Monday, October 31, 2011

"Person of Interest" and post 9/11 culture

In a post before the summer, I suggested that the post 9/11 era in popular culture was coming to a close.  At first glance, CBS’s new procedural Person of Interest seems to undermine this theory.  In the show, Mr. Finch, played by one of my favorite actors, Lost’ s Michael Emerson (the creepy Ben Linus) developed a surveillance device after the attacks which monitors all-email, phone calls, and cameras to predict future terrorist acts as well as conventional crimes.  Reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report, this seems to reflect post 9/11 concerns about the growth of the state and the potential loss of civil liberties.  The government, however, was so focused on terrorism that it didn’t pay attention to predictions of traditional crimes.  Finch has found a way to tap into the government’s intelligence, which gives him the Social Security numbers of individuals who are either potential victims or perpetrators of crimes.
To stop these crimes, Finch hires an ex-CIA operative, Reese (Jim Caviziel), who was going to leave the agency until he felt he had to serve his country because of 9/11.  While he was fighting the war on terror, someone murdered the love of his life.  At the beginning of the pilot, he is homeless and riding the New York City subway.  He has clearly paid a high psychological price for his actions defending the nation, somewhat like Jason Bourne.
In the show, Finch and Reese work to stop murders and other non-terrorism related crimes.  At the end of the pilot, Reese tells one villain that he went abroad to hunt bad guys, but now realizes “there were plenty of you right here all along.”  In this sense, the show seems to reflect a shift away from the post 9/11 fear of terrorism back to concerns about traditional malfeasance.  In fact, it reminds me a little of a now-forgotten 1980s show, The Equalizer, which featured another ex-CIA agent who stopped crimes the police couldn’t prevent.
I’ll keep watching the show because the premise is interesting and Michael Emerson is one of the best actors on television today.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Ides of March

I didn’t like Ides of March that much, although my parents really enjoyed it.  It seems to be an attempt by George Clooney, who directs and co-stars, to do an updated (and darker) version of Robert Redford’s 1972 film The Candidate. There are number of contemporary allegories in the movie, which was based on the 2008 play Farragut North.  In an echo of Barack Obama, Clooney plays an inspiring progressive presidential candidate.  Ryan Gosling plays a political consultant who is in thrall to Clooney and believes he is a man who will change the country.  The Obama connection seems complete when a New York Times reporter accuses Gosling of having drunk the Kool Aid on Clooney and tells him that he is a politician who will eventually let him down.  Perhaps an echo of the liberal disaffection with Obama? Without giving away too much, let’s just say that Clooney’s character also has a little bit of Bill Clinton in him and gets in trouble with a sexual indiscretion.
In the film, the Democrats are in the middle of a heated primary that appears to be more important than the general election because the Republicans are in such bad shape.  This seems similar to 2008 when the Hilary-Obama race seemed like the main event given how Bush’s unpopularity was going to hinder the GOP nominee.  Another echo of ’08 is how Republicans are encouraging their flock to vote in the Democratic primary to help Clooney’s opponent, who is perceived to be weaker and to also extend the primary campaign.  This seems earliy similiar to Rush Limbaugh's Operation Chaos, which asked conservatives to support Hilary in open primaries when it appeared Obama was going to wrap up the nomination. This actually helped Obama in the end, forcing him to build a campaign infrastructure across the country, paving the way for his wins in GOP-leaning states like North Carolina and Indiana.
In the end, I would recommend Clooney’s 2005 Good Night and Good Luck for a political film.

Monday, October 10, 2011

"Ich Bin Ein Berliner"

Last night’s Pan Am episode revolved around a real historical event, JFK’s 1963 trip to West Berlin.  On this trip, JFK made one of his most famous speeches, the “Ich Bin Ein Berliner,” speech, which doubled as the title of the episode.  In this address, Kennedy identified with West Germany’s struggle against communism by declaring that he was a Berliner (although in German he actually said he was a jelly doughnut). In order to prevent the continued exodus of educated people to the West, the Soviet Union and East Germany had erected the Berlin Wall, which split the city in two, in 1961.  The wall quickly became the main symbol of the Cold War and the division of Europe.  The show accurately depicts the tremendous excitement inspired by JFK’s visit.

A review of the speech reveals how much it expressed Kennedy’s Cold War liberalism.  While we remember JFK as a liberal icon, he was a hawk who campaigned in 1960 on a platform of being tougher on the Soviet Union.  In the “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” speech, Kennedy declared:
There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass' sic nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin
The Wall would remain the most visible symbol of the Cold War throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.  Its fall in 1989 provided the clearest sign of the end of the U.S./Soviet conflict.  West and East Germany would reunify shortly thereafter.
There were a number of other interesting historical notes in the episode.   Some of the reporters covering the speech made oblique references to JFK’s affairs, which were not known to the general public at the time.  In this time before feminism fostered a greater stigma toward adultery and Vietnam and Watergate brought about a more aggressive media, the press did not examine the private lives of politicians.  In fact, the episode probably exaggerates the press’ knowledge of these affairs.
The trip revives the wartime memories of Colette, a French-born stewardess who grew up during the Nazi occupation of France from 1940-44.  She has an angry exchange with German officials over how Kennedy’s visit seemingly gives Germany a pass for its wartime behavior. This part of the episode accurately reveals how the Cold War limited discussion of Nazi crimes because the U.S./West German alliance gave the West an interest in constructing an image of West Germans as “good” guys in the struggle against communism.  Greater discussion of the Holocaust would only emerge in West Germany after a wave of youth protests in 1968 and, if you can believe it, the showing of NBC’s Holocaust mini-series in the late 1970s. 
With the exception of a silly subplot where Christina Ricci’s character goes out of her way to try to meet President Kennedy, I enjoyed the episode.  Indeed, I’ve actually been surprised by the relative quality of the show and will continue to watch and blog.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Return of the Mid-1980s

The imminent release of the Footloose remake made me realize that the last three years have witnessed the revival of a number of television shows/films from the mid-1980s.  Since 2009, studios have produced new versions of: The Karate Kid (original: 1984, remake: 2010), A-Team (1983, 2010), V (1983, 2009), Conan the Barbarian (1982, 2011), G.I. Joe (1982, 2009), and Footloose (1984, 2011).  I found it remarkable that the remakes occurred in a roughly 26-29 year cycle after the original.
A cursory review reveals that this pattern is a familiar one.  The early 2000s witnessed a similar dynamic with: Charlie’s Angels (1976, 2000) The Incredible Hulk (1977-78, 2003), Battlestar Galactica (1978, 2003), and The Dukes of Hazard (1979, 2005). One could also add Doctor Who, revived in 2005, to this list.  Though it originally premiered in Great Britain in 1963, the show reached unparalleled popularity with Tom Baker starring as the Doctor in the late 70s.
I think this pattern reveals the (ugh) maturation of Generation X.  Once a generation reaches a certain age and attains a certain level of power within the entertainment industry, it seeks to revive the treasured programs of its childhood.  While this is understandable and welcome in some cases, it does pose some frightening possibilities.  In all likelihood, we are about to see a revival of the late 80s.  There have been persistent rumors of a Quantum Leap film, which I would like to see.  More disturbing prospects include revivals of Full House and Family Matters.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

40th Anniversary of Walt Disney World

This past weekend marked the 40th anniversary of Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, FL.  The park, which is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, has made a profound impact on Florida and the United States.
The roots of the Central Florida park lie in the evolution of Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, which opened in 1955.  The park, which capitalized on the affluence of post-World War II America, quickly became a very popular attraction.  In the 1950s, more and more Americans had disposable income and paid vacations and could make the trip to Southern California.  Despite this success, though, Walt Disney quickly became disturbed by the seedy hotels and other businesses opening just outside the Magic Kingdom.
As he contemplated a second park, Disney wanted a larger area to develop his ambitions.  He quietly purchased a large amount of land in Central Florida and arranged a favorable deal with the state of Florida regarding the region’s governance.  This led to his owning nearly 28,000 acres of virgin property near Orlando, giving him the autonomy to build any idea of his dreams.
But Walt Disney, who died in 1966, would not live to see the success of the new park.  Walt Disney World had a star-studded opening in 1971 and the differences with Disneyland were notable.  The park could not be seen from the surrounding roads, making Walt Disney World a self-contained community unlike Anaheim. At the outset, though, Disney World was a shadow of what it is today, featuring the Magic Kingdom, which was nearly a replica of Disneyland, and a few hotels.
Before his death, Walt Disney contemplated building a model city of the future.  This town would have, among other things, a dome to protect it from inclement weather and all types of modern transportation.  As the company floundered in the 1970s, Walt’s successors remade this concept of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) into a World’s Fair-type park with a Future World of technology pavilions and a World Showcase of country pavilions.  Opening in 1982, EPCOT became the second theme park at Disney World.
The arrival of Disney World changed Orlando and its surrounding areas from a sleepy, rural community, to a modern city with massive suburban sprawl.  The area from Tampa to Daytona Beach, known as the “I-4 Corridor” is filled with people who have moved from other parts of the country and the world.  This area, with its large number of registered independents, is considered the swing vote in the state of Florida, and because of the state’s Electoral College clout, the country.  The growth of Florida, now the fourth-most populous state, would not have been as dramatic without the arrival of Mickey Mouse.
With the company near bankruptcy in the mid-1980s, Walt’s nephew Roy brought in Michael Eisner as CEO, and he led a dramatic expansion of Disney World.  Under his leadership, Disney/MGM Studios’ opened in 1989, followed by Animal Kingdom in 1998.  Furthermore, the number of park hotels expanded from a mere three in the early 1980s to 24 by 2011. Walt’s dream of a planned community became a reality with the opening of Celebration, FL in the late 1990s (minus the dome, though).
Disney’s growth reflects the globalization of the economy.  Today, Disney has parks in Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong and is planning one in Shanghai.  None of them would be imaginable without the success of Walt Disney World.
Of course, Disney has its critics who believe it has too much power in its arrangement with the state of Florida.  Others believe it is partially responsible for the homogenization of American culture.  And some, including me, think t is way too expensive.  Still, none of these critiques diminishes the tremendous influence the parks have had on Florida, the US, and the world.