The Riff - April 2010

Film: Strange Powers

| Fri Apr. 9, 2010 1:00 PM EDT

May/June 2010 Issue

The indie pop band the Magnetic Fields is best known for 69 Love Songs, a three-disc concept album packed with addictive melodies and cheeky songwriting. Strange Powers profiles Stephin Merritt, the group's morose mastermind, illuminating his creative process (sitting in dark gay bars with cigarettes and a snifter of brandy) and influences (Doris Day, the Great American Songbook, cowboy songs). It's hard to resist Merritt's eccentric charms.

Read an interview with Merritt here.

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Film: Casino Jack and the United States of Money

Fri Apr. 9, 2010 11:00 AM EDT

May/June 2010 Issue

Five years on, the Jack Abramoff scandal seems like a distant memory. But the new documentary from director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) portrays the rise and fall of the right-wing superlobbyist as a colorful prologue to the new era of unrestricted corporate campaign cash.

Casino Jack traces Abramoff's early career as a College Republican alongside Ralph Reed and Karl Rove, as well as his farcical turn as the producer of an anti-Soviet action movie. The humor wears off when he arrives on K Street in the early '90s, shilling for sweatshops in Saipan and extracting enormous fees from Indian tribes. By the time Abramoff hires a lifeguard to front a company that will launder millions in kickbacks, you have to at least admire his ambition. The film skims over the unraveling of Abramoff's empire, but Gibney is clear that his downfall didn't end the corruption. Abramoff's exploitation of the system was unprecedented, but he didn't invent it.

Books: Manufacturing Depression: The Secret History of a Modern Disease

| Fri Apr. 9, 2010 9:00 AM EDT

May/June 2010 Issue

In the hands of Big Pharma, medicating melancholy translates to cold cash. But for Greenberg, a psychotherapist, it goes deeper than that: The overselling of chemical cures has left our Prozac nation unable to distinguish between run-of-the-mill sadness (which doesn't need a pill) and genuine illness (which may need more than just meds). Even so, "I'm not worried that antidepressants will turn us into mind-numbed, smiley-faced zombies entirely," he writes. "The drugs aren't that effective, at least not yet."

Books: Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato

| Fri Apr. 9, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

May/June 2010 Issue

The latest in a wave of single-serving foodographies (Cod, Salt, Banana, etc.), Ripe investigates the tomato's transformation from fresh vegetable to industrial ingredient. Allen's most disturbing discovery is the use of anti-ripening genes that keep tomatoes perpetually firm—perfect for McDonald's burgers, canned pizza sauce, and long stays in produce bins. Too bad they're often tasteless. But as one tomato tycoon quips, "A poor tomato is better than no tomato at all."

MoJo's Photojournalism Kudos

| Thu Apr. 8, 2010 5:45 PM EDT

Mother Jones won a handful of photo editing prizes in this year's National Press Photographers' Association Best Of Photojournalism competition. It's a well-recognized, "By Photojournalists, For Photojournalists" contest, hosted each year by Ohio University.

As the BOP site says:

"The Best of Photojournalism Committee, made up of some of the most prominent and visionary photographers, editors, and educators in visual journalism, is responsible for the oversight and strategic planning of the annual contest. Over the last seven years the Best of Photojournalism Committee has guided the NPPA's contest to become one of the largest and most prestigious photojournalism contests in the world."

Mother Jones contributing photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier's piece on Janesville, Wisconsin in our September/October 2009 issue was a hit with the judges, winning a number of awards, including 1st place for Best Magazine News story and 1st place for best Story Opener.

The Mexico story from the July/August 2009 issue, shot by Sarah Wilson (opening spread) and Eros Hoagland (Tijuana photo essay) got an Honorable Mention for Best Magazine news story.

And, hey, our photo editor, Mark Murrmann got 3rd place for Magazine Picture editor of the year!

Congratulations to the whole art department: Creative Director Tim Luddy, Art Director Carolyn Perot and Photo Editor Mark Murrmann.

NIOT: How Communities Rally Against Hate

| Thu Apr. 8, 2010 2:17 PM EDT

Last week, I wrote about a strange nonviolent technique used by Gunn High School and its community to deflect Westboro Baptist Church's intrusive hate-speech. It turns out that Gunn's creative reaction to adversity is not an isolated incident, but part of a national Not In Our Town (NIOT)-dubbed movement now stationed on a website which just launched Tuesday.

The interactive site is on a mission to connect "people who are responding to hate and working to build more inclusive communities" by documenting their hostility-defusing tactics on film and sharing them with the public, which was the case with Gunn. There's a video that shows the time when 10,000 residents in Billings, Montana—the town that inspired the NIOT movement—hung paper menorah's outside their windows after a rock was thrown through the bedroom window of a six-year-old boy who had placed a menorah there for Hannukah. The boy's mother says, "I would like to have thought that if this [hate crime] had happened to my Native American community that they [my neighbors] would have put a Native American symbol in their window, or if it happened to the gay or lesbian community that they would have put a pink triangle in their window."

Racism, sexism, and overall hate are coolly countered by these neighborhood groups (there's also Not In Our School contingents), which a US map on the site's homepage shows have sprung up across the nation in response to the thousands of hate crimes that happen yearly. A video shows Fremont, California where residents wore turbans and hijabs for a day to stand in solidarity with a local woman who was shot to death for wearing the Muslim garb. "That's what we see shining through on NIOT.org—hope and action in the face of hatred and fear," NIOT filmmaker, Patrice O'Neill told MoJo. "Now we have a place to share these ideas and actions. You have the power to change the atmosphere, not just in our town, but in our country, in our world."

You can read more about the creation of NIOT.org at its website.

Follow Titania Kumeh on Twitter.

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Banksy Strikes Again

| Thu Apr. 8, 2010 1:26 PM EDT

Leave it to Banksy—the thoroughly clandestine English graffiti artist and subversive trickster—to create a film billed as "the world’s first Street Art disaster movie." Hilariously titled Exit Through the Gift Shop, it’s a funny, fascinating documentary that confounds all expectations.

While the nuances of the stranger-than-fiction (and, as many have suggested, partially fictional) events leading up to the disaster in question are lost somewhat in a basic plot summary, let’s give it a whirl: Thierry Guetta, the French owner of a vintage clothing shop in Los Angeles, is obsessed with videotaping everything around him. Through a family connection and a growing fixation, he finds himself documenting the "biggest counter-cultural movement since punk," following the likes of Space Invader and Shepard Fairey—who would later create the most ubiquitous Obama poster in the world.

All of this leads Guetta to the infamously furtive Banksy, whom he befriends and videotapes under strict, identity-concealing conditions. (Throughout the film, Banksy appears hooded, his face in shadow, his voice mechanically distorted.) He films Banksy in the studio—creating stencils, showing off boxes full of counterfeit pound notes with Princess Di’s face on them—and even follows him on a nearly ill-fated Disneyland stunt. (Banksy installs a Guantanamo Bay-related figure near one of the rides, effectively shutting down part of the park.)

MoJo LOST Chat: Happily Ever After

| Wed Apr. 7, 2010 4:50 PM EDT

Last night's episode of LOST, "Happily Ever After," was one we LOST nerds have been waiting for. Finally Desmond Hume, mysterious Scot and aspiring family man, got his moment in the island sun. The episode explored Desmond's curious abilities, and how he might be the key to the island's future. Finally, we're starting to figure out this mess that calls itself a tv series. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it looks like, well, read below. Our guest blogger is Becky Kirsch of BuzzSugar, who gives a good episode summary here. Let's begin!

Nikki Gloudeman, New Media Fellow: Hey guys!
Jen Phillips, Assistant Editor: Hi Nikki!
Becky Kirsch, BuzzSugar: Hi everyone!
NG: Think it'll just be us this week, making sense of last night's awesome episode!
BK: I've got the whole Buzz team on hand over here.
JP: Thank goodness, I finally feel like I'm starting to get a hold of this slippery rabbit of a show.
BK: Me too, I actually feel like I sort of understood what was happening last night. I was just relieved that there's finally some significance to the alterna-world.

NG: The moment where Charlie put up his hand and Des saw the words “Not Pennys Boat” was one of my fave of the SERIES. It gave me chills.
BK: Me too! Especially since Charlie is one of my favorite, favorite characters (don't hate me for saying that).
NG: This was basically the episode of favorite characters. I think Des has a heightened sense of the other world because of his exposure to EM (electromagnetic energy) on the island and whatever weird power that gave him.
JP: So Des seeing that seemed to trip his memory of the non-sideways world.
BK: The real question for me is whether or not Des remembers what's happening in the island world when he's in the alternate world, and vice versa.

Naomi Campbell's Blood Diamond Surprise

| Wed Apr. 7, 2010 11:05 AM EDT

Former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor is currently on trial for war crimes in Paris. That's only to be expected, given his record. What was wasn't entirely expected was the revelation in January that Taylor once tried to give a rough-cut diamond to British supermodel Naomi Campbell when the two were in South Africa for a charity event hosted by Nelson Mandela. Making things even more awkward: Taylor was re-gifting a "conflict diamond" that had been given to him by the government of Sierra Leone. Not since Kim Jong-Il asked Madeleine Albright to be his pen pal has a despot struck out so spectacularly.

According to the prosecution, Campbell was offered the diamond by Taylor's goons in the middle of the night, and told fellow guest Mia Farrow about the incident the next morning. (Taylor, not surprisingly, denies the whole thing.) The testimony was eventually discarded by the judges as "prejudicial" hearsay, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's inaccurate. Nonetheless, the story raises more questions than it answers: For instance, what kind of charity event includes Charles Taylor? And what did they talk about at dinner? Chalk this one up to bad luck, but Campbell has built an impressive resume as the King Leopold of the celebrity recolonization of Africa. In the last decade she's promised to help Kenya's impoverished people by building a hotel for billionaires on an endangered turtle habitat (but only if they built a better airport). She's also promised a modelling school in East Africa, and a rehab center.

Campbell's not the only celebrity running amuck in Africa, though. In the March/April issue of MoJo, senior editor Dave Gilson delved into the growing celebrity presence on the continent. He put together an interactive map, which, in this fact-checker's opinion, is kind of awesome. Some of the activism is pretty commendable, some of it not so much (see Hilton, Paris). But don't take my word for it; give it a look. As for the Campbell story, you can read the transcript here (pdf). The crazy stuff begins on page 89.

Your Arch Nemesis? The Banks.

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 6:38 PM EDT

According to a new ad campaign from LendingTree, there is a villain among us—the very banks and credit agencies it works with. But, there is someone to restore justice: You.

The video below is part of a larger "You to the Rescue" campaign highlighting the "LendingTree utility belt," which provides "objective tools to assess your loans and personal budget."

The ad features two men in dress shirts and ties getting ready for work. Their reflections portray them as latex-clad, masked superheroes who will take on the "corporate mischief makers" and "men of ill repute who created a downturn of diabolical proportions."

A third ad features Adam West, television's original caped crusader, in an Alfred/Q role (he also does the voice overs for the other two). As those familiar with the superhero genre will note, Batman is one of the few superheroes who fight crime without the help of superpowers. Instead, Batman relies on technology (in the form of a utility belt) and a regular workout routine—oh, and a small inherited fortune.

Don't forget that Batman is the alter ego of Bruce Wayne, a business tycoon. LendingTree didn't; these ads aren't directed at your regular Joe. They're aimed at angry middle-class men (there are no women financial superheroes pictured) willing to educate themselves on the ins and outs of mortgage and credit.

As David Corn pointed out in our January/February issue, the campaign is targeting the somewhat misplaced fear and anger of the American populace. We are angry at people who took out more credit than they could afford, angry at the banks who pushed them into it, and angry at ourselves for not being smarter and more aware of what was going on. And the policies that allowed Wall Street the free reign to create this mess in the first place? Have we gotten smarter about those yet?