Archive for August, 2004

Return to the 9th Floor

George was passing through Atlanta this afternoon, so I met up with him and Mike at Mike’s office at Georgia State University, where I received MA a few years ago. Even though I live in Atlanta, I rarely get the chance to spend much time on GSU’s campus, so seeing all the changes to GSU’s campus, especially the English department, was a little strange for me, too, especially the changes to the Writing Center where Mike, George, and I spent a lot of time when we were graduate students there.

But as I wandered through the English department and other parts of campus I hadn’t seen in ten years, I found myself recalling events and people that I haven’t thought about in a long time. David discussed this experience when he described returning to Georgia Tech after several years away.

By the way, I found Bush’s Brain in a video store on North Highland, something I’ve been trying to see for a long time now. Nobody was using Bush’s Brain at the time, so I took it home with me. I promise to return it to the proper authorities when I’m done with it.

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Bertolucci and Mann

I managed to see two movies by fairly acclaimed directors this week but didn’t have the time to write reviews until now. I caught Michael Mann’s Collateral (IMDB) last weekend (at the infamous midnight screening) and watched Bernardo Bertolucci The Dreamers (IMDB) on video earlier this week. Both films are certainly flawed but well worth seeing, and I’d be interested to hear the opinions of others on both films, especially The Dreamers, which has received mixed reviews. Oh, by the way, because I’m blogging while tired, there are some spoilers in this entry, but more than anything, I’m curious about other people’s reactions, especially to The Dreamers.

Collateral

Collateral opens with a shot of Tom Cruise’s Vincent, a sharply dressed professional hitman, walking through an airport, his normally youthful, dark hair colored platinum gray to make him appear older and slightly run-down. Another man hands him a briefcase in the airport, saying one line, “Welcome to L.A.” With that introduction, Mann introduces Los Angeles itself as a character in the film. Against Vincent, Mann casts Jamie Foxx as Max, a slightly rumpled cab driver with a dream (another interesting casting choice). Max has the bad luck of picking up Vincent, who hires the cabbie to driv him around LA for the night while he makes several hits. Throughout the film, Vincent talks about his hatred for LA, characterizing the city as unfriendly and uncaring, an effect reinforced by the use of high-definition digital video. We also get several helicopter shots looking down on the city and Max’s taxi from above while Max seeks to find a way to stop Vincent to reinforce the city’s sense of anonymity. As usual, Mann includes several wonderful scenes, including a scene in which Vincent goes into a jazz club to murder the club’s owner, a nostalgic moment that recalls some earlier version of LA. Note: for a great review, see phyrephox’s review on Milk Plus. Like phyrephox, I liked the references to Lady from Shanghai during the climactic chase sequence.

The Dreamers

I have to admit I haven’t been a big fan of Bertolucci’s recent films, especially Besieged, which seemed to conform to the idea or fantasy of an older, white, liberal man rescuing the younger, African woman, without really criticizing that story at all. And, although I don’t remember it well, I recall being dissapointed by Stealing Beauty as well, but my interest in May 1968 trumped my ambivalence about Bertolucci. And while I don’t think The Dreamers was a bad film, it didn’t seem like a terribly deep take on the insularity of the two French siblings and the American friend they seduce.

Yeah, I get that the brother and sister are naive, oblivious to the revolution that’s happening around them, but like Cynthia Fuchs, I found the film to be little more than glossy nostalgia for the revolutionary excitement of May 1968 without really interrogating that history in any nuanced way. After reading Roger Ebert’s praise of the film, though, I feel like I’m missing something. To be fair, I’m a huge cinephile and loved the references to French New Wave films and the history of the Cinémathèque Française, and other than Matthew’s voice-over narration, really enjoyed the opening sequence. I may try to write a more focused review later, but after a late night last night (out until 3 AM, up until almost 4 AM) and a long day of writing, I’m feeling kind of lazy.

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More 9/11 Toys

It’s old news by now, but here’s a link to an article about the recall of bags of candy with 9/11 attack toys. The toy depicts an airplane flying into the twin towers (note: there’s a slightly clearer image at Boing Boing). I’ve been trying to collect links to 9/11 toys whenever I find them, so here’s another one for the list.

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Buffy the Corporate Vampire Slayer

Recovering from a late, late night last night. Things went well past 9 PM, the official end of the art opening, so late in fact that Pizza Hut seemed like a good idea toward the end of the night (and it’s certainly a better idea than at least one other pizza chain). I like Mark’s art quite a bit, so it was cool to see several pieces together in a single space. Also enjoyed catching up with old colleagues and meeting some new ones.

While getting my day started, I came across Shroom’s review of Control Room (my review) and The Corporation on Milk Plus (and I liked the review even before I noticed that he’d mentioned me in the comments). As regular readers will know, I’m a big fan of documentary film, excited to see the number of critical documentaries that have been released in the last year or two, and I think that Shroom’s discussion of The Corporation, especially, adds an important perspective on the film that I’d missed, at least on a conscious level.

In my review of The Corporation a few weeks ago, I made the initial observation that the film

is almost certainly the most intelligent documentary I’ve seen all year. More than any other oppositional or broadly political documentary I’ve seen, this documentary treats the corporation as a systemic problem rather than seeing corporate abuses as the bad behavior of a few “bad apples” who took their greed a little too far.

I’d still agree that the film’s argument is far more rigorous than anything I’ve seen this year, but I’m a little less optomistic about the film’s effect on its viewers. The Corporation ultimately overwhelmed me, and I’d guess that other viewers of the film might have the same experience. The music, graphics, and information verged on sensory overload in places, and as Shroom notes, the effect is strangely like watching a horror film:

The Corporation was a like a really long, really scary version of PBS’s Frontline. [...] Given the film’s implications, The Corporation is perhaps the most effective horror film I’ve seen in a long time.

I’d agree with him that The Corporation seems oddly linked to the horror film, although I’m not sure I realized that on a consious level immediately after watching it. In fact, while thinking about my orginal review, I actually imagined a fantasy sequel, “Buffy the Corporate Vampire Slayer,” with various CEOs and corporation-friendly Congresspeople as villains. There was even a degree to which I felt physically affected by the images and sounds, and like a horror film monster, the psychopathic charatcer, “the corporation,” stalks the entire film.

Whether this horror film effect is productive or not is another question. Shroom makes a powerful case for the pedagogical effect of the film, which challenged him to think critically about his own role in working for a corporation. Of course, it would be very easy to allow this stream of information to become too overwhelming to mount a clear response. I’d also be curious to hear from people who’ve seen the film about whether or not the film equips viewers with the critical thinking tools to critique for themselves or whether they feel as if the film is doing the critiqing for them, a distinction that I think is far from trivial, and one for which I don’t have a clear answer.

Note: I’ve been thinking about these issues from a much different perspective because of my paper on Fight Club and pedagogy, which I’m currently writing and I’d rather not discuss in detail (I’d rather work out those ideas in the paper itself, but I’ll keep you posted).

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Art Opening at Eleven50

Just a quick note to mention that a friend of mine has an art opening tonight at Gallery Eleven50. The basics:

Mark Leibert, “Transgenic”
Paintings and Works on Paper
Curated by Dorothea Bozicolona-Volpe

Eleven50 is located at 1150 Peachtree St., but the entrance to the gallery is behind the nightclub on Crescent St. The event runs from 7-9 PM.

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Reservoir Blogs

Add Quentin Tarantino to the list of bogus celebrity bloggers (link via GreenCine, which I’ve been trying to avoid this week so I can get some work done). Roger Avary, who knows QT pretty well, confirms it’s a fake.

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Marxist Film Theorists Revisited

I was digging around in my blog archives tonight (looking for material for my Fight Club paper) when I came across an entry I wrote over a year ago on an LA Times Sunday Magazine article on film professors, and it reminded me of George’s recent efforts to convey to public audiences how an English departments works.

I think the comments are more interesting than the original entry itself, which veers dangerously close to righteous indignation in places (and does little to positively define what we really do), but the essential point of my entry back then was similar to George’s: academics do need to define themselves correctly or risk seeing public misrepresentations our work persist.

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Being Karl Rove

Nope, this isn’t a post about the not-yet-in-Atlanta documentary, Bush’s Brain. I just got the scoop from Rusty about a new strategy-based computer game, Political Machine, which allows you to run a presidential campaign.

According to this SFGate article, players have the option of running the campaigns of current presidential contenders John Kerry and George Bush, or they can play with other favorites, including Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. Bored with that, you can bring dead politicians back to life. Strategies include campaign speeches in swing states and appearances on such TV “news” shows as “Barry King Show,” “Hard Hitter,” and “The O’Malley Scenario.” Your campaign hires figures such as consultants, smear merchants, and spin doctors, just like real presidential campaigns! According to the game’s website, strategies are carefully calculated. For example, a Democrat who veers hard to the right may not win Republican votes and could alienate his or her base. After a speech or campaign appearance, you can watch as a blue state slowly turns red.

As Rusty points out, this game appeals to the inner-computer nerd and the inner-campaign strategist. Might be interesting to play, I mean, talk about this game with my freshman composition classes….

Unrelated Update: The director’s cut of Donnie Darko is coming to the Plaza this weekend. Sounds promising. Hopefully I’ll have time to check it out.

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The Tyranny of the Undecided Voter

Just a quick reference to an Alan Wolfe New York Times op-ed piece from the 2000 election, “The Tyranny of the Undecided Voter.” I may ask my students to read this essay later in the semester, but not just yet.

Update: My colleague’s monitor seems to be working fine for now (knock on virtual wood). I’m not sure I’ll use the Wood essay in my class bceause it’s talking about the 2000 election, but it’s worth storing in my blog memory. Thanks to Amy Sullivan, guest blogger at Political Animal.

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A Puff of Smoke

Just a quick note to explain potential short-term silence on the blog and via email. Last night my monitor blew out (following in the foosteps of my modem, speakers, and DVD player). While I was writing my Fight Club paper, I heard a sudden popping sound, the image on the screen contracted, and then a puff of smoke rose out of the top of my monitor. Perhaps that’s a sign that I shouldn’t be talking about Fight Club after all.

I don’t think this was an electrical problem, however. There were no storms last night, and nothing else on the computer was effected, as far as I can tell. Any guesses about what might have happened. Could a monitor just shut down like that (it is about three or four years old)? The good news: I may be able to borrow a monitor from a colleague for a while.

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Politics of Nostalgia

I went to see Collateral last night at one of those massive metroplexes last night. I’m planning to review the film later, but right now I just want to mention my curiosity about a new show, Jack and Bobby, that was advertised during the highly annoying pre-preview Regal Cinemas commercial fest, “The Twenty.”

In an entry to Atlanta Metroblog, I discussed my initial reaction to the show. The title of the show initially led me to believe that the show is actually about John and Robert Kennedy as children. We know from the preview that one of the two boys grows up to become president. They grow up in a wealthy New England family. Even if the show is set in the present and is not based on the Kennedy story, it’s impossible not to read their history into the show due to the show’s title and the basic story of the series. In my original entry, I wrote:

Despite my aversion to “The Twenty,” I did find myself intrigued by one of the shows they advertised, a new WB show called Jack and Bobby, made by the creative people behind Everwood and Dawson’s Creek (I’ve never seen these shows, but I’ve heard they’re pretty good). The show focuses on Jack and Bobby McCallister when they are children and seems to ask whether or not their future “greatness” can be seen when they are children, but of course, the family really repesents the Kennedys, something the preview clearly tried to gloss. It’s an odd election-year fantasy, nostalgic for some ostensibly more innocent form of politics (which begs the question: how will it deal with Joe Kennedy’s business connections?). The other notable creative decision was the choice to essentially write Ted (and half a dozen other brothers and sisters) out of the show. Based on the clips I saw and the promotional photo for the show, it’s like Ted doesn’t even exist. Now I don’t expect TV shows to be historically accurate, and gauzy nostalgic shows about a more innocent past are always going to remember selectively. But it seems that for the premise of this show to succeed, it has to write Ted out of the picture. Otherwise we have a connection to the contemporary political scene, and the nostalgia concept would no longer be quite as possible.

Part of the sensation of nostalgia grew out of the show’s aesthetics, which clearly tried to evoke a kind of timelessness, particularly through fashion and setting. In this context, there also seems to be some degree of nostalgia for a certain kind of economy that allows a “blue-blood” family like the Kennedys (in this case the McCallisters) to be portrayed without the ironic distance of someone like Paris Hilton (I may be guessing a bit here, after all it was a 2-minute preview). Finally, Jack and Bobby is told via flashbacks from the mid-21st century (via interviews with the future White House staff), which I imagine will structurally impose a nostalgic storytelling mode onto the show.

And of course the fact that the show is based on fictional characters allows them complete license to depart completely from the Kennedy myth if they choose. Even so, the complete erasure of Teddy from the story seems significant, and I think it’s due almost entirely to the fact that he’s still a public figure, and one who evokes a broad range of responses (oh, and I just realized that the show essentially will write Joe, Sr. out by giving Jack and Bobby a single mother). Jack and Bobby Kennedy have the “safety” of distance to make them more easily representable televisually. This speculation is not to suggest that I have already decided that Jack and Bobby will be a “bad” show. On the contrary, I’m very interested to see how it uses past political figures to navigate a contemporary political moment. I might even try to remember to watch it.

Update: I’ve been getting tons of hits for this entry, and it’s not one of my best, so I’m changing the title of it.

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Promotion and Tenure

To answer George’s call for blog entries explaining how an English department works, I’ll start by pointing to Jimbo’s entry, “The Tenure File.” I’m not yet in a tenure-track position, but from my understanding, Jimbo’s suggestions illustrate the factors that English departments use in determining whether or not to award tenure to a junior faculty member.

Tenure is important because it protects the academic freedom of the professor, preventing him or her from being fired for holding politically unpopular opinions (note: the Wikipedia explanations of tenure and academic freedom are also good starting points on this topic). The tenure system has often been criticized because it is believed that many professors become negligent or lazy once they have achieved tenure (which is probably part of a larger cultural perception that professors don’t work very hard), but it’s my observation that most tenured professors continue to work very hard to contribute to their field and to provide the best classroom experience possible for their students.

For readers who are less familiar with how English departments work, tenure-track professors are given from five to seven years, depending on the university, to earn tenure based on publications, teaching, and departmental service:

Publication expectations may vary based on the university’s teaching requirements and national reputation, but most top research universities require that applicant publish a book (although this policy is the source of controversy right now because of tighter budgets at most university presses) and several articles in respected academic journals. Jimbo also suggests that junior faculty keep track of citations of their published work. If a tenure applicant can demonstrate that his or her work has been widely quoted or has become influential in some way, then that will help to support the tenure application.

Universities also require professors to demonstrate their effectiveness in the classroom. Strong teaching evaluations can be very helpful here (some professors who have a lighter publication portfolio often benefit here). This effectiveness can also be demonstrated through syllabi, sample assignments, and samples of graded work.

Service work is the final major factor and includes committee work (looking at grad student applications, etc) as well as participating in the intellectual life of the department by bringing in guest speakers, setting up a lecture or film series, and so forth.

Of course, as the Wikipedia entry on tenure points out, a large percentage of English department faculty positions are adjunct or non-tenure track professorships, most of which pay less, offer fewer benefits, and require a significantly larger teaching load than tenure-track faculty members.

Suggestions and clarifications to this explanation are welcome.

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Art and Politics in America

Bloggers and journalists are still talking about the number of political (read “liberal” or “left”) documentaries and plays that have been making the rounds this year. The New York Times uses the upcoming release of John Sayles’ latest film (IMDB), which I can’t wait to see, as an excuse to revisit this topic one more time and to review many of the key films that comprise this cycle. For the most part, the article focuses on the documentaries, most of which were made and financed outside of Hollywood. At the same time, in the blogosphere, Chris of Left Center Left, reports that David Adesnik of Oxblog still seems to buy the myth of “liberal Hollywood.” Chris then patiently explains why this characterization of Hollywood is wrong (note: Adesnik’s comment was prompted by Kevin Drum’s list of eleven anti-Bush or anti-conervative films that have appeared in the last year).

From Caryn James’ Times article: Sayles’ Silver City is a political satire, which focuses on a candidate running for governor Colorado who bears a remarkable resemblance to a certain former governor of Texas, and uses this framework, according to the article, to reflect on campaign finance, corporate corruption, journalistic responsibility, and other important political issues through a detective plot (while you’re in the neighborhood, the film’s official site, set up like a campaign home page, is lots of fun). Other upcoming explicitly pro-Kerry (or anti-Bush) films include Bush’s Brain, a documentary about Bush strategist, Karl Rove, and the pro-Kerry doc, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, which honestly sounds less interesting.

James is no doubt correct to note that the degree of opposition to the president is due in large part to the fact that he is in power. The Republican right wasn’t exactly silent when Bill Clinton was in power, as Jerry Falwell’s The Clinton Chronicles, to name one notorious example, illustrates (I remember watching an infomercial in which Falwell was selling this film and getting chills–and not because of anything that the film alleges about the Clintons). But I think James’ article and most characterizations of this phenomena have been far too reductive to characterize it as mere “Bush-bashing,” as James does. For most of these documentaries, especially the better ones, the political commitments run much deeper than dislike for Bush, a trend I expect to continue in Silver City.

For the most part, these left political commitments are incompatible with Hollywood’s focus on profits over personal statements, something that no doubt also effects TV’s potential for producing edgier political fare (a problem that James discusses), and most of these films have been produced outside of Hollywood. And as Chris notes, the center of documentary production in in New York, not Los Angeles. Whether this is a new phenomenon, I’m not entirely sure. Certainly, the 1970s saw an incredible rise in activist documentary filmmaking, with the work of D.A. Pennbacker, the Maysles, and Barbara Kopple, most prominent among many others, but it seems clear that something is happening. Whether this is because “distributors are seeing a niche market and are filling it,” as Chris suggests, or because of cheaper and lighter equipment allowing more people to make and distribute films (the MoveOn phenomenon), I’m not sure. I’m certainly happy to see all of these new films becoming available and raising arguments that are often neglected in nightly news broadcasts.

Finally, many conservatives have mused that these political films have made little difference (see Adesnik’s comment). I’m not sure how “effectiveness” would be measured when talking about a documentary film. If we’re talking mere quantitative numbers, F9/11 clearly had a massive audience, while other documentaries, such as Control Room, have done quite well. If we’re talking about changing the election, I think that’s pretty much impossible to predict. There are too many variables at stake to make any credible determination that this cycle of political films has made a clear difference. If we’re talking about changing the national political conversation, however, I think the answer is obvious. Moore’s film has been in the media spotlight for months, and even if he has taken a beating from the right (and some people on the left), political filmmaking has been in the news for months. The arguments raised by this diverse body of films have clearly shifted the political discourse, especially about the role of the media in covering politics, and I think that’s a pretty big deal.

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Opening Day, 2004-05

Yesterday was my first day of teaching for fall semester, and I think the class meetings went pretty well. I was unable to fall asleep Monday night, causing most of the day to be shrouded in a fog of sleepiness, but meeting with students for the first time is usually very enjoyable (as it was this time). Each of the three classes very quickly began to gain personalities, and I can imagine each of the three sections having very different, but all very productive, discussions of rhetoric and democracy.

To celebrate finishing my first day of teaching, I went with a new colleague to see a free preview screening of The Blind Swordsman: Zatôichi (IMDB) sponsored by a local radio station that plays all the hits. It was a great way to relax after a long first day of teaching. My knowledge of Japanese film, and samurai film specifically, is limited, but I very much enjoyed director Takeshi Kitano’s slightly irreverent take on this genre. I learned afterwards that the film is based on, or updates, a popular Japanese film series, but what I most enjoyed about the film was its use of self-conscious moments where the director seemed to be winking at the camera, such as an early scene in which the sound of four farmers hoeing a field becomes syncopated with the rhythm on the soundtrack. The winking jokes about a blind swordsman (apologies for the bad pun) were also very enjoyable, and the film’s musical numbers add to the film’s pleasure. In reading through some of the film’s reviews, I haven’t come across this comparison, but in an odd way, the film reminded me of Juzo Itami’s Tampopo, not so much on a thematic level, but because of the playfulness and self-consciousness present in both films.

Still trying to shake the cobwebs this morning, er, I mean afternoon. Even though I’ve been teaching all summer, I think it will take a week or so to get back into the routine this fall.

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Democracy Matters

I just realized why the title “Democracy Matters” sounded so familiar. Golden State Warriors basketball player, Adonal Foyle, has a foundation called “Democracy Matters.” I believe I’m going to keep the blog URL, but I should probably at least change the title of the blog to avoid confusion. Doh! What makes this strange is that I thought I Googled that title last night to make sure that nobody was using it. Very strange.

I had planned to blog about Foyle’s Democracy Matters a few months ago. I was intrigued by an interview I’d read with Foyle in AlterNet and appreciated his commitment to getting young people involved in politics and his support of progressive causes. I’ll certainly provide students with a link to the real Democracy Matters because he’s doing some interesting work and talking about democracy in a way that I find valuable.

Any suggestions for a new title?

Update: I’ve tentatitively decided to change the blog title to Rhetoric and Democracy, at least for tonight. Hopefully I’ll think of something better tomorrow.

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