Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Rainn Wilson turns manboy avenger in “Super”

Ellen Page and Rainn Wilson in "Super"My generation is obsessed with the idea of bringing comic book heroes into the adult world, forever trying to mix childhood power fantasies with adult realism.

GenX moviegoers are themselves a curious mix of light and dark. On one hand, we long to lose ourselves in fantasy, immersing ourselves in films like “Avatar” and “Lord of the Rings.” While on the other, we revel in darkness and depravity, struggling to redeem dark themes and anti-heroes with touches of absurdity and humor.

I’d say Quentin Tarantino is the ultimate GenX filmmaker. “Pulp Fiction” is a perfect mix of light and dark — adult sleaze delivered in a candy coating of pop culture and noir clichés.

Super” is another attempt to mix comic book idealism with real world angst. When Frank D’Arbo’s wife leaves him for a smooth-talking drug dealer, he decides to find a comic book solution to his real world problem.

Inspired by a TV hero named “The Holy Avenger” (played by an awkward, dreamlike Nathan Fillion) Frank decides to sew a costume and become “The Crimson Bolt.”

Anyone who tried this in real life would quickly become The Crimson Stain, but this isn’t a genre tribute like “Kick Ass.” This is a surreal fairy tale about loss and desperation, told through the eyes of an emotionally-shattered beta male.

The film is hard to love because it can never quite decide what kind of film it is. It’s too serious to be funny and too funny to be taken seriously.

“Kick Ass” tried the same trick and succeeded only because it abandoned realism in the third act and went full comic book for the finale.

“Super” never goes full-on superhero, it’s just mildly improbable throughout. Frank suffers random beatings and gunshot wounds, only becoming bulletproof for the triumphant (and disturbing) finale.

The film has its own kind of integrity because Frank really is mentally ill. He spends the whole movie walking the line between heroism and sociopathy, proving that every Batman must have a little Joker in him as well.

This is particularly well done in the film’s finale, when Frank does “the right thing” in a very bad guy way. A tonal failure if you’re trying to appeal to a GenX audience, but wicked fun if you’re trying to provoke them.

“Super” is constantly pushing and pulling on our expectations, veering wildly between slapstick comedy and buzzkilling gore. Most superhero films pander to the audience. This one seems calculated to provoke them.

The most provocative element for me was how the film used Ellen Page. Libby starts out as a screenwriter’s fantasy, an emotionally-retarded geek girl who works in a comic book store. If they’d cast a plainer actress it might have worked, but Page is way too hot for the role.

This is a shame because her performance was amazing. Libby is exactly the kind of thrill-seeking comic book geek who would fall for Frank, but Page is so pretty her looks seemed to be fighting against her dialog.

Wilson hits a dozen strong emotional notes in the film, but his treatment of Libby was my favorite bit. He insisted on treating her like a kid sidekick, while the audience was seeing a young woman.

In this sense, Frank’s mental illness gives him a kind of purity. He’s not merely pretending or lying to himself. He’s so in love with his wife, so blinded by religious conviction, so committed to his own insane course of action, he can’t see Libby as an adult, even when she forces the issue.

“Super” gives us one of the hottest cosplay seduction scenes ever filmed and then ruins it, almost immediately, with a terrible scene of realistic violence.

The scenes are framed so you can’t remember one without the other, so your brain gets stuck in a quantum state, constantly switching back and forth between brutal realism and sexy costumed fun.

I think this is the real point of “Super.” The film isn’t trying to teach us or entertain us; it’s trying to confuse us, to screw with our expectations and intentionally dredge up conflicting emotions.

This isn’t a dark morality tale or a costumed romp. It’s a little bit of both, swirled in a bowl but never quite mixing together.

I can’t say I enjoyed “Super” but I’m going to remember it. I’ll remember the sharp cuts between fantasy and realism, and I’ll remember the angry, queasy feeling it left me with, as I tried to fit the story into a clean narrative box.

“Super” was funny, dark, violent and confusing. With any other film those shifts in tone would be a kind of failure, but with “Super” I think they were the whole point.

Written by Not Jaffo

June 5, 2011 at 02:27

Posted in Comics, Culture, Movies

A Timely Quote from The Diamond Age

One summer, as he was living in Ames and working as a
research assistant in a solid-state physics lab, the city was actually
turned into an island for a couple of days by an immense flood.
Along with many other Midwesterners, Finkle-McGraw put in a few
weeks building levees out of sandbags and plastic sheeting. Once
again he was struck by the national media coverage—reporters from
the coasts kept showing up and announcing, with some
bewilderment, that there had been no looting. The lesson learned
during the Sioux City plane crash was reinforced. The Los Angeles
riots of the previous year provided a vivid counterexample. Finkle-
McGraw began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political
views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically
different, they were culturally as different as they could possibly be,
and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not
a subjective value judgment, merely an observation that some
cultures thrived and expanded while others failed. It was a view
implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never
voiced.

Written by Not Jaffo

March 12, 2011 at 13:52

Posted in Books, Culture

Charlie Sheen takes his act to Twitter, but is it wrong to watch?

Subtitle for this one should be, “How to get one million Twitter followers in 25 hours.”

What’s the secret? Be Charlie Sheen.

Not content to be in the punch line of every joke on the Internet this week, Charlie Sheen took “winning” to the next level by starting a new account on Twitter. As I write this he has 1.2 million followers — including, regretfully, myself.

I felt a twinge of guilt as I clicked the Follow button yesterday because the act felt strangely personal, as if by giving Sheen this sliver of attention, I was actually contributing to the man’s downfall.

As I said on Facebook yesterday, “We’ve just given a suicidal narcissist a direct line into the lives of one million people.”

I think there are two distinct groups of people following Charlie Sheen today. Half the people wanted to be there for his first day on Twitter and the other half want to be there for his last.

Half of America wants to see him get better and the other half wants to watch him flame out.

Following a celebrity on Twitter is fundamentally different from reading interviews or watching them on television. Most media appearances are supervised by publicists who keep their celebrities on message and make sure they don’t drift too far from social norms.

Even most Twitter accounts are like that — sanitized, ghost-written lists of fluff churned out by assistants or carefully crafted by celebrities who know how to control their image.

But Sheen is playing without a net, so when the inevitable public meltdown comes, we’ll all have a front row seat. I’m afraid these million followers are going to be like another drug for Sheen, another source of manic energy, randomly prompting mood swings with every snarky comment.

Mark Cina at The Hollywood Reporter says Sheen’s Twitter account is a kind of publicity stunt, organized by a celebrity endorsement firm called Ad.ly. Comedian Patton Oswalt is saying the account is a fake, ghost-written by a service.

Perversely, these accusations are making me feel better. That implies there will be a level of editing here, a layer of cynical insulation between the audience and the star. Does using this spectacle for commercial gain make the situation more depressing, or less?

At first glance this is just another celebrity train wreck, but Spiked Online editor Brendan O’Neill has a different take. In his Wednesday Telegraph column he characterized Sheen’s outburst as a heroic stand against “the therapy police.”

O’Neill’s column was a real eye-opener for me because the average observer looking at our society would say we have no guiding principles at all. We pay lip service to the moral standards of our fathers and grandfathers but we treat most infractions with a wink and a nod.

The media brings us tales of promiscuity, drug use, binge drinking and destructive behavior as if it was all a kind of circus staged for our amusement. Sheen’s high-octane partying has inspired a kind of shameful awe, with the subtext that “all men would do this if they could.”

Our society is willing to tolerate any kind of self-destructive behavior from celebrities, as long as they’re willing to go on Oprah and apologize for it later.

O’Neill says by refusing to accept the diagnosis of mental illness, Sheen is committing the only unforgiveable sin.

“In his refusal to speak their lingo,” O’Neill says,” to play their game, to do what all celebs in his situation must do these days – arrange to be interviewed by Hello! so that they can be photographed weeping while confessing to having suffered a mental breakdown – Sheen is rebelling against the super-conformist modern narrative of weak individuals who need to be saved by psycho-priests. They won’t forgive him for this.”

I would take this one step further and note that the language of moral judgment has been replaced by the language of psychological diagnosis.

Charlie Sheen may be taking drugs, cavorting with prostitutes, risking his life and putting his kids in danger, but we’re not allowed to judge him. We can’t hold him up as a cautionary tale and condemn him as a moral failure. We have to understand him and encourage him to “get help.”

I worry that of these new million Twitter followers, half of them are celebrating Sheen’s lifestyle and the other half have tuned in to watch him die. I worry that Sheen is on his way to becoming a kind of stoner folk hero, and I worry that by subscribing to his Twitter feed, I’m deriving entertainment from the destruction of a human life.

Do these thoughts make me a hopeless prude? Probably. But there’s something very “Roman empire” about the way the mob is embracing Sheen’s lifestyle — celebrating his antics in the arena while they wait for the axe to fall.

Written by Not Jaffo

March 4, 2011 at 12:19

Posted in Columns, Culture, Twitter

Sympathy for the Monster – Why we’re all gonna miss Nick Denton

The New Yorker ran a profile of one of my favorite people on Monday and the whole Internet is talking about it.

No, that’s not true. A subset of media-obsessed digerati are talking about it, and I’m following about a hundred of them on Twitter. So I have seen a thousand posts about Nick Denton this week and I expect to see people quoting this article for years.

Ben McGrath has written an awesome piece here — a (relatively gentle) biography of a transformative media figure. It’s not a puff piece or a hit piece; it’s just journalism – an honest portrait of a guy who has taken the “mean and mysterious” thing about as far as it can go.

I’ve been following Denton for years, since Gawker was just a cheeky blog about New York. I always thought he was creating the future of journalism, but this piece has showed me something else. Gawker is still the future of journalism, but that future will never quite arrive.

Any minute now Gawker will experience a perfect nanosecond where they are the world standard for digital journalism; then, an eyeblink later, some other site will leave them behind.

Nick Denton is one of those people who seemed destined to change the world; but the world does not change for nice people. McGrath’s article makes him sound like a charming sociopath, like there’s an alternate Nick Denton out there somewhere, collecting victims in the back of a white van.

Denton is an agent of change, like a forest fire burning away dead wood. And if your reputation gets caught in the blaze, well, that’s just what fires do.

A random quote from Denton reminded me of something in my favorite book. A mentor figure in “The Diamond Age” is devoted to the cultivation of subversiveness in the young. He’s worried that the children in his society have become too comfortable, too complacent, too accepting of authority.

He wants to create an educational program that will encourage the development of entrepreneurs — a new class of subversives who will create a better world by tearing the old one down. Nick Denton is the ultimate subversive – a natural subversive who revels in the destruction of old media, even as he craves attention from the giants who came before.

The most surprising thing in this piece is the sense that it’s all getting away from him. Gawker has become so successful, it can’t really be about New York anymore. Denton created this empire by pandering to his audience, giving them exactly what they want and ruthlessly rejecting anything that didn’t bring in traffic.

But Gawker’s new national audience doesn’t really care about New York anymore. The media figures that Denton loves to provoke are just a bunch of “Old White Men” to them. Denton’s latest attack on New York Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman got 6,000 hits. Candid photos of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg got 300,000.

Nick Denton is the Rupert Murdoch of digital media, but he can’t indulge personal obsessions on Gawker anymore. The readers are in charge now, and Nick is just along for the ride.

This is the real difference between old media and new media. People aren’t afraid of Nick Denton; they’re afraid of his readers. Old media is about what readers should want. New media is about what they actually want. And what they want is so raw, even Nick Denton sounds overwhelmed by it.

McGrath says, “Denton’s own writers live in constant dread of diminishing word counts and the inevitable dumbing down of the culture.”

“How things show up on Twitter, these days, matters more than the full text,” Denton says.

Nick Denton may be a monster, but he’s not the real enemy. He was just the first guy to see the shape of this, selling news to the invading army of Internet users, hungry for snark, gossip and celebrity flesh.

Denton’s successor won’t be a ruthless Brit with a soft spot for Spy Magazine. The next Nick Denton won’t even be human. The next generation of gossip sites will be soulless collections of algorithms and keywords, sucking in readers with laser-targeted bursts of text, precisely measured to match their attention spans.

I’m tipping my hat to the monster here because I remember what really made Gawker great; the one thing McGrath leaves out of his profile. Nick Denton built his empire on voices. Gawker conquered the Internet because Nick Denton has the best “ear” for writing talent that I have ever seen.

The profiles treat them like interchangeable parts, but Denton’s empire was built on the writing talents of people like Elizabeth Spiers, Choire Sicha and Alex Balk – writers who brought the snark but kept that tiny bit of humanity that let you know you were still reading a real person. That personal touch is the difference between news and blogging and it’s that personal touch that kept readers coming back.

Denton has abandoned that strategy now. He doesn’t even measure repeat visitors anymore. There’s no time to form a personal relationship with a writer; no time for any of that sentimental nonsense, in this brave new world of big ads and unique visitors.

Nick Denton is at the mercy of his readers, and now so are we, as the “golden age” of blogging makes way for a new kind of industrial revolution.

People love to hate Nick Denton, but we’re gonna miss him, when word counts shrink to character counts and writers are replaced by blade servers running Microsoft Snark.

Written by Not Jaffo

October 11, 2010 at 04:53

Terms of Service reminder

We’ve got a couple folks in the comment section upset today because we’re removing references to unsubstantiated rumors about Gov. Rick Perry.

These comments are being removed because they violate our terms of service in a couple different ways.

First, “You agree not to post, email, or otherwise make available content that is unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, defamatory, pornographic, libelous, or invasive of another’s privacy…”

It also conflicts with this section: “You agree not to post, email, or otherwise make available content that harasses, degrades, intimidates or is hateful toward an individual or group of individuals on the basis of religion, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age, or disability;”

And by posting these comments over and over again, they violated another item: “You agree not to post, email, or otherwise make available content that disrupts the normal flow of dialogue with an excessive number of messages (flooding attack) to the Service, or that otherwise negatively affects other users’ ability to use the Service.”

This action has nothing to do with politics or party affiliation, just a violation of Terms of Service.

Written by Not Jaffo

October 27, 2009 at 14:02

Posted in Culture

Lubbock Online publishing delay

We apologize for the delay in publishing the online edition of the Avalanche-Journal today. Verizon had a major network outage overnight and it’s disrupted our connection to our corporate servers.

We’ve got a small army of technicians working on it and we’ll get the stories updated as soon as things come back on line.

Written by Not Jaffo

October 23, 2009 at 09:39

Posted in Culture

Post-award interview with Peggy Olson and Carri Bugbee

michaelduff: @peggyolson is crouched in a stairwell at the #shorty awards, so we’re gonna get started. Peggy, feel free to use more than one tweet.

peggyolson: Will do. Unfortunately, the music is so loud here at the hall where they held the Shorty Awards, I can’t hear myself think.

michaelduff: First off, congratulations, on your big night. How does it feel to be getting an award?

peggyolson: It feels amazing. There were so many people here at the awards show that wanted to meet me, I was surprised.

michaelduff: Were you nervous on stage?

peggyolson: No, I wasn’t nervous at all. But was surprised that the crowd hushed when I walked on stage. Didn’t expect that.

michaelduff: I have to ask, what did Peggy Olson think of MC Hammer?

michaelduff: (Ha, that one made her think!)

peggyolson: A reporter asked to take my picture with that musician and later said that I was more popular tonight than the musician was.
Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Not Jaffo

February 12, 2009 at 01:59

Posted in Best Of, Culture, Journalism, TV

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