Monthly Archives: February 2012

All Movies are Time Travel Movies

Hugo, taking time travel literally

So it turns out that Einstein was right: “The faster-than-light neutrino results, announced last September by the OPERA collaboration in Italy, was due to a mistake after all. A bad connection between a GPS unit and a computer may be to blame” (see story).

 This means two things: check your cables, people.

And that time travel is impossible.

But don’t tell that to the movies, which never seem to tire of time travel. One of the best and most interesting time travel movies, Midnight in Paris, just won Woody Allen an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  I’m not sure people think of it as a time travel movie, exactly, because it defies the basic conventions of the genre. The trailer doesn’t even allude to the main plot point, making it seem like a standard rom-com:

In keeping, the film resolutely does not attempt to explain how or why writer Gil, played by Owen Wilson playing Woody Allen, winds up in the 1920s, meeting his literary and artistic  idols like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Dali, and others.  No flux capacitor-equipped DeLorean.  No Klingon Bird-of-Prey that slingshots around the Sun.  No Time Displacement Sphere.  No black hole . No Time-turner.  No damn time machine at all. (Thanks for keeping track, Metacritic.)

Gil does not fret that his actions will have any ripple or butterfly effects.  He does not accidently kill his father, or flirt with his mother, or prevent his parents from marrying.  He does not have to protect the woman who will give birth to the hero who battles against the robots except he winds up being that hero’s father.  (So many Oedipal motifs!) No saving a hippogriff, or releasing zoo animals.  Especially no goddamn whales.  It’s something like magic, although only the trailer is stupid enough to use that word.  It’s a fairly light, conflict-free film, especially given Allen’s recent foray into murder thrillers and never-ending absorption with death. Through the journey into the past, Gil understands something important about himself, his fiancé, and his writing: his loves, and his life.  And it’s really a straightforward wish fulfillment, pure fantasy, for anyone nostalgic for a time they themselves have never known, anyone who imagines that there’s a golden age that they were born too late for.  As Gil discovers at the end [spoiler alert!], no matter where, or when, you go, there’s always an even earlier golden age to romanticize.  

Allen has done time travel before, though, in Sleeper, when Happy Carrot health-food store owner Miles ends up two hundred years in the future, only to discover that everything he thought was good for him is now known to be bad, and vice versa.

Yet food aside, things are not really better in the future, and not exactly worse, either, new technology to the contrary.  But rather, humans, whenever and wherever, are still very much the same.  Almost forty years later—or perhaps three hundred years earlier—Midnight in Paris suggests something similar: people have always been nostalgic, and scared, and hopeful, in the past as well.

Yet our fascination with time travel in movies does not wane.  And that is because all movies are time travel movies.  Bear with me.

Look at the two biggest winners from last night’s Academy Awards, The Artist and Hugo. 

While neither literally features time travel, the time traveler is the viewer.  Hugo, clearly thematically intertwined with Martin Scorsese’s own film preservation efforts, posits the idea that the camera itself is our time machine, capturing moments that we can then revisit each time we re-view—unless the film is lost or destroyed, taking with it our very history and key to the past.  Keys, cameras, locks, and clocks all feature prominently throughout the movie, not to mention an actual Automaton itself, a kind of anthropomorphized metaphorical time machine that connects Hugo to his own past and serves as a plot point to take him to his future. 

The Artist, which I confess I have not yet seen, even seems to go further: while Scorsese remade some of real-life filmmaker/character Georges Méliès work for Hugo, in general the 3D movie has a high tech, self-consciously postmodern style, calling attention to itself though its uses of angles, point of view shots, and extreme close-ups.  Not The Artist (as far as I know), which aspires to take viewers into the cinematic past through imitation as well as setting.

Much like Midnight in Paris, Hugo transports viewers back into 1930s-ish Paris, and then back further, through the recreated movies.  It implores us not to forget our past, even as it dares us to consider both Hugo’s own setting, as well as the turn of the century, when Méliès created his art, to be a cinematic golden age. 

Movies that take place in the past take us back to that past.  The same for movies set in the future.  They are our time machines.  And movies set in their own contemporary time?  Just wait long enough and you’ll discover that they take you back in time as well.  Sleeper looks a lot more like the 1970s than the 2000s, to say nothing of the 2200s.  Any movie + enough time=nostalgia movie. 

On the other hand, if we like Hugo, or Midnight in Paris, or The Artist, it’s hard not to see Scorsese in the end siding with Allen: the golden age is now. 

Good thing, too, because it’s the only time we’ve got.  Until scientists learn to check their cables, at least we have movies. 

And Dippin’ Dots: Ice Cream of the Future.

Time: Back to 60 minutes on this one.


Jesse Kavadlo

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Why Do Americans Care About Downton Abbey?

No goddamn second "W," people


Warning: Contains details from Seasons 1 and 2.  Look for a future post on the whole idea of “spoilers.”

You know a show has had a cultural impact when doing a Google search for the perfectly reasonable term “Downtown” (notice second “w”) prompts Google to say “Showing results for downton abbey instead of downtown.” Huh.  

My first impression of Downton Abbey was that it mashed up Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility with Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, pleasant enough but nothing that special.  It’s the familiar-to-Jane-ites tale of a family of wealthy daughters who risk being dispossessed of house and fortune unless the eldest can marry the new heir to the property, or at least marry rich. Ishiguro, writing centuries later, was also concerned about the butlers who remained anonymous and invisible to earlier readers.  Fair enough.

Two seasons crammed into less-than two months later, it’s still Sense and Sensibility and Staff, but I’m hooked and jonesing for Season 3. 

So: how exactly did a BBC via PBS costume drama quickly became what seems like the most talked-about show in television?

So far, at least a few critics seem drawn to the class question.  As Katie Roiphe says in Slate, “One might wonder why, at the precise moment that we are condemning class divides in this country, so many of us would develop a passion for a show like Downton Abbey; why suddenly lawyers, unemployed artists, stay-at-home moms, and assorted liberals find themselves glued to a drama about an English country estate a hundred a years ago where the entire staff of footmen and ladies’ maids lines up outside to greet a titled guest.”  But Roiphe’s analysis doesn’t take the show’s fictional status into account.  Lots of us—all of us?—are entertained by characters, scenarios, and depictions that are different from, even counter to, who we are in real life.  Do cops watch Law and Order? Did doctors watch ER?  Maybe, but it’s the regular people outside the subcultures who made those shows huge.  If anything, Roiphe gets it exactly wrong: OF COURSE the very people she lists are fascinated by the extravagant wealth portrayed.  KR contrasts viewers’ love the show with America’s current anger at the top 1%, but DowAb is a work of elaborate, intricate fiction, not a documentary on the real or contemporary or boringly wealthy.  

As a work of fiction, DA allows viewers to identify with everyone, not just the fortunate: the Crawleys, certainly, and our wishes that the titled could be as admirable as they often seem, plus of course our fantasies of wealth—even as we get to snicker over the ironed newspaper that begins the series or the dowager countess’s confusion over what a “weekend” is.  We get to be Carson, the butler, so fastidious, so dignified, and in his own way ironically the most powerful person in DA; Matthew, who really is the in-between figure for middle-class Americans to identify with, since he is the only Crawleywho has had to work for a living, and he’s both fascinated with and a little dismayed at first by DA’s opulence; and the rest of the staff, who have to work for everything but, as we begin to see, have dreams of their own.  The British setting adds another layer of distance: the English do not think of class in the same mutable way that Americans do, rightly or wrongly.  And the WWI-era historical time frame (more on that in a minute) cements the remove required for Americans to enjoy the show conflict and hypocrisy free.  It’s British Historical Fiction, and there are no overt heroes or villains (except, perhaps, the war itself, and, later, Carlisle a little), so it’s safe.  It’s better than safe—it’s fun. 

But there’s more to the show than class, so let’s examine the possibilities.

It’s the quality, stupid. That’s certainly the angle from PBS and Masterpiece Theatre (nothing says sophisticated like “-re” instead of “-er” in “theatre,” although sadly, the whole word, it seems, has been dropped).  Before DA even begins, we get the beautiful and talented Laura Linney introducing the show and the opening advertisement sponsorship (this is ad-free public television!), luxurious, sumptuous Viking River Cruises.   (Why does Roiphe think that the audience is primarily “unemployed artists… and assorted liberals,” anyway?  Because Republicans keep trying to defund PBS?)  The costumes, the sets, the details, and clothes are gorgeous, impeccable, and lovingly captured.  OK, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary has taken the show to task for its period-inaccurate idioms like “I am fed up seeing our lot get shafted.” (Interesting—coincidental?—that one of the chief examples of anachronistic slang is also the rare case of class resentment to sneak into the show, spoken by the sneakiest sneak, Thomas.)  But even for me, fretting about a few phrases is the costume drama equivalent of a superhero movie’s continuity error—nerdy nitpicking at best and belligerently  missing the point at worst. 

In any case, if it seems unfair to call the show Eye Candy, than let’s call it what it really is: Eye Caviar.  Expensive, posh, and symbolic of wealth.  But is it any good for you?  

Well, it’s also the acting: Britain’s best, and not a single one of them is wearing a pointy hat and teaching wand waving or foolish incantations in this class.  But even leaving aside the lack of CGI, unlike much of what’s out there, Downton is clearly a show about, by, and for grownups.  There aren’t even any children ON the show, and, like her wedding, I don’t see Sybil’s future baby having much screen time either.   And while I loved seeing Matthew and Carlisle scrap, most of the acting is subtle, expressive, and understated.  The WWI trench scenes only underscored the usual quiet and equanimity—I found myself scrambling for the volume button each time the scene shifted from Manor to battlefield or back.   The overall refinement counts for a lot when so much American film acting is all physical and kinetic.  Maggie Smith’s many zingers would not be nearly as funny without her wry delivery.  She’s the show’s special effect.  

High/low, not just upstairs/downstairs:  But the real beauty of the show is that is seems like it’s supposed to be good for you. British, historical; no elves, no aliens.  But it’s really like those Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s granola bars—you can imagine that they’re healthful all you want, but they’re really fancy candy.  Downton Abbey: looks like homework, feels like a soap opera.  (Original betrothed to Mary [possibly!] returns after surviving the Titanic post-amnesia and burned beyond recognition? OK!)  The Onion, as usual, nails it: Watching Episode of Downton Abbey Counts as Reading a Book

The World War I Era:  For all the corsets and fretting about eldest daughters, we’re over a century from Jane’s World. Writer/creator Julian Fellowes (has there ever been a more British name?) has mentioned that the Downton time period—roughly 1890-1940—is a time of great upheaval, the making of the modern world as we know it.  He’s right.  But World War II is like The Godfather II and Empire Strikes Back—the sequel that surpasses the original in scope.  The lead up, war itself, and post-war era—especially the 1920s—is one of the most historically interesting times, yet, today, it seems under-examined.   Here, we see the end of Victorian England—the class stratification, the entitlement, the empire itself.  But it’s only historical hindsight that makes us so aware.  Like the wealthy passengers on the Titanic who drowned on the opening episode, the Crawley family has no idea that their urgent plight over the heir to Downton is like fretting about the deck chairs when the entire ship is about to go under. 

For Americans, thwarted romance never gets old: In the end, the center of the show is, of course, Matthew and Mary.  So while the set up steals Sense and Sensibility, the conflict, like every other rom-com, pilfers Pride and Prejudice.  The Youtube montage below is one of many fan creations that inadvertently helps explain both why and what makes DowAb special: because unlike many of its poorer Austen-American relatives, it never resorts to awful sentimental terrible musical montage sequences.

But even with the M&M engagement, don’t toss out your hankies or get your hopes up.  Downton has painted itself into a narrative corner.  As everyone knows, fictional courtships may be dreamy, but fictional marriages are a nightmare.  And Mathew and Mary are just in time for the seismic shift in gender attitudes of 1920s, the decade that saw the rise of iconoclastic Brits DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf and Americans like Hemingway and Fitzgerald and the most scathing literary critiques of marriage in history.  The story is supposed to end when the couple marries, or else we’re forced to watch their dissolution and misery.  The Season 2 finale—the snow, the proposal, the kiss, the hope for the future, the resolution of Matthew’s pride and Mary’s prejudice, the security of the Crawleys, should be the end.  It’s where Austen would have known to end it. 

Look for Julian Fellowes to invent reasons to keep his poor puppets apart even longer.  As everyone knows, 100% of marriages end in divorce or death. 

Time: OK, 75 minutes again, not including reading the other articles and links, which I did separate from writing the entry.  If I had more time, I’d have made it shorter.  Sorry.


Jesse Kavadlo

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Women and/or Rock


Last week I wrote about VH1’s Metal Evolution  and was thrilled to see it linked to Banger Film’s social media.  I never actually expected anyone to see what I wrote, so I wasn’t thinking about readers’ reactions.  Yet of all the possible reasons to balk, the one that jumped out was calling the show on its gender imbalance.  Feminism somehow trumps Marx and Freud on the controversy-meter.

First, I stand corrected: there were not three women interviewed in the eleven hours; there were ten. 

And, of course, there’s the inherent numbers problem: how many women of metal are there?  No one would take Ken Burns to task for leaving women out of his documentary on baseball.

But music is, obviously, very different.  The easy solution to the skew would be a Women in Metal (or Hard Rock) episode.  It was the first thing I thought of.  And it would probably be great.  This has been Rolling Stone magazine’s way around their usual disparity. Yet while it solves one problem—balance and equality—it raises another: wouldn’t it be better to include women throughout the year rather than offer the consolation prize of a separate—and, according to the Supreme Court, by necessity, unequal—issue?  There is something about a special issue reserved for women that smacks of tokenism, as though female musicians didn’t make the real cut but want their Participant ribbon. 

But you know what? The truth is, I’m not going to resolve any of this here.  And that’s OK with me. 

Here’s what I’m really interested in, anyway: how gender works in rock, or whether gender in rock even matters at all. 

And one way for me to create the closest thing to a study of something as defiantly unempirical and unscientific as the meaning in music (evolutionary metaphors to the contrary) is to look at covers of songs where one version is performed by a man and the other by a woman.  What difference—other than obvious vocal tone—does it make?

Case #1:

No, Joan Jett didn’t write it or even record it first.  But when you listen to The Arrows plod through it—their own song!—after years of hearing Jett, you wonder why she even thought it would be worth recording at all.  When sung by a guy—or maybe, in fairness, THIS guy—it seems a pretty typical homage to the joys of jailbait, and the references to dimes and jukeboxes sound pathetic, nostalgic, and dated, even in the 1970s.

OK, the video does seem a little goofy today.  (See a smokin’ 1980s live version here; I didn’t want to compare studio to live.) But the gender inversion works wonders. Instead of seeming pathetic, like some dude in his 20s (30s?) hanging out by the record machine hoping to pick up a girl about seventeen, Jett seems tough, in control, and able to breathe life into the phrase “I Love Rock & Roll,” a deathly cliché for The Arrows but totally believable and sincere here—even as the butchy jacket and bangs suggest a singer with a wink and wry ironic sensibility. 

Case #2

I know you didn’t need to click on the link—you can hear the whole song in your head at this point just by reading the title.  OK, not rock, exactly, but certainly rockin’, a song that has become synonymous with post-breakup empowerment for a generation of women lip-synch sobbing into their hairbrushes.

Cake did a brave thing by covering a song that women own.  And unlike The Arrows, their version, way after it became iconic, wears well.  But it’s nothing like the original.  Where Gaynor belts it out, Cake plays it cool, except for the one lyrical update, “stupid lock” becomes “fucking lock.” With that shift, and overall laconic, behind-the-beat delivery, the song seems less about getting over an ex than an angry passive-aggressive possible psycho holding a grudge, the mantra of the jilted stalker who protests too much more than the surviving girlfriend. Its cool façade can’t cover the righteous anger. 

Case #3

The famous, the classic, but not the original.

Elvis was hated and feared for his devastating hip swivels and pelvic thrusts in his day, but funnily enough, his Hound Dog is neutered compared to Big Momma’s.  The gender inversion is just weird when you think about it: when sung by a woman, the song is clearly about a cheating man.  You  hear tha anger, but also the passion.  When sung by a man, however beautifully Elvis emotes and growls, it seems to be about… a hound dog. But, you know, 100,000,000,000 fans can’t be wrong.

Case #4

(YouTube won’t let me link to the video, so here is a live version, despite what I said above)

Bias: Possibly the best song on possibly one of the best albums ever.  I vividly remember the first time hearing this when it was released and thinking, “This is like nothing I ever heard.”  It’s like all the heroin in their bodies somehow seeped into the recording, so that between the delay on the guitar riff, the echoing shriek, the modulating keys, and the bouncing beat, it feels like the best nightmare.  The guitar and vocals are somehow so metal yet so blues that it’s no surprise that the song appealed to…

Etta James. [UPDATE 5/30/12: the linked video has since been removed] Too many variables: gender, but also race and age.  Still, James’s version makes the jungle seem like a funhouse, less frantic than Guns and more inevitable: if you’re lucky, and you live, maybe you can enter my jungle.  The thing that’s dangerous in this version of the song isn’t LA, rock, or drugs.  It’s Etta James.

Case #4a: Girls, Girls, Girls, Motley Crue

When feminists want a case-in-point for rock misogyny, they have one-stop shopping with Crue.  “Break her face or take down her legs” in Live Wire; “Use you up, throw you away” in Piece of Your Action, and this.  I hate to get all feminist theory again after last week, but this is a case study of the male gaze, where women exist only as objects.  But the issue isn’t whether anyone agrees with that point, since it’s obvious. The issue is whether you object.

4b: Take it Off, The Donnas

No, this is not, of course, a cover.  But it’s a great flipside and way to wrap after Girls x3.  Taken together, these songs force the listener to consider: What changes when women play and sing a song that objectifies men, where they’re the rockers and the subjects of the sexual chase? The lyrics certainly invert the Crue:

Need your love 1,2,3
Stop starin’ at my D cup
Don’t waste time, just give it to me
C’mon baby, just feel me up
C’mon, just give it up

Go on and take it off
You gotta shake it off baby, for me.

In many ways, it’s less a tribute to MCrue than it is to Joan Jett, decades later.  Reversing the gaze doesn’t seem demeaning to them, or, really, to men.

And the video, playing on viewers’ latent biases and sexpectations of what women in rock are supposed to look and act like, is worth more than a mountain of Rolling Stone’s Women in Rock issues.

Commenters: Got more examples of songs covered by both men and women? Post and discuss.     

Time: I’d love to keep going, but even rushing and trying to keep it short I’m at 60 minutes.

Jesse Kavadlo

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VH1’s Metal Evolution as Interpreted by Theorists other than Charles Darwin

[Previous blog on VH1 and heavy metal]

VH1 concluded the first season, eleven episodes, of Sam Dunn’s documentary on heavy metal, Metal Evolution.  The thing that impresses me most, even more than the obvious time, money, energy, thought, and love that went into it, is the thesis: Dunn is actually true to the title, reading the history of metal as a gradual process by which the music changed into different forms and subgenres over four decades.  The introduction (excerpted in the clip below) shows Dunn hard at work constructing his diagram of categories and hand-lettered band-name logos, using architect-grade pens, an X-acto knife, pushpins, and string, so that the resultant chart is a meticulous assemblage worthy of a lepidopterist,  cartographer, or serial killer. As he works, the camera flashes to a bust of Charles Darwin, and then later to a bookshelf highlighting The Origin of the Species.  Dunn clearly sees metal as deserving of a hagiographic, Ken Burns-style documentary, even as metal, unlike Burns’s jazz and baseball, is not a simple slice of Americana; like an anthropologist, Dunn traverses the globe, frequenting Britain but also hitting Germany, Denmark, Canada, Brazil, and more, all to catalogue the comprehensive metal diaspora.

[Clip: Ad for Metal Evolution series; about 1 minute in, turns into clip of anti-metal diatribe for some reason. Ah, Youtube]

Yet [channeling Carrie Bradshaw] I couldn’t help but wonder: what if the series went on beyond Darwin? [Smiling for not saying “evolve.”] 

Metal Materialism


I'm a Marxist. A Groucho Marxist.

Dunn uses the image of evolution to suggest change, but it’s clear that it’s not natural selection as much as the unnatural, invisible hand of the marketplace:  the 1960s and early 1970s are presented as a golden age of metal, only to lead to a bloated, decadent phase of arena rock in the late 70s. Which then led to the energized, revitalized New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWoBHM) 🙂  Which led to late 1980s glam excess and languor 😦  Which led to deeper, darker thrash 🙂  Which led to back-to-basics, punk-influenced grunge (:S [confused face]) Which led to Nu Metal (first 🙂, with Korn, then 😦, with Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, with spelling 😦 the whole time).  In each case, it’s not exactly that the music got old as much as the target market did—record companies were always on the lookout to find the next big seller for the next generation, happy to dump last year’s act in favor of a new flavor, only to dump them, ad infinitum.

But it’s not just market fluctuation as much as a deliberate assimilation of subversion.  Hard rock, then metal, then thrash, then grunge, are systematically stripmined of their rebelliousness; the very thing that in one year makes it dangerous in the next makes it a hot commodity.  Venture vulture capitalism not only absorbs the marginal into its mainstream; it profits from packaging and selling rebellion right back to the teens who invented it, until it’s all gone.  Then it moves on to the next form. This is not evolution as much as a business cycle, or, if you’re thinking generously Hegalian, a series of dialectical movements between conservatism and creativity, reformations and counter-reformations.  

Metal Poststructuralism

Don't be so Saussure

But what about the episodes I didn’t mention above, on Shock Metal, Power Metal, and Progressive Metal? They fall outside—or maybe side by side—Dunn’s partially chronological approach, a kind of concurrent evolution, so that each of these three episodes starts over again in the 60s, even as the first eight episodes were working their way closer to the present.  We can think of metal, then, in Roman Jakobson’s terms: syntagmatic—linear, forward moving, evolving, chronological, narrative—as well as paradigmatic—vertical, categorical, thematic, metaphorical.  Seeing metal as moving from roots to early metal to NWoBHM to glam to thrash to grunge to Nu metal is syntagmatic; seeing the previous episodes as representing the traditional narrative of metal with outliers in Shock, Power, and Prog is paradigmatic.   

Alternately, we can see all of heavy metal as a language system—the langue of heavy metal always consisting of loud, distorted guitars, hard-hitting drums, extreme vocals (whether screaming, high-range, guttural, or Cookie Monster), and rebellious attitude; the parole of metal comes from the specific utterances and subgenres.  The reason your grandma (or a nonfan) can’t tell the difference between any of these episodes is because they’re not native speakers of metal—they recognize only the langue but cannot decipher the particulars of the parole.

Metal Patriarchy

I would not even think about putting a funny caption here

Dunn in general is not looking at metal’s faults.  Fair enough. It’s his show.  Yet the glaring fact is that, over eleven hours and interviews with hundreds of musicians, producers, journalists, and academics, I counted only three women: a manager, a professor, and Melissa Auf der Maur, bassist with Hole and other groups. (I may have missed someone, I suppose). 

Maybe it’s just a numbers game—metal bands are mostly male.  But consider one of Dunn’s very un-anthropological forays into complaint: he is very clear about his dislike of glam metal and seems only to include it out of some fanatical completist’s OCD.  And why does he dislike glam?  It seems, in part, because he sees the groups as feminine, wearing makeup and spandex, although, again, Grandma would see most of these groups as effeminate.  Ugly androgyny and makeup a la Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson, who even assume women’s names, is OK, but not stage makeup or names like Rikki Rockett.  And beyond looking like women—or, arguably, caring about their looks at all—what is glam’s other serious violation? It appealed to—GIRLS!  In fact, the one thing that all of Dunn’s defective eras in metal share—including his open disdain of Linkin Park—is that they had a significant number of female fans.  Dunn’s metal shop is a boy’s club.

(Not that glam isn’t also, paradoxically, a low point in lyrical misogyny.  Dunn is not particularly interested in lyrics anyway.  And unlike the other metal genres, glam has at least discovered girls in the first place.) 

Metal Heliocentrism

Revolution Number 9

Dunn seems to see the 60s as the Big Bang of metal creativity.  And the cosmological model may be better than the evolutionary one, as evolution implies not just change but change into a better form.  For Dunn, it’s clear that the subjects of his previous documentaries, Iron Maiden and Rush, represent the sun around which the other bands and genres revolve.  The introduction plays Maiden’s The Trooper, and these two groups still seem absolutely central to Dunn’s metal universe, rather than mere transitional stages in a larger evolutionary process of species improvement. 

Metal Psychoanalysis

Sometimes a circular saw codpiece is just a circular saw codpiece. Oh, wait. No it's not.

If Dunn can use Darwin and I include Marx and Copernicus, it’s only fitting that I end with the other world-changing thinker, Freud.  The introduction also flashes briefly to photos of Dunn’s childhood and his college degrees on the wall.  It’s hard to wonder whether this whole documentary filmmaker gig isn’t a chance to meet the idols of his youth—and, in some oedipal sense, surpass them.  Many of the former stars are now aging, overweight, bald, and way, way past their era of fame.  Dunn is in charge now, calling the shots and asking the questions, controlling—creating—the metal narrative.  And at what must be a height of about 6’5”, Dunn again and again towers over the rock stars.  The star-struck child returns, and this time he is the symbolic adult.   Power metal indeed. 

Forget metal evolution—Dunn has crafted himself as metal’s Intelligent Designer.

Time: Yeah, I’m over an hour on this one. Yeah.


Jesse Kavadlo

UPDATE 2/15/12: Read the follow-up to the part that got people talking: Women and/or Rock.

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Eye-Catching Image, Specific Subtitle: One Man, or A Woman, A Formula, and The Extraordinary Journey to Save the Campus Reads Book

Any disparaging puns are unintentional I SWEAR!

I’m a member for my university’s campus reads program.  Like a lot of schools, for the past five years we’ve selected a book to be given to all incoming first-year students—and plenty of faculty and returning students—to foster academic community.  It’s a very nice idea, and I’m behind the sentiment completely—I, you know, being someone who, I assert, believes in Reading, and Books, and Sharing, and, um, College.  And Reading!  There is just one small problem.

It’s nearly impossible to pick a book.

You’d think with approximately one zillion books in print that it would be a snap.  But to keep the costs down, we need paperback.  To fulfill part of the mission, we need a book with a theme of diversity or social justice.  To keep students interested, and to keep open the possibly of bringing the author to campus, as we did twice, the book should be relatively recent (but not so recent as to be in hardcover only; see stipulation 1), and the author needs to be alive.  (Although bringing a dead author to campus would surely also keep students interested.)  If the book is too long, or too esoteric, or too technical, or too mature, or too advanced, students won’t read it, since it’s not always enforceable homework, per se.  If the content is potentially controversial, parents—and possibly students—will complain.  

Think, then, of cost, diversity, context, length, content, and potential disagreement—to say nothing of actual quality or literary merit—it’s like a Ven diagram with seven circles:

This doubles as my future album cover

The one book that I felt was perfect and championed—the .001% overlap in the Ven Diagram of programmatic strictures— was Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers, a powerfully written and researched nonfiction narrative of one family’s experience in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  But the book’s strength did not come from the ready-made fodder of disaster; it came from what it subtly, increasingly argued to be the intersection between natural and human-made disaster, and the domestic consequences of the War on Terror’s collision of religion and politics.  Of course, some students didn’t like it, and at least one parent complained, but, for me, it was perfect.  And, unfortunately, perhaps unique.

The publishing industry, though, seems to have smelled this niche opening.  (Ew, sorry.) Lots of catalogues, and even whole conferences, have crept up devoted to choosing and fostering the campus read.  So far, so good.  The problem, though, is that based on the known constraints, they all are starting to sound alike.  When a formula works—good looking, non-sparkly vampires in the modern world; what superheroes would be like in real life; peanut butter and jelly; twelve bar blues; schools for wizards—I’m totally there.  But when it doesn’t, the results seem not just predicable, but trite, regardless of the topic or intentions.

And the formula the industry has devised seems cribbed from their initial best sellers.   Before I began coordinating University Seminar (required class for all first-semester students), for years all first year students read Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson.  Yes, yes, lots of people love it.  As it happens, it is one of my least favorite books.  We replaced it with The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them.  Better: it engaged in student voices, involved a school, brought in class and race issues (unlike Albom, who seems insulated and vacuous) and makes death seem dangerous (unlike Albom, whose paunchy prose and insufferable attitude makes his book the braindead version of Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich).  

Two years later, we used Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson. Mortenson’s subsequent scandal aside—this was before it broke—the formula’s seams were already showing and wearing thin: an overwritten account, from the perspective of a white, privileged person, about  wild success, despite the haters, in helping others less fortunate (Morrie is just old, but as the genre drags on, the needy are young and dark), while also learning valuable lessons in humanity and humility that the writer is now virtuously passing onto you, dear readers, for what I think was at least $15,000 a pop in speaking fees, to say nothing of the hundreds (for some schools, thousands) of books pushed.

By now, though, we’re entering the decadent stage of this peculiar genre.  I don’t claim to have read all of the books below, but who can?  No, don’t judge a book by its cover, but what about its cover, title, subtitle, blurb, and, um, content?  All of these were pulled from the same catalogue, and each essentially plays Mad Libs with the titles, worth repeating here, of Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson; The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them; and Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time.

How about these?

Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference

An Unquenchable Thirst:  One Woman’s Extraordinary Journey of Faith, Hope, and Clarity

Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness

A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School

Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother

Gertruda’s Oath: A Child, A Promise, and A Heroic Escape During World War II

Make the Impossible Possible: One Man’s Crusade to Inspire Others to Dream Bigger and Achieve the Extraordinary

Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood

Black Hearts:  One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death

Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian with Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families & Teachers

And the winner for longest title:

The World is Bigger Now: An American Journalist’s Release from Captivity in North Korea . . . A Remarkable Story of Faith, Family, and Forgiveness

Now, let me emphasize: these books may be important.  Some are probably even fine.  Stories of triumph over adversity, of courage, of inspiration, are, for the most part, a good thing. Several books attempt to allow sometimes-silent people an opportunity to tell their story.   

And yet—messages are not enough.  Books are not meaning -filled syringes or lofty content-delivery systems.  If Zeitoun had been called A Mighty Big Wave: A Man, an Extraordinary Voyage, and an Incredible Story of Survival and Reunion—and the writing and message matched—I would not have pushed for it.  In fact, Zeitoun is not a success story or feel-good read at all.  Its language is always lean and clear, never sentimental; its ending, equivocal; part of its message, dark and critical.  In the end, these books above traffic in the sensations and trappings of war, danger, and death, rather than their intellectual, political, or emotional entanglements.   The problem may not be the lack of options of the over-determined Ven diagram.  The problem may be in what we want out of a campus read in the first place. 

For me, the role of a good book is not to make the reader feel good.  It is to make the reader feel at all. And think.  And see the power, and even limitations, of language and story.

Time: 75 minutes (dammit), plus images, which I’ve decided never to count.

AND: Got a suggestion for a campus reads book? I’d love to hear it in Comments.

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