Tag Archives: culture

The Punk Singer

Most music documentaries—especially biopic films—do little to inform a sociological analysis. There are scores of context-independent, apolitical, and boring music documentaries out there (and these are on musicians who are good)! Thankfully, The Punk Singer is not one of these. It focuses upon the life and ideas of Kathleen Hanna, whose musical and political resume would be one of envy for many. She was the lead singer of the feminist punk band Bikini Kill and co-founder of the riot grrrl movement, to name only two things of note (member of Le Tigre would be another). Hanna has been central to so many things of cultural significance in the United States in recent decades that The Punk Singer could serve as a historical primer of sorts for the ill-informed.

For those unfamiliar with Hanna and her cultural milieu, The Punk Singer defines and provides a brief overview of the first and second waves of feminism in the US. Then, without giving an overt definition of feminism’s third wave, the documentary offers nearly all the main elements that scholars and activists identify with the third wave. We see an emphasis on cultural reclamation of previously derogatory words (incl. “slut”, which Hanna had written on her belly once while performing and the word “girl”). Even the idea of girlhood is reworked here. There is the advocacy of taking control of one’s own sexual empowerment and pleasure (see Bikini Kill lyrics and numerous statements by Hanna). The DIY (do it yourself) ethos is replete throughout the documentary, as musicians, punk scene denizens, artists, and Hanna herself create their own subcultures, media, events, and social movement. The Punk Singer also inserts a brief nod to intersectional themes, as a member of the “queercore” band Tribe 8 reflects on needing to analyze other forms of domination and inequality. Finally, the third wave is represented by the post-modernism demonstrated by punk and Hanna herself—she remarks to the camera that not everyone has to care about feminism, but that others should have to stay out of her way.

For Bikini Kill or Le Tigre fans, there are numerous opportunities to see these bands perform, as well as old “how did it really happen” interviews. Even for those unfamiliar with these bands, many will have heard of others who were influenced by Bikini Kill and Hanna herself, or who crossed paths with her. Joan Jett and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon appear as friends and confidants, as does King Ad Rock (aka Adam Horowitz) of the Beastie Boys, who is Hanna’s husband. There is also an important reflection upon Hanna’s friendship with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain (Hanna spray-painted the phrase “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his apartment wall, inspiring the band’s most famous song title); an interviewee remarks that a good Nirvana history will conclude that its legacy is not in the “hesher rock” scenes of the Pacific Northwest, but in feminist art punk.

Sociological audiences will be able to observe how social change occurs in subcultures, with people pushing the boundaries of acceptability and expression, creating the space for new groups of people and ideas. The Punk Singer shows how Hanna challenged both her male punk compatriots to treat women better (sexual violence and marginalization are central themes) as well as empower her female compatriots to seize control of their lives and their art. Bikini Kill challenged male thuggery at their concerts, asked women to stand-up front by the stage, and called-out sexual predators. Hanna’s influence on riot grrrl is just as significant: she and her fellow punks created fanzines that discussed the need for feminism in punk scenes in order to protect and encourage female participation, and other problems faced by women in the male-dominated punk environment. Not only was this an intellectual influence upon punk (felt by women as well as men), but it also manifested in real-world riot grrrl groups, who met—kind of like second wave consciousness-raising circles—to support each other, network, do art and music together, and push for change within the punk movement. It is impossible to deny the effect that riot grrrl has had upon punk. Of course, sexism, misogyny, and assault still exist, but they are far less tolerated by everyone and they are easier to challenge than in the early-1990s. The Punk Singer is a great window into a fascinating world and one of its most charismatic participants.

Topics: gender, feminism, music, culture, social movements

Born Rich

Born Rich is one of those rare films that the average sociologist could never make. It is usually incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to study the super-rich, as there are so many physical and social barriers between an inquirer and the wealthy. Thus, insiders are the best people to describe their own social worlds; Born Rich is such an attempt, by Jamie Johnson who is an heir to the Johnson & Johnson, Co. fortune. He turns his video camera on his friends and family (in particular, his dad). He finds his subjects highly reluctant to discuss their lives, and especially their wealth, on camera. For the wealthy, discussion of one’s inheritance seems to border upon the taboo—perhaps for humility or self-defense, or our of embarrassment or guilt.

His peers include heirs to a wide-variety of modern capitalist dynasties (with at least two examples of very “old money” thrown in, too), including major supermarket, gambling, real estate, and mass media interests. One interviewee rattles-off a long list of all the magazines—heavy on fashion and lifestyle—owned by his family’s company. Then, one “old money” friend who is a Vanderbilt-Whitney family heir describes being taken to New York City’s Grand Central Station and being told, melodramatically, that “this is yours”. This same person makes casual conversation with Johnson, talking about how his own family were “crooks” who swindled the city and then jokes that Johnson’s family also likely has ghosts in its closet, too. Johnson’s dad, who was prohibited by his own family from working for Johnson & Johnson as a youth, does not work (for money), but spends most of his time painting. He’s an incredibly awkward man who repeatedly expresses his anxiety over his son’s interest in his own wealth—and particularly his son’s interest in documenting his wealth on camera. He seems utterly unable to deal with the nature of his own inheritance or family legacy. (Incidentally, Johnson’s second film, The One Percent, explores his dad’s reticence more and generates some interesting answers to questions about this that he raises in Born Rich). An interviewee—who is a European baron—offers a very frank and honest reflection where he describes where his family’s wealth and title came from: hundreds of years ago someone probably knocked someone else over the head and was made king. It was that simple.

What stands out in the film is the truly surprising distance from reality and “common people” that most interviewees possess. Many project a mixture of indifference, vanity, or self-congratulatory bemusement with their privilege, especially in relation to those who lack some privilege. In fact, many express concerns about the problems with possessing wealth—in many occasions, these seem like deliberate attempts to garner sympathy—although it always seems a bit absurd. For example, Ivanka Trump—daughter of NYC real estate mogul and megalomaniac Donald Trump—tells a story of her father pointing to a homeless guy on the street and bemoaning having millions of dollars less than him, since Trump was in debt at the time. Ivanka’s idolizing of her father’s “bravery” in this admission is incredible, given that Donald had no problem making his millions back again due to his social networks and cultural capital—something that the homeless man could have never hoped to possess. Yet, she passes his successful return to glory as simply to product of his hard work, not the multitudes of privilege, assets, and connections he continued to possess (in fact, inherited himself from his own real estate investor family).

Others say things that display their contempt for “lesser people”, particularly Cody Franchetti, Luke Weil, and Carlo von Zeitschel. Incidentally, these men also appear to be misogynists, as they say incredibly insulting things about women, especially around the topic of prenuptial agreements when they marry. (I have shown the film twice in classes, and the moment that gets the strongest reaction from students is when Weil references a hypothetical future fiancée who might only want him for his money, describing them as a “bitch” and “gold-digger”.) A female interviewee describes the scandal that would ensue by bringing a Black person (especially Black man) to a country club… she then points out a Black man playing tennis and insists he must be a tennis pro, teaching a club member.

Some express fears of losing their wealth—either getting “cut-off” or left out of their inheritances, due to some kind of minor fax-paus. Consequently, they try to “walk the line” and avoid ostracization, at least to those who control the purse strings. So strong is this desire to control one’s appearance and not risk public humiliation and possible divestment, that Weil actually sues Johnson to exclude his interviews from the film. This seems to be a perfectly sensible action on Weil’s part, considering all the unflattering comments he has already made to Johnson in interviews.

Two male interviewees (who are, generally, the least masculine of the bunch) seem reflexive about their wealth and talk about the emotional problems it has caused. One relates being beaten-up when younger for being rich. Consequently, they see their wealth as alienating them from others in the society, keeping them from having wider set of relationships and friendships. One of these two took time off from university studies due to depression and worked in a working-class job for awhile (his poor co-workers were amused by his high-brow knowledge).

Most, however are unable to relate to “common people” and do not even appear interested in doing so. They talk about horses, impulsively spending hundreds of dollars on hand-bags, where they “vacation”, how easy it is for them to get jobs, buying the most expensive bottles of wine to drink, and how they like to spend hours “busting [the] balls” of working-class people in their employ. Some pursue art-making exclusively for years and most never mention working-class people. In fact, the only working-class people to appear in the film are shown at the very beginning—wait-staff at Johnson’s twenty-first birthday party are being directed to be extra polite to all his guests.

Most likely Born Rich made Johnson a pariah amongst his ultra-wealth peers. If so, the need to adapt to those conditions and the storm of attention on the question of the super-rich seemed to make him even more critical in his follow-up film, The One Percent, which is more well-done, polished, and critical in certain respects. But, Born Rich has this startling, “behind-the-curtain” quality that is rarely captured. Johnson’s own reflexivity and curiosity about his (and others’) wealth makes for an interesting narrative. The film shows an important component to the story of social class in America, which is the flip-side of the coin usually discussed by sociologists (i.e., poverty). The opulence and decadence of people like those interviewed here is what creates the poverty of others. Not to be missed.

Topics: social class, social mobility, culture, cultural capital, wealth

Surplus: Terrorized into Being Consumers

Less a documentary than an art-infused political statement, Surplus: Terrorized Into Being Consumers, is a magnificent work of collage, mash-up, and polemic. The film focuses on numerous events and personalities from the early-2000s, as well as a plethora of disturbing and strange interviews and footage. Central to the film is its critique of consumer capitalism and corporate-led globalization. In part, the film echoes some of the best from the Frankfurt School, the Situationist International, the anti-civilization anarchist milieu, and the culture jamming subculture.

Representative of Surplus‘ critique of capitalism, the audience is treated to primitivist philosopher John Zerzan speaking—of property destruction during protests and over-consumption—to the backdrop of anti-G8 black-bloc demonstrators in Genoa, a big box store worker haplessly trying to corral shopping carts in a parking lot, and George W. Bush trying to cheer-up America following the 9-11 terrorist attacks by encouraging people to buy stuff. The movie takes a turn for the sad and unsettling by interviewing a strung-out looking designer of realistic sex dolls in his factory. He describes the objectified dimensions of the body types in a detached voice, unethusiastically use words that imply sexuality, but only pertain to consumption.

One of the best features of Surplus is its wedding of sound and image. In fact, the soundtrack merges seamlessly into the narrative, even sampling interviewees words to replay later throughout the film. A Cuban woman describes leaving her homeland and discovering all the other foodstuffs available, and practically oozes with enthusiasm. In contrast, the filmmakers melodically and repetitively sample numerous Cubans stating their typical diet: “rice and beans”. Even Castro’s speech is used to great dramatic effect in this way. (The film’s great irony—or sophistication—is that while critiquing capitalism, it does not give authoritarian socialism a free-ride, providing a dour, colorless depiction of freedom and choice under Castro.) Or, an ultra-masculine Microsoft executive (Steve Ballmer) beats his chest and screams “I love this company!” as he bounces around on a stage in front of his employees. Another great sample is the sound of coins dropping and spinning, which is sampled into a song as a Swedish millionaire entrepreneur (Svante Tidholm) describes how his prosperity has hollowed-out his life and how he longs for the cheap life again.

Perhaps the best effect is a segment that mimics a TV infomercial, set to a monologue from culture-jamming magazine Adbusters’ editor Kalle Lasn. The infomercial imagery is a perfect imitation, while Lasn’s words are lipsynced to the images of the then-heads of state of the US, UK, and Italy, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates. It is so genius and twisted, that its symbolism is second only to the recurring footage of workers in India who are employed to de-construct huge ships, piece by piece. The significance of this latter imagery—how capitalism will require incredible effort to dismantle and how a post-capitalist society will still “employ” thousands, amongst other meanings—is effective and devastating.

As a thought-provoking piece of anti-consumerist propaganda, Surplus is unequaled. Even with its unconventional presentation and design—different from most other documentaries—there is much to learn here about the radical critique of capitalism and its consequences. Were it more conventional, like The Corporation or numerous other films critical of corporations, it might lose some of its less engaged audience members; instead, Surplus grabs ahold of its audience and won’t let go, succeeding through both force of argument and style.

Topics: media, economy, work, culture

The Gatekeepers

Sometimes the best lessons are taught by examples completely removed from your own experiences. For example, Israel’s secret police, the Shin Bet, might help to explain a lot about comparable spy organizations in the US, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency, or the Central Intelligence Agency. As it turns out, Shin Bet has a fascinating and scary story, not unlike its American counterparts.

It is counter-intuitive that key figures within a major, national spy agency would share its secrets. But, the directors of The Gatekeepers are able to procure interviews will every single living former head of Shin Bet. These men have the most immediate knowledge of Israel’s political history, especially the Israel-Palestine conflict. The film is mainly a collage of their interviews; they show themselves to be both pragmatic and philosophical, sometimes unapologetic and sometimes remorseful. But all seem haunted by their pasts. Curiously, although they all held this very powerful position, they all expressed having had feelings of powerlessness. Instead, they felt that they and their organization was being directed by external forces outside their control, especially Israeli prime ministers, Israeli settlers throughout the Palestinian Occupied Territories, terrorism, and the Israeli right-wing.

While there are many excellent films that show a realistic and non-propagandistic version of Palestinian history, The Gatekeepers accomplishes the task through the words of these highly informed and involved historical figures. Viewers are treated to a crash-course in recent Israel-Palestine history, including the 1967 war, the invasion of Lebanon, the first and second Palestinian Intifadas, the assassination of prime minister Rabin by a right-wing Israeli, and the Oslo Accords. We get the chance to see the ebb-and-flow of the Shin Bet’s power and influence. Although widely-respected, they came into conflict with other sectors of the Israeli elite when they arrested members of the Jewish Underground terrorist organization. The Knesset and prime minister undermine the ability of the Shin Bet to pursue and prosecute Jewish Underground individuals, releasing them as heroes as opposed to criminals. Then, after they fail to prevent Rabin’s assassination, they lose much of their capacity to function.

While all these Shin Bet heads are Israeli patriots, committed to Israel’s national security, each expresses doubt that their actions were universally beneficial to Israel’s long-term survival. To be a head of Shin Bet, one must clearly be a nationalist and skilled strategist, but the position itself, and the geo-political realities of a settler-state, seem to take their toll. At the end of the film, one head remarks, wisely: “after you retire, you become a leftist”.

For those wanting to learn more about the Israel-Palestine conflict, especially as seen by Israeli insiders and bureaucrats, this is an eye-opening film. It relates a very telling story about institutional inertia, cognitive dissonance, technocratic leadership and instrumental rationality, and the latent consequences of such organizations. The film also happens to artfully made, including amazing footage (that is honestly almost unbelievable). Perhaps since the film-makers interviewed the most powerful police in Israel, they were able to have numerous favors executed for them, including acquiring damning film stock that many Israeli politicians probably wish never existed. Additionally, there are graphical recreations of crucial moments in Shin Bet’s history, many which surely took a great deal of time to create. Altogether an important film.

Topics: political sociology, complex organizations, culture, religion (sort of), criminology