Open Thread for March 20, 2009

What’s what in the popular culture this week

Obama goes on Leno. Google celebrates The Very Hungry Caterpillar. OTI has an open thread.

7 Comments on “Open Thread for March 20, 2009”

  1. Darin #


    We may not lie, but anything that is not direct truth is some form of deception. We call them fibs, white lies, bald-face lies (though I think prima facie lies sounds better). Often, they are acceptable in American culture because of our social contract. On the most recent episode of House MD, perma-curmudgeon House (Hugh Laurie) and his best friend Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard – who will forever be Puck in Dead Poet’s Society to me) fought over this very thing.

    Wilson’s character had a dark secret that he didn’t want to explore because it helped him focus and determine his life. If he let House in on the dark secret, he might shine light on the fact that his focus for living was based on a phone call. In the end, Wilson preferred House’s direct truth, but he railed against it most of the show.

    Should we tell our friends the cold, hard truth all the time maybe being the voice of reason or conscience or do we obey the social contract?

    On a similar but different note, Google is celebrating Eric Carle’s “A Very Hungry Caterpillar”. You can see it at in the logo as always. Carle told the UK Telegraph

    “Mr Carle, who turns 80 this year, said he got the idea from a hole puncher.

    “One day I was punching holes with a hole puncher into a stack of paper, and I thought of a bookworm and so I created a story called “A Week with Willi the Worm”. Then my editor suggested a caterpillar instead and I said “Butterfly!” That’s how it began,” he said. ”

    “I think The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a hopeful story, because it says ‘you too little caterpillar can grow up, spread your wings and fly’. I think it is this message of hope that resonates for many readers.”

    Parents and media feed their children hope and dreams. Parents from what I’ve experienced personally, in my extended family, and among friends do not discriminate between hope and dreams. This deception is the beginning.

    “Johnny, you can be anything you want.” No, Johnny really can’t be anything he wants. That’s the white lie we tell our kids. That’s the bald-face lie the media serves us. And we like it. We like to feel in control. We like the rat brain feeling we get when we see a scantily clad girl holding a drink. We like the faith that the sun will rise and that getting an education will actually get us a better job.

    You may subscribe to some of the more deterministic genetic forces or the genetic-cultural-temporal forces outlined in “Outliers” by Malcom Gladwell. It doesn’t matter what your view of life determination is EST, The Secret, Free Will(y). In the end, there are forces that are outside our control. As a matter of fact, there is an existence we call self made of values, beliefs, and experiences. We move *toward* them not away from them. We create the world in our image instead of creating oneself to fit whatever we want in the world.

    Please, serve me up a big helping of cold hard truth, just make sure you put in a TV show so I can swallow and believe it.


  2. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Darin: You bring up a really interesting question, which sort of ties in with A.O. Scott’s* latest article about what he calls “Neo-Neo Realism” in film. One of his questions is this: During hard times, should popular culture console us with hope and white lies — Scott brings up Fred Astaire and Marx Brothers movies from the 30s and Slumdog Millionaire from this year — or shine a harsh light on the terrible reality of our lives? (His big examples of the latter type of film are last year’s Wendy & Lucy and the Italian classic, The Bicycle Thief.)

    This question, I think, doesn’t come down to a simple “Hollywood movies console and are, therefore, lesser”/”indie movies uncover and are, therefore, better” dichotomy. The fact is, white lies like “you can be anything you want to be” give certain children hope and ambition that they might not otherwise have. Likewise, Hollywood lies may make us better people.

    Some of my favorite “inspirational” movies are good examples of this concept in action. It’s a Wonderful Life, 12 Angry Men, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Rings, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Or just watch Belinkie’s inspirational movies video. Look, do I really think a little junior congressman from Podunk, U.S.A. will single-handedly change the world with one filibuster? No. But, damn, when I watch Mr. Smith, for a second I believe this country can be better, that one person can make a difference.

    Maybe these movies (and TV shows, too) are lies, and maybe they allow us to be complacent and believe in that hope without putting in the hard work necessary. But maybe they inspire people to try to better themselves.

    By which I mean, “FREEEEDOOOMMMMMMMM!!!!!!”

    *yes, I have a love-hate relationship with Mr. Scott. Here’s his article:


  3. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Darin – Yup, the idea that “You can be anything you want to be” is pretty silly. Got 20/20 eyesight? No? Then you can’t be an astronaut. Period. (Actually, ditto on flying ANYTHING for a living.)

    As you point out, it’s about control. We like stories where somebody wants something, works hard for it, and gets it. We convenient ignore the stories about people who work hard and get nothing. For every young actress plucked out of obscurity, there are millions of people who dream about kissing George Clooney, and will never get paid seven figures to do it.

    But maybe it’s not the plans we make that are important – it’s what we decide to do when those plans don’t work out. We’re all going to give up on dreams. Everyone. Even George Clooney. A lot of the time the dreams will be private ones, and our giving them up will be something no one ever knows about. But it’s this gradual process of accepting the hand you’ve been dealt, and learning to be happy with it, that makes us who we are.

    And since you specifically requested I put the truth in a TV show, I’ll quote a monologue from the brilliant second season of Buffy:

    “Bottom line is, even if you see ’em coming, you’re not ready
    for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So what are we, helpless? Puppets? No. The big moments are gonna come. You can’t help that. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.”


  4. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @mlawski – The debate about whether hard times call for drama or escapism brings to mind Sullivan’s Travels, a 1941 film by the great Preston Sturges. The main character is a Hollywood director who’s been doing nothing but comedies. What he really wants to do is make a gritty movie about the miserable, suffering masses, which he plans to call “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” So he pretends to be a hobo to learn what it’s like to be poor. What he learns is that when life is miserable, what people really want is comedy.

    Of course, the movie was written and directed by Sturges, that generation’s Judd Apatow. So it’s not surprising that it boils down to a love letter to comedy.


  5. Gab #

    This will probably sound redundant, but I think the “deception” we feed our kids (ourselves) and ourselves (media/culture) makes us strive to be better and yes, it’s how you deal with it, whether you get what you want or not, that makes you who you are. We take solace and give empathy when we see others struggling at the same time we are because it’s sometimes nice to know we “aren’t alone,” but how long before we start thinking there is no hope unless we remind ourselves of it? And how else to remind ourselves of this hope but by presenting stories of success, fabricated or not?

    Working special ed. at an elementary school puts _The Very Hungry Caterpillar_ gives opportunities for rather interesting metaphor. Seeing the varying levels of comprehension and what each kid “gets” out of it says a lot about the layers of societal interpretation. On some levels, we think it’s all funny (laughing because he’s getting fat) and joke about everything we can, sometimes when it’s inappropriate or across the line (a la Comedian, perhaps). But we also can take things much, much too seriously (crying because he’s getting fat) and blow things out of proportion (the country is NOT suddenly, out of nowhere, in massive jeopardy because of the drugs south of the border). Sometimes we try too hard or at the wrong time (_Twin Towers_), sometimes we hit it right on the head (_Iron Man_). But I guess when the kid smiles, be it after you tell them to settle down or when you’re done wiping the tear away, it’s a reminder that we can all become butterflies when we put things in perspective. Or at least, that’s the deception, right? That message is particularly important to special ed. kids, since their progress and ability to function as independently as possible is quite dependent on where the bar is set for them in a different context than “typical” children- if we automatically assume their disabilities guarantee they’ll make no progress and remain fat caterpillars (by proclaiming they’ll “never” be able to do something without testing it at least once), we’re setting them up for it rather than at least giving them the opportunity to weave a cocoon and transform into something more (at least put the kid in the walker or show them the numbers). Admittedly, sometimes it really is pointless (a blind child will not be able to identify colors), but not trying at all does nothing to help (have them match textures or something instead). With that comes the extra level of needing to help the kids believe they can do it and giving as much positive reinforcement as possible. A lesson will go much better if you say you know they can do it rather than ask if they can, because that act of affirmation or skepticism heavily effects the child’s own attitude towards the task. Then, even if it’s not perfect (maybe they got the basic shape of the letter instead of a perfect copy), you tell them oh how beautiful it is and this time let’s make it look even *better* instead of saying no, that’s wrong. It’s not really an outright lie, so much as one of those lies of omission. So it’s deception, yes, but is that so awful? I think no, especially when a month later the letters have evolved from squiggles to discernible characters. The “deception” gives at least a chance for opportunity.


  6. Gab #

    Wow… “puts _The Very Hungry Caterpillar_ in a position to serve as a very interesting metaphor,” is I think what I was trying to say… Gosh, epic fail. Sorry.


  7. Trevor Seigler #

    I gotta say, hard times call for both escapism and harsh reality. I base this on the fact that, in the Thirties, people flocked to the movies to escape their problems in the midst of the Great Depression (Fred Astaire movies, even the early gangster films which reflected someone more in control than the average everyday American). On the other hand, films like “The Grapes of Wrath” came out because people also recognized that they needed to reflect on what was really going on, and to see someone that they could identify with onscreen (a notion that permeates every era of film and art, because we all seek that connection with what we’re watching or reading or otherwise exposed to).

    Sometimes it’s okay to distract ourselves from the problems of the world, but it’s not a bad idea to remind ourselves as much as we can that things might be bad. The level of delusion we allow ourselves is really what’s at issue.


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