Archive for August, 2003

Swimming Pool

I haven’t written about a movie in a while, so I thought I’d try to get back in the habit. S. and I finally made it out to Sandy Springs’ terrific new Madstone Theater, a renovated multiplex that devotes several screens to art house and revival films (it also has a nice, if overpriced, wine and beer selection). On a second visit, I’m still very impressed.

After enjoying a tasty pizza at Fellini’s Pizza (George apparently likes their pizza, too), S. and I went to Madstone to see François Ozon’s Swimming Pool, starring Charlotte Rampling as Sarah Morton, a British mystery writer who faces writers’ block and burn-out, while seeing her status declining when her publisher introduces her to “The Next Big Writer.” Sarah’s casual dismissal of a fan’s recognition on the tube indicates that she is bored with writing formulaic mystery novels.

In order to regain her momentum as a writer, Sarah borrows her publisher’s French villa, which takes on an aura of tranquility through the use of a primarily yellow and brown pallette, and through the empty cafes and stores Sarah visits, casually passing her afternoons. Soon after Sarah’s arrival, her privacy is disrupted when Julie, the publisher’s enigmatic daughter, shows up unexpected. Julie is loud, boisterous, messy, and sexually active; her presence disrupts Sarah’s writing, emphasized visually through the swimming pool where Julie spends her days, swimming topless or nude, often directly in Sarah’s line of vision. Sarah gradually becomes fascinated by the mysterious younger woman, exploring her diary and picking up a discarded piece of Julie’s clothing. She even starts a file named “Julie,” indicating that her writing has taken a new turn. There is a hint of sexual desire between the two women, especially when they compete for the interests of Frank, a local waiter, but this tension is complicated by a secret the two women ultimately share.

Swimming Pool then takes a turn (which I will not explain) that most reviewers have aptly described as Hitchcockian. For several reasons, I found this narrative twist somewhat clunky and gratuitous, especially given the pay-off at the very end of the film, when we learn a little more about Julie.

In interviews, Ozon has commented that in Swimming Pool, “I’m actually talking about myself, my own creative method. I wanted to show how I work,” and the film is very much about the creative process as we watch Sarah carefully observing Julie, often from long-distances, with Julie in the foreground, and Sarah in the distance, often in the safety of her balcony. The film itself is quite slippery; it’s beautifully stylish and uses the French countryside to illustrate Sarah’s early tranquility before transforming to accomodate Julie’s disruptive presence. I’m not sure I have a clear take on the film–I certainly enjoy stylish post-Hitchcockian thrillers, particularly when they play with constructions of identity in somewhat complicated ways. But Swimming Pool also felt a little sloppy in places, especially in the film’s conclusion, which resolved things a little too neatly for my tastes.

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Busted Redux

After the initial shock of seeing my English assignment creating a mini-stir in the blogosphere, I’ve recovered nicely. Class discussion actually went pretty well, and somewhat by accident, we were able to discuss the question of unexpected audiences on the Internet. Most of the bloggers who came across our class blog were very supportive of or even excited about using blogs to teach writing and critical thinking, but I still feel a bit like I’m under a microscope–I’m having a difficult time composing this entry, which usually means that my reaction hasn’t fully been resolved.

I think part of my difficulty stems from my awareness that I now have some unexpected audiences. That points to one of the potential risks assocaited with blogging, articulated very effectively in this comment by George as part of a larger discussion (debate?) about a proposed private discussion of professors who have public blogs that students might (or, in my case, almost certainly read). There’s a great discussion of public vs. private identities, and I’m not quite sure how I feel. Like George, I don’t consciously create a persona when I blog:

I don’t use an (explicit) mask when I post, although as the identity thread makes clear, we’re all aware of the performative, mask-like elements that blogging entails.

My contact information is also available on my blog. I’ve probably been a little less candid about certain aspects of my personal life, but I’m sure that an attentive reader could figure out quite a bit about me (my politics? my interests? my background?) by reading between the lines. Still, I think that careful attention to audience is a vital part of good writing, and while I’m happy to have conversations about student-teacher relationships in a semi-public space where my students might be reading (hi, students), I think that conversation would take on a much different tone in a more private space where I’m with colleagues who share similar concerns (often having to do with employment issues). There are many potentially interesting conversations (including the current one about power relations) about this topic, but the decision to have a private conversation about personal blogs and teacher-stuent interactions is far from elitist. After all, there are many important conversations that students (probably) have about college that don’t and shouldn’t include me. That doesn’t make my students elitist; they’re entitled to some measure of privacy in coping with the challenges of college.

Still, I’ve learned quite a bit from keeping a blog, and I enjoy seeing my audience grow and change, but that consciousness of an audience may have an effect on what I say, on the self that I perform when I’m writing in this space and in my course blog.

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Another Time

I just noticed that one of the professors at Crooked Timber is teaching a freshman course at Brown University on time travel, which is pretty cool, and particularly intesresting for me, since I wrote my dissertation on time travel films. It looks like Brian Weatherson is taking a much different approach to the topic, in that he seems more concerned about the philosophical problems of time travel, but he does highlight some key problems, including the issue of “consistency:”

The ones that make sense on a ‘one-dimensional’ view never have it the case that at a particular time something both is and isn’t the case. They don’t require that the direction of causation always goes from past to future, that would stop them from being time travel stories after all, but they require that there be a single complete and coherent story that can be told of the history of the world. Some philosophers are known to reserve the label ‘consistent’ for these stories, but that’s probably a bit harsh

He also captures the difficulty I’ve often had in trying to use the correct verb tense when writing about time travel narratives, and ultimately builds to an interesting reading of Back to the Future that effectively captures the film’s wild metaphysical logic: the “new 1985 Marty,” created when the “original Marty” travels back in time and his parents “become” successful doesn’t “remember” growing up in a wealthy home. Still, as Brian points out, the film still seems to work, in my opinion because the viewer is more or less sutured in to Marty’s experience–because we see everything through the eyes of “original Marty,” we more or less accept his experience of the world. In essence, the film simply glosses the “two-body” problem because we never actually meet the “new 1985 Marty.” I’m trying to think of time-travel films that might break with representing time through the subjective time of a time traveler, and the only example that comes to mind is the incredible Sticky Fingers of Time.

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Apparently, people read their referral logs a little more carefully than I do becuase several bloggers have noticed my links to them for the rhetorical analysis assignment I gave my students:

Comments so far:

  • Oliver Willis:“An English course at Georgia Tech is studying blogs as part of the curriculum. I’m one of the “famous blogs” being studied. We are soooooo screwed.”
  • Right Wing News: There’s something very satisfying about being considered a “famous blogger”. Of course, it’s not as cool as actually being studied in class…
  • Rachel Lucas:Your kindly professor is clearly a brilliant and wise man (okay, I left the end of that quotation out, but thought that was a nice bit).

Okay, I wasn’t really expecting to get this much attention when I linked to these other folks’ blogs, and so I’m feeling a bit on my heels right now, but I really did find each one of the blogs I’ve linked compelling in some way, and I think their reactions to my assignment actually point to the complexity of the medium–it’s not a simple, static thing, and audiences change and shift depending on the people you link. I do recognize that people might be a little uncomfortable with being the object of analysis, and looking back, I would have constructed this assignment much differently.

It looks like everyone at least took being part of this project with some degree of humor, but right now I feel like one of “those academics” that you see in David Lodge books. I’ll have more to say about my accidental notoriety later when I’ve had two more cups of coffee.

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How Cool Is It….

…to learn that one of your favorite musicians has a blog? Just learned from George that Will Oldham, er Bonny “Prince” Billy, has a “tour diary,” which looks suspiciously like a blog. BPB gave one of the best concerts I’ve seen, when he played at the Highdive in Champaign, IL.

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Matters of Gravity

Leafing through a copy of Wired today, I noticed that Scott Bukatman, author of Terminal Identity, has a new book, Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the Twentieth Century, focusing on how special effects help to work through the threats posed by the emergence of new technologies, with an emphasis on how these effects are realized within urban space through musical films and superhero comics. I don’t have many details available, other than a brief Amazon review, but Terminal Identity was very good.

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Outsourcing Education

The New York Times is calling attention to a situation most academics have known for a long time–squeezed university budgets (free subscription required) are weakening the university system. The article focuses primarily on students facing cuts in course offerings that make it more difficult to graduate in a reasonable time. The University of Illinois, for example, has been forced to cut over a thousand classes while the University of California has been forced to delay the opening of an entire campus. With a booming population of college-eligible students, combined with budget cuts as high as 10%, this problem will only be exacerbated in the years to come. The article makes some solid criticisms against how the budget cuts will affect students, who provide one of the more powerful leverage points available in enacting any kind of change in university practice. After all, according to the current logic, however illogical it might be, students who are paying higher tuition but aren’t getting into the classes they need essentially represent dissatified customers.

Students and administrators, such as Robert Shelton, provost of UNC-Chapel Hill, have claimed that these cuts have damaged “the educational experience.” This shouldn’t diminsh the hard work and increased efforts of thousands of academic laborers who strive to create the best courses possible, often with tremendous limitations of large classes and small budgets.

But the Times article glosses one of the major problems of the university in the early twenty-first century: its intimate ties to what Richard Ohmann calls a post-Fordist logic of “flexible accumulation,” in which universities are managed like for-profit companies. According to Times reporter, Greg Winter,

For their part, universities are scrambling to keep valued faculty members. Confronted with bigger class loads, less time for research, fewer administrative aides, less money for graduate assistants and salary freezes, tenured professors are vowing to leave — and occasionally making good on their threats.

“It still looks good from the road but, oh Lord, there’s a lot of suffering inside,” said Chris Hart, a spokesman for the University System of Maryland, which has been struggling to retain faculty. “Professors are saying, `You can’t support my research, so I’m taking it elsewhere.’ ”

Their departure, or even their increased teaching time, can have a domino effect, college officials say, because universities are so heavily dependent on the research grants professors secure from industry and government.

“It is a tremendous cash cow,” said Fred J. Antczak, associate dean for academic programs at the University of Iowa, noting that the university takes in $350 million in research money each year. “If we start getting hurt on those figures, I don’t know how we stay solvent.”

While I’m well aware that the modern research university was built on the funding support of monopoly capitalism (Carnegie, Ford, Mellon, etc), this “need to turn faculty research into revenue” (Ohmann xxiv), the attempts to run univeristies like corporations with “flexible labor,” is something that will only damage the mission of higher eductaion in the long run. I’m not looking for a return to some “Golden Age” of higher education (after all that so-called golden age often excluded women and people of color), but I do think that outlining these vulnerabilities, such as taking these student complaints seriously, and looking at university budgets in relationship to this year’s tax subsidies that overwhelmingly favor the wealthiest people in the US, might help to score a few points.

I’ve just started Ohmann’s new book, The Politics of Knowledge, but so far, I’m finding many of his arguments quite convincing. It’s a great place to start for thinking about the current academic labor market and the privatization of the university in these “interesting times.”

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Forgetting Atlanta

In his comment to my post on “Remembering Atlanta,” George reflects that many residents probably think the changes along Ponce are for the best. It may be that in some cases, it’s better to “forget Atlanta” than it is to use dilapidated old buildings to “remember it.”

In the meantime, I’ve noticed another Creative Loafing article mentioning a new book, The Crackers: Early Days of Atlanta Baseball, devoted to detailing the history of Atlanta baseball before the Braves (note: link may disappear). The Crackers were Atlanta’s minor league baseball team, and they played in Ponce de Leon Ball Park, situated directly across from what is now City Hall East. “Old Poncey” was demolished in 1965 and is now a strip mall with a Borders Bookstore and Whole Foods grocery store, but stands as one of the more eccentric ballparks in memory because of the giant magnolia tree that grew in the middle of center field. Reviewer Tray Butler mourns Atlanta’s tendency to bulldoze over its historical landmarks, but I have few complaints. Whole Foods is a great grocery store, and quite frankly, it’s a pretty nice Borders.

I wonder if other cities have such ambivalent feelings about remembering and forgetting, or if this is something more prominent in Atlanta because of its history of destruction and rebuilding.

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Blogs in the Classroom

I just finished my first week of teaching here at Georgia Tech, and not surprisingly, I’m pretty exhausted. I always forget how much energy preparing for and teaching three classes requires. As promised, I’ve linked to my course blog (with student links in the blogroll). Perceptive readers will note that I stole the title for my course from George, who borrowed it from Samuel Richardson.

So far, most of my students have expressed some enthusiasm despite this week’s technological nightmares (viruses everywhere, server problems, that sort of thing), but this is my first experience using blogs in a writing course, so I’m not quite sure what to expect. Several of my students, some of whom have written in blogs or participated in bulletin boards seem to be pretty enthusiastic.

In my case, blogging will account for about 25% of the grade, with that grade divided between quantitative and qualitative (a reflective portfolio) measures. I’ll set up a link to the course syllabus once I have it online (hopefully next week).

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Remembering Atlanta

I’ve been reading with interest George’s blogs about his trip to Atlanta (and not just because I appear as a major character). I was especially intrigued by his reflection on the transformations of Atlanta since he left during the “graduate school disapora” because I grew up just outside of Atlanta, and I’ve seen my hometown change considerably in the last few years (my old high school, for example, has been converted into loft apartments–no I don’t really miss it).

George vividly describes the gradual disappearance of Ponce de Leon Avenue’s “sleazy elegance” for something more generic, more commercial, less grungy. This erasure of its own history is something that Atlanta has faced for some time now. George mentions, for example, the recent sale of the Clermont Hotel and Lounge, Atlanta’s “ironic” strip club (rumor has it that the hotel might be transformed into loft apartments). Atlanta has also seen the closing of Pilgreen’s Restaurant, a landmark family restaurant and the closing and potential demolition of Paschal’s Motor Hotel and Restaurant, a prominent loction during the Civil Rights Movement. All of these questions are emerging at a moment in history when several prominent politicians, Maynard Jackson, Lester Maddox, and Ivan Allen, Jr. (for whom Georgia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts is named and who was also one of the first southern white mayors to openly support the Civil Rights Movement), have recently passed away, raising the question of how they will be remembered, and as this list implies, Atlanta’s memory is very much tied to the multiple histories of race and economy, Civil Rights and urban development.

These questions of remembering the past are important to me, and they seem intimately tied to place. Like George, who has fond memories of meals at the Majestic Diner and slices at Fellini’s Pizza, I don’t want to see parts of the old Atlanta go, and these places seem to face being crowded out by the gentrification of these older neighborhoods. I’ve never been to several of these landmarks (the Majestic, Paschal’s, or the Clermont, for example), but like Felicia Feaster, the author of the Creative Loafing article cited above, I can’t help but feel a sense of mourning for these lost and disappearing places, all of which hold onto some important trace of Atlanta’s past, whether personal or public (or both).

In a way, this seems a fitting way for me to revisit the identity thread one last time as well as George’s call for a distributed writing project on growing up in (and returning to) the south. I’m struggling to bring my thoughts on this topic to any form of closure (I’ve been typing and deleting for some time now), and perhaps that makes sense, since I’m still here, or back here, making new memories, creating my experience and memory of Atlanta anew. Perhaps my reflections on Atlanta’s sense of history and its attempt to “remember” itself point more toward the multiple Atlantas that are being invented, remembered, and forgotten every day.

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Another Baghdad Blogger

I just learned that Salam Pax’s friend, Riverbend, a frequent guest blogger on “Dear Raed,” now has a blog. Pretty cool. She has a very strong critical voice, and it’s very interesting to read her in conjunction with S.P. and other voices that are emerging from Iraq. She’s very critical, for example, of Paul Bremer’s attempt to spin the terrorist attack on the UN Headquarters. For a much different interprtation check out Chris Allbritton’s reading. His observations about the new tactics of focusing on “soft targets” is scary indeed:

Instead of directly attacking American troops, who will almost always outgun the guerillas, attacks on infrastructures such as pipelines, water mains and other soft facilities like the U.N. headquarters will force the Americans to respond and tie them down, shifting the troops into a defensive posture. This will mean a loss of initiative and a degradation of offensive capabilities.

Thus, the U.S. faces a difficult choice. Stratfor says that if the U.S. brings in reinforcements from an already over-stretched military, that will degrade its capabilities around the world, opening up new opportunities for Al Qa’ida. The terror group is effectively a liquid, filling in holes and gaps as they appear. On the other hand, if the U.S. stands its ground in Iraq and maintains its current strength, it’s stuck with the status quo, which is obviously untenable. Iraqis and Americans will die in attrition attacks and what good that might have come from the toppling of Saddam Hussein will be undone.

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Gender Genie

I’m on my way to teach, so I can’t give this entry the attention it deserves (maybe I’ll come back later), but I just wanted to point out The Gender Genie, which uses an algorithm to determine the author of a text. I tried with two different entries, my “Movie Star” entry and my “Truth and Blogging” entry. Based on the algorithm, the first entry was determined to have been authored by a man, the second by a woman. It seems somewhat significant that the “theoretical” entry would be read as masculine, the “personal” entry as feminine. I’d also wonder what it means that I’m submitting blog entries and not emails or journal articles or whatever. Or maybe I’m just in touch with my feminine side.

New observation: I tried a couple of more entries (“Film Geeks” was written by a male, “Small Town Campaigning” by a female) and learned that the algorithm has been right only about 40% of the time (oops!). What gender do you write like?

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Instant Messaging Killed the Movie Star

I’m still waking up, so I’m not quite ready to respond to the increasingly rich identity thread that has been winding its way across the Wordherders community and beyond. I’ll come back to that later. I promise.

But for now, I just want to talk about a new way in which digital technology is affecting the economics of Hollywood. According to the Independent, word on the Hollywood street is that instant messaging is responsible for the box office failure of several high-concept duds, including The Hulk , Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, and Terminator 3, all of which saw their grosses drop more quickly than past summer duds.

The folks who get paid to analyze such things don’t blame declining quality for the financial failures of these films; after all, Hollywood makes bad films all the time. Instead, they blame instant messaging teenagers who often alert their friends about poor quality films, sometimes while still in the theater. I think these claims are overstated, and I’m sure that film producers will find new ways to overcome these losses, but it looks like, for the “big” films at least, the first week is everything.

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Film Geeks of the World Unite!

In Sunday’s New York Times (subscription required), Elvis Mitchell argues that DVD players have profoundly altered the way that consumers, er audiences, view films. Mitchell argues that DVD players are transforming the more quotidian film fans into “film geeks.” I’m tempted to agree with his argument. After all, I’ve been a fan of directors’ commentaries ever since I started viewing films in the DVD format in Agust 2000 (soon after I moved to Champaign, Illinois). I’m also well aware of the tendency toward “letterboxing,” the practice of presenting films on DVD in their original rectangular aspect ratio, rather than the “squared off” television format. Even certain television shows, such as 24 use rectangular aspect ratios in order to establish their artsy cred. So, yeah, it seems reasonable that DVDs are part of this process.

I’m not entirely sure, however, that DVDs are the only–or even the most important–cause. Mitchell’s article takes a rather short view of recent cinematic history, ignoring the whole “film geek” tradition associated with the “New Hollywood” auteurs of the 1970s–Altman, Scorsese, and Coppola among them whose use of pastiche seems to imply an aleady existent “database aesthetic” (Manovich’s term). Scorsese’s update of The Searchers in Taxi Driver is just one example of this practice.

I realize that DVDs might be seen as an expansion of this film geek culture, but the cult followings associated with these directors, with Hong Kong action films, with the European art cinema (all of which manifest themselves in Quentin Tarantino’s films) all antecede the existence of DVDs. At the same time, a nation of film geeks hasn’t prevented the production of some really crappy (and, yes, “really crappy” is a legitimate evaluative term in film theory) high-concept films.

I do think that DVDs are an incredible tool for teaching film–you can use chapter stops to replay certain scenes, you can freeze on a single “frame” without a significant loss of quality, and you can learn a lot from directors’ commentaries, but I think the difference–in this context–is more in degree than in kind. At the same time, chapter stops and directors’ commentaries cause certain things to be lost–specifically the unimpeded flow of film frames through a projector at 24 frames per second. It’s one of the reasons why David Lynch resists both chapter stops and commentaries on the DVD releases of his films (as Mitchell points out).

Perhaps more significantly, DVDs reproduce an ideology of mastery over the film text; our access to the director’s thoughts about his or her film have the potential to limit how viewers think about a film. These commentaries most notably work against resistant readings that might challenge the authority of the director as responsible for the content of the film. This new state of things isn’t quite a return to the auteurism of the film theory of the 1960s and 70s; it’s something quite different. Rather than seeing the auteur as an oppositional figure, one who challenges the limits of the studio system, of generic conventions, of “Hollywood” ideology, the author’s vision becomes yet another commodity.

I do think that DVDs and other contemporary viewing technologies result in new ways of thinking about cinematic time, as in the German film, Funny Games, where one of the film’s villains prolongs his sadistic domination of a vacationing family by picking up the family’s remote and rewinding the film in order to undo the death of his partner in crime (full disclosure: I think it’s a VCR remote, but the same logic applies, roughly speaking). The presence of bifurcating narratives (such as the cycle of alternate-reality films around the year 2000) seems to reinforce this point.

I’m not sure I’m right about this. Have other film fans found their viewing practices significantly altered by DVD players? To what extent is the production of film geeks relevant to cinematic production?

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Where’d My Summer Go?!

Classes start Monday here at Georgia Tech, and I can’t believe how quickly summer has dissapeared. I’m excited about meeting my students, and once I’m finished tinkering, I think my courses, primarily on blogging and rhetoric (but also focusing on questions pertaining to digitization and memory), should be lots of fun.

I’m still fascinated by the thread on blogs and memoirs/autobiography, especially the attempts to complicate the need for factual truth in a memoir and Dave’s self-conscious reflection on the language of memoirs.

But what I really need to find are some good examples of narrative blogs that might function as memoirs, or at least trouble these catgories somewhat. Obviously, Salam Pax is a good example, and I’ll likely add a couple of soldier blogs (pro-war, anti-war, and ambivalent, if possible), just for a different perspective, but I’m also seeking out other writers who are conscious of their blogs as narratives of their personal lives. Any suggestions?

Still, I feel like the summer should just be starting.

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