Super Bowl Car Commercials II: Vader Kid

They'll be no Stopping the Spin Cycle This Time.

It has been declared, almost unanimously it seems, the best commercial of the Super Bowl.  And it’s for a Volkswagen Passat, a decidedly un-luxurious vehicle.  What does this spot tell us about the persistence of traditional narratives of middle class desire?  And moreover, why should we care?  Why do I want to suck the joy out of this adorable commercial by overanalyzing it to death?

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Super Bowl Commercials I: Is it Okay to Start Buying Stuff Again?

Jimmy Stewart won an Oscar for "The Philadelphia Story" -- ""The prettiest sight in this fine pretty world, is the privileged class enjoying its privileges....and you Tracy"

Can the privileged class start enjoying its privileges again already? Here’s the first in a three-part series on the Super Bowl’s auto commercials (including perhaps THE only two popular ads this year). They tell a divided story.

Audi: Release the Hounds (Or, Meet the New Boss: Same as the Old Boss)

Two bathrobed prisoners in a jail for the wealthy break out, to a soundtrack of their delighted fellow inmates’ cheers, and Kenny G. The warden orders “Release the hounds,” and as the prisoners reach the gate, they have a choice: climb into a white Mercedes, or a flashy Audi A8. The older of the pair hops into the Benz–“My father had one of these,” he says, and is driven immediately back to the jail. The younger accelerates to freedom in the Audi, passing under the George Washington Bridge as a voice-over implores us: “Escape the confines of old luxury.” The tagline reads: “Luxury has progressed.” Continue reading

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Dispatches from DC: The Problematic Ambitions of “Donald”


I like McSweeney’s when it’s funny.  And though I have gone back and forth on Dave Eggers, I have been strongly in the “pro” camp (at least when it comes to his work) since Zeitoun, a powerful piece of writing about Katrina that may very well go down as one of the best books about that disaster.

But last night’s reading of the McSweeney’s-backed Donald at 826 DC was not funny.  The evening presented a confusing and often painful caricature of what Eggers’s enterprise morphs into when it boosts authors who “do” politics.  The concept and execution of Donald come off as shrill, opportunistic, and incurious.  All the while, its authors trumpeted the incoherent idea of “serious fiction”–a term that McSweeney’s did not invent, but one that it seems all too ready to mobilize as its reason for existence.  Donald, written by Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott, attempts to turn the tables on Donald Rumsfeld.  Set to hit shelves on the same day as Rummy’s memoir, the book is described as an “allegory,” in which a Rumsfeld-inspired character is kidnapped, rendered, and tortured at the hands of an unnamed regime.  Simply: Donald is the wrong book at the wrong time with the wrong message, and it took me less than an hour to decide that McSweeney’s owes its fan much more than this. Continue reading

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What Does “Persepolis” Help us Understand About #Jan25?

Satrapi's beautiful graphic memoir in its complete form

In a moment when the world’s eyes are fixed on Egypt, what does a book about Iran have to teach us about politics, media, and representation of revolution?

Marjane Satrapi’s celebrated graphic memoir Persepolis tells the story of the author’s childhood and early-adulthood in Iran during the Cultural Revolution and its immediate aftermath.  News outlets have been comparing the historic protests across Egypt to the period between 1978 and 1980 when the Shah was overthrown.  The conversation in news media outlets this week has often centered on whether the Obama Administration is making the same mistakes dealing with Egypt that Carter made during the Iranian crisis.

Yet Satrapi’s book does not exactly provide us with a clear perspective on how to view America’s role in the political and cultural turmoil in Iran.  The book portrays historical events, but that’s not why it is essential reading.  I don’t even know if it’s helpful to compare the Egyptian protests to Iran (and Persepolis did help me get a basic understanding of some of the crucial differences between Arab and Persian contexts). Rather, Satrapi interweaves the personal with the political, giving us a picture of how ordinary life adapts to and works through moments of national and cultural trauma.  Moreover, it conveys this narrative in what is probably the most appropriate form to the task of portraying revolution: graphic narrative. Continue reading

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Brainwashed: “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and Anonymity as a Commodity


Don't stare at his mustache: it'll brainwash you

Nominated for an Academy Award in the category of “Best Documentary,” Exit through the Gift Shop purports to tell the story of Banksy, the well-known British King of Street Art.  We’re told right from the start that this is “A Banksy Film,” but over the course of the film’s manic ninety minutes, it evolves into a biopic of Thierry Guetta.  Guetta’s fortuitous relationship with Space Invader–an early Street Art celebrity–and his relentless obsession with capturing constant  footage of his everyday life make him a kind of videographic mascot for an ever-larger group of artists.  Guetta gains the trust of a circle of international Street Artists, and from the income generated by what appears to be a vintage clothing store in Los Angeles, is able to follow them around and document everything.  After a series of good luck, Guetta (so we are led to believe) develops a friendship with Banksy himself…and the film shifts. Continue reading

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The New New Topographics…..Nostalgia for the Suburban


Arcade Fire disagrees...







So, do we want to move back to the suburbs or not?  Because I’ve been getting mixed signals lately, and I’m trying to think through what might or might not be the opening salvo in a renaissance of suburban longing (if there has already been a full-blown renaissance in suburban longing, please someone fill me in).

Arcade Fire’s 2010 widely acclaimed album The Suburbs pines for an idyllic return to the simplicity of low expectations, wide lawns, and strip malls.  I cannot, for the life of me, figure out if they’re being serious or not.  But I thought it might be interesting to consider the album next to the 1975 photography exhibition “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape,” if only because it takes as its subject the very scenes of 1970’s suburban life that Arcade Fire sings so moonily about (incidentally, a new collection of essays to be published by the U of C Press in February reconsiders the show, so I’m trying to get my shots in here quickly)

The images in “New Topographics” portrayed trailer parks, decrepit factories in the exurbs, blank urban spaces, and parking lots.  Though it would eventually become one of the most influential bodies of landscape photography in history, the show flopped when it first appeared.  The images marked a major departure from previous modes of photography in their simple descriptions of scenes.  They did not seem to overtly judge, and yet there was an undeniable snarkiness to the pictures.  Audiences seemed not to “get it.”  It didn’t help that the Eastman House was featuring the work of university-trained photographers–a maligned crop of academic practitioners that allegedly lacked the natural talent thought to be necessary for authentic picture-making. Continue reading

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The Onslaught of the “Best Books About 9/11”

It’s inevitable.  Come September, we will be awash in a national project of stock-taking–a look back at the previous ten years on the anniversary of the September attacks of 9/11/2001.  It seems useful to think about what will be the value of these collective considerations.  I wonder whether the two camps that formed in the wake of the attacks have softened a bit.  There were those who believed 9/11 changed essentially everything, and those who believed 9/11 changed essentially nothing–is it time that we all agree that neither is the case, but that something happened?   If we can, I think we can move on to helpful questions about what art and literature is doing to help us think about the politics and culture of “The Post-9/11 Moment” as a historically bound phase in American identity.  Deborah Eisenberg’s wonderful collection Twilight of the Superheroes helps us understand what it means to move beyond a nationally post-traumatic stage and move to work 9/11 into something like a collectivized memory (even though you probably won’t see it on Top Ten Books About 9/11 lists that are guaranteed to materialize).

Passivityman's okay Passivityman, we all wept too.

Ten years after “the events of 9/11,” I think two pertinent questions have evolved, both of which help us understand how cultural/national trauma gets absorbed at the level of individuals

What was the post-9/11 moment? What was special about American politics and culture during a period that followed 9/11/2001?  How were particular strategies and tactics mobilized to achieve certain cultural and political objectives?  How did these strategies and tactics wane over time?  Is the post-9/11 moment something that could ever end?

How did the Post-9/11 Moment structure our thinking about the “event” itself? This is related to the possibility of ever being anything other than Post-Traumatic in the wake of the attacks.  The “Post-9/11 Moment” might be thought of as a period that begins with standardized modes of national grief and moves to the recent past, where 9/11 is taken as a kind of given in the American consciousness.  Perhaps the Post-9/11 moment was the period during which this shift took place.  Continue reading

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