Pop Culture Musing for a Thursday, 12/18/14

broadband-dataWizards of Greed: Leave it to corporate cupidity (and I mean you, Comcast) to upset a perfectly nice weekend afternoon. This is nothing near an apocalyptic anecdote, just one of those minor aggravations that remind of the seeming inability to enjoy anything these days without some sort of money-grubbing on the part of those insatiable behemoths that control the telecommunications process.

To continue the story, we happened to check out Comcast’s “On Demand” movies on a recent Sunday and ran across The Wizard of Oz, which was listed as “Free.” With a catch, of course: no less than ten minutes into the film we’re bombarded with at least five minutes of commercials, most of them pitching Comcast’s Xfinity services. I figured it was maybe a one-time interruption, but several minutes later, same deal. (At that point, we said our goodbyes to Oz.) Then, to compound the displeasure, I saw movies like Miracle on 34th Street and Meet Me in St. Louis (old as the hills and which also happened to be broadcast elsewhere for free that day) being offered at $3.99 a pop.

content-blockedConsider this a roundabout introduction to some thoughts on the ongoing debate about “net neutrality,” and which pits that same avaricious offender, Comcast, along with other broadband giants like AT&T and Verizon, against believers in the concept that users of the Internet should have free and open access to high-speed service regardless of their usage.

Comcast is not happy with the fact that a large chunk of its resources is consumed by byte-intensive websites like Netflix and YouTube, and would prefer we pay extra for the privilege, freeing up their faster speed lanes for bigger-pocket, ostensibly business, subscribers. AT&T and the others apply the same idea in their tiered (non-Wi-Fi) data plans for mobile devices, where you are allowed a certain amount of high-speed data access and then are “throttled” down to lower speeds after you meet your cap. It’s a simplistic explanation of the issues involved, but you get the picture. Big business trying to wring that last penny out of all of us.

It will be up to the FCC to decide, but in the meantime, excuse me while I dig up that old video of Wizard of Oz. At least it’s commercial-free.

Review: ‘Being Mortal’ by Atul Gawande

beingmortalimage2I was surprised to see Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End near the top of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list – not because it’s not an excellent book (which it is), but because the subject matter is not, shall we say, easily approachable. (Discussions about death and dying rarely are.)

Then I thought of the number of Baby Boomers now struggling for answers as they deal with aging and incapacitated parents, looking for pathways to follow as they wrestle with an issue deeply affecting their own lives, and it’s no wonder Being Mortal strikes such a major chord.
Read the full review at Blogcritics.org

On “Gone with the Wind,” 75 Years Later

gable and leigh gone with the windThough it’s considered one of the great love stories of all time, I’ve always been more amazed at how much of an antiwar film Gone with the Wind really is. When one realizes that the movie, which marks its diamond anniversary this year, was released prior to the most crushing conflict in world history, the perception is even more remarkable.

Amidst the spectacle, the emotions, the sheer volume of it all, the underlying “war is hell” theme can be easily overlooked; at best it usually doesn’t leave an overriding impression. In hindsight, however, Gone with the Wind can be incorporated as part of an important group of socially significant films which flourished during the late ‘30s and ‘40s — particularly those of Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) — that have yet to be equaled in their capturing of folk America with a populist comment.

I think of one scene that is forever etched as far as its depiction of the brutality of war. Shot in silhouette (a technique used often and effectively in the film), a man loses a leg by amputation without the benefit of chloroform, as a horrified Scarlett O’Hara, played by Vivien Leigh, looks on. Though more remembered is the famous panoramic shot of Scarlett as she makes her way through a vast landscape of dead and dying soldiers, the aforementioned scene is infinitely more frightening in its simplicity.  A less sensitive director may easily have deleted it; instead we are left with a moment that is timeless in its depiction of suffering. The depth of the emotional effect is shattering. Its crudity makes it hard to swallow, even in these days when one is inured to superfluous violence — and it’s done without the use of any graphic elements whatsoever. Continue reading

Pieces of Peace

gandhi possessionsThe stark and haunting simplicity of this photograph depicting the last earthly possessions of Mahatma Gandhi was the catalyst for Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence, a wide-ranging examination of the history of civil disobedience which opened earlier this month at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. “When I saw this picture [while] reading Gandhi’s autobiography, for me it became like a testament, like a poem. And I never forgot it,” Josef Helfenstein, director of the Menil Collection, recently commented. The exhibition, which coincides with the 145th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth, features a special focus on photography, and uses art and artifacts to depict symbols of protest throughout time, as well as the contributions of icons from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, who inspired nonviolent movements that reverberated around the world. Experiments with Truth runs through February 1.

(Photo: Courtesy James Otis/Gandhiserve)

Rebel Rebel

david bowie

I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.
— David Bowie on his 50th birthday, 1997

The amazing creative ride that that’s been the half-century career of David Bowie, now celebrated in what promises to be the blockbuster David Bowie Is exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, spectacularly proves – as if further proof were needed – how the cultural icon has always been remarkably true to that promise.

Bowie’s assorted artistic personas, from The Thin White Duke to Ziggy Stardust (outrageously androgynous at a time when the concept was still considered exotic) defined reinvention in a time before Madonna. But what really put him in a league of his own, beyond his ever-nonconformist individuality, was his extraordinary impact on so many fields beyond music – fashion, film, and the graphic arts among them.

Just because, I’ll throw in some fun facts I was unaware of (or didn’t remember) about Bowie that I ran across as I read about the exhibit. He changed his real name, David Jones, in 1965, to distinguish himself from Davy Jones, later of the wildly popular group, The Monkees. (“Bowie” came from the knife of the same name.) “Space Oddity” was actually timed to coincide with the 1969 landing on the moon. (Written, incidentally, when he was only 22.) And he also played The Elephant Man on Broadway in 1980, to much critical praise.

Beyond the trivia, and back to the music, I thought about my own favorite Bowie album, Station to Station, and particularly, its two alliteratively titled arias, “Word on a Wing” and “Wild is the Wind” (the latter originally recorded by the crooner Johnny Mathis in 1957). In truth, relistening to the album in 2014 shows how far ahead of the pack Bowie was in 1976, at a time immediately prior to those lost years of pop music known as disco.

Possibly only Bowie could take the melodramatic lyrics of “Word on a Wing” (“Lord, Lord, my prayer flies like a word on a wing”) and send them soaring into art-rock territory. But he goes into full chanteuse mode with the intentionally over-the-top cover of “Wild is the Wind,” his vocal making you forget the mawkishness of such sentiments as “You touch me, I hear the sound of mandolins.” It is strangely unforgettable.

Though perhaps not the most famous tracks on Station, which also includes the chart-topping “Golden Years” and the classic “Stay,” the ballads are emblematic for me of Bowie’s chameleon-like talents – and reminders of what a versatile singer he truly was.

In another lyric from “Word on a Wing,” Bowie wrote: “I’m ready to shape the scheme of things.”

Which pretty much sums up his incredible career.

[David Bowie Is runs through January 4.]

When Nature Collides

water drops spider webWater droplets cling to a spider’s web on a foggy morning in London 9/16/14.

Photo: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images