Archive for December, 2003

2003 MLA Round-Up

I’m nearly recovered from my adventures on the left coast just in time to start thinking about spring semester in specific detail. The temporal dislocation associated with air travel and the self-indulgence of dining out are still taking their toll (and of course I’ll be attending a New Years party tonight).

First, the food was wonderful. I ate lots of seafood, and especially enjoyed all the yummy sushi I ate. Probably my favorite was a roll with salmon and thinly-sliced lemon on the outside (unfortunately I can’t remember the restaurant). Good stuff, though.

Despite all of the usual professional requirements that come with MLA, I enjoyed catching up with old friends and had a chance to meet several bloggers for the first time, including Steven Shaviro and Kathleen Fitzpatrick.

It was the first time I’d met someone I knew only through blogging, and while I didn’t feel terribly self-conscious about it, especially after George’s positive experiences meeting other bloggers and my own experiences (at least once, quite positive) meeting people through online dating services, I did feel a certain degree of nervous anticipation. I think George is right when he says that

sometimes the richest exchanges are the ones that happen face-to-face, and those are the very exchanges that are absent from the epistolary record. And so it is with blogging.

I also had the good fortune of meeting up with several old friends from my recent (and not-so-recent) gigs at Georgia State, Purdue, Illinois, and Georgia Tech. It’s nice to see the progress that many of my friends and colleagues have made over the years, and I look forward to continuing those conversations in future MLA conferences, if not in the blogosphere.

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Back in the A-T-L

Just returned from the MLA conference in San Diego where I had a great time catching up with old friends and meeting several of the people whose blogs I read. Right now, after a long flight, I’m very tired, so I’ll save the details for later. Possible continued light blogging as I begin gearing up for spring semester (which starts one week from today at Georgia Tech).

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Sounds, Images, and Words

A few things I’ve been listening to, watching, and reading in recent days:

  • Something’s Gotta Give: A much better, more nuanced film than the previews indicate. The film makes the older male-younger female romance appear rather absurd, and the scene of Jack stumbling onto Diane Keaton’s character naked is taken out of context in the preview (he’s just met her that morning and is shielding his eyes out of embarassment, not distaste). The film isn’t perfect–it more or less drops Frances McDormand’s women’s studies professor–but it actually does as much to challenge the Michael Douglas Syndrome as any mainstream film I’ve seen recently.
  • The Cooler: I was somewhat dissapointed in this film, and I’m not sure why. The cast was enjoyable all around, but I think the Vegas film genre may be overdone at this point. Something about the romance between William H. Macy and Maria Bello didn’t really work for me, but I don’t want to give anything away for people who haven’t seen the film.
  • Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head: I’m always about a year or two behind everyone else when it comes to music. I’m trying to get better. Really.
  • The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow: Not sure how long this CD has been out, but it has recently been on heavy rotation on Georgia State University’s radio station, and I’ve really enjoyed listening to it.
  • Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, Film Theory and Criticism: A good introduction to film theory and criticism, both historical and recent. I’ve been reviewing the 5th edition (which came out in 1998) to think about how I’d teach a film theory course. I’d likely supplement their anthology with some essays on digital media (Manovich) and some material by Dziga Vertov, but overall, I like the anthology quite a bit.
  • What I’d like to be reading: Chuck Palahniuk, Diary.

I’d also like to address the ongoing discussion between “Winston” and the Wordherders (who as George illustrates are far from a group of “incestuous Marxists“), in part because I feel like the issues that have been raised (regarding conversations between conservative and liberal and/or leftist academics) are important and deserve my full attention, but MLA is a more pressing concern right now.

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MLA Blogger Meetup

Like George (and lots of other folks–too busy packing for permalinks), I’ll be attending the MLA conference in (hopefully) sunny San Diego, and I’d enjoy meeting up with fellow bloggers. Other than having a blog, I’m hopelessly stuck in the early 1990s–I still don’t have a cell phone. I will be staying at the San Diego Marriott Hotel and Marina if you want to contact me. I should also have email access at charles dot tryon at lcc dot gatech dot edu.

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Dirty Trackback Tricks

Like everyone else, I’ve received my share of comment spam, most of which gets zapped by the MT blacklist, but tonight I noticed that I’ve been getting trackback spam, calling card companies that have been linking to my site for no apparent reason.

I assume this helps their page rank in some way, which annoys me just a little. I also can’t figure out where on their page they’ve linked to my site. Is there anything I can do to short circuit what they’re doing, just because I don’t really want some calling card company to profit off linking to my blog?

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Marxist Literary Critics Are Stealing Our Jobs!

Via George, I came across Winston’s Diary, a blog by “a job seeking graduate student [of literature] who will remain anonymous until tenured, rejected, or so sick of academia that I leave it.” Winston, as George points out, discusses his concern about the “dreaded Theory question” at MLA interviews, implying that this question essentially amounts to a subtle way of determining a candidate’s political leanings. Winston then notes that his conservative tastes will prevent him from getting a job:

According to “the rules,” potential employers aren’t supposed to be able to ask you about your politics. But, given the highly politicized nature of theory, how can the theory question not constitute a question about politics? If I start talking about I. A. Richards’s influence on my work, I reveal myself as a literary conservative. And if I talk about A. C. Bradley’s influence on my reading of Shakespeare, I think that makes me a literary paleo-conservative. Whereas if I mention Foucault, or Said, or Derrida, I’m a fellow traveler.

Leaving asied the fact that hundreds of capable job candidates (with a variety of political leanings) will not get jobs this year because of tight market, Winston’s arguments seem to follow a familiar, recognizable pattern that tends to simplify what English professors do in a remarkably politicized way. Reducing Foucault, Derrida, and Said to political equivalents neglects some of the political differences between these thinkers (yes, I know that Said was inflenced by Foucault, but there are certainly differences).

Winston’s entry on the MLA program also engages in some of the same scare tactics. He carefully selects three panels (out of several hundred) in order to illustrate his claim that MLA has become too politicized. Winston’s major point is that none of these panels appear to be about literature or language, which is, of course, a major assumption given paper titles such as “Writing the Self: Reading United States Imperialism” and “Merely Reading: Cultural Criticism as Erasure of Labor” (my emphasis), which both appear to have at least something to do with language. Don’t they?

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What to Get Your Media Mogul for Christmas

Everyone’s favorite right-wing propaganda machine just got a little bigger and a little more powerful. The FCC approved NewsCorp’s takeover of DirecTV in a $6.6 billion dollar deal:

The Federal Communications Commission said News Corp. must agree to arbitration to solve disputes with companies that carry its broadcast and cable channels, such as cable companies and other satellite providers. And News Corp. must treat all stations equally, not tilt in favor of its Fox broadcasting network and cable stations such as FX.

As usual, the vote split along party lines, with Michael Copps dissenting because the deal would reduce competition not enhance it and Jonatahn Adelstein voting against the deal because DirecTV would not be required to provide local channels in every market. This is too obvious for even the snarkiest comment.

Via Oliver Willis.

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Oops: Google Overkill

The unelectable meme is having some unintended conseqeunces.

Update: Problem solved. Earlier today George’s “unelectable” entry outranked the GW Bush bio, but now things look about right.

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Memory and Forgetting

I’m in a rush right now, but I wanted to store these ideas. Anne writes about the relationships between human memory and machine memory, referring to Nietzsche’s discussion of “active forgetting.”

In the New York Times, artist Eric Fischl discusses the attempts to design a memorial at the World Trade Center site. He refers to his own mourning for a friend who died on September 11 and a sculpture he created that was briefly displayed at the Rockefeller Center. Fischl comments that

We need to learn how to tell the story of 9/11. After all, a memorial should be more than a marker at a grave site. It should be a narrative. Imagine if the Gettysburg battlefield were a sound and light show, or if the Alamo were a park with reflecting ponds instead of the remains of the old structure. Narratives help keep the meaning and significance of great historical events vital. They inspire us in their retelling. They reinforce our resolve.

I don’t have the connection I’d want to make in mind. Maybe the connection isn’t really there and I simply wanted to remind myself to return to these two interesting texts.

Update: Fabio’s post (which Anne references and I just glanced at) looks really interesting. More later.

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Tru Calling Again

I’m still enjoying Tru Calling, the Fox show about a medical student who takes an internship at a morgue and discovers that she is able to repeat the same day over again in order to prevent murders or accidental deaths from taking place. My original interest in the show grew out of my work on representations of time travel in popular culture.

The show is still captivating me, enough that I may want to write about it for a conference paper or journal article (or, obviously, The Book). Not quite sure what I want to do with the show just yet. The fascination with death, especially the death and rebirth of young (usually under 30) people is obviously a major part of the show, and that’s probably one of the areas I’d want to address. Of course almost all time travel focuses broadly on “second chances,” on being able to correct past mistakes and thus produce a “problem-free” existence, but Tru Calling seems to complicate that desire, at least a little–to the extent that Tru lives in one temporality and all of her friends and family live in another.

More importantly, for my work, I want to think about how television might treat time travel in ways that are unlike film. Is there something about the medium of TV that produces different kins of time-travel narratives? Is there something about the seriality of TV that lends itself more or less readily to these kinds of narratives?

The other question I’ve been entertaining: Tru Calling consistently, and often very subtly, makes reference to other time-travel or time-fantasy texts. This might be a coincidence, but both Tru and Phil Conners (the weatherman who repeats the same day endlessly in Groundhog Day) use a waiter in a restaurant dropping a tray full of dishes to convince friends that they are repeating the same day. There are a few other references (I’m blanking right now), but I’ve been quite impressed with this aspect of the show as well.

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Movies About Teaching

After watching the infrequently seen Blue Car last night and with the Julia Roberts vehicle, Mona Lisa Smile (MLS), coming soon to several hundred theaters near you, I’ve been thinking a lot about “classroom movies,” films that focus on the teaching profession in some way. I haven’t seen MLS, and likely won’t (Julia Roberts’ presence in the film negates any enthusiasm I’d have for seeing Maggie Gyllenhaal), but essentially MLS focuses on Roberts’ teacher coming to an all-girls school in the 1950s and encouraging her students to challenge social norms. Essentially, it’s Dead Poets Society with women (at least that would be the pitch; the relationship between the films is certainly more complicated). It’s cool that these films celebrate learning the humanities, and not just as an end, but as a means for questioning socially expected roles (marriage and family in the case of MLS), but quite honestly, I really don’t like these kinds of films, or how they characterize the classroom experience. I can’t quite pin down why. It could be the star personas of Robin Williams (who plays in another feel-good classroom film, Good Will Hunting) and Julia Roberts. It could be that the films limit how our profession is understood, or what becomes identified with good teaching (having your students stand on a desk or kick soccer balls while reciting Romantic poetry). I’m honestly not sure.

I do have some mixed feelings about Blue Car in that it seems to repeat (Oleanna, Educating Rita, Surviving Desire, the utterly pretentious Storytelling) another version of a limited range of narratives about teacher-student relationships, especially male teacher-female student relationships. To be fair, Blue Car is the only example I can recall where the film is told by a feamle writer-director, explicitly through the eyes of the student. I actually do like several of these films (especially Rita, which is actually a very complicated film), so hopefully I don’t sound too dismissive here. I know this abuse of power is an important topic, and I also know that films need some form of tension, but I am troubled by the limitations on how our profession is represented. So, I’ll turn the floor over to you, my readers.

Which films about teaching do you like? Which ones do you loathe? Why?

If I get some comments, I’ll tell you my favorites….

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Blue Car

I just watched the compelling coming-of-age film, Blue Car(IMDB), written and directed by Karen Moncreiff.

Blue Car focuses on Meg (Agnes Bruckner), a reflective high school student facing a difficult family life of divorced parents, a mother who has a lousy job and leaves Meg to care for her younger sister. Meg finds some release from these difficulties while taking a creative writing course with Mr. Auster (David Strathairn), a charismatic teacher who begins to show an interest in her work, siezing upon her memories of her father leaving her mother which she associates with the image of a blue car in her writing. He offers Meg encouraging feedback, telling her to “dig deeper.”

Viewers see quickly that Auster is drawn to Meg’s vulnerability, and he begins creating situations in which the two can be alone together, building an intimacy between them. Auster pushes Meg to enter a national poetry contest, creating a situation in which they can share lunch alone in his classroom in order for her to work on her poetry. He gives her a ride home from school when she misses the bus. He leaves chocolate wrapped to look like a blue car. He reads a section of his novel that we later learn he cribbed from Rilke (I didn’t recognize the lines), but for most of the film, Auster avoids acting on his sexual impulses (in this sense, the film uses Strathairn’s restrained persona very effectively).

But the film is more than a cautionary story about predatory teachers who take advantage of emotionally vulnerable students. Instead, the film seems to address the complexities of growing up under difficult circumstances, and her teacher’s behavior is just one of many crises Meg faces over the course of the film. In general, this is a solid, serious film that deserves a much wider audience, and it left me wanting to discuss it, and the questions it raised, with others who have seen it.

By the way, Miramax’s marketing of this film was rather disappointing. Rather than portray the film’s themes effectively, Miramax chose to use a lurid cover showing a teen girl from the neck down wearing a Lolita-type outfit (unlike anything Meg ever wore in the film) with a soundbite comparing the film to American Beauty. Instead of marketing the film on its many strengths, they go for cheap thrills. I actually resisted the film for several weeks because of this cheap packaging.

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Captured Saddam Action Figure

He’s like GI Joe, but with an “Ace of Spades” t-shirt… In what must be an action-figure speed record, has put a “captured Saddam” action figure for sale. I don’t have much else to add here, but the accessories designed to “embarass your action figure” (sold separately, naturally), a little pink dress and an S and M outfit are just strange.

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Mysterious Object at Noon

I just watched the fascinating experimental Thai film, Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Weerasethakul, who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, based the film’s structure on the Surrealist concept of “the exquisite corpse,” which weez described a few weeks ago.

In the film version, Weerasethakul asked Thai townspeople (usually people living in the country with little knowledge of film) to tell part of a story during three years in the late 1990s. The basic situation involves a disabled boy and a teacher who visits him daily in his house because he is unable to travel to school. She leaves the room for a moment and then doesn’t return, worrying the young boy. The narrators often struggle to add to the story. Sometimes they backtrack, filling in missing details and making connections with Thailand’s past. Others enthusiastically plunge the story forward, adding magical or unexpected details, many of which the director re-creates with amateur actors.

Because Mysterious focuses on these stories, the film is essentially about the filmmaking process itself. Mysterious is a low- (more like no-) budget film, using an amateur crew and cheap film stock and cameras, and in fact, the camera actually broke irreparably during the film’s final shot (which, for some reason reminded me of Wim Wenders’ The State of Things). The film also takes a subtle shift towards the end as the director’s own interests and tastes change, making the film, at least in part, a documentary about the filmmaker himself.

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SMS Ruins Suspense Films

A few months ago, I linked to an Independent article reporting that movie executives were blaming instant messaging for the poor box office grosses of summer blockbusters. Essentially the executives were insisting that Hollywood has always made crappy blockbuster films, but now, because information travels so quickly (via IM, cell phones), today’s crazy kids are warning their friends to avoid schlocky films. Thus the colossal tanking of The Hulk (Ang Lee sounded like a good idea at the time) and the Charlie’s Angels sequel (this film never sounded like a good idea to me).

Looking back, I may have been giving the executives too much credit. This kind of desperate spin usually comes from someone trying to save his or her job. I do think it obvious that information travels more quickly now, and that it will effect how movies are marketed, distributed, and eventually made, which I think will continue to emphasize bigger and bigger opening weeks….

But while I was reading The Desi Flavor this afternoon, I came across another effect of SMS (short message servicing, for techno-lites like me) on film spectatorship: apparently, veiwers of Bollywood films are spoiling the suspense by SMSing the endings to their friends and colleagues. The Times of India has the story (which you probably shouldn’t read if you’re planning to watch Kal Ho Naa Ho). But the SMS trend has affected several popular Bollywood films:

The trend, of course, started with the suspense-thriller Gupt, where fans got a strange kick out of revealing the name of the killer. That was followed by the romantic triangle Deewana Mastana, where senders were keen to let others know who bags the heroine in the end. The craze really grew with Sanjay Gupta’s Kaante, where SMSs flew thick and fast about who the traitor was. luckily, it worked in favour of the film because there were rumours that the producers themselves were sending conflicting messages to create more confusion.

Not sure I have much to add here, but I’m intrigued by this confrontation between film and SMS, and this confrontation seems especially profound in Bollywood films that tend to be longer, often with melodramatic plots.

Then again, just imagine if your friend had “messaged” you the twist in The Crying Game

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