Monthly Archives: July 2014

As Volunteerism Explodes In Popularity, Who’s It Helping Most?


Haley Nordine, 19, is spending the entire summer at the Prodesenh center in San Mateo Milpas Altas, Guatemala. The American University student helped build the center's new library.i i

hide captionHaley Nordine, 19, is spending the entire summer at the Prodesenh center in San Mateo Milpas Altas, Guatemala. The American University student helped build the center’s new library.


Carrie Kahn/NPR

Haley Nordine, 19, is spending the entire summer at the Prodesenh center in San Mateo Milpas Altas, Guatemala. The American University student helped build the center's new library.

Haley Nordine, 19, is spending the entire summer at the Prodesenh center in San Mateo Milpas Altas, Guatemala. The American University student helped build the center’s new library.

Carrie Kahn/NPR

As you plan — or even go — on your summer vacation, think about this: More and more Americans are no longer taking a few weeks off to suntan and sight see abroad. Instead they’re working in orphanages, building schools and teaching English.

It’s called volunteer tourism or “volunteerism.” And it’s one of the fastest growing trends in travel today. More than 1.6 million volunteer tourists are spending about $2 billion each year.

But some people who work in the industry are skeptical of volunteerism’s rising popularity. They question whether some trips help young adults pad their resumes or college applications more than they help those in need.

Children learn to cook at Prodesenh, a community center in San Mateo Milpas Altas, Guatemala.i i

hide captionChildren learn to cook at Prodesenh, a community center in San Mateo Milpas Altas, Guatemala.


Carrie Kahn/NPR

Children learn to cook at Prodesenh, a community center in San Mateo Milpas Altas, Guatemala.

Children learn to cook at Prodesenh, a community center in San Mateo Milpas Altas, Guatemala.

Carrie Kahn/NPR

Judith Lopez Lopez, who runs a center for orphans outside Antigua, Guatemala, says she’s grateful for the help that volunteers give.

All visitors and volunteers get a big warm welcome when they walk in the doors of her facility, Prodesenh. It’s part orphanage, part after school program and part community center.

Most of the kids at Prodesenh don’t have parents, Lopez says. They live with relatives. Some were abandoned by their mothers at birth. Others lost their fathers in accidents or to alcoholism.

There are three volunteers here now, all from the U.S. Lopez says they give the kids what they need most: love and encouragement.

One those volunteers is Kyle Winningham, who just graduated from the University of San Francisco with a degree in entrepreneurship. “Yeah my real name is Kyle, but mi apodo aqui es Carlos,” he says.

Winningham didn’t have a job lined up after school. So he decided to spend his summer at Prodesenh. “When the kids have homework, I help with homework,” he says. “When they don’t, I generally help out with teaching a little bit of English.”

But today they are cooking. Lopez hands out bowls filled with bright red tomatoes, onions and mint. She’s teaching the kids to make salsa.

Haley Nordine, an international relations major at American University in the District of Columbia, is also spending her entire summer at Prodesenh. During her first six weeks here, the 19-year-old helped build the newest addition to the center, a small library. Now she’s tutoring.

“I’ve met a lot of international relations majors here so it seems like a trend,” Nordine says.

Most volunteer tourists are women. And they’re young adults, between the ages of 20 and 25, says the industry consulting group Tourism, Research and Marketing, based in Glasbory, Wales. But more and more high school students are also traveling and volunteering.

Sam Daddono is a junior at Rumson Fair Haven High School in New Jersey. His whole Spanish class is in Antigua, sharping up their Spanish skills. But they’re also hiking up the side of a volcano every morning to help tend to a coffee plantation — and learning about what life is like here in Guatemala.

“The way I view things now is a lot different than before,” Daddono says. “I’ve visited other countries, but I’ve never done hands on work or really talked to the people about the problems that they face in their lives.”

That worldview for many American teens is a lot different than it was two decades ago, says Ken Jones, who owns Maximo Nivel, a volunteer tourism company out of Antigua. He got his start in the travel business, offering only Spanish language classes. But young people today, he says, want a richer experience.

“It used to be beach and beer,” Jones says. “And now it’s, ‘Well, I want to come down and learn something and figure out how to help or be a part of something.’ It was more superficial 20 years ago, maybe.”

The industry has exploded in the past few years, says Theresa Higgs, who runs United Planet in Boston. The nonprofit offers what she calls a cultural immersion program.

But Higgs is on the fence about whether the rise in popularity of volunteerism is a good thing. She’s heartened by the altruism of volunteers. But she’s worried about the flood of for-profit organizations bursting onto the scene.

“What I think often gets lost is the host communities,” she says. “Are they gaining? Are they winning? Are they true partners in this? Or are they simply a means to an end to a student’s learning objective, to someone’s desire to have fun on vacation and learn something?” she asks.

Higgs urges travelers to do their homework and research companies, just as you would before giving to a charity or volunteering for any organization.

About a dozen youth from the United Church of Christ from Yarmouth, Maine, are learning how to count to 10 in the Mam language, from an elderly Indigenous woman in Guatemala City. They are volunteering for a week at the nonprofit Safe Passages, which helps children and parents who live and work in the capital’s sprawling garbage dump.

It’s pouring rain outside, but 17-year-old Mary Coyne isn’t bummed. She’s glad she spent her summer vacation here instead of at the beach, she says. “Yeah, I’m not getting a tan and not eating ice cream,” Coyne says. “But it’s something different. It’s like your whole being is satisfied because of experiences like this.”

Best Seat In The House Of Worship: The Temple Hollywood Built


The Wilshire Boulevard Temple (pictured above circa 1939) was  dedicated 85 years ago in 1929. Rabbi Steve Leder says, "This was the Los Angeles Jewish community's statement to itself — and to the majoritarian culture that surrounded it — that: We are here, and we are prepared to be a great cultural and religious and civic force in our community."i i

hide captionThe Wilshire Boulevard Temple (pictured above circa 1939) was dedicated 85 years ago in 1929. Rabbi Steve Leder says, “This was the Los Angeles Jewish community’s statement to itself — and to the majoritarian culture that surrounded it — that: We are here, and we are prepared to be a great cultural and religious and civic force in our community.”


Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

The Wilshire Boulevard Temple (pictured above circa 1939) was  dedicated 85 years ago in 1929. Rabbi Steve Leder says, "This was the Los Angeles Jewish community's statement to itself — and to the majoritarian culture that surrounded it — that: We are here, and we are prepared to be a great cultural and religious and civic force in our community."

The Wilshire Boulevard Temple (pictured above circa 1939) was dedicated 85 years ago in 1929. Rabbi Steve Leder says, “This was the Los Angeles Jewish community’s statement to itself — and to the majoritarian culture that surrounded it — that: We are here, and we are prepared to be a great cultural and religious and civic force in our community.”

Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

There’s an 85-year-old building on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles that has been a venue for the Dalai Lama, the L.A. Philharmonic and even scenes for Entourage and The West Wing. But extracurricular activities aside, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple is a house of worship. Recently refurbished, and given a preservation award by the Los Angeles Conservancy, the temple has a special place in the history of Hollywood.

At the top of the temple's dome are the words of the Hebrew prayer the shema. It reads: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one."i i

hide captionAt the top of the temple’s dome are the words of the Hebrew prayer the shema. It reads: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”


Tom Bonner/Courtesy Wilshire Boulevard Temple

At the top of the temple's dome are the words of the Hebrew prayer the shema. It reads: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one."

At the top of the temple’s dome are the words of the Hebrew prayer the shema. It reads: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”

Tom Bonner/Courtesy Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Rabbi Steve Leder is much too discreet to share the names of his movie-biz congregants, but he will say that some big-time Hollywood studio heads, producers, directors, writers and agents have attended the temple over the years. Some of the congregants who helped build Wilshire Boulevard Temple — which was dedicated in 1929 — were pillars of the movie industry. Their descendants worship here today.

The restored Moorish-style sanctuary — complete with pillars and stained glass — is massive and magnificent.

“It would be one thing if this was in Paris or Rome or Florence or even Manhattan,” Leder says. “But this is Los Angeles. There’s nothing like this in Los Angeles.”

Modeled after Rome’s Pantheon, the Wilshire temple was built by movie moguls — Louis B. Mayer of MGM, Irving Thalberg, MGM’s production head, Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal, and the Warner Brothers. They deployed craftsmen from their studios to adorn the temple.

“They brought in their guys” Leder says. And their “guys” put Hollywood touches on what the rabbi calls this Jewish cathedral.

Imposing marble columns aren’t marble at all — they’re hollow.

“They’re plaster painted and waxed to look like marble,” Leder explains. “So there’s a lot of Hollywood trickery, and it brought together the best of both worlds. It melded the techniques of great religious architecture and the techniques of Hollywood set design.”

Just like most movie theaters — but unlike most sanctuaries — the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, has no center aisle — after all, that's where the best seats are.i i

hide captionJust like most movie theaters — but unlike most sanctuaries — the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, has no center aisle — after all, that’s where the best seats are.


Tom Bonner/Courtesy Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Just like most movie theaters — but unlike most sanctuaries — the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, has no center aisle — after all, that's where the best seats are.

Just like most movie theaters — but unlike most sanctuaries — the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, has no center aisle — after all, that’s where the best seats are.

Tom Bonner/Courtesy Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Unlike most sanctuaries, Wilshire Boulevard Temple has no center aisle. Why?

“Because these guys built movie theaters,” Leder says. “There’s never a center aisle in a movie theater either — it’s where the best seats are. Why would you put an aisle where the best seats are?”

With the money they made from The Jazz Singer — the first talking picture — the Warner Brothers paid for a gleaming mural of Bible scenes, painted by studio artist Hugo Ballin. The synagogue is lavish, with a gilded coffered ceiling, filigreed brass doors and a soaring dome.

“These were Hollywood Jews,” Leder says. “They were theatrical and they were visual. And so they decided, well, that’s all well and good that Jews have been shy and timid about this — we are not.”

The Wilshire Boulevard Temple under construction circa 1928.

hide captionThe Wilshire Boulevard Temple under construction circa 1928.


Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

This is how the interior of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple looked just after it opened, circa 1930.i i

hide captionThis is how the interior of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple looked just after it opened, circa 1930.


Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

This is how the interior of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple looked just after it opened, circa 1930.

This is how the interior of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple looked just after it opened, circa 1930.

Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

They moved their temple — B’nai Brith originally founded in 1862 — and it became Wilshire Boulevard Temple. These Jews originally came from Germany and Eastern Europe. They were raised in Orthodox Jewish households. And in building this temple they were saying: We are assimilated Americans. Their larger-than-life rabbi, Edgar Magnin — who served for almost 70 years — was the driving force of the building, and the Jewish community.

“I sort of describe him as the John Wayne of rabbis,” says Neal Gabler, author of the 1989 book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.

“He felt it was his job to be an ambassador from the Jewish community to the gentile community. Some people called him ‘Cardinal Magnin.'”

Magnin was also known as “Rabbi to the stars.” Over the decades those stars included the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, the Three Stooges and Henry Winkler — “The Fonz.” Magnin was himself a star in Hollywood. He appeared at all the important events and took voice lessons to grab the attention of his congregation. He was a showman, creating an aesthetic theater — a movie palace for religion, but a secularized religion.

“In Hollywood, for many, many, many, many years, the studios were open and operating on Saturday,” Gabler says. “Even though virtually every studio was run by a Jew, that didn’t stop them. There was no day of rest.”

Observant or not, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple moguls were culturally Jewish, and sensitive to world events. By the early 1940s, while Nazism enveloped Europe, Harry Warner felt Hollywood should sound the alarm in films.

The Warner Bros. studio provided the colorful murals that recount the history of Judaism as they stretch across of the walls inside the Wilshire Boulevard Temple's huge, gold-domed sanctuary.i i

hide captionThe Warner Bros. studio provided the colorful murals that recount the history of Judaism as they stretch across of the walls inside the Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s huge, gold-domed sanctuary.


Jae C. Hong/AP

The Warner Bros. studio provided the colorful murals that recount the history of Judaism as they stretch across of the walls inside the Wilshire Boulevard Temple's huge, gold-domed sanctuary.

The Warner Bros. studio provided the colorful murals that recount the history of Judaism as they stretch across of the walls inside the Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s huge, gold-domed sanctuary.

Jae C. Hong/AP

“He was the only mogul that wanted to depict what was happening in Germany,” says Martin Kaplan, who ran a conference on propaganda in World War II Hollywood, at the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear center.

“But the other studios were afraid of losing the German market revenues which were enormous, and so they didn’t want to risk it. And the Roosevelt administration wasn’t happy to see Hollywood being anti-Nazi because they were afraid that it would get the American public to press them to enter World War II.”

All that ended when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Then the Wilshire Boulevard Temple moguls — and the film industry — filled their silver screens with American patriotism. And they prayed for peace in their glorious house of God. It was a house that Hollywood built — an announcement of arrival and ambition, says Rabbi Steve Leder:

“This was the Los Angeles Jewish community’s statement to itself — and to the majoritarian culture that surrounded it — that: We are here, and we are prepared to be a great cultural and religious and civic force in our community.”

Now Wilshire Boulevard Temple is building a family resource center — with free dental and vision care — for their primarily Korean- and Spanish-speaking neighbors. A celebratory ground-breaking party drew temple members from all over L.A. They stood in the bright southern California sun, sipping that beloved old Jewish-American drink: sangria.

Why Are Theater Tickets Cheaper On The West End Than On Broadway?


Matilda is currently being performed on both Broadway in New York, pictured here, and the West End in London. In New York, according to the Broadway League, the average ticket price for all shows just crossed $100 for the first time.i i

hide captionMatilda is currently being performed on both Broadway in New York, pictured here, and the West End in London. In New York, according to the Broadway League, the average ticket price for all shows just crossed $100 for the first time.


Joan Marcus/AP/Boneau/Bryan-Brown

Matilda is currently being performed on both Broadway in New York, pictured here, and the West End in London. In New York, according to the Broadway League, the average ticket price for all shows just crossed $100 for the first time.

Matilda is currently being performed on both Broadway in New York, pictured here, and the West End in London. In New York, according to the Broadway League, the average ticket price for all shows just crossed $100 for the first time.

Joan Marcus/AP/Boneau/Bryan-Brown

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in London and a bunch of kids are standing outside a West End theater, giddily unaware that their parents have just shelled out a lot of money for the experience they’re about to have. A giant sign over their heads shows a silhouette of a girl standing on a swing, her hair flying behind her in the wind — it’s a matinee performance of Matilda.

More than 3,000 miles away on the same Wednesday afternoon, the same scene plays out on Broadway. It’s the same show, with equally excited kids. The difference is that, in London, parent Amanda Mono paid about $60 a ticket, and, in New York, parent Jay Friedman paid $137.

“Should be $137 for four tickets, but it’s not,” Friedman says. “Welcome to New York.”

If you go to see Les Miserables, the giant barricade will spin in London just like it does in New York. In Phantom of the Opera, the chandelier crashes to the ground on the West End just the way it does on Broadway. But according to the Society of London Theatre, the average ticket price for a West End show is about $70. In New York, according to the Broadway League, the average price just crossed $100 for the first time.

The question is, why? Everybody knows London costs more than New York. A sandwich costs more; a house costs more; nearly everything costs more — except theater. So what’s going on?

“There’s a kind of different mentality, I think, to British theater because of the subsidized sector,” says Time Out theater editor Andrzej Lukowski. London has a long tradition of government-subsidized shows. And while these big, West End musicals aren’t subsidized, they have to compete with theaters that are, which helps keep prices low.

On top of that, Lukowski says it costs a lot less to put a show on in London: Weaker unions mean lower salaries for the stagehands and technicians, and the performers tend to make less money too.

“Because it’s a lot cheaper to run a show in the West End than on Broadway, a show doesn’t really need to be as much of a hit to be able to kind of break even, cover its costs, carry on,” Lukowski says. “My understanding of Broadway is a show is either a huge hit or it’s really not.”

Hal Luftig knows that first hand — he’s produced shows in both cities. Right now, he’s trying to bring the Tony Award-winning musical Kinky Boots from New York to London.

“The Brits don’t really advertise on television as much as we do here on Broadway, and television advertising is a big, huge expense,” Luftig says. “That’s one big cost, and another is the construction, the building, of sets. And I think over on the West End in London, they’re [also] doing movies, television and film all at the same time.”

Think of it this way: In the United States, New York does the big theater shows while Los Angeles produces most of the TV and movies. But in London, it’s all in one place. Sets, materials and workers can all be shared, so it’s cheaper.

Then there’s the experience itself. London theatergoer Ben Mono says that in New York, “The theaters are nicer. The theaters are air-conditioned. You get a free program; you get your Playbill. You get looked after; you get shown to your seat. People are polite. Here, if you get the cheaper theater tickets, you’re in theaters that haven’t got air conditioning; the theaters are crumbling. You’re paying restoration levies for theaters which they’re not doing anything about. People are rude. It’s stuffy.”

Luftig says Mono has a point. “Yes, we do have much stronger air conditioning. And there’s been a big, concerted effort over here on Broadway — we do charge a restoration fee and the theaters have been restored. There is some truth to what that gentleman is saying.”

As for the claim that Broadway’s prices make shows inaccessible, Luftig says, “If you really want to go, there are ways to get less expensive tickets.” And even the West End has been raising its prices: “I just bought a theater ticket on the West End — it was 80 pounds. … I do remember the day when you could go and it was 10 pounds.”

At the end of the day, it’s basic economics: Theaters charge what people are willing to pay. In fact, new pricing strategies now let producers charge the most for popular shows on popular days — it can be up to almost $500 to see The Book of Mormon on Broadway.

Still, people keep seeing the shows. In the West End, theatergoing parent Emma Ede says there’s something really special about the theater. “It’s magical, and I think the children get really involved in the show.”

But magic, after all, costs money.

Who’s The Man? Hollywood Heroes Defined Masculinity For Millions


John Wayne — seen here in 1956's The Searchers — was an icon of traditional Hollywood manliness.i i

hide captionJohn Wayne — seen here in 1956’s The Searchers — was an icon of traditional Hollywood manliness.


AP/Warner Bros.

John Wayne — seen here in 1956's The Searchers — was an icon of traditional Hollywood manliness.

John Wayne — seen here in 1956’s The Searchers — was an icon of traditional Hollywood manliness.

AP/Warner Bros.

Tony Curtis used to say that he’d learned how to kiss a girl by watching Cary Grant at the movies. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he wasn’t just sitting behind Grant at the theater — while also noting that he’s hardly alone in taking instruction from films.

Movies have always offered a window through which audiences, sitting in the dark, can observe human nature without being observed. A movie theater is where many a boy learned how to make things right, the way John Wayne did in so many pictures, with fists or a gun. Movies taught about sacrificing for the greater good, as Humphrey Bogart did when he sent Ingrid Bergman off with a “here’s lookin’ at you, kid” in Casablanca. They’re a place to learn about standing firm against injustice (with Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind), and about standing up for yourself (with Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun).

All of which was useful for a nation that thought of itself as a melting pot. For generations, newly arrived immigrants had emerged slowly from their ethnic enclaves in big cities, where things were comfortingly just like the old country. Assimilating was hard.

But film — even back when it was silent — was like an instruction manual for the American experience. For a nickel at the nickelodeon, a foreign fellow fresh off the boat could see exactly how American men dressed, how they greeted each other (with a handshake, not with European kisses on each cheek), and, more generally, how people in his newly adopted country behaved. Admittedly, silent films used a kind of shorthand for American behavior — stereotypes, to allow directors to brush in characters quickly without dialogue: women were almost always domestic, delicate and passive, while men were outgoing, strong and active.

Film’s power of suggestion quickly became so influential — so overwhelming in fact — that some argued it should be curbed. In the 1930s, the film industry created a production code that laid out a set of strict rules for filmmakers, banning drunkenness, sex, revenge plots, all forms of immorality and stating explicitly that no movie should throw audience sympathy to the side of wrongdoing.

You couldn’t do most of Shakespeare under those rules, but you could have strong, manly, family-friendly heroes. Which meant, as the bluenoses intended, that Hollywood, having been told what it could show, was in effect telling audiences what they should be — portraying human behavior (especially male behavior) in idealized, heroic terms that mere mortals might have trouble living up to.

After World War II, the code started fraying around the edges as competition from television cut into Hollywood’s bottom line. What could film offer that TV couldn’t? Well, foreign films had nudity; indie films offered rebellion. The studios wanted a piece of that action, so they stopped restricting filmmakers with the Production Code and started alerting audiences through the ratings we know today.

And as soon as the restrictions were gone, leading men in movies became more like men in real life — not always strong or good or forceful. Dustin Hoffman became a huge star, playing a total slacker in The Graduate. Peter Fonda easy-rode his way across America; Paul Newman and Steve McQueen played antiheroes and got labeled the “Kings of Cool.” John Travolta was that era’s Fred Astaire — all of them recognizable as people, not icons.

All were nuanced, and vulnerable and incapable of being like the men of old Hollywood, because the world had changed too much. Woody Allen demonstrated the change in comically literal terms by conjuring up Bogie to help him man up in Play It Again, Sam.

In a world of modern, nuanced, flawed screen men, superheroes like Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man have taken up the mantle of traditional movie masculinity, says critic Bob Mondello.i i

hide captionIn a world of modern, nuanced, flawed screen men, superheroes like Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man have taken up the mantle of traditional movie masculinity, says critic Bob Mondello.


Industrial Light & Magic

In a world of modern, nuanced, flawed screen men, superheroes like Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man have taken up the mantle of traditional movie masculinity, says critic Bob Mondello.

In a world of modern, nuanced, flawed screen men, superheroes like Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man have taken up the mantle of traditional movie masculinity, says critic Bob Mondello.

Industrial Light & Magic

Testosterone was in full retreat by the 1980s. Movies made for teenagers had teen heroes, not adult males. James Bond started poking fun at the kind of “suave” his predecessors had played straight, and romance devolved from Cary Grant to Hugh Grant — stammering, hesitant, charming in a manner that was utterly without eloquence or confidence.

This led over time to the adult male as overgrown child in Judd Apatow comedies, to dads who turned themselves into Mrs. Doubtfires to rule the roost, to sensitive bad guys, earnest good guys, gay guys who wished they could quit each other, and action heroes like Jason Bourne who literally don’t know who they are. Men, in short, became varied, and human, and unambiguously authentic on-screen.

But audiences still want heroes — and more important, audiences are eager to pay to see heroes. Which means Hollywood needed to find a way for males to be heroic again.

The solution, which turned out to be a multibillion-dollar solution: Make them superheroic. Men of Steel, Men of Iron, men with the webslinging power of spiders and with the claws of wolverines — but more important, each and every one a man who cares.

From John Wayne to Iron Man … not such a stretch, really. They’re icons both, standing tall, fighting for the greater good. And yes, they’re manly in a way that may not be entirely human, or even something most people would want to live up to. But it sure looks great in Cinemascope.

‘Sharknado 2′: Winner And Still Chomp


Kari Wuhrer as Ellen Brody, Courtney Baxter as Mora Brody, and Sandra "Pepa" Denton as a character even the captioners don't know the name of. I'm not sure she had one.i i

hide captionKari Wuhrer as Ellen Brody, Courtney Baxter as Mora Brody, and Sandra “Pepa” Denton as a character even the captioners don’t know the name of. I’m not sure she had one.


Will Hart/Syfy

Kari Wuhrer as Ellen Brody, Courtney Baxter as Mora Brody, and Sandra "Pepa" Denton as a character even the captioners don't know the name of. I'm not sure she had one.

Kari Wuhrer as Ellen Brody, Courtney Baxter as Mora Brody, and Sandra “Pepa” Denton as a character even the captioners don’t know the name of. I’m not sure she had one.

Will Hart/Syfy

I personally was responsible for emotionally bullying at least two of my critic friends into attending the poolside screening of Sharknado 2 that took place at the hotel where press tour happened a couple of weeks ago. I make this confession because we must establish the basic understanding that I am merciless when it comes to attempting to con people into watching extraordinarily silly movies. In fact, I tried, when the first Sharknado was on, to goad the NPR morning news meeting into caring about it (“There’s this movie tonight! It is called Sharknado!”), and nobody fell for it. The next morning after Twitter exploded, I strolled into that meeting, boy howdy, and I said, “Now you see.” And, of course, I reviewed it in full, because that is the job and I undertake it gladly.*

The first and most important principle for today is that there would be absolutely no point in watching Sharknado 2 on Wednesday night in seclusion. That would be like trying to play racketball in space. You need to either gather with friends or take to social media to get the full effect, because if you don’t, you will be distracted somewhere around the subway sequence by a feeling of “What I am I … doing?” On the other hand, provided you remain focused on making it a social occasion, you will be distracted instead by one of your friends asking you, in gleeful setup-punch line form, what you think the sharks are going to do when they get to the baseball game. I will not tell you exactly which of my critic friends did this.** I will also not tell you the punch line he had in mind.***

The good news is that even if you did not see the original Sharknado, you can probably figure out the plot of Sharknado 2. There’s not too much in terms of complex plotting that will confuse you, and thematically, it’s not too hard to figure out that the primary motif is bleeding to death.

The facts in brief: Fin (Ian Ziering) and April (Tara Reid) have become minor celebrities after saving California from the last sharknado, but (spoiler alert) it is possible that they are about to encounter another sharknado … or 2. After an opening set piece that removes a couple of famous CGI’d heads, the situation continues to deteriorate. And despite the fact that most of this happens during the day and is on opposite a Mets game, the NBC coverage is anchored throughout by Matt Lauer and Al Roker, who appear to be working with a skeletal production staff.

Along the way, yes, there’s some biting, and there’s some fighting, and there are appearances by a surprisingly large number of famous people in surprisingly witty cameos. (The best moment of the poolside viewing I attended was when someone commented on Twitter with some bafflement that Judd Hirsch had crashed the Sharknado 2 screening, only to be informed that this happened because Judd Hirsch is in fact in Sharknado 2. If you see a list of cameos ahead of time, do not read it. It’s much better to let them arrive upon your doorstep.)

The best reason to watch Sharknado 2 is that if you gather with enough people, someone will say something outrageous about what’s going to happen next — partly in jest — and it will happen exactly that way. This happened twice with my buddy Alan Sepinwall. He not only predicted the major medical intervention of the film but also called its emotionally climactic beat way ahead of time.

Surprisingly enough, I found that the novelty had not worn off. By which I mean the novelty of watching a movie about weather systems with deadly, bitey, apparently vengeful sharks in them. (They have a taste for blood … and irony.) Sharknado 2 is not a movie, really; it’s an interactive video game called Make The Stupidest Joke First. And because they put the pedal to the metal and go full, screaming, bedazzled monkeypants crazy from beginning to end, it sort of works.

And by “works,” I mean “is terrible and yet, in its way, divine,” and I could tell you more about what that means, but I would ruin the moment where you will get to yell … well, again, I really can’t ruin it for you. I wouldn’t dare.

*Please see all the comments about yesterday’s Bachelorette post for the dissenting view that I should be ashamed. I do not rule it out.

**Erik Adams of The A.V. Club.

***”Eat the Mets! Eat the Mets! Step right up and —”

On Dipping An Introverted Toe In The Comic-Con Ocean


Christopher Petrone, of San Diego, CA, towering over attendees in his handmade, to-scale Chewbacca costume.i i

hide captionChristopher Petrone, of San Diego, CA, towering over attendees in his handmade, to-scale Chewbacca costume.


T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

Christopher Petrone, of San Diego, CA, towering over attendees in his handmade, to-scale Chewbacca costume.

Christopher Petrone, of San Diego, CA, towering over attendees in his handmade, to-scale Chewbacca costume.

T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

The first time I took one of the online Myers-Briggs inventories and it spit out that I was an introvert, one of my friends questioned the results. Specifically, he said, “Are you sure you weren’t holding the test upside-down?”

I wasn’t, though. Crowds challenge me, as do bustling parties, as do chaotically noisy environments, as do spaces I can’t get out of quickly. So I’d pretty much made up my mind that I’d never set foot at San Diego Comic-Con, which scores pretty high on the Writhing Humanity scale. Let me put it this way: Have you ever been right outside a stadium when a truly huge sporting event or a concert let out? Where you’re just getting shoved along, you can’t really go anywhere except as part of a river of humans, and you suddenly realize that if you were viewed from above as part of this gathering, you’d suddenly realize the insignificance of your existence?

Much of the San Diego Convention Center, inside and out, is like that nonstop for about four days.

But this year, we had an opportunity to take Pop Culture Happy Hour to Comic-Con for a panel discussion (thanks to Stephen Thompson’s mother, Maggie, a comics luminary) (Maggie does the “In Memoriam” segment at the Eisner Awards, if you want to evaluate that luminariosity for yourself). It was right at the end of my two-plus weeks at press tour, so I was on the west coast anyway. Why not? (We’ll be posting the audio of the panel as our weekly show this Friday.)

I would love to tell you here that it was not as bad as I feared, that the esprit de corps overwhelmed any anxieties, swept away any discomfort, and made me forget about my sense that if there were a fire, we’d be screwed. I would love to have come home feeling that I’d battled my own bustle-avoidant tendencies as successfully as my buddy Glen Weldon did last year when he wrote a series of Comic-Con diaries that I encourage you to read.

But, perhaps exhausted from press tour, perhaps simply unsuited to it, I freely admit that I was a toe-dipper. Not inclined to endure long lines either for high-profile panels or for the chance to buy stuff, I spent about 15 minutes on the show floor, clinging to the perimeter, before taking my bulging eyeballs right out of there. I did not dive. I waded.

And the first thing I learned — confirmed for myself, really — is that Comic-Con is much, much less weird than a lot of people who don’t attend it make it out to be. I encountered so many contemptuous tweets about it in absentia, so many assumptions that this was, at best, some kind of Weirdo Dude Ranch where, for once, freaks have the opportunity to be among their own. And I’m not saying there’s none of that, particularly if among freaks and weirdos you count those who would wryly attach that label to themselves. It is, quite clearly, a haven.

But I dare you to watch the documentary America’s Parking Lot and conclude that the extreme football fan tailgaters profiled therein — who tend to be tagged as extreme in their enthusiasms but not socially derided — are less weird than the people of Comic-Con.

Let me get this out of the way first: People take a lot of pictures of the costumes, because they’re cool. But most of the folks I saw there taking in panels and shopping on the show floor were not in costume at all. It’s not the Star Wars cantina. It’s more like you’re walking through a crowd of people and most of them look like the people you’d see at the mall, and then suddenly one of them is Wonder Woman. As our own Petra Mayer talked about in her really excellent radio piece this weekend, cosplay is an extremely creative DIY hobby, not much different from anything else you might make yourself just to show people that you made it, just to make it, just to do something interesting. And again, why is it any weirder from putting on face paint at a football game while wearing a player’s jersey?

I did go to a couple of panels while I was there, and here’s how I picked them: I went into the first room that was open. Why? Because most of the things I was extremely familiar with fell into the category of “too much waiting in line,” so I was stuck with the unfamiliar. So why not gamble?

I first wound up in a panel of women who do fan art and fan fiction surrounding the current TV incarnation of Teen Wolf. And you know what they were like? They were a lot like every other panel of geeky young writers I’ve ever seen. They spoke intelligently and thoughtfully about writing and creativity and what they like and don’t like to make art about. They talked about the responsibility they feel when they write about mental illness and thoughtfully chewed over the idea of creating transgender characters to add to what’s sort of a preexisting universe. They rolled their eyes at a video that was circulating in which Teen Wolf actors were placed on the spot and asked to read fan fiction aloud for yuks, shrugging it off as a cheap effort to make actors uncomfortable on camera and get them to dump on their own fans.

What filed into the room next was a jam-packed panel called “IS IT STEAMPUNK?” Now this, costume-wise, is the old-timey, goggle-wearing droid you are looking for. (Yes, I am mixing my everything. Shhhhh.) Roughly defined, steampunk is Victorian-era-ish science fiction (think goggles and gears, as far as the aesthetic), and I had the biggest blown mind of my entire Comic-Con experience when I learned that at least to these steampunk people, the greatest steampunk movie is understood to be … wait for it …

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

I was not prepared for this!

The “Is It Steampunk?” panel included Andrew Fogel of The League Of S.T.E.A.M.; Claire Hummel, who worked on Bioshock Infinite; Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett, who write the adventures of the “steampunk robot” Boilerplate; and Thomas Willeford, who makes steampunk stuff and arrived dressed as Steampunk Iron Man. They basically tried to define what exactly steampunk is — and distinguished it from other faux genres and subgenres including “clockpunk” and “dreampunk” — and then voted on various examples from pop culture as to whether they are steampunk.

The verdict: Back To The Future III is probably steampunk. As is the aforementioned Bioshock Infinite. But not Cowboys And Aliens. Thus began the most interesting discussion of Cowboys And Aliens I have ever heard.

They pretty much acknowledged, you see, that the 2011 film fit the definitions they’d given of steampunk up to that point: It is in fact science fiction of the right era. It has gadgets. It is, to use Willeford’s definition, “an adventure in a speculative past.” (He later acknowledged that despite that sweeping conceptual definition, without gadgets, he doesn’t consider it steampunk.) But they still felt like it wasn’t steampunk. Why? Weeeeell, there are aliens, so it’s alien technology, not man-made technology, and it doesn’t really have the aesthetic, and, hmm, well, you know what it came down to?

They don’t think it’s very good, so they have trouble calling it steampunk.

It was a very interesting little distinction. In a way, this gatekeeping exercise seemed awfully silly to me at first: why does it matter whether a particular movie fits or doesn’t fit the definition? What is the value in fussing over definitions? But this Cowboys And Aliens business was really enlightening. The lines between defining and evaluating are very, very blurry. When are you really classifying according to a neutral and factual definition, and when are you saying … “I don’t like it”?

That’s not a real superhero movie. That’s not a real romantic comedy. That’s not hip-hop. That’s not literary fiction. That’s not fusion. He’s not a movie star. She’s not a critic.

This isn’t pop culture. This isn’t a story.

The point of a steampunk panel — the point of Comic-Con in general — is not only to hang around with other people who like the same things you like. It’s also an opportunity to experience uncut enthusiasm itself. How does it work? How does it operate between groups of people? How does it change the way we approach culture?

Comic-Con isn’t nerd camp, it doesn’t smell, it doesn’t feel sad, nobody seems desperate — it’s just not that weird. If anything, you know what’s weird? What’s weird is me vibrating from anxiety because I can’t see the door. The thing itself is just … an event. It’s just a concentrated blast of engagement with things, with all of its attractive and unattractive aspects, with all of its commercialized and obscure and handmade and mass-marketed tchotchkes. You can look at the guy standing in line for a hotel shuttle with a numbered Comic-Con exclusive Shadow Stormtrooper figure, and you can think, “Nerd.” Or you can think, “That dude loves that movie/franchise/universe so much that he stood in line with several hundred other people for the privilege of buying that, and that is fascinating.”

So yes, it’s still true that it freaks me out. But it’s not the costumes, and it’s not the attitudes, and it’s certainly not the people, who were almost unreasonably lovely (as they must be to survive packed in like sardines, please pause here while I dab my brow and take a sedative). It’s just a lot. It’s a lot. Perhaps more than any other pop culture thing that has ever existed, Comic-Con is … a lot.

Book News: PEN Award Winners Include Poet Frank Bidart, Ron Childress


The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • The winners of the 2014 PEN Literary Awards – more than a dozen prizes honoring writers of various genres — were announced on Wednesday morning, and include Frank Bidart (“a poet of roiling intensity, a poet singularly unafraid of excess”) and James Wolcott (a critic of “panoramic and encyclopedic variety”). Other winners include Ron Childress’ And West Is West, which won the $25,000 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, and Linda Leavell’s Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore, which won the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography. The winner of the biggest prize, the $25,000 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, will be announced at the awards ceremony in September; the finalists are Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Ian Stansel’s Everybody’s Irish, Shawn Vestal’s Godforsaken Idaho, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s Brief Encounters With the Enemy and Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees.
  • Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura was awarded almost $2 million in a defamation suit against the estate of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who wrote the 2012 book American Sniper and who died last year. NPR’s Alan Greenblatt reports: “Kyle wrote that in 2006 he had decked Ventura in a bar in California, after Ventura said that he hated America and that Navy SEALs ‘deserve to lose a few.’ Ventura denied having said any such thing and said the account had hurt his career, as well as his standing among the community of SEALs. Kyle died last year, but Ventura sued his estate.”
  • Amazon said Tuesday that one of its key goals in its ongoing dispute with publisher Hachette Book Group is lower e-book prices. For months, Amazon has delayed shipments and removed pre-order buttons for some Hachette titles as a negotiating tactic. In a post, the online retailer wrote that it hopes to persuade the publisher to price most e-books to $9.99 (many are currently priced at $12.99 or $14.99) and that it would be willing to continue receiving 30 percent of digital book revenue. Amazon wrote: “With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out-of-stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market — e-books cannot be resold as used books.” Amazon said that according to its research, cheaper e-books would sell more copies and ultimately raise revenue. The company added that it also hopes Hachette will share a bigger portion of digital book revenue with authors, “but ultimately that is not our call.” Hachette did not respond to request for comment.
  • Sen. Rand Paul will come out with a book in 2015, he told Louisville’s Courier-Journal newspaper. The Kentucky Republican said that much of the book “is about policy and about my approach to a variety of issues, and maybe the uniqueness of that approach.” He also said that the timing — right before the presidential election — was “just coincidence, probably just coincidence, yeah.”
  • Tiphanie Yanique talks about her novel Land of Love and Drowning, Caribbean literature and the legacy of Jean Rhys in an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books: “There’s a long, unfortunate tradition in literature set in the Caribbean, written by Americans or Europeans, of crazy women. Either women from the Caribbean are crazy, or women go to the Caribbean and end up crazy.”

Pop-Up Books Make Environmental Science Easy-Peasy For Kids


Why is the rainforest so popular?i i

Why is the rainforest so popular?

For the average school kid, weighty, wonky topics like conservation, climate change and the circular economy might sound off-putting, if not downright dull. Yet Christiane Dorion has sold millions of children’s books about these very concepts.

The trick? She never mentions them. “You can teach anything to children if you pitch it at the right level and use the right words,” said the U.K.-based author.

Dorion distills hefty environmental concepts into bite-sized, kid-friendly explanations. Along the way, whimsical pop-up spreads — complete with pull-tabs, flaps and booklets ­­— engage even the shortest attention spans. Her books, written for 7- to 12-year-olds, tackle a variety of environmental and earth science topics, like how the weather works and how we make and discard everyday products from T-shirts to cheeseburgers.

Christiane Dorion's latest children's book, How Animals Live, is shortlisted for the Royal Society 2014 Young People's Book.i i

hide captionChristiane Dorion’s latest children’s book, How Animals Live, is shortlisted for the Royal Society 2014 Young People’s Book.

Christiane Dorion's latest children's book, How Animals Live, is shortlisted for the Royal Society 2014 Young People's Book.

Christiane Dorion’s latest children’s book, How Animals Live, is shortlisted for the Royal Society 2014 Young People’s Book.

How the World Works

The rich content keeps Dorion from sounding preachy. “If you answer children’s questions and inspire them, you don’t need to tell them … what action they need to take,” she said.

Dorion’s latest book, How Animals Live — shortlisted for the prestigious Royal Society 2014 Young People’s Book Prize — looks at how animals have adapted to life all over the planet. Each pop-up spread opens with a question: “What’s in a grassland apart from grass? What makes the rainforest so popular?”

Unlike many kids’ books about animals that describe species individually, Dorion’s books portray habitats as interdependent systems. For example, the rain forest spread shows how bacteria make soil from animal droppings, which also help disperse seeds.

Kids “get” that habitats are living systems right away, Dorion said. Whenever she asks students which animals live in cities, they respond, “Us!”

“They see the links,” she said. “They’re so logical.”

Raised outside Quebec, Dorion grew frustrated when she couldn’t find engaging classroom books while coordinating the World Wildlife Federation’s primary education program. She mentioned to a fellow mother at her son’s school that she was thinking of writing a pop-up book on the water cycle. Turns out that mother was the chief executive of Templar Publishing, which published Dorion’s first book, How the World Works, in 2011 — followed by three more.

Dorion’s ideas often come from children at literary festivals who tell her what to write next. She collaborates with an illustrator, Beverly Young, who specifies a word limit — sometimes as few as 40 words for one topic — which helps Dorion keep her explanations simple and focus on the most interesting tidbits from her research.

But Dorion refuses to oversimplify concepts. She recalled as a child struggling to understand how clouds could be made of water vapor, since many of her schoolbooks compared them to cotton wool. In her own books, she boldly tackles natural selection, plate tectonics and other complex scientific concepts.

Scheduled to hit bookshelves in October, Dorion’s fifth book, How the World Began, opens with the Big Bang and fast-forwards to the evolution of life and human civilization, all the way to the present day.

The author swells with optimism for the next generation. She hopes to inspire children to “do something to protect the world,” she said.

Maybe it’s time to add kids’ books to the climate change agenda.

An Unconventional Family On The Road To Happiness In ‘Lucky Us’


Lucky Us

Amy Bloom’s new novel Lucky Us takes readers across America in the 1940s, that special decade of wartime dislocation and post-war disruption — with side-trips to England and Germany — in the company of a pair of half-sisters as endearing and comically annoying as any you’ll find in contemporary fiction.

Iris is the older teenager, daughter of the narrator’s remarried father. She’s focused on the idea of becoming an actress. Eva, the narrator of most of the book, is the younger one. She reads biographies of Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale, and remarks that “even in the books written for little girls, you could tell these women were so tough they’d take a bullet out of you with a fork and not blink.” Eva is a toughie in training. She focuses on everything in the slightly off-kilter journey she and her sister make on the road to happiness: the people, the clothes, the food, the nasty turns and the wonderful.

Bloom does the same. Witness her cameo portrait of a gay Hollywood hairdresser named Diego who looks “like everyone’s Mexican grandfather” and thinks of himself as an artist: “He’d been putting makeup on beautiful women and pretty girls and some very attractive men for thirty years. He’d done the deep-red Cupid’s bow lips, the delicate pink flush, the Betty Boop eyes, and narrow, penciled-on eyebrows one hair thick, and then the full slick brows and Maybelline lashes and the big, raspberry eat-me-now mouth … He’d met Max Factor … He had made a sweet stick of a farmgirl into an Egyptian princess and watched her glide onto the set, knowing she now knew who she was.”

Iris has a conman’s, or an actor’s, ability to counterfeit personalities — early in her Midwestern life she was a fixture at contests, “[trouncing] the Italian girls with ‘Musetta’s Waltz’ at Casa Italia in Galesburg, where she also won in a walk for ‘Why I am Proud to Be an American’ at Temple Beth Israel, reciting as Iris Katz.” It doesn’t take all that long for her to find herself a couple of rungs up on the Hollywood success ladder — only to fall in love with another actress, who escorts her to a lesbian orgy, with starlet upon starlet lighting up the sky — and the couches. When a Hollywood photographer catches them skinny-dipping together, Iris’s lover betrays her to the blue-nosed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and in an amoral trade-off gets herself pardoned for her frisky business. Meanwhile, poor Iris is banished from the movies for sexual misconduct.

So then it’s good-bye Hollywood, as the sisters travel east, with Diego the hairdresser in tow, to Brooklyn and Long Island. They regroup around their father, who learns how to become a butler. Iris steals away a soldier’s wife, then the sisters steal away an orphan from a local institution and raise him as their own. The details remain as goofy as they sound. But when the man with the stolen wife returns home from the war, we find ourselves witnessing quite unexpected and wonderful results in the realm of family building.

With a deeply ingratiating comic insouciance in her sentences and an ever-expanding notion of what makes a loving family, Eva tells the story of the decade of her education and her flowering into womanhood with an endearing fusion of toughness and tenderness all its own. Eva — she’d take a bullet out of you with a fork and not blink. Lucky us!