The Riff - September 2010

Bad Is Good: Remembering Arthur Penn

| Wed Sep. 29, 2010 1:40 PM EDT

Celebrated filmmaker Arthur Penn, best known for his watershed 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, died on Tuesday night at the age of 88. Here's the trailer for Penn's magnum opus:

In addition to his film direction, Penn was a pioneer of live television drama and directed a number of works for the stage, including The Miracle Worker with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. But he made his mark outside of the entertainment world as well, advising then-Senator John F. Kennedy during his televised debates with Richard Nixon in 1960. Penn directed the broadcast of the third debate. Dave Kehr of The New York Times writes that Penn instructed Kennedy to "look directly into the lens of the camera and keep his responses brief and pithy"—a strategy that allowed JFK to project an air of confidence that Nixon couldn't muster.

Of Bonnie and Clyde, Kehr says:

In Mr. Penn’s hands, it became something even more dangerous and innovative — a sympathetic portrait of two barely articulate criminals, played by Mr. [Warren] Beatty and a newcomer, Faye Dunaway, that disconcertingly mixed sex, violence and hayseed comedy . . . Not only was the film sexually explicit in ways unseen in Hollywood since the imposition of the Production Code in 1934 — when Bonnie stroked Clyde’s gun, the symbolism was unmistakable — it was violent in ways that had never been seen before. Audiences gasped when a comic bank robbery climaxed with Clyde’s shooting a bank teller in the face with a shotgun, and were stunned when this attractive outlaw couple died in a torrent of bullets, their bodies twitching in slow motion as their clothes turned red with blood. 

It's still stunning, particularly given the unfrenzied pace of the scenes that directly precede it. Even though you know these two had it coming, you're still somehow caught unaware when it comes. The movie's bullet-ridden, kinetic sexiness presented a startlingly simple formula for instant success.

But what gives the movie its lasting appeal is its glorification of the anti-hero. Bonnie and Clyde blaze through the movie kiilling people and taking their money, with no regrets. They laid the cinematic groundword for the hippy bikers of Easy Rider, Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's Randall Patrick McMurphy, and others. Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, Omar Little, and Walter White—Bonnie and Clyde's influence on the TV renaissance of the late-1990s and 2000s is unmistakable. Our small-screen antiheroes make ugliness something to celebrate rather than shame. It's the same thoroughly modern idea that Penn blasted across the screen in 1967. 

Here's part 2 of a series of fascinating interviews with Penn, focusing on his television career:

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Looking for Religious Expertise? Ask an Atheist

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 7:52 PM EDT

A new study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that atheists and agnostics have the best religious knowledge. Atheists on average answered 20.9 of 32 religious knowledge questions correctly. Judaism (20.5 correct) and Mormonism (20.3) came in second and third, respectively. Although non-believers came in first in general religious knowledge, Jews got first place for knowledge of world religions and second place for knowledge of religion in public life. One surprising finding, although white evangelicals and Mormons knew the most about the Bible and Christianity, atheists and agnostics were the third-highest. So even though they don't practice Christianity, according to this particular study, atheists know more about the Bible than Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Jews.

"Atheists/agnostics and Jews stand out for high levels of knowledge about world religions other than Christianity," the study said, "though they also score at or above the national average on questions about the Bible and Christianity." The study found highly educated people know more about religion than the less educated, and Jews and agnostics/atheists were more likely to have a high level of education. But even controlling for education, those two groups had better scores than those of other faiths.

Atheists only make up about 3% of the US population, but according to a 2010 Gallup poll, they're one of Obama's most supportive "religions" at 63%, after Muslims (78% support Obama) and non-Christians (64%). Obama's performance has declined among all religious groups since January 2009, but it's decreased least among Muslims. The Pew study couldn't find enough American Muslims to include in its study, so at present, it's not clear what their level of religious knowledge is versus other religious groups. One can only hope they, unlike tea partiers and an estimated 20% of the US, know Obama isn't actually Muslim.

Bringing the Andes to Brooklyn: Chicha Libre's Olivier Conan

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 6:31 AM EDT

Imagine hiking in the Peruvian Andes and finding a group of chicha musicians: migrants playing a fusion of Cuban son, Andean melodies and psychedelic surfer rock, blended like the Inca corn whiskey the music is named after. These days, though, you might be more likely to encounter chicha—whose popularity peaked in Peru during the late-'70s/early '80s—here in the United States.

That's because Olivier Conan, a Brooklyn-based French musician, fell in love with chicha while on vacation in Peru, and managed to revive it at home by way of his six-man band Chicha Libre. (He sings and plays the Cuatro, a small four-string guitar.) What began as tribute music to the populist treasure of the Andean highlanders has picked up nuances from the international scene that has sprung up around Barbès, a South Brooklyn bar and community center co-owned by Conan and Chicha Libres guitarist Victor Douglas.

 

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas' Free Lunch

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 6:31 AM EDT

That was a treat! How often can you leave work on your lunch break, grab a burrito, and plop your ass down 20 feet from a world-renowned symphony orchestra for a free concert led by this guy.

The San Francisco Symphony, fresh from a round of festivals in Switzerland and Italy, played an outdoor freebie for their appreciative hometown rabble Friday afternoon, the players laughing as nearby car horns and sirens worked their way into the refrains. It was delightful show, ignoring the program's admonition that "video or audio recording of today's performance is strictly prohibited" (Please! This is the iPhone generation.) Superconductor Michael Tilson Thomas took the helm, launching his talented crew of waiters (or so they appeared in their white tuxedoes) into the Roman Carnival Overture (Opus 9) by Berlioz, followed by the First Movement (Allegro con brio) from Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67. (See rant below.)

'Picture Me' Gives Models a Voice

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 5:29 PM EDT

Last year I did a q&a with runway model Sara Ziff, who co-created the documentary Picture Me, which showed the fashion industry from the model's point of view. It's a strange place: on one hand, modeling was fun and Ziff was out-earning her father, a university professor, by her early 20s. On the other hand, designers treat the models like robots, sexual assault is rife, and there's no protection to 15-year-olds who step off the plane from Brazil speaking little English and knowing no one but their agent. Ziff is now a student at Columbia University, but still models. "Picture Me" is her first film and is now in theaters in New York and Los Angeles, and will be released nationally next week. Trailer below.

 

News You Might Have Missed About Marijuana!

| Wed Sep. 22, 2010 2:09 PM EDT

Boy, it's only Wednesday and this week has already gone to pot. Marijuana hasn't had this much going for it since, well, anybody who smokes a lot of it can remember. Proposition 19, the California ballot measure that would legalize recreational pot smoking, yesterday earned an endorsement from the Service Employees International Union, California's largest and most powerful labor union. Doing the SEIU one better, the Teamsters announced this week that they'd unionized 40 actual pot farmers who work for Oakland's Marjyn Investments, which contracts to grow buds for medical marijuana patients. "I didn't have this planned out when I became a Teamster 34 years ago," labor organizer Lou Marchetti told the Sacramento Bee. "This is a whole new ballgame."

No kidding. Marijuana is big business, and not just for Humboldt County or that kid selling bags of Mexican schwag. On Sunday, six pot vendors assembled in Tacoma's Conquering Lion, a music venue, for what was billed as Washington's (and maybe America's) first marijuana farmers market. On Tuesday, High Times reported that a pot dispensary in Oakland, Crema de la Cana, is now selling pot ice cream in flavors that include Straw-Mari Cheesecake and Bannabis Foster. If Proposition 19 passes, maybe we'll see organic heirloom pot at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market, or Cherry-Mari Garcia at Ben and Jerry's.

That could be why California breweries, pot's main competitors, are worried about waking up on November 3rd with a hangover. "This Bud's Not For You: Beer Industry Battling California Pot Initiative," the Huffington Post tweeted yesterday in response to the news that the California Beer and Beverage Distributors donated $10,000 towards defeating Prop 19. They're not the only ones worried about Marchetti's "new ballgame." Yesterday, FireDogLake reported that a $10,000 donation to fight a proposed medical marijuana initiative in Arizona came from the Arizona Cardinals football team.

Does this remind anybody of high school? On one side you've got beer-swilling jocks, on the other, pot-toking stoners. The only difference is that the popularity contest will determine a lot more than who gets laid.

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Muslim Women, as Seen By Marie Claire

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 4:38 PM EDT

A surprisingly positive analysis of the way Muslim women have been portrayed by Marie Claire magazine. Freelance journalist Arwa Aburawa took upon herself the unenviable task of reading through 10 years—I'll say that again, 10 YEARS—of the UK version of Marie Claire. To me, that sounds like cruel and unusual punishment, but Aburawa seems to have take it in stride. She found that although most of the articles focused on Muslim women living in developing countries, she found that they didn't always portray the women as victims. From Aburawa: 

My research found that Muslim women were covered in around 44% of all the magazines I searched... I found that exactly half portrayed Muslim women as victims, while the other half showed them as independent, empowered women. This may seem like a mixed outcome, but the fact that half of the article showed Muslim women as non-victims is a pretty unexpected result. What’s more, the veil was barely mentioned in articles as oppressive (the only two cases were in Afghanistan, so they may even be justified) and Islam was rarely mentioned as imposed or oppressive... In fact, most of the articles followed the typical “Triumph over Tragedy” trajectory popular in women’s magazines, which go into painful detail about how women are oppressed and then conclude that, by some miracle, a woman has stepped up to challenge this oppression and will emerge triumphant.

Aburawa (rightly) concludes that Marie Claire is not exactly on the cutting edge when it comes to covering Muslim women, or any women for that matter, but her findings are still an encouraging sign at a time where American Muslims are under attack. To learn more about Aburawa's Marie Claire breakdown, you can read the whole thing here.

 

Erin K and Tash on "Gooches," "Choads," and the Zombie Apocalypse

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 7:15 AM EDT

Erin K and Tash burst onto the UK music scene in 2009, and without so much as an EP, have headlined London's Anti-Folk Festival twice now, inspired a small cult following: One of their songs is even featured in a national ad for Google Japan. It's not hard to see why. The pair toe the line between the profane and the profound with relative ease. Though not at all above broaching taboos and making them LOLable, their musical end product is a pithy blast of dark brilliance. It's confrontational, hilarious, and obviously twisted. Enough to capture the attention of former Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer, who tweeted the following in August:

Midnight music...totally digging @erinkandtash. nobody else seems to have discovered them. go listen

Palmer's tweet led to my own discovery of Erin K and Tash’s whimsical, acoustic enchantment, encapsulating a tongue-in-cheek, bedroom-fi stance and a smattering of absurdity—as witnessed by their unapologetic lyrics and fetish for rubber horseheads. For a taste of their delightful irreverence, check out their video homage to casual sex: "Jiggy Miggy."

In any case, I recently connected by email with this dynamic duo, who regaled me with talk of horse heads, Dennis Rodman encounters, "gooches" and "choads," and how they might find their way in a zombie apocalypse.

A Rock 'n' Roll Twitter Intervention

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 6:18 AM EDT

So I've got this friend and coworker with a problem. (Out of respect for his privacy, let's just call him Adam Weinstein.) Adam is prolific. In addition to his regular job, the guy writes and blogs like a madman. He provokes the trolls on purpose, debates his blog commenters, and tweets like there's no tomorrow. So that's his baseline state.

But then he discovered the hashtag #rockretractions, and that's when things went south.

Adam dismissed it as blowing off steam during Mother Jones' busy production cycle—the two weeks of late nights when we ship pages off to the printer. But I knew better. Adam was hooked. #Rockretractions was a cheap, quick high. It started with the classics as a kind of gateway drug:

  • It has come to our attention that, in fact, Mother Superior acted quite prudently. #rockretractions
  • You know what? I got some satisfaction. Didn't even try, really. #rockretractions
  • She knows damn well that stairway she's building doesn't actually go anywhere. #rockretractions
  • In retrospect, that silhouette might not have been of a man. It was awfully little. #rockretractions
  • @daudig OK, she was a hound dog. But she was also a great deal more. #rockretractions
  • You can check out anytime you like, but please mind our other guests and leave only between 9 AM and 5 PM. #rockretractions
  • Dude totally looks like a dude, dude. #rockretractions

Pope's Low Bar for Miracles

| Mon Sep. 13, 2010 4:13 PM EDT

For an organization that doesn't believe condoms stop HIV infection, the Catholic Church has a mighty low bar for proof when it comes to miracles. The 2001 healing of a Boston man in his sixties named Jack Sullivan was deemed "miraculous" last year by the Vatican, reports the BBC. The catch? The man's recovery was par for the course for the surgery he had.

A panel of Vatican medical experts took eight years to miracle-ify Sullivan's recovery from back surgery. But what they didn't consider, or didn't consider significant, is that Sullivan's recuperation took the same route as most other patients' who had the surgery. Sullivan was training to be a deacon when he was debilitated by back pain: his doctor recommended surgery. Sullivan's surgery went smoothly but his doctor advised him that recovery might take months. A few days after the surgery, Sullivan tried to stand and said "I felt an intense heat, like an oven blast, and a strong tingling sensation throughout my whole body... I felt an indescribable sense of joy and peace, and was totally transfixed by what I believed to be God's presence... When I became aware of what was happening around me I was standing upright and I exclaimed to the nurse that I felt no more pain."

Sullivan was transfixed, but secular sources were less than ebullient. The BBC quotes a doctor from a London hospital as saying that a typical surgery like Sullivan's took "about 40 minutes, and most patients... walk out happy at two days." The Mayo Clinic's site says patients may go home the same day as their surgery, "although in some cases a hospital stay of one to three days may be necessary following" the procedure. It was due to Sullivan's "miraculous" cure following surgery that 19th century cardinal John Henry Newman was beatified over the weekend in England. Sullivan's was the first miracle of two needed to make Newman a saint. Too bad one of Newman's miracles' can't be curing someone of AIDS, especially in countries like South Africa where 25% of all pregnant mothers have HIV. According to the Vatican, condoms only exacerbate the African HIV/AIDS crisis, despite reducing new infections by 80 percent. A Boston man recovering from back surgery in a few days is ordinary. The Vatican reversing its position on condom use in Africa: that would be a miracle.