Archive for December, 2003

Prescient Student Analysis

This week’s Guardian has an article, which asserts that “we are all nerds now,” and notes the shift from Revenge of the Nerds encouraging viewers to embrace their inner nerd to the current celebration of “nerdiness” in American Splendor and the concluding film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

One of my student groups here at Georgia Tech in their group blog on “college movies” made a similar point several weeks ago, especially in Ayyad’s discussion of Nerds being very much a film of the 1980s. Of course, as my students point out, at a university like Georgia Tech, almost everyone has learned to embrace his or her “inner nerd.”

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Google Bombs

I agree with George, Jesse, Daniel, and Kieran. This guy is unelectable. Totally unelectable. Completely unelectable. Unbelievably unelectable. Unelectable on so many levels.

The Google Game is alive and well.

Note: Just in case, I changed the title slightly to avoid the uninetnded effect George experienced of becoming the number one Google hit.

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I just rented the documentary film, Cinemania (IMDB), which is about a group of intense New York cinephiles who spend their entire days watching countless films in various theaters around the city.

Their interest in film borders on pathology, with the cinephiles refusing careers or what might be called a “normal life” (on character even cultivates a high-fiber diet in order to avoid worrying about having to miss scenes from films because of an untimely visit to the bathroom), but the cinephiles are not treated with condescension. As the filmmakers themselves comment:

What interested us about these people was the degree to which their love of film has seemed to eclipse all other concerns in their lives.

What makes the film work is the filmmakers’ generosity towards their subjects and the unabashed honesty of the subjects themselves.

All of the cinephiles have their idiosyncracies: one cinephile, who graduated with honors from Berkeley, identifies himself as a philosopher and loves European art cinema (the filmmakers now have a blog that prominently features his reviews). Others are obsessed with the running time of films or with obscure stars. Several of them are unable to watch films on video, while one viewer wants to get a cell phone so that he can call the projectionist’s booth to ensure that the films he watches are projected properly.

Many of these cinephiles are also collectors. Roberta, the one female cinephile, collects programs, cups, and all sorts of promotional memorabilia, worrying that her collection will be lost if/when she is evicted from her apartment. Another collects soundtracks on vinyl even though he doesn’t have a stereo. Others spend their inheritance or their unemployment checks buying books. Another keeps journals listing every film he has seen. The sense of the cinephile as collector is what struck me the most about the film. Even attending films so frequently (at minimum 3-4 films per day) is essentially a version of collecting experiences. In this sense, I’m thinking about collecting as a means of controlling one’s experiences, of providing them with a sense of meaning or order, specifically within a world that is chaotic and disorienting (there are sevral shots of the spectacular space of Times Square that might reinforce this reading).

Hmmm…I lost the end of this review and I’m too tired to re-create it, but I found the film’s treatment of the obsessive practies of these cinephiles to be really quite interesting….

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The Station Agent

The Station Agent (IMDB) focuses on the emotional struggles of Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage), a midget dwarf (he chooses that term over the more PC “little person”) who works in a model train shop in Hoboken. Fin is completely fascinated by trains and immerses himself in a train-hobbyist community with his boss and friend, Henry. Whe Henry dies, Fin inherits an old rail depot in the small town of Newfoundland, New Jersey, and with the shop due to close, chooses to move out to the depot.

Fin moves out to Newfoundland in part to isolate himself as much as possible from the world and from the uncomfortable stares he receives when he walks down city streets. He knows that every time he goes out, he’ll face some kind of snide remark or the stares of others, but he reluctantly becomes involved in the lives of several of his neighbors, including a friendly and gregarious hot dog salesman, Joe (Bobby Cannavale), and an artist struggling with the end of her marriage, Olivia (Patricia Clarkson). Eventually Joe’s charms begin to draw Fin out into the world and the three people begin to connect and break through their feelings of isolation. They begin to share meals, and the subtle use of banjo music by Stephen Trask and the understated cinematography (which makes good use of the long-derelict depot and other abandoned spaces) combine to create a contemplative tone in which the characters can talk and, sometimes, sit together without having to make conversation.

It would be easy to trivialize this kind of plot, to make the film merely about Fin’s height, and while it’s a major issue in the film, Station generally avoids taking the simple way out, other than in a scene in which Joe has finally persuaded Fin to meet him in a local bar. When Joe doesn’t arrive, Fin begins drinking heavily and becomes conscious of a couple of townies staring at him and whispering under their breath. Fin’s reaction seemed out of character and inconsistent with the tone of the rest of the film (the following sequence seemed equally implausible). But for the most part, I think the film manages its emotional resonance without descending into something falsely sentimental.

Patricia Clarkson (who co-starred in David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls, which George and I both liked) gave an outstanding performance as Olivia, but Peter Dinklage carries the film, giving Fin just the right amount of aloofness throughout, while gradually warming to the new community that builds around him. The film is generally paced nicely, allowing the characters to develop gradually, but without offering any form of artificl resolution. In fact, when the final scene of the film comes, I felt vaguely disappointed, as if I’d become attached to the characters, wanting to know more about where their stories would lead.

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Kal Ho Naa Ho

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I had my first ever Bollywood experience tonight. I went with one of my colleagues to see Kal Ho Naa Ho (IMDB).

After a delicious dinner at Queen of Sheba Ethiopian restaurant, we headed out to the ‘burbs for the movie. I knew that Bollywood films tended towards melodrama and that they usually (always?) have several musical sequences, but I’m not quite sure I was prepared for the emotional roller coaster ride this film provided. The story is narrated by Naina, a twenty-something Indian woman living in New York. She and her best friend, Rohit (in full metrosexual mode), banter back and forth, but Naina, still emotionally scarred by her father’s suicide, is closed off to love. Soon, the charming Aman (played by Bollywood star Shahrukh Kahn) arrives and Naina relaxes, losing her bookish eyeglasses and letting her hair down. Naina slowly begins to fall for Aman, who is dying of an unexplained heart disease, and the film then traces the romantic comedy and the family melodrama.

What I found fascinating about this film was the treatment of sexuality. There are several scenes in which the fashion conscious Rahit and the playful Aman are caught (by someone who appears to be his maid) in scenes of homosocial bonding. These scenes cause the maid to faint in shock. These “homosocial” moments are generally contained by the end of the film, but the ways in which the film plays with this tension really struck me. Of course, because of the way in which the “competition” between the two men over Naina is framed, Naina essentially loses her agency in choosing which man she’ll marry.

In general, the film’s ambivalence about New York also stuck with me. Early in the film, Aman performs a Hindi version of “Pretty Woman” on a New York taxi in front of an American flag, and the opening shot of the film incorporates the Statue of Liberty, but this celebration of New York becomes a little more muted as the film progresses. There is certainly an American Dream subtext to the film (both Rohit and Naina are seeking MBAs at the “University of New York”).

I’m also somewhat surprised by my own investment in the narrative. For whatever reason my emotional defenses weren’t quite as strong as they might have been had I been watching an American film. Still trying to think through that aspect of my experience, but maybe I need to see a few more Bollywood films to see if my experience of them changes.

Kal Ho Naa Ho (roughly “There May be No Tomorrow”) was playing at Galaxy Cinema, a suburban Atlanta movie theater that specializes in international cinema, especially Bollywood films. Galaxy Theater, was reviewed a couple of years ago in a Creative Loafing article, which presents many of the difficulties of sustaining a cinema showing mainstream international films, including the problem of competing with pirated copies of even the newest films. It also notes the fascinating population shifts in the Atlanta suburb, Norcross, that have created a market for mainstream films from Third World countries.

I’m way behind on my film reviews, but hopefully in a few days, I’ll catch up….I actually really miss writing about movies here, so I’m going to try and get back to it soon.

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Blog Surfing Can Cause Unexpected Flashbacks

Via Adrian Miles, I just came across Byron Hawk’s blog. I met Byron, now an assistant professor at George Mason, about five or six years ago at a Popular Culture conference in San Antonio, after which we attended “Heavy Metal Fest 1997” at the White Rabbit.

For a number of reasons (including Heavy Metal Fest 1997), this was a particularly memorable conference. San Antonio had some of the best restaurants I’ve ever encountered during a conference (especially all the local places just a short walk from the over-commercialized Riverwalk). And in an odd coincidence, memebers of the Orlando Magic basketball team were staying in the conference hotel….

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Okay, so I’m a little distracted today, but while I was taking a break from grading students’ blog portfolios, I came across this article on Salon about the parties for screening Robert Greenwald’s documentary, Uncovered. Greenwald’s film, which I haven’t yet seen, traces the deceptive language that many leaders in the Bush administration used to convince the American public that Iraq had weapons of mass distruction.

I can’t comment on the film just yet, but I’m intrigued by the skill with which was capable of coordinating this mass screening. According to the article, there were approximately 2,600 screening parties on Sunday alone, a rather large number for an hour-long documentary film. Greenwald compares this number to the 4,000 screens on which blockbuster films are released, which does seem a little misleading (blockbusters screen several times a day, often to a large, packed theater), but I think it’s another useful illustration of’s ability to facilitate the networking of progressives.

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Grading Marathon

I’m back in grading mode and currently looking at my students’ blog protfolios. So far, I’ve been very impressed with the work they’re doing in terms of analyzing their writing and the significance of blogs both within the class and within the public sphere in general. I think most of my students really “got it.” More later, when I’ve finished grading a few more blogs.

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If You Squint Really Carefully, You Can See Me…

Via Get Real, this cool visualization service for localfeeds, the syndication service that tracks weblogs. Check out my neighborhood or try it yourself.

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Cool Stocking Stuffer

I think this new action figure speaks for itself.

Not quite as cool as the action figure I found on e-bay a few months ago, but pretty close.

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I turn 33 today.

It’s one of those birthdays somewhere in the middle. It’s not a clear milestone like 29, but something in between.

Because my birthday is in December, it always falls both near the holidays and at the end of the semester, which sometimes makes my birthday feel like an afterthought. But for some reason, I’ve been anticipating this birthday for a long time, much longer than normal. I don’t think it’s because I feel partcularly old (I don’t). Instead, it feels more like curiosity about how I’d react this time around (I’m not quite sure why–maybe because it has been a rather eventful year).

And I have to say it has been a satisfying year. I’ve accomplished a fair amount this year professionally. I’m learning more about myself as an academic, a teacher, and a human being. I’ve made some great connections and seen other friendships flourish. I’ve really struggled with birthdays in the past, so it’s kind of nice for one to feel, well, about right.

Of course, tomorrow I could change my mind.

(Edited slightly a few hours after the original post.)

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Blogs, Angels, Bowling, and Dean

For some reason, I’m having a difficult time putting my thoughts together for this entry, but while I was reading the New York Times Magazine online this morning, a few of the questions I’ve been contemplating the last few days began to coalesce, but in order to get there, I’m going to have to take a bit of a detour….

After turning in my paper on blogging, I downshifted into the self-critical mode that I often experience soon after completing a paper. This self-critique centered around my reading of Chris Wright’s article on weblogs and mainstream media, and I was left asking questions about whether or not blogs could create political change.

In the course of these reflections, Francois reminded me that blogs allow writers to develop a much deeper consideration of the quotidian, which as he points out, is a highly political gesture.

These thoughts were still with me this morning when I woke up and read the Times. I started with the article by Samantha Shapiro on the Dean phenmoenon (David Weinberger blogged about the article a couple of days ago, but it happened to be in today’s edition of the Times). As Weinberger’s reading of the article points out, one of the strengths of the Dean campaign has been its ability to create community among formerly disaffected and alienated people through networks that are modeled (as campaign strategist Joe Trippi explains) on the Internet itself.

Shapiro’s article refers to Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, which argues that civil society was breaking down as people become more disconnected from each other, their communities fragmented. Trippi then points out that technologies such as, which the Dean campaign has used very effectively, provide this sense of connection or community that has been lost.

One fault with the article: it doesn’t acknowledge in enough detail the perception that Dean’s campaign primarily targets middle-class whites who have easy access to the Internet (I do think Dean’s policies very clearly support working class interests, but that’s another issue), but in general, as a Dean supporter, I found Shapiro’s reading of the Dean campaign’s success to be very encouraging.

After reading this article, I clicked over to Jesse Green’s excellent article, “When Political Art Mattered,” which focuses on the 1980s art designed to promote AIDS awareness. Green’s article appears to be loosely tied in to the broadcast of the HBO film, Angels in America (IMDB), directed by Mike Nichols from Tony Kushner’s play (an according to almost all accounts, an incredible–and no doubt relevant–adaptation).

In the article, Green provides a historical overview of AIDS-related art since the mid-1980s, from the famous “Silence=Death” posters to more recent and mainstream texts such as the TV show, Will and Grace. With middle Americans are clamoring for their Queer Eye makeovers (symptomatic, I think, of a cultural desire for transformations of all kinds), it’s easy to suggest that images of homosexuality in the media have become domesticated, it also points to the success of the political art of the 1980s, including the AIDS quilt and group such as Act Up, in changing the consciousness of millions of people about the AIDS crisis during a time that is perceived to be uniformly homogeneous. The posters and billboards that originally defined the spirit of this movement, of course, were not “museum pieces” in the standard sense, but were meant to be a part of everyday life, an art of the streets, so to speak…

Green concludes with a reference to a new project that I found utterly amazing, the Act Up Oral History Project, coordinated by author Sarah Schulman and filmmaker Jim Hubbard. In these films (some clips are available online), Act Up activists reflect on their experiences as activists. The cinematography takes a simple “no frills” approach, with a static camera arranged in middle-close-up capturing the stories as the people narrate them. It looks like a beautiful project, and the subjects of the documentary are given the freedom to reflect on their experiences without too much intrusion: If the camera were closer, I think it would have felt invasive; if there was nondiegetic sound/music, the film would have felt overproduced.

How to tie all of these loosely connected threads together, I’m not sure. I want to suggest there is some kind of montage effect in place, a relationship between the Dean campaign’s Internet-based techniques for transforming everday life, for getting people involved in challenging the political, social, and economic status quo and Act Up’s political-art techniques for raising AIDS awareness, for combatting an administration that even refused to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic. I want to make that connection, and I think the transformations I’d like to see could learn from the successes (both partial and monumental, in my opinion) of the political art of the 1980s, but I’m still not sure how to get there from here.

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Eyedrum Fundraiser

As promised, I attended the fundraising event at the Eyedrum. I enjoyed the music quite a bit, and there seemed to be a good crowd when I was there from about 8 to 11 PM.

The artwork was quite impressive. I especially enjoyed the work of Laurel Beddingfield, Bryan Schellinger, Angel Ros, Mandie Turner Mitchell, and Gabriel Benzur (unfortuantely, I can’t find links to a lot of the work I saw tonight). In general, though, the vibe at the Eyedrum was very cool, and it was a great opportunity to get to know the work of some local artists.

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Saturday Afternoon Fog/Jill Walker at Brown

I’m still recovering from a rather late night last night, specifically a lovely potluck dinner with several of my colleagues (my contribution? George’s “easy summer recipe,” naturally), so this entry serves more as an “external memory” reminder.

Via Kairosnews: Like Clancy Ratliff, I wish I could have attended Jill Walker’s talk on blogging at Brown University. Like Clancy, I’m intrigued by Jill’s concept of network literacy. I also share some of the privacy concerns that both Jill and Clancy have raised.

In my first semester of using weblogs, I’m also discovering that the best learning expereinces weren’t planned, although sometimes, it took me a while to come to terms with the experience.

In other news, my parents are taking me out for dinner tomorrow to celebrate my birthday (which is actually on Monday), and I’m trying to decide where we should go. Any suggestions, Atlanta readers?

Update: I’ve been craving Mediterranean food, so I’ve decided on Mazza. Meanwhile, I’m still feeling a little foggy….

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Cool Local Event

This is kind of last minute, but for any Atlanta readers (I know you’re out there), The Eyedrum, a local non-profit art and music space, has a fundraiser today (December 6, starting at 3 PM), featuring art, live music and other cool stuff. I know one of the artists involved, and his work is very cool and definitely worth checking out, and the Eyedrum (currently facing a major rent increase) could really use the support.

Check it out. This means you. Go. Now.

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