Saturday, May 31, 2008

Movie Prayers -- Chocolat

"Oh, inspiration! I call the great spirit of cooking to make me think and cook good dinner!"

Friday, May 30, 2008

Yes, but if she had been wearing a flag pin...

NPR reports that Dunkin' Donuts has pulled an Internet ad featuring cooking guru Rachel Ray because the chef is wearing a houndstooth scarf that apparently too closely resembles a middle-eastern accessory used to keep sand out of the mouth and eyes.

Wearing this scarf allegedly symbolizes in some oblique way Ms. Ray's and Dunkin' Donuts sympathy with terrorists or terrorism.

I have not yet been able to verify that a magistrate in the court of public opinion has ruled that Dunkin' Donuts must atone for its sin by loading a thousand jelly-filled with poison and dropping them over the mountains of Afghanistan.

Funny group, terrorists. You just never know the things they will take comfort from.

Due citation--image taken from this site:

Monday, May 26, 2008

National Treasure--Book of Secrets Rant

I am chagrined to report--but honesty compels me--that at the 1:40 mark of National Treasure: Book of Secrets I turned to my wife and said, "You know what would make this the best movie ever?"

And I mean this sincerely...

If they had gotten to the bottom of the balancing stone table and found and Alien and a Predator battling it out.

No, really, I'm serious.


Think about it.


Why the heck Hollywood doesn't hire me to fix its scripts is inexplicable.

Alas, there were no aliens nor predators, wasting a perfectly good set up and leaving the film with some serious continuity and plausibility problems.

Emma (70-73) -- "the blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances"

There are times in this read through where I've wondered what it might have looked like if Jane Austen had written a whodunit.

Emma is full of surprises that shouldn't be surprising and revelations of things that weren't all that hidden to begin with but which nevertheless always seem to catch us (and Emma) off our guard.

In most of the closing readings thus far, I've suggested the way this is accomplished is through a mostly seamless integration of the narrator's voice and Emma's consciousness that allows Austen to exploit the fact that we often don't know if the narrator is telling us something that is true or only describing what her chief character was thinking.

In the first half of Chapter 13, however, we get a relatively rare instance of the narrator directly contradicting Emma. After Emma visits Harriet who has developed a sore throat on the eve of a dinner party at Randalls, Emma meets Elton and suggests that he he send his regrets to Mr. and Mrs. Weston, assuming (wrongly) that he would have no interested in attending the party if Harriet is not present and giving him an excuse by commenting that he looks himself as though he may be catching a cold. In an out of the ordinary example of directness, the narrator not only describes Elton's response but his motivation and internal thought process:

Mr. Elton looked as if he did not very well know what answer to make; which was exactly the case; for though very much gratified by the kind care of a such a fair lady, and not liking to resist any advice of her's, he had not really the least inclination to give up the visit;--but Emma, too eager and and busy in her own previous conceptions and views to hear him impartially, or to see him with clear vision, was very well satisfied with his muttering acknowledgment of its being "very cold, certainly very cold," and walked on rejoicing in having extricated himself from Randalls, and secured him the power of sending to inquire after Harriet every hour of the evening. (72, emphasis added)

The structural purpose for such a passage can be both that it provides foreshadowing of a later scene when the seeds of this misunderstanding will blossom into conflict (comic or serious) and that it highlights the irony (and hence the satirical bite) when Emma prides herself in her clarity of perception. In fact, it is in the very next passage that John Knightley gently probes Emma's feelings towards Elton and makes clear that he, among other observers, suspects it is Emma who is the object of Elton's affection and intentions. Emma's response is perfunctory, and we are told she "walked on, amusing herself in the consideration of blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances, of the mistakes which people of high pretensions to judgment are ever falling into" (71).

The humor in having Emma describe her own situation without realizing it is clear enough, at least on anything other than a first reading. The odd thing, however, is that even on a first reading the immediate proximity a rare narrative statement of fact that contradicts Emma's consciousness perhaps ought to allow us to see this irony right away rather than in retrospect.

Why don't we?

Perhaps we do. My own first reading of Emma is remote enough in the past to make assertions about it suspect. The fact, though, that what was experienced as a surprise in my current reading--what flew in the face of my recollections--was not the second passage (where Emma laughs at another's "blunder") but the first (where the narrator flatly contradicts Emma's perception). And if this direct contradiction is rare, and the ironic humor not entirely dependent upon it, what is it's purpose?

Before I can answer that, I have to start an apparent tangent about the first passage. It is peculiar in another way besides being (allegedly) out of character for the narrator. The grammar doesn't parse. "Her's" ought to be "hers," but let's chalk that up to fact that punctuation and spelling wasn't exactly standardized by this time (and because I have no desire to go hunting through manuscripts to see how frequent are modernizations made by editors). In addition, it seems to me that "himself" at the end needs to be "him."

This could just as easily be an editor's error or a grammatical convention of the time of which I am unfamiliar. The more likely explanation, for me, is that Austen has confused herself or forgotten herself whose consciousness she is in. "But Emma," immediately after the dash, establishes Emma as the grammatical subject of the second half of the quote. We are told how she feels "eager" and "busy" as an explanation of how and why she misinterprets what she sees and hears: Elton muttering and (presumably) walking on. It is equally clear that the last part of the quote, the image of Elton checking in on Harriet every hour, is taking place entirely in Emma's imagination. I would prefer a "for" in between "secured" and "him" but that's a stylistic preference, not a syntatical puzzle. I think Austen is working at cross purposes in this paragraph and trips herself up. She is trying to simultaneously contradict Emma and illustrate Emma's penchant for conflating her imagination with her observation. That this is the most likely explanation for the grammatical confusion provides a suggestion (if one is needed) that the device of blurring the line between Emma's consciousness and the narrator's voice is deliberate.

There is another word in the passage that is odd in retrospect, and that is "power." Emma--if we agree that despite the use of "himself" this passage describes Emma's thoughts--believes she has secured for Elton the "power" to ask after Harriet not, as we might more probably expect the "freedom" to do so.

That word choice strikes me as important. For one, it foreshadows (probably unconsciously but maybe not) the volume ending argument between Emma and Mr. Knightley about whether or not Frank Churchill is able to visit his mother-in-law, whether he is unable or simply unwilling to cross his adoptive guardians. In a broader sense, it speaks to the confinement of Emma's position by social conditions and suggests that her belief (articulated in that argument) that one is often powerless or trapped by circumstances is sincere and not merely an excuse for her or her friends when it is convenient to let them off the hook.

Emma is about the moral and psychological development of Emma. Elsewhere, I've written about discussions I've had with other readers about the extent to which Austen may expect readers to identify with Emma and even, perhaps, vicariously participate in some of her actions through tacit or mental encouragement. I've disagreed with some friends or colleagues (though not vehemently) about the extent to which Austen expects or desires this mental participation (and hence, complicity). Perhaps it is the case that as we move towards the end of each section, Austen (or her narrator) becomes a bit more explicit about Emma's problems with distinguishing between fact and desire and uses those problems to make serious points rather than (merely) humorous ones. It's hard to get too worked up over the impending consequences of Emma's misunderstanding since we know (if not in a first reading) that they will be more comic than tragic. But I think, and here's the point, the intervening conversation between Emma and John Knightley--indeed this whole passage--can be read with a more ominous tone than we are inclined to give it.

Emma's interaction with Elton in Book I does have negative consequences. That she does not mean it to be a flirtation does not entirely excuse it from having the appeareance of being one--a lesson she herself learns from being on the other side of matters when Frank Churchill exploits the ambiguity between flirtation and downright impropriety. We are quick to read Elton as the cause of his own embarrassment, and his rebound marriage no doubt contributes to our lack of sympathy at any case he might make for actually being led on, but it is worth reflecting on the sober thought that Elton is not the only one who interprets Emma's behavior this way.

Emma's brother-in-law, a family member says:

"Such an imagination [that Emma is Mr. Elton's object] has crossed me, I own Emma: and if it never occurred to you before, you may as well take it into consideration now" (73)


"I do not say it is so; but you will do well to consider whether it is so or not, and to regulate your behaviour accordingly. I think your manners to him encouraging. I speak as a friend, Emma. You had better look about you, and ascertain what you mean to do" (73, emphasis as a friend).

These two speeches take me all the way back to Chapter 1 and the narrator's assertion about the real "evils" of Emma's situation, which were the tendency to think too well of herself and the power to have too much her own way. Within the novel's broader context, Emma's blithe dismissal of John's warning is not merely humorous or ironic, it is indicative of what the narrator has insisted (and will continue to insist) is a character flaw. Emma's response focuses exclusively on the part of John's speech that characterizes Elton's motivations and entirely ignores that part of it that focuses on Emma's behavior. In fact when the narrator says in the next paragraph that Emma was "not very well pleased with her brother" (73) it is not for impugning her conduct but slighting her perception. It is for "imagining her blind and ignorant, and in want of counsel" (73).

The fact that we know, based on the previous page, that Emma is wrong about her ability to read Elton (we may suspect but not yet know the extent to which she is wrong or that she is wrong on this particular point, though the narrator has done everything but come out and tell us) may obscure that fact that the question of whether she is right or wrong about Elton's motivation ought not to change the concern she should have about her own conduct and how it is being construed. In fact, were Emma to actually believe as completely and confidently what she says she believes (that Elton desires Harriet) one might nevertheless expect her, were she particularly self aware, to contemplate whether or not his picking up some of the signals or actions that John alludes to might account for the peculiar nature of some of their (her's and Elton's) interactions that she has been puzzled by. Instead she feels irritated at her brother and sluffs it off by amusing herself at how his blunders are causes by his "pretensions" and partial knowledge of the situation.

In other words, some of the darker connotations of this scene that contribute to its ominousness rather than merely its humor is that is doesn't merely show the pot calling the kettle black about a relatively benign practice such as interpreting social behavior. The blunder, Emma's blunder, is not just a misreading but a falsely encouraging manner and a haughty resistance (rejection) of friendly...not even correction...of friendly caution. The blunders which arise from a partial knowledge of the situation are bad enough; the blunders that arise from a partial knowledge of a situation in conjunction with the power of having rather too much one's own way and a disposition to think a little too well of oneself are a bit more severe.

There remains the problem with this reading of this passage that it, like most of my readings thus far, comes across as more critical of Emma than I feel. It seems to hold Emma up to a particularly high standard and thus align me with those about whom Austen was thinking in her famous quote that Emma would be a heroine that nobody would like but her. Is a reading critical of Emma a misreading of Emma? We shall have to explore that question more. The short answer is, no, I don't think it is. But I do think we must be cautious when being critical of Emma to remember that a reader who dislikes Emma is giving a reading that Austen "feared," rather than wanted. I think some of the ambivalence Austen reported about possible criticisms of Emma stem more, perhaps, from Emma's how Emma's character stands out relative to others rather than to some ideal. George Knightley, remember, had a bit of a quick fuse around the dinner table and is not without faults of his own, so even in this passage we get a sense of how Emma (and other women) are forced to live in a society where the expectations about conduct are high universally but enforced (or even just commented upon) selectively.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Randel El vs. Ted E. Bear

Hypothetical situation:

Antwaan Randel El is on one goal line looking to go the length of the field for a score.
A hungry bear is on the fifty yard line.

Who you got?

(And if you've got the bear, are you, like Senator Hillary Clinton, evoking a secret hope that it will happen?)

Justice League: New Frontier (2008)

It's official; I may not have kids, and that may have delayed the process, but I've somehow managed to reach fuddy-duddy status nonetheless.

Justice League: New Frontier is a direct to video animation that I wouldn't bother to review but for three scenes that I found to be a bit disturbing in this PG-13 rated graphic novel come to life in cartoon clothing:

1) A POV shot of a cartoonist committing suicide to start off the work that shows the gun muzzle facing the (off-screen character) cartoonist that shows makes the camera/audience the surrogate participant.

2) Batman saving a child from a ritual murder of a religious cult. I'm not here bashing the overuse of the religious cult fanatic in film or comics, just saying that when the imperiled person is a child, that seems to me to give a work a sort of nastiness or edge that one doesn't necessarily expect from a work that one thinks will be directed towards children. Truth is, I don't much like children in peril as an action movie (even animated one) staple. At least not in action movie type peril. I turned off the second Alien v. Predator because I didn't like the way the opening scene was using the child as a means of ratcheting up the horror quotient--not just by showing us his fear but by showing us his victimization. At least the AVP movie was rated, "R," though.

3) A human character getting eaten alive by a dinosaur, including pulling two grenade pins so that once he is eaten the dinosaur will explode. Woondeba.

I grew up on comic books and television and as a rule am not particularly impressed with Jeremiads about the latest dilution of standards or lowering (raising?) the bar. I'm fully aware that animation is increasingly being marketed to an adult or teen audience in nostalgia mode and is not meant to be experienced as or understood to be "family" fare.

I can still say that I tihnk that's too bad, though, can't I? Because while the fact that cartoons and comics were a positive part of my adolescence means that I'm a target audience for such works as JLNF (as they play on my own feelings of nostalgia), there is still a part of me that is sad that comics are edgier, darker, more violent and more sexualized, seemingly across the board, in a way that would seemingly make that harder to be a positive goad to the imagination of young people today.

Mr. and Mrs. Rodham didn't raise no quitters.

Gee, I didn't wake up last week and decide I wanted ATK to morph into the Clinton-Watch blog or anything. As a professional language teacher, though, I am interested in rhetoric, and the campaign season is one in which the use (and abuse) or words often comes to the forefront.

Senator Hillary Clinton gave an interview yesterday in which she got off her train of though about how anything, including assassination, could happen well into June and reiterated that the reason she is still in the race is because she thinks she is the best candidate. So far, so good. I disagree, but I can accept that reason as legitimate.

Unfortunately, as with so many other speeches in the political realm, the Senator's remarks continued and pretty much undercut what went before. This time by invoking the "Q" word:

Clinton wrote that she can still win on the merits, and because ``my parents did not raise me to be a quitter.''


In February of last year I wrote a piece at a faculty blog for my university called "In Defense of Quitting":

I was watching “The Apprentice” the other day (I know, I know, I’m such a philistine), and one of the contestants really, really, irritated Donald Trump by quitting before he could bring her back into the “boardroom” and give her his signature, “you’re fired!”

After noting the irony of hearing the twice-divorced real-estate magnate declare that the refusal to quit is the hallmark of most successful people (flocked on either side by his children Donald, Jr. and Ivanka who lectured the contestant that one must work to get what one wants and not expect getting it to be easy), I found myself wondering why the participant’s resignation seemed to irritate Trump so much. He even considered firing an additional member of the resigning member’s team as some sort of punitive lesson about how quitting always leads to worse consequences than going down fighting.

Why do we hate quitters, anyway? Isn’t quitting sometimes a sensible thing to do? The contestant protested that the rules of “The Apprentice” had been changed from previous seasons—members of the losing team were forced to camp in tents, presumably to make them more “hungry” to perform and enjoy the benefits of big business success (in this case, electricity and running water). She might also have pointed out that succeeding at the “game” required losing team members to turn on each other in the boardroom, to pass blame, to sling mud, and generally to do whatever one had to do to lay the fault for failure at someone else’s feet. If, in the middle of such a demeaning process, one began to have second thoughts about whether one even really wanted the reward being offered (in this case the opportunity to be bullied by Trump for a year as a paid employee instead of as a television contestant), wouldn’t it make sense to stop pursuing it? Sure it would, if we put it that way—but the minute we call it “quitting” there seems to be some moral (or at least character) flaw attached to the person following such logic.

When I was in middle school and junior high school, I was interested in drama. I was a decent actor (got a few good parts in school and community plays), but I couldn’t sing a lick—still can’t. My parents offered to sign me up for dance lessons, which seemed like a good idea. After several weeks, though, I found myself disenchanted. The emphasis was on tap dancing, which I didn’t like. Over half of my time at the lessons was spent doing gymnastics and tumbling instead of actually working on new routines. Tentatively, fearing a scolding, I told my parents I wanted to quit. They said, “okay.”

Contrary to conventional wisdom, I did not grow up into a perpetual quitter who was unable to commit to relationships or follow through on any difficult job. In fact, as I grew into my high school and college years, I noted that I was often more willing to try new things, whereas some of my friends would rarely take on challenges or jobs outside their comfort zone. This attitude allowed me to pursue a range of different interests before committing the bulk of my effort (much less all of it) to any one pursuit. Those who feared being labeled a “quitter” would often fear getting stuck in a new job, relationship, or hobby, and thus assiduously avoid ever trying something new.

Any good poker player will occasionally fold a hand (i.e. quit) if he knows he is beaten. By doing so, he conserves resources and increases his chance of eventual success. A coach may give up trying to win a particular game in order to give bench players experience. Patches are made to help people quit smoking, and Christians often rely on community help to quit (or try to quit) bad habits.

One of the most puzzling examples of how cultural attitudes towards quitting have affected education is how many students will apologize to me when they drop my class. Even if there is a waiting list of students wanting to get into a class, even if a student was registered for the class as a mistake because the computer read ENGL instead of ECON, even if a student is dropping out of school because a doctor has told him he has twenty-four hours to live… the student will still avert his eyes in shame when handing me the “drop/add” form.

Because, you know…nobody respects a quitter.

Just ask Donald Trump.

12 February 2007

So, needless to say, I view remarks such as Senator Clinton's to be non-answers to the question of why she is or is not continuing to stay in the race. Simply saying one is not (or doesn't want to be) "a quitter" is exploiting the emotional connotations of the word by smuggling in the assumptions (unchallenged) that quitting is always wrong or that any form of change (whether it be in resources or focus) is "quitting." Were that the case, everyone should be married to their first boyfriend or girlfriend, should never change majors or jobs or homes, should never take up a new hobby instead of keeping up with an old one. By that logic, I should be ashamed that I no longer watch American Idol. Sure, I tend to think that after growing bored with the show after having watched it for the first three seasons or so, there is nothing wrong with turning my time and attention to other things. But by Senator Clinton's logic, I have become a quitter, not following through on something I started. My parents must be so ashamed.

Politicians exploit rhetoric all the time. If I find this instance particularly irksome, perhaps it is because I find it to be another example of Senator Clinton borrowing a page from the Republican play book and by doing so seeming to strengthen or tacitly endorse a method of faulty logic when it is applied to other, even more important decisions. (You know, like, whether or not deciding to not perpetuate a war that was a bad idea in the first place and was sold to the American public with a series of half-truths and misinformation is "quitting.")

What would Senator Clinton say if, in response to a democratic party platform that called for an end to the Iraq War (yeah, I know, we could only wish that ANY candidate had the guts to be so direct as to make that a part of the platform so directly) President Bush or Senator McCain were to derisively respond, "You know my parents didn't raise me to be a quitter."

I would assume she would take umbrage at the suggestion that any attempt to do the right thing, to change one's mind, to graciously or professionally concede defeat or error, or to try to correct past mistakes--any attempt, in other words to change--involves "quitting" and is therefore the sign of a character flaw.

I know I would.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Self-Stirring Mug

Here is a mug that stirs itself. Just put all the ingredients in and press a button (I'm assuming on the bottom?)

Keith Olbermann on Senator Clinton's Remarks


Friday, May 23, 2008

Non-Apology Apologies

Some time back my friend Russ made a practice at his blog of noting stylistic or rhetorical moves he could live without. Today provided an example of one that drives me nuts--the non-apology apology.

While giving an interview explaining her reasons for not exiting the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Hillary Clinton cited two examples of nominating battles that were not decided until June and referenced the example of Senator Robert F. Kennedy being assassinated in June of 1968 as one example of why she didn't "understand" the urgency to get her out of the race.

As someone whose profession demands that I talk for a living, often extemporaneously for long stretches at a time, I tend to want to cut some slack for the public figure who may occasionally flub the delivery of some point, though I could cite a long list of people who didn't get the opportunity to contextualize or explain some statement or other. Even not being a supporter of Senator Clinton's campaign, I find it hard to believe her comment was anything other than poorly stated. My instinctive and initial reaction when I heard it was, "Oww, she said that badly" not "Gee, she is saying she is hanging around in case someone takes a shot at her opponent." (The timing of the quote was particularly unfortunate coming on the heels of her much publicized argument that she was more capable of winning "white" voters.)

Truth be told, I don't think those who are trying to make political hay out of the remark really believe it is something more sinister than a misstatement. One way of judging that is how oblique critics will be in their condemnation. Respondents I saw on YouTube were quick to say that it would cost her, that it was outrageous, that it was inappropriate, but nobody said (or asked those who were commenting to explain) why. Perhaps part that reluctance is itself grounded in legitimate reasons such as not wanting to reinforce a hurtful sound bite through repetition, but perhaps part of it is a knowledge that some thoughts, when said out loud actually look and sound a bit less credible than an insinuating comment.

All of which is said by way of preface to say I would have had a lot more respect for Senator Clinton if she had responded to the criticism of her comments differently. This may have been one of those rare instances where an "I'm not even going to dignify that with a response" may have been appropriate. At the most, there could have been an acknowledgment that the comment didn't come out right. Instead, she issued a classic non-apology apology. She prefaced by explaining how and why the remark was meant innocuously but then went on to apologize for it, anyway, saying she regretted any pain or offense it "might" have caused.

Such a self-contradictory rhetorical move is a lose-lose situation. It allows news stations to lead with the headline "Senator Clinton 'Regrets' Remarks" or "Senator Clinton Apologizes for Remarks," which may be all anyone ever reads, thus cementing the sinister interpretation as a matter of fact. If she felt she had to apologize for it, then she is admitting, de facto, that there is something to apologize for.

Yes and no. The first part of the apology--the part that explains why an apology (that one is about to issue anyway) is unnecessary, is a standard ritual. It's meta-message (to borrow Deborah Tannen's phrase) is: "Despite what I'm about to say, I'm not sorry. I'm being forced to issue an apology but I want to make it clear to everyone, especially the people pressing hardest for the apology, that while they can make me say the words, I am not, in fact sorry."

Furthermore, the apology itself is one of those classic sorts that is qualified with "whoever might have taken offense." Combined with the explanation that nobody should have taken offense, the statement the apology to those who "might" have done so is actually more of an insult than an apology. The meta-message here is "if you are so stupid or thin-skinned as to need an apology, you are wrong, but here's an olive branch...let me spit in your eye and slip you some poison ivy while I give it to you." It also serves the rhetorical function of literally saying that what the speaker is sorry for is that the person took offense, not that the speaker gave it. We see this all the time in high profile apologies.

Personally, I found Senator Clinton's apology more offensive than her original statement, because the first statement was off-the-cuff and the latter was calculated. The first statement could be generously interpreted as innocuous if one cared to give her the benefit of the doubt (and if one didn't or wouldn't than what difference would a half-hearted non-apology make?), the latter was carefully crafted (probably written out before hand) and said after careful consideration. The first sent a plea to voters to let the process play out because strange things can happen in politics. The second sent the message to voters that she thinks we are incapable of intelligently and independently evaluating any news story or candidate comment for ourselves and are more likely to be swayed by empty rhetoric than a sincere, plain response.

It turns out one of Senator Clinton's spokespeople took exactly the first tactic, saying that reading anything more into the statement than an historical example was "outrageous." But here's the problem with trying to argue contradictory explanations. If any response to the comments other than one that acknowledges they were benign is "outrageous" than why did the candidate apologize for them? That's another thing I hate about non-apology apologies--they are usually vague enough to leave room for revisionist interpretation. No doubt we will eventually hear a parsing of the apology from some quarter that says she "regretted" making the comment because of the consequences of it rather than because there was anything wrong. A key component of any sincere apology is an admission of wrong--the foundation of the non-apology apology is the attempt to offer a formal apology, to go through the rhetorical motions, while steadfastly denying any wrong doing. All this does is make the apologizer look insincere and thereby make those who might have been inclined to accept that the original intentions may have been sincere less inclined to believe so.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Odds and Ends

On vacation with friends and only intermittent contact to the Internet. So, some hit or miss blog thoughts, rapid-fire style:

--graduation speaker this year said that a key to success is maintaining a relationship with God or "some other higher being." Weird thing was that nobody batted an eye (conforming that nobody actually listens to graduation speakers). I'm not sure what higher being in addition to God I want to have a relationship with.

--after what seems like ages, I finally got to play some disc golf. Cindy, Todd, and I played the course in Newport News, Virginia. We were playing "Wolf" and after Todd's drive he chose to pair with Cindy. I promptly hit the basket on my drive, narrowly missing an ace. (And is there a more frustrating play in disc golf than the tee shot that hits the basket and bounds off it so hard that the deuce putt is not a gimme?)

--legend has it there is a crystal skull. "It is made completely of gold." WTF?

--every time I think I could not possibly be more embarrassed at who was elected the leader of my country, President George W. Bush proves me wrong. His latest? Why he gave up golf. There is a longer, more serious blog in response to this interview, but I don't know when I'll have time to write it. (It would reference Sir Philip Sidney's defense of poetry, though.) For now I'll just say this...Natalie Means is looking smarter each passing day, isn't she?

--Saw Iron Man. Didn't hate it, exactly, but after the first 45 minutes I was more interested in when it would be over than how it would be over. There is a longer essay in response to this film, but I'll probably never blog it. The intricacies of the cultural work going on here are almost as complex as the special effects, what with the ways in which it takes a weapons maker who is first for and then against the war but shows that he wasn't wrong in either (political) stance. I believe in suspension of disbelief and all, but when one is hit by a jet going 800 miles an hour, one tends to die, I would think, even if one is wearing titanium armor.

--Saw Untraceable. I just don't get the horror porn genre. (And this was horror porn, just with a better cast.) The theme of complicity ("We are the murder weapons") was neither fresh nor well thought out. (What was Marsh's alleged complicity?) Thus, I haven't seen a film that simultaneously pretends to denounce some position, action, or behavior of the audience while actually pandering to it by depending on it since...well, Iron Man.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

To be kind neither hurts nor compromises. -- George MacDonald; "God's Family." Hope of the Gospel
The above quote has been in my commonplace book for many years. There are days when I think is true. There are days when I think it, like the more often quoted "Love means never having to say you're sorry," is not just wrong but 180 degrees wrong. As I grow older, the former days begin to outnumber the latter. I tend, more and more, to think of kindness less in terms of the painful putting to death of the old, fallen self, less as the thing that has been tried and found wanting, and more as the thing that has been found hard and not tried.

Lars and the Real Girl
is a sweet film that gets a lot of emotional mileage out of showing people being kind. It is a film in which people are loving for no other reason than they can be and where they choose to be compassionate rather than cruel because doing the former seldom costs more than the latter.

I've recently ranted in the rant threads about Dan in Real Life and how shabbily it treats and depicts some of its supporting characters. Lars and the Real Girl is a film that trusts its audience enough that it doesn't have to make you like the protagonist by making everyone else a jerk. There's an unwritten rule in the ATK blog that you can't complain about the NCAA not putting your team in the field of 64 or the Academy not nominating a film without saying which team or film it should replace. I'm not sure that Lars and the Real Girl is Oscar material, but I will say I prefer it vastly over the smug, self-satisfied and condescending Juno and I do so for precisely the reason given above. The people who occupy this film, who move in and out of Lars's circle, while not perfect, are decent, if occasionally flawed or scarred, folks that the film allows us to like as much as Lars. Lars and the Real Girl recognizes what I don't think Juno does--that love is not a zero-sum game, that we don't necessarily nor instinctively care less about who and what the film most wants us to care about simply because there are other things besides those things in the film that might warrant our respect and appreciation. So many films fear we will get lost and never work our way back to the star, the protagonist, the hero, and thus strip the world he or she occupies of anything good, or beautiful, or admirable, making us cling to the protagonist not because he or she draws us, but because like Private Mayo in An Officer and a Gentleman, "[We ] got no place else to go."

In fact, the community is the hero of Lars and the Real Girl. I can't think of the last commercial, American film I saw that presented community as a positive force (at least that wasn't doing so ironically or satirically). Compare the doctor here to the technician in Juno. Compare the pastor and his community here to the one in There Will Be Blood. Compare the portrayal of businesses (like the merchant who gives Bianca a part time job) to that of Michael Clayton. Compare the film's take on the possibility for healing, growth, or forgiveness with that of Atonement.

I know, I know, this film is a fantasy and those other films are realism. If Sheriff Bell wandered over to Lars's neck of the woods he'd find it a fine country for old men, and we, like Lars, know that in another world called reality land, love hurts, innocence is met with scorn and contempt, not tenderness and compassion, that kindness is often compromise and the only reason it seldom hurts is because we generally only ever practice it from a safe distance.

Maybe it is the responsibility of art or film to hold a mirror up to the world and show us the cold, hard, truth.

Or maybe, just maybe, on a rare occasion, a film can do something even harder. Maybe, now and again, it can show us the more excellent way, the way that things should be, the way things are beneath the surfaces hardened by cynicism, and scorn, and just plain old weariness.

It's not a perfect film by any means. The 911 call didn't work for me--the hospital seemed too big for the sort of small town where this might happen (with a little suspended disbelief), and I'm not sure that ambulances and hospitals would just play along given the costs of these services and the need to be on call for actual emergencies. I'm still not sure that virtue isn't gendered a bit too much in the film, though that might be true to its theme in that men are perhaps more uncomfortable expressing kindness than women because of cultural norms associating it [falsely] with weakness, which makes those practicing it appear [or feel] less masculine. It might not even be a great film, though given how often that word is lobbied about, I'm not sure it it doesn't have streaks of greatness in it.

Or perhaps I'm just being too kind to the film.

On Shark Jumping


The finer nuances of what constitutes "jumping the shark" can be debated at length. There is even a web site devoted to turning it into a populist referendum. In my book, it's not the sort of thing you can vote on or perhaps even explain. You just know.

Here's a couple things that jumping the shark is not:

1) It's not necessarily a television show's nadir. After Fonzie jumped the shark there were worse things yet to come on the original shark jumping show.

2) It is not the point after which the show was never good. Personally, I think Party of Five jumped the shark on the last episode of season one when Charlie left Paula Deviq's character (whose name I don't even remember) at the altar. It's not that there was never anything good after that. Just that one knew, instinctively that the writer's were tied to a formula of unhappiness and crisis and that there wasn't much point in investing much of anything in these characters because to let them change and learn from their mistakes at least some times (i.e. to let them be actual human beings) would be to mess with the show's "formula."

I think jumping the shark is really about a tipping point. It is not necessarily when things go bad, it is when they go irrevocably bad...or at least when mistakes are made of the nature that no matter what comes after the shark jumping will always keep it from re-attaining (or exceeding) some plateau of quality it could have reached. There were good things in The West Wing until the end but it really jumped the shark when Zoe got kidnapped. (Remember when they brought John Goodman back for a cameo on the airplane? How they had to for continuity's sake but how fake it felt to see him as an actual character--much less ex-president--rather than a celebrity guest star?)

I never watched E.R. on television, but I do watch the DVDs as they've come out and it provided a case in point. When you see a television show jump, there is very little doubt. If you have to wonder if it jumped, it probably didn't. You just instinctively know as it is happening. The funny thing is, I went to the website to see if anyone agreed with me. There were eighty-four votes labeled simply "The Breakfast Club." Now there are eighty-five. The death of Mark Greene a few episodes later was hammy, and sentimental and a "very special episode" but, you know, it was handled okay. It wasn't bad. I think it really was a case of which the show actually jumped a few episodes earlier and people mistook the fact that they finished the "very special episode" and things still didn't feel right or back to the plateau as evidence it jumped during the very special episode. But it didn't. It jumped during "The Breakfast Club." The very special episode was just further confirmation that once a show has jumped, it doesn't matter if it regains its stride or is able to do something well.

I may watch later seasons as they come out on DVD (it's still on the air!), but I know that whatever else comes, there will always be Carter, Susan, Abby, and Luca talking about losing their virginity, Carter and Luca fencing and quoting Hamlet, and a general tendency to reference other works as a means of short-hand for character definition because of creative exhaustion leading to an inability to say anything new or interesting about the characters that had been created.

Friday, May 09, 2008

If I Were on South Park...

...I might look like this.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Not a Push...

Yesterday I blogged about mixed feelings when a combination of good and frustrating things happened, calling it a "push."

Today, I received copies of the book contract from Cambridge Scholars Press for Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema.

That's definitely not a push; that's just a good day.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

That's a Push..

So I got this invitation for a "select" shopping experience where the Best Buy in Raleigh would be open only to members and have double rewards points on every purchase. I decided to break down and replace the stereo in my car with one that has a line in for my Ipod.

I got there, selected the model I wanted and was ready to purchase only to be told that there were no installers present and we could only buy merchandise, we would have to come back to have it installed.

Okay, what management idiot made that call? (Let's give people incentive to get to the store where they'll be provided with a disincentive to, you know, actually buy anything.)

So I was pretty irritated.

But then I won a $50 gift card at the next drawing....

Which I would happily have used to justify buying the slightly more expense model of car stereo that the sales guy was trying to upsell me...

But instead I walked out of the store with no stereo and a card for $50 dollars worth of any merchandise except what I wanted to buy.

I should be singing Best Buy's praises...and I may still buy it from them (only at a different store that's closer to me). Or I may just see if Wal-Mart will do it and use the gift card for I-Tunes or something. (I'd probably just buy DVDs if they weren't so much more expensive to start with than getting them used.)