EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

Recently, a colleague and I were talking about television shows we watched, particularly the ones stigmatized as “bad,” “junk,” and “garbage.” She threw in a few suggestions, none of which I thought were particularly terrible – a few sitcoms and reality shows. Finally, I said, “well, I watch wrestling,” to which, she replied, “you win.” This response is not unfamiliar. As somebody who regularly watches wrestling, my fandom is frequently approached with raised eyebrows, “seriouslys,” and the inevitable “you know it’s fake, right?”

More… “Spandex Ballet”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

The history of modern art is strewn with the wreckage of obscenity charges. At the beginning of the 20th century, a work of literature with sexual content might initially be deemed obscene but eventually embraced for its esthetic and social importance. James Joyce’s Ulysses and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover are notable examples. They opposed Victorian standards of propriety, but after passage through the courts and critical opinion, emerged as high art.

In the realm of cinematic representation, obscenity was initially an industry-wide concern. The Motion Picture Production Code was developed in the 1930s under the assumption that movies, as mass entertainment, needed to be monitored to protect public morality. Strict enforcement began to wane in the 1960s, and the Code was replaced by a more indulgent film rating system. Nonetheless, certain films struggled to maintain their integrity in the face of a dreaded X rating. Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Tango in Paris refused to amend its subject-matter to avoid such a rating, which reduced its box office profits. In time, however, it emerged as a film classic.

Television, too, began by monitoring its sexual content until the advent of cable TV did away with most forms of censorship. On premium channels at least, sex and art are now permitted to consort.
More… “Pay to Play”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

Bernardo Bertolucci once told me that I became an actor to get out certain emotions that I couldn’t get out in life. And I thought about that for a long time and, uh, uh, uh…um…uh…I think that’s right.
(Robert DeNiro in Esquire)

Yeah, well … I think that … umm…you know… uh-hah.
(De Niro to Richard Schickel, in Time)

I, uh, can’t, ah, umm … Well, let’s, ah, see uh, I, uh.
(De Niro cited in the Toronto Star)

In any list of all-time most taciturn celebrity interviewees, Robert De Niro would seem to have a lock on a top spot, along with fellow inductees Billy Bob Thornton and the late Lou Reed. Observers are frequently puzzled that De Niro, regularly hailed as one of the most powerful, nuanced actors of his generation, has so little apparent interest in displaying verbal power; as Barry Paris observes in the journal American Film, “It’s ironic that the very thing that draws people to De Niro on the screen — this powerful, largely nonverbal projection of character, emotion and meaning — is what baffles and annoys…people about him offscreen.” But De Niro’s well-known bouts of verbal blockage do not tell the whole story about his relation to celebrity promotion and the performance of a public subjectivity. Indeed, they are representations that do specific kinds of cultural work. As Greg M. Smith perceptively notes, journalists reproduce these inarticulacies, in the way you see them here, on these slides, transcribed literally. “Usually,” Smith reminds us, “a reply in such halting, ‘naturalistic’ speech would be cleaned up, and awkward false starts would be edited out.” Drawing upon recent affect theory that explores so-called “negative,” obstructive affects, I see these moments of inarticulateness as only part of the complex construction of desire and disinclination that I call “reluctant celebrity.” De Niro’s reluctance, then, represents: but how, and what?

More… “You (Not) Talkin’ to Me?”

Lorraine York is Senator McMaster Chair of Canadian literature and culture at McMaster University. She is writing a book on reluctant celebrity.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

Shakespeare, we know, was a deft hand with the words but not much of a plot guy. So besides lifting scenarios from Plutarch, Holinshed, and the classics, it made total sense for him to work with collaborators in devising plays with public-pleasing story arcs, shaped by the revisions and additions of multiple authors like Fletcher, Middleton, and Kyd.

None of them were any great shakes as dramatists, but their product could be relied on to generate boffo profits. And who wants to say no to boffo profits? That question frames the dilemma of two 20th-century writers who functioned as an extremely successful team. As was famously the case with Gilbert and Sullivan, one collaborator came to loathe what he was doing and ultimately channeled that hostility towards the other partner, who responded in kind. More… “The Case of the Two-Headed Author”

Robert Latona is a journalist based in Madrid, Spain.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

From social commentary to commodity, Janette Beckman’s career is in many ways a classic model of the popular memory of punk rock. As a young photographer who documented London’s youth cultures in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, she found success and opportunity earning commissions from magazines and record labels. Like Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer, Beckman sold her creative labor, just as thousands of artists and musicians have done for generations. Whether or not punk “sold out” is an oddly recurring but nonetheless pointless question: it was embedded from the beginning in contemporary commercial culture — in the ideas, languages, icons, objects, exchanges, and processes of consumption. It was always about selling, in one way or another. More… “Clash or Credit”

Josh White is a doctoral student at University College London and researches, among other things, the history of punk in the US and UK. He is also a writer and journalist for The Times.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

Everyone has a first time. My initiation into the sublime and absurd world of grand opera came not with my attendance at a legendary performance or under the tutelage of an impassioned connoisseur but through a chance encounter with a bizarre musical experiment conceived by Malcolm McLaren, former manager of the Sex Pistols and craven self-promoter. It happened like this. One day in the mid-‘80’s I was half-listening to an innocuous pop ballad on the radio when there arose from the drum machines and synthesizers a surging female voice unlike any I had ever heard — or at least paid attention to — before. As the aria, which turned out to be “Un bel dì” from Madame Butterfly, floated over me, my only thought was: How can anything be so beautiful?

I wish I could say that from that moment I became a passionate convert to all things operatic, but in fact I went on listening to rock ‘n’ roll and even now have got around to only a dozen or so works in the operatic repertory. Yet one of those works is Madame Butterfly, and if on the radio that day I hadn’t heard Malcolm McLaren’s gleefully debased six-minute version — identified by the disc jockey as the first of six workings of Puccini on an album by McLaren called Fans — I might never have known grand opera at all. Although I no longer need to listen to opera with the electric guitars, drum tracks, and pop vocal choruses so helpfully provided by McLaren, I occasionally go back to Fans to marvel at its audacious and bizarrely sympathetic settings of some of Puccini’s most sumptuous music. More… “A Fan of Fans

Stephen Akey is the author of two memoirs, College and Library, and of essays in The New Republic, Open Letters Monthly, and The Millions.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

If Christmas is the great holiday for sounds — think of all of the masterworks and the centuries of carols — then surely Halloween is the bushel holiday harvest for sights. The very plumage of the landscape itself morphs from pastel verdure to vermillion explosions of the sorts of colors that we think of as having tongues, lapping across expanses as if summoning your gaze. The boogeymen come out, too, much as the ghosts do at Christmas, but whereas the latter have a subtle ease to them, the Halloween haunts rarely do. Part of that may have to do with Washington Irving and his Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon from 1820, a work that, in one vignette, helped inspire a visual schema that still colors the season.

Most people don’t read the Sketch Book in full anymore, focusing instead on its two most famous tales: “Rip Van Winkle” and, of course, the object of our purpose, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” These are bumper crop works that repay and repay, but that’s the gist of the thirty-four essays, stories, anecdotes, and musings that comprise the Sketch Book itself, a weird piece of Americana by turns folksy, Gothic, chatty, and terrifying which also happens to be exceedingly accessible. And, wouldn’t you know, entirely modern, as if Irving’s words have piggy-backed atop the Horseman’s mount and rode into the latest age, ready to gallop off with a willing reader.
More… “Getting to the Bridge”

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss (Dzanc), and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance, and a novel about a reluctant piano genius, age seven or eight, called The Freeze Tag Sessions. He’s a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His tattered, on-the-mend website is colinfleminglit.com, and he highly recommends reading The Smart Set daily, along with ten mile coastal walks and lots of Keats and hockey for the soul.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

One of the small corners of YouTube not dominated by cat videos belongs to the downright oddest and most dismaying cultural oddities of the 21st century: the YouTube boy-celebrity. They aren’t real celebrities; you’ve never heard of them, the entirety of their careers to date has begun, escalated, and flourished without touching your life in any way. But in their insular world, their experience mimics actual celebrity to an uncanny degree: these YouTube boy-celebrities have publicists, social media managers, endorsement deals, and copyrighted brands. They have flunkies whom they feel free to humiliate, overwork, and confront with screamed demands. They pack tens of thousands of hysterical fans into auditoriums for live events like VidCon and Summer in the City. They know how to hold microphones onstage in Dean Martin-old pro styles; they’re visibly terrified during manager-mandated mingles with their audiences; quite a few have been embroiled in sex scandals; they have, almost to an individual, at some point in the last four years yelled the stereotypical celebrity line, “Do you know who I am?”

We don’t know who they are, and their brand optimization management teams aren’t happy about that fact. The central problem with the kind of cross-branding those management teams yearn for derives from the typical YouTube boy-celebrity origin story: a cute, epicene young thing buys a bargain digital camera, sets it up in his bedroom, and proceeds to vamp for attention. They did nothing else but vamp; unlike all previous incarnations of the teen-boy heartthrob crush, these boys were offering only themselves, only these four-minute windows into their bedrooms. David Cassidy and his brother Shaun had to at least make a token effort to sing and act; likewise the Backstreet Boys or *NSYNC, who had serious professional dance coaches to learn those intricate floor shows. Even Justin Bieber (discovered on YouTube) made a pretense of having — or wanting to have — musical talent. Not so the YouTube boy-celebrity: with him, all pretense of purpose is stripped away, leaving only the hair, the eyes, the lips … what you see is quite literally the extent of what you get.
More… “Boy Toys”

Steve Donoghue is a reader, editor, and writer living in Boston surrounded by books and dogs. He’s one of the founding editors of the literary journal Open Letters Monthly and the author of one of its book­blogs, Stevereads. HIs work has appeared in The National, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Quarterly Conversation, among others. He tweets as @stdonoghue.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

It is commonly agreed that, since the debut of The Sopranos in 1999, television has gotten really good. There is now a lot of well-written, absorbing, idiosyncratic stuff to watch, and I have, helped by my insomnia, watched a lot of it.

I am a particular fan of sustained narrative series like Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, The Wire, and House of Cards, and am looking forward to Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. It’s nice to know that shows whose run is well underway or even long over are still available for us insomniacs on-demand or on Netflix.

But of all the long-form narrative series out there, I am most taken by the CBS series, The Good Wife (about to begin its seventh season on October 4th), though it is, by all counts, seemingly the most conventional. As a network show, it lacks the taboo-breaking characteristics of cable; if you squint, it could be a standardized legal drama. But The Good Wife is fascinating because of its female characters — not so much in their predicaments as in their appearance.
More… “Painting an Inch Thick”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

It is not difficult to imagine Sherlock Holmes, that great eschewer of the supernatural, firing his clay pipe into the fireplace at 221B were he made aware of the cottage literary movement birthed by his adventures. People tend to forget that the detective and his dogged, Boswellian biographer Doctor Watson, investigated through the first quarter of the 20th century, existing as surely in the age of Babe Ruth as they had in the Victorian era of Wilkie Collins. There were, of course, hundreds of Holmes knock-offs and pastiches throughout the detective’s run, as there are now, but what some writers, at least, had the good sense to realize was that simply recasting the model of the genius deducer and his very human foil/partner was not going to achieve any more than serve up some Sherlock-lite. A new wrinkle was needed. Enter, then, the ghosts, and the duos who investigate them.

In the summer of 1914, when the wife and husband duo of Alice and Claude Askew published the eight stories that comprise the collected adventures of Aylmer Vance, “ghost-seer” — there’s something for a business card for you — supernatural fiction was going through a crucial change. The ghost story, long dominant in England, from where the Askews hailed, and which made up a goodly chunk of the best literature yet written in the States, had started to morph into the weird tale, the stuff that would dominate the pulps in the 1930s and 1940s, giving rise to those limited edition book runs at places like Arkham House, which recast horror writing much as Hawthorne, Poe, and M.R. James once had. Humans, now, were often the agencies of the macabre, or else elemental forces from the beyond divorced of human form, but borne of human crisis and strain. The dead girl in the glowing white dress, less so.
More… “The Ghost Shift”

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss (Dzanc), and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance, and a novel about a reluctant piano genius, age seven or eight, called The Freeze Tag Sessions. He’s a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His tattered, on-the-mend website is colinfleminglit.com, and he highly recommends reading The Smart Set daily, along with ten mile coastal walks and lots of Keats and hockey for the soul.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+