Posts Tagged popular culture

Other People’s Cars: Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

1985 Pontiac Firebird Trans AmHas a car ever winked at you?

Jake Kara sent me this photo of a 1980s Pontiac Firebird Trans Am that looks like it’s either trying to get the viewer’s attention, or is having a seizure.

This car has what collectors call “patina,” which makes it look incredibly out of place parked in the center of Monroe, Connecticut, a town with a lot of history and a lot of money.

The third-generation Firebird, produced from 1981 to 1990, is one of those cars that seemingly obligates its driver to grow a mullet. They always seem to look like this car, and always seem to be heading to the local 7-11.

That wedged shape also made third-gen Firebirds popular fodder for “Fauxrrari” body kits, which transformed them into Ferrari Testarossa knock-offs.

This Firebird did have some good qualities, though. It was the basis for KITT in Knight Rider, and it was one of the few true American muscle cars of the 1980s.

The Firebird, and its Chevrolet Camaro twin, were among the few 1960s performance nameplates to survive the purge that took place in the early ‘70s, at the hands of rising insurance costs, EPA regulations, and OPEC.

This car’s “High Tech” aluminum wheels identify it as a 1985 (or later) model, which means it has a 305 cubic inch fuel-injected V8 under the hood. When new, that engine was good for 210 horsepower. That doesn’t seem like much, but keep in mind that a base 1984 Corvette only had 205 hp.

So this car’s owner deserves a little credit for going for the Trans Am and not a regular Firebird, although how they ended up with this example is a question for the ages.

In fact, there’s plenty of mystery surrounding this seemingly unremarkable car. Did that ding in the front bumper come from a dramatic police chase? Why did the driver back into that space in such a photogenic way? Why is the car winking at us?

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Super serious

Iron Man 3I never thought I’d say this, but people are taking superheroes way too seriously.

By people, I mean film critics. They don’t seem to understand that superhero movies are based on comic books.

In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark won an impressive victory over a fire-breathing Aldrich Killian, but according to certain critics, he destroyed American culture in the process.

The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis said the film exploited imagery of terrorism for cheap thrills, without addressing any of the issues behind that imagery, and said that releasing the film so soon after the Boston Marathon bombing shows that Hollywood is out of touch with the real world.

NPR’s Linda Holmes criticized Tony himself, lamenting that his egotism, wealth, and use of technology to cocoon himself make him the “new Captain America.” Steve Rogers doesn’t use remote controlled drones to fight his battles, right?

I’m not saying that Iron Man 3 deserves critical praise, in fact quite the opposite. For movies like this, being faithful to the comic books that form the source material is as important as artistic merit.

Tales of Suspense 50No movie with as many explosions as Iron Man 3 deserves a critic’s approval, but because dodging explosions is what Iron Man does in the comic books, that’s what he should be doing on the big screen.

While writers and directors do have to make certain decisions about how to transform a comic book character into a movie character, or even about which comic books to make movies of, critics still need to stop treating the resulting movies as if they materialized from thin air.

Certain things about Iron Man simply can’t be changed, like the fact that he’s a rich white guy, or that his arch enemy is a guy called The Mandarin, or that he fights people. Without those elements, the cinematic Iron Man might be more nuanced, but he wouldn’t be Iron Man.

Iron Man and most of his colleagues predate the movie craze that is enriching their owners, and many of the political issues they are now accused of exploiting. When Iron Man debuted in 1963, Osama bin Laden was six, and America was in the middle of the Cold War.

People seem to be aware of this. In “The Amazing Spider-Man and the Modern Comic Book Movie,” a dialogue with Dargis, the Times’ A.O. Scott notes that “our superheroes have been around for a very long time.”

Of course, superheroes are capable of changing with the times. Tony fought Soviet-themed villains like the Crimson Dynamo when they were still relevant, and The Mandarin has gradually shifted from an old school megalomaniacal villain into a terrorist.

Still, there are certain things that cannot be changed. In the same article on the “Modern Comic Book Movie,” Dargis acknowledges that superheroes predate the movies that depict them, and claims that is he problem.

“The world has moved on — there’s an African-American man in the Oval Office, a woman is the secretary of state — but the movie superhero remains stuck in a pre-feminist, pre-civil rights logic that dictates that a bunch of white dudes, as in “The Avengers,” will save the world for the grateful multiracial, multicultural multitudes. What a bunch of super-nonsense,” she says.Iron Man first appearance

A team of white guys saving the world does seem inappropriate in our post-feminist, post-civil rights world, but this isn’t just any team of white guys, it’s the Avengers. They resonate because of who they are, not because they are white and male.

Superheroes are popular because people like them. They like the idea of them, and more importantly, they like specific characters like Iron Man and Captain America. That’s why, when a movie that does them justice (no pun intended) appears, they turn out in droves.

While it’s not impossible for a superhero movie to have an important message, or to meaningfully engage with important issues, that is all secondary to the “superhero” part of it.

If you’re looking for cultural critiques, Iron Man 3 is not the movie for you. If you want to see Iron Man in a movie, it is.

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We all live in a Russian submarine

Delta IV-class SSBNI love nuclear submarines, and I always thought that was a bit weird. Apparently not.

The Cold War-era nuclear submarine, Soviet or American, has become a trope of popular culture. It’s been the setting of movies like The Hunt for Red October, K-19 and the upcoming Phantom. A Soviet sub was even the setting for a recent episode of Doctor Who, appropriately titled “Cold War.”

Why have writers sent everyone from Sean Connery to Harrison Ford to Matt Smith to the depths of the oceans?

It’s certainly not for romance. Submarine service is one of the most arduous forms of duty in any military. Nuclear subs are sent on patrol for as long as six months at a time, and the crews rarely see sunlight. Just like on the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701D), interior lights are the only way crews can differentiate night and day.

It’s cramped, too. Enlisted crew share shelf-like bunks, each man (during the Cold War crews were all male in both the American and Soviet navies) sleeping while the other is on duty. It’s called “hot bunking.”

But what the submarine loses in comparisons with Paris in springtime it makes up for in drama. Submariners are literally under pressure: at the depths they operate, submarines have to withstand many atmospheres of pressure, which threatens to crush a boat that dives too deep.

Hunt for Red October posterOf course, there was plenty of mental pressure as well.

Nuclear ballistic missile submarines or “boomers,” like the Typhoon-class Red October from the eponymous film, or the Ohio-class USS Alabama from Crimson Tide, patrolled (and continue to patrol) the oceans loaded with more destructive power than all of the weapons detonated in World War II.

During the Cold War, submarines were an insurance policy for both sides. The United States and the Soviet Union relied on Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the certainty that if one side fired a volley of nukes, the other would answer it, to avert an apocalyptic global war.

Submarines were an especially good way to maintain MAD, because they are virtually impossible to detect. They run too deep for anything but below-surface sonar to be effective, and having two-thirds of the Earth’s surface to hide in definitely gives the boomer captain the advantage. That’s why the U.S. Navy calls its submarine fleet the “Silent Service.”

World War III could have easily started hundreds of feet below the surface of the sea. In addition to being perfect fodder for military drama, that scenario also ties submarines to the Cold War in the public imagination.

Doctor Who Cold WarWhich brings us back to Doctor Who. He can travel anywhere in time and space, surely Earth’s Cold War is a less interesting background than an alien hot war.

In the episode, where the Doctor and companion Clara are accidentally dumped on a sinking Russian sub with a frozen (and belligerent) Martian, the sub serves as the quintessential 1980s backdrop.

“Hair, shoulder pads, nukes. It’s the ‘80s. Everything’s bigger,” the Doctor declares while trying to acclimate Clara. He’s simultaneously doing the same for an audience twenty-plus years removed from the fall of the Berlin Wall.

So the submarine has gone from harbinger of doom to ‘80s set piece. There’s even a Russian professor who’s obsessed with Duran Duran.

With so much resonance, the Cold War submarine might just be one of the most under-appreciated pop culture tropes around, which is fairly appropriate for a Silent Service.

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First world problems

So I’ve encountered a new phrase called “first world problems.” I have a problem with this phrase.

It seems to mean something that really isn’t a big deal, like having to prepare a presentation or being peeved that the barista put cream in your Starbucks concoction instead of milk. You know, things that don’t have to do with subsistence.

I see what people are getting at here. We all get wrapped up in our lives, make mountains out of mole hills and forget how lucky we are to live the way we do. That’s fine.

Checking your whining with a phrase like “first world problems” is a little obnoxious, though. It sounds like the person is saying “I know I shouldn’t be complaining about this trivial thing, but I will,” or “See how conscious I am of other people’s suffering?”

Both are very “first world” things to do. I’m a huge fan of irony, but too much of a good thing is still a problem. Drawing an implied comparison between oneself and a starving African child or a smog-choked Chinese factory worker doesn’t make a person sound smart or sensitive, it just makes them sound like they are trying to license their whining.

The phrase “first world problems” is also etymologically dubious. Do you ever notice why people never talk about the second world? It’s because the terms first world and second world were coined during the Cold War to describe the United States and its NATO allies and the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, respectively. Any countries not within either the U.S. or Soviet sphere were referred to as the third world.

So maybe we should stop using outdated political terms to label our trivial complaints. It’s perfectly fine to complain, even if you know that someone else would be happy to be in your position. It’s not a big deal, and certainly doesn’t merit a snarky term like “first world problems.”

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Branded

Lucky Brand Triumph shirtI guess I’m a day late and a dollar short on this one…

I’ve never ridden a motorcycle, but yesterday I bought a t-shirt with the Triumph logo at Lucky. It hangs in my closet next to another shirt emblazoned with the logo of the defunct Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Co.

I haven’t become a biker; I’d look pretty ridiculous astride a Triumph Bonneville or an Indian Chief. Nonetheless, these companies resonate as cool with me, even though I don’t use their wares.

Like every red-blooded American male, I think most loud machines are cool, so that’s part of the attraction. There’s a lot of history, too.

Triumph is the classic British bike. A vintage Bonneville inspires visions of leather-clad rockers and the roar of a 650cc engine. Marlon Brando rode a Triumph Thunderbird in The Wild One, the prototypical biker movie.

Indian built motorcycles in Springfield, Massachusetts from 1901 to 1953. Bikes like the streamlined Chief were favorites of Steve McQueen and are still valuable collectibles. There’s a certain romance to the Indian story: a New England company that made some of the best bikes around, then vanished.

So it’s not just the bikes, it’s what they represent. It’s interesting how a profit-making enterprise like a motorcycle company can inspire such romance. Corporations provide us with what we use to live our daily lives, and occasionally take advantage of that relationship, but either way they’re apparently big enough to invade the popular imagination.

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Keith Richards meets a hipster

Since I first saw one smugly slurping a Pabst Blue Ribbon, I have sworn eternal vengeance against hipsters. Why concentrate so much negative emotion on such a silly segment of the population? Hipsters are like the gray blob of nanomachines that some theorists say will eat all matter if unleashed: they take everything people find enjoyable and reduce it to a basis for irony and petty judgment.

Hipsters choose their favorite music based on the number of people that haven’t listened to it. If you genuinely like anything, even the air you breath, don’t ever tell a hipster. They’ll tell you that a 78.04-20.95% nitrogen-oxygen ratio is too mainstream.

I’m given to bouts of cynicism and irony, but I still think basing one’s entire existence on negativity makes for a pretty horrible person. Hipsters think they’re just too cool to be human.

Recently, I found some solace in the fact that this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. I’ve been reading Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life, and in it he describes what could be proto-hipsters.

As a teenager, Richards hung out with other young blues enthusiasts, some of whom were such purists that even actual blues artists couldn’t meet their standards:

“None of these blues purists could play anything. But their Negroes had to be dressed in overalls and say, “Yes’m boss.” And in actual fact they’re city blokes who are so hip it’s not even true.”

Like today’s hipsters, the blues purists sought an art that was so authentic it didn’t actually exist. In this case, because it was more than a little racist. Hipsters don’t subscribe to an antiquated racist view of culture (at least, I hop they don’t), but it still seems like reality isn’t good enough for them.

When an artist creates a piece of music it is what it is, regardless of how many people like it or whether it meets some critic’s standard of authenticity.

What kind of a world would we live in if people were too afraid of appearing unsophisticated to like anything? That is why hipsters, past and present, are such an irritant. At least they’re nothing the world hasn’t dealt with before.

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Putting movie violence in perspective

Welcome to Gomorrah, aka the 21st century American movie theater. It’s where you can see an action hero massacre people with a motorcycle-mounted Gatling gun, right after having sex with a blonde 20-something and her mother. Parents would howl in protest if they weren’t so indifferent.

However, even the industry that brought you Machete and The Expendables has its limits. Today’s movies are actually less violent than ones from the 1970s, in one respect.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the blockbuster Swedish murder mystery novel-turned film, features a violent rape scene, and an equally violent revenge rape scene. I couldn’t remember seeing anything like that in recent memory and, needless to say, found it pretty disturbing.

My mother did not. She didn’t see the film, but she did not think rape made it any more violent than any other recent R-rated movie. “They used to do that all the time in ‘70s,” she said.

David Fincher may have just exceeded the limits of modern Hollywood depravity. The 1970s were, indeed, a time of dark, grim films like Taxi Driver, something the more sensationalized sex and violence of modern Hollywood takes a step back from.

Two other books that were (relatively) recently turned into movies, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman and Watchmen had rape scenes that were eliminated for the film versions. On the small screen, Denis Leary was criticized for including a rape scene in Rescue Me, even thought the show aired after 11:00.

So the next time you fret over bringing a child into the gun-toting, over-sexed culture of 21st century America, remember, it could be worse. It could still be the 1970s.

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