Ben Affleck, pop culture quiz

Adam Sternbergh asks the right question. Why is Ben Affleck such a big star? His career has not been distinguished by great films, or even by very popular ones. Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford, his predecessors in the parthenon, had big hits and several of them. Ben’s stardom is much bigger than his middling career seems to warrant.

But Sternbergh boots the answer! What is missing here is Oscar night 1998. This was the year when Ben and Matt won for Good Will Hunting. But what was more telling than the award was that they showed up to receive it.

It was left to Joan Rivers to sum up the obvious. “You are the only guys here your age! We’re glad you’re here!” And indeed Ben and Matt where the only ones under the age of 35 in attendance. They had come from an award but, as Joan pointed out, really, they were the prize.

It felt as if something generational was happening. Ben and Matt had agreed to show up and Hollywood, always sensitive to demographic realities, was eager to give them an Oscar for their trouble (and, oh yeah, that film, whatever). It was no cynical payoff. Ben and Matt were genuinely pleased to be there but it was like a visit from royalty. They were making a gesture, generously, happily, but it was a gesture nevertheless.

The reason Ben and Matt were such a hit, the reason they got Oscars for showing up, is the story of the 1990s. This began with the demographic exclusion that took place in the very late 80s, it matured into the great Seattle refusal of the opening years of the decade and it became by mid decade the great indie alternative in film–a development so robust it could make Steve Buscemi a household name without any studio work and see to the rehabilitation of the career of Harvey Keitel–an event most thought impossible. The 1990s may have started with the wrenching discovery that Generation X was not wanted on the voyage and by mid 90s it turned out that it was Hollywood that had missed the boat.

People under 35 weren’t at the Oscars because they had been refused in the first case, refused to come in the second, and were just much too busy to make it in the last.

Everything that Sternbergh says is no doubt true but this, I think, is the real reason Affleck is such a big star in spite of his not so stellar record. He didn’t exist, so Hollywood had to invent him.

[for the Sternbergh article in question, go here]

serial ownership

Roy Hoffman has a good essay today in the NYT called My Private New York City.

He describes his visit to the Rembrandts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this way.

Among them [the paintings], I also have the chance to become a thief. When the guard steps to an adjacent room, and other museumgoers drift out before a new batch wander in, I steal a heightened moment. Of the billions of people on the planet, I, alone, commune here.

The portraits are all mine.

This is serial ownership. Every Met visitor owns a Rembrandt in their turn. It’s a charming idea, a deeply proprietary feeling for things we do not own…or a feeling of ownership that lasts a moment and leaves no mark. Cats, I believe, think of the world as a matter of serial ownership. This is why they jump up on counters when you’ve told them not to. If you’re not using it, the feline argument goes, then for the moment it’s mine.

Skeptics will say that serial ownership is an illusion that serves the idea of property and its institution of theft. Romantics will say it’s a way of stealing things back.

But what’s called for is a more careful inventory and analysis of the possibilities. What, precisely, are the connections, satisfactions, meanings, definitions and functions of the things we own? How many of them can be true of the things we don’t? What satisfactions, etc, are unique to the things we own serially? (It should count for something that we can have daily access to the wonders of Rembrandt, without have to spend a penny in upkeep, conservation, insurance, security…and not a “penny” in insecurity of ownership.)

I don’t think anyone has broken this down. You would think, of course, that museums and other institutions would take an interest here. Pragmatically, it supplies the logic with which they could persuade an art collector to put their collection into the public domain. It is also the logic of museum support at the membership and the philanthropy level.

Some of the web is a commons. We own it serially. Some of the culture it cares about is a commons, too. You would think someone in this community would have “run the numbers” on this argument.

Most of the city is owned serially…even as it is owned by other parties and interests. If there is something to the Putnam’s Bowling Alone argument (Putnam, Robert 2000. Bowling Alone: The collaspe and revival of American community, Simon and Schuster), it comes from this proprietary feeling that we cultivate for things we own in this temporary way, in Hoffman’s. Putnam’s argument says that it is when this temporary sense of ownership is abandoned that cities begin to decay in earnest.

There are some really difficult ideas swirling around here. What if claims (to identity or ownership, say) no longer need to endure to hold. We could dismiss this vista as nonsense…a refusal of the felicitous conditions that have always held and must always hold. But then we now see lots of claims to identities being made on a temporary basis that once required full time committment.

In a postmodern culture, we can say at least that the ideas of ownership are being tested. In the case of the Rembrandt’s, it belongs to the philanthropist, the museum, the curator, and to Hoffman. Oh, no, he just left. Now it belongs to a rather attractive women in a rich red coat.

go here for the original essay

the pudgie process, statuette, step 2

This is the second entry on the Pudgie process. For a description of the Pudgie award, go here.

So I talked to Lisa Werenko tonight. What should the Pudgie statuette look like? Lisa is a sculptor, among other things. (One of the things she isn’t, is a creature of the web. Links, I hope, someday to come.)

She had been to the Modigliani show in Rochester and got to thinking about his caryatids as a model for what Pudgie could look like. Here’s the URL for the show: Modigliani

We talked about what an statuette needs to look like to look like an award, size, shape, materials and so on. More to come.

the pudgie process, step 1

Here is the first entry on pudgies, ported over from my LiveJournal (Dec. 5, 2002)

I’m a step closer to the pudgies idea. This is a CxC (Culture by commotion) award for producers and critics of popular culture…on the assumption that there are awards for many things, but rarely this. (For more, click here)

You have to have a statuette and I phoned Lisa in Santa Fe, the only sculptor I know. Then you have to have cash prizes. I phoned Lisa again, but she said I would have to sort this one out for myself. You have to have winners and we already have 5. See link above.

Prizes are meant to exercise a small gravitational effect…in this case, to encourage people to engage in a thoughtful, sometimes anthropological, reflection on what is happening in contemporary culture. There is a lot of cant on the web. But if the internet is to be any good at all, one of the things it has to be better at is thinking about itself…and right now there is a dearth of meta-web work.

Why pudgie? I was in LA, sitting in my hotel room. (I try to leave the hotel as little as possible…it’s an anthropological thing.) And there in LA Magazine was a story about the founders of the surfing and body culture of the beach scene after WWII. And there was a picture of Pudgie McCabe bursting with good humor and no hint that she was anything but totally unconflicted about weighlifting and surfing. All goddesses of creativity are ample as a fertility doll. Pudgie was, well, pudgie with promise of new and interesting ideas. That’s why.

For those of you who did not go to the Pudgie account:

Pudgies are awards. They will be given to producers and critics of contemporary culture. They will be given by CxC (Culture by commotion). They will take the form of a small statuette (in the well established tradition thereof) suitable for putting on one’s desk as a provocation of admiration from one’s friend and envy from one’s enemies. There will also be a cash award.

Question one: why bother? There are too many awards in the world. Film makers, advertisers, magazines and newspapers get together each year in a riot of self congratulation and hand them out by the handful.

In certain sectors, however, there are precious few awards. This is especially true in the area of contemporary culture production and criticism. There are many, millions, of players and almost no awards. That’s why bother.

Question two: who do you think you are? Contemporary culture is egalitarian and jealous of those of those who exercise power. Almost no one has the authority to hand out awards. And this means anybody can. So CxC is going to. That’s who we think we are.

Pudgies will go to journalists and academics who create work that is peculiarly illuminating. The judging is not systematic. The contest, like life, is not fair.

Decentralization & anthro

I was just reading Scott Rosenberg’s account of the SuperNova conference in Palo Alto (at

The Decentralization conference was designed to ask Howard Rheingold’s question in Smart Mobs. What happens when you get lots of people with wireless devices and constant access to their own and one another’s blogs?

There is an anthropological answer: new and extraordinary opportunities for social and cultural observation, thousands of people doing the anthropology of contemporary culture on line in real time.

To observe the world is to change it. Who is going to wear that new Gap scarf a second time? Not when it is spotted in every Starbucks in the North America, the day it hits the market.

The chatter will be interesting:

“So who else is seeing that scarf with multi colored blocks about 3 inches wide that run down a scarf that’s about 6 feet long.”

“One just walked in here.”

“Shit, there’s another.”

Scarves will go from novelty to cliche in a day.

Hollywood warms to Transformation

Steven Spielberg and DiCaprio are about to release a film called Catch Me If You Can, a treatment of a con man who works his con by transforming himself into a succession of characters.

Transformation (the book on this site) argues that Hollywood shows more and more interest in transformational themes, especially when it takes the form of a character who plays many characters.

I use these films as my cases in point: Sliding Doors (1998, Peter Howitt), Multiplicity (1996, Harold Ramis), Fight Club (1999, David Fincher), eXistenZ, (1999, David Cronenberg), Passion of the Mind (2000, Alain Berliner), The Family Man (2000, Brett Ratner), Me Myself I (1999, Pip Karmel), Down to Earth (2001, Chris and Paul Weitz), Possible Worlds (2000, Robert Lepage), The One (2001, James Wong), The Bourne Identity (2002, Doug Liman), Catch Me If You Can (2002, Steven Spielberg)

The thing about Hollywood and a lot of popular culture is that, because it is governed by the market place, it represents more than an act of imagination. Any given film is a bet. When the bet is wrong, studios lose money, stars lose some of their brilliance and directors, some of them, never work again.

So far transformation has been a risky bet. Many of the films on my list have failed or “underperformed.”

But Hollywood continues to make the bet. If you add up all the budgets for these films, the bet now comes out to $447 million.

We can also say that the following actors have bet a chunk of their careers: Gwyneth Paltrow, Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Demi Moore, Nicolas Cage, Rachel Griffiths, Chris Rock, Tom McCamus, Jet Li, Matt Damon, and Leo DiCaprio.

The way to think about it anthropologically, I think, is to say that Hollywood can hear transformation has a new imperative in popular culture, but, like the rest of us, it is having a hard time figuring out how to treat the theme.