Archive for January, 2004

Evolution Saga Continues

After the AJC reported on the state’s new science curriculum, which would ignore the last century of biological research, Kathy Cox was forced to defend the proposal:

She said it was not designed to appease Georgians who have religious conflicts with the scientific theory that all living things evolved from common ancestry.

“This wasn’t so much a religion vs. science, politics kind of issue,” Cox said. “This was an issue of how do we ensure that our kids are getting a quality science education in every classroom across the state.”

She said students need to understand that science is constantly changing and they need to be exposed to all legitimate theories.

Cox said that could include the teaching of “intelligent design,” though it is not specifically mentioned in the proposed curriculum.

Cox later called “evolution” a “buzzword,” implying somehow that “biological changes over time” and “intelligent design” are not. So far, according to the article, over a thousand people have sent letters of complaint regarding the new curriculum, and a relatively unsceintific AJC poll shows overwhelming opposition to the changes.

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Chris Hedges Talk

Last night, I had the great opportunity to attend a talk at Emory by Chris Hedges, the New York Times Middle East Bureau Chief, who has covered wars in Central America, the Balkans and the Middle East, including the first Gulf War. Hedges is the author of War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, a provocative book that explores the reasons we tolerate (and often embrace) war. You may know Hedges best as the speaker who was booed by a Rockford College audience during a graduation speech.

Both the book and the talk emphasize what might be called the erotics of war, the excitement and purpose that war provides. Not sure I have much to add right now, but Hedges’ experiences in El Salvador and the Balkans, especially, provide a chilling antidote to the nationalist dicourses that are often used to justify war.

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Do the Evolution, Georgia Edition

Or, as some Georgia educators prefer, “Do biological changes over time.”

I’m a little too outraged to comment on this story in detail, but the Georgia Department of Education has decided that the best way to correct the state’s educational problems is to no longer require teachers to cover evolution in detail (if they mention it at all) in their science courses. As one proposal would have it, the word evolution would be replaced with the euphemism, “biological changes over time,” because, as one educator suggests, evolution conjures up the image of that whole “man-monkey” thing.

Biology teachers across the state are rightly angry about the curriculum, with 26-year North Cobb High School biology teacher Wes McCoy pointing out that less experienced teachers will take their cue from the state requirements:

“They’re either going to tread very lightly or they’re going to ignore it,” McCoy said. “Students will be learning some of the components of evolution. They’re going to be missing how that integrates with the rest of biology.”

More significantly, buried about fourteen paragraphs into the article, the author notes that

Georgia’s curriculum exam, the CRCT, will be rewritten to align with the new curriculum. And the state exam is the basis for federal evaluation, which encourages schools and teachers to focus on teaching the material that will be tested.

So, in order to get federal funding, teachers will feel obligated to teach towards the state test, which will make it even less likely that Georgia students will have adequate understanding of evolution’s importance to scientific theory.

Information about the proposed curriculum, including a contact page, is available here.

Updated to express further outrage.

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Cloud Cult: Political Remixes

Just listened to Cloud Cult’s “State of the Union” off their most recent CD, Aurora Borealis. The song mixes together various Bush speeches in creative ways, with the result that we hear Bush saying things like, “I will fight for the complete devastation of the environment” (I’m paraphrasing for now). Based on the Album 88 DJ’s comments, it sounds like they’ll be hitting heavy rotation soon.

On their website, Cloud Cult reports that they donate 100% of their profits to environmental causes, and the band, led by Craig Minowa, is basically a grassroots project.

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Evangelical Colleges

Jason discusses a Time article on Azusa Pacific University (APU), an evangleical Christian university in California attempting to challenge “the stereotypes of evangelical colleges as weak academically and ultraconservative socially.” As Jason points out, biology professor Jon Milhon’s half-hearted introduction to Darwin’s evolutionary theory needs to be interrogated. To be fair, at the evangelical college I attended, the biology professor actually taught evolution relatively straight, without snide comments about Darwin’s faith. Still, in an environment where George W. Bush is pushing faith-based initiatives and further blurring the lines between church and state, the academic missions of these colleges need to be carefully considered.

I would point out, from personal experience, that the article’s discussion of evangelical colleges glosses how politically and socially homogeneous many of these campuses are. Class discussion invariably starts from a very specific worldview, one that regards some questions as “dangerous,” which often had the result of making me feel alienated from most of my fellow students and unable to be open about my (then moderately liberal) politics on campus. More than anything, my experience was that the campus’s insularity prevented any real confrontation with difference, and for the most part, the article ignores that dynamic almost completely.

Update, 11:15 PM: I’ve been struggling with this entry for most of the evening (I even thought about deleting it), in part because I feel like my experience at an evangelical college may have been unusual; I’m hesitant to make any general claims based on anecdotal evidence; and I don’t think these colleges are nearly as simple politically or socially as I’ve described them. But I do think that by focusing solely on one evangelical college and limiting interviews to people who generally support the university’s goals (APU students and professors), the article only gives us a limited part of the story.

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I’d Like to Thank My Agent

This year’s Academy Award nominees are out, and as expected, the choices tend to privilege films made in major studios. And while I find these award shows absurd, I usually buy into the hype of reacting to the choices and compaining about the films I feel were overlooked.

The best picture nominees were a little disappointing. I found Seabiscuit and Mystic River to be overrated films, and I would have liked to see either 21 Grams or House of Sand and Fog recognized here. One other major complaint here: to my knowledge documentaries, among other films, have never been considered for best picture. Why not recognize one or more of this year’s solid crop of documentaries with a nomination for best picture?

The acting nominees pretty much fell into place as expected, and I’m actually quite happy that Johnny Depp received recognition for his work in Pirates of the Caribbean. Also happy that Shohreh Aghdashloo was acknowledged for a quietly powerful performance in House of Sand and Fog. Patricia Clarkson has deserved recognition for several performances (including All the Real Girls and The Station Agent). Major omission: Jennifer Connelly, also in Sand and Fog.

I’m generally satisfied with the choices for direction, but would have liked to see 21 Grams among the choices. I am excited that City of God’s director, Fernando Meirelles, received a well-deserved nomination, although I’m not sure why his film was snubbed for best foreign-language film (best guess: because Miramax released the film, it somehow didn’t qualify).

I didn’t see Barbarian Invasions, but Canadian director Denys Arcand has been doing outstanding work for a long time, so I’m happy to see his work receive attention in screenplay and foreign film categories. Also happy to see Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman nominated for American Splenor’s screenplay. Sand and Fog and 21 Grams were left out here as well.

Not sure I have much else to add. Looking through the rest of nominees, it looks like a solid year for documentaries (Capturing the Friedmans, Fog of War), and of course, Lord of the Rings scored a basketful of nominations, as expected. To be honest, I’m usually much more interested in the Independent Spirit awards, but the Oscars are good water cooler discussion. So what do you think?

Update: Roger Ebert explains that City of God would have been up for best forign film last year, but the Academy’s best foreign film committee simply dropped the ball.

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Palimpsest, a weblog “devoted to teaching langauge and literature,” is now up and running. Thanks to George Williams for all his work in getting Palimpsest up and running.

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Mystic River Monster

I saw two new movies over the weekend that have been receiving major critical acclaim, Clint Eastwood’s new drama, Mystic River (IMDB), and Patty Jenkins’ first major film, Monster (IMDB).

Both films have been praised for the performances of the lead and supporting actors. Just minutes ago, in fact, Tim Robbins won a Golden Globe Award for supporting actor for his performance as a child molestation survivor in Mystic River, while Roger Ebert proclaims Charlize Theron’s performance as Aileen Carol Wuornos, imprecisely described as the world’s first female serial killer, to be “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema,” which probably overstates things just a little. However, Eastwood’s crime drama left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied, while Monster’s treatment of the Wuornos story shook me pretty deeply, and I was impressed by the film’s unwillingness to offer any simple explanations for Wuornos’s behavior.

Both films open with flashback images of childhood memories: In Mystic River, we see three boys playing street hockey in a working-class Boston neighborhood when one of the boys, Dave, is picked up by a child molester posing as a police officer. Years later, the boys have grown up and gone their separate ways, but the opening scene is played as a traumatic event that determines every choice they make for the rest of their lives. Jimmy (Sean Penn), the brashest of the three, grows into a life of small-time crime and has a teenage daughter who is mysteriously killed. Jimmy immediately suspects Dave, and some circumstantial evidence uncovered by police officer and third boyhood friend, Sean (Kevin Bacon), points towards Dave’s guilt. By focusing on the single childhood event (I’ve heard that Dennis Lehane’s book offers more detail from their pasts), Mystic River puts entirely too much weight on it.

The film’s treatment of gender also left me feeling somewhat cold, with the wives of all three characters left pretty much unexamined. Marcia Gay Harden, playing Dave’s wife Celeste, is given little else to do other than frown and simper when she begins to think her husband may be a murderer, with no real explanation given for her sudden betrayal. Laura Linney, playing Jimmy’s (Penn) wife, does little in the film until the final scene when she attempts to comfort her husband in a scene that felt like something out of a different movie.

Monster, on the other hand, seems to use the flashback in a slightly different way. Aileen (Theron) narrates in voice-over that she “always wanted to be in the movies,” but we see and learn quickly that her life didn’t go as planned. By the age of 13, Aileen was already a street prostitute, and we soon see her under a highway overpass, contemplating suicide. She goes into a local bar (apparently not realizing at first that it was a lesbian bar) where she meets Selby (a good but thankless performance by Christina Ricci), another lonely individual searching for friendship. In fact, one of the best sequences of the film shows them dancing together in a roller skating rink while Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” plays in the background, suggesting for a brief moment the tenderness the two women briefly shared.

But Monster doesn’t reduce Aileen’s actions to a single moment or decision. Instead, her violence (which sometimes even seems to surprise her) seems to grow out of bad luck, bad decisions, and a series of abusive relationships. This is where Theron’s performance, filled with awkward gestures and false bravado, really seemed to define a character. The first murder, in fact, is portrayed as self-defense against a “john” who has raped and beaten her. The low-angle camera shot captures Aileen’s vulnerability and the violence enacted upon her. Wisely, however, the film avoids reducing her murders to this single event; in fact, it seems to avoid identifying a singular cause altogether, which I found to be one of Monster’s greatest strengths.

The final shot also supports this reading: it shows Aileen being led away from the courtroom with the knowledge that Selby has identified her to the police in order to avoid prosecution on other charges. She quotes various cliches that people have repeated to her in the past: “Faith can move mountains, everything happens for a reason.” Then after a pause, she laughs and says, “Well, they gotta tell you something.” This sequence is, as Cynthia Fuchs suggests, “testament to the combined horror and banality of Wuornos’ story.”

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Kodak Layoffs

I’ve been blogging a lot this morning, but I felt it would be negligent not to mention that I wrote my entry on Kodak before I learned the news that Kodak plans to layoff at least 12,000 employees, cutting its workforce by nearly 25 percent. Kind of makes my reflections on photography feel pretty trivial right now.

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Power Point Anthology of Literature

Power Point jokes are pretty obvious at this point, but the Power Point Anthology of Literature is pretty funny. So is the Power Point Gettysburg Address. Both via CalPundit.

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Wolfman, RIP

Doyle Rogers, the famous Atlanta furniture salesman known as “The Wolfman,” has died at the age of 67. His deliberately awkward commercials, usually featuring intentionally goofy spoofs and his catch phrase, “Ask for the Wolfman,” have aired in Atlanta for well over twenty years. Unlike many other local advertisers, Rogers and his daughter Donna (also featured in many of his commericals) got the joke.

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The First Rule of Fight Club

…is that you don’t talk about fight club or at least the narrative twists in Fight Club. I’ve been teaching Fight Club this week in my cultural studies and composition course, and in teaching the novel (in some sense, alongside the film), I’ve been confronted with an interesting “disciplinary” dilemma. On the one hand, I feel obligated to discuss certain narrative details about Fight Club, namely that Tyler and the narrator are the “same person.” On the other, when I discuss a text such as Fight Club, I catch myself falling into the disciplinary practice of a filmgoer who quickly learns that he or she is not supposed to reveal important plot twists in order not to spoil the shock effect for others.

This conflict between two very different institutional organizations (the classroom and film audiences) became remarkably clear last spring when a student group completed project called “Twisted Celluloid” that focused on films (Usual Suspects, Memento, Sixth Sense) with narrative twists designed to revise our knowledge of everything that happened in the film until that point.

My thoughts here are following two unrelated lines right now:

  1. In general, I’m intrigued by what these films are doing, what they offer to viewers. The effect is obviously something that many viewers find pleasurable, given the popularity of this type of effect. Of course the idea of the secret itself seems like an important part of the successful marketing of these films (The Crying Game would seem to be the best example here), but the narrative shock effect offers a pleasurable disorientation or destabilization that seems important. In a recent essay, Linda Williams compares this feeling to the shock effect offered by roller coaster rides, an observation that I find promising.
  2. How do you talk about these texts in class? When teaching the novel, especially, I wanted to be careful not to reveal the “secret” too soon for readers who were unfamiliar with the text. Again, at some point, you have to assume the students have read far enough into the book, but I constantly find myself questioning how and when to reveal this kind of information, a hesitation that I think is primarily based on my desire to remain complicit with the expectations of movie audiences not to give away the ending.

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Sundance Goes Really Low Budget

I unintentionally deleted my original post, so now I’ll just link and comment. Wired reports the story of Jonathan Caouette, an independent filmmaker debuting Tarnation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. What makes the story incredible is that Caouette made the film for a grand total of US$218.32, using Apple’s easy-to-use editing program, iMovie. Gus Van Sant and Jonathan Cameron Mitchell have expressed interest in the film.

For more information about Tarnation, check out cinema minima, a useful digest for movie makers, filmmakers, and digital video makers.

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The Trials of Henry Kissinger

Watching The Trials of Henry Kissinger (IMDB), Eugene Jarecki’s documentary film based on Christopher Hitchens’ controversial book, I found myself increasingly troubled by the accusations against the former secretary of state. I was already aware of many of these accusations such as claims that Kissinger prolonged the Vietnam War and that he supported the Chilean coup that replaced the democratically-elected Allende with war criminal Pinochet, so I wanted a better understanding of how the film produced the response that it did.

As Roger Ebert’s review suggests, the film’s partisan take on Kissinger is a little too transparent. Kissinger’s opponents, including Hitchens, are given ample time to state their case, to lay out their arguments in some detail. His supporters, however, including Alexander Haig, often appear to have their comments taken out of context. This technique is not unfamiliar in documentary media, of course, and I was certainly aware of the careful framing of Kissinger’s story, the fact that the film had already essentially framed things through a loaded question, presuming his guilt in advance. Such an approach does not imply anything about Kissinger’s guilt or innocence (I think there are sound reasons to question Kissinger’s “diplomacy”), but this approach may actually be detrimental to understanding his role in American and world politics in the 1960s and 70s.

What I found interesting about the film is its loose reliance on the genre of the trial movie (for an excellent analysis, see Carol J. Clover’s discussion of this genre) to make its case. As Clover points out, courtroom dramas position viewers “not as passive spectators but as active ones, viewers with a job to do.”* While Trials is not properly a courtroom drama, it does clearly position the viewers as “jurors,” presenting evidence that we are then asked to negotiate. Unlike many trial movies, however, the viewer-juror is left somewhat powerless. We’ve seen the evidence (stacked as it might be), but we are prevented from seeing any form of justice served, essentially short-circuiting what had been until the end of the film our active role in sifting through the evidence, leaving me feeling a pretty intense feeling of passivity. I haven’t completely worked through these ideas, but I think Clover’s discussion of the courtroom drama may explain in part why this film left me feeling so uncomfortable.

* Clover, “Judging Audiences,” in Reinventing Film Studies, 246.

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It’s The End of Photography As We Know It

Via CityCynic: Kodak has announced that it will stop making film cameras, which raises important questions about how this decision will change photography:

Eastman Kodak Co. (EK) on Tuesday said it will stop selling traditional film cameras in the United States, Canada and Western Europe, another move by the troubled photography company to cut lines with declining appeal in favor of fast-growing digital products.

But the Rochester-based company will continue to sell one-time use cameras in the West and expand its sales of these and other film-based cameras and supplies in markets such as China, India, and Latin America, where demand is on the rise.

The article goes on to suggest that declining demand for film cameras in the US led to this decision. I imagine that once the buzz over digital cameras subsides a little, occasional bouts of nostalgia may lead to renewed interest in film cameras, but that’s just a guess. The more significant questions, I think, will be how the increasing turn toward digital photography and digital video will change the way we record and remember the past, how we store it, and who will have access to these technologies.

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