Sunday, December 21, 2008


This is not an entry about the delicious milk based food product called Cheese. I do love it, I was born in the American Midwest, famous for Dairy farms, cold winters and liberal politics. SO I am a fan of cheese. But that isn't what I am going to talk here about.

What I am here to talk about is Movie cheese.

Perhaps you believe that the only good movie is a bad movie. Or perhaps you believe that anything short of a masterpiece isn't worth your time. I occupy the middle road, wherein I appreciate very well done thoughtful work, but, sometimes, there is just nothing better than a cheesy monster movie. This resort to lowbrow entertainment isn't a statement about my intelligence, it is a statement about my state of mind.

You see, when I am tired, or depressed, or worried, I do not want to think. I want to NOT think. And watching movies that matter cause me to think. Monster movies on the other hand, especially giant monsters as the central feature, require you to watch and feel, but rarely think.

When I am depressed I resort to comedy, such as The Little Rascals or The Three Stooges. Twice when I had lost a loved one, and the funeral and sadness still stuck in my mind, I did not find humor in anything or joy in anything until I watched a Little Rascals film. It was pure, innocent humor.

So how are animals so large as to destroy cities innocent? Well, nobody dies in these who you get to know, unless they are evil, or a military or government type official. And really, when they do die, which is rare, you see it from a distance and never have to worry for the reality of it all. These movies paint scenes and tell stories using a giant brush, and broad canvas.

So the movie posters and stills you see here are from some very fun films. However silly the story, or unbelievable, for the hour or hour and a half it takes you get to escape. Different people use different sorts of cheese films. Some people, like me like giant monsters, or silly comedies, others like sappy patriotic or romance stories, but we are doing it all for the same reason, we want to sit, watch, and think later.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Of Simpsons and Samurai

What makes something that is popular part of culture, and the reverse, what makes anything that is part of culture more popular to point of being commonly understood than other portions? The United States has long been said to be suffering from a lack of cultural literacy. But what is that? Definition from Wikipedia “Cultural literacy is the ability to converse fluently in the idioms, allusions and informal content which creates and constitutes a dominant culture. From being familiar with street signs to knowing historical references to understanding the most recent slang, literacy demands interaction with the culture and reflection of it. Knowledge of a canonical set of literature is not sufficient in and of itself when engaging with others in a society, as life is interwoven with art, expression, history and experience. Cultural literacy requires familiarity with a broad range of trivia and implies the use of that trivia in the creation of a communal language and collective knowledge. Cultural literacy stresses the knowledge of those pieces of information which content creators will assume the audience already possesses.” So, in order to be fully conversant you need to know the roots of a cultural idiom and the icons of culture, but also you need to understand it and be conversant with it in the modern language.

An example is The Simpsons cartoon. In an episode called “Homer Loves Flanders” Homer Simpson has driven Ned Flanders a bit mad, and in his dreams Flanders dreams of shooting people from a bell tower, only to have one of the possible victims, a postal worker return fire with his own concealed firearm. However much one laughs at the top layer of Homer going so overboard that he drives kind Ned mad, we have an example of cultural literacy. Ned’s dream reflects two moments/episodes of American cultural history that entered common thought. On August 1, 1966 Charles Whitman ascended the top floor of the UT Austin admin building, with an open observation deck, and murdered 14 people and wounded 31 others. When Ned shot at the Postal worker who returned fire it was use of a then common worry of Postal workers going mad and shooting people, or going postal. My son being 10 has no concept of either event/episode but laughed uproariously at the humor of the story. He didn’t get the whole multilayered joke because he wasn’t and rightly, couldn’t have been culturally literate enough yet to understand it all.

So we have symbols in culture, words, iconic images, that tell us clues how to feel, think or respond. I spoke to Arthurian Legend being a keystone of English culture. In Japan a very different cultural region from England/UK, the cultural touch point is more a romanticized era than a set of stories. The Japanese have made great strides, became modern despite having a medieval system as late as 1870. But they never forgot the Samurai, Emperor, Shogun, and more who peopled their stories, who lived in the era, when violence and a vital caste system allowed for a great and powerful cultural story book. The Japanese could hardly forget moments from their past because however modern they are as a people, they can still see the Emperor’s castle and residence, the castles from the Tokugawa and earlier regimes. The very aspects of the world they left by becoming modern were never lost to them, for they simply developed a culture that kept the keystones, and never ignored them.

The arts that have grown since are vibrant and varied, but also, they still cling to the aesthetic of “Chrysanthemum and Sword”, being beautiful and unique, at the same time as stark and often simple. Japan’s legends and lore are vital to their being. Much like the American image of Cowboys and the Frontier, Japan’s memories of Samurai and court intrigues make their world go round.