Growing Up Geek

titanic

My gateway drug into the hyperkinetic world of pop culture was Titanic. Yes, thatTitanic—yes, the $200-million James Cameron movie which also doubles as an approximation of his dick and ego. And here’s the most baduy thing about it: Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On was the reason I tuned in to MTV every freaking day. It may sound terribly jologs, but a blockbuster film like Titanic makes for a perfect introduction to pop culture. Its immensity covers all the great films that existed before it, sharing the weight of historical epics such as Ben Hur and the sweeping romance of classics like Gone with the Wind.

My Titanic years (which approximately lasted for two years) were pretty intense: I scoured newspapers and magazines and clipped any mention of the film — the ‘90s version of an aggregator or Twitter link (the news clippings are still kept in a red folder somewhere in our house). While waiting for Celine Dion on MTV, I got introduced to musicians like Tori Amos, Madonna (who was at her post-‘80s prime in 97’s “Ray of Light”), Bjork, U2 and Jewel. Everything else followed suit: Top 40 pop, American Film Institute’s 100 films (courtesy of the Newsweek special with the AFI 100 commemoration that featured a Martin Scorsese article mentioning Titanic), Academy Awards, film soundtracks, and magazines (Vanity Fairand Entertainment Weekly).

Four years after, this ridiculous cycle of obsession was repeated when The Lord of the Rings came out. This was a longer phase, marked by a close reading of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy and The Hobbit, learning to write and read in Elvish and other Middle Earth languages (the Cirth rune was a particular favorite), and visiting filmtracks.com for translations of the choir texts Howard Shore used in the trilogy’s soundtrack.LOTR ushered in the science fiction/horror/speculative fiction phase of my reading life. Unlike my Titanicphase, this was easier because there were blogs like Andrew Ty’s Atrocity Exhibition LiveJournal or Banzai Cat’s blog that referred me to authors like China Mieville, Iain M. Banks and Thomas Ligotti.

Because you kids arrived on this earth in the time of the Blessed Reign of the Holy Internet, getting access to all the cool and obscure pop culture stuff is pretty easy. Even a quick visit to a Wikipedia page of a film, book or album leads to a treasure trove of information via citations and footnotes. But the case here is all about careful curation of content. Your online existence will be relatively easy if you know which sites to go to for your pop cultural consumption. Going past The Daily What, I Can Haz Cheezburger, or Animals Talking in All Caps (probably the most intelligent animal-related meme blog on the web), here are four websites and an artist discography that has helped shaped my cultural consumption over the past decade or so. I hope this list will be helpful, particularly to those who want a different pop cultural perspective this 2013.

Slant Magazine

Combining excellent writing with sharp pop cultural observations, Slant champions the great and the underappreciated in film, music, television and (more recently) video games. Their 100 Essential Films list has Bela Tarr’s Satantango share sacred space with divisive cult classics like Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. All their staff lists, like The 25 Best Horror Films of the Aughts and 100 Best Films of the 1990s are essential reading for film enthusiasts.

Brain Pickings

It may be a bit twee or over-enthusiastic for some but Maria Popova’s website is a repository of curiosities and interesting finds on science, history, literature, politics, and everything in between. Some of their interesting posts include The Best Science Books of 2012, Susan Sontag on Love, and “British vs American Politics in Minimalist Vintage Infographics.”

The discographies of Sufjan Stevens and The Decemberists

These folk rock contemporaries are commandeered by men who have painstakingly pored through little-known lore, urban legends and kilometric epic poems, as reflected in their respective discographies. Stevens, known for his ambitious Americana albums, mixes gritty narratives (his song John Wayne Gacy Jr. is about empathizing with the titular serial killer) and Christian-folk sensibilities (particularly on his album “Seven Swans” which featured a track about the transfiguration of Christ) while Colin Meloy, the lead singer and songwriter of The Decemberists, incorporates Japanese legends (such as “The Crane Wife”) and indie rock operas (in The Hazards of Love) as tributes to his literary heroes. Their albums and the succeeding unraveling of their influences and Easter Eggs are great introductions to lesser-known tales.

mental_floss 

Their website’s “about” page puts the reading experience succinctly: “mental_flossmagazine is an intelligent read, but not too intelligent. We’re the sort of intelligent that you hang out with for a while, enjoy our company, laugh a little, smile a lot and then we part ways.” The magazine poses questions and answers to things you never thought you’d be interested in: investigations on newt toxins, how paperbacks changed the way Americans read, and stories behind famous cocktails. You may not give a sh*t about these things but after reading mental_floss, you will want to tell everyone (i.e. your Facebook friends list and Twitter followers) about it.

Filmmaker Raya Martin’s Tumblr blog is a scrapbook of historical outtakes, obscure indie rock, and pop music. Basically, it’s a glimpse into the machinations that operate inside Martin’s cinematic mind.
Advertisements

Broken Social Scene: A Review of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue

628x471

Three quarters into Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, one of his broken-down characters proclaims, “Lots of bad things happen once you start to get old.” It’s not quite as profound like the other chunks of wisdom Chabon scatters across his book but its basic, eleven-word grip hovers above the characters heads like a godforsaken slogan written in Dayglo colors. Chabon, who previously won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, splits this realization into the two halves of his story: one about fatherhood and the other about professional struggle.

Chabon builds Telegraph Avenue as a sprawling view of pre-Obama America. It’s 2004 in the titular NoCal avenue (which connects Berkeley and Oakland) and Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings find themselves in a battle against retail giant Dogpile, which threatens to eat up their independent vinyl record store, Brokeland Records. Their wives are also having a hard time as birth partners and will soon descend into some sort of professional limbo after birthing hiccup with one of their clients. These characters will soon hang out with then Senator Obama in one of his political fund raising gigs in Berkeley. His cameo sets off the signifier for change—something that will be faced with a good amount of reluctance and opposition.

Much of what Chabon mines here is the stuff of Obama’s promised wave of change: racial dynamics (Nat is Jewish and Archy is black), health care, corporate sleaze versus small businesses, communal development, and homosexuality. There’s even a little bit of immigration tucked here and there. Chabon frames all this in a Blaxploitation perspective, via Archy’s dad Luther who used to be a B-movie action star. He occasionally lapses into a mixtape of the African-American history, jazz and soul worship, violent outbursts, and the existential state that we share with our collectibles, mimicking the filmic stylishness and attribution of Quentin Tarantino, whose work figures widely in the book.

Telegraph Avenue towers with ambition. It hints at an exercise of making the new Great American Novel that approximates the socio-political climate of the era, an impression that is reinforced with each giddy reception of the book. Heavily immersive passages (watch out for the one-sentence chapter), pockmarked with bursts of obscure references may sometimes mar the reading experience but once Chabon unleashes a bevy of swift literary Kung Fu moves, he hooks you in from page to page, crackling with fetishistic brio and sense of direction. It may be a slow burner but Telegraph Avenue reveals itself as an unlikely field guide to pop cultural dreams and easing up into the complexities of adulthood.

This review originally appeared in Rogue Magazine (November 2012). Image from SFGate.