Month: January 2012

How Costly are our Commodities?

It is often easy for us in the developed world to forget about the contexts in which our everyday products are made. Based on infamous revelations about horrible working conditions from the past, such as bringing Nike’s use of sweatshops in Vietnam to the limelight, we can easily be apathetic in these findings. In Nike’s case, I suppose if you strongly opposed their production choices you could simply not buy Nike shoes – probably a painless choice of action. But when news surfaces on the shocking conditions (or is it shocking? I feel our society accepts that these conditions exist and complies with the notion that there’s nothing we can really do about it) of Chinese workers at Foxconn, there is much more of an impact. Or at least I hope there is. Why? Because FoxConn assemblies products that are pervasive in our everyday lives, products that we are reliant on for transmitting information, for garnering information, and for maintaining social relationships, among many other functions. Foxconn assembles Apple products as well as other electronic and entertainment products, such as Kindles, DVD players, and gaming consoles. About two weeks ago Jon Stewart ran a piece looking at these conditions on The Daily Show, from another news story, which was the first time I had heard about these specific circumstances. I was genuinely shocked about the suicide nets that have been put up in reaction to mass suicide threats from the workers, and of course the 31 cents per hour wage. And then Stewart goes on to point out that Americans are only saving 23% of the products’ price by manufacturing these gadgets outside of the US. Literally the next day in my class, Global Media Industries, my professor showed us the popular Banksy rendition of The Simpsons opening titles. It points out how detached we can be from the production process of popular goods and services we consume and critiques this global division of labor. I mean, even pandas and unicorns suffer for our constant demands of entertainment! Here is a clip of The Daily Show segment (sorry for the quality and Chinese subtitles– I am unable to watch Comedy Central’s site outside of the US!).

After seeing this, I found what I believe to be the source of this wave of information coming from the Chinese factories. Discussing this issue with my friend Adrienne via Skype (on my MacBook no less! Oh the irony), she guided me toward the story that was on This American Life a few weeks ago. The episode focuses on a spoken word show by Mike Daisey, and how his love for all things technology and being a willing member of the Cult of Mac, led him to China to investigate what was going on (this was after hearing that someone’s iPad came with photos of the Chinese factories stored in it). The show is riveting, as Daisey has a way with story telling and can somehow infuse such a serious and sad situation with a degree of humor. I strongly recommend that you listen to it here. You’ll be glad you did.

“Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory”

I don’t know about you, but I think paying 23% more is a small price to pay for peace of mind and basic human rights. I would like to know that the MacBook I’m typing on right now wasn’t made by someone who now has serious physical disabilities due to the constant repetitive motion of swiping an iPhone screen, or that that someone isn’t contemplating participating in a mass suicide as the only way to rebel against their employer. Of course, I am very aware that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and that plenty of other commodities, such as the scarf around my neck or the socks on my feet, are made in similar environments. Awareness is the first step in changing our views in how corporations should ethically operate. You can sign a petition for Apple to change their policies here: Make the iPhone 5 Ethically

 

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The Muppets Continued: Fair & Balanced?

I don’t want to be too political on this blog, but this clip of Fox News attacking The Muppets’ “liberal agenda” infuriated me. I’m pretty sure this is old news for Americans, but I’ve been out of the loop…and since it has resurfaced due to Miss Piggy’s recent comments calling Fox News “laughable,” I will just put forth a few words. The fact that I am even writing about this is a bit silly, but watching anchor (I can’t even write that with a straight face) Eric Bolling make huge accusations that this family film is liberal extremism, and then has the audacity to call it brainwashing, is beyond me. And then to watch him and his conservative correspondent literally yell at and cut off the more liberal pundit, Caroline Heldman is a joke. Fair and balanced? I don’t think so. (That sort of behaviour reminds me of this great clip from The Daily Show) If they had even seen The Muppets, they would have realized that the villain Tex Richman is villainized by his character, not simply to the fact that he was rich. Yes, you can read into whatever you like from the text (yay subjectivity!), but it isn’t brainwashing.  Don’t even get me started on their comments about the brainwashing done by liberals and the environment. How being sustainable and wanting to be “green” has become a divisive and politic issue is sad and frustrating, but that is a separate issue. Anyway, I like Miss Piggy’s comeback, especially since she pointed out the main issue here, that if Fox took her seriously, then they have bigger problems at hand. It’s this type of journalism that has made most, if not all, of the 24 hour cable news channels to lose their credibility – at least in my book. And might I just add that these news channels are probably the ones more guilty of influencing people (brainwashing is too loaded of a term – which is perhaps why Fox decided to use it), as they push their own agendas (whether consciously or not) every moment of those 24 hours in how they select, frame, and index their stories. News broadcasting holds a lot of power, and they are not unbiased, as much as some might try. Maybe my studies have made me much more cynical, but I’m glad I’m being educated about it. And like Heldman said, perhaps the only real message the Muppets and Sesame Street are pushing is for children to learn the benefits of education – after all, knowledge is (em)power(ing) – and also learn how to laugh and have a sense of humor. Eric Bolling lacks both of those qualities – clearly somebody didn’t grow up with Jim Henson’s creatures and imagination. And for that, I feel sorry for him.

The Merriment of The Muppets

q&a with The Muppets' director James Bobin (right)

Part of my life in London revolves around attempts to do “cool” things that this capital city has to offer. So when I saw recently that the BFI (British Film Institute), in partnership with the London Comedy Film Festival (LOCO), was premiering The Muppets two weeks before the official UK release (more than two months after the US – a rant I shall have on a future post), I jumped at the opportunity to get tickets. Then to my horror, they were sold out for the one-time showing. Good thing I found out that the BFI releases standby tickets, and good thing I harassed the front desk staff (something I learned from my own work experience, that yes, it pays off to ask because extra tickets are often released). I was able to snatch up two of four tickets left for my friend and I. There were no commercials, just the adorably fantastic Toy Story short, the film, and a Q&A with the director, James Bobin (also a director/writer for Flight of the Conchords and Da Ali G Show). No big deal. I must say, I haven’t consistently laughed that much in a long time. And when I wasn’t laughing, I had a huge grin on my face. Yes, the movie is ridiculously silly and preposterous – which makes it so wonderful! All of the tongue and cheek humor and random cameos (Feist?!?! love it.) were a delight. What made the experience even more entertaining was the fact that we were clearly in a theater full of (hardcore) fans – everyone got the inside jokes, everyone embraced the campyness. Everyone went with it and enjoyed the ride. I loved the new addition, Walter. I loved that all kids in Smalltown, USA enthusiastically love school. I loved the maniacal laughs. I loved Jason Segel’s over-the-top enthusiasm. I loved the songs written by Bret Mckenzie. I loved that Jim Parsons was Walter’s human alter-ego. I loved that Gonzo owned a recycled toilet company. I loved that everyone traveled by map. I loved Kermit and the crew singing The Rainbow Connection. And I really just loved seeing all the muppets back together again. Long live The Muppets!

Here’s the Oscar-nominated “Man or Muppet”

“Is America at a digital turning point?”

USC Annenberg’s Center for the Digital Future released a study which “creates a portrait of the American user of the Internet reaping the benefits of online activity, while at the same time paying a tremendous price in the form of time, privacy, and well-being.” Honestly, I’m not very surprised by these findings, but still find it interesting to look at this dialectical relationship of love/hate towards the Internet and new digital media. I’m sure guilty of continually being fascinated and frustrated by the nature of online media. But as a fan of most things media, sometimes it is so refreshing to “log out” and enjoy the non-virtual reality around me. Although, as my course, and life, continues to remind me – everything is mediated! So, maybe we just have to embrace and evolve within the digital present and future? We shall see…

Read a summary of the report here (link to full report included)

Ren’s Reviews: The Artist & Shame

Last week I finally was able to see The Artist (Dir. Michel Hazanavicius) and Shame (Dir. Steve McQueen…No, not THAT Steve McQueen). Due to the different UK film release schedule, I have had to patiently endure the holiday season without the usual movie award season films. As an avid Oscar fan, it has been driving me crazy to see friends and family commenting on the films they’ve seen…four months ago. Well, now it’s my turn.

At first thought, one would think that The Artist and Shame are two completely different, unrelated films about very different subject matters. True, they are distinct in many ways, yet they have some striking resemblances. The first is about a man addicted to fame and a steady job, the second is addicted to sex and a steady, um, screw, so to speak. Both male protagonists are pros in the self-loathing department, and both have female counterparts that look up to them for guidance, in their own distorted ways. And both films are very theatrical. The Artist, being a silent film, relies on the highly expressive qualities of the actors to essentially portray their lines through miming. Likewise, Shame has a slow-moving pace that makes it a perfect piece to be staged, with grand performances by Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, which ultimately overshadow the film as a whole. That being said, I was mesmerized by both films; one captivating me by the nostalgia for classic Hollywood, the other purposely making me feel so uncomfortable that I couldn’t help but stare and admire its raw honesty. Plus, Michael Fassbender ain’t bad to look at.

What I appreciate about The Artist, which I consider to be a close second for my favorite film of the year, is its tongue and cheek approach to the silent film era. It plays with the genre, pokes a bit of fun at it, but at the same time captures this great moment in film history – the transition to Talkies. As I’m sure it did with others who have seen it, this aspect of the plot brings Singin’ in the Rain (Dir. Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1952) to mind (A personal favorite of mine). Not only through plot points, in which the movie studios realize that the current silent film actress has a nauseating voice for talking films, but The Artist’s Jean Dujardin is almost eerily identical to Gene Kelly by looks and charm. Kelly being a personal idol of mine growing up (I’m a tap dancer, you see), this association was actually a delight. The stars of The Artist are beautiful French people, but they also exude a ridiculous amount of charisma. While there are some brief dark moments in the film, the story is mostly a happy song and dance feature like the films of yore. But I do wonder how happy the ending really is. The lead character, George Valentin, is forced into early retirement due to his obstinate refusal to buy into the new trend of talking pictures and due to the ephemeral cycle of Hollywood stardom – out with the old, in with the new. Yes, he has a comeback, but the cynic in me wonders how long that wave will last. But I really shouldn’t wonder, because that last scene of the film is absolute joy, and sometimes that’s the best feeling to leave the theatre with.

Watch the trailer for The Artist:

 

Watch the trailer for Shame:

To also feed my Michael Fassbender obsession (have loved him since the under-appreciated Inglourious Basterds), here is a fun clip with David Letterman:

And a somewhat more serious exploration of his crazy busy past year in film, by NPR:

NPR’s Fresh Air: Interview with Michael Fassbender

How Soap Operas May Save the World

When I was at the airport getting ready to board my flight to London back in September, I bought the then current issue of National Geographic, as I have always found that magazine to contain some of the most engrossing material for the purpose of distracting one’s self during take-off. Not to mention that it’s just chock-full of quality stories and photo journalism. To get to the point, one particular article caught my eye – Machisma (you can read it here). The subheading reads, “How a mix of female empowerment and steamy soap operas helped bring down Brazil’s fertility rate and stoke its vibrant economy.” As I was on a plane headed to my new home where I would be studying media and communications, it felt like a sign from the media gods. This story focuses on the impact of media in our everyday lives, even if we may not realize it as it is happening. But if we pull back and look at the bigger picture we can see the trends over time – as access to electricity spread to more Brazilian communities, the more people were exposed to television, the telenovela audience grew, more women were taken by the nature of the independent business-savvy female protagonists (sans families), and fertility rates dropped. A lot. I encourage you to read the article (NPR wrote a similar article this month – read it here) to get a better sense of the impact by what many people deem a trivial and overly melodramatic genre. When the world’s population has now surpassed seven billion, now might be the best time to look at how these shows affect their audiences. Of course, the content of these soaps can vary drastically from country to country (US soaps seem to glamorize rich lifestyles, while UK soaps focus on class differences), which will likely lead to very different trends. It’s just a matter of time to see what impact they have on the bigger picture.