Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Lost Luggage Graveyard/Sale

The BBC reports on the final resting place of Hoggle, from Jim Henson's legendary fantasy film, Labyrinth (1986). Turns out he got lost in air transit and then, once found, was never claimed by his Muppet owner(s). Hoggle now lies in the museum of Alabama's Unclaimed Baggage Center (UBC), the bizarrest of bazaars: a warehouse where the contents of lost and unclaimed baggage are up for sale to thousands of discriminating buyers and junk collectors. One can only hope that lost toiletries aren't also included on the UBC's sales racks.

It is the warehouse of the lost and never found, the final destination of airline luggage that goes missing in the US and is never reclaimed.

A Tibetan trumpet, shotgun, snare drum and model
The centre's collection of goods often throws up surprises

The building is situated on the edge of the sleepy town of Scottsboro in Alabama.

It does not seem like the kind of place that would attract a million visitors a year, but bargain hunters from around the world converge on the centre every day, eager to see what treasures the Unclaimed Baggage Center has uncovered.

It is a company that buys all the lost and unclaimed luggage from airlines across the US and then sells on everything from clothes to expensive jewellery at discount prices.

"When they come in, we always tell people to plan a few hours to go on their treasure hunt," says Brenda Cantrell, the centre's marketing manager.

"Dig through it, have fun with it, you never know what you might find."

Sight unseen

The luggage is only sold to the Unclaimed Baggage Center once 90 days have passed, and the owners have not been traced.

Racks of clothes at the Unclaimed Baggage Center
Worldwide 30m pieces of luggage went missing last year

They receive it, sight unseen, and then unpack, sort and display the items inside the warehouse that is the size of a city block.

For the most part that means clothes, rows and rows of them, but it also means some very unusual and valuable items, sometimes sewn into the linings of cases or hidden in crates.

"We had a 19th Century full suit of armour, an underwater camera from Nasa, Egyptian artefacts and props from movies," says Brenda as she proudly stands next to a display case that holds a puppet from the Jim Henson film, Labyrinth.

He was discovered staring out at the staff in a packing case back in the 1980s. His name is Hoggle and he now resides in the centre's museum along with a set of bagpipes, and ancient maps of Afghanistan.

Over the years, shoppers have made their own special finds.

One woman discovered $1,000 (£500) hidden in the lining of a case she bought for pocket change, while another found out that the glass vase she had bought as a trinket was actually worth a small fortune.

Hoggle is not for sale
"I was here Friday, Saturday, yesterday and today and I'll probably come back tomorrow," says Abby Gentry-Benson, who is festooned with diamonds, silver and gold jewellery all purchased at the Unclaimed Baggage Center.

Abby, who describes herself as a Chanel No. 5 girl, has been coming to the warehouse for more than 30 years and bought most of her jewellery for around half-price.

Her entire collection is worth a great deal, and she feels no guilt that many of the items were possibly heirlooms or precious keepsakes.

"Most of the pieces that people have lost, they got the insurance money from and have bought something to replace it. Somebody like me that loves it and cherishes it every day, it's got a good home you know."

Finders keepers

Over in the sporting goods and electronics section there are piles of mobile phones, ever popular iPods, golf clubs, a ukulele (with one string), and even a shotgun that was misplaced by one careless owner.

A selection of watches at the Unclaimed Baggage Center
The chance of securing a bargain is a big draw

Steve Mare and his mother-in-law have flown all the way from Texas just to visit the warehouse.

"Both of us had heard about it for years and we wanted to come and see what bargains we could find," says Steve, who is looking for a new suitcase.

The Unclaimed Baggage Center started down the road in a shack, when the founder began the business by buying lost luggage from the Greyhound Bus Company.

In those days things were literally thrown onto a table and people sorted through, in search of a bargain.

But now the centre is one of Alabama's top tourist destinations proving that "finders keepers, losers weepers" is a big attraction for those in search of a new suit of clothes or a suit of armour.

Ethics of Facebook

Reihan Salam's article on Slate, "The Facebook Commandments," offers up a mirthful helping of social networking dos and don'ts.

On declining an unwanted friend request:
"Assuming there will be no social fallout, just ignore it. They probably won't notice, particularly if we're dealing with a promiscuous friender. (You know, the kind of person who thinks, 'I need to break 700 friends so I can rid myself of my crippling sense of shame.' Trust me, it won't work.)"

On discreet de-friending:
"[W]hat if your so-called friend scans through their friend list and notices that you've gone missing? First off, anyone who is policing their Facebook account this rigorously is morbidly obsessed and thus best kept at arm's length. If she confronts you about it, the best strategy is to plead ignorance: Perhaps the site's massive growth has led to some unexpected technical difficulties? Re-friend, then wait at least six months before trying another de-friending."

On having the right number of friends:
"While college kids can get away with huge numbers of friends, the geezers among us should be a little more selective. And by 'geezers,' I mean everyone born before Ronald Reagan's first inauguration. A group of 150 Facebook friends, right around Dunbar's maximum network size, will let you feel comfortable about broadcasting your status, whether it's 'Reihan Salam is triumphantly pumping his fists' or 'Reihan Salam is slowly dying of dengue fever.'"

In a related story, the BBC reports on the massive amount of time wasted on Facebook by office employees. Apparently, 233 million hours are lost each month in the UK thanks to online social networking. Note, of course, that the study from which this figure is cited was conducted by one Peninsula, an "employment law firm." Wonder who they're representing.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Troll 2: If She Wants Me, Yeah

Today's dose of hilarity comes courtesy of Beta-Unit Productions' mock trailer for one of the worst movies ever made: Troll 2 (1990). The trailer casts this D-grade horror flick as a droll family comedy, à la Little Miss Sunshine. I think you'll find the tone of this video -- from the opening "dramatic" montage to the lighthearted turn in soundtrack with Belle & Sebastian's "If She Wants Me" -- is executed with great aplomb.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Nishikawas in History

My friend Exequiel "Che" Lopresti recently e-mailed me with this "fun fact": "Did you know that the biggest Japanese 'Ace' of WW2 (you know, top-gun fighter pilot) last name was Nishikawa?" I had not known this -- in fact, I know very little of my Japanese ancestry. I'm a sansei, or third-generation Japanese American. Though most sansei are close enough in age to their grandparents (issei) to retrieve knowledge about Japan and their family from them, mine passed away long before I was born (my father, a nisei, was born, in Honolulu, in 1927). So, I was left asking, Who was this pilot Nishikawa? Where was he from? Did he, in a fateful moment of irony, participate in the Pearl Harbor attack? Where does his body lie now? And how did my Argentine friend Exequiel hear about him?

I of course sought answers to all these questions on -- my first source of all information, broad and obscure. Without any first name to go by, I simply typed "Nishikawa" into the Search panel. I came up with the following "hits," the great Nishikawas in history:

Takanori Nishikawa (b. 1970), Japanese singer and actor. He performs as T.M.Revolution, or TMR, which is supposed to stand for "Takanori Makes Revolution." Takanori is a major figure in J-pop, or electronic-syrupy-teenage-love-style Japanese pop. Here's what he looks like:

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Are those hints of Liberace I see on his poofed-out shirt? Maybe it's more Maxwell Demon from Velvet Goldmine. At any rate, there's Takanori for you, in all his glittering glory.

Heren Nishikawa (b. 1946), Japanese actress and TV celebrity. I can't make heads or tails of the English-language Wikipedia entry on Heren, so I'll quote liberally from the entry, as of today's date:

"Though the American runs in her blood, Heren has no native English."

"She is well-known as the wife of Kiyoshi Nishikawa, one of the splendid entertainer of owarai and manzai." [Oddly, there's no English-language entry on Kiyoshi.]

"Heren was born in Kyoto on the 6th October, 1946. She hasn't revealed her father yet, and after the marriage, she is referring her first name was derived from Helen Keller, her father admired."

"In 1963, Heren's stage debut as a dancer in Yoshimoto Kogyo was held. Her purity and eagerness was beloved and immediately became one of the leading actresses in Yoshimoto New Comedy with the stage name "Heren Sugimoto.'"

"In Japan we have the tendency to regard women with her child and without her child as different social status. Heren still has the actorship or presentership on the TV program mainly oriented to housewives or aged girls." [In these last two quotations, "purity" and "oriented" were actually hyperlinked in the original.]

Given the pluck and circumstance narrative of her rise to fame, her unusual namesake backstory, and her current appeal to "housewives or aged girls," I'm thinking Heren is Japan's answer to Oprah Winfrey. Any help here?

Lane Nishikawa (b. ?), American actor, filmmaker, playwright, performance artist -- and fellow native of O'ahu, Hawaii, to boot. Here's a still of Lane from his most recent, award-winning independent film, Only the Brave:

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Most of Lane's work focuses on Asian American history, culture, and identity. Only the Brave is the third movie in a trilogy about "the unparalleled courage of the Nisei soldiers who voluntarily fought in World War II while many of their families were imprisoned in internment camps back in the States."

This guy seems really interesting. He grew up in San Francisco, attended at San Francisco State, and created his own degree in interdisciplinary studies to reflect his interests in theater, Asian American history, and political activism. He's even an accomplished poet who once performed in front of 3,000 inmates in San Quentin. A distant uncle, perhaps? I should look him up the next time I'm in the Bay Area.

Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671-1750), "often called simply 'Sukenobu,' was a Japanese printmaker from Kyoto. He was unusual for a ukiyo-e in being based in the imperial capital of Kyoto. He did prints of actors, but gained note for his works concerning women. His Hyakunin joro shinasadame (Appreciating 100 women), in two volumes published in 1723, depicted women of all classes, from the empress to prostitutes, and received favorable results." Here's one of Sukenobu's beautiful prints, titled The Doll Ceremony:

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I have to say I'm drawn to Sukenobu's decision to represent women of all classes in his print series. What lies behind his fascination with the courtly and the "base"? Styles of dress and spaces of intimacy? The differential hierarchy of social strata, on the one hand, and the gestural equivalence of feminine form on the other?


After all was said and done, I didn't end up finding the elusive fighter pilot "Nishikawa" on Wikipedia. Perhaps he hasn't made it onto the English-language site yet. Maybe Exequiel encountered a typo in a historical footnote.

Whatever the case may be, I'd like to think Exequiel had it wrong -- that Nishikawas tend to be lovers, not fighters; artists and dreamers rather than kamikaze pilots. That's the genealogy I'm hoping to inhabit myself.

[For the late Itsuko "Sue" Nishikawa, benefactor, church leader, and infinitely generous soul. She was my aunt by marriage and is fondly remembered.]

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Love and Loss with iTunes Shuffle

Most of you know by now that I'm living without cable for the first time in my life since college. And unlike my experience at Dartmouth -- God knows what I spent my time doing there -- the fact of not having any television outlet whatsoever weighed heavily on me earlier this summer as I struggled to deal with the fact that I couldn't watch my Premiership football, my random, lazy-afternoon MTV eye candy, and C-SPAN's coverage of colorful characters like Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV).

The truth of the matter, though, is that I got used to not having cable rather quickly because I learned to focus my media hunger on the Internet and on iTunes. This blog and its featured ramblings on sundry topics are proof positive of the former. As for the latter, I need only direct you to my user profile at the website I've advanced my music literacy by picking up on the tastes of friends, both "real" and virtual, and by borrowing CDs from two Durham institutions, my friends Sara and Samiha. Emily also was a huge help with her gran mixto of music which she sent to me via post from Seattle.

At any rate, my digital music archive has swelled to over 7,000 songs (thank you, external hard drive!) because of these efforts, and I've spent most of my time at home and in cafes listening to my iTunes... like, constantly. And when I'm not listening to my iTunes at home or in cafes? I'm working out at the gym, listening to my iPod Nano.

Having listened to so much music -- from so many different genres, and of varying quality, too -- over the past three months, and having tried my hand at creating playlists for others on my own, I've realized a deep, abiding truth about the human condition: modern music is invariably about love or loss or, quite frequently, an admixture of the two. That's it: love loss, loss love, the loss of love, the love one realizes in loss, and so on. Variations on these themes are infinite, of course, and I'd venture the claim that there's something about the modern human ear that demands a certain fidelity to love and loss.

A method of testing this hypothesis came upon me quite unexpectedly this afternoon as I sat in Durham's Broad Street Cafe working on a paper on my laptop. I had switched the "Shuffle" function on in my iTunes so that the program would select random songs from my archive to play. I listened to several songs in succession until I heard the unforgettable opening guitar riff to the Smashing Pumpkins' ballad "By Starlight." The song brought me back to my adolescence and conjured the ghost of my first love: an older girl named Elena who, among other things, introduced me to the Pumpkins and, not coincidentally, gave me my first kiss. The memories came flooding back into my consciousness, and I was so overwhelmed that I needed to find the lyrics to this song online so that I could not only hear but read the poetry of my feelings:

By starlight I'll kiss you
And promise to be your one and only
I'll make you feel happy
And leave you to be lost in mine

And where will we go, what will we do?
Soon, said I, we'll know

Dead eyes, are you just like me?
Cause her eyes were as vacant as the seas
Dead eyes, are you just like me?

And all along, we knew we'd carry on
Just to belong

By starlight I know you
As lovely as a wish granted true
My life has been empty, my life has been untrue
And does she really know who I really am?
Does she really know me at last

Dead eyes, are you just like me?
Cause her eyes were as vacant as the seas
Dead eyes, are you just like me?

I've been advancing the theory that the Pumpkins' masterful double-album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995) constituted the (not unwelcome but properly mournful and in search of a "new" sound) death of grunge for years. "By Starlight," then, is the pitch-perfect, mid-'90s admixture of love and loss. Billy Corgan's haunting, nasally voice is a cagey foil to the lover's "speech" (his coos, his sweet nothings), and the chorus -- "Dead eyes, are you just like me?" -- serves up a deliciously morbid lament to/of love.

After hearing "By Starlight," I was in the mood for something a bit more uplifting -- after all, I was trying to work on a paper here and didn't need the image of Elena dancing around in my head. Well, wouldn't you know it? As if it had read my thoughts exactly, iTunes Shuffle somehow managed to select Marvin Gaye's 1964 hit "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)" as the next song. I couldn't have chosen a more sugary-sweet and tonally uplifting song from my collection to follow up "By Starlight." Here's a reminder; we've all heard this before:

How sweet it is to be loved by you
How sweet it is to be loved by you

I needed the shelter of someone's arms and there you were
I needed someone to understand my ups and downs
and there you were
With sweet love and devotion
deeply touching my emotion
I want to stop and thank you baby
I just want to stop and thank you baby

How sweet it is to be loved by you
How sweet it is to be loved by you

I close my eyes at night,
wondering where would I be without you in my life
Everything I did was just a bore,
everywhere I went it seems I'd been there before
But you brightened up for me all of my days
With a love so sweet in so many ways
I want to stop and thank you baby
I want to stop and thank you baby

How sweet it is to be loved by you
How sweet it is to be loved by you

You were better to me than I've been to myself
For me, there's you and there ain't nobody else
I want to stop and thank you baby
I just want to stop and thank you baby

Was there ever a case when this song didn't bring a smile to somebody's face? It's irresistible! How'd my iTunes know?

Well, I'm not sure it "knew" anything except in following some randomizing algorithmic pattern. Still, the experience was touching, not only because both songs were about love but also because the first, about a certain lovelornness, had been tonally tempered by the second, about joyful, ecstatic love, seemingly by chance. And more: the first reminded me of Elena while the second (I haven't mentioned this yet) reminded me of happier moments with someone I had spent time with at the end of the summer here in Durham. But -- the final, fatal twist -- but I instantly realized that this second "love" was something that in fact didn't exist anymore -- I had come to experience it as a loss only recently. And so the randomized movement goes: while I was tonally sailing along from starlight to sweetness, I was affectively drawn from fond memory to a sunken heart.

I'm left, then, now, and leave you, with this:

sickly sweet
a heart in the wrong
a longing for better times

Monday, September 10, 2007

"Killing Me Won't Bring Back Your Goddamn Honey"

Recommended by Ryan over at American Stranger, some unintentional comedy courtesy of the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man. The director and screenwriter, Neil LaBute, who also directed the impressive In the Company of Men (1997) and the droll Nurse Betty (2000), gets it oh-so-wrong here. Stick with the blunt observations on contemporary American masculinity, Neil!

To be fair, though, he's working with Mr. Ghost Rider himself, Nicolas Cage. Is is just me or is this guy becoming a parody of himself the more he bags leading, "action-packed" roles? Oh, Nick, can't you go back to being lowly Ben Sanderson from Leaving Las Vegas (1995)? Hmmm... probably not, considering National Treasure III: Breaking the Bank is on the horizon.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

We've Got More Maps

Maps For Us is lighting up the Internet with hilarious contributions to the education of our country's map-deprived children. The site was started in response to Miss South Carolina's jumbled call for "education... such as... for the children" at last week's Miss Teen USA pageant. The video for that insightful analysis can be found in an earlier post, We Need More Maps.

Anyone can submit a map for the editors' consideration, it seems. The current postings range from the esoteric (Neo-Copernican Map of Chronological Cosmology) to the practical (Map of Coffeeshops in Amsterdam), from the highs (Map of the U.S.S. Voyager Flight Path) to the lows (Map to Booty Call -- Birmingham, MI). Here are some of my favorites from the ever-growing bunch.

Map of Africa (Or Maybe South America) Made of Dirty Laundry on Mattress
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Map of Asshat Neighbor's Place and His Eleven Cars
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Map of Chong's Buffet
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Map of Escape Plan in Case of Zombie Attack
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Map of the Board Game Clue
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Map of the U.S. Uterus
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Engels Leren?

Many years ago, when I was still in college, my friend and hallmate Jon Arbeit sent me this now-classic clip of a banned Dutch commercial. I'm feeling in a particularly nostalgic mood today, so I'm posting it here for your viewing enjoyment.

More on the rap duo that created the single "Fuk U in the Ass": The Outhere Brothers.