June 30, 2013

Water parks over pools in cocooning times

Here is an NYT article about the surge in water park attendance and construction over the past couple decades, i.e. after our country abandoned the pool as a public place. Here is an old post of mine with data showing a peak in swimming during the late 1980s, and a pronounced decline since, no matter the age group.

This is not one of those changes that you need data in order to be convinced of. I still remember thinking, during the summer of 1993, "Wow, is this turn-out weak or what?" It seemed like there were no more than a dozen or so people at the pool on a summer afternoon. At the time, I chalked it up to moving to a new part of the country, where maybe going to the pool wasn't such a big part of everyday life in the summertime. But, no, it was just the early stage of social fragmentation.

The shift toward water parks has both a quantitative and qualitative side to it. Because water parks are fewer, farther away from home, and more expensive to get into, the percent of the population going to a swimming area is not staying the same while moving from one type of place to another. It's shrinking. The water park is no substitute in sheer numerical terms, as confirmed by the data in that post above.

Aside from that, the kind of activities and who you engage in them with is so different at the water park compared to the pool. No children or teenagers, or probably college-age kids, will go to a water park by themselves. They're brought along by their parents, part of the broader pattern of playing with your parents instead of with your peers. It's not as though the family splits up and meets up later -- it has to be 100% family involvement. "Fun for the whole family" -- how about having fun with kids your own age, while the grown-ups socialize with people their own age too?

When they're going off to a water park, kids cannot hang out with their friends, unless they can badger their parents into bringing a friend along. Still, how many friends are their parents going to spend all that ticket money on? It used to be common to head off to the pool in a group of five or six friends, perhaps meeting up with another group of five or six by coincidence once you got there. You could either walk or ride your bikes (back when children had their own mode of transportation...).

Not to mention all of the other kids your age ("peers") who you weren't already friends with, or didn't know at all. You could make new friends, even if it was only for a day. Autistic people seem to think that it's meaningless to have a one-day "friend" -- like it's either BFF or nothing at all. In reality, people feel a connection to their peer group and community by entering into all ranges of interactions with others. It's reassuring and fulfilling to know that you can just show up to the pool and find a bunch of people to have fun with.

In addition to having fun, you're also maturing socially and emotionally through all the give-and-take interactions with your peers. Unlike your kin, they don't automatically extend you respect, care, and so on. You have to earn that by acting pro-socially in that group setting. And especially for boys, it's a great way to do that while also giving an outlet to their aggression, competitiveness, and rambunctiousness. Who can make the biggest cannonball? Who's not afraid to jump off the high-dive? Who's going to go say "Hi" to that cute, intimidating high school girl over there? Hey guys, grab my foot and launch me up into the air! (OK, but only if you launch me next.)

Not to mention negotiating the subtleties of the splash fight or splash war. Too aggressive, and you're cast out as the brat -- not the bully, since we could splash that aggressively too, but are trying to basically stay on everyone's nice side. Too weak, and you're acting like a sissy and spoiling the fun -- splash back!

And then there were more regularized sports that we invented like gutterball. Anyone else play that? Only one post on the first page of Google results for "pool gutterball" refers to the game. It's obviously written by an adult who played it as a child, and may be trying to pass it on to others. But since he seems to be the only one writing about it, it must have joined all the other games that kids used to play.

Is that something that today's helicopter parents are aware of -- that parents don't transmit much culture to their kids, that they want to pick it up from their peers? You can try to teach your boy how to play gutterball at the pool, or teach jump-rope rhymes to your girl, but if they sense that it's not part of the broader culture of children, they'll junk it. It's not relevant to their social group, so why bother incorporating it into their culture? They're no more likely to prefer speaking German if their peers do not, even if their parents do.

Some of the nerdier helicopter parents think that if they can reproduce the media and pop culture items that they had growing up, their kid will appreciate it in more or less the same way. Guess again -- playing Pac-Man was not primarily about the game itself (unless you were a huge video game nerd), but about the social experience of leaving the house, hanging out in a dark place with flashing lights, surrounded by other kids, with no adult supervision, and using video games more as a means to getting that initial jolt of excitement, to get things started. Mostly, though, the lure of the arcade was that feeling of belonging to a crowd, and everyone feeding each other's high.

Your kid today isn't going to grow attached to Pac-Man because the physical environment of arcades, and the bustling social scene that supported them, are long gone. Only if he develops some OCD behavior centering around vintage video games, or if there's a peer-based revival of those games, will he have much interest in it.

Well, so what if kids these days don't grow attached to Pac-Man, right? But all of that other stuff is more important -- the culture that kids pass on among themselves, and invent themselves. Playground games, urban legends, slang words, nicknames, gestures, and all those other group membership markers. As a parent, you are impotent to pass that on to your kids. (Just try.)

I think even things like nursery rhymes, which you'd think parents would have more control over (they don't circulate among the toddlers themselves), are still a case of broader community input. Like, if you don't hear any of your teachers, daycare workers, babysitters, or school librarians reading them aloud to you, it doesn't make that strong of an impact.

Or if you wanted to involve those non-parental others by reciting some nursery rhymes to them -- what happens if they don't know them, or recognize them but do not feel motivated to keep oral culture alive? That's going to be a let-down, and you'll lose interest in them after that, since it's only something that your mom thinks is cool.

June 27, 2013

Generational support for gay deviance and the breakdown of norms

From the most recent General Social Survey of 2012, looking just at whites, here's the percent who strongly agree that homos should be allowed to marry, by 5-year cohorts:

Generally the later you were born, the more you support it, but the effect is weak for those born before 1985. The upward slope is pretty shallow. Most of the effect is due to the huge jump for those born in '85 and after.

Here's the same graph for those who think homosexual sex is always wrong:

The later you were born, the less disapproving you are, though again notice a much sharper drop among those born after '84.

So what did all of that helicopter parenting and self-esteem inflation do for the minds of Millennials? Helicopter parenting socially isolated them from their peers, and broke them apart from community rituals that would have made them feel a sense of belonging (e.g., canceling trick-or-treating). Lack of social integration during their developing years has blunted their appreciation for group norms that apply above the level of the nuclear family. And all of that self-esteem bullshit gave them a "don't judge me" and "if you got it, flaunt it" mindset.

How else did you expect them to view a community-disrupting bunch of mental fuck-ups? They're natural heroes to the sheltered airhead generation.

The utterly pathetic way that the Millennials have turned out is a damning indictment of this whole "family values" revolution of the past 20 years. In practice, it has meant locking your nuclear family away from all other influences, and only relating to other close kin members. Raising your kids to feel disconnected from, suspicious of, or downright hostile toward non-familial community members. That's even more angering than stunting your own kids' growth -- fragmenting the community because of overblown paranoia, laughably covered up with the fig leaf of "family values."

And to those who unfortunately live in the few parts of the country that have been over-run by NAMs -- your problems won't go away by moving to an all-white area. Go to Alaska, Utah, Vermont, or to an all-white upper-middle-class suburb, and you still won't find any trick-or-treaters on Halloween, or teenagers who overwhelmingly look at faggots with either pity or disgust, and who should stay in the closet.

The only cohort that can feel good about themselves for bucking the overall trend is Gen Y. People born in the first half of the '80s show a noticeable dip in support for gay marriage, when you'd expect it to be a little higher than the late Gen X-ers. That shows up in the "homo sex is wrong" graph too, where we're joined by the last Gen X cohort in being noticeably less supportive of the great gay crusade than our age / birth year would lead you to expect.

Does that make more of a difference than the absolute level of support? When it comes to standing up to all these attacks on communal norms -- yes. Baby Boomers may be even less supportive than we are, but that's to be expected from their place in the series of cohorts. They don't feel particularly strongly about the issue. Gen Y is unusually cold toward queers, and that gives us an against-the-grain motivation that is lacking in the Boomers, or even most of the X-ers. Although X-ers do feel consciously more conservative than Boomers overall, it doesn't show on this specific issue.

And as X-ers get deeper and deeper into their child-rearing years, and as they continue the pattern of helicopter parenting, they'll find it increasingly difficult to explain to their kids about communal norms. "What community, mommy -- the one you've locked me away from my whole life?" And of course explaining doesn't do anything, it's the experience of belonging to a larger group and being subject to its pressures that inculcates the intuitive understanding of the value of group norms -- otherwise all of those enjoyable, rewarding group experiences never could have taken place.

After awhile, it's too late to reverse course. When your kid starts high school, his language is basically frozen in place. He'll have to devote long hours of practice to learning another one. His "formative years" are not called that for no reason.

I think that's behind Gen Y being unusually conservative, whether for overall self-identifying political views or for the queer issue in particular. The '80s and even the very early '90s were the peak of community togetherness, no matter what community you lived in. And since our parents let us run our own social lives once we were out of pre-school, we got steeped in the social environment from very early on.

And not only the social environment, but the physical environment -- whether natural or man-made -- that provides the basis for your sense of belonging to a particular place, aside from belonging to a people. How can you feel close to your land when you aren't allowed to climb the tree in your back yard, hike off to the nearby woods, visit the mall, hang out at the pool, and explore the streets of your neighborhood? And by yourself or with your equally inexperienced peers, so you can feel a sense of wonder and not have everything explained to you by parents, let alone have your process of discovery cut short by their meddling.

In fact, some of the strongest memories I have that bind me to the neighborhood where I grew up are not exploring the streets along the sidewalk, but the places in people's front yards and back yards that we used to wander all over. If our parents had been there, they might have told us to get out from behind the neighbor's hedge -- but hey, that was the best place to ambush someone during a game of war.

And we used to cut across three or four neighbors' back yards at a time. Again, something that our parents would probably have told us not to do, but which gave us the sense of belonging to a more intimate or private side of that family's space. Not like we were doing property damage or anything. Just seeing a side of that family that you ordinarily wouldn't. What's the harm in a little trespassing if you wind up feeling closer to the people who live there?

...But enough reminiscing. The point is that the '80s and early '90s saw the peak of this kind of upbringing, and it's had a lasting effect on those who were in their formative years -- not helpless or house-bound infants and toddlers, but kids. Our sometimes overly nostalgic generation feels the closest bonds to the people and places where we grew up, and feel like it's a desecration to shove those aside for pointless progress, which only destabilizes the glue that held that world together -- norms, customs, styles of interacting, and so on.

To provide a concrete historical case that should give Gen Y some hope -- consider the fate of second-wave feminism, i.e. the Gloria Steinem movement of the early-to-mid-1970s. That was almost entirely a movement for sheltered airhead Silent Gen members. Two women helped to kill it off from mainstream acceptance, one from the liberal and one from the conservative direction -- Betty Friedan, who attacked it as too lesbian-oriented and too radically beyond women getting jobs and getting paid, and Phyllis Schlafy, who spearheaded the movement that stopped the ERA dead in its tracks. (That's the Equal Rights Amendment.)

Both were born in the first half of the 1920s, so in relation to the trend in the crime rate, they were like those born in the first half of the '80s. The Roaring Twenties was well before all that Dr. Spock bullshit from mid-century childhoods, and the Go-Go Eighties was well after its heyday (and before its recent revival). Growing up in such unsupervised and un-Taylorized times gave those generations the autonomy to explore all of the people and places of their community, and to feel viscerally bonded to them in a way that logical explanation without immediate experience is impotent to achieve.

It takes that deep level of belonging -- and the later profound sense of alienation when the norms degrade -- to motivate people to stop fucking around and confront the norm-destroyers head-on.

If the children of the '20s could derail wacko feminism off into total marginalization, there's no reason that the children of the '80s won't be able to restore some sanity to society after the gay deviance crusade.

GSS variables: marhomo, homosex, cohort, race, year

June 26, 2013

Female nature in 1985, part 2 (Seventeen magazine covers)

Intro and part 1.

By the way, I checked out the issue from part 1 that had an article on homosexuality. What was the mainstream media's view of it back then, as conveyed to middle and high school girls? It was mostly about girls practicing kissing with other girls, wanting to hug each other, etc. -- did that mean you were a lesbian? No, and there wouldn't be anything wrong even if you were. But it was surprisingly light on propaganda, just the typical acceptance talk you'd expect from an adolescent psychologist, and not even in a hectoring tone. It didn't discuss the real freak cases, namely gays, since it was written for girls.

Continuing on with the April through June covers from 1985...

Another model rather than celebrity, another extreme close-up, another set of animalistic eyebrows, and another case of we can't tell exactly where she is or what she's up to. The viewer has to imagine that, but there clearly is something going on. It's not just a celeb du jour shot against a solid background.

Two items about external appearance, a small and hardly visible line about what celebrity is featured inside... just think, Madonna was already world-famous at this point, and here she is, not even on the cover, with her name in barely visible type tucked away in the corner, beneath the face of some unknown teen model. Celeb-obsession was barely there in the '80s.

There's one item about sports. And two about heavy-hitting social issues -- "Why teens commit suicide" and "Help, I think I'm pregnant!" Both of those problems are far less frequent these days, but that doesn't mean they're non-existent. Yet a magazine for teenagers won't touch them, or other social issues, today. "Seriously? Um, awkward." People only pay attention to a problem if it's rising in prevalence ("God, it just keeps getting worse"), not if the prevalence is above some threshold.

I read the article on teen suicide, and it was very matter-of-fact -- not condescending, not hysterical, not Save the Children, or anything like that. They didn't glamorize suicide either -- you get the idea that it's mostly the total rejects and outcasts who feel no hope, the real Martha Dumptruck type. It also gives advice on how to recognize warning signs in your friends or people you know, and some practical tips on what does and does not help that person out (e.g., don't brush it off and tell them things will work themselves out somehow). Very practical in tone.

Another model rather than celebrity, shot on location with shallow focus to suggest the background and leave the viewer to imagine the rest, and another subdued rather than kabuki expression on the model's face, making it easier for girls to empathize with her. Somewhat unusually, it's shot from far enough back to see her waistline.

This one's a bit more focused on appearance, with three of four items about clothing and make-up. It's the lead-up to summer, I guess. But there's still a reminder that girls back then had an active social life, including with boys: "When you fall out of love and he doesn't." Again we see them assuming that the reader has a specific "he" in her life, with whom she's had a close relationship. Not generic "guys" who the girl doesn't even know or plan to interact with, like "What do guys think about you?"

Yep, it's the same eyebrow model from April, and shot pretty close-up for intimacy once more. Shot on location with something of a costume and props to create a little "summertime at the pool" atmosphere. (Back when people still went to the pool...) She looks pretty and confident, a winning combination for all the girls who want to be like a cover girl.

Since it's like you're right there with her, maybe the girls are also imagining that they're close enough friends that they would hang out at the pool together. It's not something you go do with minor acquaintances. And the familiar, engaging look is like, "Hey, what're you up to? Wanna go scope out some boys by the deep end?" Her expression is informal and friendly.

The more I look at these covers, the more I wonder whether the girls are imagining themselves as the cover girl herself, or imagining the cover girl as their close friend. I'm guessing the more pretty and popular girls saw themselves as the cover girl, while the average girl was projecting the cover girl as her own best friend -- finally, a ticket into the popular crowd!

There's a large block of items about external appearance for summer. "Bare wear" -- yeah, don't think you'd see that these days. More like how to choose the longest maxi-dress and the most obscuring floppy hat and sunglasses. And another appearance-type item about dropping 20 pounds. This was before the obesity epidemic made it anti-democratic to criticize fat people or offer them tips on how to shed the fat.

No celeb gossip advertised on this cover. The remaining two of four sections are on a pressing social issue and relationships with boys. "Since the divorce, Mom dates more than I do" -- the divorce rate peaked around 1980, and although falling was still fairly high in the mid-'80s. And yet it's not zero today, so why don't you read about it in Seventeen, or hear about it in the media generally?

In Google's digitized library (Ngram), the phrase "children of divorce" shows a steady rise in frequency from the mid-1920s through the early '90s, and a pretty sharp drop after that. Concern really ramped up during the '70s and '80s. Again it seems to be a case of paying attention to a problem that is getting worse, not one that exceeds some threshold unacceptable level. Dude, Children of Divorce should totally by the name of a band (and probably already is).

"Do you act like a fool in love? Find out!" The sincerity behind these silly quizzes is charming. Here again the editors are assuming that the reader has been in love enough times to evaluate how she acts. Skimming over the more recent covers, you never see a question like that.

Adolescent girls don't really fall in love anymore. They might find a guy who they think is cute, or who's a not-so-ugly practice boyfriend, and they'll get into a relationship just because, or out of convenience. More likely, they won't find a boyfriend at all, nor "hook up," but do whatever it takes to get lots of male attention without having to put out for or interact with the boys. Bad-faith attention junkies, strutting around like wannabe celebrities ("no pics plz, i'm busy looking down at my phone"). That head-over-heels, "stand by your man," together forever kind of vibe has totally evaporated from teenage social behavior. It's more rational and calculating.

Just as in the first three issues, we see how little girls were interested in seeing everything the cover girl was wearing, how they were instead interested in imagining themselves playing the role of whatever the cover girl was up to, or perhaps imagining her as their intimate friend -- something you never imagine when it's a celeb du jour (who is shot from much farther back, to maintain sufficient distance). You know everything about the celeb, including the fact that she's never going to be your friend. But that anonymous model much closer to your own age? Hey, you never know, it could happen.

That was always how I felt looking at the chicks in advertising and rock videos, before only celebs could appear in ads (and before rock videos went extinct). Fantasizing about winning over Kelly Kapowski? Well, no harm in that, but no way would a celebrity actually get close to one of us. But some unknown, mysterious babe from a perfume or cologne ad, or that chick from the Aerosmith videos, or the Doritos girl? Hey, you never know, it could happen. (Unless they became famous.)

Girls used to be a lot more curious about other people, and more empathetic in relating to them. Now when a girl admires another girl, it's not for her beyond-the-ordinary kind of persona, but because she's modeling some stuff that the girl doesn't have yet. "Omigosh -- WHERE did you get those yoga pants for your Pomeranian?!?!?!!!!" It's unsettling and off-putting how thing-oriented, how autistic girls have become. And so quickly.

June 25, 2013

Color and light vs. line and volume in painting: Intro to the conflict

In painting there is an age-old tension between drawing (the use of line to define contours and enclose volume) and coloring (the use of hue and, in practice, light to bring surfaces to life). This intro post will review much of what has already been noticed and theorized about this opposition, though I'd say about 10-20% is my own thinking.

What I really want to get to, in the follow-up post, is why one style or the other appeals to people with different personalities (no matter if they're the artist, critic, or viewer), and why the cultural zeitgeist seems to go through cycles favoring one, then the other, then back again, and so on. That will be more original. But I'm guessing most readers haven't encountered this great, never-ending artistic tug-of-war, so even this intro should be stimulating. (At least the ideas, if not the writing.)

Perhaps the most famous historical case of the battle between drawing and coloring took place in Renaissance Italy between the Venetians, who favored colorito, and the Tuscans, who favored disegno. Read more here and here. Below you see the Creation of Adam by Michelangelo for the Sistine Chapel, compared to the Assumption of the Virgin by Titian, both from the 1510s.

Notice how Michelangelo's use of color and lighting contrasts is pretty subdued. He focuses more on line, reaching sculptural precision in carving the volumes out of space. This is needed to emphasize the mechanical influence of one volume on the other -- namely, the creative act that will occur when one of the statues makes physical contact with the other statue. That sense of "almost, but not quite touching" requires a very clear rendering of volume -- otherwise, their fingertips could be seen hazily melting into one another, and we wouldn't have a clear sense of this being the moment just before contact.

Titian instead relies more on color and especially on light-dark contrasts to achieve dramatic effect. Without even appreciating who they belong to, a triangle of red robes leaps out at you and focuses you right away on the peak, where the Virgin stands. You don't have to be able to discern their exact forms for this attention-directing technique to work. Ditto for the striking emphasis on God in the heavens -- you can hardly make out his form at all. It's enough that he's in dark shadow with deep blue robes just below, standing out against an intensely bright and yellow background. God and Mary are also wearing contrasting colors, blue and red, which makes them areas of immediate interest.

The masterful control of light and color -- particularly that strong backlighting that pushes the action forward toward the viewer -- make this scene come to life in a way that's lacking in Michelangelo. What could be more momentous than the very creation of Man? -- and yet we don't feel the same charge of the sublime when looking at Michelangelo as we get from looking at Titian. Is it the lighting? In Michelangelo's painting, the brightness is basically the same in the human and in the divine areas alike, weakening the sense that God is about to transfer life from his realm to the human realm. God's realm doesn't appear so different or special. In Titian's, the bright heavens contrast with the darkened mundane level below, heightening the dramatic transition of Mary from the one to the other.

Generally, drawing and coloring work against each other because the larger goal of drawing is to mimic 3-D reality, and our strongest depth cues rely on fairly clearly rendered volumes or forms. Interposition, where objects farther away are partly hidden by objects that are closer, relative size of objects, relative height of objects in the visual field, and linear perspective (similarly spaced objects appear to move closer together as they get farther away) -- those have to do with shape and distance, which monochromatic line drawings by themselves can tell us all about.

Coloring impairs the vivid 3-D mimicry of drawing because there's no simple mapping from colors to depths. It's not as though colder (blue-like) colors tend to be farther away, and hotter (red-like) colors closer. (See here and here for experimental evidence.) If there is any way to recover depth from color cues, it must be pretty complicated and weak. Hence, color, and especially the use of contrasting colors, confuses the eye regarding depth.

For the same reason, varying colors makes it harder to "model" a figure, or create the illusion of volume by shading the parts of it that are farther away from the light source. "Mere shading" assumes that the underlying hue is the same across the object. But if the object changes color as you look from closer to farther from the light source, this assumption of the shading technique no longer holds.

However, coloring breathes life into surfaces that would otherwise appear like inanimate slabs of stone -- maybe not the worst thing if you're painting an ordinary stone building. But not if you were painting people, animals, plants, or even inanimate things from the natural environment that still seem to have a life of their own -- fire, water, "earth" (in the broad sense, including sand, banks of dirt or mud, snow cover, etc.), or air-like presences (smoke, fog, clouds, etc.).

And although typically thought of as superfluous and superficial ornament, in fact color reveals the hidden inner life of an object, radiating through the otherwise impenetrable surface rendered by line drawing. This could be its enduring essence -- raspberries are red, blackberries are purple; safe caterpillars are this color, dangerous ones that color -- useful for distinguishing types of objects that are highly similar in form.

And its hidden inner state could be transient -- like, is this specific clump of raspberries fit to eat or not? Is that person over there sick or healthy? Is this female ovulating or not? Shape and volume will tell you little or nothing as they don't change much, or at all, across these fluctuating states. Color sends a much louder message.

Homo sapiens has largely swapped its sense of smell-and-taste for an improved sense of color perception. But odor-and-taste has the same advantages that color has over perception of volume and depth. Raspberries smell like this, blackberries smell like that. Safe caterpillars smell this way, dangerous ones that way. Ripe raspberries smell and taste different from immature ones, and both different from rotten ones. A sick person gives off different odors than a healthy person. A female in heat gives off this pheromone, instead of that ordinary one. And so on.

Color, taste, and smell join with music in not being representational -- you can use them to evoke an object or activity, but not to represent it. Even there, you can only evoke a generic class or type of object, and not a specific member of the class -- e.g., the smell or taste of rotten almonds, but not the smell or taste of any particular rotten almond(s), whose form you could, however, copy very faithfully in a line drawing.

Crucially, there are no general rules mapping the color spectrum onto the spectrums for any inner-state. Green doesn't generally mean healthy and thriving -- it does for plant leaves, but not for their berries, and not for a human face. Red means ripe for some berries (not others), but angry or febrile for a human face (do not approach). Etc. What color reveals about the inner state of an object is far more object-specific. And of course sometimes the color has no mechanically necessary relationship to the type of object or the transient state it's in -- like clothing colors. It's suggestive, evocative, and mysterious.

That contrasts with the universal principles of depth perception that drawing supports. No matter what type of object, or which individual example of a given type, the farther away it is, the smaller it will appear, the higher-up it will appear, the more likely it will be to be partly hidden by other objects, and so on.

These observations all support the long-held belief that line, volume, and depth are more objective and rational, while color and light are more subjective and emotional.

Why does light tag along with color? Blue looks darker, and yellow looks brighter. Primitive color terms in human languages are more like brightness and darkness words, only later being pressed into service to refer to hues. And like the use of contrasting colors, the strong use of contrasting light and dark impairs depth perception -- there's one area in full light, and everything else is so shadowy that the forms are hard to discern. With only a small focal region being illuminated, you can't use the strongest depth cues, which would require seeing the forms in the shadows -- what's their relative size, height in the visual field, are any partly occluding others, do they appear to converge in the distance, etc.?

Paintings with strong chiaroscuro lighting, such as those of Caravaggio, rarely (never?) give a vivid sense of 3-D immersion. They look more like bas-relief friezes, or actors occupying a thin strip of a stage while set against a flat zero-depth wall, in this case a curtain of shadow.

That should be enough of an overview for now. In the follow-up post, a look at what drives individuals and entire societies more toward the drawing or the coloring end of the spectrum.

June 23, 2013

Man of Steel and its socially fragmented world

[BTW, in the comments there's a lot more discussion of the storytelling, music, action sequences, and what puts the "Dumb" in a Big Dumb Ending, vs. a climactic and apocalyptic ending.]

Like the critics who are throwing a fit over the new Superman movie not having much cheer, joy, humor, or romance, I prefer my kickass summer action movies that way, too. Die Hard perfected this mix in 1988; already by 1994, the romance, humor, and cheer felt more strained in Speed, even if it still felt real enough.

But it's not the '80s anymore, and those emotions have all but evaporated from real life. Mortal actors draw on the range of emotions and motivations that are present in real life, so you can't expect them to convey cheer etc. very convincingly in the '90s or 21st century. Demanding that actors "transcend" their zeitgeist is like asking them to deliver the dialogue impeccably in a foreign language.

We're back to a mood of mass isolation last seen during the mid-century, so good acting and film-making will have to harness that reality to greatest artistic effect. That's why we remember all of those film noir and Hitchcock movies from the mid-century, and not so much the relatively passion-free rom-coms, the airheaded gay musicals, or the bombastic epics. *

In our return to the mid-century zeitgeist, the greatest movies will also have an alienated, noirish feeling to them -- among others, those of Christopher Nolan, who had a fair role in Man of Steel as producer and contributor to the story. Unfortunately Nolan's cinematographer Wally Pfister is not present, leading to disappointment for those who were hoping for the striking visual style of the Dark Knight trilogy or Inception.

But an interesting story, characters, and set of themes can still make the movie enjoyable to watch, as long as the look and feel isn't distractingly bad (and here they were average and competent, not a disaster like most other contemporary movies).

Perhaps the most notable feature of all of the human characters is that not a single one of them is very likable -- not that they're loathsome, but none of them makes you care about them in a way that you'd consider being their friend in real life, dream about having them as your boyfriend or girlfriend, or enjoy working with them at the office.

Well, aside from Clark's Baby Boomer parents, who you might wish to have for your own. But they don't appear to represent the mainstream of American society -- they're fairly cut off from the other families in rural Kansas, let alone from the increasingly urbanized parts of the country.

Lois Lane is introduced as a sassypants who is only defiant because some court order allowed her to backtalk to an Army colonel. She's more pushy and nosy than assertive and feisty (like the original Lois Lane was), in the way that women tend to act in a sheltered and micro-managed office environment. And she never really lets her guard down in an informal, interpersonal context.

Her newspaper editor Perry White, along with all of the military figures, are distant, reserved, and emotionally cold. Even among the military themselves, there's zero camaraderie -- not that they're turning on one another, but simply that their superorganic fellow-feeling has come unglued. Again, even as recently as 1994, camaraderie was still part of everyday life (if in decline) that the key actors on the police force in Speed could make it come to life on the screen.

From what my two brothers have told me about Army life in the 21st century, this is a very realistic portrayal -- the Cold War is done, so there's no felt need to band together as a team against a huge enemy. Even at the end of the movie, when you'd think the whole "invaded and nearly wiped out by aliens" experience might have brought them closer together, they still don't come off as tightly bonded. A little more willing to make jokes, but still not close. Fluke attacks do not leave enduring bonds. It has to be something perceived as a more enduring threat, like Indian raids or Russkie missiles and submarines.

The various office workers are your typical group of inane, self-centered, guard-up, staring-at-their-phones-while-walking kind of drones you're familiar with from real life. The customers in public spaces, such as bars or restaurants, also don't seem very involved in who they're with and where they are. There's no feeling of togetherness in those places, more like people are showing up just avoid hermit life.

Lois Lane's star-blogger friend is a smug, pompous faggot.

And so on. Cast your net at random, and 21st-century Americans don't appear very likable or cohesive, although they're not caricatured or demonized either. And the writers were generous in not portraying the even more deplorable parts of the citizenry: the suburban Supermom with a fake tan and "butt-sculpting" jeans, the People of Wal-Mart, airhead hipsters, and ghetto trash.

Is this really a society worth saving?

Here is where the movie makes good use of our background social mood. If we saw Americans as they were during the late '70s and '80s, the answer is simple. People were more endearing and sympathetic back then, and our hero would not face as dramatic of a choice. And Superman himself was more closely integrated into his host society in the Donner movies, so that gives him an added incentive to fight on their behalf. He's standing up for his own group.

In Man of Steel, however, he's much more of an outcast, although I think that's not the most important part of his characterization. Yes, there's the adolescent theme of, Would you save a group some of whose members have picked on you? This movie goes beyond that in focusing on whether all of those who did not pick on you are still worth saving.

The social climate is not one of tight bonds among the in-group of Americans, while Clark is mercilessly ostracized. None of the other kids seem very close to each other either. There's one scene where a couple of jocks tempt him to fight back, and they're there with a few girls -- presumably their girlfriends, but you couldn't tell from how disconnected everyone is, even within this supposed group of friends. Their blank faces and total lack of touchy-feely behavior, keeping all to themselves, looks pretty accurate for today's young people.

The hero must decide, then, not whether to save a cohesive group that has ostracized him, but one that hardly seems to be hanging together itself. Not a group whose members are likable, yet who have rejected you from playing in all their reindeer games, but who are bland, lifeless, and often irritating toward one another. As the outcast, you'd feel pity and sadness more than anger or envy toward the in-group.

By having Superman act more out of empathy and charity than sympathy or group loyalty, the movie gives us a hero who embodies transcendent values that we haven't seen in a long time. Instead it's General Zod as the tragic anti-hero who loves his fellow Kryptonians enough to revolt against the corrupt and impotent central committee, and risk his life in chasing after Superman to get the material he needs to re-create his race.

I have to repeat that: Superman's is not the adolescent angry/envious motivation, where I'll show those pricks who cast me out -- by saving their asses, and it'll just eat them up inside to have to thank me and beg me to join them, revenge will be so fucking sweet.

America in the 21st century may be socially fragmented and emotionally lifeless, but at least it's not as corrupted and decadent as Krypton was (...yet). Superman makes that clear when General Zod continues his appeal to recreate their society, and Superman emphasizes that "Krypton had its chance." A society that blew itself up is not worth recreating. America is in a murky twilight period, where it's not clear which way they'll go, so they're more worth saving. Sure, they might end up fucking it up just like the Kryptonians, but until there's clearer proof of that, give the unlikable bastards the benefit of the doubt.

The central theme of saving a society that you don't feel connected to and whose members are not particularly likable, because they still aren't rotten enough to deserve destruction, makes the CGI demolition work to its advantage. Normally that fake-looking crap is just off-putting and takes me out of the movie. Here, whether intentionally or not (probably not), it echoes the larger theme -- you don't have to like or feel connected to all of those glass-and-concrete, neo-mid-century big dumb ugly boxes. They still don't deserve to be annihilated in such catastrophic fashion, with all the people still inside.

When King Kong climbs the Empire State Building and starts taking fire from airplanes, the unconscious part of your brain is saying, "Holy shit, they're gonna wreck the Empire State Building!" But some sterile eyesore, some charmless Bauhaus hunk-a junk whose demolition looks like a video game? Well, yeah, I guess it isn't so offensive that it deserves to collapse as part of an indiscriminate and senseless destruction.

Maybe a selective targeting of the oppressive-looking buildings, and hands off of the Art Deco buildings, would have let us feel more comfortable with the demolition of the former. But you know that General Zod had no such motive, so you can't root for their collapse, and are uncomfortably compelled to feel loss when the buildings fall apart -- aside from caring about the human beings inside, of course. I mean even for these hideous carbuncles themselves.

I wonder if the reason that all the critics are so angry at the tone in this movie is because they have no conception of a hero whose motives are more transcendent than personal or group-minded? "OMG, 'nobler virtues' = so 2000-and-late." I also wonder if the typical audience member has totally missed this, and is seeing it primarily through the lens of personal revenge or patriotic duty to one's in-group, only differing with the critics by believing that those are good rather than bad motives.

* Women back then were too fast-talking and wise-cracking to serve as ideals worth putting it all on the line for in a romance movie. The popular musical climate was too subdued for the musicals to really bring the audience alive (unlike, say, Footloose), leaving them with a more superficial and underwhelming feeling. And notwithstanding WWII, mid-century men felt more out-of-place and overwhelmed by mass society, rather than ambitious and heroic, hence the forced quality to a lot of the grand-scale acting in epic movies.

A Superman for our socially fragmented age

I've kept checking reviews for Man of Steel and noticed that it seems like a pile-on from the critics, who mostly don't like it. And they kept harping on how little joy and fun there is -- well, what else can you expect these days? It's not the '80s anymore, it's the fragmented, cocooning, and mistrusting Millennial era.

Actors no longer have that familiar sense of playfulness and informality to tap into when they're playing their roles. They have to use what they have available in their psychology, and within the constraints of the general social mood, to the greatest effect. And since our social mood is marked more strongly by distance, isolation, alienation, and so on, it's only natural that their performances will have a more noirish feel to them.

During the previous "age of anxiety," alienation, and cocooning -- the mid-century -- Sunset Boulevard reminded any middle-aged viewers longing for the good old days that it wasn't the Roaring Twenties anymore. Time to accept the same for the '60s, '70s, and '80s. However much you may like the culture from back then, it's impossible to recreate it today, even in spirit, because our mood has been running in the opposite direction for over 20 years now.

It's like expecting Expressionist paintings from a color-blind population, which would still not prevent it from producing its own masterworks, just taking a different approach that favored black and white contrasts or subtle shading or whatever else they thought of.

So I decided to see for myself tonight. I still stand by what I said earlier about its visuals, though it was a little better than I'd expected. It took me awhile to get back home after it was over, so I think I'll end this post with a little more on the visual style of the movie, and write up a separate post going into more detail about the plot, characterization, and themes that the critics don't seem to like so much, but which I thought were interesting. Just can't get it out before I go to sleep tonight, and this post is already long as it is.

As I'd expected, there's an overall lack of visual mystery that comes from not knowing how to get the most out of the anamorphic lens' shallow focus. There were two decent uses of it, though: when Lois Lane is reluctantly walking away from a vulnerable Superman, she's totally out of focus, and we only make out her head turning back -- with no resolution necessary to tell us what's on her face. And near the end when Superman and General Zod are about to show down on a city street, Zod is very out of focus some distance away, leaving us to imagine the determined and evil look on his face, and giving him a shadowy appearance.

There is also no pervasive atmosphere of foreboding that would've come from a strong chiaroscuro lighting scheme, as you see in Christopher Nolan's movies thanks to his cinematographer Wally Pfister. And the desaturated color palette kept the look too ordinary and familiar, where stronger colors would've made more of an impact. A striking plot and striking themes calls for striking visuals.

It doesn't have to be some sublime religious painting by Caravaggio for those qualities to be important. Go back to Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, where the bold colors and strong light-dark contrasts give what could've been an unremarkable, ordinary scene a rather disturbing charge. Through color and lighting alone, and not subject matter, we can tell that something is not as it should be in that world. Ditto for Jean-Leon Gerome's portrayals of the Near East -- they depict totally natural and largely secular subjects, but strong colors and chiaroscuro make us feel like we're not just observing any old ordinary scenes. It heightens their exotic appeal.

Both of those two painted in socially dull and inward periods -- the mid-century and the Victorian era -- so there's no reason that this approach couldn't work in our incarnation of the tame-and-kinda-lame society. Look how memorable the look of the Dark Knight movies and Inception is because of it. Or Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive before them.

June 22, 2013

Scented candles have such bland or saccharine scents

Now that I've gotten back into olfactory entertainment (i.e. cologne), I thought it might be worthwhile to have something diffusing throughout my room, rather than just radiating from my neck.

I remember burning incense into the mid-'90s without it seeming like an affectation, along with turning on the black light -- to illuminate the black light poster -- and putting questions to the magic 8-ball. All in a social setting, of course. But now, I don't know, it would seem like more of a juggalo stoner thing. Burning incense would feel self-conscious.

So why not try out one of those scented candles that I've seen on display for awhile but never bothered to inspect?

Jesus, I should have known from the types of perfumes that are popular these days (to the extent that females wear it at all, which is far less than in the '80s). They're obviously geared toward women only. I tried the local hypermarket and some home goods stores, and this list from Bath and Body Works is pretty representative.

There are only three categories available, all off-putting or just not very appealing.

First is the non-scent scent. No, nothing ironic or John Cage-y here, but things like cotton, linen, fresh laundry, boardwalk breeze, rain water, mist, de-salinated beach water, and so on. Totally ordinary, not stimulating at all.

Then there are the citrus and "clean green" kind of scents -- bamboo, fresh leaves, etc., and single or combined citrus fruits. These do a little something, but they're too fresh and clean to make it feel like an enjoyably out-of-the-ordinary olfactory experience. And it has nothing to do with using "plant" scents -- they stick only to the light ones, and not more bracing ones like pine and fir needles, or heavier ones like moss and bark.

I didn't even see that many floral scents. Want to stop and smell the roses? T.S., man. Lavender is about the only one you can find, at that does at least have a slighty heavy / smoky feel to it. Still, it's shocking how uninterested women shoppers are in floral scents these days -- too heady for the emotion-minimizing OCD majority.

Finally, what makes up the vast bulk of these shelves are dessert candles. It's insane how deeply they've rummaged into the dessert cookbook to find ideas. Caramel apple, creme brulee, French vanilla ice cream, sugar cookie, pumpkin pie, mulled cider, blue velvet cheesecake (I don't even know what that is), cupcake frosting, cinnamon buns.... no joke, think of any sugar-bomb that a lardass housewife would get an insatiable craving for in between episodes of Glee, and there's a candle for it.

At least these dessert candles have a rich, fatty, spicy smell to them, which does give them something of a heady quality. But that overdose of sugar just kills the pleasure and satiety, and makes you feel like a junkie aching desperately to score a fix... and then just one more... and then just one more. You don't feel transported to some exciting new olfactory world -- you feel trapped in the edgy, twitchy present, compelled to go buy some cinnamon buns to stop feeling so edgy.

You wouldn't believe how rare it was to see milk & honey, supposedly a classic combination of rich and sweet. I only found that among hand soaps, and it was hard to find even there. Honey isn't just a heap of table sugar like you'd find in the dessert scents. It's viscous and sticky and cannot be scarfed down by the spoonful like sugar can. It's warm, glowing, and sensual. The sensuality makes you linger on it and enjoy it, rather than just blow through it to feed some fix without appreciating it. Also, milk & honey doesn't have any grain or dough like a typical dessert does. These women want to imagine shoving pastries in particular down their piehole.

I was also expecting to see some other non-pastry dessert that would still be trendy, like yoghurt and berries or something. Dude, how cool would it be to burn a candle that smelled like blue cheese and strawberries? Get something pungent in there for those who like high-contrast. But nope. The only non-pastry stuff was the odd creme brulee or almond & vanilla or almond & honey concoction. And plain vanilla, too, but it's not very exciting all by itself.

There were a few with "sandalwood" on the label, though it smelled way too sweet and adulterated by other sweet or citrus-y things. Like one said that it was sandalwood "lightened" with mandarin orange and rosemary -- yeah, so much so, that I couldn't smell the sensual wood, but only bright kitchen smells. I even found two out of many dozen that had "amber" listed, though again it was either so muted or drowned out by being paired with a loud citrus. (Ditto patchouli.) No other resin-smelling candles to be had.

I couldn't believe how almost nothing was made from spices, except for cinnamon in a dessert combination. Why breathe in a heady aroma when you can pretend you're in the middle of a pumpkin pie eating contest?

Scents today, whether it's perfume or candles, are either dull and nearly non-existent, or they are palpable but ruin any sense of enjoyment and fulfillment by inducing an addictive craving rather than satiety. Both are the same in preventing any kind of emotional attachment to the place and time, to the atmosphere in which you're smelling them. The dull ones leave no strong impression in the first place, and the sugar-bomb ones take you out of the moment because you're so focused on hoovering another bowl of creme brulee, oblivious to your surroundings, and angry if they intruded on you for even a moment, distracting you from devouring your dessert.

If scented candles had been this popular back in the '80s, you can bet they would've smelled different. Perfume back then was heavy on spices, amber, woods, the headier kinds of flowers, and even animal musks. None of these non-scent scents or candy-and-dessert indulgences. But in general I think women opted to wear their fragrances while going out, rather than air them only around the home. It was part of the more share-in-the-fun attitude back then -- don't keep that aroma all to yourself. Now nobody but those in your own little domestic sphere will smell it, because it's a candle rather than a perfume.

It's like how no one plays music in public anymore, aside from the odd ghetto trash or wigger in your neighborhood. Kids don't go out with a boom box, or leave the car stereo on in the parking lot, playing catchy music for others to hear, as an invitation to join in the fun. It's all coming through earbuds or through some crappy laptop speaker if they're at home / in their dorm room, in private.

June 21, 2013

Punk rock made an impact in the UK only

The literature on popular music devotes far too much attention to what was essentially a regional phenomenon -- punk rock in the UK. If the scope were "British rock" or "British popular music," it would deserve a good look. But elsewhere in Europe, and even in America with its similar pop leanings, punk left virtually no mark at all. If you were young and around New York or L.A., you might have had some contact with it, maybe been part of its "cult following," but otherwise not.

This highly regional nature of punk seems to go unmentioned -- or, it's more like the writer will mention that it was most popular in the UK. Well, yes -- it was only popular there.

To avoid pointless squabbling about what "really" made an impact, let's just take an objective look at what was hot at the time -- what made it onto the charts. I'm looking at year-end charts because there's too much variation on a weekly basis in who's being played on the air. The year-end charts sift through all of that stop-and-start activity and give a more representative picture of what was big at the time.

Here are the Billboard Hot 100 singles for the year of 1977, the birth of the punk movement. No punk songs at all. At the bottom of the page, there's an expandable table that will take you to other years. Click on any year from 1977 through 1984, the latest year anyone would accept for punk being an "in" thing, and you'll find no such songs.

There are songs by groups associated with, or who flirted with punk rock at some point in their careers. Blondie has four year-end singles, all non-punk and more dance-y and new wave-y: "Heart of Glass" ('79), "Call Me" ('80), "Rapture" and "The Tide is High" (both '81). Joan Jett's punk song "Bad Reputation" did not make the charts, although her hard rock anthem "I Love Rock 'n Roll" and her hard rock cover of "Crimson and Clover" both did (in '82). Similarly, the punky "We Got the Beat" by the Go-Go's did not make it, while their poppier songs did: "Our Lips Are Sealed" and "Vacation" (both '82), and "Head Over Heels" ('84).

After leaving the punk scene for a mix of new wave and hard rock, Billy Idol made the charts with "Hot in the City" ('82) and "Eyes Without a Face" ('84). Despite heavy airplay of the punkier "Dancing with Myself" on MTV, it did not make the year-end charts. "Our House" by Madness made it in '83, although that too is pretty far from their punk roots, and is more poppy. Likewise, when The Clash made the charts in '83, it was with "Rock the Casbah" -- a song that is too slow, too long, too exotic in tone, and too danceable to qualify as punk.

Now, is this method being unfair -- only counting what was so broadly accepted by the mainstream that a movement like punk has no hope of making it? No, not if we look at the UK year-end charts here. They go up to 150 singles, so to make the same comparison, stick to just the top 100. Click on 1977, and boom, there they are: "Peaches" by the Stranglers and "God Save the Queen" by the Sex Pistols, with other songs by them within the rest of the 150.  "Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)" by the Buzzcocks made it in '78, and in '79 the Sex Pistols charted twice more with "Something Else" and "C'mon Everybody".

In 1980, no more punk bands are represented among the top 100 singles, although there are three by punk bands that made it into the top 150: "My Perfect Cousin" by the Undertones, "Bank Robber" by the Clash, and "Baby I Love You" by the Ramones. By this point, new wave, post-punk, synth-pop, and two-tone ska were starting to take over. In fact, "Hong Kong Garden" by Siouxsie & the Banshees just barely missed the top 100 "way back" in 1978.

I'm sure I missed a few songs whose names I don't recognize, so this is somewhat of an under-count. But the basic picture is clear: punk caught on with mainstream audiences in the UK in the late '70s, and even lasted into the early '80s at a lower intensity, while it failed to resonate with mainstream audiences in the rest of the Anglosphere or continental Europe.

I realize that some discuss punk rock to the extent that it influenced later, more popular bands, most notably the grunge phenomenon of the early '90s. In that case, the right way to write the history would be to skip over punk as a major period, and in the period on grunge, introduce it with a brief re-cap of punk. Unless, again, the topic is restricted to British pop music history.

It's not as though the English-language music literature devotes much attention, let alone full articles and books, to Italo Disco -- even though I'm guessing the average American who had the radio on in the '80s will remember "Tarzan Boy" by Baltimora, while those tuning in during the '70s probably couldn't remember any of the classics by the Ramones. It really was more of a niche thing here, and mostly restricted to New York and L.A.

And it's not like the case of rap music, where one country has produced all of its songs but all of the Anglosphere has adopted them into the mainstream over the past 20 years. Not only were the major punk bands from the UK, they were only popular within the UK.

Time to read a lot less about punk, and a lot more about new wave / new romantics and synth-pop. If punk didn't make that much of an impact, we must only be reading so much about it because it has a special resonance with nerdy critic types (namely because it's more cerebral and attitudinal than it is corporeal and, y'know, musical), and because they want to push their personal faves into the historical accounts even if they weren't that important. If the goal is critical appraisal, then fair enough. But in what are supposed to be dispassionate chronicles of what was going on when in popular music, the balance is still way off.

It's about as bad as chronicles of design and architecture that devote way too much space to Bauhaus in the '20s, when it was a non-force -- it only became popular in the mid-century with its descendants, the International Style -- while the flourishing of Art Deco is relegated to special-focus books. What total bullshit.

June 20, 2013

Female nature in 1985, part 1 (Seventeen magazine covers)

Intro post here. I think I'll be going over each year in four more digestible posts per year, rather than one unmanageable one.

Let's take a look now at the issues of Seventeen from 1985. No special reason I chose this year; it was the most practical because I could easily locate images of all 12 covers. There's nothing really deep to describe about the covers themselves, so I'll breeze through the details and only emphasize important larger points.

This is one of the few with a recognizable celebrity on the cover, Olympic gold medal gymnast Mary Lou Retton. The shot is from far enough back that you can see her costume / uniform, allowing you to imagine yourself as a member of the American gymnastics team yourself.

The only text about personal appearance is a block about fashion and beauty. Otherwise there's a blurb about who the celebs are, an ad for the new movie Dune (marketing a sci-fi movie to girls), and two social matters -- how to fight loneliness, and how to make your crush come true. Girls today choose loneliness by cocooning and by restricting their interactions to the cyber-world. Back then loneliness was something they wanted to fight.

And guys are not hypothetical and generic -- there's a real, particular guy you have a crush on, and here's how to achieve your goal. In more boy-crazy times, girls were not just going to wait around by the phone and hope somebody would call.

Hey baby, that's more like it. The shot is a close-up so extreme that parts of her hair are cropped out of the frame. The intimate rather than distant placement means that the reader actually wants to connect with her. And not just the male onlookers thinking, "Why, yes I am free Saturday night..." but the female readership, who's thinking "God, look at how pretty and confident she is. If I were her, I could totally work up the guts to ask out Scott on a date."

The hand is a nice little touch, too. Hands lend more expressiveness to portraits, since you can only express so much with the face itself before it looks like a caricatured kabuki mask, preventing an empathetic connection. Here her hand is soft and curled, not stiff, and it's supporting her head, which gives her a certain vulnerability -- the head needing support instead of being held straight up. And by leaning in, she gives the impression that she's ready and willing to share secrets with us. Her intense gaze underscores that -- you don't look that intently at somebody you don't trust. And get a load of those eyebrows, dude. Women looked like natural animals back then, not engineered femme-bots.

Again, that works for both guy and girl viewers. The guys can't believe that this mega-babe is about to open up intimately to them, and the girls feel like they've finally made it into the upper realm of popularity. It looks like this is a sleepover at the house of the prettiest, most popular girl in school, and she's not just tolerating your presence at her party, but is inviting you in to disclose secrets to you, hoping you'll do the same. Having cemented so close of a bond with high school royalty, your deepest social worries are over.

And the girl is a model, not a celebrity, so she would have lent an aura of mystery for male and female viewers alike. We don't know anything about her, or the roles she's played. She's also listed as an actress on the cover, but wasn't really in anything at this point, although later she would become better known, at least to nerds, as Dax on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

There are only two items of text about appearances, relating to fashion and hairstyles. The bulk of the text is a five-item bullet list under the large-font heading of LOVE, a word that you rarely see on this magazine's cover anymore. Yes, some of the items are celeb gossip and media promotion, but the first one couldn't be more concrete -- "Should you tell him you LOVE him?" There's some specific "him" who the reader has in mind. Today the girl would wonder who the cover text was talking about.

And "love" sure was an all-capitals word back in the '80s, wasn't it? Now you only hear girls putting that much stress on the word when they're prattling on about things rather than people. "Shut up, a jogging bra with a pocket for my iPhone?! -- LOVE!" It's amazing how autistic the supposedly empathetic sex has become.

Then there's "tips for kissable lips" -- assuming that girls were into kissing boys. Looking through older and newer issues, I've also noticed more simple yet catchy rhetorical devices like rhyme, alliteration, etc., in the ones from the '80s.

Unfortunately the best image I could find sometimes has a glare on it. At any rate, again we see a shot that's so close-up the girl's hair is partly cropped out. She's not as inviting and expressive as the chick from February, but that was more to set the atmosphere for BOY TALK at a sleepover with a girl whose looks and popularity must have given her more experience with boy world than you the reader have had yet.

Still, March looks pretty and confident, dressed and made-up like a mature woman in fact. Particularly the short hair, very career-woman-looking. You don't see maturity on Seventeen covers anymore, even when the celeb is over 25 and should know better, they still look kiddie. Here we see a teenager who looks more grown-up than today's 20-somethings (yet with no wrinkles).

Under the confidence, there's actually a very slight unease, which you might read as some kind of temporary mood caused by some troubling event in her life at this time. Although maybe teenage audiences back then would have read it as the awkwardness of changing form from child into adult. Whatever the case, she lets the reader fill in the details of the story, and because it's another model who we don't know anything about, it's not that hard.

There is a large block of text about clothes and make-up for spring, but that's it for appearances. "If your guy's feeling blue, here's what to do" -- didn't I tell you about more rhyming back then? Once more, guys are not referred to in generic hypothetical terms, like "What do guys think of you?" or "Guys tell us what they really want." There's some concrete guy in the reader's life, and their relationship is close enough that she would pick up on him feeling blue and want to support him somehow.

"Hey, it's Huey Lewis" -- LOL, what is it about that "Hey" at the beginning? It makes the ad for a celeb interview sound more friendly and informal, not like a standard hawking-your-wares kind of pitch from a pushy sales associate. "Step right up, we've got Huey Lewis here." He was nearly 35 years old at the time, and played in a somewhat traditional-sounding rock band, albeit with an '80s level of energy lifting it up. It wasn't a guy in his early 20s who did more fashionable synth-pop music. In contrast, a recent issue of Seventeen had the sexless, trendy Jonas Brothers on the cover...

"Facts about homosexuality" -- a burning social issue right there on the front cover, man. This might be an issue that I check out from my university library, just to see how PC vs. realistic the mainstream media was back then. This was way before the movie Philadelphia, before everyone came out, way before gay marriage, gay bffs, and so on. I'm sure they didn't come right out and say, "These faggots are all fucked in the head," but I'll bet they give a more accurate picture than what the fag hag media would print today.

And one final item about having the prom of your life -- it doesn't mention anything about the clothes, make-up, hair, limo, etc. When it's phrased as "Have the prom..." it sounds more like the entire social experience is being referred to. Rather than "Hot hairstyles for prom" or "Killer prom dresses."

Like I said in the intro post, don't expect sober news discussions or photography for the ages from a teen magazine. Still, isn't it striking how socially oriented girls were back then, and how little the "typical airhead bitch" vibe comes across? The girls are likable and inviting, not loathsome and off-putting. They were more focused on people and relationships, imagining personas and role-playing through empathy, not obsessing over things and stuff that would help them inflate their ego.

Things were a means to an end -- more like costumes and props that would help them ease into this mysterious, exotic other persona that they partly saw, partly imagined when looking at the cover girl. Now the cover girl only serves to model the things that the reader is obsessed with collecting and hoarding, not even really enjoying them but burning through them like a compulsive addiction.

And you know what, I'll bet their articles on homosexuality, suicide, etc., had a more sober tone than the hysterical ranting found in supposedly grown-up media outlets from the past 20 years.

June 19, 2013

Changes in female psychology as reflected in Seventeen magazine

It seems like when the zeitgeist makes a major shift in direction, it affects young people the most. They aren't totally set in their ways yet, and they must grapple with the reversal of direction for themselves. Their parents probably can't help them since they didn't experience such a huge change in direction when they were young.

I also think females respond more to the changes than males. During the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, everybody became more outgoing, trusting, fun-loving, and curious. But that really stood out among females, who by nature tend to be wet blankets. Then when things changed direction in the '90s through today, it was again females who swung the most violently in the direction of cocooning, suspicion, and being an incurious killjoy.

So you get an even sharper picture of the the social and cultural changes by looking at the world of youngish women. Here I'll look at the most popular magazine among them, Seventeen. It's mostly for 12-19 year-olds, a demographic group that is hard to study because researchers are required to jump through extra hoops to get approval to study them, being minors. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey is one of the best things we have on them, but it only scratches the surface. Their media give us an even richer snapshot of what they're like.

I'm only going to look at the covers since I don't have easy access to the magazines themselves from way back when to today. But the cover is what is meant to really grab the girl's attention and motivate her to buy it, so it encapsulates a lot of the zeitgeist in itself.

The overall timing of the changes won't surprise readers here -- they more or less track the trend in the crime rate, which increased to a peak in 1992 and has fallen since.

In this first post, a single comparison point for the present. Below is the cover of the May 2013 issue. (Here is the full year of 2012 for a further look, with other years viewable as well.)

Notice several things. The girl on the cover is a celebrity actress rather than a model. Singers and all-purpose celebs like Kim Kardashian are other popular choices. Girls and women these days have trouble relating to models because they lack a backstory -- what characters they've played, what other celebrities they're friends with, who they're dating, etc. -- and are generally unfamiliar. The incurious audience of the past 20 years has to see an instantly recognizable star.

They aspire to be like the cover girl, and the fact that they already know so many facts about her and her performing personas means that there's less to imagine or fill in for themselves. A model is more vague and unfamiliar, requiring more empathy and imagination on the reader's part to create the persona that they're projecting themselves into.

The photo is shot from far enough back that we see her from her upper legs on up, in particular we see all of the clothing and accessories that she's modeling. This makes it look like the cover shot is designed to pitch the clothing and accessories in themselves, more than the persona of the girl wearing them. There's a heavy emphasis on things rather than people.

The background is a simple plane of color suggesting no tangible location, and the lack of props or costumes also keeps it from feeling like the cover girl is playing a certain role. She's just there to model the clothing and accessories, and provide the reader with an already recognizable persona.

Putting aside how busy and cluttered the text is, let's take a look at the type of content it's pitching. Win clothes, laptops, and make-up. Perfect skin. Swimsuits, the best one for your body. The summer jobs that will make you rich. And the blurb about who the celebrity is. This limited range is typical of the past 20 years in the magazine -- it tends to focus only on appearances. Specifically, how you can make yourself up into the princessiest princess out there, to make all those other wannabe bitches jealous, and guys look at you (without, however, intending to date or get physical with them).

References to social life are rare, focus on same-sex friends, and generally discourage trusting others, feeding the paranoia and suspicions of the reader. Boys exist in a hypothetical world, where she mostly wants to know what they think of her, i.e. what's her score from 1 to 10. Allusions to the real relationships with boys that the magazine assumes she's having are practically non-existent. For example, a line about how to get through a bad break-up -- not going to see it.

There's also an absence of larger social issues that might affect people like the ones she knows. I guess by now the writers realize that the reader doesn't have very broad or deep social connections, and is mostly isolated. Hence any problems it poses the solutions to will be personal, not ones that the reader could help to solve for others in her social circle.

I know what you're thinking -- well, duh, what were you expecting? It's just some silly superficial teen magazine for chicks. But neither teenagers nor chicks are a constant over time. Millennial teenagers may be glib self-centered airheads, but they weren't always like that.

In the next post, I'll go over all the covers from 1985 and show just how different girls used to be.

Gypsy parasitism as an outgrowth of Ottoman multiculturalism

Gypsies are notorious for relying more on parasitic strategies than perhaps any other ethnic group of any substantial size. Banditry, welfare, whatever. Part of their way of life looks like a typical pastoralist / nomadic culture of honor, but it is so exaggerated in Gypsies -- way beyond the Bedouin, the Mongols, and the Hatfields and the McCoys.

What selection pressures could have led to their uniquely parasitic way of life? There's a post at West Hunter on the topic of sneaking embarrassing truths about Gypsies into the mainstream media. In the comments sections, I floated this possible explanation. Read the whole comment, the reference, and get into the broader discussion over there.

Briefly, the Ottoman Empire forced multiculturalism on a large part of southeastern Europe, which has always been the main region of Gypsy settlement. Ordinarily, a group that preyed so brazenly and so frequently on a host population would have gotten slaughtered centuries ago if they were sedentary and couldn't flee their attackers.

Or if they were nomadic, they would still have been reduced to "mere" occasional predation like the kind visited upon settled folk by desert Arabs, Mongols, or Irish highwaymen. And before any of those groups organized themselves into a national force -- just everyday opportunistic preying on people who can't chase after you without exhausting their resources, while you know how to live on the move.

The Ottoman Empire blocked that natural response by the host populations by denying them the right to take care of their own business. Only the Ottoman higher-ups could dispense justice, and they were not very interested in it. They just wanted tax money, and group vs. group feuds and conflicts get in the way of that steady stream of money. So, use your control and force to prevent the preyed-upon group from chastening their predators, and the money will just keep flowing in.

Westerners mistakenly believe that we live in some Brave New World of government-enforced multiculturalism. But the historical examples are pretty clear for those who are curious about others who've walked in our shoes before. Or I guess we're re-treading the path that they laid down. Liberals ignore these examples because the results are a damning indictment of the forced multiculturalism that they champion. And conservatives are too damn lunk-headed and incurious to feel like putting themselves in another group's place, even if it's similar to our own in some very important way, even if the outcome of the cross-cultural mind-meld would give them some ammunition against liberals.

One thing's clear: the longer we have forced multiculturalism, the more intensely one group preys on another group within the vibrantly diverse mix, and the more the preyed-upon group is prevented (by threat of force) from retaliating on their predators, the more likely we are to set the perfect lab conditions for the evolution of Gypsies v.2.0. But just like the Ottoman pasha and his elite, our rulers won't have to live next door to them and be preyed on, so only an overthrow of the entire regime would bring the parasitism down to the "ordinary" level you find among other nomadic bandit groups.

....Very interesting times lie ahead, that's for sure.

Children's toys only based on existing mega-franchises

Four years ago, I stopped into a Toys R Us and noticed how little innovation there has been in the basic categories of toys -- action figures, board games, video games, building sets, mini-vehicles, and so on. There doesn't seem to be a fundamentally new type of children's toy since the explosion of action figures and video games in the late 1970s and '80s.

I stopped in again and took another good look around, and that seems just as true four years later. The trend toward recycling older brands of action figures (etc.) was even more obvious. Star Trek is now in, thanks to the new movies, and so is ThunderCats -- apparently based on a reboot / re-whatever of the original cartoon. It boggles the mind to walk into a toy store looking for stuff for my nephew and see basically nothing new in terms of the type of toy, and even the brands within each type, compared to when I was his age.

But something else struck me that I didn't notice before -- whether it's old or new, it seemed like everything was based on a strong brand already in existence, with the toys being a kind of spin-off and cash-grab. There was hardly any toy line that was created to be a toy line first and foremost -- it had to be parasitic on some mega-franchise.

This marks a real decline in the imagination of children over the past 20 years. They don't want to play with toys whose elaborate backstory they do not already know, more or less. The unfamiliar does not provoke a feeling of curiosity but of boredom. "Oh, I don't know what that is. Hey look, trains from Thomas and Friends!"

Back in the '80s, when the toy culture was at its most recent peak, there were very popular toy lines that were launched alongside a cartoon or comic book series. However, for a lot of those multi-pronged attacks, most kids didn't see the cartoon or read the comics, whether because they were poorly advertised, were only around for a few episodes / issues, or whatever else.

For example, I never even knew that the Inhumanoids was a cartoon when I was little -- not until I read about it in Wikipedia. It only lasted 13 episodes and must have been on at a weird time or only in certain parts of the country. But those toys were really popular. Every major toy store carried them, and my two brothers and I had a variety of them. Ditto for the Dino-Riders -- instantly recognize the toys, no clue that there was a cartoon to promote the toys. Starriors had some kind of limited comic book tie-in, but again, I never knew about it, even though every kid would have recognized and probably owned some of the toys. And so on and so on.

If anything, it appears as though the toy lines were given the most emphasis, and the cartoons, comic books, movies, etc., were solely intended to promote the toys -- not to stand alone as cartoons, etc. Today it's the exact opposite: the movies and TV shows are highly developed, and the toy lines are cheaply and thoughtlessly spun off of them.

Sure, there are exceptions from the good old days. Everyone who was a child then remembers the cartoons that tied in with the toy lines for Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man, ThunderCats, and a handful of others. Not to mention the ubiquitous Star Wars toys.

But when I look through Wikipedia's category page for 1980s toys, and weight each entry by how popular it was back then -- like, do I remember it, did I own the toys -- the general picture is that we were interested in toys that were not spin-offs of some brand or franchise that we already knew a lot about. Give us something new and exciting, dammit.

This is even more striking outside of action figures. Boglins, Cabbage Patch Kids, Care Bears, Construx, Garbage Pail Kids cards, Madballs, My Pet Monster, Pound Puppies, Teddy Ruxpin, the Koosh ball, the Pogo Ball, Skip-It, Lazer Tag... It's hard to find examples of stuffed animals or dolls that actually were based on an existing franchise. Whereas now the plushies have to be instantly recognizable -- Mario, Sonic, or some other popular video game character, Disney / Pixar blockbuster characters, etc.

I became too old for toys during the '90s, but my sense is that this independence of the toy world from other worlds of entertainment had already begun to decline by then. When I was right on the edge, around 12 or 13 (circa 1993), there didn't seem to be line after line of toys whose brand was unfamiliar from the broader culture of TV, movies, and video games. But there were still things later like the Furby and tamagotchi, which weren't based on existing mega-brands. By now, there's not even that minimal level of unfamiliar toy lines.

I know even less about the toy culture of the mid-century, but my vague impression is that, like the Millennial era, it was more dependent on huge familiar brands. The Davy Crockett hat, the Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon ray gun, the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, and so on. I'd have to look more into it to be sure, but I'm not that interested right now. It would go along with the broader cultural inertia of the time. Like how everybody had begun to complain about how nothing new had swept popular music since the Jazz Age, and how dull and degenerate it had become by the 1950s. (Sound familiar?)

All kids really need is a basic sense of who the good guys and the bad guys are. Let their imaginations fill in the rest on their own. Maybe my idea of what some action figure was like differed from what my brother or my friend thought they should be like. Well, OK, suit yourself. Kids don't suit themselves anymore, do they? Every last little detail has to be fed to them pre-digested.

Have you ever seen them open up a new toy set, something with many different pieces, and the first thing they rush to do with them is re-create the way they're pictured on the box? Like, the same exact configuration. My nephew got some kind of vehicle and location set (like gas trucks and a gas station), and that's immediately what he did. My brother reassured him that he didn't have to just duplicate the picture on the box, y'know, encouraging him to have a little more fun with it. No, my nephew was dead set on it looking exactly like the box first.

Even worse with Legos -- there are no more blocks that you build into whatever you want. Everything is a part of a playset with a specific theme and specific final form to... I was going to say "achieve," but more like "snap into place." It's like coloring by numbers.

Children's toys are of no great cultural importance, but they do give us insight into the mindset and behavior of young people, especially as it changes over time. The fact that they still insist on not using their imagination when given explicit encouragement by their parents, just goes to show that this shift is not merely the helicopter parents warping and stunting their kids' minds. Somehow the children themselves, since the 1990s, have sensed that they're growing up in a world where OCD is the winning strategy, and not flexible thinking and curiosity.

Children are more perceptive of the world around them than we give them credit for, and are more active in creating their identities than the blank slate view would have it. Unfortunately in this case, that means a lot of the blame lies with the kids themselves when they turn out so rigid, boring, and incurious.

June 14, 2013

Man of Steel and dissipated visual tension


I haven't seen the movie yet and probably will not, mostly on the basis of the dull-looking visual approach that's evident in the trailers -- monochromatic, desaturated, uniform lighting, deep focus (information overload focus), jarring action tempos that you can't get into the groove of, and so on. "Bombastic" keeps coming up in reviews, both about the look and story.

I had hopes for this one looking cool, given Christopher Nolan's influence as producer. But his cinematographer Wally Pfister is absent, and pinch-hitting for him is Amir Mokri, known for such sublime-looking films as The Joy Luck Club, Coyote Ugly, Bad Boys II, Fast & Furious, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon. And with the director of the hit video game 300 at the helm, a nerdy in-your-face overload look must have been inevitable.

Again, I haven't seen it yet, and you don't want to make too much out of a single frame, but it represents a larger problem with the movie's visual style. Now, we don't know exactly what's going on plot-wise in the image below, but it's clear that the butt-kicking babe type on the right is physically threatening Lois Lane on the left, with Lois' partner Superman looking on anxiously from further back.

Superman is the protagonist, the character we're supposed to identify with the most. We are meant to feel how tense he must be right now, not knowing how far the man-woman is going to escalate things. With her larger size, dark armored clothing, and colder stare, she looks like she could just snap Lois' neck if she wanted to. How far is she going to take it?

Since all of the action is taking place between the two women in the foreground, our attention should be concentrated there, and Superman should be far less intrusive visually. He is too in-focus -- more or less as in-focus as the foreground characters -- and we can read too much detail on his face. The shadows thrown on his face don't do enough to hide the details of his expression.

Instead it needs to be blurred enough so that we can tell in what direction his head is pointing, which tells us who he's looking at, and only the vaguest hint of what expression he's making. We assume that he's feeling worried and watching carefully for the slightest sign that things are taking a turn for the worse before he jumps in to save Lois. We don't need to have that telegraphed in crisp detail from the background -- it's a natural, normal reaction to the action in the foreground. Reactions that are not noteworthy or surprising do not need to be focused on, pulling our attention away from where it should be building up.

In addition to keeping our attention where it should be, a blurry focus on Superman would also heighten our concern for him. We assume that he has that look on his face, but by obscuring the focus enough, we don't get 100% confirmation. It keeps us anxious and uncertain ourselves.

We also would not feel complete reassurance that there's a deus ex machina waiting in the wings to rescue Lois if things go horribly wrong. With his determined, ready-to-sacrifice expression so clearly in focus, we're never in doubt that Lois is safe. I mean, just look at that face -- one false move, and that chick's ass is grass. We need to see a blurry face instead, just to keep us guessing about how prepared he is to intervene. It would feel like something bad could happen, that something is at stake, and worth getting on the edge of our seat about. As it stands, it looks like Superman is Lois' spotter at the gym.

This is such a glaring mistake, and the fix so obvious, that it leaves little hope for the rest of the movie's visuals.

To see what I mean, let's revisit an image from an earlier post on The Parallax View and sublime visual style:

The placement of characters within the frame is similar enough to the Man of Steel image, with the background figures looking on and from between those in the foreground. Since most of the action is going on in the foreground, those two are in good focus. But since there's little going on in the background, those two are out of focus. We can tell that the background character on the left is watching the foreground characters, sizing them up, biding his time until he sets a trap for them. And we can tell that the man on the right is turned toward him in a show of deference, so he must be the subordinate going along with whatever his boss' plan is.

All of that hits us immediately without being able to clearly read the faces of those in the background. Indeed the blurry focus heightens the menacing atmosphere of the bar, making the boss man look more shadowy and difficult-to-read.

The background character looking on does not always have to be blurred out of focus, though. Here is a shot from The Dark Knight Rises, where the Batman suit is staring at Bruce Wayne, practically calling out to him to put it back on:

Notice how sharply in-focus the suit is. Now if it were a human face in the background, this "calling out" image would feel too on-the-nose. But since it's a mask that has had most of the fine details of human facial expression stylized out of it, we don't attend to it that much, even though it's in crisp focus. The apprehensive look on Wayne's face provides more expressive detail, so we attend more to his face than the mask.

Particularly in action movies, a genre that should be about building up and releasing tension in catharsis, we need to feel a sense of mystery, uncertainty, and menace just from looking at the setting and the people and things moving around in it. If everything is so clearly in focus, anxiety cannot build up in the first place. Thus with nothing at stake, the action scenes are like watching a child swinging his action figures into one another.

The simplest way to fix these problems is to shoot with an anamorphic lens, which brings the things being focused on into even sharper clarity, while throwing everything in front of and behind that distance into a blur. And also refraining from racking focus so often -- that is, shifting focus from one distance to another, typically to focus on one character and then another within a single shot. That works well enough when it's shifting between two people chatting inside of a car, with one closer to us than the other, and switching focus to whoever is speaking at the moment. But when a sense of uncertainty is called for, we need for the character to remain blurry throughout the shot.

Probably the best use of these focus techniques to build and release tension in an action movie is Die Hard, but that's a topic for a post of its own. Aside from more effectively giving us the right emotional response to the plot, it helps to give the movie a striking visual style that has been lacking in the kickass summer action genre of the past 20 years, and that was absent before the rise of sublime-oriented filmmaking during the '60s, '70s, and '80s.

Update: It appears that Man of Steel was shot with an anamorphic lens after all... not that you can tell from looking. It takes a special skill to deaden the shallow-focus effects of shooting in Panavision. I should have looked it up on IMDb first, but if it's used the way it's supposed to, it should leap out and not be something you have to look up to confirm.

Going back to the first image, and contrasting with the one from The Parallax View, it's not only the depth of focus that's off, but also the depth of staging. Superman is standing too close to the foreground characters, again as though he were spotting Lois Lane at the gym. It's too close for the shallow focus to work its magic. He should be placed 5 to 10 feet farther back, close enough to still be connected to the foreground action, but far enough that he'll be blurry and not acting as Lois' training wheels.

And of course all the CGI stuff is deep-focus and information overload, not real things seen through the camera lens. CGI is either incapable of mimicking shallow focus, or its creators and consumers do not resonate with that kind of look, and dig the boring crappy look instead.