The Riff - February 2007

Making Sustainable Design Fun

| Wed Feb. 28, 2007 9:07 PM EST

How could humans become their own renewable source of energy? This is only one of the many questions Myriel Milicevic explored while heading-up the Human Powered Workshop during the Interaction Design Workshop Week in Belgium earlier this month.

Projects participants designed at the workshop include the Dirt Annihilator, a street-cleaning trike, Energy on Wheels, a shopping cart that generates power, and an energy generating rocking chair. The objects were inspired by from a Colombian eco-village and electricity-generating turnstiles in Japanese train stations, among other things.

Organizer Milicevic recently spoke to the folks at the interactive design blog, We-Make-Money-Not-Art. She claimed "there is not much difference between politics and play." This realization was the outcome of a workshop she collaborated on with artist and designer Amy Franceschini, called The Politics of Play. (For another example of the intersection between politics and play, you also might want to check out Amy Franceschini's project, Victory Gardens 2007, currently at the SF MOMA.)

The essence of the Human Powered Workshop and the Politics of Play can be summed up in Myriel Milicevic's statement, "I like to remind people that they can make their own observations, share them,…and see grass-roots movements evolve. People can come up with very powerful and creative solutions even with very limited resources."

You can read more about Milicevic's socially and environmentally concerned design projects on here.


--Rose Miller

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One More Thing about the Oscars...Lesbian Attire

| Mon Feb. 26, 2007 5:40 PM EST

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What is a butch (albeit soft butch) dyke to wear to host the Oscars? A dress with lots of makeup, like Jodie Foster (whose walk totally gives it away, anyway)? Or a tux? I'm sure Ellen would rather have worn a full-on tux, but would America really have stood for a dyke in drag, bowtie and all?

I swear, I am no fan of Ellen (on my personal blog I refer to her as Ellen DeRidiculous—let that serve as evidence). But give the dyke a break. I thought her first two outfits were pretty sharp. The last one, not so much. (A butch-on-butch critique: Too clingy in the thighs.) But the MSM has harshed on her again and again. I'm calling homophobia on it—that's right, I'm pulling the gay card.

First of all, this whole armchair fashion critique, not just of the Oscars but also the State of the Union address, is inherently sexist. I mean, guys pull a tux off the rack and voilà. I challenge you to find me a critique of a man in a normal tux.

But here are some jabs at Ellen from places who apparently could have used a memo from the National Center for Lesbian Rights about the butch lesbian's impossible fashion situation (not to pimp my own work, but I think it's fair to say that I hold a significant place in the writing-about-butch-fashion genre, so check here and here).

Salon (teaser line: Ellen was 'Ellish in her tacky leisure suits): Ellen took a contrary approach and went for a casual feel ... too casual. Her red velour leisure suit would have looked right at home playing the Wurlitzer for the State Farm Senior Golf Classic. It appears that hosting daytime TV, in some cases, retards the part of the brain responsible for selecting eveningwear. It was a relief when Ellen changed, midway through, into a slightly more upscale, all white, Usher-esque ensemble, but her third and final outfit of the evening looked like she'd bribed it off of one of the busboys at Musso & Frank's. With bigger mutton chops, she'd have been a dead ringer for Isaac from "The Love Boat."

The mutton chops really exposes the anti-butch agenda here.

Washington Post: New host DeGeneres appeared in a velvet suit with pants and shoes that looked suspiciously like sneakers.

They were white (men's!) dress shoes, I believe.

New York Times: [Ellen] was dressed semiformally in an open collar and red velvet suit on a night that usually commands black tie or white.

Time: Dressed in a too-casual velvet pantsuit, [Ellen] could rouse no more than a few lazy jokes on tired tinseltown subjects…Most pointless politically correct zinger: "If there weren't blacks, Jews and gays, there would be no Oscars." Even Whoopi did better.

I would hardly call her comment pointless, especially in the mouth of the first openly gay host, despite the rather pronounced role of homosexuals in all of the workings of Hollywood.

I'll say it again, I'm no fan of her comedy, but was it really that bad? Especially when she had allegedly been asked to steer clear of politics. And that gay reference was the only gay reference she made all night. (Melissa Etheridge, on the other hand, kissed her wife for which I am so proud that I won't even mention her really, really bad fashion.)

The local rag, the Los Angeles Times, seems to have grasped Ellen's situation:

Chris Rock and Jon Stewart, the last two experimental hosts, came with a little danger, armed with male writers who hate Hollywood; Ellen comes bearing tolerance and yuks, trailing a whiff of patchouli. She's not a mean spirit, she's America's lesbian — a uniter where Rosie O'Donnell (Was she asked to host? Just wondering) is a divider. Give her credit: DeGeneres was hounded off ABC a decade ago amid hard feelings all around that her sexuality had blocked out her comedy, and now here she was back on the network, on its biggest ratings platform of the year.

When is the media going to learn how to handle the L Word? Lesbians are two-plus decades behind gay men...and counting.

Highlights and Lowlights of the Oscars and the Oscars Reviews

| Mon Feb. 26, 2007 2:48 PM EST

Did the reviewer over at Time watch the same Oscars I did? I've never been a huge fan of Ellen DeGeneres, but I was pleasantly surprised. Not so over at Time, where Ellen's performance earned a D. Even the absurdly stupid and time-wasting "Comedian at the Oscars" earned better. The A was reserved for Jerry Seinfeld's totally unoriginal trash-in-the-theaters jokes. Must be a guy thing.

Another clue to their rating system: British accent = "classy." That's what they have to say about Helen Mirren's rather unmemorable presentation with Tom Hanks. Let's not confuse her winning performance with her presentation, mmkay?

The only assessment I agree with is Jennifer Hudson: D. This isn't reality TV where blubbering is warranted. (And what about that costume malfunction during her performance? Close call.) Strangely, the Washington Post review, which is pretty relentless about everything else—notably, and justifiably, the length—singles Hudson out as a highlight. Maybe it was the near breast-sighting.

(Lamest and most transparently sexist remark in the Post review: "DeGeneres didn't seem to have quite the stature of the legendary Oscar hosts of the distant past -- namely Johnny Carson and Bob Hope.")

Can we just get back to the awards please? The people who are genuinely touched to win carry the show, and those expensive montages are the turkey.

Doodie-Head David Brooks vs. Hipster Parents

| Mon Feb. 26, 2007 12:42 PM EST
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I know, I should just ignore David Brooks, especially when he does his grumpy old man routine. But his latest "kids these days" schtick is unusually misguided. (Sorry, no link, the column is behind the NYT content wall.) Yesterday, Brooks tackled the scourge of hipster parents, decrying the "Park Slope alternative Stepford Moms" who are "fascistically turning their children into miniature reproductions of their hipper-than-thou selves." Their sins: Giving their kids pretentious names like Anouschka, making them listen to Radiohead, and dressing them in annoyingly precocious t-shirts. All because they "refuse to face that their days of chaotic, unscheduled moshing are over." (Not to be confused with the orderly, scheduled kind.) This is serious stuff: "The hipster parent trend has been going on too long and it's got to stop."

I'm actually sympathetic to some of Brooks' ranting. I'm a new, un-hip parent who wants my kid to be a sheltered, uncoordinated nerd like I was. I think it's dumb to name your baby Kal-El (unless it's a family name), give him a fauxhawk, and stick him in a Che onesie or a "Boob Man" t-shirt. But I'm not too worried that the progeny of young bobos are being turned into what Brooks calls "deceptive edginess badges"—whatever that means. The trappings of hipster parenting are pretty superficial. New parents are naturally self-absorbed, but behind the impulse to be a cool parent with a stylish kid lurk big questions about mortgages and mortality. I'm with Slate's Michael Agger (also an occasional contributor to Mother Jones), who concludes after reading Neil Pollack's parenting memoir Alternadad, "The difference between an alternadad, a banker dad, and a soccer dad is ultimately aesthetic and pointless. Sure, Pollack is psyched when [his son] Eli develops a love of the Ramones and Spider-Man, but most of his book recounts his struggle to find what America used to offer easily: a solid house, a living wage, a decent public school." Child rearing in the U.S. has always been faddish and consumeristic, but the bottom line hasn't changed much: Parents—even the ones with tattoos—want what's best for their kids. Brooks should put on some Dan Zanes and chill for a couple of years. By then, the hipsters will have gotten the hang of this post-adolescent parenting thing and will be buying minivans. Now that's scary.

Al Gore Wins! And This Time Gets To Keep the Prize

| Mon Feb. 26, 2007 1:22 AM EST

Okay, so I get that awards shows are going political. First the Dixie Chicks run the table for standing up to Bush, then tonight's Al Gore show at the Oscars.

To sum up:

-Leonardo DiCaprio with Al early on, together they announce that the Oscars has gone totally green, carbon neutral, pats on the back all around.

-Leo then turns to Al in appreciation, asks him if he doesn't have any sort of announcement to share with his international audience. Gore pulls out a paper and starts to lead into an "I've decided to..." when the Oscar score interrupts him, all part of the script.

-Melissa Etheridge wins for best song ("I Need to Wake Up") for Inconvenient Truth, thanks her wife, tells us how it's not about Democrats and Republicans, red and blue, that we are all green and says what a hero Gore is.

-Minutes later Inconvenient Truth wins for best documentary and the director thanks Gore for (and I am paraphrasing here, didn't have the reporters notebook handy) "letting us do this film 30 years in the making." Gore grabs the statue, feels quite at home on the Hollywood stage and uses his time wisely, tells America that its not too late, that we can change the course of our planet's future, but not without action from a passive administration. Something like that.

So, like I said, I get that Hollywood likes to reach out and grab their courageous ones by the tie, or in last year's case by the cowboy hat, but then they have to go all soft and give The Departed the best motion picture nod? (They had already given the oft-snubbed Scorsese the Best Director win, so that's not an excuse.) I may be in the minority here but in my opinion Little Miss Sunshine and Babel (the only other two I saw) both ran circles around the mob film propped up by a ridiculously-flush cast. Maybe it was Alec Baldwin's line about unwarranted wiretapping that grabbed the academy? When his police team is listening in on a deal going down he squeals, "The Patriot Act! I love it, I love the Patriot Act!"

Yeah, probably not.

I know these award shows matter little, and it's Hollywood so what do I expect, but it irks me that they take a serious tone, responsible tone, all political and progressive by theme, and then throw it all down the Charles River before the night is through.

Green Cars Electrify the Red Carpet

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 8:39 PM EST

This year Tim Robbins won't be the only one stepping onto the red carpet from a hybrid. Global Green USA says it has 30 green cars ready for Oscar night to transport stars like Penelope Cruz and Orlando Bloom to the ceremonies. Celebs who have previously used Global Green's eco-cars include Charlize Theron, Robin Williams, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Jack Black, and Will Ferrell.

Ferrell, who called eco-cars "just plain sexy," may be proven right this year. A prototype of the lipstick-red, two-seater Tesla Roadster sports car will make its TV debut at the red carpet roll-up. The super-quiet, totally electric vehicle can go from 0 to 60 mph in four seconds, costs $92,000, and has the smooth, curving body of a traditional hot-rod. Commercial production will begin later in 2007.

Consumers interested in more, ahem, affordable eco-friendly cars can see Global Green's list of the most environmentally-friendly vehicles here .

—Jen Phillips

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New Documentary Broaches the Big O

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 8:34 PM EST

When Chris Anderson, director of The O Tapes, first read the findings of the Laumann study that made public the information that 43% of women experience sexual dysfunction, he was shocked. If this was the case for men, he thought, there would be a pill. Just a few months after reading the findings, one was released—for men, not for women. After doing a bit more research, he discovered that the incidence of sexual dysfunction in men was believed to be about half that recorded for women by the Laumann study.

Anderson, who had been working as a film editor, was in the market for a documentary film project, and after doing a bit of research into the subject himself, the elusive female orgasm became its subject. The only problem, he determined was that he was the wrong gender to carry this project through. But this didn't deter him. He hired an all-female staff and proceeded to interview hundreds of women and a few noted (or notorious) experts in the field about sexuality. Many of these interviews revealed that women just don't talk about sexuality.

Last night, I attended a sparsely populated screening of The O Tapes in San Francisco that was followed by a short panel discussion featuring the director and three local experts on human sexuality. Either San Franciscans think they already know everything about sex or the rainy weather served as a deterrent, because the Lumière Theater wasn't even a quarter full. But I guarantee that everyone in the audience learned something new, whether it was a historical fact or a point of view put forth by someone interviewed in the film.

While I would have preferred a more narrative approach, the organization of the film around subjects was effective. As Anderson pointed out during the panel discussion, the interview covered about 60 subjects, most of which could not be included in the final version of the film. Instead, he used his editing skills to define a more narrow set of topics including "orgasm" "foreplay," and "self image" to provide organization for the project.

The primary strength of The O Tapes isn't the film's organization, but rather, the diversity of voices that Anderson was able to capture during the interview process. The women in this film range in age from 25 to 84, and are from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds. While almost all of the women are heterosexual, a few queer women are also given a voice. The project is more than reminiscent of The Vagina Monologues (click here for a Mother Jones interview with Ensler), but the diversity of voices and content goes beyond that normally attained in sex-positive film festivals.

Even though the so-called sexual revolution started something moving in the right direction, we have a long way to go when it comes to understanding female sexuality. For Chris Anderson, part of the solution might be found simply in talking about, rather than around, sex. Getting this dialogue going isn't an easy undertaking in a culture that has many taboos centered around female sexuality. Fortunately, as revealed in the film, many women do love to talk.

Click here for show times.

--Rose Miller

What's Next, Mosh Pit Cruise Packages?

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 5:31 PM EST

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For the love of punk rock, is nothing sacred? The American Association of Retired Persons is now running a TV commercial that shows healthy, vigorous elders moving about to a backdrop of the song "Everybody's Happy Nowadays," by the English punk band the Buzzcocks. This from a band whose first, unashamed single was the BBC-banned "Orgasm Addict," a band that wrote songs about bisexuality and had lyrics quoting Beat poet William S. Burroughs, and a band who had enough street cred to open up for the Sex Pistols in Manchester in 1976.

And the AARP commercial is not even the Buzzcocks' first ad gig. A Subaru commercial once used "What Do I Get," a song about sleepless nights and the search for lover. Predictably, ageing punks have filled the blogosphere with comments dissing the band for both.

Adfreak riffs on the song title with the headline, "Everybody's Getting Ancient Nowadays" and says the Rolling Stones would have been more appropriate for the AARP. Cult Punk calls the Buzzcocks ad an unfortunate "culture shift." The blogger behind Corporate Satan Speaks Out shouted "What th...!??!?!" when he first heard the commercial, but later admitted that since the band members are pushing 50, it did make sense, sort of.

Come to think of it, since punk has been around since the 70s, it's likely that punk rockers are turning 50 and potentially joining a group like the AARP. The AARP knows this, and they're revamping their image to attract a new generation of folks who used to pogo at punk shows but who now can benefit from health tips and tax-filing advice. Their website even has an online jukebox featuring an array of music Baby Boomers might like, including Ray Charles, Rod Stewart, Tony Bennett, Beazley Phillips Band, Willie Nelson and Madonna. But it is a little strange that punk music ¬ known to be dissident, vile, nonsensical, unrehearsed, angry, aggressive and DIY¬ is being used to push product with the consent of the artists.

Steve Garvey, the Buzzcocks' 49-year-old former bass player, broke it down recently when he told the Chicago Tribune that his royalty checks are helping pay for his kid's college education. Garvey said he loves to play golf, survived cancer of the salivary gland, and has had two rotator cuff surgeries and has bum knees. In a year, he'll be eligible to join AARP.

The Buzzcocks are not the only punk band on heavy rotation in TV commercials. An M&Ms commercial uses "This is The Day," a song by The The, a 70s English post-punk band founded by Matt Johnson. Mitsubishi scooped up "Blindness," a post punk song by the English band The Fall.

Blogs like "Big Mean Punk" relentlessly track other examples, such as Iggy Pop's Lust for Life, a song about heroin addiction, that now sells Carnival Cruise vacations. Various songs from the The Ramones push beer and cell phones, and Devo tunes have popped up in Target commercials and Swiffer spots, which have also used Blondie songs. (Check out more ironic and shameless advertising and product placement in our current issue.)

It's got to be nice for punk rock musicians to finally earn some cash for songs that originally might have earned them a only beer and a sandwich. The downside is, some of the obscure songs punk kids would crowd into small, unknown, sweaty venues to hear played live by their punk heroes don't alienate the general, mainstream public anymore—they welcome them with open arms.

--Gary Moskowitz

Wilberforce Be With You: The Christian Right Claims Amazing Grace

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 1:28 PM EST
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Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of Britain's abolition of slavery. But since Hollywood doesn't release new titles on Thursday, it's waiting until today to launch Amazing Grace, a new movie about 18th-century British abolitionist William Wilberforce. The flick, directed by Michael Apted (creator of the mesmerizing 7-Up documentary series) and produced by the studio that did The Chronicles of Narnia, is getting enthusiastic advance reviews. But nowhere is the film more highly anticipated than among conservative Christians, who see parallels between Wilberforce's moral battle and their faith-based campaign against sex trafficking. But Wilberforce's unlikely victory is also viewed as a metaphor for the Christian right's struggle to remake the culture. Presidential hopeful Sam Brownback was dubbed a "Wilberforce Republican" by the Economist, and has eagerly accepted the title. And check out this email appeal I recently received from Ted Baehr, who runs MovieGuide, an evangelical movie review site:

One man, William Wilberforce, was used by God to abolish the slave trade in England and bring about a reformation of manners.

Imagine what you and I can do together to redeem the media and save our culture! [...]

Because of Wilberforce's willingness to serve the Lord, a Victorian society where women and children were safe and where the Church was addressing social evils in creative ways saved a nation that was quickly falling into rampant paganism.

[...] you can help us bring about a moral reform in our nation that will set the captives free from the bondage and slavery of corrupt media.

This is the chance for the Church in our era to address social evils in creative ways!

Wilberforce has officially been recruited as a culture warrior. (BTW, MovieGuide gives Amazing Grace four stars, though it warns viewers that it contains "female cleavage.")

Of course, Wilberforce's story doesn't just resonate with religious conservatives. His against-the-odds struggle for social justice plucks liberal heartstrings as well—ours included. For a progressive interpretation of British abolitionism, see Mother Jones co-founder Adam Hochshild's most recent book, Bury the Chains, which argues that the anti-slavery movement was "the first great human-rights campaign." As Hochschild explained when I interviewed him:

In a time that feels politically grim, especially for anyone in the U.S. who cares about social justice, I hope people will take heart from a story of folks who started a campaign at a time when it looked even grimmer. The idea of ending slavery seemed totally utopian, crackpot, wildly too idealistic. But they succeeded. And they succeeded in 50 years, in the lifespan of some people [...] They went through some very grim times, one of them being the long wartime period like the one we're seeing now. Wartime is bad news for progressives, and it was the same thing [during the Napoleonic wars]. So I guess to the extent that it's possible for a book like this to have any effect, I would just like to see it have the effect of making people working for justice today feel heartened and to know that any big struggle will always be a long one with many setbacks.

I don't see anyone calling themselves "Wilberforce Democrats" any time soon, but that's no reason to let the right lay exlcusive claim to the legacy of abolitionism, or even Amazing Grace. So take a break from your usual pagan film fare and see if it lives up to the hype. (And for you history buffs/Afropop fans, it's your chance to see Youssou N'Dour's silver screen debut as Olaudah Equiano.)

Katha Pollitt Rips Dinesh D'Souza to Shreds

| Thu Feb. 22, 2007 7:11 PM EST

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I was going to say something intelligent about Katha Pollitt's review of Dinesh D'Souza's The Enemy at Home, which I also panned. But her review kicks such major ass, that I am just going to excerpt it. Pollitt calls D'Souza's attack on the American left

a secular version of Jerry Falwell's contention that 9/11 was a divine rebuke to "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America." Of course, Falwell got hammered; even George W. Bush had to distance himself. Besides the obvious objections, God's aim seemed wide of the mark: Did He think the ACLU had an office in the Pentagon and that Windows on the World was a gay bar?

And as for Hillary, who D'Souza naturally includes in the Liberals Who Hate America category:

Hillary is a workaholic, so maybe she promotes America-hatred and child pornography in the wee hours, after her day job beefing up the US military.

The coup de grace is that Pollitt shreds D'Souza's logic. He blames the left of allying itself with America's enemies, while he more or less excuses the terrorist attacks by saying liberals' slatternly ways brought them upon ourselves. Here's Pollitt:

The idea that Americans are going to embrace the mullahs and ayatollahs out of a shared dislike of gays and working mothers is fairly fantastic. Besides, the Americans who come closest to sharing "traditional Muslim" family values are fundamentalists like, um, Jerry Falwell, who think Islam is the devil's work. The minute they tried bringing their new best friends to Christ, they'd find out that a mutual obsession with female chastity can take you only so far.

Curtain.