Weekend Reads: Culture Wars, "Cuties," "Close Encounters," Cocteau Twins, the Chinese "N Word"

Recommended weekend reading material for September 19, 2020.

Every week, I compile a list of interesting, thought-provoking, and enjoyable articles. I hope they provide you with some good weekend reading material.

Kit Wilson argues that we need conscientious objectors in the culture wars.

We live at a moment in history when the cross-pollination of interesting ideas, from all sorts of backgrounds, ought to be easier than ever — when pop culture fanatics and post-liberals, high artists and hipsters, religious conservatives and radicals should be able to learn from one another in a spirit of shared humanity. And we’re wasting it on petty, small-minded squabbles. We should delight in the curious mishmash of interests, tastes, and experiences that sit — yes, a little awkwardly sometimes, but usually quite amiably nonetheless — within us all. That’s what it is to be a human being. But today’s public discourse presents us like we’re cartoon characters: Mr. Leftie, Ms. Feminist, Mr. Brexiteer — and bizarrely, we’re playing along.

Related: Back in 2012, I wrote this about finding common ground in the culture wars: “Perhaps the best way to deal with the vast cultural divide in this nation is to simply talk less about those things that so obviously divide us, and instead, spend more time talking about those seemingly inconsequential things… that are easier to share and hold in common.” Those eight-year-old thoughts seem a bit naïve considering how politicized everything has become today, but I think there’s still some value there.

The French film Cuties has been at the center of controversy due to its story about young girls navigating sexualization and objectification. Some have even gone so far as to label Cuties “child porn.” When judging and critiquing controversial films, it’s important to at least hear the creators’ intentions in order to fairly critique them. Enter Maïmouna Doucouré, the writer and director of Cuties.

We, as adults, have not given children the tools to grow up healthy in our society. I wanted to open people’s eyes to what’s truly happening in schools and on social media, forcing them to confront images of young girls made up, dressed up and dancing suggestively to imitate their favorite pop icon. I wanted adults to spend 96 minutes seeing the world through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl, as she lives 24 hours a day. These scenes can be hard to watch but are no less true as a result.

Much of the debate over Cuties has become tedious. Both fans and critics have valid points and concerns (i.e., objectifying and sexualizing children is terrible and must be addressed, but can one depict the objectification of children in a way that doesn’t actually objectify them at the same time?). But the language emerging from both camps makes any possibility of real, honest discussion increasingly unlikely.

Hannah Anderson argues that Cuties highlights a bigger problem with how our society views children.

Yet the hyper-sexualization of our society doesn’t answer why children are sexualized. What kind of culture exploits their young this way? What kind of culture both condemns pedophilia and sells padded bras to pre-pubescent girls? Why did Netflix think that their marketing would work?

For those hoping that Christopher Nolan’s Tenet would save America’s movie industry, the reality has turned out to be less than ideal.

Tenet was the cinema industry’s guinea pig — a way for studios to gauge audience willingness to return to theaters in every country amid a pandemic. The reality is that most of the world has handled the coronavirus far better than America has: China averaged 26 daily cases over the past two weeks, Japan 543, and Canada 681. Given that Hollywood can no longer count on one of its biggest markets — the U.S. — it’s hard to know what course studios should chart next.

Catecinem is one of my favorite movie blogs, with a definite emphasis on quality over quantity. So whenever he posts something new, like his list of the best films he saw in August 2020, I take notice. For example, here’s his take on a personal favorite of mine, The Vast of Night:

Somewhat slight but surprisingly haunting, this is what you might consider a “calling card” movie: showcasing some exceptional talent and bold choices, and maybe suffering a bit in comparison to the later, better things it leads me to expect from Patterson and the cast.

Related: My review of The Vast of Night, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Steven Spielberg has directed a lot of fantastic movies, but Germain Lussier argues that Close Encounters of the Third Kind should be considered his “ultimate masterpiece.”

As I sat down to rewatch Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the first time in probably five years… I did so with that thought in mind. First, why is Close Encounters so good, and also, why do people, myself initially included, not consider it the best of the best? The answer starts with emotion.

The Cocteau Twins’ dreamy, otherworldly music was so unlike anything else out there, it would’ve been impossible for it to not have influenced countless other musicians.

The influence goes well beyond shoegaze and dreampop, though, touching R&B, punk, metal, folk, ambient, EDM, you name it. With the band’s landmark sixth album Heaven or Las Vegas turning 30 this week, we put together a list of 24 artists who were clearly influenced by the Cocteau Twins, many of whom talked to us about the importance the group played in their sound.

Some of the Cocteau Twins’ fans and followers might surprise you.

An American professor was criticized and investigated for discussing a Chinese word that sounds like the “N word” in his communications class. While some believed the word could “marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety” of his students, others saw it as discrimination against the Chinese language.

“For him to be censored simply because a Chinese word sounds like an English pejorative term is a mistake and is not appropriate, especially given the educational setting… It also dismisses the fact that Chinese is a real language and has its own pronunciations that have no relation to English.”

As a web developer, I always aim for simplicity — in my tools, my code, my interfaces and designs, my writing, and so on. But so much of modern development seems to be complexity for its own sake.

So my little mashup, which was supposed to be just 3 technologies ended up exposing me to ~20 different technologies and had me digging into nth-level dependency source code after midnight. If there’s an allegory for what I don’t like about modern day web development, this is it. You want to use three tools, but you have to know how to use twenty tools instead. If modules and components are like LEGO, then this is dumping out the entire bin on the floor just to find one tiny piece you need.

Suffice to say, I totally agree with Josh Buchea’s short, succinct assessment. Here’s but one example of what’s wrong with modern web development.

From the Blog

I mentioned the Cocteau Twins earlier. Their 1990 masterpiece, Heaven or Las Vegas turned 30 this week, so naturally, I had to write something to celebrate the momentous occasion.

Heaven or Las Vegas is one of those rare albums that I can describe as ​“otherworldly” and not feel hyperbolic doing so — not in the slightest. There are aspects of Fraser’s coo and Guthrie’s guitar cascades that simply do not sound like they were made by humans, or at least humans on this particular plane of existence. But the wondrous thing is that sense does nothing to diminish the album’s beauty or emotional effect.

Photo of the Castle Bravo nuclear weapon test, March 1, 1954.

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