longest meme”–destined for the same fate as the once-popular, now-insufferable Harlem Shake or Call Me, Maybe.

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Now, I have the utmost faith in Mitch Hurwitz’s writing and wit. But there’s a fine line between referencing and recycling, and a lot of the new season previews have unfortunately skewed towards the latter. Juice boxes, stair cars, and kissing cousins fall flat, the return of the bees/beads joke didn’t add anything new besides an actual swarm of bees. Any fanfic writer can quote a few catchphrases, rerun a few running gags, and win a few laughs…but I didn’t wait seven years to watch a filmed fanfic.

The question is how seven-years of cultivating cult status has influenced the creative process. As I’ve mentioned, the textual characteristics of Arrested Development have always been cultist…therefore, the textual characteristics shouldn’t change by a heightened cognition of the show’s cultism. But the shifts in  Gwenillian-Jones and Pearson’s other two characteristics–reception and mechanisms–might change the show. With increased audience interaction and participation, will the new season cater too much to the fans, compromising the integrity of the show? Enshrouded in an online and social media blitz, has Arrested Development become too hyped to meet expectations, or too mainstream to retain its edge? Or–and this is what I am hoping for–has the heightened self-awareness of its own cult power unlocked another layer of metahumor that will make this season the best one yet?

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*But, let’s be honest, George Sr. was sort of already famous, what with the Cornballer, Boyfights, Caged Wisdom, and that whole bromance with Sadam.

The Great Gatsby: The Movie in a Pink Suit

Today’s timehop–an app that unearths social media posts of yesteryear–featured a slew of facebook posts that read the following: “GATSBY GATSBY GATSBY GATSBY!” “GATSBY” “#GATSBY” “WTF WHY IS GLORIA ESTEFAN TRENDING BEFORE GATSBY?!” Apparently, the first preview of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby was released a year ago, and apparently my opinion on the film was predetermined from the very start. Capitol letters, hyperbole, and blind obsession. Thus, I feel it is my ethical obligation to begin any review of the film with this disclaimer: I am obsessed with The Great Gatsby, and I decided long ago to champion the 2013 film as the ideal adaptation. And while I believe 4 years of film school and 23 years of critical thought have trained me to be an unbiased judge of the arts, I know that Gatsby is different.

Although the film was flawed, I am willing to forgive everything because I am inclined to forgive beautiful things. Unfortunately, other people are inclined to dismiss beautiful things and I have read some reviews that present The Great Gatsby as over-stylized and underdeveloped—a 3D diorama designed by a pontific prep student who didn’t bother to read the book before sacrificing $180 billion worth of glitter to depict the whole hollowness and futility of wealth trope. Okay, so it’s a little ironic, but like, A for effort, right?

But I think these reviews are a little ironic, too. “There’s too much glitz and glam, not enough substance!” they cry. “The baroque dressings distract from the depth of characterizations,” they lament, “It was tasteless, misguided …”

Yeah, okay. But you know what else is misguided? Just about everything Jay Gatsby ever did.
At its most basic, The Great Gatsby is a story about a man who is too much … too much money, too much spectacle, too much hope. “You expect too much!” Daisy cries, identifying his fatal flaw before she ultimately chooses Tom over our hero. To me, the fact that the film reviews reflect the exact same failings is the biggest accomplishment. This film is an Oxford man in a pink suit. Books with the pages uncut. It almost passes as the real thing, and in doing so, it passes as Gatsby.It is not only an adaptation, but an avataration.

To sprinkle in some psuedo-semiotics,  the sign–the film itself–is determined and designed by the designatum–the meaning the film. Baz cleverly designed The Great Gatsby so that its critics become yet another member of the rotten crowd, dismissing Gatsby as too much, too, too much. They probably wouldn’t come to his funeral either, while there are a select few owl-eyed men who acknowledge the farce with awe and admiration. I’d like to think of myself as one of the owl-eyed men.

I’ll admit, this theory of mine doesn’t excuse the horrible narrative frame. I just look the other way on that one, sort of like the epilogue of Deathly Hallows never happened, and Community got cancelled after season 3. As screenwriters, we all need to stop using the whole “the film you are watching is actually a story the writer protagonist wrote” construct. It never works. It’s always clunky and awful. Let’s stop. Please.

… She says, knowing full well that two of her two scripts use this exact frame. WHATEVER, GUYS.

Regardless of the missteps, however, this is easily the best Gatsby adaptation out there, and probably one of the best—or at least most interesting—classic lit adaptions in a while. This is how I see it: Baz Luhrman is new money and Fitzgerald is old, just as film is the new medium and the great American novels the old. Not to say one is better than the other— this is America, money is money, and I’ll take it anyway I can get!

What I loved about Gatsby is that Baz Luhrmann managed to adopt Fitzgerald’s literary metaphors and adapt them into visual motifs, while also encouraging brave choices from the actors that reawakened the story. Seriously, the acting inspired new interpretations of a text I thought I had all but figured out. Carey Mulligan’s beautiful shirt moment was staggering, and her generous portrayal of Daisy Buchanan may just vindicate my years at her defense.

And Leo introduced a Jay Gatsby tailor-made for a psychiatric study on the God Complex. Jay was cray-cray in this movie! This film teased out nuances of delusion and madness that Sophmore English had to cut in order to package him into a nice, neat paradigm for the American hero. Comparing Robert Redford’s Gatsby to Dicaprio’s is like comparing Cliff Notes to the actual novel. A cardboard cutout to flesh, bones, and monogrammed cufflinks.

I will agree with the critique that Nick wasn’t very strong a presence in the film, and I am upset his sexual ambiguity was sanitized. In an era where the bromance has become its own genre, it doesn’t make much sense to cut out the homoeroticism of their friendship, or the classic cigarette search scene at the close of the penultimate chapter. And what a tease to include the photographer, but have Nick pass out not in his bed, but on his own wicker bench. Cop out, Baz. You dishonor the memory of your cross-dressing Mercutio.