Archive for December, 2007

Juno

For this year’s annual Christmas day trip to the theaters, my family saw Juno (IMDB), this year’s candidate for the not-so little indie that could.  While I have often expressed some ambivalence about the self-consciously quirky indies about families with hearts of gold (see Sunshine, Little Miss), watching a movie in theaters with my family is a delicate balancing act that borders on Cirque de Soleil skills.  And while it is difficult to judge my parents’ response to the film, I came away relatively pleased with the movie, even if many of the best and funniest lines were cited in the trailer.

My reservations about the film are, perhaps, not too hard to guess.  I’ve complained before about dysfunctional family indie comedies that seem ready-made to impress at Sundance (The Darjeeling Limited, in particular, was a big disappointment), and the hype surrounding Juno seemed to be leaping off the charts in direct proportion to male reviewers who wanted to meet stripper-turned-screenwriter Diablo Cody.  Not to mention the striking number of movies about unplanned pregnancies that came out this year.  Add to that my own desire to write a somewhat contrarian review of the indie flavor-of-the-month, and I was prepared to be disappointed.

But there were a number of things I liked about the film.  Ellen Page’s performance as the witty, somewhat jaded high school junior works relatively well, and Michael Cera is fun as her gawky, Orange Tic-Tac popping boyfriend.  Juno’s conversations with Mark (Jason Bateman) about punk rock and indie rock gave both characters additional depth (in fact, it’s interesting that the narrative sides with the punk rock tastes of Juno over the indie tastes of Mark, even if the soundtrack opts for more of an indie flavor).  The film’s relatively mature take on teen sexuality and teen pregnancy worked well, and I liked the soundtrack well enough to consider adding it to my iPod.  It’s also helping me to reconsider my knee-jerk impulse to dismiss quirky indies or to hold them to higher standards than I do studio films.  If there were more movies like Juno in theaters and fewer like Alien vs. Predator 2, there would be little reason for me to complain.

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Happy Christmas

Charlie Brown style.

John Lennon style.

Wishing peace and happiness to all.

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The End of the World and Other Links

A few more links while I take a break from my parents’ house:

  • A brilliant mashup of George W. Bush singing R.E.M.’s “End of the World as We Know It” and an older mashup of his dad singing “We Will Rock You.” Both via BoingBoing. Thanks to George, with whom I had a quick cup of coffee yesterday, for the link.
  • The Alliance of Women Film Journalists has compiled their Top Ten lists for 2007. Given the good buzz for The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, I may try to catch that tonight (or sometime before I leave town for the annual MLA convention).
  • Also worth checking out: A.O. Scott’s Top Ten Plus.  I didn’t mention Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight in my “21 Media Moments” list, but the film deserves mention as one of the most thorough documentaries on the Iraq War to date.  Like him, I think there are actually quite a number of good movies out there this year.  Unlike him, I still think there is plenty to mock.  Also from the Times, Manohla Dargis also has an interesting list.

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The Department

Speaking of higher ed, here’s The Department, a fun little video featuring a group of Harvard poli-sci grad students who’ve made their own version of The Office.  As Henry at Crooked Timber points out, the video works well, although in my case, I appreciated the way in which the documentary-style camera work managed to emulate the humor of the original show, using zooms and camera movements to reveal more information about certain characters and certain incidents.

A zoom-in on a photo of Bill Kristol halfway through the video is particularly funny.  In general, a nice send-up of academic life (also mentioned by Dan Drezner, who may be right to note that the video may be funny only to academics).

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Blogging the University

Just happened to notice Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works blog in my incoming links on Technorati. The blog is an outgrowth of his NYU Press book of the same title. Marc is an associate professor at Santa Clara University, where he teaches courses in radical U.S. culture, internet studies, and writing with new media.

There’s some interesting stuff here about the public role of universities and public perception of higher education, including a discussion of Harvard’s plan to lower tuition for middle-class and working-class students and an interview with Michael Berube about academic freedom (and David Horowitz), both ongoing topics of discussion in our field (in fact, the latter has recently been the subject of debate on the pages of the AJC in recent days).

Hoping to have more to say about Marc’s blog and the issues he raises in the future.

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21 Media Moments in 2007

I usually do a top ten movie list every year, but because my access to new movies is somewhat limited, I decided to follow Michael’s lead and simply do a list of favorite TV shows, movies, web videos, and music from 2007, in no particular order. Like him, I found that many of my “faves” appeared in the fall and winter, but I’m not sure that a short memory is my “excuse,” because I combed through last year’s blog archives for some time in planning this entry. I think I was just extraordinarily busy last spring.

  1. The YouTube clip has already been removed, but like Tama, I loved The Simpsons’ parody of the viral hit, “Noah takes a photo of himself every day for 6 years.” I rarely watch The Simpsons anymore, but this was one of my few “whoa!” moments during the fall television season.
  2. I continued to enjoy The Colbert Report on a daily basis before the strike and remain convinced that the political discourse has declined considerably since the writers for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report went on strike. We need these shows to call “bullshit” on the campaigns whenever possible. At least we still have Olbermann (another fave and semi-daily watch). Nice to see that Colbert won the AP Celeb of the Year.
  3. If only because of the conversations it provoked about “Web 2.0,” Michael Wesch’s “The Machine is Us/ing Us.”
  4. I continue to be impressed by the WGA strike videos, including “The Office is Closed,” a personal fave. They demonstrate a liveliness and creativity that continually reminds me of why I watch. Which reminds me: I finally caught the episode in which Michael organizes a 5K to raise awareness for rabies. Great stuff.
  5. Regular readers will know that I’ve become far more attentive to web video this year than in the past. Part of that is determined by limited access to indie movies, of course, but quite often web videos have either been utterly infectious or have reminded me of why I love certain TV shows or movies. Seven Minute Sopranos did both.
  6. Speaking of The Sopranos, I still love the way they ended it.
  7. It’s easy to forget how controversial “Vote Different” was when it first launched, now that dozens of other citizen-generated videos have followed, but when I first saw Phil De Vellis’s video back in March, I was immediately convinced that something new was happening (and it wasn’t the end of Hillary’s campaign, as de Vellis might have hoped).
  8. The entire weekend at Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival deserves special mention here, but among the more memorable and important films I caught there: Radiant City, a fascinating Canadian doc on urban sprawl; three docs by Jem Cohen; The Devil Came on Horseback, about the genocide in Darfur; and Kurt Cobain: About a Son, by A.J. Schnack. My biggest regret? By far, not seeing Helvetica, which I’m still dying to see.
  9. Even if Ifound myself disagreeing with it in places, Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary, My Kid Could Paint That, had me thinking about documentary and authenticity for days.
  10. While I was generally disappointed by the final season of The Gilmore Girls, the final scene of the final episode deserves special mention. GG was consistently a good show, and I miss the great writing and well-developed characters.
  11. One of my favorite moments in web-based cinephilia: the 100 Movies, 100 Quotes, 100 Numbers video. Somehow, at the time, it seemed like just the right response to all of the self-congratulatory Top 100 Movies of All-Time lists, particularly the notoriously cautious (and male) A.F.I. list.
  12. Adrienne Shelley’s Waitress reminded me of just how good indie films can be. And that quirky indies can be OK, too.
  13. And so does the trailer for Juno, which I can’t wait to see (like Michael I love the use of the word “shenanigans”).
  14. It’s probably a 2006 film, according to most classifications, but I didn’t see The Lives of Others until April. And it is, by far, one of the most haunting films in recent memory.
  15. Julie Christie’s performance as someone dealing with Alzheimer’s disease in Away From Her also stuck with me in a major way. Here’s hoping that Sarah Polley chooses to direct more films.
  16. I don’t know if I have a favorite film or moment from the whole Mumblecore movement, but I’m fascinated by the possibilities it represents when it comes to digital distribution. With that in mind, I’ll just point you to my Four Eyed Monsters review, simply because of Arin Crumley and Susan Buice’s use of YouTube as a platform for screening the film.
  17. KEXP Seattle continues to rock my world, whether I’m in Atlanta, Fayetteville, or someplace else altogether. Some favorite bands/CDs in no particular order: Band of Horses, Beirut, Pela, the Live at KEXP Vol 3 CD (especially Cloud Cult’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” cover), Elvis Perkins, and The Thermals (2006, but still). I could go on, but that’s a good start.
  18. My teaching schedule caused me to fall off the Mad Men bandwagon, but holy cow, what a gorgeous show. I’m hoping to get caught up with it before the second season begins.
  19. Maybe my favorite CD of the year, however, is the soundtrack to the movie, Once, coincidentally among my favorite movies of the year. The collaboration between Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova provided some of the most beautiful, heart-wrenching music of the year, much of it about the not-quite-romantic connection between the film’s two major characters, Guy and Girl. Jim Emerson’s complaint about the film’s DVD cover describes much of what I love about the film.
  20. The McLovin scenes in Superbad were a lot of fun, as Michael points out.
  21. And, last but not least, Chris Crocker’s impassioned “Leave Britney Alone” is, without a doubt, one of the most unforgettable videos of 2007. Enough said.

Update: I can’t believe I forgot to mention one of my other favorite CDs of the past year, The Cold War Kids’ Robbers & Cowards (yeah, it was 2006, but I associate it with 2007). I also should at least mention Javier Bardem’s performance in No Country for Old Men. While I didn’t love the film nearly as much as many other people, Bardem’s frighteningly cold performance was striking. I may add a few others here if I think of them.

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Rainy Friday Links

I’m working on an end-of-the-year list, but for now, just because I have time to post them, here are my links for the day:

  • The Hollywood Reporter has a series of articles predicting the Big Stories in entertainment for 2008. Some of their more interesting prognostications include the expectation that at least one major studio will dabble in day-and-date releasing, distributing one major film to theaters and to video-on-demand on the same day, and that there will be a resolution of the DVD format wars.  Also worth noting is the discussion of the plans for more 3-D entertainment experiences (is a 3-D Hannah Montana concert a movie? an event? both? something else?) at your local multiplex.
  • Steve Boone at The House Next Door points to his three-part interview with New York Press film critic Armond White.  While I often disagree with White, I find his willingness to counter the film-critical consensus refreshing.
  • The Down Low blog has a discussion of a possible iTunes plan to enter the video rental business.
  • TechPresident has a nice overview of what they regard as the best uses of the web among 2008 Presidential candidates.  No major surprises here (Ron Paul and Barack Obama tend to get rave reviews), but a useful overview of how the candidates are using the web this time around.
  • Speaking of politics and video, there’s a new ObamaGirl video, “You’re so Lame,” about our “Lame Duck” President.  To be honest, it’s not their strongest video (I only laughed once, when they compared Bush to a certain pop singer), but I’m a bit of a completist about these things.
  • Finally, the folks at if:book have a nice analysis of some of the New York Times’ new online features, including their interactive breakdown of the most recent Democratic debate (the last one before the Iowa Caucuses).

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Thursday Afternoon Links

A few quick links before I meet my parents for dinner:

  • As Jason mentioned over at Dr. Mabuse, the preliminary SCMS program is now available online.  I’ll be delivering paper on Saturday afternoon, which is actually not a bad time.  I haven’t looked closely at the program, but it’s good to see a long list of Mabusers and friends among the participants. I also just found out that my panel was accepted to the Console-ing Passions conference in Santa Barbara in April, so I’ll get to travel quite a bit in the spring.
  • Turns out the FCC decided to loosen media ownership restrictions after all.  The FCC decision defies Congress and pretty much a vast majority of public opinion on both sides of the right-left divide.  As Jonathan Adelstein observes, the opinions of “three unelected bureaucrats” shouldn’t outweigh the arguments made by the thousands of us who have petitioned Congress, the FCC, and pretty much anyone else who’d listen.
  • And simply because I want to remind myself to read several of these books, here’s Micah Sifry of techPresidnet on several of the most important “tech-politics” books of 2007.

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What Would Jesus Buy?

I had originally drafted a post about Rob VanAlkemade’s documentary, What Would Jesus Buy? (IMDB), about Bill “Reverend Billy” Talen, the Elvis-meets-Jimmy Swaggert evangelist for the Church of Stop Shopping, last night, but for some reason, I could never quite wrap my head around what the documentary was trying to do or what might be worth discussing about the film, and then, after reading the A.V. Club’s list of the 16 worst movies of 2007, I realized that I wasn’t alone in having a tepid response to the film.

As this 2000 New York Times profile indicates, Reverend Billy’s 1960s-style activism with its reclamation of public spaces through performances in shopping malls and chain coffeehouses (including an exorcism at Walmart’s headquarters), would seem to be out-of-place today, but after observing the consumer frenzy at several local shopping malls here in Atlanta, I’m becoming more convinced that the “Shopocalypse” is upon us and that it’s worth raising these questions about the effects of our current consumer culture. I’m especially aware of this experience after seeing my mom return home from work at a mall anchor store, often after midnight, exhausted from dealing with customers, dodging traffic, and so on (in fact, I gave up on buying a shirt or two that I actually needed relatively immediately because lines at the store were too intimidating).

And I do think that Reverend Billy’s brand of activism, which includes the promotion of buying locally, is worth thinking about, but like the folks at the A.V. Club, I’m just not convinced that VanAlkemade did anything terribly insightful with this material. VanAlkemade follows Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping choir across the country on their U.S. tour, watching as they stage events in local shopping malls and providing some perfunctory background information on Talen’s history as a performance artist. But every time the film moves towards making an insight about why we buy (ideologies of expressing affection through purchases, overly abundant credit, etc) and the effects of how we buy (destruction of the environment, massive credit card debt), it lurches in an entirely new direction, ultimately making What Would Jesus Buy? feel surprisingly superficial.

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They’re Twittering! They’re Blogging!

But apparently, they don’t want to go to the movies anymore. At least, that’s what everyone keeps saying in Andrew O’Hehir’s “State of the Indies” article in Salon (wait through the ad). O’Hehir’s article reintroduces the usual villains, such as “crappy” theaters, shorter attention spans, and especially–as Karina notes–those socially-networked, hyperactive kids.

I think Karina’s right to be skeptical here. It’s not an either-or proposition. Sometimes we’re Twittering about that three-hour movie we happened to see at the theater the other night (not that I’m a kid). It is fair to say that we shouldn’t expect indie filmmakers to rely upon DVD distribution forever, but many of the assumptions here about entertainment (I won’t say movie or film) audiences here seem rather reductive to me.

Update: Mike Everleth of Bad Lit also has some interesting comments on the O’Hehir article.  Like him, I’m skeptical of the ritual in articles about the future of independent cinema of predicting the demise of indie films.

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Wednesday Linkfest

From a Starbucks in Roswell, a half mile from my parents’ house:

  • Via TechPresident (and an email from Kevin Bacon), John Edwards’ latest viral video, which takes on the genre of the fake trailer (“In a world where…”). I’m currently working on an academic article on viral videos and the 2008 Presidential election, and for this particular chapter, I’m especially interested in looking at how the campaigns have picked up upon the rhetoric of user-generated videos and mashups in their online advertising, such as the “Hillary Soprano” video, so this mock trailer is especially interesting. If you happen to come across some interesting political mashups, I’d appreciate them.
  • Speaking of political parodies, this mock political ad featuring German philosophers Kant and Nietzsche is pretty funny.
  • In one of my favorite TV moments this season, The Simpsons had a fantastic parody of the viral YouTube video featuring a photograph of Noah every day for six years (via Tama). I haven’t watched The Simpsons often this season, but a brilliant moment like this one may just bring me back (if the writers strike ever ends).
  • The cinetrix points to an intriguing (if space bar-deprived) joint venture from Random House, Faber & Faber, and Focus Features, FilminFocus, “a destination point and a haven for film lovers around the world.” Like the cinetrix, I’m a little leery of the “fearful synergy” entailed in this collaboration, but there is a lot of interesting content here. My favorite feature, by far, is the “Behind the Blog” page, which thus far features profiles on David Hudson of Green Cine and Andrew Grant of Lika Anna Karina’s Sweater, both of which are daily reads of mine.
  • Also wanted to point out that Jill Walker Rettberg recently blogged the cover of her book on blogging, which is due to be released by Polity Press.
  • Finally, Alex has a thoughtful discussion of the supposed critic-fan divide. Alex notes that while Time critic Richard Corliss faults critics for rewarding films that rarely find box office success, Corliss is ignoring the fact that critics are actually serving a “corrective” function in promoting films (such as P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, the Coens’ No Country for Old Men) that have only a limited amount of marketing muscle as compared to studio fare. In fact, I think Alex is right that perhaps we ought to be criticizing the studios for relentlessly promoting hollow, flat, violent fare such as The Transformers movie rather than smaller films such as Juno and Margot at the Wedding.

Update: Just as I was finishing up the entry, I noticed that the cinetrix had pointed to news that the MPAA is rejecting the poster for Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side because it “depicts torture.” Again, the cinetrix is asking the right question here: Isn’t it more unacceptable to commit acts of torture and suppress documentation of it? Here’s the Variety article. Alex Gibney’s response to this act of censorship is worth quoting in full:

“Not permitting us to use an image of a hooded man that comes from a documentary photograph is censorship, pure and simple,” said producer, writer and director Gibney. “Intentional or not, the MPAA’s disapproval of the poster is a political act, undermining legitimate criticism of the Bush administration. I agree that the image is offensive; it’s also real.”

Now, I’m off to see What Would Jesus Buy, just in time to get into the holiday spirit.

Update 2: While nostalgia-tripping in the Java Monkey in Decatur, my favorite coffeehouse on the planet, I came across A.J.’s post on the controversy over Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side poster.  A.J. compares the censorship of the poster to the MPAA rejection of a similar image for Michael Winterbottom’s hybrid narrative/non-fiction film, Road to Guantanamo.

Also, I received an email from one of the folks behind the scenes at FilmInFocus and realized that my “space bar” comments above may not have been terribly clear.  I was referring entirely to the lack of spaces between words in the title of the site, not to the layout or appearance of the site in general (which looks great, by the way).  Sorry for any confusion.

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Strike Videos

I’m getting ready to drive to Atlanta for the holidays, but I just wanted to mention that In Media Res will be featuring videos pertaining to the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike, which has now entered its seventh week.  Today’s video, curated by Miranda Banks focuses on the rhetorical strategies of the WGA in eliciting support, in this case using cuddly animals.

Be sure to check back to IMR all week to see more strike-themed videos and, if you’re so inclined, leave a comment or two.  I’ll try to say more about these videos later this week, but until around the 30th, my internet access will be pretty inconsistent (my parents still use–gasp, shudder–a dial-up modem).

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Social Networking Sites and Academic Scholarship

I initially missed today’s Washington Post hit piece, I mean, article on academics studying social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace (I only caught it because danah boyd twittered it). The article, by Monica Hesse, embodies some of the laziest and formulaic depictions of professors and scholarship I’ve seen in some time, essentially painting academics as nothing more than opportunists who use arcane jargon to say little of consequence about ephemeral topics. Either that or we’re secretly harboring deep resentment against any academic who scores an interview or two with any major news outlet (or who finds herself cited in more than a half dozen articles over the course of a single year). Essentially “early adopters” of a specific subject matter–in this case, social networking websites–are painted as “sooners” or “land grabbers,” desperately staking out territory before others get there. But despite its dismissive tone, the Post article is worth checking out, if only because I think it highlights an important tension regarding the production of knowledge in digital media studies.

Of course, many academics are ambitious and often competitive, but the dismissive tone of the article towards boyd in particular and social networking scholarship in general is striking. While I am aware of the political residue of describing scholarship in terms of “exploration,” that term seems far more fitting than “land grabbing” when it comes to the kind of work being done by academics. The idea of “super-scholars” who consume all of the latest stuff, leaving only “table scraps” for the less aggressive or less hungry also raises a number of red flags for those of us who view academic scholarship as a conversation. These metaphors certainly matter, not only in terms of how scholarship is perceived but also in how it is funded.

These metaphors also suggest that these new academics are staking out territory that may be completely ephemeral, that instead of grabbing a nice plot along the Red River, we’re grabbing a puff of smoke that may not be here tomorrow. Hesse does little to acknowledge how academics are addressing how social, political, and familial ties are being transformed by social networking sites, or how the questions that are asked are part of a larger project of media history. To name one example, the phrase “YouTube election” (here are three significant examples) now generates nearly a million hits on Google, and it seems well worth asking how, or if, the YouTube debates have changed the 2008 election in any significant way. And certainly the mediation of “friendship” and other social ties on Facebook is worth asking about, even if Facebook itself fades into obscurity when The Next Big Thing comes along (especially now that Facebook has apparently Sold Out). Hesse also seeks to caricature academics by cherry-picking phrases or sentences to suggest that academics are poor writers who intentionally obscure meaning, something that may very well be easy to do by lifting single sentences out of much longer articles (I’m not sure it’s worth addressing the specific examples here).

To be fair, the article does tap into what I think is an important tension right now in the production of scholarship (even if that tension is relegated into the piece’s final paragraphs). As Nicole Ellison points out, the changes in the practices surrounding social networking sites present unique challenges for those of us who teach and study these topics, with Ellison observing that she “certainly couldn’t dust off the same syllabus every semester.” My guess is that scholars who engage in this kind of innovative teaching would be rewarded. But the complaints that some of danah boyd’s most influential articles are not peer-reviewed should not be read as a critique of her work (one anonymous professor suggests that her work has not been vetted) but as a critique of how scholarship functions in the digital age. Boyd’s comments about class differences between MySpace and Facebook users quite clearly struck a chord, provoking a debate that might not have taken place with nearly as much energy had the article gone through the lengthy peer-review process.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick has been raising important questions about the process of peer review for some time, pointing out the need to move from thinking about publication in terms of an “electronic press” to a model based on a “scholarly network,” in which “peer review” could take place, in part, in the comments and discussions that take place about the article (one example of this scholarly network is the website MediaCommons, where I am an editorial board member). And I think it’s clear that the study of social networking could be better served by aspects of both the traditional peer-review model and of the scholarly network. Thus, instead of dismissing boyd’s (well-informed, in my opinion) blog essay on class and social networking websites, use the response of academics in the field as a measure of its importance.

I’ve probably been a little harder on the Post article than I needed to be, but that’s probably because of the dismissive tone that seemed to permeate throughout. Beneath the surface, however, there were some important questions about the challenges to the practices of scholarship, especially when the subject of research seems to be changing faster than the mechanisms of peer review.

Update: This blog post was picked up by Slate, where there are links to a number of other interesting articles and blog posts on Facebook.

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St. Claire Bourne, RIP

One of the great underrated contributors to documentary cinema, St. Claire Bourne (blog), has passed away. As I mentioned in the comments to Agnes’s post, I knew Bourne originally from his outstanding documentary on the making of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. While most making-of docs are often treated as supplements to the original film, Bourne’s treatment of DTRT also serves as a larger meditation on the process of making independent movies, as well as reflecting on the evolution of Brooklyn and the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood where Lee filmed.

Agnes’s post also points to this interesting video profile of Bourne from 2006 available on the New York Times website. Like Agnes, I’m not sure that Bourne has received the attention during his lifetime that he deserved, and I know that his voice will be missed in the documentary community.

Update: The cinetrix also has a nice tribute.

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Mike Huckabee Loves Giant Gay Flesh-Eating Rats

It’s apparently all Huckabee all the time this week on my blog. By the same guy who brought you yesterday’s Huckabee ad and this nice little Giuliani parody, too.

And now back to my regularly scheduled grading and writing marathon.

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