Archive for November, 2004

Kinsey

Went to see Kinsey (IMDB), the biopic about Indiana University biology professor Alfred Kinsey, last night. Kinsey was a pioneer researcher in human sexual behavior, traveling across the country and interviewing thousands of people about their sexual practices. Not surprisingly, Kinsey’s research led to tremendous controversy, with the film emphasizing that the biologist eventually lost his funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. I’d been looking forward to this film for some time, in part because of my relatively recent interest in Kinsey, whose files are still housed in the Indiana University library where I sometimes did research, but also because I really liked Bill Condon’s previous film, Gods and Monsters, which offered an unusal take on the biopic in its treatment of filmmaker James Whale.

But for some reason, Kinsey disappointed me. As David Edelstein (who liked Kinsey a lot more than I did) points out, biography films are often very difficult to do well, especially when trying to impose a three-act structure onto a human life. Edelstein does identify the film’s (and the researcher’s) important contribution to discussions of sexuality, in which Kinsey challenged the practice of promoting “morality disguised as fact.” While Kinsey’s research initially challenged the sex education courses and books of the 1930s and ’40s (including the puritanical myths that oral sex could cause sterility), Condon reminds us of the relevance of Kinsey’s phrase for the contemporary cultural moment, as J. Hoberman points out in his review of the film (Hoberman’s review has the added bonus of quoting French philosopher George Bataille).

Perhaps the reason I found Kinsey unsatisfying was the clinical distance with which it treated the subject matter of human sexuality. I realize that this distance is meant to reproduce Kinsey’s own scientific detachment, the extent to whcih he sought to remove all emotional attachments from sexual behavior (the film emphasizes and implictly criticizes the fact that he encouraged his assistants to participate in spouse-swapping). I also felt that the film abandoned Kinsey’s relationship with his children just when it became interesting. An outdoor dinner sequence in which Kinsey talks frankly with his children about their sex lives, embarrassing his son, suggests that his scientific frankness might have caused problems in his family, but we never really see his children on-screen again. Nor do we get a clear sense of Kinsey’s personality. There are some flashbacks to his childhood, in which his father was a Methodist minister who preaches ahgainst all manner of sexual activity, including brothels, and even (gasp!) zippers, but as Stephanie Zacharek of Salon notes, this Kinsey seems “more palatable and less interesting than the real thing.”

I was also a little disappointed in the presentation of the interview sequences. Rather than offering some interesting interviews with some of Kinsey’s subjects, Condon opts for a travel montage approach, showing a chorus of interviews against a map of the United States with lines criss-crossing the country suggesting Kinsey and his assistants’ extensive travels. The shot recalls classical Hollywood representations of train travel, but the chorus of voices ultimately made these experiences appear to be all the same, turning Kinsey’s highly specific research into a series of generalities and abstractions. In fact, this chorus, to my mind, works against the notion that “everyone is different” that Kinsey sought to convey through his research. I’d certainly still recommend Kinsey, but I can’t shake the perception that a far more interesting film could have been made, especially given the wealth of archival material Kinsey left behind.

By the way: Like David Edelstein, I also quite liked the casting of Tim Curry (of Rocky Horror fame) as a rival biologist who seeks to promote abstinence and traditional sexual morality. Also note that the film’s official website also has a link to the Kinsey Institute website.

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Classroom Blogging

Quick link for now: Austin Lingerfelt has an extended blog entry on “Classroom Blogging” as part of a project he’s working on at Texas Christian University, and I’d link to Austin’s entry even if I wasn’t quoted several times. On my way to see a movie, but I didn’t want to lose this link.

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Cover Me

George and Jim point to the Telegraph’s list of 50 greatest cover versions ever recorded. Both George and Jim note that the list (with a few exceptions) is pretty good, in that it’s not overly weighted towards contemporary songs, and many of the covers do a great job of reinterpreting the original song (Devo’s cover of “Satisfaction” and Hendrix’s reworking of “All Along the Watchtower” are two good examples).

Like George, I would have preferred Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” to his cover of U2′s “One,” although the latter is not really a bad choice. Also a good call by George: the Sundays’ reowrking of the Stone’s “Wild Horses” should have been on the list. Cassie (in George’s comments) suggests the Indigo Girls’ “Midnight Train to Georgia,” and I’m inclined to agree. It’s a great treatment of an underrated song. I would have liked to see Lyle Lovett’s cover of “Stand by Your Man,” if only because of how the song works so well in The Crying Game. Nirvana’s “Man Who Sold the World” should have also been mentioned. And if it’s accurate that Janis Joplin covered Kris Kristofferson’s “Me And Bobby McGee,” there’s no question that should be on the list.

What other cover songs would you add to the list? What are the worst cover songs ever made?

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Sideways

For reasons that I couldn’t quite put together at first, Sideways (IMDB) reminded me of About Schmidt, the Jack Nicholson RV movie. I’d forgotten, until I got home and read David Edelstein’s review, that both films were made by Alexander Payne (who also made the films Election and Citizen Ruth). Both Schmidt and Sideways are somewhat atypical “road movies,” and both films also focus on charaters who struggle with disappointment about the direction their lives have taken (see Manohla Dargis’s New York Times review). But, as Edelstein points out, Sideways lacks the smugness of Payne’s earlier films, treating the main characters, Miles (Paul Giamatti, who should find some shelf space for the acting awards he will inevitably receive) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), with sympathy, even when we laugh at the situations in which they find themselves.

Miles is a wannbe novelist whose latest book is in the process of being rejected by every publisher out there. He’s also divorced from his wife and living in a small apartment while teaching middle school English classes. Jack is a washed-up actor who is getting married in less than a week. Miles is treating Jack, his college roommate, to one last week of excitement before the wedding. They travel from LA to wine country in northern California, mostly because Miles is an oenophile, though his love for wines seems to be a cover for his alcoholism, though te film elegantly avoids judging his addiction. Jack leaves for the week’s vacation seeking a final fling (or two), and we get the feeling that his sexual adventures are also a kind of addiction.

Once they reach wine country, Miles and Jack meet two women, a waitress Miles knows, Maya (Virginia Madsen), and a wine pourer, Stephanie (Sandra Oh). Jack and Stephanie quickly hook up while Miles and Maya begin to develop a much more cautious relationship. As Miles begins to open up to Maya, he describes his love of pinot noir wines, and it’s clear that when he describes the wine that he identifies with it, perhaps to an unhealthy extreme. Meanwhile, Jack keeps his planned marriage a secret from Stephanie, telling her that he loves her and acting like a father figure towards her child. The film treats these complications carefully (and at times humorously), avoiding simply judging their actions. In this regard, Haden Church does a great job of portraying the smarmy, but essentially disappointed, actor without making Jack seem like a cliche.

I don’t want to say too much more about the film, other than to encourage others to see it (and hopefully get their comments on the film). I was a little disappointed in the film’s treatment of the female characters. Maya is a fairly well-rounded character, but she’s so attractive, it’s a little difficult to determine why she’d become involved with someone like Miles. More disappointing was that Stephanie virtually dsiappears from the film once she learns that Jack is getting married. Her character intrigued me, and I felt her story got lost at the expense of Jack and Miles. It’s not that I wanted resolution to her story (her final segment is a fairly apt critique of Jack’s behavior), I wanted to know more about her character, what motivated her, or whatever. Part of that was Sandra Oh’s performance (she’s also great in the underrated Last Night), but like Maya’s character, Stephanie sometimes seemed more like a plot device to allow the male characters to have their middle-age existential crises. Having more of their stories would have made Sideways, already very satisfying, a much fuller film, but like Dargis, the film reminded me of the “smaller” films of the 1970s before the fall into “the spell of the blockbuster imperative.”

Update I missed Chris’s review last night, but I’d agree with him that the split-screens and slow pans without payoff were a bit annoying, and, yes, the film’s jokes at the expense of the minor characters (especially the overweight waitress) weren’t deserved. And for one of the few negative reviews of the film, check out Charles (Chuck?) Taylor’s Salon review.

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Fall Tour Cityscapes

Inspired by Kieran’s Crooked Timber entry on photographs of cities, I found photographs of all the cities on my “fall tour” (including my home town): Atlanta, Roanoake, Raleigh, and New York. I’ll also be in Philadelphia for MLA. Of all the pictures I’ve linked, I prefer the photo of Atlanta, not necessarily because it’s my hometown, but because it best represents my experience of the city: stuck in traffic, close to the ground, looking up at skyscrapers, rather looking down from above. The picture is cluttered by communications towers, construction equipment, and other “eyesores.”

Tonight, I’m going to watch the Atlanta Hawks-Miami Heat game at the basketball arena, which I believe, is named after a light bulb manufacturer of some sort. Who knew that Atlanta even had a professional basketball team? Seriously, it should be lots of fun. I haven’t been to a pro basketball game in maybe 15 years (when the Hawks were actually good), and my corporate connections should put me close enough to the court to get caught in the trash-talk crossfire.

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Thanksgiving Pleasure Reading

Learned about the political satire blog, Deaf, Dumb, and Blind, last night and just wanted to give it a quick promo entry. Check out DD&B’s entry on the oldest living veteran being called back into active military duty.

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Apologies and Forgiveness

Via Salon, one website, Sorry Everybody, where US citizens apologize to the world for this year’s presidential election results, and another, Apologies Accepted, where the rest of the world responds to our apolgies. I’ve already gone on record apologizing for our election results (I’m too lazy to find the link now), and if I had a digital camera, I’d join the party at “Sorry Everybody.” The images themselves are pretty addictive, in part because most of the images are pretty simple: a close-up of someone holding a piece of notebook paper with a written apology. As the Salon comments note, the power of these images comes from the fact that many of the images are badly lit, amateur photography (the camera itself is visible in many shots), and it’s an interesting, often humorous, use of the web and digital photography to create community.

And this apology from Austria made me laugh out loud. Of course, I’m writing this entry at nearly 2 AM.

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Documentary Film Note

Still thinking about my documentary course this spring and just wanted to jot down a few notes. First, an indieWire blogger mentions two screenings he attended at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.

I’m still operating under the assumption that the course will run more smoothly if all the documentaries I show are available on DVD, especially given that not all students will be able to attend screenings, but I’m still working on the list of films that I’ll teach. I’m now almost completely certain that the course will culminate with a group project in which students produce a short documentary film using Georgia Tech’s cameras and editing equipment (iMovie and Final Cut Pro) available in the library. I’ll be thinking about these issues a lot over the next few days now that my travel and writing schedule have slowed down a bit.

I’m finding it strange to return to a somewhat normal blogging schedule this week. More later as I move towards deciding which films to show and what essays/books to assign.

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Two Conferences and a Wedding

Got back from my cousin’s wedding just a few hours ago, the weekend itself a blur of travel, conversation, food, and art. My sense of time and space is now completely confused after three consecutive weekends of plane travel. The weekend itself was pretty cool, though I wish, as always, that I’d had more time in New York City. On Friday, my family and I did manage to go into Manhattan long enough to grab a cheese slice and to tour the construction area around Ground Zero. Then, Sunday morning, while traveling to the airport, my mom, sister, and I decided to dodge the crowds at MoMA and spent the morning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art–more on that later, perhaps.

The rest of the weekend, as I mentioned, is a total blur. Travelling with my family seems to make things exponentially more difficult, and after two plane flights and a two-hour drive north into upstate New York and back, I was ready for some time alone. My father, especially, can be exhausting; he talks incessantly, nervously, enthusiastically, a constant stream of conversation with friends, family, complete strangers, anyone really, about most any topic, often making things up, usually about his family, just for the sake of a story. At some point I’d like to figure out the source of all this nervous energy, this need to talk (inabily to be silent?), but right now, I’m too tired.

The wedding itself, held in a small Episcopal church near Ghent, NY, was cool. The ceremony, the reception, and the rehearsal dinner all seemed very personalized and very much reflected the personalities of the bride and groom. My cousin, Maria, also an English teacher, chose a really cool artists’ retreat, Art Omi, to house all of the wedding guests. The groom, a big Boston Red Sox fan, chose to have guests sign a home plate from a baseball diamond rather than the standard guest book. I particularly enjoyed wandering the Sculpture Park at Art Omi, with 50-60 sculptures set off in the woods and fields of the campus. There were some cool sculptures, some visible from the road, but most hidden deep in the woods. While wandering along one of the trails early one morning (well, around 10:30 AM–early for me), we saw a doe run across a field, dodging and leaping across sculptures as it ran.

The other highlight: immediately after the wedding, my family and I stopped off at an apple orchard and stepped into the store in front. As I walked inside the store, I stmbled briefly into a giant poster for Terminator 3 somehwat incongruously hanging on one of the walls. After commenting on the strangeness of seeing such a poster several months after the movie had hit video, one of the clerks reported that the daughter of the owner had played the Terminatrix, the villainous female terminator that stalks the kinder, gentler Arnie. Naturally with such a celebrity connection, we were complelled to buy countless apples and other fruits, jams, and assorted goodies. I can say with absolute confidence that the Terminatrix’s father makes a solid apple cider. Perhaps now that I’ve consumed the apple cider, I’ll even watch the movie.

There were many other events this weekend that I ought to write about, such as the cultural mix of the groom’s Jersey family with my southern family. Or finally finishing Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, which I quite liked. But I’m not ready yet to make sense of everything that happened this weekend. Right now, it just feels like a jumble of events, of constant motion, non-stop activity, conversation, and noise.

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Kind Words

Two of my students have written blog entries about their experiences in my election-themed composition course, “Rhetoric and Democracy,” this semester. While I’ve had an incredibly busy semester, I’ve deeply enjoyed teaching the class using this approach and would certainly recommend it to other composition instructors. I’ve certainly learned a lot about the American political process from teaching it, and I’m glad to see that two of my students (Danielle and Derek) have spontaneously commented that they’ve learned a lot as well. In a one-semester course in which it’s often difficult to measure student progress, it’s pretty rewarding to get this kind of positive feedback.

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New York Suggestions?

My fall tour ends this weekend with a trip up to New York for a wedding. My family and I will be in the city Friday afternoon, Saturday night, and Sunday morning, if I remember correctly, so if anyone has any suggestions about touring exhibits, new museums, restaurants, or other cool (family friendly) things, I’d love to hear them.

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Lost in America

I returned from SAMLA late last night after a two-hour delay put me in the Atlanta airport around 11:30 PM. The flight up to Roanoake was also delayed two hours, so by the end of the weekend, I was starting to feel like that character from that Tom Hanks movie I’ll likely never see. I’ve spent so much time on the road lately that it actually took me a few minutes to realize that I was in my own bed this morning when I woke up.

The conference went pretty well in that I met several cool people and became re-acquainted with several others, including one person I met at a conference in Irvine something like seven years ago. I’ll also be chairing SAMLA’s film panel next year when the conference is in Atlanta, so that should be a lot of fun. I’m off to a meeting, so I’ll give a fuller scoop on the conference later.

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The Tour Continues

Leaving for Roanoake tomorrow for SAMLA, so little to no blogging until Sunday night.

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Monkeys, Marriage, and Madness in Georgia

Two or three political items before I jump into a writing marathon: First, Michael Ledeen of National Review Online proposes that Zell Miller replace Colin Powell as Secretary of State. Yes this Zell Miller. And that one, too (thanks to Atrios). I have to admit that seeing Zell challenge one of those “pointy-headed” European leaders to a duel is rather intriguing. I don’t think there’s any real likelihood of Miller being appointed to this office, but the story (very loosely) fit today’s Georgia politics theme.

Now, for some good old Georgia politics. Cobb County seems determined to stage a remake of the Scopes Monkey Trial, right here in Georgia. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, parents have petitioned the schools to put stickers in high school textbooks (super-annoying registration required) stating that evolution is “just a theory.” Several parents have sued the administration, arguing that such a sticker blurs the boundary between church and state. Here are the story’s basics:

“You needed a sort of balance” for discussion, Betty Gray testified in the second day of arguments in a trial over whether the disclaimers should be removed. Gray described her own beliefs about evolution as “faith-based,” and said the board intended for students to feel “an openness to bring up what they needed to.”

Six parents have sued to remove the disclaimers, arguing that the stickers cross the assumed separation of church and state because they expose students to “alternatives” to evolution that are considered unscientific — andreligious — by most scientists.

“The main issue here is quality science education,” Carlos Moreno, an Emory University molecular biologist, testified Tuesday. He had urged the Cobb school board not to use the disclaimers. “What [the disclaimer] says to students is, ‘You don’t really have to buy into this.’ ”

Attorneys for the public school system over the last two days have argued in U.S. District Court that Cobb County was within its right to regulate classroom discussion on a controversial subject, and that included the use of disclaimers in textbooks.

The AJC’s Cynthia Tucker also has a solid editorial arguing against including the stickers. Another AJC editorial offers a fuller explanation for what scientists mean when they use the word theory.

Finally, Georgia’s anti-gay marriage amendment already faces a legal challenge based on the wording of the Amendment:

The lawsuit focuses on the language of the amendment, not whether gay couples should be allowed to marry.

It claims that the amendment violates the Georgia Constitution’s single-subject rule by pertaining to multiple issues. In addition to marriage, the amendment would affect civil unions and the ability of Georgia’s courts to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, the attorneys argue.

The lawyers also contend that the wording of the ballot question that voters saw on Election Day was misleading because it asked only about marriage and not about the other issues the amendment might affect.

“I am glad the courts will finally hear the merits of the case,” said state Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates), the only openly gay member of the state Legislature.

The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU, Lambda Legal, and the Atlanta law firm of Alston and Bird in the Fulton County (Atlanta) Superior Court. Just wait until the Georgia state legislature goes back in session in Januray. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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Two or Three Blogs about Georgia Politics

It appears that the post-election malaise may be turning rather quickly into action for several of my local comrades. Russell has dispensed with his pirate-themed blog and re-emerged with Radical Georgia Moderate. Andrea is producing Ten House Seats, a blog supporting a PAC that will focus on supporting Democrats in ten house races that will (or should be) extremely close in 2006. I’ve already mentioned Steve’s new blog, Distance, but it bears mentioning again. It’s great to see so many people getting up, dusting themselves off, and moving on.

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