Archive for June, 2008

Bunker Hill D.C. Screening

I almost forgot to mention that I’ll be making a very brief trip to Washington, DC, this weekend for the AAUP National Convention. While I’m in town, I’m planning to check out Bunker Hill, Kevin Willmott’s follow up to the very entertaining and engaging C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. The special screening is sponsored by the ACLU and will be held on Thursday, June 12, at 6:30 pm, in the Auditorium of the University of the District of Columbia, 4200 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Building 46 (at the Van Ness-UDC Metro stop).

By the way, if you’re in DC and up for drinks, lunch, or dinner, I should have a little bit of time. I’ve spent so little time this summer away from the office in my apartment, I really haven’t had a whole lot of time to plan, but it’ll be nice to swing by the old neighborhood. Oh, and the screening of Bunker Hill is free, but you need to reserve tickets in advance (which you can do via the website).

Update: One more thing: Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius will be in attendance at the screening.

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Doc Night in Fayetteville

FYI Fayetteville readers: Just noticed via the Fayetteville Observer that the documentary, As We Forgive Those, which explores the aftermath of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, will be playing at the Cameo Art House Theatre Wednesday night at 6 and 8 PM. The director, Laura Waters Hinson, who graduated from American University’s film school, will be in attendance at both screenings.


The American Ruling Class

After the brief blog dust-up a few days ago at Agnes’s place, I decided to check out John Kirby’s The American Ruling Class (IMDB), a quirky little documentary -dramatic-musical hybrid written and narrated with panache by Lewis Lapham, the longtime editor of Harper’s Magazine. The film bills itself as addressing “our country’s most taboo topic” of class privilege, by asking whether the United States has a “ruling class.” It follows through on this premise by having two actors playing recent Ivy League grads set up interviews–arranged by Lapham–with members of that ruling class or people who have unique access to it or awareness of it, including James A. Baker, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Bradley, Walter Cronkite, Kurt Vonnegut, and Robert Altman.  Because Ruling Class has been marketed, in part, to an education market–the website lists it as appropriate for 10-12th graders–I’ve tried to think about it, at least in part, in terms of both that audience.

As Mark Lavercombe points out, there is a certain fascination in seeing folks like Baker happily embrace the idea of an “American ruling class,” especially when their platitudes are juxtaposed against scenes such as the interview with Ehrenreich, who describes the struggles of working-class Americans to get by. And the “Nickel and Dimed” musical number, which sparked the debate on Agnes’s blog, serves as a useful reminder of the essential arguments from her book: all jobs require certain skill sets, many workers and their families are just getting by, and many others are just one health care emergency from deep financial troubles.

Perhaps more than anything, the source of debate about the film has been over its status as a hybrid documentary.  I do think the hybrid format can work well pedagogically, as it did in Radiant City (my review), in which actors were used to comment on the negative effects of suburban sprawl.  The stilted acting matters less to me than how the hybrid format is used.  Part of this, I’ll admit, is a matter of taste.  The musical numbers in Radiant City were integrated into the story through a plot device in which one character is part of a community musical theater troupe.  Here, the actors just break into song occasionally, so I’ll grant that the musical numbers will work better for others than they did for me.

But my bigger issue with the hybrid format is that it seems to set up what I would regard as a false question.  Part of this has to do with the assumption that we never talk about class and power in the U.S.  In fact, as the ongoing debate about Obama’s “elitism” illustrates, class and status permeate political dialogue all the time, albeit in ways that are often contradictory or misguided.  The film features a character, Mike, who is agonizing over the direction he’d like to pursue after graduation, and he confronts the choice of following his heart and becoming a writer, possibly a screenwriter, or joining the ruling class through a connection on Wall Street,  and by establishing this opposition, the film seems to suggest that one’s status is largely a matter of choice, which is certainly not the case.  To be clear, the film is relatively direct about the fact that the comfort and leisure of the ruling class depends upon the exploitation of the poor and working-class, but it felt like there were some assumptions here about social class that were left unexplored.

Finally, I think the hybrid format led to what felt like an odd ahistorical quality.  As I was watching The American Ruling Class, I had a difficult time pinpointing exactly when it was made.  I could guess, in part, through the presence of Ehrenreich, Altman, and Vonnegut in the film, but I would have liked a little more historical grounding.  There were a number of prescient moments, including references to Bear Stearns and other hedge fund operators, and the film certainly seemed to anticipate problems such as the mortgage crisis, but the hybrid format seemed to tie things up a little too neatly.   While Baker and others talk about how other countries welcome the intervention of the U.S. in their affairs, I’m not sure that we get enough visible evidence of the consequences of our actions, especially overseas, which might explain the reaction to the film at the Melbourne Film Festival back in 2005.

Still, The American Ruling Class has moments of clear insight, especially in its treatment of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book.  I do think that we need to find better, more insightful ways of talking about social class and power, and in a classroom context, I do think that the film can spark some valuable conversations about these issues.

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Wednesday Night Links

Taking a break from the book to point to a few links and things:

  • First, the good news that the filmmakers behind Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed saw their rights to use the John Lennon song “Imagine” upheld in court under the doctrine of fair use.  While I found the film’s depiction of intelligent design to be misleading at best, I also felt their use of Lennon’s song should have been defended.  In the film, they use “Imagine” as a way of diagnosing what they believe to be a left-wing, Darwinist ideology, so while I find their reading of the song absurd, it is in some sense an interpretation.  Further, given that it was a borderline case, I do think it’s worthwhile to err on the side of protecting fair use (link via Agnes).
  • Second, while I am incredibly excited that Barack Obama has finally won the Democratic nomination, I have become increasingly frustrated by the degree to which the news media and Obama’s political rivals have increasingly identified him as either elitist or as condescending.  At some point, I’d like to write something longer on the problems of the desire to tag Obama with the elitist label, but for now, I’ll point to Todd Gitlin’s TPM Cafe column and Susan Jacoby’s New York Times editorial.
  • In my very limited spare time, I’ve been reading Mark Baurelein’s The Dumbest Generation.  In the past, I’ve been somewhat skeptical about some of Bauerlein’s claims about declining readership rates and the potential effects on the future of democracy, but in many places, I think he makes a compelling case.  I’ll try to write a longer blog post on the book if I have time, but I have a pretty long list of promised blog posts piling up, so we’ll see.

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“Human Beings are not Commodities”

If you haven’t read Chris Hedges’ “America’s Democratic Address,” a lecture he gave at Furman University on May 28, then I’d encourage you to check it out.  Hedges gave the lecture as part of the protests organized by faculty and students at Furman over George W. Bush’s commencement address, and the lecture is bracing reminder of the terrible effects of the corporatization of the United States government.   More than anything, Hedges challenges the “Potemkin statistics” that create the illusion of economic growth when the reality is, of course, far different.  True unemployment and underemployment numbers, to name one example, are actually much higher than official numbers suggest.  While Hedges is far more critical of the Bush administration, he’s similarly critical of Bill Clinton’s support and promotion of NAFTA.  But in general, Hedges offers a chilling reminder of the human consequences of economic deregulation and of the increased concentration of power in the executive branch of the government.

There’s also quite a bit here about the degradation of political discourse.  Something I completely missed until now was Hedges’ reminder that ambulance-chasing gossip show TMZ and Pat Robertson’s 700 Club have both been recognized by the FCC as “bona fide newscasts,” exempting them from political equal-time requirements.  There’s obviously some history here.  Entertainment Tonight received bona fide newscast status in 1988 (under the Reagan administration). While there seem to be plenty of information sources out there, it’s worth noting that a vast majority of the American public gets its information (about politics, about the economy) from TV, as Josh Silver points out, so these distinctions still matter.