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Apr 21, 2016 - AV Club    No Comments

Good night, sweet Prince

I went numb from the tips of my toes to the roots of my purple hair today when I saw there’d been a death at Paisley Park.

“It’s a big place,” I told myself. “People in and out of there all the time. Could be anyone.”

But I didn’t really believe it. 2016’s been like that.

I managed to hold it together as I rushed around getting last-minute birthday presents for my big, amazing, ten-year-old Griffin. And I’m determined to be cheerful tonight. My kid deserves that, and more.

But when The Current played the first chord of “Purple Rain,” the tears started rolling down. Purple Rain was the first R-rated movie I ever saw, at the tender age my youngest is turning today. A friend’s family had HBO, so when I slept over, we were determined to watch whatever was on just to feel grown-up. Instead, I sat stunned, thrilled, utterly changed.SVOD-DI-Purple-Rain-DI-to-L10-dupe

Prince was sex before I knew what it was. Not the biology, but the essence of sexuality. The breathless moans. The hitched breath. The sudden, ecstatic screams. They punctuated his songs, created a separate rhythm that scrambled my pulse in ways I couldn’t understand. His liquid dark eyes, casting a look back over his shoulder at you alone, asking if you had the courage to come along for the ride. Pure, tempting transgression on a purple motorcycle. prince-2013

Later, in college, my heart would race to “Darling Nikki” for another reason—we had to skip the track when we played the album in the record store where I worked. The stereo was at the front of the store, and many a time I did a flat-out sprint through the store to hit fast-forward before the line Tipper Gore never liked. My pulse speeds up in the first three bars to this day.

Prince was queer before I knew what it was. I sang along quite innocently as he breathed, “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something you can never understand.” And to be honest, I didn’t question it. His whole self was confirmation of that statement. My autistic perseveration as a child was history, and I especially enjoyed historical fashion. Prince was a museum of styles on parade. He had it all: Marie Antoinette’s beauty mark, Cleopatra’s kohl liner, Lord Byron’s carelessly tumbling curls, Cab Calloway’s finger waves, George III’s frothy lace jabot. Prince displayed a fearless feast of gendered signifiers, embracing and rejecting them all at the same time, sparing no one the intense focus of his seduction.1f739fa7955c0f4ab96c522841adc3c4

Prince was the musical descendant of ancestors before I knew them. You name it: Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, Otis Redding. Now that I’ve heard so many more seminal black artists, the more I hear their riffs and imprints. And now there are the artists who bear his stamp: Lenny Kravitz, Janelle Monaè, Kendrick Lamar, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and so many more. The genealogy is lavishly rich above and below. Prince even met the gold standard of performers in my book: he appeared on the Muppets. Okay, well, Muppets Tonight, but he wrote one of my favorite of his songs for that appearance (starts at 6:13).

It’s been a dream of mine, since we moved to Minnesota, that maybe one day I’d get to see Prince perform in person. As Paisley Park started to light up for late- and little-announced dance parties—some of which turned into impromptu concerts—I watched my inbox for alerts. Some were more than my body could handle; an 11pm start is tough even with maximum spoons. Others were more than my bank account could handle; $50 doesn’t seem like much, but it is to us.

And, of course, I thought I had time. We all did.

A woman with short purple hair and a black t-shirt with a cartoon of Prince sits with her head bowed.Now cracks a noble heart.—Good night, sweet Prince, 

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! 

~Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2, Lines 359-360


Sep 9, 2015 - AV Club, Social Studies    4 Comments

Expanding the Universe

I saw Star Wars for the first time when I was two years old. I perched on a stack of phonebooks in the front seat of our Ford pickup, and the drive-in theater screen enveloped my whole world. I don’t remember what must have been the poor, crackly quality of the sound—the expansive visual feast polished the music and dialogue to match.

I fell instantly, deeply in love.

Nerdy kidStar Wars was all I wanted to talk, or even think, about. As my mom changed my newborn sister’s diapers, I fed her whole scenes of dialogue—memorized on contact from that first viewing—so I could have an acting partner. I roamed over our backyard swing set with tiny fists full of action figures, so many I had to stick some in my mouth to climb the slide ladder. Forgetting to take them out again resulted in the premature decapitation of several first-run figures as I bit down when my feet hit the ground. I had Star Wars bedding, Star Wars towels, Star Wars records, and one sad misfire of a Star Trek pajama set from a well-meaning grandparent.

I played Star Wars with my preschool classmates and neighborhood friends—but only the boys. The other girls weren’t interested, and I quickly learned that inviting them into our lightsaber battles and X-Wing flights earned me their scorn. So many of my gendered ideas about who I preferred to be friends with came directly from this experience. Boys shared my passions, and didn’t expect me to navigate social minefields. We came, we saw, we blew up the Death Star. Simple.

I wouldn’t have a significant group of female friends until I was in college.

And as the only girl, of course, I got to be Princess Leia. As an undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome kid, I must grudgingly admit that I was probably more like C3P0—pedantic, oblivious, anxious, always interjecting irrelevant, self-centered observations. But Leia was everything I wanted to be—dashing, brave, imperious, powerful, efficient, and beautiful. Her role let me direct the play scenes in her bossy, self-assured voice, and I used the authority she lent me to muscle my way into even more action, assigning her piloting skills and a lightsaber before the Expanded Universe would.

The only time Star Wars got complicated was when more than one girl wanted to join in. As my sister grew up and I dragooned her into play, the absence of another female role led me to assign her to the only non-gendered main part I could find: R2D2. Artoo was the perfect little-sibling role—non-verbal, swept up in the action, useful as a tool but without the need for much consideration. In our thirties, I would joke about all this at a family dinner, only for my sister to narrow her eyes and growl with long-held bitterness, “I WAS ALWAYS THE DROID.”

I was shocked by that reservoir of resentment, but thinking about it more, what else were the options for two girls in the Star Wars cinematic setting of the 1970s and ‘80s? Women weren’t visible on the command levels of Empire starships; their numbers were infinitesimally better in the Rebel bases. Stormtroopers and aliens were ungenendered to the untrained eye. So what’s left? Those two goth chicks with the water pipe in Mos Eisley Cantina? Mon Mothma or the dancing slave Oola in Return of the Jedi? Sy Snootles?

Shows like Star Wars Rebels, books like Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath, and all the trailers for Episode VII: The Force Awakens represent a hyperspace jump forward in representation for kids of all kinds. Children of color get action heroes to play; so do girls. Even queer kids get heroes that just five years ago would’ve been unimaginable in a mainstream media juggernaut like the new Star Wars universe.

I have no patience for alleged fans who can’t see how this is a good thing. Their pristine fandom was never fair or representative of all the people who loved its stories; we shoehorned our way into the drama through sheer force of childhood creativity.

The simple fact of the matter is this: The future we can imagine grows from the present we live in. As I stood at the bus stop Tuesday for the first day of school, I looked at the crowd of 15 kids, all neighbors and friends of my sons in our apartment complex. It’s as varied as it gets: white, black, Latinx, Somali, Japanese, boys, girls, genderqueer, disabled, neurodiverse. The more of them who see reflections of themselves in visions of the future, the more of them will have the confidence to follow their dreams to create the real future we’ll live into. That world can’t help but be better for the diversity of lives it values.

May 19, 2015 - Ancient History, AV Club    1 Comment

Looking for a Moment of Zen


Connor around the time we bought our first TiVo box.

We bought our first TiVo machine when Connor was about 7 months old. This turned out to be the single best purchase we made as new parents. It allowed us keep up with our favorite shows so we still felt connected to popular culture through the following months of sleep deprivation and unpredictable schedules.

We developed the habit of watching The Daily Show over Cam’s lunch hour, when he came home from his library job just five minutes up the road. Connor would sit in the cradle of Cam’s crossed legs and watch the show with us. Soon, Connor was laughing along with us, even though he didn’t understand the jokes—he caught on to the rhythm of the comedy, and the funny faces helped too. We didn’t know about his autism yet, but his ability to perceive patterns was already strong.

By the time he was two, Connor had started folding Jon Stewart into the epic adventures he played out with his action figures, as important to the story as his other superheroes. He would even hook a clip-on tie to the collar of his t-shirt, then stand tiptoe on the bathroom stool so he could see his reflection. He babbled in his “moon language,” but with a very peculiar rhythm that ended in maniacal laughter. When I asked him what he was doing in there, he replied with some exasperation, “I Jon Stewart!”

Only a week or two after his second birthday party, he announced very clearly, “For my next birthday, I want Jon Stewart party.” Cam and I found this hilarious, and we assured him that we would make it happen. For our amusement, we checked in with him every few months: “So, what kind of birthday party do you think you might want for your third birthday?” And he steadfastly replied, “I want Jon Stewart Party!”

At last, summer rolled around again, and we worked hard to make his wish a reality. With a birthday so close to July 4th, it was easy for us to get flag party supplies. We handed out invitations with a picture of Jon Stewart on them and the message “WE WANT YOU to celebrate Connor’s third birthday!” to the other kids at his preschool. (We got a few disapproving looks from other parents who thought we let Connor stay up ’til 11pm to watch the show as it aired; a quick explanation of the magic of TiVo resolved things.) The technology where you could get a photo scanned onto a cake’s frosting had just come to town; we got some strange looks at the bakery when we brought in a cast picture, I can tell you.


The day was everything we could’ve hoped for. His preschool teacher made him a t-shirt with Jon Stewart’s face on it. We played episodes on TV while the other 2- and 3-year-olds ran around whacking each other with American flag thundersticks.2015_05_19_10_21_52

And when it was cake time, he announced with a certain cannibalistic glee , “I eat Jon Stewart face!”


It’s hard to believe that that party was almost 10 years ago. Connor will turn 13 this summer, a milestone I sometimes wondered if we’d ever reach. His love of comedy is still integral to who he is, and his senses of the absurd and satire come as much from Jon Stewart as they do from us his parents. Whenever we wonder whether he can understand a concept with complicated emotional nuances that can be difficult for autistic kids, we know he’s gotten it when he makes up a joke about it.

To be fair, Connor (bottom left) comes by his weird sense of humor naturally.

To be fair, Connor (bottom left) comes by his weird sense of humor naturally.

It would close a 10-year circle beautifully if we could figure out how to get tickets to one of the remaining tapings of The Daily Show. We had heard that, through friends of friends, one of the birthday party invitations had made its way to Jon Stewart himself. I doubt he still has it, but maybe he remembers it. And if this story makes its way to him in a similar fashion, maybe he could see his way clear to make a kid’s lifelong dream come true.

Sep 11, 2013 - AV Club    No Comments

DC Comics: Make It Right

Saturday night, I finally got to watch the movie 42. It’s about Jackie Robinson as he crossed the color lines of pro baseball right after World War II. I was ready to cry. I cry a lot at civil rights stories, for reasons I don’t completely understand, except that I can feel my heart tearing in two to see humans being treated as less-than.

What I wasn’t ready for was the way I burst out in tears during the trailer reel. It wasn’t even a really good movie preview that did it–it was a Public Service Announcement from Warner Brothers for a DC Comics child hunger initiative called “We Can Be Heroes.” It was everything I love and find moving in the iconography and symbolism of the Justice League and its members: protectors of humanity wherever they’re needed, asking for no thanks or compensation. Just doing good in the world. Take a second to watch; you’ll see what I mean.

But I was fresh from anger so blinding that I brought in the Darling Husband to help me write a blog post about it because I was worried I couldn’t write sensibly on the subject. So the tears that sprang to my eyes and clogged up my throat were tears of fury and frustration. Why couldn’t DC Comics be THIS instead of the ongoing train wreck I recounted last week?

I care about this because DC is family to me. I grew up in the glory days of Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and Christopher Reeve’s Superman and the technicolor weirdness of Sunday-afternoon episodes of Batman. I had the Underoos to prove it. I waited in line to have my picture taken with a distinctly sausage-like Batman at the local Toys’R’Us, and I was thrilled about it.

Later, the Darling Husband romanced me from afar with DC comics, mostly Vertigo titles that filled a space in me I didn’t know was empty. And when our first son was born, DH flew him around the room ever-so-carefully when the theme song of the Justice League cartoon came on. After a while, Connor’s head would swivel between TV and Dad every time he heard it, drooling (literally) in anticipation of his thrilling flights. The boys were born just a little too early for the cool Fisher Price Little People versions of DC characters that are in stores now, but we bought all of the large, chunky ones designed for slightly older kids, and they’re been loved to pieces.

We’re in that gap now where there isn’t much for kids coming out of DC Comics. TV appears to be the only place they’re making kid-friendly content.The title Superman Family Adventures was nice, but it’s been cancelled. There’s no DC analog for video games like Marvel Ultimate Alliance or Marvel vs. Capcom, which are slightly more mature than the admittedly excellent LEGO Batman games, but still not too warped or bloody. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight movies and Man of Steel are un-fun and too mature for kids.

I’m not saying that there should be no material aimed at mature readers, not at all. I’m saying that DC has abandoned creative products for one end of the spectrum of readers and fans, while continuing to market their merchandise with the force of a firehose to those young children. And that doesn’t even address the way they’re driving their women readers away with a stick.

So here are five things I can think of that DC Comics could do right now to get on the right side of this problem and reclaim their historic place:

1) Let Batwoman marry her fiancee. Happy relationships make terrible drama, so I don’t expect it to be a Happily Ever After, but get with the times and let them have a wedding.

2) Green-light a Wonder Woman movie now. And don’t put it in the hands of some dude who’s made a bunch of superhero movies. Put it in the hands of a woman who’s made great films about heroes, like The Hurt Locker (and Oscar-winning) director Kathryn Bigelow. Let Jane Espenson and Mary Robinette Kowal collaborate on a script. And of course, get Kathleen Kennedy to produce. You can cram in as many SFX as you want, but the creative team needs a different grasp on the character and story than superhero movie directors usually have.

3) Stop putting sexualized violence in every video game scene involving a woman. Her name is Catwoman, not “Bitch.” No pulling women around by the hair. And if I can’t kick Batman in the bubble bag, you shouldn’t be able to kick a female character in the crotch.

4) Make more age-appropriate content. If you want kids to be into Batman enough to buy pajamas and plastic cups and Halloween costumes, tell them stories so they understand why Batman is cool. Don’t market Man of Steel merchandise to elementary-age kids who would be terrified by the dark, bitter Superman of the movie.

5) Don’t force your creative teams to fall on the sword for every PR disaster. Maybe some dumb ideas originate with a writer, artist, or editor, but they don’t make it to the public eye without a whole lot of executives signing off on them. Many execs were creatives once themselves, so they should know that if the corporation doesn’t give them enough support and latitude, artists can’t take the courageous leaps that make great, lasting art.

Sep 6, 2013 - AV Club    11 Comments

Pink & Ginger: What’s Bugging DC Comics?

So, I’m trying this new thing where I try to share with you some of the awesome, free-range conversations I have with my Darling Husband, a/k/a Cam Banks—Internet-famous author and game designer, family man, and Twitter’s Dad. Thanks to Eric Paquette for the series name: it makes us sound like an awesome spy duo or a delicious drink!

Today’s topic has been on rising boil for a while, but just blew the lid off last night with its latest flare-up. First, asking vociferous homophobe Orson Scott Card to write for Superman; then, this week, DC letting the Batwoman creative team quit rather than publish the same-sex marriage of BW and her partner, followed by last night’s kicker, the Harley Quinn “Break Into Comics!” contest art direction, which invites folks to draw HQ trying to commit suicide in a series of ways, including naked in the bathtub. People are so outraged that sources say individuals at DC are getting threats, in typical and totally unacceptable Internet fashion.

So my question to you, DH, is this: What in the pluperfect hell is going on at DC Comics right now?

DH: This whole direction of being incapable of seeing what effect their portrayal of various characters is having isn’t new, obviously. You only have to look back to the past few years to see decisions like the really blatantly sexualized female characters in some of the New 52 titles. There’s a reason that one website has a “X Days Since the Last DC Comics Blunder” counter. [You can find a timeline of departures from DC since the New 52 reboot here.]

ProfBanks: Right. But all of these things have to make it past many sets of eyes before they finally go live. How do you think DC has become so divorced from their readership and core values?

DH: I think it’s more complicated than people think over at Warner [DC’s parent company]. Remember, this is a gigantic multinational entertainment company, and the turnover has been really crazy. Executives coming and going. People in charge of making decisions being fired or let go or moving on. Look at the fallout after Man of Steel, for instance. At DC Comics, I’m not sure some editorial staff know from one day to the next who their boss is. That doesn’t really explain why the folks who have their “boots on the ground” so to speak aren’t aware of the messages they’re sending out.

PB: What fallout after Man of Steel? I totally missed this.

DH: So, there’s been a lot of discussion of what would happen if they made a Justice League movie. Part of the deal with Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Bat-flicks and Man of Steel was that they could somehow tie into one another and everything would naturally go Avengers-like. Unfortunately there was a dispute among the various executives in charge of movies and media, and Legendary Pictures walked away from Warner. Long story short, I don’t think the upcoming Batman/Superman movie was Plan A. Plus, a lot of people were seriously upset with Man of Steel anyway.

PB: I know I was really disappointed by how careless the destruction was in the movie during the fight between Supe and Zod. In the Superman II version, Zod and his team were able to break Supe’s focus by endangering people, whom he automatically went off to save. There was none of that care in Man of Steel, and pretty egregious destruction. I get the “But I just wanna stomp Metropolis!” urge for a filmmaker, but compared to The Avengers‘ battle in New York, the big Supe-Zod showdown just felt like a boss fight on a 2D video game backdrop where there are no consequences.

DH: Exactly. And this is a good example of missing the point. Now, I don’t think it’s an epidemic of thoughtlessness, it could just be another symptom of the push to get bigger, better SFX and visuals out there and skimp on story and plot. And we all know that no single screenplay in Hollywood ever gets to stay intact without being stripped apart and rebuilt hundreds of times by producers and studio executives. But even if this were shown to test audiences, I would have thought at some point somebody would have said “Hey, isn’t this kind of just disaster porn?”

PB: What I keep coming back to is the growing gap between the values DC has always espoused, especially through Superman but also underlying other core characters, the whole “truth, justice, and the American Way” thing. The “American Way” is changing as demographics change, and while the old mythology is powerful, aren’t they missing a huge opportunity to be more to today’s readers?

DH: They are. And in fact, there have been great strides made in terms of certain creators and writing and progressive characterizations. I don’t think you would have seen Batwoman—a really kick-ass lesbian hero character—headlining her own title a decade ago. Not the way folks like J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman have been writing her, anyway. But somebody higher up the food chain didn’t read the memo. Or, in this case, tossed out their wedding invitation.

PB: Whereas Marvel actually sent out wedding “invitations” before their same-sex marriage in Astonishing X-Men #51 last year, and it sold hugely for them. Do you think DC execs just don’t have a good idea of who their readers are?

DH: It’s possible. It’s also possible that we don’t know who their readers are, not completely, and that we’re sort of assuming that there’s a huge untapped audience of LGBT and multicultural readers who are being sidelined. That’s the problem with demographics. In some cases, an exec looks at two numbers on a sheet and says, “Well, we can afford to kick those people to the curb because this larger group won’t be interested and they give us more money anyway.” I have a feeling however that they’re on the wrong side of history here even if they believe they’re making good business sense.

PB: Compared with the success of Marvel across the board right now, I can’t understand how they think the move toward…I don’t even know WHAT they stand for anymore…is the right one. I mean, honestly, at this point, I have serious reservations about letting our boys consume DC material. What about you?

DH: I think you could take that stand, but on the other hand, so much of the tie-in stuff has nothing to do with this. Like, the Young Justice animated series that recently ended was amazing. I can only assume the new Batman cartoon will be a lot of fun, too.

But I think we’ve both come to the conclusion that certain properties like Injustice or Arkham City are too intense and don’t portray women or minorities in a way we want our kids to be exposed to. And hey, there really is no end of Marvel stuff out there.

Plus, having read Batwoman, it’s for mature audiences anyway. Not because of the character’s sexuality, but because a lot of the Bat-titles are written for mature audiences. (Don’t get me started on THAT mixed message, though.)

PB: Right?! Merchandising and marketing is aimed squarely, with the force of a firehose, at getting kids into Batman, but they’re not producing new content that’s age-appropriate except for the new show. And don’t get me started on Arkham Asylum and Arkham City—having that battle with the kid every other damn week is wearing me out. He thinks it’s okay that he understands that the way women and minorities are portrayed and treated is really messed up. He doesn’t believe me when I say that knowing it isn’t enough when his brain is absorbing these messages in formative years.

DH: Insert “I consumed media like that when I was a kid and I’m OK” comment here. At the very least, I’m conscious of how much we work to include diverse characters, stories, and other media into our kids’ lives so that, rather than necessarily getting rid of problematic stuff, we present more positive alternatives and make those more appealing. It would sure help if our major entertainment media companies would pitch in a little more in this regard.

PB: Yes, please. Let us leverage our vast combined influence on the entertainment media complex to make this happen.

DH: Great case study: Minecraft. But you watch. One day we’ll find out somebody who works on that game is a Nazi sympathizer or hunts big game in Africa.

PB: We’re not talking about Minecraft, dear. We’re talking about the screws loose in DC Executive Land.

DH: So my big take-away from this is that someone, somewhere, in DC Land needs to get a handle on the messages they’re sending out. They’re not in charge of that message right now. They might think they are, but I think the evidence (and the departures of writers and artists) is to the contrary.

Plus, for crying out loud, don’t use naked suicidal Harley Quinn as your art contest subject.

PB: Because that’s not triggery in any way.

DH: Nobody thinks this is a good idea.

How about—shocker!—a contest where you’re tasked to gender-flip a major DC character or present them as a non-white non-traditional character? That’d be a wonderful use of creativity.


DH: It’s already being done by every progressive artist on Tumblr or DeviantArt anyway. Maybe DC is just permanently late to the party. What do you do when your audience can find better uses for your IP than you do?

PB: Total regime change. The King is dead. Long live The King.

Thanks for the chat, honey.

DH: You’re welcome! We should do this more often.

PB: Yes, let’s.

Mar 1, 2013 - AV Club    No Comments

Cover to Cover

I absolutely adore cover songs (originally done by one band, then performed by others). In fact, I’ve got a whole playlist full of them on my phone. Whether they’re irreverent reinterpretations or faithful homages, the combination of one band’s music and another band’s sound is an alchemy that often amounts to more than just the sum of its parts.

A lot of them come from movie and TV soundtracks, because often music directors know which songs they want, but the licensing costs of getting the original would cost the whole movie’s music budget. Lots of great Beatles and Bob Dylan songs make it into shows, but they’re almost always performed by someone else. Heck, even the movie Singin’ In The Rain is basically a movie full of covers. The downside of this, though, is that many soundtrack songs aren’t available as singles

If you know someone else who enjoys messing around with music, a purchased playlist on iTunes would make a pretty awesome gift (though not all songs are available there; some are from a few rare CDs I have).

Dancing Queen by Luka Bloom (orig. ABBA)

Under the Milky Way by Strawpeople (orig. The Church)

Sea of Love by Tom Waits (orig. The Honeydrippers)

Flume by Peter Gabriel (orig. Bon Iver)

Love Song by 311, from 50 First Dates (orig. The Cure)

Enjoy the Silence by Tori Amos (orig. Depeche Mode)

The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead by Crash Test Dummies, from Dumb and Dumber (orig. XTC)

Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want by The Dream Academy, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (orig. The Smiths)

So. Central Rain by Hem (orig. R.E.M.)

When Doves Cry by Quindon Tarver, from William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (orig. Prince)

She’s Not There by Neko Case & Nick Cave, from True Blood, S4 Ep1 (orig. The Zombies)

Toxic by Nickel Creek (orig. Britney Spears)

You Keep Me Hangin’ On by Kim Wilde (orig. The Supremes)

Just Like Heaven by The Watson Twins, used in True Blood S1 Ep7 (orig. The Cure)

I Melt With You by Jason Mraz, from 50 First Dates (orig. Modern English)

Higher Ground by Red Hot Chili Peppers (orig. Stevie Wonder)

Head On by The Pixies (orig. The Jesus and Mary Chain)

Bizarre Love Triangle by Frente! (orig. New Order)

Hurt by Johnny Cash (orig. Nine Inch Nails)

Everybody Knows by Concrete Blonde, used in Pump Up The Volume (orig. Leonard Cohen)

Dead Souls by Nine Inch Nails, from The Crow (orig. Joy Division)

Lips Like Sugar by Seal, from 50 First Dates (orig. Echo and the Bunnymen)

Wild Horses by The Sundays, used in Buffy the Vampire Slayer S3 Ep20  (orig. The Rolling Stones)

Pale Blue Eyes by R.E.M. (orig. The Velvet Underground)

Sweet Jane by Cowboy Junkies (orig. The Velvet Underground)

I Will Survive by Cake (orig. Gloria Gaynor)

Secondhand Smoke Signals

  • “My cousin lives in Turkey, and he says he heard that only foreign fighters are carrying on the conflict in Syria.”
  • “One worker told a story of another man who said he heard someone on his assembly line talking about the sores and bone spurs on his feet that never healed because every day was an 18-hour workday.”
  • “As a doctor, I’ve talked to parents whose autistic children were so precariously balanced that something as small as the cancellation of a play date threw them into a violent rage that ended with the child menacing the parent with a knife. We need the resources to help these children get the hospital care they need.”

Now, I did a stint in journalism school when I first went to college, and I’ve seen more than my fair share of Law & Order marathons, so I won’t make assumptions that everyone sees the problem that those three quotes have in common. All three are fairly egregious exaggerations of unsubstantiated hearsay, which just won’t fly in a respectable publication or a court of law. It’s easy to imagine how they would be received. As journalism, the writer who submitted them would be laughed out of the newsroom by everyone from the copy editor to the cub reporter working the obituary beat. As testimony, the judge might file the objection herself before the opposing council could even get out of his seat.

Or worse: you could end up like Mike Daisey. He’s a performer who got a lot of attention for a one-man show called “The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” especially after Jobs’ death. Daisey’s work and the publicity it garnered brought the labor conditions at Apple’s subcontractor factory in Shengzhen, China to light for many people, driving the debate about the real cost of iPads when workers were committing suicide because it was preferable to another day on the Foxconn assembly line. The producers at WBEZ’s radio show This American Life were so impressed by Daisey’s show–the harrowing eyewitness accounts from his own trip to Foxconn, the tragic testimony he collected from abused workers, and the shocking indifference he exposed in Apple’s administrators and consumers–that they adapted the show for an entire hour-long episode.

Except Mike Daisey was lying. Conditions were horrible at Foxconn’s factories, and workers were suffering and dying for our shiny appliances. But he hadn’t seen the things he had said he’d seen; some of the testimony he recounted hearing firsthand was really second- or thirdhand. Ira Glass and the TAL staff (as were countless other journalists and media figures who’d given Daisey a platform and endorsement) were so embarrassed and furious at being duped into telling their audience things that weren’t true that they tracked down Daisey’s interpreter in China and got the real scoop on his visit. They then had Daisey back on the show for Ira to interview in what can only be described as one of the most excruciating half-hours of media ever produced. I highly recommend listening to both the original show and the retraction episode, but be warned: it’s brutal.

The level of outrage and disillusionment that accompanies the exposure of a reporter who doesn’t do due diligence is high, and it should be. We depend on people to get into the places, talk to the people, witness the events that we just can’t as regular, everyday people. Secondhand or thirdhand isn’t good enough, because we know that each degree of separation from the source costs us an unacceptable toll of perspective and authenticity.

But we accept it every day in stories about autistics and the mentally ill.

When’s the last time you read a story about autism that quoted an autistic child or adult? I’ve seen plenty of stories in which experts and parents tell you what their child’s behavior means, but I’ve never seen a feature that reads, “When I’m flapping my hands, it’s a way for me to stimulate my senses so my mind is free to focus on other difficult tasks, like putting words to my ideas so you can understand them.” Most autistics are capable of speaking for themselves, and new technologies allow more non-verbal people to communicate clearly and effectively. In fact, I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of my copy of the new anthology, Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking, and I loved the diversity of autistic voices included in the documentary Loving Lampposts.

The most recent example of this lazy, ignorant, shameful abridgment in the media is a cover story for the USA Today by Liz Szabo. In over 3,000 words, not counting captions for the color pictures and infographics, the article quotes not a single person with a mental illness or disorder. It’s not like there was no one to talk to. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 57.7 million American adults experience at least one episode of mental illness a year. And current estimates suggest that 1.5 million people on the autism spectrum live in the US. That’s more than the population of the New Orleans metro area, more than the populations of Alaska and Wyoming combined. More than the number of active duty troops in the US Military as of December 31, 2011.

Foxconn employs 1.3 million workers. We were dismayed and angry that a man who had no direct personal experience of their lives claimed to speak for the voiceless. We called for and received a public immolation of his reputation. But one in four American adults has experience with a mental illness or disorder, and we’re okay with “experts” and surrogates dominating the debate?

Our country has a lot of work to do on issues surrounding mental health. Destigmatization, holistic treatment, restorative therapy for mentally ill criminals, and long-term strategies for integration and care all need our attention desperately. But right now, how about we start by insisting that the affected voices be in the room? Put the subjects on the list of people to talk to for a story, or a study, or a hearing, or a forum. I used to think this was obvious–at least, until this hearing on contraception:

But we wouldn’t take a commission on racism seriously if it only had white people. And we wouldn’t stand for an article about what it’s like to have breast cancer without a single survivor quoted. We value those voices rightly, because their experience is irreplaceable.

We have to hold the media–and ourselves as consumers–to the same standard when it comes to mental illness and disorders like autism. Sometimes, secondhand just isn’t good enough.


UPDATE: Within 12 hours of posting this, I had a message in my Facebook inbox from…wait for it…Mike Daisey. I was frankly stunned that my little blog had ended up on his radar, and suspected mechanisms like Google Alerts and, until my boss told me that Mike had been Our Man On The Inside at Amazon for Atlas Games (the company I work for) for quite some time, and had even written content for our Unknown Armies roleplaying game line.

The message was very polite, and included a link to his blog for updates on what he’s been doing since to make reparations and keep his conscience clear. By all means, read it if you’d like to follow up the story–I’m all about getting my sources right. And I hope my original post adequately conveys my intention to mark Daisey’s work as instrumental in opening the public discussion about the labor conditions behind our favorite devices.

Daisey also mentioned a major article in WIRED Magazine about Foxconn that fails to cite a single worker, but hasn’t been held up to the same scrutiny as his work. All of which goes to show that the media still isn’t serious about talking to the subjects and victims of oppression, only about them.

A Government of the People

I think we can all agree on the winner of last night’s first presidential debate:

Big Bird.

Seriously, more than the President’s apparent NyQuil mishap, or the former governor’s faulty truth software, or the tragic demise of both Jim Lehrer’s moderator cred and the formal debate format, it’s Romney’s comment about getting rid of Big Bird when he would defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that’s blown up my social media feeds today. If Joe Biden doesn’t say “Bin Laden is dead and Big Bird is alive!” at next Thursday’s veep debate, he’s missing a great opportunity.

But that got me thinking. We’re big PBS and NPR fans in the Banks household, and the way I see it, the takeover of the federal government by the combined talents of those two organizations could only improve life for us all.

So here’s my plan for the new, improved CPB American government: Calm, Patient, Brilliant.


I think a Garrison Keillor/Carl Kasell ticket is just the thing to bring dignity, truth, and mildly humorous storytelling to the White House. Martha the Talking Dog could bring a new articulateness to the role of First Dog, and fill in as White House Press Secretary whenever Peter Sagal needed a break.

The Cabinet is where my plan truly shines. The Dowager Countess is an obvious pick for Secretary of State, as is Wordgirl for Education. Bob Vila‘s got Housing and Urban Development covered, and Bill Moyers would make a strong, moral, incorruptible Attorney General. Clifford the Big Red Dog will advance a “speak softly and carry a big stick” policy in his Department of Defense. Ken Burns gets the Department of the Interior, with its oversight of national parks, monuments, and natural resources. Helen Mirren/Jane Tennyson would be a ferocious head of Homeland Security. Click and Clack should do nicely for Transportation, as would the Antiques Roadshow folks for Commerce and the Victory Garden people for Agriculture. Marketplace could manage both Treasury and Labor, and the Frontline reporters have been with the soldiers all the way through the last 10+ years of warfare, so they’d a natural pick for Veterans Affairs. Martin Clunes/Doc Martin is good for Health and Human Services, especially coming from National Health Service as he does. And let’s give the NOVA guys the Department of Energy–at least they don’t think the cast of Dinosaur Train are the only source out there.


My plan is beautiful in its simplicity for Congress. Over the years, I’d wager Masterpiece Mystery has killed off at least 541 people. If we include the perpetrators, that’s enough to field candidates for actual contested races in all those states and districts. For that matter, probably enough to completely staff the home and Washington offices.

Between the corpses and the criminals, we’ll achieve roughly the same levels of trust and productivity as the 112th Congress. And probably a better gender and minority balance.


Sesame Workshop’s got this covered.


And, obviously, Nina Tottenberg continues to provide dramatic readings from the transcripts from this esteemed body.



The Yip-Yip Aliens can only improve the FCC. Sid the Science Kid might be a bit young for the CDC, but at least he won’t treat it like a faith-based department. Bob Ross, bless his soul, would’ve ruled as director of the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Cyberchase kids should be outstanding at all the electronic surveillance over in the CIA. Terry Gross is a relentless interrogator who could whip the FBI into shape in a heartbeat. And Congressional Budget Office’s reports might take a little longer with Count von Count at the helm, but the constant thunder will comfort everyone that he’s always hard at work. Neil deGrasse Tyson already should be the head of NASA, so that’s a no-brainer.

And Curious George would definitely be a pro-legalization Drug Czar.

The CPB government will eliminate all personal income taxes, but you’ll have to deal with Fall and Spring pledge drives. The guilt trips will be epic, but between Austin City Lights, The Mark Twain Prize, and This American Life, there’ll be some outstanding programming twice a year to get citizens to chip in their fair share.

I’m sure there are many positions I’ve forgotten, or other excellent candidate for the posts I’ve named, so feel free to suggest your own in comments.

Wouldn’t it be nice to finally have a government for 100 percent of America? And commercial-free, too.


Back to the Basics: Friday Night Lists

I absolutely love classic movies. And by classic, I mean movies that would appear on TCM, not AMC. It’s got to be at least 50 years old to count in my book. Sure, there are new classics in every generation, but not all of them will make the long-term classic movie cut.

I’m raising my kids to love classic movies, too. Not just because they’re good stories, but because the slower pacing, more nuanced acting, and fewer explosions provide an important balance to the loud, frenetic pace of kids’ TV and video games. If they can learn to get into a classic movie, I think they stand a better chance of being able to get into a newspaper, a history book, and a weeks-long scientific experiment later on, and that’s all to the good.

But if you want to really hook kids on the classics, you’ve got to know where to start. Classic movies, like literary classics and classical music, come in wide variety of forms, and some are inherently more kid-friendly than others. If the first black & white movie you show a kid is Camille with Greta Garbo, they’re going to run screaming the next time you suggest something made before 1980.

So here are my suggestions for a primer course in classic movies. Be sure to watch these WITH the kids in your life, whether you’ve never seen them, or you’ve seen them a hundred times. It’s impossible not to laugh at the jokes, thrill at the action, and sigh with satisfaction when you’re seeing it through new eyes.


1. The Court Jester (1956)–Danny Kaye is at his goofy, flexible, hilarious best in this send-up of medieval court adventures. The cast is loaded with other all-stars, including Basil Rathbone (aka Sherlock Holmes) as a smarmy villain, Glynis Johns (aka Mrs “Sister Suffragette” Banks in Mary Poppins) as the clever serving girl who becomes Kaye’s love interest, and a very young Angela Lansbury (yes, the Jessica Fletcher one) makes her film debut as the princess. The songs are funny, the slapstick is funny, the action scenes are even funny. It’s in color, but it’s got everything good that a classic movie can offer, and it stands up well to re-watching as an adult.

2. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton silent shorts–I’m not going to put a specific title in here, because any compilation of short films by these two comic geniuses (streaming Netflix has several available) will have treasures to delight kids of any age. Don’t let the kids sway you with complaints about the black & white film or the music-only accompaniment–these are straight-up hysterical, and with a little guidance, kids pick up on the unfolding physical gags all on their own. So many of Chaplin’ and Keaton’s bits have been recycled over the years that it’s nice to see them in context again, especially with a kid who hasn’t been jaded to their charms by the knock-offs.

3. National Velvet (1944)–Elizabeth Taylor made her screen debut in this movie about horses, with Mickey Rooney as a young, charming trainer. I’ve seen generation after generation of girls (especially, though not exclusively) go gaga over the gorgeous horses, the exciting race sequences, and the wide-open emotional heart of this film. Taylor’s young beauty and potential absolutely sparkle.

4. Road to Morocco (1942)–If you aren’t familiar with the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope “Road” movie series, you’ve really been missing out. Morocco‘s a personal favorite, but any of them you can get your hands on are wonderful. There’s plenty of overt humor–mistaken identities, abductions, French door farce, etc.–but a lot of the jokes that fly in fast, companionable crossfire between Hope and Crosby are sly and referential, much like Bugs Bunny cartoons of the same time period, aimed at the adults. The more you watch these films, the more things you (and the kids) will find funny.

5. North by Northwest (1959)–This is about as good a “Child’s First Hitchcock” as I can come up with. There are elements of the plot that may escape them, unless an adult’s on hand to string things together, but the action scenes are good, the plot twists are hair-raising, and Mount Rushmore and the UN building in New York suddenly become much more exciting destinations for a family vacation. There’s plenty of Hitchcockian suspense, but none of the phobia-inducing stuff of The Birds or Psycho, or the more adult innuendos of To Catch A Thief.

6. The Pink Panther (1963)–This one will be 50 years old next year, so I’m going to let it slide in under the wire, because it’s so fantastic. Peter Sellers blew the doors off cinema comedy all over again with his clumsy, silly, terribly clever portrayal of the star-crossed Inspector Clouseau. Just be sure to warn the kids that the Pink Panther of cartoon fame does not make an appearance in the movie (though those cartoons are also classics worth watching, and they’re readily available on Netflix too).

7. Duck Soup (1933)–No list of family-friendly classic movies would be complete without the Marx Brothers, and though the political story line and some of the fast repartée may fly well above young kids’ cruising altitude, the farce and slapstick are undeniably fun. Like the Hope/Crosby Road movies, Marx Brothers’ schtick just gets better and better with age.

8. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)–This movie adaptation of the classic screen play was directed by Frank Capra, but despite the running theme of insane relatives and casual murder, it’s actually less intense and depressing than Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Comparing this screwball, wacky Cary Grant to the wry, suave Cary Grant of his Hitchcock days may give you whiplash, but he absolutely sells the “normal guy in abnormal circumstances” farce. Kids will need the Boris Karloff jokes explained, but other than that, crazy Uncle Teddy “charging the blockhouse” and Grant’s slow meltdown in the face of his family’s obvious oddity are completely winning.

9. The Music Man (1962)–This one hits the 50-year mark this year, but it’s so timeless, you can hardly tell. If the kids are familiar with the medieval morality tale of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, they’ll get more out of this glorious movie musical. The sudden-singing feature of musicals seems somehow less remarkable (or annoying, depending on how you are with musicals) in this film because music is part of the story. Robert Preston is a funny, wily snake charmer, and Shirley Jones (of later Partridge Family fame) plays Marion the Librarian with uncommon spirit and spine. Even little Ronnie Howard (yeah, THAT Ron Howard) is adorably perfect with his Sylvester-the-Cat-like lisp. This movie just never gets old.

10. Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)–I’m convinced that every kid loves Japanese atomic monster movies–they just don’t know it yet. This is the original film that kicked off the genre, so it’s the best place to start, despite its black & white format. If you can convince the kids to listen through the talking heads parts (this is a peculiarly Japanese thing), there’s actually a whole bunch of stuff about the A-Bomb that cuts right to the heart of the Japanese psychological trauma that still influences their pop culture today, and that could lead to some interesting, deep values discussions with older kids. But if you can’t, you can just fast-forward to the part where Godzilla stomps the living hell out of Tokyo. It’s a crowd-pleaser every time.

**UPDATE** Of course, in the way it is with lists, as soon as I posted this I thought of two more films that really deserve to be on the list:

11. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)–Another movie musical that kids really enjoy, with all the silly stunts and fantastic dancing by Gene Kelly. If the songs and the dancing and the funny story don’t get them, “Make ‘Em Laugh” by Donald O’Connor is a tour de force of comic physicality that nobody can resist.

12. Captain Blood (1935)–It’s hard to choose among the great Errol Flynn swashbuckling movies when they’re all so good. This is my personal favorite, but Robin Hood  and The Sea Hawk are just as good. Swords-a-slashing, rope-a-swinging, heroes-a-dashing–everything a young boy (or girl!) could ask for.

Jun 2, 2012 - AV Club, World Religions    5 Comments

The Reel and the Surreal: Movies About Religion

I’m a documentary whore. I absolutely adore them. Can’t get enough. The more esoteric the subject, the better. I’ve always enjoyed them, even as an admittedly weird kid, but I really fell back in love with them right after my second son, Griffin, was born. He was not what anyone would call “a sleeper,” and I found myself awake in the middle of the night more often than not. Fortunately, there always seemed to be an HBO documentary on demand, and I started actually looking forward to those sleepless nights when I didn’t have to relinquish the TV to children’s programming.

I like to keep my classroom style varied, and video is instrumental in demonstrating concepts with a single clip that it would take me an hour to explain, and even then, the students wouldn’t know what the thing I was describing actually looks like in practice. This is especially true in my religious studies classes. Being able to immerse them in the sights and sounds of holy places, and hear everyday practitioners and learned experts alike reiterate what I’m trying to teach is priceless.

I’ve assembled a list here of films that I find particularly good at demonstrating core concepts of the philosophy and practice of religion. Many, I’ve used in class; some are just personal favorites. They’re organized by topic the same way I organize my Intro to Religious Thought classes. This is just a handful of the amazing, thoughtful, incisive, unsettling, critical films being made about religion. Some of them are available on Netflix or Amazon Instant Video; many are commonly stocked in libraries. All are worth tracking down.

Sacred Time

The Last Wave, dir. Peter Weir (Criterion Studios, 1979) — And, of course, I start with a movie that’s not a documentary at all–I’m just that perverse. This is a weird, dated, surreal Australian film by the same director as Witness, Gallipoli, Dead Poets Society, and The Way Back. Richard Chamberlain (The Thorn Birds, Dr. Kildare) stars as a Sydney lawyer who takes on the case of some Aboriginal men accused of killing another one. Chamberlin starts dreaming of a huge flood, and his clients disclose tribal secrets that help him decode the dreams–he’s dreaming of the end of a cycle in Aboriginal time, when they will step into the Dreamtime, leaving the white world to be washed away. It’s a confusing, circular movie, but it’s the most effective demonstration of the Aboriginal concepts of non-linear time that exist nowhere in any society outside of Australia or Africa.

Sacred Space

Ganges, dir. Tom Hugh-Jones (BBC Warner, 2003) — A beautifully filmed look at the centrality of the Ganges River to India as a continent and Hinduism as a faith. They explore the river in its environment and its religious functions, all the way from its disputed origins high in the Himalayas, down to the rich delta at the bottom of the subcontinent.

In the Light of Reverence, dir. Christopher McLeod (Bullfrog Films, 2001) — This film is difficult to find, but so well worth it. The three chapters show the importance of the land to three different Native American groups, and how difficult it is to preserve them with their inherent worth isn’t visible or understandable to Anglo-Americans, who think there has to be a building or monument for a place to be holy. This movie will make you scream and cry, and maybe get involved in the fight to preserve these special places.

Sacred Acts

National Geographic—Inside Mecca, dir. Anisa Mehdi (National Geographic Video, 2003) — I had actually wanted to use the BBC documentary Hajj: Journey of a Lifetime, but it wasn’t available on DVD when I went to teach. Now, wonderfully, the whole thing is free on YouTube. But the National Geographic film is great, too. Only Muslims are allowed in Mecca during Hajj (the annual pilgrimage that’s part of an observant Muslims obligations, at least once in his/her life), so an entirely Muslim crew was assembled for each of these two films. They follow a variety of Muslims from all over the world through the hard physical and spiritual work of the Hajj. It’s fantastic for basic literacy about Islam, and experiencing such a moving journey.

Jesus Camp, dirs. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Loki Films, 2006) Even if you’ve grown up Christian, you may not know that places like the Bible camp in Colorado that’s depicted in this film exist, or what goes on inside them. It’s a harrowing look at the pressure put on kids as young as 5 and 6 to conform to a pretty extreme brand of Christianity. It raises some important questions about how and when to impose your own beliefs on children.

How to Cook Your Life, dir. Doris Dorrie (Lions Gate, 2008) This is a delightful movie about a Zen Buddhist monk and a chef in San Francisco. It perfectly demonstrates the idea that the most mundane, pedestrian things in our lives can become sacred acts with the right mindset. Don’t watch this if you’re hungry.

Sacred People

The Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha, dir. David Grubin (PBS Home Video, 2010) — A lovely documentary blending legend and history to tell the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian prince who achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha.

10 Questions for the Dalai Lama, dir. Rick Ray (Monterey Video, 2007) — This is a very personal film, and though the narrator occasionally gets a little annoying in his self-centeredness, the Dalai Lama is so wise and happy and brilliant and wonderful that everything else fades into insignificance. He talks about the situation of his people’s exile from Tibet, the importance of science, and many of the central ideas of the Buddhist world view. I could listen to him talk forever.

The Devil’s Playground, dir. Lucy Walker (Wellspring, 2003) — This movie follows several Amish teenagers as they launch into a practice known as “Rumspringa,” when they leave the cloistered communities they grew up in and fully experience the “English” world. They swear like crazy, use drugs, go to drunken parties, drive cars, smoke, get jobs, wear jeans. It’s shocking to learn that every Amish person–people we think of as so sheltered and devout–intentionally tests the things of which the Amish life would deprive them. Even more surprising is how many of them choose at the end to leave it all behind and go back to their communities. It’s riveting.

Sacred Words

National Geographic: The Gospel of Judas (National Geographic Video, 2006) — Most people think the Bible has always looked the way it does now, but this film explodes that notion for once and for all. It tells the story of a remarkable document, which purports to be a Gospel written by the disciple Judas, whom the traditional four Gospels of the New Testament says betrayed Jesus to his death. The text is one of the gnostic gospels which interpret the lessons and life of Jesus very differently than the orthodox ones do, and it radically challenges our understanding of the Bible stories everyone hears every Easter. There’s a lot of dramatized action, which always rubs me a bit wrong, but the experts in the video and the story of the text itself more than make up for it.

Sacred Events

From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, dir. William Cran (PBS Home Video, 2004) — This is a very long, four-part documentary, but it throws into high relief precisely what a messy, confusing, unpredictable origin Christianity had. It gives a ton of valuable information about the Mediterranean world Jesus was born into, the political and social climate that led to his death, the wildly varying (and competing) interpretations of Jesus’ message and life, and the weird horse race to become the “official” version of Christianity that the Roman Empire eventually embraced. It also features most of my favorite historians of Christianity, and it’s a good way to get to know them; many of the authors on last week’s book list are in this film. All this flies directly in the face of the tidy, sanitized, fait accompli history Biblical literalists would have you believe, but the truth is always messier and more interesting.

The Mormons: A Frontline/American Experience Special, dir. Helen Whitney (PBS Home Video, 2007) — Especially in this election year, it’s really important to know the origins and evolution of the only American-born brand of Christianity. This documentary talks to both the officials and the faithful of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints today, but also its critics. It grapples with both the problematic aspects of Mormonism–such as its attitudes and actions toward Native Americans and African Americans–and the very troubling exercise of federal power to exterminate the Mormons.  Whether you find it silly or compelling, it’s all American, and the imprint of this country’s ideals on the Mormon faith is indelible.