The 10 Greatest Slackers in Movie History

What, exactly, is a slacker? Your dad would probably be a good source for such a definition. How about your teachers, or your college professors? Maybe your boss or your wife could come up with a decent ID. Then there’re your friends, associates, buddies and other partners in passivity. By their very nature, slackers are sensitive to being mislabeled. Just because you work 70 hours a week and can’t find time to fire up a fat one doesn’t mean the purposefully prone should be citied for their seemingly endless ability to do so. In fact, when measured against the rallying rat race of this or any other future shock society, the slacker is our cup of good cheer. He or she is wish fulfillment in a Taco Bell shaped body. 

Keep reading... Show less

How Kids Learn to Love Capitalism

Capitalism, according to the Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, is "An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and development is proportionate to the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market."

Keep reading... Show less

Young and Restless in China

"I never thought there was such a big world out there," says Wei Zhanyan as she walks to work in a factory. A migrant worker sent to work at 13 in order that her brother could continue his studies, Zhanyan is proud of making 40 cents an hour and glad to feel independent of her family, who remain in the village where she was born. Offering a brief tour of her one-room apartment and reveling in her freedom to read a book or watch television after work, she pauses, briefly, to wonder about what might have been. "I always wondered how other parents could support their children's education, but not mine," she says. Taking off her glasses to dab at her eyes, Zhanyan apologizes to her interviewer, then readjusts. "I shouldn't have said that," she says. "It sounds like I am blaming my parents for not living up to their responsibilities. But that's past."

It is and it isn't. For even as Zhanyan lives her present life in the city she is also tied to her past. This much is made clear when she learns, just a few minutes into Sue Williams' Young & Restless in China, that her father has arranged for her marriage through a matchmaker. And so, Zhanyan announces, "I got engaged, just like that." Still, she muses, "I like to be free and independent." And so she faces a dilemma, caught between old and new.

In this, Zhanyan is much like the other eight interview subjects in Young & Restless, which airs on 17 June on PBS' Frontline. From 2004 to 2007, Williams' crew followed them, observing their professional and personal turns. The film's wide-ranging and mostly superficial structure -- cutting quickly between participants, narrating cursorily to set contexts, and offering brief "confessional" comments by each subject -- recalls alternately the Michael Apted's Up series and The Real World, a mix of pop cultural reportage and current events documentation.

Construction in preparation for the Beijing Olympics provides a recurrent image -- workers in hard hats, bulldozers, and scaffolding -- reminding you that the nation is looking forward to a "global coming out party" even as citizens struggle with day to day details. Workaholic Ben Wu has returned to Beijing after a decade in the States, with a plan to open a string of internet cafés, modeled on Starbucks, but bigger and glossier. As he leads the camera crew through the first opening, Britney Spears' Toxic wafts in the background, blue lights throbbing and stylish spaces less than crowded. The cash flow is good, he says, and his investors are happy. And yet, Wu reflects later, his wife is working on her accounting degree in the U.S., which means he's feeling lonely for much of the year. "I should just get on a flight and go to New York and be with my wife just for a weekend," he says. "My café is not gonna go bankrupt over the weekend, so why don't I do it? I can't answer that question."

Similarly dedicated to her career, public interest lawyer Zhang Jingjing sees her social and political formation initiated by the crackdown on student activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989. As preparations for the Olympics pick up speed in 2005, the government forcing "one and a half million residents" from their homes or erecting non-approved electric lines around their neighborhoods, Jingjing sues the state on behalf of affected citizens. Though she insists the case is not "opposed" to the government per se, she does want to ensure that the law is followed during the rush to get ready for the Games. "We targeted an illegitimate licensing procedure," she says, "We sued because we believe that people come first." Her commitment to the cause takes tolls on her own life, as she admits a year later, when her fiancé breaks off with her. She knows it's because she doesn't put him "first," but she's torn, too, and not a little hurt that he finds solace with another woman who "flattered him."

Hospital resident Xu Weimin also feels formed by Tiananmen, "the June fourth incident," and he too is frustrated by the lack of long-term effects on policy. Nearly 70% of Chinese have no medical insurance, narrator Ming Wen notes. The film shows Xu Weimin making his way through literal crowds of people waiting outside the hospital, seeking medical attention, mostly unable to afford it. As he succeeds, he must also consider those left behind, like his own parents, no longer insured, his daily existence reflecting the film's central focus on the split in today's China between "idealism and materialism." As opportunities increase -- one participant declares the new imperative to "Get rich as fast as you can and have a good life" -- large swaths of the population remain in limbo or fall behind.

Rapper Wang Xiaolei (MC Sir) has creative as well economic ambitions. "People look down on you if you don't make money," he says, as he explains his identification with black U.S. hip-hop artists. The walls in his bedroom (he lives with his grandfather; his parents are divorced) feature posters of KRS-One, while the stories he tells through his music are specific to his own experience, including his relationships and, as the film puts it, "ancient Chinese myth." Energetic and surrounded by fellow artists, Wang Xiaolei makes money as a DJ, but has plans to start an independent label and produce records.

His family problems loom large on Wang Xiaolei's landscape of frustration, but they're put in another perspective by the story of Yang Haiyan, a housewife whose mother was "trafficked" 18 years ago. Determined to find her mother and "bring her home," Haiyan and her husband finally track her down. The camera follows them to the village where she embraces her mother and listens to the details of her kidnapping and trauma. Now living with a man, "cooking and cleaning and sleeping with him," Haiyan's mother wants to return with her daughter but is also conflicted, feeling obligated to care for a new baby and, having lived so long feeling dread and shame over her situation, afraid to go back.

Such is the recurring rhythm of Young & Restless, found in tensions between yearning and restriction, hope and acquiescence. Even as Wei Zhanyan finds it in herself to reject the marriage her father has arranged, insisting on her independence, other subjects living in much finer surroundings, worry over money and obligations. The film reveals so many similarities -- in ambition, possibility, and material interest -- between China and the West. But the prevailing resemblance remains the tension between capitalism's promises and realities.

PopMatters, the #1 independent online arts and culture magazine, is international in scope and dedicated to documenting our times and promoting cultural understanding. Find more PopMatters content at www.popmatters.com.

The Unassuming Icon

It's 1955, and men in fedoras and overcoats patronize Times Square magazine stores, scoping the racks for titles like Titter and Wink, Escapade and Flirt. They peer sideways at one another, not quite acknowledging a common desire and sense of guilt (which only enhances the titillation).

"Do you have anything a little… different?", a narrow-eyed customer asks the clerk. "Anything with… unusual footwear?" When the inevitable raid begins, the men scatter into the night, heads down and clutching their coats around them.

This is the scene at the start of The Notorious Bettie Page, Mary Harron's smart new movie that is not, despite its title, quite about Bettie Page. Though Bettie (in a terrific performance by Gretchen Mol) appears in nearly every scene, the movie is more about the many forces that made her "notorious," the moral hypocrisies and sexual repressions that shaped the '50s and persist today.

That's not to say the film doesn't walk you through some biopic-ish steps. Bettie grew up in Tennessee, married a serviceman, moved to NYC where she met photographer Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) and his sister Paula (Lili Taylor). But these particulars don't string together in cause-and-effect relationships; instead, they establish contexts for Bettie's popularity, scandal, and eventual turn to Jesus when she left the "special interest" industry.

A glimpse of the Senate committee hearings on what chairman Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn) calls "the effect of pornographic material on adolescents and juveniles" cuts to pinup queen Bettie, with white gloves and pert collar, waiting outside the chambers for her turn to testify. She's nervous, potentially the government's Exhibit A in its case against the scourge of porn (the actual case involves an adolescent boy who has appeared to hang himself, either in emulation of an s/m scene, or in despair inspired by his interest in smut).

From here the movie cuts again, to Bettie's childhood flashback: girls posing for photos for a boy their age, hiking up their skirts and laughing under the caption, "Nashville 1936." Even as a reverend's voice intones, "Come all you sinners and be not proud," Bettie hears her father's voice, calling the kids back to the house to "do your chores." It turns out that young Bettie is to "come on up" the ominous stairway, lurking in the background of the shot: her face goes pale in close-up and dad clunks up the steps behind her.

The rest of The Notorious Bettie Page complicates and contextualizes the themes laid out in these first three scenes. Bettie grows up in a culture that presents itself as pious, adult, and responsible to its precious children, but which actually exploits, abuses, and menaces those same innocents.

Which is not to say she appears here as a victim. Bettie is more a product of conflicting expectations and ideals. On one hand, she's the perfect, unthreatening pinup, glancing back over her shoulder with a big smile, welcoming the most insecure of viewers to imagine that she wants him. She's also a popular fetish model, spike-heeled and corseted, bound and gagged, exposing herself and posing oh-so-outrageously with fellow model Maxie (excellent Cara Seymour). Bettie embodied both and all, having "fun" in front of the camera, claiming innocence concerning any uses consumers might have for her image.

Of course, not all of her experiences are copacetic: during an early solo foray into city streets, she's approached by a sweet-seeming boy who asks her to go "dancin'" with another couple. She ends up in the middle of nowhere, where she's threatened with gang-rape. Telling the slick-haired boys, "It's that time of the month," she enrages a fellow who was looking forward to "getting some tail." She's forced to give them "some kinda satisfaction" as the camera pulls out and up.

Following the off-screen attack, Bettie appears in classic '50s-movie framing, running from the woods into the camera, tearful and afraid. She pauses, gathers her sweater around her, and heads back into the city: the camera watches her walk away, a survivor of hick cruelty yet again.

That she doesn't press charges or otherwise right this wrong indicates, again, the era's restrictions on "girls." Bettie finds another way to make sense of her experience, riding a Greyhound bus to NYC, competing in beauty pageants, and at last, stumbling upon her calling. An off-duty cop with a camera, Jerry (Kevin Carroll), invites her to pose on the beach. A crowd gathers, then a uniformed cop, displeased that she's white and he's black. Jerry starts to apologize, but Bettie soothes him, "They're just prejudiced. I used to be but I grew up and got over it." (The girl's a saint.) Jerry smiles, grateful for her kindness, and when they regroup in his studio, he comes up with tricks for "better" photos, padding for her bikini top and a new haircut -- Bettie's signature bangs, to cut the shine on her "high round forehead."

Harron's movie juxtaposes Bettie's personal and performative virtuousness with the smarminess of other early photographers, a men's "club" who pay to snap pictures of barely clothed models. "I saw it! I saw beaver!" gasps one to another, and it's clear you're in the land of perpetual adolescents, thrilled like Beavis and Butt-head over the mere hint of genitalia.

"It takes all types to make a world," Paula tells Bettie, offering a kind of instruction on self-preservation while also teaching her to pose for cheesecake, wear vinyl, and wield whips. "What kind of types?" asks Bettie, ever the naif, and ever lovely for it. When the Klaws' friend and director/designer John Willie (Jared Harris) wonders what Jesus might think about Bettie's profession, she pauses to ponder, then says she's been given a gift to make people happy. As the film illustrates, this means forcing her smile upside down when a customer murmurs nervously, "I want the young lady to look very strict."

When federal investigation pressures come to bear on the Klaws' business, Bettie sets off on vacation in sunny Miami -- these sections of the mostly black-and-white film are shot in color, suggesting the pulsing, vibrant life of the place. Here she poses for Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson), an erstwhile model who rejects the gear Bettie's brought along. "I believe the female form can stand on its own," she says -- and the perfect model has found her perfect photographer. "This girl has something special," Bunny notes in voiceover. "When she's nude, she doesn't look naked."

When one of their nude photos ends up on a Florida postcard, with yellow bikini added, Bettie feels like a star, and indeed, she's dubbed "The Pinup Queen of the Universe."

Certainly, not everyone loves her celebrity; her family worries that she's wasted her education (she wanted to go to college, and had the grades for it, but lost a local scholarship), and her boyfriend, actor Marvin (Jonathan Woodward) is shocked when he learns what's she's been doing for money (they met in an acting class, where he proclaims, "Acting is about truth"). But his stuffy response is set against a fan's question: "Does it make you sick to see guys like me grovel?" She smiles -- of course not -- because she's unphased by perverse devotions or Marvin's stern judgments. "Doctors write books about this sort of thing," he grumbles. "Do you understand what kinds of men buy these photographs?"

For Bettie, it's "just silliness." The condemnation and the masturbation both emerge from a lack of imagination, a desire to contain and possess "the female form." As Bettie works with Paula and Bunny behind the camera, or poses with Maxie (who's planning her own transition from model to photographer), The Notorious Bettie Page finds in these relationships mutual support, giddy fun, and familial trust. Without conventional melodramatic biopic trappings, the movie doesn't pretend to decipher the real-life Bettie Page (to this day, she's still preaching the gospel).

Men can ogle and evaluate all they want. The film's Bettie is what they've made, but she eludes them.

An Inside Job

New York is everywhere in Spike Lee's sharp new genre-bending movie. Not just in the sweeping-through-the-streets or creeping-along-the-sidewalk shots, but also inside the Manhattan bank where the film is set, inside the minds of the cops trying to solve the heist, and inside the exit interviews they conduct in tight, white-lit shots. New York is outside and inside "Inside Man", but mostly, it's in the incisive focus, impetus, and consequences of the film.

Ostensibly a heist movie of the "Die Hard" sort, with colorfully ingenious villains who reveal surprising motives, Lee's film (scripted by first-timer Russell Gewirtz) works within and without conventions, juggling a number of balls both familiar and eccentric. The detectives on the case -- hostage negotiator Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and his partner Mitch (Chiwetel Ejoifor) -- appear first at the station, oblivious to the robbery that you already know is in serious progress. You've seen the foursome in painters' uniforms and masks enter the bank -- located, the camera notes from an ominous low angle, at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway -- disable the surveillance cameras, and take all the customers, workers, and security guards hostage.

When the scene cuts to Keith, he's on the phone with his stunningly beautiful cop girlfriend, promising her an evening with "Big Willy and the twins." Not the role Washington usually plays, but Keith is clearly a man of his environment, seated across two desks from Mitch and crabbing about an Internal Affairs investigation into a missing $140,000.

And then comes the call. Mitch and Keith light up when they realize they've got a chance to prove themselves, to get out from under the clamor at HQ. The captain's other, favored team is somewhere else, and so, as Mitch exclaims, they're off to "the show."

The crime scene is already taped off, a mini-city populated by shooters and uniforms, hulking vans and vocal gawkers. But even as the outside scene recalls "Dog Day Afternoon" (which Keith cites by name); inside, the machinery is grinding along: the robbers dress the hostages like themselves, move them from room to room so they can't get to know one another, and dig up a wall in the storage room. While you and the cops wonder what they're up to, Keith has to make nice with turf-protecting Emergency Services Unit Captain Darius (Willem Dafoe), still mad at him for some case they worked years ago, but also anxious to get this one off quickly and successfully.

Keith's got bridges half-burned wherever he turns, which makes him intriguing, if cryptic. Among the bridge's he's going to be burning during this adventure is a relationship with bank board chairman Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), who shows up partway through the calamity to offer "support," whatever he can do. The robbers have asked for a jet, which the cops recognize as a ploy (no one ever gets a jet, not since Munich, and everyone's seen the movies that make this point), but which Arthur agrees to right away. The cops, huddled in the corner of their commander-trailer, exchange smirky looks and send him off, understanding he's powerful and rich beyond anyone's dreams, but has no clue how to how to talk with people or grocery shop.

And so Case sends a minion, a very well-dressed, perfectly coiffed, excruciatingly intelligent fixer, Madeline White (Jodie Foster), introduced as she's arranging for Bin Laden's nephew to purchase a condo (what's more, she puts him off, politely, as soon as she gets the call from Case, whom she's never met -- that's clout). "Miss White," as she's called repeatedly, gets exactly what she wants when she wants it, at least for a minute: she bribes Keith effectively, she plays Case, she knows how to reach the chief robber in charge, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen). And yet, she can't quite solve this puzzle, which involves a special personal safe deposit box inside the bank (though the answer to this puzzle is "Inside Man's" least effective move, by far).

Miss White's presence highlights a couple of ideas that drive the film. One, that folks with money do pull the strings, but they don't know (or want to know) the details of the wreckage they leave behind. This would be the purview of Keith, as well as Dalton, who has his own sort of insight into how the system works. Matching wits with the cops, he admires Keith's pluck and ingenuity, but presumes he is smarter, as all villains do. He spends some time with a couple of the hostages (mostly to beat on them and impress them with his virtuosity: "Anyone else here smarter than me?"), in particular, a small boy who plays a handheld video game, "Kill Dat Nigga" (the visual and plot basics recall the game in "Clockers"). Clearly, the violence exhibited by the robbers has nothing on what kids see and imagine every day in the city. Dalton voices his concern: "I've got to talk to your father."

Amidst the plotting, the film flash-forwards to exit interviews with the hostages, with Mitch and Keith cracking jokes and pressing them to confess their collaborations. Appearing in tight shots, the grainy hi-def exacerbates the interviewees' complexities: their pocked faces and the too-shiny surfaces surrounding them.

If this interview-pressurizing also recalls "Clockers" (where one suspect appears in Harvey Keitel's glasses), "Inside Man" makes smart use of Lee's other signature techniques (the street overview, the bystanders with attitudes, the moving sidewalk -- all deployed brilliantly here).

Tense, showy, and shrewd, the movie is -- like everyone's been saying -- Lee's most generic (i.e., "accessible"), but that's not what makes it brainy or galvanizing. Indeed, its cleverest moments involve odd, telling details: the credits sequence use of "Chaiyya Chaiyya," the white-guy who recognizes but cannot translate Albanian language, and perhaps most energetically, the Sikh who resents being profiled as "Arab."

Thinking he's one of the robbers, the cops tackle him, take his turban, then refuse to return it to him. When Keith and Mitch pull him into the diner they're using for headquarters to question him, he finally has enough. Tired of being profiled at airports and eyed on the street, the young Sikh wonders, "What happened to my fucking civil rights?" Keith smiles a little. "Bet you can get a cab though." Competing traumas, leveling oppressions, comparable resiliences -- it's definitely New York.

Trash and Treasures

"Dear Daddy, Remember that bus ride to North Carolina we took together. I would go through that a million times over just to be with you. I guess that now I have an idea of how you may have felt when I stopped writing you when you went back to prison after we were together in Arizona. Tim, you are ripping my hopes and dreams away from me. You and Justin are the two men in this world I want to love and dedicate my life to. What happened? Are you in love with someone else now? Why have my letters been sent back to me? Do you not even want to read what I have to say? Please tell me why this is." [sic] -- Found on a BART train in the San Francisco Bay Area.
" to be with. Joe loves me and I love him with the love you showed me. That is the gift I got from you. Love never dies and never will lessen, subside or disappear. We will meet again one day in Heaven and will love each other like there was no pause. Thank you so much for the gifts that you have given me -- I thank you & God for the relationships I've been lucky enough to find because of you. I hope you are happy I feel that I finally am. I love you S. Monkey! [heart] Always, Katie" [sic] -- Found tied to a deflated balloon in rural western Wisconsin.
It is the rare person who has not, at one point or another, felt like garbage.

For certain, all of us have at one time lost something, be it as innocuous as a CD or as momentous as a lover. We know the feeling, the comprehension of it, the very state of being that is "lost" as surely as we recognize humor or sorrow. We distinguish it from being "misplaced" or "hidden," because when a thing is lost, there is a sense of finality and hopelessness to the affair. The thing -- be it ourselves, an object, or an idea -- is really and truly gone from us. Even when it is the realization that we're lost in unfamiliar territory, it is our grounding, our ability to navigate space, that is stripped from us, and the fear of the moment is our despair that we have lost that ability forever, that we will never find our way back to a place we know.

For the creators of Found magazine, it is precisely the combination of trash and the lost scraps of our lives that holds a magical fascination. It's a simple idea: In the eddies of garbage that swirl about our feet, lie fluttering in gutters, and wind up wedged into nooks and crannies of objects and architecture, tiny scraps of our lives are floating about the world, each with its own back-story, each capturing a flicker of time and leaving a footprint trace of our being.

At first explanation, Found seems far less poetic. The magazine itself is essentially little more than photocopied pages of trash literally taped down to a backing with notations providing a title and the location where the piece was discovered. There is little commentary, and if there is much art to the arrangements of the pieces on the page, it's a rough collage at best. What you're left looking at are images of parking tickets, notebook paper, stationery, envelopes, school tests, stray photographs, scratch paper, torn scraps and recycled wrappers.

More often than not, these bits and pieces are torn or burned or otherwise damaged. They've been retrieved from storm drains, gutters, parking lots, fences, abandoned books, fields, windshields, bus stops, and culverts. They are pictures of honest-to-goodness trash.

But it's in how the scraps were used -- or more directly, what's written on them -- that the magic occurs. Here the human will to language and communication gets warped and ripped from the pages of context and offered back up to us as inscrutable artifacts of everyday actions, desires, and fears. These bits of paper are home to love letters, diatribes, class notes, test evaluations, grocery lists, family photos, legal documents, letters to parents, letters from parents, warnings, threats, break-ups, hook-ups, apologies, entreaties, affirmations, and prayers. In short, all of this so-called trash, once blowing around out in the wild, is the distillate sum of modern life, as communicated in a few short lines of handwritten chicken scratch.

Found challenges the reader to treat these scraps as anthropology. We take a handful of words and their meanings and extrapolate outwards, trying to get a sense of the situation that produced them, the hand that wrote them down and the audience for whom they were originally intended. We are granted an anonymous and incomplete form of voyeurism. We are spies and detectives. Can handwriting analysis, sentence structure and grammatical construction reveal the age, the education, the demography of the writer? What can we determine about the lives of the subject, audience or author from a brief and incomplete scene? Is there meaning in the way that a photo is torn, or the words that are missing from that mutilated Post-It note? Can we intuit pages one, two and five from pages three and four of this letter? Can our lives be boiled down and reduced to such minute essences, or do we want to see the invisible author on the other side of time and space as far more complex and unknowable?

The experience of Found is disorienting, yet funny, sad, poignant, disturbing and heartbreaking. Because these scraps are without context or commentary, we suspend judgment along with disbelief. We accept these things -- and these mysterious characters -- as more than true, malleable yet inert. Poetry is garbage.

Despite having heard about Found a few times previously, I first truly encountered the magazine and its creators all in one fell swoop. Attending the Denver performance of the nationally touring "This American Life" stage show -- a live recording of the phenomenal NPR radio program hosted by Ira Glass -- I had no idea that I was about to discover Found. But by the end of the show, despite being dazzled by the entire experience and having my absolute faith in the brilliance of Glass reinforced, I knew that I was a Found fan for life.

The theme of the "This American Life" performance-episode was "Lost in America," and thus it made perfect sense for Glass to include occasional contributor Davy Rothbart, co-founder of Found (along with Jason Bitner), in the show. What could be more about "Lost in America" than the scraps of ordinary American lives scattered to the wind, only to be picked up and collected?

In the company of some excellent, polished readings by Sarah Vowell and Jonathan Goldstein, Rothbart's presence seemed anomalous. Standing on stage in T-shirt and shorts, rambling and laughing through a handful of anecdotes and "finds" read out loud, Rothbart's "dude"-ish drawl and conspiratorial chuckle gave him the laid-back air of a guy chilling at the bar after a day of skateboarding in the park. In the moment, his portion of the show seemed off-the-cuff and charmingly nervous, and it was hard not to feel like Rothbart himself was a bit lost and out of place.

But as he wound his way through his presentation, describing how Found emerged from an idea, to a leaflet-posting campaign and a P.O. box, and finally into a real magazine entity, it was hard not to come under the spell of Rothbart's love for the whole concept of Found. Each scrap of paper he held in his hands was an actual "find," sent to the magazine and published at one point or another in its brief career, and he treated each piece of litter as carefully as he might a small treasure. When he read the notes aloud in all their grammatical inaccuracy, his wide-eyed wonder at the sentiment and emotion conveyed in each line shone through his equally grinning good humor.

Laughing along, Rothbart let us in on the joke, only to spring on us that the real punch line was how much pathos could be read into something as amusing as a fuming note to a cheating lover left on the wrong car, or as tragic as a desperate note to a long-lost parent that might never have reached its target. And all this humanity in a piece of trash.

The origin story of Found is both simple and humorous, and readily available on the magazine's website, so I'll leave that tale to Rothbart and Bitner to convey directly. But since June of 2001, the Found team has been steadily increasing the public's awareness of litter, encouraging us to watch our feet for some slip of the written tongue, and growing a network of sympathetic finders and readers who want to share in this strange language of the hidden everyday.

Each of the many faces of Found offers something slightly different. The original magazine format of Found is, of course, the standard bearer of the operation. Released annually, it is in itself a minor challenge to the accepted notion of art and publishing, offering up an odd collection to a niche market of readers who are in the know, or who are attracted by curiosity to the seemingly random content within. It's as though the magazine itself is a shiny piece of foil in a field of general interest and specialty journals, attracting readers like birds.

Ancillary to the magazine, the Found website is a fantastic resource in its own right, collecting some of the best finds and scanning them in their original form for readers to endlessly peruse, offering both some insight into how and why Found works and the same voyeuristic emotions of the magazine. Isolated into individual pieces, the website views aren't as collective as the magazine layouts, but that singularity also offers a more direct interpretation.

More recently, the larger publishing world responded to the grassroots support for Found and collected some of the magazine's greatest hits alongside a huge assortment of previously unpublished finds in book form. "Found: The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items from Around the World" is an amazing collection, and a strangely affecting read, pulling you into the lives of strangers in a way that combines the experience of epistolary fiction, photo collections, and scrapbooking all at once. Not surprising to those who've read it, the book became a runaway success, further catapulting this pet project into the realm of serious endeavor.

And, of course, there's the most recent arm of the Found empire, the Dirty Found magazine series -- where all the finds deemed too naughty or pornographic or just plain naked for the main magazine wound up finally seeing the light of day. Brilliant in its own distinct way, and often shelved in bookstores amidst the likes of Playboy and Swank, Dirty Found represents a faded and de-glamorized challenge to the fantasy of sex publications, as real and as heartbreakingly honest as Found itself.

Perhaps a part of the mystique of Found is that the whole project seems so organic and DIY, with Rothbart and Bitner stumbling across an idea so deceptively simple and homegrown that it's charming in its own right. Or maybe it's that the network of people involved built itself up so rapidly, that so many people understood exactly the allure of litter once the notion was brought to light. By all accounts, the pair was astounded by the nearly immediate success of a simple leaflet campaign requesting people send interesting trash to a P.O. box. But whether it's well-disguised skill in execution, or the simple brilliance of knowing how to let the objects speak for themselves, there's little doubt that Found has become its own small but impressive institution.

Rothbart has noted that one of his favorite types of "find" is the misplaced list. Be they to-do lists, grocery lists, or inventories, he maintains that lists offer a uniquely insular communication, where the author is in fact communicating only with the author herself. Yet, in reading over someone's private notations, we have the chance to read into their lives without mediation. Take the following example:
"Go for a walk with someone
Go out somewhere with someone
Talk to someone
Watch TV
Go on the computer
Play PlayStation 2
Go to the cemetery and talk to my mom
Listen to music
Go in my room" -- Found on the street in Arlington, Massachusetts.
This list is obviously meant to inspire the writer to action, but it seems even more telling of the writer's true state of mind. Certainly, they seem lonely, probably with few friends and family to encourage even the simple action of meeting a friend. It's probably safe to say that the person doesn't even get out of the house much, inferring as much from the vague assertions of going "somewhere". And what kind of indecision or torpor leads us to need to remind ourselves to watch TV, or listen to music, or even just go into our room? And then there's the touching, revelatory suggestion of visiting the dead mother in the cemetery. These short suggestions paint a picture of the author, letting us in more intimately than even a photograph might, yet with such minimal amount of language that the list may as well be a bank statement. And in the world of Found, even a stray bank statement may tell just as vivid a story.

This is the kind of archeological dig that Found inspires. It requires a sense of intuition and the mythmaking of a storyteller. It needs a frame-shift, a tilting of the head to look at life's castoffs from a fresh angle. No single story is complete, but the mystery provokes a desire to find the depths of what can be known and test the boundaries of the impenetrable. Or, at the very least, to find a laugh, a moment of pause, or even a tear from a scattering of fleeting instances.

One of the temptations inspired by this exploration is to compare and contrast these fragmented messages with the dialed-in ethos of contemporary communications. It would be easy to say that in spite of all the text, voice, and video conversations buzzing about the globe in an ethereal salon, there is an equally valid, equally authentic substratum of broken code lying at our feet, defying the broadcast. But Found doesn't really encourage that kind of analysis, nor does it place communication in such a binary framework. If it weren't for broadcasts and networks, Found wouldn't exist. Nor would it exist without the snatches of personalities left drifting in the dust. Found is simply the museum, its scrap collection an array of ciphers, and we ourselves are the only Rosetta stone.

I often find myself thinking about the original author of any of the stray notes, wondering if that person has since encountered Found, and whether or not they have found that tiny piece of themselves collected and pinned down like a butterfly, displayed to the public. I wonder if they are embarrassed, or amused, or simply confused about what kind of meaning a stranger could find in that tossed-off and tossed-out tidbit. I wonder if they are angry with us for spying in, wishing they could retrieve that sliver of themselves and either hide it away again, or destroy it forever.

Then I realize that I don't really know the whole, the real person on the other side of that communicative divide. The person I have imagined is a figment, a self I have projected onto the meaning of the artifact. I have read myself into that meaning. Maybe these scraps are only tiny mirrors. And I wonder how I would feel to be found, and what pieces of myself I've left lying in ditches, blown against a chain link fence, lying in a parking lot, or tacked haphazardly to a bulletin board.

An Interrupted Life

It just sounds like the way Spalding Gray would die. His would not be a life finished by old age, or the standard natural causes. No, Gray's existence was fated to end like most of his monologues -- with a kind of closure, but with so much more life left unexplored.

Anyone who's familiar with the peculiar performance artist/actor knows that his onstage stories attempted to mine epic emotions within the smallest of human moments. Whether it was filming The Killing Fields (Swimming to Cambodia), writing his one and only novel, Impossible Vacation (as described in Monster in a Box), or dealing with a potentially debilitating eye disease (Gray's Anatomy), Gray wasn't out to try and explain the purpose of being or answer the larger philosophical questions. All he wanted was to make sense out of the funny little muddle that was his world. Apparently, he fell short.

It's been over a year since Gray committed suicide, his body washing up in New York's East River. As part of the huge healing process necessary for his family and friends we are presented with Life Interrupted, an "unfinished" work by the dear departed. Not knowing its conception or creation, one would assume this to be a career ending entry, something to tie up the loose ends in Gray's artistic catalog while giving fans and the unfamiliar a chance to revel in his final musings.

Sadly, that is only part of the picture painted here. Gray does get a few pages to explain his 2001 car accident (the title piece), an event while on vacation in Ireland that lead to a deepening of his already tenuous depression. There is also a short snippet about his family (The Anniversary) and a look at the metropolis he loved to love -- and hate (Dear New York City).

Yet the 50-some odd sides that make up this material do not constitute the bulk of the book's 256 pages. Instead, longtime friend and writer Francine Prose gets a protracted introduction, and several of Gray's intimates and well wishers, most of them famous in their own right, eulogize the man as part of a closing collection of elegies and celebrations.

In essence, what we have here is a full funeral in print form. Ms. Prose prepares the wake, we sit shiva as Gray gets the last word, and as he's buried in our memory, a collection of his contemporaries finds ways to wax poetic and prosaic about their much admired and missed associate. All in all, very stoic, classy, and serene -- which means it misses what made Gray so great in the first place.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating a writer with words -- it's a standard in the realm of the scribe. But Spalding Gray was more than just a collection of thoughts. It was the way he presented those ideas, the way he connected with audiences and drew them into his imaginary world that really made the difference. Reading his monologues (there are several collections out there, from film transcripts to the highly recommended Sex and Death to Age 14) you can just hear his cooling New England edge, the spry speaking style that distinguished his efforts from those of his peers. Like radio man Paul Harvey, Gray had control and cadence in how he spoke, bringing life both obvious and hidden to his otherwise well-chosen words. Anyone who wanted to understand how performance could be art just needed to see Gray live. One minute inside his vocal volleys and you could literally feel dead synapses re-firing.

Sadly, none of that is here -- not in the efforts of other writers, not in Ms. Prose's words. For her, Gray is a misunderstood man who needed re-explaining one more time. As for the individuals who stand to sing his praises, they too act as if Gray was an unknown quantity that required some defense of his otherwise indefensible actions. This is perhaps the main reason why Gray's words feel like cameos in his own collection.

He was never a man to shy away from the insanity that drove his family. It was the basis for Monster in a Box, and his interesting novel Impossible Vacation. The man was literally, and literarily, an open book. There was no need to spend hundreds of pages protecting his public. They knew this side existed the entire time -- and many marveled that it hadn't conquered him before.

Then there is Gray's mini-monologue itself. Life Interrupted walks us through that fateful night when an ill-timed trip to a local restaurant lead to a near fatal collision between a delivery truck and the vehicle in which Gray was a passenger. He has a ball deconstructing the near-medieval Irish medical system, complete with a barracks of blaring TVs and a snippy drag queen attendant. As he's moved from hospital to hospital, marveling at the lack of European doctors and wondering why all this had to happen, we drift along on a cloud of acerbic candor and droll wit. And then it all stops.

Just as we reach the point where Gray's about to provide that transcendent moment, that phrase or narrative phase that moves the storytelling into the arena of true art, it's all over. Gray's getting better, he's pissed and he's questioning. Unfortunately, we never get the answers.

They don't come in The Anniversary either. This beautifully written look at familial life, ending with Gray and his son whooping it up on a carousel, is both exhilarating and bittersweet. The immense amount of love Gray had for his kids comes off the pages in waves of warmth and honesty. The observational moments, catching a glimpse of the boy as his eyes engage the ephemera with that simple kind of secret joy, turns a touching piece into something very poignant and elegiac.

Similarly, his note to New York, a kind of post-attack pep talk (Gray was apparently devastated by 9/11) radiates with the pure personal poetry that can only come from a man graced with a gift for words. Gray's talent was never really at issue, but Life Interrupted brings home the point that, with his passing, a great man has moved beyond us.

Had it been simpler, collecting everything and anything that he had attempted over the last few years, there would be more of a reason to rejoice at Life Interrupted's publication. Instead, the book feels superficial and surface, an effort to get to know a troubled soul that barely breaks the outer layers of his life. As a memorial, it's a well-intentioned effort, and as a celebration of Spalding Gray, the book has its memorable and affirming moments.

But Gray was much more than an incomplete performance and a couple of essays. He was a man of ideas both written and spoken -- and without the oral component, Life Interrupted can only be a partial testament. Thankfully, there are enough of his completed pieces to guarantee his legacy. Life Interrupted is just what it is -- a fascinating final footnote.

Bring on the Major Leagues

The success of the "Garden State" soundtrack and the glut of major label-released "indie" music by bands like Keane, Snow Patrol and the Killers made 2004 the year indie music established itself, proving (finally) that it could be the one thing the marketplace demands: sales.

With the existence of an indie ringtones service, once-indie darlings Death Cab for Cutie's major-label debut landing at No. 4 on the Billboard charts, Bright Eyes having two Top 20 singles, and Fox TV's ever popular "The O.C." driving up music sales, indie music may have reached its pinnacle of popularity.

Or has it? I don't mean to pronounce indie music dead -- writers can be overeager to proclaim the death of emerging genres, as when the British press declared that "punk was dead" concurrent with its birth -- but rather to argue that truly independent music has never really had a day in the sun. Defining bands like Death Cab as "indie" only serves to subjugate truly independent music: albums written, recorded and released without the aid of a record label.

Whether a band is signed to a major like Warner or an "indie" like One Little Indian, whether it's Sony BMG or Sub Pop, really doesn't matter: Neither can be considered truly independent. Though indie rock is still largely perceived as resistant to corporatized methods of production and distribution, and symbolic of anti-establishment sentiments, today's indie music world is becoming impossible to distinguish from the mainstream.

The truth is, many indie record labels are run like any other business: to make money. They pay for hip clothing and fancy press photos, and work like hell to get their bands publicity. The artistic freedom indie labels promise is supposed to distinguish them from the majors, but when was the last time you heard a mainstream rock band complain about its label dictating material?

Now you might be saying, "But what about the great Wilco "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" drama? A major label turned down an artistically adventurous album!" And yes, Reprise, a Warner imprint, dropped Wilco. The band was then picked up by Nonesuch, a diverse label with solid indie cred, who then released the album. So the indie world saved the day? Perhaps -- if you forget that Nonesuch is also a Warner subsidiary.

Another once-defining element of the indie world is amateurish production values meant to convey a DIY aesthetic, a rejection of slick marketability. Though there are many exceptions, the quick glance at indie's biggest and brightest turns up some of the shiniest, glossiest pop material in the marketplace. Is it any surprise that the slickest sounding bands -- Rilo Kiley, Postal Service -- have the most crossover success?

So in a world where the mainstream sounds like the underground and the underground acts like the mainstream, what happens to truly underground music? When major labels buy indie bands by the cart and the indie labels act and operate like major labels, how does a truly independent release get heard?

Pick up any indie-music magazine or look at any indie-music related website and count how many bands are self-releasing their work. You'd be lucky to find two or three in the entire lot. Of course, indie isn't just about self-releasing, and few would argue that Saddle Creek or K, even with dozens of bands on their rosters, are close to a major label. But such labels, which tenaciously preserve their integrity, are the exception to the rule.

For comparison, let's look at the latest installment from the prime purveyor of so-called indie music to the masses, "Music From the O.C. Mix 5." Of the 12 songs on the album, five are by bands (Subways, Rogue Wave, Youth Group, Of Montreal, Stars) who are on so-called indie labels (Wea, Sub Pop, Epitaph, Polyvinyl, Arts and Crafts, respectively). But none of those five made their most recent record independent of any label influence, i.e., label money.

Granted, many of these bands have been truly independent at one point in their career: Rogue Wave self-released its first album, and Kaiser Chiefs financed their first single themselves. But grassroots support for indie bands has been supplanted with the label-run Astroturf campaigns for megabands like My Chemical Romance. A band's credibility no longer seems dependent on paying dues.

It's possible that the reduced backlash against indie bands gone mainstream shows a willingness to go beyond the dichotomous thinking of previous generations. And that many once indie-run labels are now owned by -- or have become -- larger labels has not necessarily lead to homogenization. Since bottom-line-loving major labels treat bands as portfolio stocks, they clearly understand the power of diversification.

Indie's seeping into mainstream culture is perhaps best explained by the indie-music world adopting better business sense. The work of independent publicity teams to get Death Cab featured on "The O.C." or the Concretes' songs in a string of Target commercials reflects the modern approach to art -- one that rejects the very notion that a band can sell out.

As long as the music remains untouched, as long as the artist retains artistic control, the concept of selling out is so 20th century. Isn't having an audience important? Doesn't everyone want as big of an audience as they can get, a large forum for their ideas? Why should financial success negate artistic integrity? Couldn't it verify it? And as these bands get bigger audiences and more money for tours, albums and videos, the world becomes full of better music. Where's the harm in that? What's to get bent out of shape over? As Pavement quips, bring on the major leagues, right?

The danger lies in the classic wheel of hegemony. When emergent culture is sucked into the dominant culture, it fortifies that dominant culture and reduces emerging forms to mere transitional modes of creating -- a minor-league for the mainstream. If mainstream music sounds like indie music, then why buy real indie music?

As 2006 gets under way, the mainstream still pimps indie aesthetics. But during this heightened indie sale-ability, truly independent releases are suffering.

One truly independent release from 2005 was the band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's self-titled, self-released debut album. While garnering raves in the indie press, the band remains relatively unknown to anyone who is not hypermotivated to seek out new music. (Editor's note: As we you read this, the record is being heavily hyped in major U.K. music magazines.)

In comparison, look at the post-punk-cum-Strokes-aping band the Bravery. Their self-titled debut was released in March on Island Records -- a division of Universal and home to acts like Bon Jovi and Mariah Carey -- and sold 33,000 in its first week of U.S. release, going gold in the U.K. in barely one month.

None of this is meant as a knock against bands like Death Cab for Cutie or the White Stripes, or Nirvana before them. But if indie-oriented labels are continually sucked up into the mainstream, who will be the avant-garde? Who will push the boundaries of pop music, and how will it be discovered amid the clamor of major and major-owned minors with deep pockets? Will we be able to cut through label hype to find truly independent music to support?

Let me know when you find out. 'Til then, I'll be watching "The O.C."

A Different Kind of Family Reunion

"This is the voice," says Bree (played by Felicity Huffman), practicing her woman's pitch.

As if to do battle with the world, she prepares carefully before heading out the door, ensuring that her body is properly contained, her nails appropriately pink, her lipstick perfectly blushy. If she's not precisely the image on her Glamour magazine, she's as close as most mortal women might be. Bree means to make the case to her therapist Margaret (Elizabeth Pena), that she's ready for surgery: her year in transition is nearly done, her hormones are aligned, and it's time. "This is the voice."

Or maybe not. Sitting in Margaret's office at the start of Transamerica, Bree admits in a gush that well, she's had a phone call raising the wee problem of the son she fathered when she was "Stanley," and much as she wants to put that self behind her, Margaret insists that she integrate. "Stanley's life is your life," she smiles, soothing. "This is a part of your body that cannot be discarded."

This is the sort of language that makes gender so perplexing, and so rigid at the same time. What does it have to do with bodies, lives and names? How can it determine who you are, or at least how others see you, which amounts to much the same thing if you're inclined to want approval or feel desired or even just to get along. And so Bree must face that past she thought was over, in the form of a 17-year-old Calvin Klein-model-boy named Toby (Kevin Zegers). She heads to NYC to bail him out of "downtown lockup," where he's residing since he tried to shoplift a frog. Yes, the child is looking for help, and Bree pretends to be a Christian missionary, doing good work under the auspices of the Church of the Potential Father.

The fact that Bree is not only determined and focused but also rather clever, often at her own expense (or at least, at an expense that you get because you know her dilemma and Toby does not), makes her endearing. It also makes you wonder about the series of decisions she makes in order that the film earns its cutesy title -- she and Toby end up driving cross country, getting to know one another and meeting each other's families in order to find themselves.

First stop: Kentucky, where Toby's redneck stepfather lives in a trailer, apparently so stuck in his stereotype that he can't keep his hands off Toby even for an evening. Bree is horrified that her son has been so ill-treated as a youngster, and considers that this may explain his current cockiness and half-assed hustling. It also means that their journey will continue, as Bree can't leave Toby in Kentucky, having witnessed this horror. And so, because Bree can't bring herself to confess her actual relationship to Toby, and he's not inclined to take advice from a church lady, they ride along encased in a kind of dull tension, ever on the edge of revelation, yet hanging back... because the movie must go on for another hour or so.

The episodic structure of Transamerica isn't so tedious as its gentle pokes at conventions as a means to make Bree's situation both affecting and palatable for an imagined, mainstream-y audience. This means that the conflict between parent and child must accommodate or reflect the sorts of anxieties that such viewers recognize and smile at, tiffs that don't quite reach crisis points, but instead allow the free-to-be-you-and-me vibe to permeate the film. Toby announces, "It's degradable," in an effort to impress his kind driver to give up hustling. Bree can't help herself, and corrects him: "Degrading."

So now you know, in case you missed it the first five times, that Bree's a stickler and Toby now has a mission, to trouble her sense of order just enough to assert himself and disrupt her seeming security.

Or so he thinks. They're headed for an inevitable collision, occasioned by a loss of funds and Bree's decision to bring Toby to her parents' pink and beige home in Phoenix, where her parents, Elizabeth (Fionnula Flanagan) and Murray (Burt Young), revisit their discomfort with her "change." As Bree's car has long since died, they hitch a ride with the kindhearted Calvin Two Goats (Graham Greene), who takes a liking to Bree. The movie supposes that Calvin doesn't "know" her secret. By this time Toby has discovered she has a penis, having spotted it while she relieved herself during a roadside pause, rather carelessly, given all the concern she's displayed about hiding the details of her anatomy. And so Toby is unnerved that Calvin might find Bree attractive, as the "deception," as he sees it, replicates the one he endured.

At the same time, however, the film doesn't allow for much identification on Toby's part. He leans heavily on his little-boy-lost affect, going so far as to lay himself out on a bed and attempt to seduce Bree -- his thanks for her kindness and generosity. In his mind -- perhaps -- he's playing gay boy, girlish boy, and maybe even studly boy, all at once. That the movie can't explore or even spend much time on this particular transgression -- incestuous desire, ambiguously gendered to boot -- exposes a distressing lack of nerve. The pain and betrayal can only lead to forgiveness, Lifetime-style.

More compellingly, the film's resistance to grappling with the interrelations of gender and sex suggests an investment in artifice, which is not in itself a problem (gender being a lifelong series of performative gestures, as in "the voice" Bree works to perfect). And yet Transamerica stops short, settles for the familiar "alternative family" rather than questioning all those systems of assessment and measurements of morality that make the very concept of "alternative" necessary.

Copyrights and Wrongs

In case you missed it, April 23 was World Book and Copyright Day. UNESCO sponsored events in some 30 countries to promote "reading, publishing and the protection of intellectual property through copyright."

Intellectual property is indeed a big issue these days. There's a vibrant trade in pirated CDs and DVDs, counterfeit handbags and watches, and all manner of bootlegged digital files at swap meets in Dakar and in the vendor stalls of Hong Kong, not to mention along Canal Street in New York City and in dens and bedrooms across America. Intellectual property matters also figure prominently in trade relations between the United States and the developing world, especially China.

The intellectual property debate typically divides into two camps -- those who defend the rights of ownership and those who defend free speech. The first is championed in a recent book by Pat Choate, Hot Property: The Stealing of Ideas in an Age of Globalization (Knopf). The second is represented by Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity (Doubleday), by Kembrew McLeod

For Choate, an economist and Ross Perot's 1996 vice presidential running mate, intellectual property is about more than simply discouraging CD ripping, purse parties and peer-to-peer file sharing; it's about protecting the American way of life. Developing countries like China violate intellectual property regulations to gain unfair advantage, Choate charges, and it's costing America an estimated $200 billion a year. Not only that, counterfeit medicines and machine parts are making their way into the United States, threatening the safety of everyone. The answer is to secure intellectual property by any means necessary, including using front groups like UNESCO and the World Trade Organization to uphold the rights of owners and punish those who break the rules.

Yet intellectual property abuse has long been part of the American economy. In 1810, Francis Cabot Lowell stole the idea of the power loom from England and patented it in America, which at the time only recognized the intellectual property rights of citizens. This act of piracy gave birth to the American textile industry. A hundred years later, Henry Ford sold Model Ts even though the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers claimed violation of the Selden Patent. His crime made personal motor transportation affordable where it was previously a luxury. But now total intellectual property enforcement helps America dominate the global marketplace.

Intellectual property provisions are contained in the U.S. Constitution to encourage new ideas and reward those who create them, with the ultimate goal of furthering the interests of society. That it currently has the opposite effect is Kembrew McLeod's contention.

McLeod is a professor of communications studies at University of Iowa and a music critic for Rolling Stone, Spin and the Village Voice, among others. In 1998, he officially trademarked the words "freedom of expression" to point out the absurd state of intellectual property regulation. While this and the other high-jinks he reports on are amusing, McLeod's intentions are serious -- corporations are putting up fences against the free exchange of ideas to line their own pockets and everyone else suffers for it.

For one thing, the prevailing intellectual property climate impedes scientific progress. It's more difficult and expensive, for example, to do research on inherited diseases because of gene patents. Nor is the common good served when information about the safety and effectiveness of prescription drugs gets withheld under the cloak of "trade secrets." It often doesn't even make economic sense -- statistics McLeod cites from the Pew Internet and American Life Project show a positive correlation between MP3 file sharing and the rise in CD sales over the past few years, even as the record industry has waged jihad on suburban teenagers for copyright infringement.

While keeping the creative commons open for free expression is important, it isn't enough. The English Land Enclosure Movement of the early mercantile era wasn't about curtailing free speech, but about separating peasants from the traditional means of their livelihood and forcing them into sweatshops, creating both a new source of private wealth and a ready supply of wage labor. By the same token, the new intellectual property regime of the information economy wants to capture the very thoughts of workers, only to sell them back in pay-per-view. So from Palo Alto to Bangalore, hackers of the world, unite!


Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.