Archive for September, 2006

Booked Solid

Peter tagged me with a book meme, and after a long week of cranking out the finishing touches of a (slightly) overdue article for a book collection, I’m looking for a good excuse to procrastinate on grading and other important tasks (at least until the mighty Boilermakers steamroll Notre Dame this afternoon). By the way, I caught Quinceanera last night at the local art house. Solid, enjoyable film. Not sure I’ll have much else to say about it, but given the dearth of movie choices around here, I was pretty much starved to get myself into a theater. Now about that meme….

1. One book that changed your life?
It’s not really a stand-alone book, but I always find myself returning to Walter Benjamin’s essays collected in the book Illuminations (and to a lesser extent, the essays in Reflections). Pretty much everything I’ve written owes something to Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

2. One book that you have read more than once?
I’ve read dozens of books more than once. It comes with the territory of teaching literature courses. One of the books I’ve most enjoyed re-reading (and teaching) is Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

3. One book you would want on a desert island?
Peter’s choice of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is tempting, since I haven’t read it and know that it’s a demanding text. But to throw out a similarly dense and big novel that I’ve never read, I’ll suggest Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (so what does it mean that I’m confessing to a list of books I haven’t read?).

4. One book that made you cry?
Katherine Patterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, when I was about eleven years old, is the last one I remember. Glad to see that it’s still in print.

5. One book that made you laugh?
Kurt Vonnegut’s novels helped get me through the most stressful moments of my graduate school years. Breakfast of Champions is one of my favorites. The satire of the Hoosier car dealer was especially meaningful for someone living in West Lafayette, Indiana.

6. One book you wish had been written?
This is a difficult question simply because there are a number of books I wish I’d written. I’ve always admired Ralph Ellison’s Invisble Man, so I’ll go with that.

7. One book you wish had never been written?
This is a difficult question simply because it verges on censorship. Maybe the collected works of Anne Coulter?

8. One book you are reading currently?
Michael Berube’s latest, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? I’ve been finding it incredibly valuable in helping me to think about my new teaching position here at Fayetteville State and my teaching career in general. And I’m not just saying that because he’s on my blogroll (hoping to write a longer review here a little later).

9. One book you have been meaning to read?
I’ve been dying to read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. I’m a huge admirer of White Teeth and also liked Autograph Man quite a bit. Maybe I’ll find some time over Thanksgiving break. This reminds me, I really miss riding the subway in DC. I had so much more time for pleasure reading when I was commuting by train rather than having to drive everywhere. End rant.

10. Pass it on
Versions of this meme have been floating around for a while, so I’ll just issue an open invitation to partciipate. Don’t feel obligated to hyperlink your titles. I’m not even sure why I did.

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25 Years

Andy Horbal is conducting a survey, asking one simple (or not so simple) question: “What is the single best American fiction film made during the last 25 years?” Be sure to drop by a leave Andy a comment or send him an email naming your choice.

I chose Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a film I always enjoying teaching in my Introduction to Film classes because of the discussions it invariably sparks (in fact, I just taught DTRT last week). What often gets lost, however, is that it’s a beautiful film, with Ernest Dickerson’s cinematography bringing the film’s Brooklyn neighborhood vividly to life.

So far, about 35-40 people have responded to Andy’s question with some interesting results.

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Wednesday Afternoon Film and Video Notes

I’m in the midst of some heavy-duty writing and grading this week, but I just wanted to mention some news about a couple of very cool indie films. First, I’ve learned that Tara Wray’s Manhattan, Kansas, a fascinating personal documentary (my review) about a daughter dealing with a mentally unstable mother, is now available on a limited-edition DVD, with each DVD packaged in a hand-made origami case. Manhattan, Kansas will also be making the rounds through the Southern Circuit film series from October 29-November 6. If you’re in or near one of the relevant cities, Tara’s film is well worth checking out.

I also want to congratulate Chris Hansen for winning the best feature award at the South Padre Island Film Fest for his mock doc, The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah (my review).

And finally, at some point, I want to return to Matt Clayfield’s discussion of videoblogging, in part because it’s related to some issues I’ll be addressing in paper for the Flow conference in a few weeks (thanks to David for the link).

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Believing is Seeing

I’m doing a unit on “visual literacy” in my freshman composition classes this week, and because the photographs in our textbook aren’t that interesting, I’ve been trying to find images that will make class discussion a little more compelling. With that in mind, I’m thinking about introducing the recent debate over Thomas Hoepker’s “Brooklyn, New York, September 11, 2001,” discussed most recently in this Richard Cohen Washington Post op-ed. Hoepker’s photograph became the ubject of some controversy when it was mentioned in a Frank Rich editorial published in the subscription-only section of New York Times. The CBS news blog, Public Eye quotes Rich as arguing that

Mr. Hoepker found his subjects troubling. ”They were totally relaxed like any normal afternoon,” he told Mr. Friend. ”It’s possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it.” The photographer withheld the picture from publication because ”we didn’t need to see that, then.” He feared ”it would stir the wrong emotions.” But ”over time, with perspective,” he discovered, ”it grew in importance.”

Seen from the perspective of 9/11’s fifth anniversary, Mr. Hoepker’s photo is prescient as well as important — a snapshot of history soon to come. What he caught was this: Traumatic as the attack on America was, 9/11 would recede quickly for many. This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American. In the five years since the attacks, the ability of Americans to dust themselves off and keep going explains both what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong on our path to the divided and dispirited state the nation finds itself in today.

Hoepker found his phoographs so troubling that he withheld publication of the photograph for five years until it was included in the recently-published anthology, Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11 (see David Friend’s blog entry on the discussion).

Of course, as Slate’s David Plotz and others have pointed out, the subjects of the photograph do not appear as if they are enjoying just another relaxing fall afternoon but instead look as if they are engrossed in the events taking place across the water in Manhattan, and while I wasn’t present when the photograph was taken, it’s not hard to guess that they are discussing the attacks, a reading confirmed by two of the photograph’s subjects, Walter Sipser and Chris Schiavo. Slate has also included a response to the controversy written by the photographer, Thomas Hoepker. I don’t know that I have anything specific to add to the debate about the photograph, but I think the debate itself would be interesting to teach.

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Drinking Liberally Reminder

Just a quick reminder that the next Fayetteville, NC, Drinking Liberally will take place Thursday from 7-9 at Huske Hardware. If you’re in the neighborhood, be sure to drop by, and if you can’t make it tonight, we’ll be meeting on the 2nd and 4th Thursdays of every month.

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Netflix Neighbors

The cinetrix mentioned an LA Times slideshow on Netflix’s “local favorites” feature, which lists the top DVD rental picks in a given zip code. The results offer an interesting glimpse of the tastes of your friends and neighbors, inspiring both Andy and the cinetrix to list the local favorites in their neighborhoods. And after seeing their lists, I couldn’t resist checking out the local faves here in Fayetteville:

  1. 7 Seconds
  2. The Land Before Time
  3. My Boss’s Daughter
  4. Why Did I Get Married?
  5. SpongeBob SquarePants: The Movie
  6. Code Breakers
  7. VeggieTales: Sheerluck Holmes and the Golden Ruler
  8. The Last Castle
  9. Men of Honor
  10. Bloodrayne

A little further down the list: A Beautiful Mind, The Cooler, and at least three of Tyler Perry’s Madea movies. The unusual number of children’s movies can probably be explained by the presence of Fort Bragg and and the large number of military families with young children. The Cooler is probably the “most surprising” film on the list. The ‘hood around Catholic University (where I taught last year) is a little more interesting, with Our Brand is Crisis, The War Room, and All the President’s Men cracking the top twelve for reasons I can’t quite figure out. So what are the Netflix picks in your neighborhood?

Update: Just wanted to add the observation that the fact that Netflix tracks this information is a little creepy, as Mary Ann Johanson and this CNN article point out. What’s interesting is that the CNN article seems to assert that taste is relatively uniform across the country (and across time), but I’m not so sure that the differeing results from city to city bear that out. Even if Crash is the “most popular” film in a number of cities they surveyed, that probably says as muchabout the marketing of that film (which I still regard as the most overrated film of the last five years) and the role of awards ceremonies in taste-making than anything else.

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Memory Prosthesis

I mentioned the SenseCam, a tiny camera that allows “continuous, verbatim recording of an individual’s life” a couple of years ago when it first came out, but I’ve been thinking about technologies of memory for an article I’m writing and didn’t want to lose track of a few links. I’m also intrigued by Sunil Vemuri’s “What Was I Thinking?”, which records audio and organizes it by memory triggers, but Josie Appleton’s “Slices of Life” is also worth checking out.

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Blog Issues

We’ve been having some server problems here in ‘herd country, hence the lack of updates and the inability to leave comments. Hopefully things will be resolved soon, but if you’re starved for some good reading (and I know you are), take a look at some of the blogs in my blogroll to the right.

I probably won’t have time to write extended entries on these topics, but I didn’t want to lose David Hudson’s link to David D’Arcy’s discussion of Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s follow-up to Gunner Palace, The Prisoner, or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair. the new film focuses on the Iraqi journalist, Yunis Khatayer Abbas, who was briefly featured in Gunner Palace in one of the film’s most dramatic scenes, with Abbas being arrested under suspicion of being part of the insurgency and spending nine months imprisoned in Abu Ghraib with his two brothers.

Also worth checking out: Joe of Kansas City Soil has an insightful review of Jesus Camp that points to the film’s strengths in depicting the Pentecsotal subculture and comments on the film’s lack of a historical context for the Pentecostal movement.

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Jesus Camp Revisited

Because I had the good luck of being one of the first people to see and review Jesus Camp, I’ve been getting quite a bit of traffic from people curious about the film. I think my initial review pretty much represents my current take on the film (although I’d like to see it again). I also think that Grady and Ewing have crafted a fascinating film about how children are educated in this Pentecostal subculture, one that is only a small part of the larger and more diverse evangelical movement. And I’ll assume it’s relatively clear from my initial review that I disagree with the political beliefs of pretty much everyone depicted in the film, and as an educator, I’m equally troubled by the homeschooling techniques, including the debunking of “science,” depicted in the film.

But the intentionally provocative ABC report on the documentary has sparked a number of misreadings of a film few people have seen. Most notably, the ABC article describes the scene in which the campers pray for a cardboard cutout of Bush as worshipping him. While the camp is clearly politically-charged in ways that my church youth camps never were, I think it would be a mistake to read the scene in this way, in part because there’s a mild jokiness to the presentation of the cardboard figure, even if the prayers themselves are sincere. And it’s also worth noting that the members of the Pentecostal cultures I knew were not completely blinded by their political leaders, often expressing ambivalence about the conservative credentials of someone like Bush’s father (especially when he invoked the ominous concept of a “new world order”). Many of the comments about the film have been decontextualized, and I think that has led to a number of unnecessary misinterpretations.

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The Last Kiss

In one of the key dramatic scenes in The Last Kiss (IMDB), the 30ish Michael (Zach Braff) confides that “I’ve been thinking about my life lately, and everything feels pretty planned out. There’s no more surprises.” This knowledge leaves Michael feeling as if his life–one that features a lovely pregnant girlfriend, Jenna (Jacinda Barrett), a job as an architect, and an income that would allow him to purchase a home–is “in crisis.” At another point in the film, another character reflects that today’s accelerated culture requires us to grow up too quickly. But as A.O. Scott suggests in his review, Michael “behaves less like a man for whom adulthood is already a burden than like a child for whom maturity is a scary and seductive abstraction.” I’m not sure I’m faulting the film for exploring these questions of “arrested development,” but Michael’s plaintive remarks about his impending (?) adulthood left me feeling a bit perplexed and disappointed.

To be fair to the film, it is at least somewhat honest about the fallibility of romatic love. Michael acts on his pre-midlife crisis by pursuing a flirtation with Kim (Rachel Bilson), a college student he meets at a wedding. At the same time, Michael’s friends are confronting similar crises, with Chris (Casey Affleck) finding himself a new father in a loveless marriage and Izzy dealing with an unpleasant break-up and Kenny refusing to grow up by engaging in as much non-monogomous sex as possible. But the stories never seemed quite as profound as the script seemed to believe they were, as this Village Voice review suggests, and I found it difficult to bring myself to care very much about any of the characters.

Much of my disappointment in the film likely derives from what felt like a relatively thin screenplay by Paul Haggis (of Crash fame or infamy), one that didn’t seem to take much interest at all in its female characters. Jenna, Michael’s longtime girlfriend, seems little more than a foil for allowing Michael to work through his angst about growing up, with her life outside their relationship left virtually unexplored. In fact, despite several mentions of her dissertation, we never learn what her dissertation is about. There are far worse ways to spend a night at the multiplex than seeing The Last Kiss, but I don’t think this film offers much to explain Michael’s malaise and offers even less to explain why someone like Jenna should put up with him in the first place.

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Baghdad Reads

Just wanted to mention an article from today’s Washington Post about the decline in Baghdad’s bookstore culture since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The article describes an active, vibrant intellectual pre-war culture centered around Baghdad’s Mutanabi Street, one that has been all but destroyed by the ongoing sectarian violence. While this topic was a major focus of Sinan Antoon’s documentary, About Baghdad, the article conveys yet another aspect of what has been lost because of the invasion.

Also, because our server was down this weekend, I was unable to write a review of The Last Kiss, the Zach Braff twentysomething-in-crisis movie. Not sure I’ll get around to treviewing it, but my take was remarkably close to A.O. Scott’s, in that I found it to be rather earnest and even more confused. Perhaps more than anything, I felt the female characters (especially Jacinda Barrett’s Jenna and Rachel Bilson’s Kim) were poorly written. For example, Jenna comments at one point that she’s working on her dissertation, but the film never even reveals her field of research.

Finally, I’ve been getting tons of traffic based on my review of Jesus Camp , in part–I’m assuming–because of a recent ABC report (via) on the documentary. At some point, I’d like to revisit my original review simply because of the discussion the film has already provoked.

Update: Some interesting video responses to the ABC report on Jesus Camp posted to YouTube.

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Ann Richards at the DNC

Professor B and Jenny have both written posts mourning the death of fiesty Texas politician, Ann Richards, who passed away a few days ago. Like Jenny, I admired Richards’ “take-no-crap, hard talkin'” approach to politics, but I’d also like to add that Richards’ speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention is one of the reasons I took a political left turn at an important moment in my life. An audio file and transcript of the speech are available online at the American Rhetoric website, and looking through the transcript quickly, it’s an even more amazing speech than I remembered.

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Iraq for Sale in Fayetteville

Forgot to mention this earlier, but I pre-ordered my copy of Iraq for Sale, Robert Greenwald’s documentary about “the lives of soldiers, truck drivers, widows and children who have been changed forever as a result of profiteering in the reconstruction of Iraq.” We’re working on scheduling a house party screening here in F’ville, during the week of October 8-14, but my apartment would only hold about 8-10 people comfortably. I’ve written quite a bit in the past about Brave New Films’ use of house parties and hope that we can bring something similar here.

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Lazy Friday Reality TV Links

At this point, the LonleyGirl15 phenomenon has pretty much run its course. There may be new videos, but with the revelation of the actual creators of the series, the buzz has faded considerably. Still, LG15 is a creative use of video podcasting, and I don’t want to lose track of Henry Jenkins’ blog entry on the series, which aptly notes that LG15 has a number of precedents, including Sadie Benning’s pixelvision videos and Sony’s Rachel’s Room videos in its playful blend of epistolary narratives and reality TV conventions. He then proceeds to explore how we should engage with the many varieties of YouTube fakery that have been crossing our computer screens. If I hadn’t had such a long week, involving driver’s tests, car problems, and other fun activities, I’d have a bit more to say on this topic.

But speaking of reality TV, I’ve discovered that there must be something in the water here in Fayetteville that breeds reality TV contestants. According to our very cool local newspaper, one of the finalists for this season’s Survivor is from right here in Fayetteville, as is 2003 winner (Survivor: Pearl Islands), Sandra Diaz-Twine.

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Studio 60

Thanks to KF, I just caught the pilot episode of Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme’s new TV series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and after watching it, I’m really looking forward to the series. Studio 60 is a backstage look at an SNL-style variety show, and like other Sorkin series (Sports Night and The West Wing), it’s filled with taut dialogue, interesting characters, and a stellar cast including Bradley Whitford, Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet, and Timothy Busfield.

And, adding just a few more points to the cool quotient, the pilot even namedrops one of my favorite 1970s movies.

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