The Sun Also Rises
Harnessing the power of the sun hasn’t been sexy since ’79 — when a young solar energy consultant brightened Playboy‘s Women of the Ivy League issue. Photovoltaics have since been championed by painfully earnest geeks and greens who’ve stripped the subject of its intrinsic appeal. But a few shining examples from the worlds of film and music suggest that interest in this once-electrifying topic could easily be resparked. — Keith Meatto
Heroism: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace Sidney J. Furie. 90 minutes. Warner Brothers, 1987. Every movement needs a hero, and solar power could ask for none better than the Man of Steel — whose crime-fighting powers are triggered by the Earth’s yellow sun. This solar undercurrent surges front and center in the final installment of the tetralogy, when Lex Luthor steals a hair from Superman’s head to create a solar-powered death droid. Our hero proves the whole is stronger than one of his parts, and banishes the droid to meltdown — in the reactor of a nuclear power plant.
Classic Cool: The Man With the Golden Gun Guy Hamilton. 120 minutes. United Artists, 1974. When mercenary assassin Francisco Scaramanga steals a solar cell that could solve the world’s energy crisis, James Bond (Roger Moore) dodges golden bullets and shags his way through a slew of damsels to recover the gadget. In the climactic showdown at Scaramanga’s island stronghold, the assassin outlines his scheme to corner the world’s energy market and scorches 007’s plane with a solar-powered death ray. Unflappable, Bond knocks off Scaramanga, and sails away with the solar booty and a sun-tanned babe.
Levity: Naked Gun 2 1/2 David Zucker. 85 minutes. Paramount Home Video, 1991. For a lesson in gracious self-mockery, solar adherents could take a cue from Leslie Nielsen. In 2 1/2, he returns as the bumbling Lt. Drebin, who reforms his pave-the-planet beliefs to win the affections of environmentalist vixen Priscilla Presley. Spurred by love and duty, Drebin foils a plot to suppress alternative energy dreamed up by a nefarious trio — the Society of Petroleum Industry Leaders (SPIL), the Society for More Coal Energy (SMOCE), and the Key Atomic Benefits Office of Mankind (KABOOM).
Youth Outreach: Alternative NRG Various Artists. Greenpeace Records, 1995. If solar power is hot enough for world pop heroes U2 and REM, it’s surely cool enough for Generation Y. The two bands reclaimed their political roots in 1995 by cutting tracks for Alternative NRG, a head- banging benefit album recorded in a solar-powered studio.
Sol Power: No Nukes MUSE. Asylum, 1980. Of course, rocking for energy is nothing new. Back when Three Mile Island was still a household name, Jackson Browne fought nuclear power with a group of superstar folkies and funksters called MUSE — Musicians United for Safe Energy. Their concerts were mellowpaloozas by today’s standards (the lineup included Springsteen and the Doobies), but as captured on this sunny three-record set, the concerts prove that any cause needs a good bass line.
Slanting the Story: The Forces That Shape the News By Trudy Lieberman. New York: The New Press, 2000. 186 pages. $21.95. Bursting with internal foundation memos and subsequent press reports, Slanting the Story traces the remarkable success right-wing think tanks have had in shaping recent media coverage and policy decisions.
Lieberman documents how the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s mid-’90s attack on FDA regulation (and its “deadly effects” on business) was picked up by the press — which was then prodded to stay on message by a pack of conservative watchdogs. The aftermath: Congress passed the FDA Modernization Act of 1997, reducing the number of safety trials required for many drugs.
Lieberman outlines similar attacks against Head Start, Medicare, and the AARP, and the most striking aspect of each narrative is the receptivity of our press-release-driven media — which uncritically echoes findings by the likes of CATO, Heritage, and other conservative foundations.
If Slanting the Story has a flaw, it’s that the author’s fear of the right introduces a troubling myopia. Conservative foundations are, after all, not the only force that helps shape the news — this book was itself funded by a liberal foundation. And while the media has lost its moorings, so too has the left. This has surely contributed to the slick-talking right’s ability to dominate the conversation. — W.S.W.
Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America By Ann Powers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. 287 pages. $23. In an era when much of America seems to value nonconformity only as a marketing tool, the word “bohemian” seems a musty relic, a term for bongo-beating, free-love-espousing social misfits. Powers — who is not a nostalgic ’60s escapee, but a thirtysomething writer best known as a rock critic for the New York Times — limns places where bohemia continues to thrive: in the used record stores of San Francisco, in the movements forged by queer activists and sex radicals, and in the daily lives of people seeking to redefine work, family, and marriage.
With critical acuity and chatty familiarity, Powers identifies bohemia’s infiltration of the mainstream — the early-’90s rise of “alternative” music and the embrace of street culture by high-fashion style setters. She also examines her own bohemian experience, recounting the years spent forging ersatz families in ’80s San Francisco, where the passions that marked her as weird in her hometown — punk music, dumpster diving — were shared by an entire community.
She interviews former housemates and co-workers and finds many who have turned countercultural avocations into successful careers, forged new versions of partnership and marriage, and struggled with the contradictions that a mortgage and sensible shoes pose to their bo-ho ideology. Powers concludes her memoir/manifesto by calling on her fellow bohemians to celebrate their weirdness, but to refuse “the negativity that comes from always defining ourselves against a society we can’t help but live within.”Ê– A.Z.
The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust By John B. Judis. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000. 320 pages. $26. A century ago, America faced changes similar in scope, if not entirely in kind, to those it faces today: the rise of the corporation, conflicts between labor and capital, a growing gap between haves and have-nots. The nation adapted to those changes, Judis argues, in a comprehensive way — in contrast to the dysfunctional manner in which we’ve addressed the challenges of the 1990s.
The citizens of the Progressive Era — unlike today’s electorate — were “lively and politically mobilized.” Their interests were also guarded, writes Judis, by a selfless class of elites whose counsel carried weight in the halls of power. This loose network of “military, economic, and political leaders” aided society by sparking reform whenever economic conditions began to clash with democratic ideals. The decline of elites, and the rise of the lobbying industry and dollar-driven politics, the author argues, accounts for the political stasis so widely observed today.
Among other reforms, Judis agitates for curbing wealth’s influence on politics and — as a partial step toward restoring the influence of a disinterested elite — closing the revolving door between government and the lobbying establishment. While these may not be radical prescriptions, their likelihood of success is another story altogether. — J.F.K.
Prime Directive Dave Holland Quintet. ECM, 2000. Holland forged his reputation as a mold-breaking bassist on albums like Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and his own 1972 free-jazz masterpiece Conference of the Birds. But he’s since emerged as a heavyweight composer and bandleader, who thrives in seemingly any jazz setting — from Gershwin to the headiest avant-garde.
With Prime Directive, Holland displays an experimentalist’s love for formal variation tempered by a bebopper’s fondness for catchy riffs. Over simple chord progressions, Holland leads the group in constant shifts of rhythmic texture, dynamics, and mood. And unlike traditional, solo-centric bebop, Holland’s music emphasizes group interaction, with saxophonist Chris Potter and trombonist Robin Eubanks often improvising simultaneously over the booming low-end backbone. Billy Kilson, who melds a jazz drummer’s precision with a rocker’s exuberance, drops thunderous fills on the title track — and imparts a contagious playfulness throughout. Prime Directive gets funky while retaining a jazz brain, and though experimental, the album is — God forbid — fun. — A.R.
Chappaquiddick Skyline Chappaquiddick Skyline. Sub Pop Records, 2000. There’s plenty of pretty, atmospheric pop out there. And then there’s Chappaquiddick Skyline, a band that kicks off its record with the lyric “I hate my life,” repeated over a despairing spiral of guitar and piano.
Self-loathing in popular music is hardly new, but in the case of Joe Pernice — formerly the leader of the beloved alt-country outfit the Scud Mountain Boys, and the soul of this band — devastation seems to have transcended the human vehicle: It swells in each note of each line with exquisitely weighty torment.
The sweetest surprise is how straightforward this heavy drama really is. The classic arrangements recall the Beach Boys and Big Star at their most haunting, with country- influenced touches that are more ethereal than down-home. And floating over the surface is Pernice’s voice — luminous and wistful — with a beauty in spite of itself. — A.Z.
Mr. Death Errol Morris. 85 minutes. Lions Gate Films, 1999. Fred Leuchter is a geeky, unassuming man with an unusual obsession: killing people. Once esteemed as the nation’s expert on gas chambers and electric chairs, “Mr. Death” appears at first an endearing character, a man willing to delve into the grim details of capital punishment to ensure that the condemned die without pain.
Amerikan Passport Reed Paget. Tropic Pictures, 1999. As the film starts rolling, so do the tanks. Paget’s Lonely Planet-worthy trip to film the Great Wall in 1989 becomes inextricably entwined with history as he bears witness to the crackdown at Tiananmen Square. The callow 23-year-old filmmaker misses the massacre itself, but arrives in Beijing to record its aftermath — halls strewn with mangled bodies and awash in the blood of protesters, bicycles trampled by tanks in the streets. Paget smuggles his footage home by way of Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Cambodia before, flat-broke, he must return home.
Funded by credit cards and film-student loans, CNN on $5 a day continues — with Paget seeming less a foreign correspondent than a naive co-pilot on his camera’s pilgrimage to world hot spots. In Nicaragua we witness Contra-backed Violeta Chamorro’s electoral defeat of Daniel Ortega; in Panama, reaction to the recent U.S. invasion.
In South Africa, where Mandela has just been freed, Paget records indelible images of township women protesting police violence. A riot in the newly reunified Berlin segues into a trip to Russia, where he infiltrates a Red army parade. In Israel, where he is awakened by Saddam’s first Scud attack, his credit cards max out and the adventure jerks to a close.
Uneven, at times amateurish, Amerikan Passport is far from a polished film. But it not only bears witness to world conflicts 1989-91 — it’s a bold, one-man testament to the power of free expression. — T.D.
Reviews by: Tim Dickinson, Jonathan F. King, Andrew Rosenblum, William Speed Weed, and Andrea Zeisler.