Archive for September, 2004

Product Placement in the Movies

Matt Dentler has a link to a new website, Brandcameo, asite dedicated to tracking “product placement” in Hollywood films. It’s an interesting site, and not all brand placements are positive, as the website’s entry on F9/11 suggests. More later, perhaps, when I have a little more time.

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More Documentary Buzz

Jonathan Caoette’s Tarnation continues to get good buzz from Back Row Manifesto and from Eugene Hernandez. So, if the film gods are listening, please bring this movie to Atlanta soon.

Meanwhile, Steve Rosenbaum has a blog entry, “Media ‘Balance” and Docs,” which discusses the popularity of F9/11, Outfoxed, and other docs that criticize contemporary media, before mentioning the new George Butler documentary on the early days of John Kerry’s career, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry. Rosenberg speculates that

This will be interesting – because Vietnam isn’t the kind of topic that brings people out to the theatres… but this is an opportunity to cast a vote with a $10 movie ticket… should be interesting… maybe even a surprise if it exceeds expectations…

I’m actually inclined to believe that the Vietnam stuff could have the opposite effect, bringing audiences into the theaters. After all, the news media hasn’t been able to stop talking about Vietnam for months (the Swift Boat stuff finally seems to have faded), and I think people are generally interested in that era of American politics.

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Teaching the Election

Many of my regular readers may know that I’m teaching my freshman composition class using an election theme. The classes seem to be going well–lots of great conversations, and many of the students in my classes are asking good questions, raising valuable concerns, and doing lots of independent reading on the election.

All that being said, this should be an exciting week for my students. On Wednesday night, my students will attend a talk by Vince Keenan, the founder of Publius.org, about electronic democracy (Chris linked to the announcement and map several weeks ago). Should be a rewarding lecture, and it’s open to the public, so I encourage all Atlanta bloggers to show up.

Thursday, my colleague and I will combine our classes for a discussion of youth voting led by Vince. My students and I have already begun talking about various debates about voting, so combining the classes should make for an interesting discussion. Then on Thursday evening, our classes will be watching the debates together, followed by a discussion before student (and teacher) perceptions are affected by the post-debate spinners. All of these activities should be very cool. I’m looking forward to hearing Vince, and I think it will be interesting to watch the debates with such a large group of people.

Then, I’m going to take a deep breath and start doing some heavy-duty writing.

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Blogging and Journalism

Andrew Cline and Jay Manifold have recently announced a cool new concept (and I’d say that, even if I wasn’t participating), 411blog.net, a blog designed to cultivate the relationship between the blogosphere and more traditional media. Cline and Manifold write:

Reporters can use it to quickly authenticate highly technical or specialized story elements with subject-matter experts (SMEs) drawn from the best the blogosphere has to offer, including academics, business people, scientists, and lay experts of all kinds.

Bloggers can use 411blog.net to nominate subject-matter experts, build trust with traditional media, and increase their standing in the blogosphere.

I’m excited about this project in part because I think it’s a great way to increase conversation, not only between bloggers and traditional media, but also between academics and non-academics, a topic George has been discussing for some time now. I encourage everyone to check out Andrew and Jay’s announcement and to consider nominating some of your fellow bloggers for this cool new project.

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Bus 174

Bus 174 (IMDB) is a powerful documentary which depicts a hostage crisis in Rio de Janeiro when 21-year old street person, Sandro do Nascimento, holds several bus passengers hostage for several hours after a botched robbery attempt. The underequipped and untrained police force were unable to secure the area around the bus, and the media quickly picked up the story, broadcasting the story live for several hours on Brazilian TV. Director José Padilha uses the raw footage of the event, creating a sense of liveness and intensity unparalleled in recent film.

Because he generally avoids using the media coverage itself, he avoids turning his documentary into yet another film about media spectacle, instead choosing to focus on the class and race antagonisms that played out during this frightening afternoon. Mixing raw footage with talking heads interviews with police officers, hostages, social workers, and sociologists, as well as Sandro’s family and friends , Padilha produces a haunting account of life in Brazil for an “invisible” person like Sandro. Early in the film, we learn that Sandro watched as his mother, who ran a small business, was mugged and killed when he was six years old. Because he never knew his father, Sandro turns to the streets, living among the street gangs that roam the city, robbing people for food, clothes, and in Sandro’s case, drugs.

We later learn that, as a teenager, Sandro survived a notorious police massacre of several street kids, and Sandro’s case worker and his aunt explain that Sandro spent some time in prison for his crimes. Late in the film, the conditions in Brazil’s prisons are brought vividly to life in a short sequence in which Padiho goes into a prison. People are stacked on top of each other in crowded cells, with forty people in a space meant for ten or so. The prisoners scream about abusive guards. Others tell us that their food is rotten, that they cannot get medical help, or that they cannot contact legal counsel. This entire sequence, filmed in the negative mode that switches black with white, making the jail seem utterly horrific. As Roger Ebert describes it:

nothing in the work of Bosch or the most abysmal horror films prepares us for these images.

The film builds to a bleak and horrifying conclusion, one that is clearly anticiapted by the interviews, but one that still left me feeling completely hollow. I don’t think I’ve been this deeply unsettled by a film in a long time. Most reviewers have compared Bus 174 to City of God, but while City portrays a similar milieu, this documentary, with its raw footage, often unfolding in real time, had a far more powerful effect on me.

As J. Hoberman notes, Bus 174 does have an important subtext in Sandro’s awareness of the emdia coverage. His constant insistence that what we’re seeing is “not a movie,” that it’s not a Hollywood action film, seems crucial. Sandro seems aware of his media image, even to the point of asking his hostages to participate in the performance. I’m not quite sure yet how to reconcile Sandros’ performance with the film’s clear attempts to address Rio’s problems with unemployment and poverty, but it’s an important element of the film. Bus 174, with its troubling images of poverty and violence, is going to stick with me for a long time.

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Tarnation Revisited

Just a qick link to this New York Times article on Jonathan Caouette, whose documentary, Tarnation, was a popular success at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. I discussed this film several months ago after it was mentioned in cinema minima, and now that I’m working on my Capturing the Friedmans paper, I’m really intrigued by this concept. Caoette’s self-documentary uses video footage (he recorded over 160 hours) to tell the story of his difficult youth.

Like David Friedman who videotaped his family’s arguments to gain an emotional distance from what was happening, Caouette comments in an interview: “I used the camera as a way to disassociate myself from what I was being subjected to,” adding that “I began turning the camera on my family as a way of dealing with it.” Caoette also notes that he carefully labelled the tapes he made, believing they would be valuable at some point.

I also found Caoette’s discussion of the editing process interesting. In the Times article, he explains that several “subplots” of his life story were removed, including the information that he has a 9-year old son. He also notes his initial discomfort with releasing his film to a wider audience, fearing that he might be exploiting his family’s story.

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Fog City at the Eyedrum

Just a reminder to try to catch Fog City on Wednesday September 29, at 8 PM at The Eyedrum. I probably won’t be able to make it because of a prior commitment , but it sounds like a really cool idea:

In an era of globalization, our mental maps of cities have become dynamic montages emanating from literature, film, advertisements, news programs, television and personal anecdotes. Consequently, the image of the city is never homogenous, segregated or totalizing. In this milieu, the idea of place is a constantly unfolding event scene that simultaneously connects many spaces and levels of abstractions.

Music By: Robert Cheatham & Friends, others
Featured Text: Samuel Beckett, “Text for Nothing #8,” 1958. Spoken by Jack MacGowan.

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Blogging as Temporal Montage

This is just a quick entry to make a quick connection between Kylie Jarrett’s interesting discussion of blogs as a form of “temporal montage” and my own, somewhat disorganized, thoughts on that subject. Jarrett describes a link to an earlier entry as a type of “flashback,” which seems like a promising way of thinking about the temporality of blogging. Speaking of flashbacks, this is the entry that marks the beginning of a conversation with Weez, so it’s nice to revisit that part of my past.

These issues aren’t really relevant to the paper I’m working on right now, but I’d like to return to these ideas at some point when I’m less swamped.

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Writing for the Public: Students and Blogging

Very slow start today after a late night of fending off computer viruses and a long afternoon of following Purdue’s too-close-for-comfort victory over Illinois, but I’ve been working on my blogging paper (more info on the conference) for most of the afternoon and wanted to collect a few of my thoughts. I’ve been reading through some of the essays from the terrific Into the Blogosphere collection, and many of the essays seem to have something relevant to my blogging paper.

In “Moving to the Public: Weblogs in the Writing Classroom,” Charles Lowe and Terra Williams emphasize the value of weblogs in teaching students to write for the public, arguing that students will become more effective writers if they are writing for public audiences on the Internet. In this context, they quote Catherine Smith, who argues that students “take real-world writing more seriously when it is done on the web, where it might actually be seen and used” (2000, p. 241).* I tend to agree that public writing requires a greater sense of responsibility and that students, once they have completed the blogging “learning curve,” usually take this kind of public writing more seriously than the journals that were submitted directly to me.

They add that public writing also “deemphasizes teacher authority” (Bruffee), again requiring students to take more responsibility for their writing. Again, I think I’ve had a fairly similar experience, although I would add that my experience with teaching blogging last fall seemed to have the effect of creating a shared identity for the entire class, especially after other bloggers began commenting on the class in their weblogs or via email. As my initial comments suggest, I was not expecting that kind of attention in the blogosphere, but the other bloggers’ comments about my class assignment ultimately cemented lessons about audience that few textbooks could reproduce.

Lowe and Williams also compare the use of weblogs to the newly popular group hypertext project at the end of the semester, noting many of the reservations I’ve had about teaching these kinds of projects. Like them, I’ve had great success with group-authored weblogs at the end of the semester, especially if students have been writing in their personal blogs all semester. Group “hypertext projects” also tend to “require specialized software,” such as Dreamweaver, thus requiring students to work on a central computer. As they note, students also have to learn how to use these tools, while most blogging software is fairly easy to use. Often one student will become the default tech support person for that group, taking on a disproportionate amount of work. In addition, Lowe and Williams note that these projects also encourage the overuse of “eye-candy,” such as Macromedia Flash, instead of concentrating on writing. I do have some mixed feelings here in that Lowe and Williams seem to privilege the word (“content”) over the image (“eye candy”), but their basic argument is one that guides my own decision to use gorup-authored weblogs instead of the hypertext project.

The major objection I’ve encountered to this use of public writing is that it opens up the student to the “unknown outside,” an openness that may be somewhat intimidating. As Nick carbone notes in the comments to their essay, writing for the public “needs to be a student’s choice.” Nick adds later that he wants students to feel “free to say dumb and embarrassing things” without worrying about those things appearing on the web. It’s a legitimate concern, and I’ve addressed it in part by allowing students to publish under a pseudonym known to the rest of the class. I’d also note that I’ve tried to structure my blogging assignments so that students don’t feel required to complete any single assignment that makes them feel uncomfortable. In my current election course, Rhetoric and Democracy, I’ve given my students free reign to blog about any article they wish as long as it pertains to the election. That may not completely liberate students from their discomfort in writing for the public, but it does allow students to avoid the discomfort of writing about their personal lives on the web (note: Terra Williams, in her comments, mentions taking a similar approach).

I hadn’t planned to write so much about this topic here. It’s one of the major arguments of my paper, though, and Lowe and Williams provide a nice framework for asking many of the right questions. By the way, if you’ve read this far, I’d appreciate it if you dropped by and read some of my students’ blog entries (linked in the sidebar of my course blog), just so they know there’s an audience out there taking their writing seriously.

* Smith, Catherine. (2000). Nobody, which means anybody: Audience on the world wide web. In Sibylle Gruber (Ed.), Weaving a virtual web: Practical approaches to new information technologies (pp. 239-249). Urbana: NCTE.

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The Democratization of Celebrity

This afternoon I had one of those happy accidents when my research on one project triangulated with research on another, seemingly unrelated project. While doing some last-minute research for my conference paper on weblogs in the composition classroom, I came across Carolyn R. Miller and Dawn Shepherd’s article, “Blogging as Social Action: A Genre Analysis of the Weblog,” from the Into the Blogosphere collection, in which they discuss the genre of blogging in terms of the blurring of the boundary between public and private.

In the article, Miller and Shepherd describe Bill Clinton’s presidency in terms of Clinton’s removal of “barriers between himself and the voting public,” as illustrated by his appearance on MTV where he answered the “boxers or briefs” question, but also by the exposure of his private life to the public eye through the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. At the same time, Miller and Shepherd point to other examples of the weakening of the boundary between public and private such as webcams and reality TV, a trend they describe as “the democratization of celebrity.” Miller and Shepherd proceed to discuss this “democratization” in terms of what Clay Calvert refers to as “mediated voyeurism” (I actually find this concept problematic in that I’m not sure if voyeurism can be “unmedaited”), arguing that “although often associated with sexual gratification, voyeurism more generally strikes us as an unseemly interest in others as curiosities, not as moral equals.” Miller and Shepherd then discuss how this phenomenon of “mediated voyeurism” plays out in weblogs, many of which offer fairly explicit accounts of people’s private lives for public consumption. In this context, I’d guess that the Washingtonienne story broke after they published the article, but it’s perhaps the best illustration possible of this dynamic at work, especially when we take into account the rather stark denunciations of Cutler’s actions (or, more precisely, the amount of attention Jessica Cutler has received for her actions).

At the same time, they make a connection between voyeurism and our desire for truth or authenticity. Blogs became so poular so quickly in part because of a general skepticism, from both the right and the left, towards mainstream media, and many bloggers seem to offer an authenticity missing from commercial media. The best example here would probably be the popularity of Salam Pax, Riverbend, and other Iraqi bloggers who offer (or offered) a much more personal, and therefore more compelling, narrative of the war in Iraq. Of course, it’s important to note that their stories provide only the illusion of immediacy and are clearly mediated by the weblog genre.

I introduce their argument at length (and to be honest I haven’t yet finished reading their essay) because it brings into focus one of the central questions I want to address in my essay on Andrew Jarecki’s documentary film, Capturing the Friedmans. I think it’s pretty clear that Jarecki’s film participates in this “mediated voyeurism,” presenting the Friedmans as objects of curiosity, whether or not he tried to avoid this representation of the Friedman family. This “mediated voyeurism” is most obviously visible in the scenes that use home movies captured by the Friedman family, especially in the scenes in which David Friedman videotapes his family as they devolve into bitter arguments and divisions between family members.

One of Miller and Shepherd’s most important points, in this context, is their observation that this voyeurism isn’t really possible without willing objects, thus offering “media exhibitionism” as a complementary concept. Here they discuss the motivations for this exhibitionism, and in terms of Capturing the Friedmans, there’s certainly a lot to discuss here, especially given the degree to which most members of the Friedman family are conscious of themselves as performers, not only in terms of their carefully scripted family videos but also in terms of David’s career choice as a party clown. Of course, the Friedman family is also motivated by their desire to help Jesse in the fight to clear his name (at several points, even as a young adult, he discusses the possibility of going public with the case and trying it in the media).

For now, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to use this entry as a launching point for thining about the conference paper, but it also seems relevant that my research on blogs and my research on documentary film seem to be meeting at this intersection between the public and the private, as well as the intersection between truth and fiction. Meeting my parents for dinner in a few minutes, so I don’t have much more time to work on this entry, but again, I’m hoping to use this entry to frame some of the questions that I’ll be asking, especially in my Capturing the Friedmans paper.

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News on the March

Check it out: I’m quoted in an article on academic blogging in The Guardian. So are several other cool people whose blogs I’ve been reading for a long time. Here’s the section of the article where I’m quoted (but you should go read the whole article):

In the same vein, Charles Tryon (http://chutry.wordherders.net) gets students to blog for a first year composition course he teaches at the school of literature, communication and culture at Georgia Tech in America. Last year, they kept personal blogs. This year, they are working on group blogs while Tryon coordinates the class via a blog (http://democracymatters.blogspot.com), which points students to relevant material online. He suggests that blogging – reading and writing posts, following links and discussions – encourages students to think critically about technology and how it affects the way we write and think.

Tryon adds that “blogs are no substitute for class discussion”. Some suggest that eventually, blogs will become just one part of the general digital tool kit available to teachers. Others suspect they may have more lasting effects on academia.

Not sure I have much to say about the actual content of the article right now. I think Jim McClellan has done a good job of describing the ways in which blogs have been used by academics. I’ll add that, like Jill, I’ve tried to use blogs to bring students into a “larger debate that extends far beyond the classroom.” My current composition classes have been focused on writing and reading about the upcoming election, and I’m hoping that blogs can be a useful way of helping students to engage with that debate.

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Michael Mann on Los Angeles

Grading marathon is done, so tonight I’ve been trying to relax a bit. A few weeks ago, I made the observation that Collateral seemed to be very much about the city of Los Angeles, and in a recent interview, director Michael Mann talks about how LA functions in Collateral and his earlier film, Heat:

Los Angeles is relatively undiscovered as a location for pictures. It has its own pattern of culture which is almost like travelling on the internet – when you visit websites you journey through some kind of interstitial space and the domains are not contiguous. I think LA is the most exciting contemporary city in the United States, but you have to know where to go. And a lot of Angelinos don’t.

Not much to add here, but I find the discussion of “interstitial space” interesting here. I think his film really capures that, with the scenes at the blues club and the Korean night club especially. Also cool: Mann’s discussion about his choice to use DV for nearly 80% of the film, particularly his characterization of DV as a more “painterly medium” than film. Thanks to GreenCine for the link.

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Sunday Morning Coming Down

I’ve got to start grading, so I don’t have time for a full post, but I’m looking forward to reading Michael Bérubé’s discussion of Tom Frank’s latest book What’s the Matter with Kansas?. I remember reading the Salon interview with Frank a few months ago that Michael mentions in his blog entry:

You have a whole critique of pop culture that is difficult to summarize, but let’s talk more about your sympathy with the right-wing activists. When they bemoan how coarse and cheap pop culture has become, you almost seem to agree, or at least to feel that they have a certain kind of point.

Well, look. I should say this: I started out as a punk rocker, and we try to deal with cultural dissent, genuinely shocking things, at the Baffler. But as I have written about many, many times, so much of the shockery that surrounds us is not genuine. There’s no avant-garde about it. It’s not the real thing, it’s a watered-down capitalist projection. You’ve seen this argument before, “the commodification of dissent.”

The argument I’m making is not that they’re absolutely right to be disgusted by our culture—although when I’m away from the country and I come back and turn on MTV, I’m always like, “Holy shit!” I’m just trying to play up the flagrant contradiction. If you hate this stuff, talk about capitalism! Talk about the forces that do it! I’m focusing on the contradiction there, rather than accepting their argument about obscenity or whatever.

Right, so your real problem is with the kind of cultural-studies intellectual who believes that pop culture really is subversive.

Yes, exactly. The cultural studies people read these products of capitalism as face value. They see fake rebellion as the real thing. To put it in very vulgar terms, that’s the argument.

Madonna kissing Britney is somehow actually socially meaningful.

Right, exactly. And the heartland people often see it that way also. I’m saying it’s not that, it is as pure an expression of business rationality as is a McDonald’s hamburger.

While I’d certainly agree that the Madonna-Britney kiss is far from subversive, I’d argue that his characterization of cultural studies here is pretty misrepresentative. I doubt there are many serious cultural studies cholars who will read that event without thinking about the dollar signs that framed it. I’d planned to blog this interview when it first appeared, but never found the time, and right now, I really do need to be working on other things.

Also just wanted to note that the comments in Michael’s post led me to UC Irvine film and media professor Catherine Liu’s very cool blog, Don’t Ask Me!, which I’ll read regulalry from now on.

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Silver City

John Sayles’ Silver City (IMDB) has been describd as the latest entry in the Bush-bashing film cycle, and while that sentiment is certainly there, the film operates more effectively as an Altmanesque satire of politics through the detective genre. The film also ends with one of the most interesting final shots I’ve seen all year (I’m finding it hard to describe without giving anything away, but that shot alone was worth the price of admission for me).

Chris Cooper, playing the Bush-like Dickie Pilager, a canddiate for governor in Colorado, appears more as a cipher, almost devoid of personality. You get the usual jokes (“he’s a big picture guy;” “he doesn’t read much”), and Dickie Pilager, like George W. Bush, comes from a prominent political family and has ties to mysterious wealthy businessmen (including the CEO of “Bentel,” rather than Bechtel). Dickie is shepherded by a controlling campaign chief, Chuck Raven, who might remind you of a certain Bush administration official. But if the film had remained firmly within this level of satire, I’m not sure that I would have enjoyed it, and it would have had little to say about American politics. Instead, Silver City focuses on a murder mystery plot, allowing Sayles to unearth many of the contradictions–race, social class, citizenship, etc–that cannot be reconciled very easily.

During the film’s opening sequence, we see Pilager filming a campaign advertisement meant to convey his commitment to the environment. He’s supposed to be fishing in a shimmering lake, perfectly framed by the mountains behind him, while wearing the LL Bean clothes that make him look like an everyday guy. While filming the commercial, Dickie’s fishing line accidentally hooks a corpse, and the nervous Chuck Raven quickly leaps into action, getting Pilager away from the scene to avoid the appearance of scandal. He then hires Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston in his first leading role), a typically down-on-his-luck detective, to conspicuously follow three people who might try to fabricate a scandal for the candidate just a few weeks before the election.

Danny is a former reporter, someone who was committed to the kind of investigative reporting that now seems lost. He refers back to the Big Story he’d uncovered, but then when the newspaper went public, his anonymous sources backed down or disappeared, the newspaper got sued, and he was fired. There’s an interesting sequence early in the film when Danny goes to the darkly-lit office of his former editor, who now runs an underground internet newspaper, with several post-hippie employees working as reporters. This news source contrasts with the commercial newspaper where Nora, Danny’s ex, works. Nora struggles to be critical of Pilager’s campaign, but because she is dispatched out to watch Pilager repeat the same stump speech over and over again, she has no real opportunity for true reporting. Perhpas making things more troubling, she’s engaged to a prominent state lobbyist for a real estate group. While it’s not the major concern of the film, these sequences offer an important critique of much of the media coverage of American politics.

Danny visits each of the three people he’s supposed to “investigate,” first meeting with a conservative shock radio host who thinks that Pilager is too liberal. He then talks to a mining engineer who knows that Silver City, a planned community, is being built on an abandoned mine filed with toxic chemicals. Finally, he talks to Dickie’s sister (well played by Daryl Hannah), the family’s black sheep daughter who smokes pot and trains for the Olympic archery team. In trying to put all of the pieces together, Danny begins mapping the story out, literally drawing the connections between the major players on his living room wall, allowing Danny to “map” the relationships between the media, politics, law enforcement, water rights, and real estate, creating the image of an informal conspiracy (some of these connections also reminded me of Polanski’s Chinatown, another film that uses the detective plot in a similar way). By “informal,” I mean that many of these connections are only loosely articulated and that there is no official puppet master pulling the strings.

This is where Silver City reminds me of Altman’s “big” films with dozens of characters and multiple subplots, but as with Sayles’ City of Hope and Lone Star (two of the most underrated films of the 1990s in my opinion), these connections serve to underscore some of the contradictions of social class, race, and citizenship in the United States. These contradictions become most evident when Danny discovers that the person found in the lake was an illegal immigrant from Mexico, exploited as cheap labor, and that all of the witnesses who could talk about the crime would not be protected if they spoke out against the criminals.

Like many of Sayles’ films, especially Lone Star and Limbo, Silver City’s ending is one of the film’s major strengths. I won’t say anything else about it above the fold, but to me it presents one of the major interpretive challenges of the film. Some possible spoilers below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Everybody Knows

I’m still in the middle of my grading marathon, so no time for blogging. Late last night, I did come across a cool Guardian article celebrating Leonard Cohen’s 70th birthday. Cohen’s one of my favorite musicians, and it’s good to see him still writing and recording interesting music.

Things may be quiet around here for some time, as I’m going to be very busy over the next few weeks while I catch up on grading, prepare for the job market, and finish up a couple of conference papers.

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