Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Mediums and messages: Books, movies, Narnia and Calvin & Hobbes

A few months ago, a column by the editor of Publishers Weekly made an observation about the challenges facing movie adaptations of books. She pointed out that very rarely do movie versions of literary novels please their reading fans:

With the exceptions of, say, To Kill a Mockingbird and the recent Mystic River, I can't think of a movie that I loved as much as a book. On occasion, of course, a not very good book becomes a good movie—Bridges of Madison County, anyone? How about The Horse Whisperer?—and frankly, I think that's why: they weren't such great books in the first place, so the filmmakers had nowhere to go but up. That, and the fact that it's easier to add filmic nuance to a simplistic book than to subtract it from a complicated one.

Then in the Feb. 2006 issue of Christianity Today, Wheaton College communication professor E. J. Park wrote a terrific article, “A Tale of Two Kitties,” in which he contrasts Aslan’s representation in the Narnia movie and Hobbes from the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes. Park points out that Aslan’s portrayal in Lewis’s book as “not a tame lion” is somehow incongruous with the movie merchandising of Aslan Happy Meal figurines and Aslan plush toys, which seem like very tame lions indeed.

In contrast, Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin & Hobbes, has never allowed Calvin or Hobbes to be licensed or made into ancillary products. No Hobbes plush toys or Calvin backpacks or lunchboxes. (The Calvin window decals on many back windshields are illegal copyright infringements.) Thus Watterson has preserved the integrity of his comic characters by keeping them only within the medium of comic strips. Park quotes Watterson:

"My strip is about private realities, the magic of imagination, and the specialness of certain friendships. Who would believe in the innocence of a little kid and his tiger if they cashed in on their popularity to sell overpriced knickknacks that nobody needs? Who would trust the honesty of the strip's observations when the characters are hired out as advertising hucksters?"

All this reminds me of my coursework in communication and media theory and Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that the medium is the message. Communication media, whether books or movies or blogs or podcasts, are not neutral – by their very nature, they are able to do or not do certain things well or at all. When content is shifted from one medium to another, like a movie version of a superhero narrative or a children’s book version of a Disney movie, forces are at work that change the qualitative experience of that content.

Thus, as many reviewers have pointed out, the weakest aspect of the recent Narnia movie was actually the portrayal of Aslan. In readers’ imaginations he was free to roam wild. But Aslan on the silver screen instead seemed tepid and tame, with a diminished sense of space and presence, able to be contained by a mere tent, limited by the scope of CGI and Liam Neeson’s voicing. Even Mufasa in The Lion King seemed to have more powerful establishing shots than Aslan did in Narnia. This is not to say that the movie was a bad one, or that another movie could not have done better with Aslan. It’s just that Aslan’s depiction in particular was one of the elements lost in this specific translation between media.

I’m all for good books and good movies, and for good movies based on good books, as rare as that might be. (The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, and the film version starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, is one of the rare examples that is equally excellent in both book and film form.) But the above-cited articles remind me of the dangers inherent to crossing media, especially in product licensing and commodification. So I am pleased that Calvin & Hobbes is not going to be merchandised or adapted into movies or knickknacks, and I am happy to recommend The Complete Calvin & Hobbes as the definitive collection of Watterson’s work, preserved in a medium consistent with the message as originally intended.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Wal-Mart Effect, by Charles Fishman

My wife and I decided a few years ago to not shop at Wal-Mart, primarily because of a Fast Company article we read called “The Wal-Mart You Don’t Know” that highlighted the detrimental local and global effects of Wal-Mart’s business practices. The author of that article, Charles Fishman, has now published a book, The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World’s Most Powerful Company Really Works—and How It’s Transforming the American Economy. (One chapter is excerpted as an article available on Fast Company’s website, The Man Who Said No to Wal-Mart.”)

In short, Fishman’s book is meticulously researched and documented, thoroughly readable and accessible, extremely fair and balanced in its perspective, and devastating in its analysis and critique. This is no mere hatchet job on Wal-Mart – it’s a methodical, painstaking and careful study of all the questions that Wal-Mart raises. Some sample issues:

Does Wal-Mart actually create jobs in a community, or does it kill off existing businesses and jobs? Both. A new Wal-Mart may hire 300 people, but on average, 250 people at nearby businesses will lose their jobs, and about four local businesses will close. A Wal-Mart not only siphons business away from other merchandise retailers, it also impacts service and repair businesses, as it becomes cheaper to buy new ones than repair them. Wal-Mart’s cheapness of products contributes to a throw-away society.

What is Wal-Mart’s effect on local communities? A study of Iowan small towns showed that restaurants near Wal-Marts had 3% increases in business, probably because of increased traffic. But nearby towns without Wal-Marts lost 47% of their retail sales, as customers drove out of town to shop at Wal-Mart. During the period that Iowa went from no Wal-Marts to 45 Wal-Marts, 43% of men’s/boys’ clothing stores in Iowa went out of business.

Wal-Mart demands that suppliers reduce their costs and lower their prices, which in turn reduces margins for suppliers. A company that does 10% or less of their business with Wal-Mart has an average profit margin of 12.7%, but one that does 25% or more of their business with Wal-Mart has a margin of 7.3%. And Wal-Mart’s pricing demands have cannibalized markets, becoming the downfall of dozens of vendors – Vlasic pickles and Levi’s jeans are just two of many examples Fishman highlights in the book.

More significantly, from a global justice perspective, Wal-Mart’s business practices lead to overseas manufacturing that is poorly monitored and prone to countless human rights and labor abuses. In order for companies to provide products at low enough a price to satisfy Wal-Mart’s demands, factory workers are forced to work fourteen hours a day, six or seven days a week. A factory worker in Bangladesh was beaten with the pants she was making when she didn’t make production quotas. Fishman makes the point that Wal-Mart’s customers are buying pants that were literally used to beat the people who made them.

Wal-Mart’s sheer size makes it an unparalleled force for either good or ill, and Fishman argues that it has not yet wielded its might in ways that promote human rights or environmental stewardship. It has only used its power to squeeze every possible economic efficiency out of suppliers and workers. Its bottom line of “everyday low prices” means that it does not provide adequate health care insurance for its workers, outsourcing health-care costs onto the government. It means that workers are forced to work overtime without pay or locked in stores overnight. It means that suppliers and factories are not encouraged to have safety or quality controls because such safeguards would add costs to their systems.

All this (and much, much more) reinforces my conviction never to shop at Wal-Mart again. True, I have little sense if other retailers have similar, if smaller, impacts. What would be really useful would be if all retailers and suppliers had far more information available about their labor and manufacturing conditions, and whether purchasing those products are ultimately helpful or harmful. Maybe some day we’ll be able to identify fair-trade toilet paper and toothpaste the way we can now identify fair-trade coffee, and regulators and watchdog groups can enable our consumer choices to be more just. But until then, for me and my family, conscientious shopping means that we vote with our shopping carts and shop at stores other than Wal-Mart.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Letting magazine subscriptions lapse

This week I got my final issue of U.S. News & World Report. I’ve been a faithful subscriber for twenty-two years, since 1984, when my sixth-grade class used the weekly news magazine for current events and news quizzes. After more than two decades and a thousand issues of coverage of national politics, international disasters, college rankings and tech guides, I finally decided to let my subscription lapse, as an effort to simplify my life.

I’ve always been a fairly heavy consumer of news media and periodicals. In my grad school program for communications, one of our assigned texts was The New York Times, which we were required to subscribe to and read daily for a semester. I also read the Chicago Tribune simultaneously to compare coverage. A few years later, as a print publicist, I worked with book review editors at various magazines, and so I was constantly reading dozens of magazines every week, from Christianity Today and Books & Culture to World, Discipleship Journal, Commonweal, First Things and Christian Century. In recent years we’ve had (mostly free) subscriptions to an eclectic range of magazines including Wired and Fast Company, the Utne Reader and Sierra magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, Men’s Journal and Budget Living. This is on top of keeping up with publishing trade journals at work like Publishers Weekly and Copy Editor.

As many folks have observed, you can tell a lot about somebody by what magazines are on the coffee table. Each of these magazines says something about my sense of self and identity—who I think I am, who I aspire to be. Some reflect our stage of life; we started getting Parents and Working Mother once we had kids. When I got some free subscriptions, I chose Saveur and Outdoor Photographer not because I have any real skill as a cook or photographer, but they were areas that I thought it might be interesting to learn more about, even if I never actually gained any culinary or photographic expertise. My wife has been far more consistent in her magazine readership; her only subscription is to Worship Leader, which reflects that she has a far more singular and clear sense of her identity than I do, with my scattershot variety of nominal interests.

I’ve always had dozens of magazines circulate through my life in any given month, but recently I’ve been learning to let subscriptions lapse. After all, this is a lot of time spent reading magazines that could be used doing other things, and too many of these magazines appeal to particular consumerist identities. So cutting out magazines is a way of reducing exposure to unnecessary advertising messages, as well as recentering myself away from external false selves. For media-immersive junkies like me, fasting from periodicals is a healthy spiritual discipline to practice.

But even as I say this, Chicago Public Radio is offering free subscriptions to Newsweek for their pledge drive, and now that I don’t get U.S. News anymore, I’m really tempted . . .

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, by Judith Levine

I just read Judith Levine’s Not Buying It, an interesting chronicle of one New Yorker’s attempt to live without shopping for a full year. She adapts the principle behind Buy Nothing Day (as Adbusters has decreed the day after Thanksgiving) and applied it to a whole year. For calendar year 2004, she and her partner, Paul, don’t go out to eat, don’t see new movies, and try not to buy anything apart from food and basic supplies. The experiment raises difficult questions of what is essential and what is unnecessary. Are Kleenex a luxury when you can use toilet paper or handkerchiefs? Is toilet paper a luxury when millions of people around the world do without it? Levine decides that Q-Tips don’t make the cut.

Levine is a skier, and she has some interesting episodes where her consumer identity clashes with her skier identity. For example, she got used to skiing with specialized $15 SmartWool socks, and she was impressed enough with their performance that she buys a whole line of related clothing. One day she can’t find her SmartWool socks and decides that she’d rather stay home and sulk than ski with ordinary socks. Later on she realizes the inanity of that action, since she had skied for years perfectly well without specialized socks. Somehow her loyalty to a particular brand name consumer product trumped her desire to enjoy a day of skiing.

She also includes an amusing episode where she is skiing with two friends, and despite the friendly community, she begins to covet her friends’ skis, boots, bindings and the like. She immediately feels like she needs to buy newer stuff to keep up with them. After all, their legs and buns seem more toned than her own, and maybe if she bought the latest equipment (next year), her own buns would be in better shape. Levine later realizes that maybe this is why the Ten Commandments say that you should not covet your neighbor’s house, servant, ox—or ass.

While not written from a particularly religious perspective, Levine’s book is insightful, with good examples and applications for suburban Christians. She makes more use of the public library and reads books that she already owns but has never gotten around to. She makes healthier meals since she is not buying preprocessed stuff or eating out. Instead of buying a graduation gift for her niece, she gives her a family necklace that had been passed on to her from her mother. Time not spent going to movies means more time free for museums, poetry readings, community events and civic involvement. Levine paid off her $7956.21 credit card bill by June, and at the end of the year calculated that she spent about $8000 less in 2004 than she had in 2003.

Particularly convicting, to me, at least, are the episodes where she realizes that she wants to read the newest books and see the latest movies not necessarily for their content, but simply because they are new. After all, keeping current with the latest media give her social cachet among her friends. This makes me wonder if my own preoccupation with new books (including this one!) is unhealthy. Even if I get them from the library rather than buy them, isn’t that still an act of consumption?

It occurs to me that for Christians, this giving up of consumption is a practice of the spiritual discipline of simplicity. It would be entirely appropriate for Christians to adopt a similar pattern for Lent, or at least ask the tough questions about how much of our consumption is necessary. If a secular Jewish atheist like Levine can give up shopping for a year, then shouldn’t Christians be able to give it up for seven weeks? Hmmm. Maybe next year.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Sprawl: A Compact History, by Robert Bruegmann

I recently read Robert Bruegmann’s book Sprawl: A Compact History, which serves as something of a contrarian voice in all the current literature about suburbia. I’ve already returned it to the library, so I don’t have any cool quotes from it handy, but there’s an interview with the author in a recent issue of U.S. News & World Report.

I found several things helpful in Bruegmann’s book. First of all, many authors, myself included, have assumed that suburban growth patterns are a largely North American phenomenon and that global cities have tended to be more compact and less sprawling. Bruegmann argues that suburban expansion is nothing new or particularly American, and that cities throughout history and around the world exhibit many of the same patterns. Suburban areas around Paris look just like those in the U.S. So suburban sprawl need not be seen as a 20th-century American deviation, but rather as fairly consistent with historical and global norms.

Second, Bruegmann makes the case that suburban growth is not necessarily linked to white flight from urban racial diversity. The conventional wisdom in many circles has been that whites fled urban cores to the suburbs out of racism or fear of diversity, leading to disinvestments in the cities and urban decay, and that suburban growth came as a result of racial fear. Bruegmann points out that the biggest problem with this theory is that suburban growth patterns have been largely the same across the board, whether in cities with low minority populations, like Minneapolis, or those with high minority populations, like Chicago. In other words, suburbanization is a larger phenomenon than alleged white flight, or white flight is just one of many factors and by no means the most significant. Suburbanization takes place regardless of the racial and ethnic makeup of the cities and suburbs concerned.

Third, Bruegmann argues that the places most alleged to be sprawling suburban metropolises, like Tucson and Phoenix and other newer cities in the American south and west, actually have denser population and land-use patterns than many older cities. I suspect that economic forces are at work here; developers and city planners get more bang for the buck in new developments to have more property owners and tenants in their areas. Hence bigger houses on smaller plots of land and compact retail space that clusters more stores in smaller areas, rather than sprawling estates and wide-open suburban spaces. So “suburban sprawl” is not quite as distinct a phenomenon as previously assumed; many suburban areas are actually taking on the civic traits of denser urban communities. I think of this as the suburbanization of cities and the urbanization of suburbs—these are no longer neatly divided categories, but both are morphing as interdependent parts of a metropolitan whole.

I think Bruegmann may be a little too dismissive of the problems inherent to suburban environments, but his contribution is a helpful corrective to other literature that is more unilaterally dismissive of suburbs in general, as if nothing good can come of suburbia. Bruegmann’s take is more neutral than many. Suburbia is what it is, for good and for bad, and Bruegmann’s data will help us avoid making blanket generalizations about suburbia’s flaws.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

I'm a suburban Christian. Are you?

I'm not an early adopter of new technology or gadgetry. My wife and I got a cell phone just a few years ago after we had our first son and thought we might need a phone in case of emergencies. Even so, we only have one cell phone between the two of us, and it's one of those prepaid pay-as-you-go kind, since we don't use it enough to warrant a monthly plan. Our PC is six years old and has a paltry (by today's standards) 4 gigs of memory, we still have dial-up internet service rather than broadband, and we've never subscribed to cable TV.

All this to say that I finally decided to join the blogosphere. It seems like everybody I know has a blog, and I began to wonder if I should have one too. One of the most interesting things to me about the blog world is browsing completely disconnected blogs and reading posts and seeing names of people I recognize from totally different circles. I'm an E on the Myers-Briggs, so I'm fascinated by the idea of connecting and networking with multiple people from various areas of life.

But what to blog on? What's my excuse for blogging? Well, this morning I realized, aha, I have a book being published this summer called The Suburban Christian, and I thought hey, that makes sense. I'll blog about suburban Christianity. That's general enough to work as an umbrella category. I'm a suburban Christian, so my posts will likely reflect the experience of suburban Christianity. Great.

So I click on Blogger's "Get Your Own Blog" link, work through the sign-up process and try "Suburban Christian" for the name of a blog. Sorry, that name is taken. I go to that blog just to see what it's about, and it looks like the blog was just started today. So someone else had the exact same idea as me. If I'd had the idea yesterday, I could have snagged, but I missed out and had to settle for Oh, well. Such is life.

At any rate, I've lived in suburbia for most of my life, and I've spent the last couple of years researching the history and sociology of suburbia. I've come across some interesting stuff on how suburban land-use patterns, commuter culture and the like affect our daily lives, and I'll share some of that here in bits and pieces. I'm interested in how different Christians experience suburbia, and what churches can do to contextualize their ministries in a suburban context. So if you're interested in these same kinds of things, great! I'm glad to have companions on this suburban journey.