The Riff - February 2009

Video: Mardi Gras Was Even More Awesome in 1941

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 12:33 PM EST
Want to know what Mardi Gras looked like during WWII? Watch this 1941 home video:




From the Prelinger Archives, via BoingBoing.



Happy Fat Tuesday!

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The Best Grilled Cheese Money Can't Buy

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 5:35 PM EST

The problem with food festivals is that it is always little unclear if the judges are there because they are interested in truly rendering an objective decision or because they're just, well, hungry.  

This becomes particularly obvious if the food in question is a grilled cheese sandwich. Um yeah I'm a "judge," feed me lunch.

Did Slumdog Millionaire Exploit its Slum-Dwelling Child Actors?

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 5:06 PM EST

Their parents seem to think so. The mother of Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail—the 10-year-old who plays the lead character's brother, Salim, in the Oscar-sweeping film—still lives lives with her son in a hovel made of tarps and blankets in Mumbai's Behrampada shanty, where rats roam and sewage runs untreated. "He's supposed to be the hero in the movie, but look how he's living," she told Australia's Herald Sun. "We need money and help now. It is hard living like this. I am worried that after the Oscars are over they will forget us."

And then there's the movie's other slum star:

Rubina Ali, 9, who plays the young version of Latika, the film's heroine, lives nearby. Her shack is brightly coloured but an open sewer runs close by.
Her father, Rafiq Ali Kureshi, a carpenter, broke his leg during filming and has been out of work since.

"I am very happy the movie is doing so well but it is making so much money and so much fame, and the money they paid us is nothing. They should pay more," he said.

But British director Danny Boyle says he's trying to be smart about how he pays the child actors:

They said they paid painstaking attention to how Azharuddin and Rubina's involvement in the film could be of lasting benefit over and above the payment for their work.
The children, who have never received formal eduction, have been enrolled in school since last June at the production company's expense until they are 18.
Azharuddin and Rubina will receive a lump sum when they finish their education, and Boyle said money was in place to cover health care and emergencies.
They decided not to shower the children with cash because they could not handle it psychologically and practically.

For the most part, Boyle's approach sounds wise. But in addition, why not give the parents just enough money to move out of the slums into a half-decent apartment somewhere? They certainly deserve it now that the film has grossed $155 million. And even if the adults blow the cash, it's hard to see how that kind of modest aid would skew the kids' priorities.

UPDATE from the Daily Mail:

The filmmakers also claim they have now agreed to buy apartments for the two children and allow the families to move in, with the stipulation that they will not own the property unless the youngsters complete their education.
Tonight, however, a spokesman for the film was unable to provide further details about the apartment plans.

UPDATE #2: The Hindu reports that the Oscars have apparently shamed the Indian government into giving flats to the families.

Nate Silver's Computer Only Works On Politics

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 1:12 PM EST

It's actually kind of nice to know that the guy is fallible. After correctly predicting just about every aspect of the 2008 elections, if statistical superhero Nate Silver had gotten the Oscars right too, he might have been burned as a witch by an angry, frightened populace. But as Kevin mentioned last night, Silver got two of his six predictions wrong: Penelope Cruz beat Taraji P. Henson for Best Supporting Actress, while Sean Penn prevailed over Mickey Rourke. Silver has posted a lengthy bit of navel-gazing over at 538.com, and while he attributes his supercomputer's error on the Supporting Actress call to the "unusual circumstance" surrounding the shift of Kate Winslett's Reader role to the lead category, his explanation of the Penn win is a little less, well, technical:

In the Best Actor category, we might also have learned a thing or two last night. Namely, it probably doesn't help to be a huge jackass (like Mickey Rourke) to all of your peers when those peers are responsible for deciding whether you receive a major, life-altering award.

Darn those jackasses: they're always screwing up the computer models! Well, we forgive you, Nate, and I don't think I'm going out on a limb if I say that if you had to get something wrong, we're glad it was the Oscars and not the election.

Sean Penn in Oscar Upset

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 1:02 AM EST
Despite the terrible odds given by America's favorite statistician Nate Silver, Sean Penn snagged the Oscar for Best Actor over favorite Mickey Rourke at the Academy Awards Sunday night in Los Angeles. It was an astonishing upset, on an equal level with 2005 2006's Best Picture shocker Crash over Brokeback Mountain, and it's hard not to take the award as a bit of a comeuppance for the gays. Hooray gays! Penn gave a classy, heartfelt speech, ending with a plea for equal rights for gays and lesbians, but the most important part about Penn's win seems to be the acknowledgment of what was truly the greater performance. While Rourke's comeback was admirable, it was Penn who buried himself inside his character, elevating Gus Van Sant's Milk above a faithful retelling of a great documentary into something special. Penn's speech called the Academy "commie, homo-loving sons of guns," which is pretty funny, considering Brokeback's loss, but when you think about it, the Academy really does like straights who play gay: Tom Hanks, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Charlize Theron, Hillary Swank and William Hurt have all won Oscars for queer characters in the last 25 years. Hmm. One of these days, gays will win for playing straight! (Go ahead and insert Hugh Jackman joke here.)

In other Oscar news, Slumdog Millionaire dominated, as expected, with eight total awards including Best Picture, while The Curious Case of Benjamin Button won three of its thirteen nominations. The ceremony started off amusingly, with Jackman performing a cute song-and-dance number paying tribute to the nominees, but went downhill from there—using five previous actress and actor winners to present the current nominees was kind of creepy. One of us, one of us! In any event, one hopes that Slumdog's win might open some doors for Bollywood to gain a greater audience, but in reality, Slumdog has about as much to do with Bollywood as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had to do with Hong Kong cinema, so that might be a little far-fetched. Either way, I won the Oscar pool for the third year in a row (thanks, Sound Editing!), so I'm spending my ten bucks on a ticket to actually see one of the movies.

Nikki Finke's Oscar Prediction: Epic Fail

| Sat Feb. 21, 2009 6:32 PM EST

This just in: water may possibly be wet! The irascible Los Angeles columnist Nikki Finke is claiming there is "flopsweat panic" backstage that the Oscar ceremony, now just 24 hours away, will be a dud, and even CNN agrees. Stars from Jack Nicholson to Nicole Kidman have apparently begged off presenting, Peter Gabriel pulled out after being offered 65 seconds to perform his nominated song, and fans of The Dark Knight are attempting to boycott the ceremony because it didn't get enough nominations. Finke also has a whole list of other complaints, including something about how previous actor winners are being forced to present as a group, which is apparently scandalous. She also claims that "trophy boys" will now join the young ladies who carry the statuettes onto the stage, an acknowledgment that "only females and gays" watch the show any more. It'll be the biggest failure ever!

But honestly, let's just remember that the Academy Awards is always a terrible TV show. Jon Stewart had a few good moments last year, but for most of the ceremony he was little more than a placeholder, and No Country for Old Men's wins were widely anticipated. In 2006, it was The Departed and Ellen Degeneres (yawn), and in 2005, the big Crash-Brokeback upset only came at the last minute of a very long and boring ceremony. Finke claims ad rates are down from $1.7 million last year to $1.4 million this year, but that probably has little to do with anticipation of a crappier show and more to do with that wee little, you know, collapse of our entire economic system. Of course Hugh Jackman will be embarrassing to watch, but no worse than anybody else—don't get me wrong, I'd pay to see Wolverine read (and then rip up) the phone book, but real-life Jackman in song-and-dance mode is smarmy and self-satisfied. The only good thing about the Oscars this year will be the same thing that's always good about them: watching with your snarky film-buff friends who mercilessly skewer the winners and presenters. Plus, it's an excuse to have a cocktail at 3pm.

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Georgian Band to Protest Putin at Eurovision?

| Fri Feb. 20, 2009 6:39 PM EST

God bless the Eurovision Song Contest. It's so, like, Austin Powers-y. Established in 1956, the event invites European countries to each submit a song, and then a winner is selected. It's like the UN meets American Idol, and it's given us ABBA, Bucks Fizz, and, erm, Verka Serduchka! But the latest edition of the contest, set for Moscow in May, has been sullied by the grating melody of politics, as Russia's rivals to the south appear to have taken the opportunity to stick it to the Russian prime minister. Georgia's entry, by a band called Stephane and 3G, is a song entitled "We Don't Wanna Put In," which, in its sung form, sounds a heck of a lot like "We Don't Wanna Putin." Sneaky! Georgians are denying there's a "hidden message" in the track, but gee, it's hard not to hear it (watch the awesome video above). Eurovision specifically bans any lyrics "of a political nature," so it remains to be seen if Stephane and 3G will get away with it, and they better watch out—that guy knows judo! Lucky for them, there's no easily-singable phrase that sounds like "Saakashvili." Actually, "We Don't Wanna Suck His Willy" comes close. Russians, feel free to use that.

Designing Obama

| Fri Feb. 20, 2009 6:20 PM EST
A political campaign is a thinly veiled form of advertising, but logo design—one of the oldest branding techniques of the ad game—has historically been cast aside by political world, which prefer to restrict its bumper stickers and promotional materials to a sea of bland stars and stripes. Until Obama ’08. At once traditional and innovative, the Obama rising sun-logo was a breakthrough in modern campaign design, an iconic image from the moment it was first unveiled.

And the buzz hasn’t ended with the campaign. On Thursday evening a crowd gathered at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University for "Designing Obama," a sold-out lecture given by the men behind the symbol—Sol Sender, the logo designer, and Scott Thomas, the director of new media design. There’s a pretty thorough rundown of Sender’s presentation on his company website, giving a summary of the design process, and a rundown of all the rejected images.

The final Obama logo entered back into public debate when it was ripped off by Pepsi. The company claimed their redesign was completely independent of the campaign's logo, until they began plastering the eerily similar image on billboards reading "Hope" in cities across the nation. However, Sender claims the success of the logo has more to do with the momentum behind its message than the image itself. “One of the really magical aspects was that people just took [the design] and did all these things with it…a brand like Pepsi would kill for that," explains Sender.

The most informative moment of the lecture took place during the Q&A section. The art-student  crowd was anxious to know if Obama’s design aesthetic would usher in a new need for exciting graphic design in the political sphere. Surprisingly both designers were skeptical. “I’m not sure you can do a transformative thing like this unless you have a really transformative candidate,” says Sender. Neither Sender nor Thomas have any plans to continue on with campaign design: Sender has returned to his firm, and Thomas is working on a book about his experience.

And you certainly won’t see Thomas’s mark on the whitehouse.gov sight. According to Thomas, the Bush administration extended their web designer's contract for two years into Obama’s term. So until then, it's just same old.

Stream New U2 Album at MySpace

| Fri Feb. 20, 2009 4:12 PM EST

It's becoming de rigueur: a few weeks before the release of your highly-anticipated new album, post the whole thing to your MySpace page, and hope that discourages early leaks & downloads. [Edit: Oops, they were too late.] Irish combo U2 is the latest to jump on board, posting their upcoming album No Line On the Horizon in its entirety right over here (click on the "playlist" drop-down menu in the player and select the album). 

I've already said lead single "Get On Your Boots" is kind of a pale imitation of Queens of the Stone Age, so how's the rest of the album? Well, also kind of aimless, although it's hard to tell through MySpace's crappy 96kbps filter. The title track opens the set, and it sounds a little like Coldplay trying to rough things up a little. There's a standard mid-tempo beat, a big fuzzy guitar, a not-so-memorable chorus, then an unearned epic bridge of big Bono "ohs." Track two, "Magnificent," intrigues with its plucky synth opening and wide-open Edge guitar riffs, but that word is embarrassingly cheesy when you sing it. Just try it. "Magniiiii-fi-cent." Yuck, right? "I was born to sing for you," claims Bono, but these lazy lyrics make "It's a beautiful day" seem like Shakespeare.

It's a little odd to remember that U2 was one of my favorite bands, for a really long time, from October through The Joshua Tree. Rattle and Hum lost me, like it lost everybody, but the redemptive masterpiece Achtung Baby won me back. I look at 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind and 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb as "post-U2" albums, which I judge by an easier standard than the band's first 20 years, and in that context, they succeed: "Elevation," "City of Blinding Lights," and "Beautiful Day" are grand, sweet, pretty pop songs; they dissolve into nothing if you look too closely, so just don't do that. But even by that generous standard, Horizon fails: it willfully avoids hooks, but its lyrics are ridiculous—"Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady"?—and its riffs crib Led Zeppelin shamelessly. Despite its edgy, minimalist cover art, Horizon makes the same mistakes as Rattle and Hum, aping the bombast and ego of classic rock without the creativity or soul. No wonder Rolling Stone liked it. I will say it ends on a slight "up" note, with a few thoughtful ballads, and it's like a tiny glimmer of hope: maybe their next album will be another Achtung Baby?

New York Post Apologizes for Monkey Cartoon

| Fri Feb. 20, 2009 12:42 AM EST

The New York Post has posted an apology for the Sean Delonas cartoon picturing a chimpanzee being shot for writing a sloppy economic stimulus bill. The Post's editorial said that the cartoon was meant to "mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill," but that it seemed to have unintended consequences:

[The cartoon] has been taken as something else - as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism. This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologize. However, there are some in the media and in public life who have had differences with The Post in the past - and they see the incident as an opportunity for payback. To them, no apology is due.

Cute—anyone who's ever disagreed with the Post doesn't get to accept the apology! Dammit!

The cartoon generated significant controversy, and here on the Riff, Daniel Luzer's defense of it as "just a joke about monkeys" was picked up by Gawker, who pointed out that even "lefty magazine writers" didn't think it was racist. Well, in this humble MoJo contributor with a terrible DJ name's opinion, the cartoon probably wasn't intentionally racist, but it sure turned out that way: using a singular chimp to represent plural stimulus bill authors was sloppy symbolism, at best, and with the president taking ownership of the bill, it's only natural readers took it as a knock on Obama. Gawker, bless their hearts, also pointed out that Delonas has a long tradition of terrible, unfunny, and offensive drawings: a "rich history" of "hate," in fact, including such hilarious pieces as the good old "gay marriage leads to sheep marriage" classic, and the brilliant observation that big-nosed Muslim terrorists were really stoked about Democratic wins in the 2006 elections. Comic genius!

More than anything, what strikes me about Delonas' cartoons is their profound ugliness: they're scratchy, jerky, and overworked; people are spotty, leering and malformed; and his all-caps lettering leans and swerves like a '60s Fillmore poster. Even The Onion's great editorial cartoon parodies, with their layers of hilariously inconsistent visual metaphors, are straightforward in comparison. It's clear Delonas is sick enough to revel in the attention his pathetic scribblings have inspired; let's hope the Post is able to see the controversy for what it is: an outcry at awful work.