Friday, September 30, 2016

On Rejection

In order to make it in academia, you need to develop a tolerance for rejection. No matter how good you think you are or how good you actually are, you will be rejected for prestigious grants and competitive jobs, and you will be rejected too for grants which "everyone" gets like soccer trophies or conferences held in Yakima, Washington that take in at least 90 percent of all applicants. People of color and women will be rejected more than white men, of course, but there's no comfort in being able to blame one's rejections on racism or sexism. 

There's a mantra that quality has nothing to do with academic success, a belief held by a few tenure-track professors. One tells me that you can only control for 30 percent of the strength of your application. The remaining 70 is out of your control. Another tells me the latter number is closer to 99.5. 

It's hard to develop a good measurement system for scholarship. The same rules apply to academics as to almost all the creative professions. Brilliant archival researchers can be bad writers. Beautiful writers can have a hard time synthesizing ideas. A genius can do hack work for years and then write one of the most important, groundbreaking papers in his field. A historian can amass an enormous amount of material no one else would know how to get, get the meaning of it all wrong, but still lay the groundwork for a smarter theorist who knows exactly how to put it all together.

A bigoted, fascistic teacher can teach a student how to write a good sentence. A wonderful lecturer can be hopeless when leading a discussion. Someone with no clue how to manage an hour's worth of classroom time can still, in spite of himself, somehow manage to impart several nuggets of wisdom that will stay with at least a few students for the rest of their lives.

I don't want to be a relativist. I know full well that there are people who don't belong anywhere near students. I know there is such a thing as garbage scholarship. I know there are people who don't belong in my world. I can name those people. But I guess we all live in constant fear that we might be one of those people.

If you don't suffer from imposter syndrome, you're probably doing something wrong. And if you are accepted for everything to which you apply, you're probably not being as true to yourself as you should be. And this is what I repeat to myself every goddamn day.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

On the Perils of Maturity

I used to be of the belief that everyone should get a pass on whatever embarrassing, awful stuff they did before they turned 18. Did you put on blackface when you were 14 for a school talent show and then get suspended for it? You were a jerk. But if you're 34 now and you know better and teach your kids about the horrors of racism, no one needs to know about that story. The same goes for your verbal bullying of the gay kid, the misogynist jokes you cracked about the fat girl, and of that time you humiliated the autistic kid of the janitor who took a job at the school because it was the only way he was able to find services for his son. As long as you've grown up and have given up on your sociopathy, you are allowed to live a long adulthood in which these incidents do not haunt you, or at least only haunt you late at night, because hopefully you have developed a capacity for guilt and introspection.

After seeing how much I and many of my friends have changed since college, I now extend the age up to 22. I'm sure when I'm 50, I will bring it up to 35, and when I'm 80, to 70.

This will be a gutless post, in which I will discuss a 30-something cartoonist of some prominence without naming him. I don't know him personally, although, the world of comics being what it is, I'm sure we have at least 15 mutual friends.

This cartoonist began his career at my college paper, which published his early "South Park"-esque stabs at comedy. I remember one that ran on Yom Kippur about a Jew who gleefully breaks all the rules of the Day of Atonement. In one panel, the kid chows down on pork with a shit-eating grin. In the final panel, the cartoon announces that it was drawn by a Jew and therefore not offensive. The school's Jewish chaplain begged to differ.

After he graduated, a god-, god-, oh-my-god, was it a godawful campus humor mag published what may be his most infamous cartoon. This was the magazine that advertised itself with a cartoon of a man representing Columbia fucking a student up the ass. (Get it...Right...I mean...Get it. Hahahahhahaha. Taking it up the ass. Hahahahahhaha) I remember meeting the editor and she struck me as inhumane.

The cartoon in question made fun of the lame, shallow story taught during African-American History Month. As someone who has long grown weary of any discussion that privileges heritage over history, I actually agreed with the sentiment of the cartoon. But it's not a cartoon I would have written or, at least today, have published. It was very easy to read the strip as indulging cartooning's long history of blackface. Its irony did not save it. Campus protests followed.

I thought his work was funny. I thought he walked a line he often tripped over. I thought it was okay to trip over lines in comedy. If he was doing this work today, he would risk expulsion in at least a few schools. And no, I don't think it's good that such work risks that kind of punishment.

This cartoonist had a natural understanding of how to develop narrative in a few short panels, and the mischievous grin of the protagonist who is so ready to say the socially unacceptable would be familiar to any college kid. But the sloppiness was evident. He grew up to become an expert draftsman. He's an innovator in one field of professional cartooning that has gained more interest in recent years. He also draws toothless, dad-humor-esque political cartoons for one of the most prestigious popular publications in the U.S. If I placed any of his college work next to any of his current work, you would find the two artistic temperaments irreconcilable. A lot of comics have said that Jay Leno was a badass in the 1980s.

I have no idea what changed. We all grow up. Part of me is glad that his current work doesn't "punch down." Part of me is glad to see him focus more of his intelligence in his line-drawing. Part of me wonders if a humorist who can only survive on at least a certain level of offensiveness in regards to race may lack moral intelligence. Part of me thinks that there is and has been a lot of worth, wisdom, and intelligence in racist/anti-Semitic/misogynist/homophobic/xenophobic art, and that there is something valuable that can be revealed when we let an artist indulge his id.

Most of his college work is unavailable online. My college newspaper did not post our cartoons on the internet during his run. I wish that material was more readily available online. And I wish this cartoonist would go back and look at his early work and see if there's anything worth reviving.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On What the Undecided See

I watched the debate last night in a loud bar, so it was hard to follow the drama. From my perspective, Hillary Clinton looked poised and controlled and Donald Trump looked petulant. When I watched some of the highlight clips, it looked like a knockout to me. But throughout the debate, I was trying to get in the head of someone who hasn't made up his or her mind. 

What did I see from the perspective of at least one kind of undecided voter? That Trump may have been funny and self-deprecating when he joked about not paying taxes, and you know what, taxes suck. That Clinton should stop talking about being a woman and should start talking about being president. I mean, why does she have to talk about being a woman all the time? That Clinton decided to go negative first, so what was Trump supposed to do? Of course he had to interrupt her. I see a woman who spent a little too much time before the debate coming up with unnecessary mean-girl zingers. 

My Facebook friends, real friends, and I read books that don't show up on bestseller lists. We know that history books written by news anchors are hilariously bad. We talk about "Better Call Saul," while the rest of the country watches "Blue Bloods," which we haven't heard of. We supposedly have a firm grasp of what public discourse is supposed to sound like. (Judging by the Bernie-Hillary debates on my newsfeed, we don't.) We know the definitions of "mansplaining" and "privilege." We spend a lot of time reading the news online when we're supposed to be doing our important work. We are able to see what lies behind stereotypes of race/gender/sexuality/national background, partly because we went to colleges which taught us to look behind stereotypes. We know not to tell jokes about the mentally disabled...oh, wait a minute, sorry, but we don't. Be honest. You know all the Trig Palin jokes. Because, in your heart of hearts, you value intellectual ability above so much else. 

In the past year and a half, I've learned that I know very little about this country. If you think the debate was an obvious "win" for Clinton, I hope you know more than I do.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

On the White Female Cop and the Black Male Cop

In the standard narrative -- the Radio Raheem narrative -- a white male cop in a moment of rage, fear, and incompetence, acts upon his racism and kills a black male who is, objectively speaking, no threat to anyone. This narrative has become iconic in the religion of (some, not all) Black Lives Matter protesters. Any detail that might complicate that narrative in any of these awful police shootings must be explained or at least its significance conveniently minimized. Even if it turns out that Michael Brown was something other than a "gentle giant" and that Darren Wilson was, as Eric Holder's Justice Department declared, acting correctly when he shot Brown, a believer must find ways to keep the story of Michael Brown "true" according to the dictates of his religion.

That is not to say that the narrative isn't often correct. The Eric Garner case strikes me as pretty clearcut and I don't really understand why the policeman in the case is still allowed to walk the streets as a free man. This is not to say that there isn't a counter-narrative of a separate religion, one that has far less credibility, one that believes in the existence of an honorable thin blue line that protects us from the violent criminal menace that would destroy all if given the chance, one that believes that almost every one of these shootings are justifiable on some level.

The two most recent shootings involve details that would complicate the narrative only for people who don't understand the fundamental problems concerning race and policing. In the shooting in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the cop was a white female. In the second, in Charlotte, the cop was a black male. Rudy Giuliani, or at least the Giuliani circa 2000, is one of the people who might find these complicating factors. When a young black man was gunned down by police that year, he didn't see how race could be a factor, as the cops in question were all Hispanic. Giuliani is a terrible human being. He has no place in public life.

Statistics have proven that black policemen suffer, more or less, from the same prejudices against black civilians as white policemen. Anyone surprised by the possibility that a black police officer may exercise his own prejudices against people who share his phenotype really don't know all that much about prejudice.

The belief that a white woman would somehow be less violent when poorly trained involves a form of sexism. I am reminded of the leftist activist I met in 2001 who blamed the coming War on Terrorism on "men who should listen to women more" and of the women who claimed that if mothers ran the world, there would be no war. I wonder what Hillary Clinton would make of that claim.

The most essential parts of the narrative are constant. Bad policing kills more black people than white people. A large presence of guns in society makes police fear people they shouldn't fear.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

On Bill Nunn

I have TA'd two classes which taught Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989). The first was at the University of Iowa in 2010, years before the media started covering police killings of young black men on a regular basis. I have varying feelings about these killings. Each of them involve complicated circumstances. I do believe most of these deaths could have been avoided if we improved police training and instituted national regulations that would require more federal control of our country's many police departments. I also believe that no matter how many regulations we create, black people will be disproportionately affected by bad policing for a very long time to come.

I'm going to break a rule I set for myself awhile ago on this blog to not talk about my classroom experiences in detail. The students in my classroom at Iowa were uniformly white. Many of them were from small towns and grew up seeing few if any black people, and they were living in a town with ugly racial politics. I remember hearing some, not all, of my fellow TAs complaining particularly about their white, male, heterosexual students who just didn't "get" race. These complaints often spilled into genuine anger at their students, which in turn morphed into disgust. And those complaints always spiked whenever they showed one of the roster of our "black" films in the department's DVD library, Do the Right Thing, Tongues Untied (Marlon Riggs, 1989), and The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996). I never felt that anger, mostly because the students' responses to Do the Right Thing weren't all that different from my own when I first saw the movie in middle school, and again, when I re-watched it in high school.

I remember thinking that Sal (Danny Aiello) was the most sympathetic character in the movie. He was easily the most developed. He was no one-dimensional racist. It took a lot to get him to say the "n-word." It didn't seem to me that he was stealing anything from the black people in his neighborhood. He was running a business that the black people in Brooklyn liked. The Korean grocers looked hard-working to me, and, you know, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) did strike me as obnoxious. All the black characters in the movie were cartoons. I also saw the movie after Lee had made Mo' Better Blues (1990), a movie in which he had betrayed his anti-Semitism. Who the hell was this guy to lecture me about prejudice?

I was 29 when I taught the film. I knew the basic socio-political narrative the movie was telling and I knew that it was more or less accurate. I better understood the tragic breakdown in communication between the Koreans and the black characters. After four years in Giuliani/Bloomberg's New York, I knew that white cops could and did bully black people who had done nothing to deserve such bullying. I knew my Iowa students hadn't been told that narrative. I knew they didn't realize that their poor black neighbors in Iowa City lived in a city that degraded them simply by offering them terrible transportation options, and that those poor transportation options were the least of their problems. But when my students complained that they didn't understand why the black people in the movie wanted to burn down Sal's pizzeria, or that the movie made all black people look terrible (a criticism repeated by at least a few black film critics), or that the movie stereotyped cops as fascists, I knew by that point how they got it wrong.

Lee often complained that white viewers were always more upset by the destruction of Sal's pizzeria than by the death of Radio Raheem. To be honest, I'm not sure if that's where my students were coming from. To begin with, the movie gave them far more access to Sal than Radio Raheem. Even if it didn't, I think like most of white America, my students thought that Sal was real, that he was someone they may have recognized, and that they may have related the destruction of his small business to the economic problems in their own dying towns. The death of Radio Raheem was maybe the least stylized and most sickening depiction of violence upon a black body in mainstream American film until 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013). It was too much. They just couldn't believe his death was real.

Lee looked to Roma (Federico Fellini, 1972) not Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948) as inspiration for the film's mise-en-scène. For black audiences, Lee's abandonment of realism didn't matter. He could have set Do the Right Thing on the moon, 500 years into the future, and black audiences would know they were looking at a true story. Hardcore white racists wouldn't have cared one way or another what you showed them. Decent white people needed hard, documentary evidence. But, well, even then, they probably wouldn't have believed their eyes.

RIP Bill Nunn.

Friday, September 23, 2016

On Leaving the Creative Professions

Parting Glances (Bill Sherwood, 1986) is my favorite movie of the 1980s. It's one of the few contemporary works of art about AIDS that avoids melodrama, apocalyptic anxiety, piety, or brutality. The movie is a collection of vignettes, house parties, dinner parties, bitchy phone conversations. It's one of Steve Buscemi's first movies. He exercises enormous restraint as a rock star dying of the disease. He's depressed, but not hopelessly so. The movie also features Kathy Kinney, who would go on to play Mimi on The Drew Carey Show (1995-2004). Kinney naturally works against the fag-hag stereotype. She is gentle, relaxed, and confident. She doesn't surround herself with gay men out of desperation, but genuine affection. A young man named Adam Nathan plays a cute twink who spends most of the movie dead silent in the background, casually navigating this gay world. In the middle of the movie, almost out of nowhere, he reveals himself to be a human being. Buscemi sits morose in a stairwell. Nathan delivers a monologue, all bravado, bragging about coming out at 16, not giving a damn about what anyone thought of him, and confessing his crush on Buscemi's best friend who is just so "cool," a description neither Buscemi's character nor any member of the audience would ever use. Adam Nathan is fantastic. He sells Parting Glances the way Alec Baldwin sells Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992). He is what you wish you could be, know you will never be, and know that it's probably a good thing that you will never be. His monologue defines the stakes. In Parting Glances, everyone wishes they could live not so much longer as younger, like this kid who seems convinced he will never die.

So who is Adam Nathan and what happened to him? I looked him up on IMDB. He has three other acting credits, one in Michael Jackson's "Bad" music video. So as far as I'm concerned he is part of two of the greatest American movies of the 1980s. "Did he die of AIDS? Please tell me no." So I look him up through LinkedIn and find out that Adam Nathan actually has his own website, dedicated to talking about his family, his hobbies, and his career. He went to Columbia, where he graduated with a BA in Russian Language and Literature. He went to Tisch in the early '90s. He hiked in Nepal. And now he's married (to a woman, he's straight), has two kids, lives in the Seattle-area and works in IT. I emailed him a couple of years ago and asked if he'd agree to be profiled for a story. I wanted to write a long personal essay about Parting Glances, using what looked like his intriguing life story, the outline of which he has made public information, as a through-line. He was very kind and he turned me down. 

A couple of weeks ago, I watched a terrible, dated gay movie, Get Real (Simon Shore, 1998). It's a dull, obvious coming out tale that stars another one-time twink, a cute skinny kid named Ben Silverstone, who was 18 or 19 at the time of filming. The other actors in Get Real are hacks and the script doesn't allow anyone to breath. The closeted athlete is not much more than a closeted athlete. The anti-gay bullies are just violent psychopaths. But Silverstone is awesome, quick with a subtle one-liner. He takes pleasure in recognizing everyone else's bullshit. Okay, so what happened to Ben Silverstone? Well I go on IMDB. His last significant acting role is nearly 10 years old in an ill-received movie in which he co-starred with Patrick Swayze. Before Get Real, he appeared in remakes of The Browning Version (Mike Figgis, 1994) and Lolita (Adrian Lyne, 1997). In the latter, he played a young Humbert Humbert, which means that at some point I will have to watch that movie. He also appeared on stage, won some awards, but he retired from acting in the late 2000s and became a barrister, specializing in human rights law. 

There are many reasons people leave the creative professions. The creative professions are generally not lucrative. They are not meritocracies. Mediocrities often rise to the top, due to the capriciousness of the market, of what people in power think is worthwhile. There are hard-working boring grinds like Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon who make it big in comedy, and geniuses like Lewis Black who didn't have much of a career until he hit his 50s. Two of my smartest colleagues from the University of Iowa, where I did my MA, dropped out of the program, one after three years, the other when he was well into the dissertation phase. I'm sure there were many Aretha Franklins and Sam Cookes who never felt the need to leave their churches for a recording studio, or who were discouraged from doing so due to the racism of the music industry.

But there are other reasons. Our culture may elevate certain forms of creativity, but there are, in fact, many forms of creativity. Silverstone is probably a brilliant barrister and he's practicing an area of law that I imagine offers a lot of intellectual stimulation. Those outside of IT probably don't understand the fun a 9-5 IT job may offer. People who have never stood in front of a classroom will never understand that teaching is more of a craft than a science. Movie acting, writing, stand-up comedy and the rest are not the only ways to share something great with the world. 

Still, there is something offensive about the decisions of young, beautiful, talented men like Nathan and Silverstone to leave acting. The creative professions involve a way of being that stretches from childhood into old age. Actors can but often don't start acting when they're in college. They start in their kindergarten Christmas plays. Forty-year-old novelists once wrote fairy tales for their third grade teachers. Academics are eternal students, surrounded by mentors, in one way or another, until the last few years before their retirement. When someone leaves a creative profession, they are making peace with their age. They are walking away from youth. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

On What a University Should Do

Frank Bruni has a column this week attacking the U.S. News and World Report college rankings, an easy target for anyone who understands the purpose of an education. He points to UMBC as an example of the kind of school that serves its STEM and humanities students well, that is welcoming and nurturing of its African-American students, and that is much more successful than many elite institutions in giving students both what they want and what they need.

Here's my definition of a good liberal arts education:

A good liberal arts education should teach students how to think, not what to think. A class in which a professor teaches either Plato or Judith Butler as unquestionable is not a good class. A teacher should ask his students to first consider the questions the text asks itself. Then the student should impose whatever questions he wishes upon the text.

A good liberal arts education should balance a study of canonical texts and traditional subjects with a study of non-canonical texts and non-traditional subject matter. No student should expect to read the entirety of the Western classics in four years or in his lifetime. It is not a tragedy if a student goes through four years of college without encountering Milton. It is unfortunate if he goes through four years of college without encountering any canonical text, from Homer to Virginia Woolf, or from Plato to Freud. In other words, the student should know what it means to engage with a tradition. But culture is not static. It breathes. And the non-Western world is just as important as the Western world. A student should at some point read Confucius and Native American literatures. A student should take classes on the history of Sub-Saharan Africa, French comics, Hungarian animation, Argentine silent film, diplomacy in Latin America, the history of gay life in New York or Japan.

A good liberal arts education should teach a student to care more about learning than grades.

A good liberal arts education should teach a student to pursue areas of study in which he will not excel.

A good liberal arts education should teach a student to respect people of different races, classes, gender identities, sexual orientations, religions...It should teach a student to respect, accept, enjoy, and try to understand difference. The student should be open to getting to know all of his fellow students.

If the university is located in a large city, the student should be able and desire to take advantage of life outside the university. He should visit museums and interesting neighborhoods. He should volunteer in local schools. He should go to interesting concerts, meet and get to know other people in the city. If the university is in a small town, the student should be genuinely interested in getting to know his neighbors.

The student should be unafraid of remaining true to himself in all situations.

Essentially, I want the university to create good citizens, people who will question, who will listen, who will remain curious, who will be creative, who will be responsible to their fellow man, and giving to all for the rest of their lifetimes. The three universities I have attended (Columbia, University of Iowa, University of Washington) succeeded in some respects and failed in others to create these good citizens. Those failures existed at every level of the university, from the administrators, to the professors, to the student body.

When the administration fails to pay its custodial workers a living wage, it gives permission to the student body to disrespect the custodial workers.

When grades are the primary criteria to get into certain programs, which promise a lucrative career, the university tells students to only take courses in which they will excel.

Some of my classmates from Columbia are coming out of the closet now, while they're in their mid-30s. It was a liberal school in a gay-friendly city, but I suspect the competitive nature of our college made them afraid to admit to any form of difference, anything that might suggest they couldn't achieve status.

If student organizations pride themselves on inviting the Minutemen or Ann Coulter, they are creating an atmosphere which celebrates poor scholarship and a fundamental disrespect of their minority peers. On the other hand, if students scream in protest of William J. Bratton instead of questioning his policies, based on research, they are failing at elementary civics.

If a professor cancels classes and encourages students to protest a cause, any cause, he is teaching a few bad lessons. A professor should not tell the students what they should believe. A professor should also tell students that political action sometimes requires sacrifice. If the student believes attending a Black Lives Matter march is important, he should be willing to sacrifice some of his education, and perhaps accept a lower grade in order to do so.

When a professor calls Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories a genocide without doing his own rigorous work of explaining the histories of genocides, and explaining, with some degree of nuance, exactly what he means by genocide, he is telling his students avoid hard, moral questions.

If the student's immediate response when someone tells him that he is studying African comics or the Finnish language is to roll his eyes, the university has failed him and he has failed the university. If the student calls Thomas Hobbes a "dead white male," without irony, and refuses to read him for that reason alone, the university has failed him and he has failed the university.

Every university fails. Every university succeeds.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

On Who to Listen to When Talking About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

I posted this on Facebook this morning. I appreciate any discussion of Israeli-Palestinian conflict on an American or Western European program that doesn't involve demagoguery or shouting. No one will become an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after a five-minute talk with Amos Oz. But hopefully a few people will listen to this, read a little more, and be more critical of the rhetoric from all sides. (I'm not going to say "both sides," because I know and you should know by now that there are at least a thousand sides to the issue.) You can still support BDS after hearing Oz's condemnation of it, but hopefully you will hone your arguments for a more liberal audience and maybe evolve your position, make BDS more effective.

I don't speak Hebrew or Arabic. I was in Israel once, when I was 13, for my bar mitzvah. I have read at most ten books in my life that concern Israel in some way, four of which are novels, two of which are by Philip Roth, and one of which is The Yellow Wind. I have met a fair number of Israelis, in college, in my travels in Europe, in gay bars, in grad school, and they all land at various points on the 12-dimensional political world that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I've met a few people who emigrated to Israel and then came back, disillusioned by what they saw. Among them, I count an old Slovene I met in Ljubljana. He went to Israel in the 1950s, in support of the Zionist project, and then came home to Yugoslavia, hoping to be part of the Yugoslav project instead.  

I don't know the "solution" to the conflict or if a solution exists. I don't know if I believe in a one-state or two-state solution, although I believe human rights takes priority over all other concerns when deciding the formation of nation-states. I also know that there are certain people who I won't listen to anymore: Anyone who has not spent a significant amount of time in either Israel or the Palestinian territories, and, if they have spent time in the country, not spent any time talking to any Palestinians or any Israelis. I will not speak to anyone who compares the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories to apartheid South Africa who can't write at least 30 good pages explaining in detail the history of apartheid South Africa. I will not speak to anyone who stereotypes one group or another, anyone who believes either Israelis or Palestinians are in anyway unique in their violent acts. I will not speak to anyone who thinks a verse in the Koran or a chapter in the Book of Genesis can explain everything, absolutely everything, about the behavior of Hamas, Abbas, or Netanyahu. I will not speak to anyone who doesn't know the name of a single Israeli pop singer or a single Palestinian novelist.

There have been thousands of pages written about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unless you are prepared to do the work, all you have is noise.

On Cultural Appropriation

Someone close to me, a fellow teacher, with whom I share a great deal in common, sent me this speech by Lionel Shriver, the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin. It's an attack against those who wish to do away with cultural appropriation. The summary: Shriver begins by noting the undergraduates on college campuses who freak out at any suggestion of racism, particularly white theft of non-white cultures. She segues to the meat of her piece, defending the author's right to get inside the minds of those different from herself, among them people who don't share the author's ethnicity.

The essay has an unfortunate beginning. Shriver attacks the overreaction to a party at Bowdoin College, in which a couple of jokers donned sombreros and drank tequila. Shriver is guilty of ignorance on a matter that I was once ignorant of myself. The sombrero is not a small thing. There is a long history of anti-Latino stereotypes which involve the sombrero. This history may or may not be as pernicious as the history of blackface, but it would probably be a good thing if white college folk stopped donning the sombrero on Halloween or any other time of year.

On the rest, she is on firm ground. Why can't she feature a character who is Armenian-American, as she does in We Need to Talk About Kevin? Is she to avoid describing a morbidly obese person in a novel because she is not herself morbidly obese? (Her brother died of health issues related to morbid obesity?) Why should reviewers look at the author's photo, note the author's ethnicity, gender, body, and then determine the "right" of the author to describe the characters she creates. She lists her own favorite books we would not have if such rules had existed throughout the history of the novel. I can name my own list of favorites and I'm sure you can too, concerning race (A Passage to India, Pudd'nhead Wilson), gender (Washington Square, Tess of the d'Urbervilles), and class (seventy-five percent of all nineteenth-century novels). Unlike Shriver, I believe that discussing the position of Forster, Twain, James, and Hardy -- all white males -- in relation to their subject can be interesting, at least for an hour or so, and sometimes much longer. Like her, I dislike the way these discussions become an endpoint, a tool for rejectionists who dislike joy. (The two rules of criticism I tell my students. First, figure out the questions the text asks itself. Then ask whatever questions you want to ask the text.)

The larger question is whether or not you can learn something, or get something, from bigots. And the answer is yes. V.S. Naipaul may be the most vile novelist alive. He has done a great deal to miseducate the Upper West Side about the non-white world. There are parts of A Bend in the River that should make good liberals cringe. Those good liberals will never write an opening sentence as firm and as brutal as "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it." The racial politics of Huck Finn will always be maddening, but those racial politics allow the novel to survive. Take out the n-words, allow Jim to throw off his minstrel costume, and you neuter the thing.

On Monday night, I saw the 1992 film Baraka on an original 70 mm print at the Cinerama here in Seattle. It's a montage of white, and mostly non-white gazes, Western but mostly Eastern, African, and Latin American temples and churches. It's the kind of movie that makes you dumb. If you're one of those people who freak out about cultural appropriation, the movie is a 90-minute exercise in Orientalism, and your critique may be useful. I admit that I impose my own question on the text. I see a human civilization that won't exist in another 100 years, and I wonder if the film, when it came out in 1992, had the same apocalyptic sensibility. If the human race, by some miracle, survives another 100 years, and this movie along with it, in a hologram projection, I doubt many of our great-great grandchildren, living underground in cool compartments in a world whose human population has been reduced to 500,000, will care all that much about the film's racial politics.

Update: Okay, I only read the thing. I didn't know about the rest of it. Shriver actually wore a sombrero  during her address. I don't think I would have walked out of the speech, but I wouldn't blame anyone for doing so.

We may need a little bit more nuance in our discussion. I stand by what I just wrote. I will offer the caveat that our intellectual culture should always strive towards more diversity. I have no problem with white writers tackling any culture from Korea to Peru. But if we don't read any Korean writers writing about Korea or Peruvian authors writing about Peru, there may be a problem.

Monday, September 12, 2016

On Fleischer's Superman

"They don't make them like they used to." That may be the most dangerous line in film criticism, and maybe all arts criticism. We are always nostalgic for a lost past, when filmmakers played more interesting games with their technology because the technology was new, when filmmakers better understood the art of storytelling. Still, it's hard for me to watch any of the Fleischer Superman films (1941-1943) and not think, "My god, why even bother with the DC animated movies, the Batman animated series, or Christopher Reeve, or Bryan Singer, or Sam Raimi, or Andrew Garfield, when something this beautiful exists!" My critical faculties fail me. Fleischer's Superman is my bliss.

The superhero needs to be something of us but also above us. Bryan Singer's first two X-Men movies lovingly studied the metamorphoses of the heroes' bodies as they became brilliant instruments. The fight scene between Wolverine and Deathstrike at the end of X-Men 2 is a dance between two bodies with skeletal and muscular structures we know about but can't see. We do sense hints of what lies beneath thanks to the fine choreography and the slight tremors in their skins. Andrew Garfield sold Spider-Man by creating a walk for Peter Parker that combined a teenager's mopey shuffle with a spider's creep. The rotoscoped Karol Krausler, the wrestler who served as the model for Superman, is weighty, but the line-drawing makes him effervescent. Fleischer's Superman can't exist in the live-action world. Garfield's Spider-Man and Reeve's Superman can't match our imagination of how Spider-Man and Superman move within the gutters of the comic-book page.

It's also the Art Deco mise-en-scène, which, in full color, turns the modern city into a collection of temples and towers, a joyous vision of the city that we can trace back to Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler's Manhatta. Superman's body is its own temple, its own piece of architecture. He may be an alien in this world, but he couldn't live anywhere but this world.

The Fleischer Superman shorts are available on YouTube. You should watch them all.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

On Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson's "Lay Me Down"

Every artist's late work fascinates us, I think, because almost every artist yearns for immortality. For Whitman, the afterlife existed for him because of the future reader, because we/I/all read his poetry today. Late work also fascinates us because we remember the artist at the height of his powers, and it's interesting to see that artist in decline, wrestle with the troubling possibility that he is not what he once was and that he won't have the opportunity to be what he was again, that he has nothing but a few short years to look forward to. And his subject is the grim fact that he won't be around for much longer. That subject may be the most universal of human problems. Some people don't have sex. Some people don't have issues with food. Some people don't know anything about war or violence. Some people never had a problem with religion, one way or another. Everyone has to die.

A short list: Akira Kurosawa's Madadayo, about an aging professor, Mark Twain's acidic The Mysterious Stranger, Gregory Peck's cameo appearance in Scorsese's Cape Fear and John Gielgud's cameo appearance in Kenneth Branagh's version of Hamlet, Matisse's cut-outs. We sometimes call these final works "spare," "stripped-down," as if wisdom has taught these artists to slough off the unneccessary, to say as much as possible as they can as quickly as they can, before they have to leave.

I'm not a huge fan Philip Roth's final novels, the "death" novels, which considered the life-long illnesses and sexual failures of an insignificant man (Everyman), the death of a young virgin, the pride of a working-class family (Indignation), the decline of a great artist (The Humbling), and a plague (Nemesis). They are spare books, I guess. The sentences are shorter. The Humbling is the most interesting because it is so terrible. In that novel, he has become, as the cliche goes, a parody of himself. But what does it really mean to become a parody of oneself? Does it mean that you have lost the ability to use the materials you own to good use? That you are an old man with dementia, telling old stories of your youth, in rougher, more confusing, less interesting ways to your visiting grandchildren? Is that old man useless? Must we usher him out the door as quickly as possible before he becomes too much of an embarrassment to himself and to his family?

This video from Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson, performing a duet of a song written by Lynn's nephew, is part of the late-work music-video genre, which also includes Johnny Cash's "Hurt" and David Bowie's "Lazarus." Nelson and Lynn are long-time friends, and giants of one of the great American music genres, one that has also embodied America's worst racial politics, and which is itself in decline. The differences in their personas are evident in the video. Nelson was the hippie pot-smoker, the gentle soul, and the outlaw. Lynn is the elegant, conservative performer, who tells the stories of heartbreak within America's nuclear families. Nelson's religiosity has always been open. Her religion has always been fundamentalist and her politics have been vile. (During the 1988 presidential campaign she wondered how anyone could vote for Michael Dukakis as his name was so un-pronouncable. In a recent interview, she maintained her opposition to gay marriage, even though she has long been a gay icon.) But those differences don't matter all that much anymore.

They perform in what I think is the Grand Ole Opry, surrounded by nothing but memories of who they both were when they meant the most to American culture. Lynn's aged body is encased in the costume of a Southern belle. The camera studies her wrinkled hands on her guitar, emblazoned with her name and Nelson's shaky hands as they run along the chords. The video is hardly an embarrassment. It's a beautiful song, some of their best work. (I stand by that.) These aren't artists in decline. They are artists who face the greatest obscenity of all obscenities, the fact that they have to die even though they clearly have so much left to do. And they are willing to smile, supported by an erie Christian mysticism.

Friday, September 9, 2016

On Dušan Vukotić's Cowboy Jimmy

Plot summary of Cowboy Jimmy (Dušan Vukotić, 1957) for those uninterested in watching the movie. (You can skip the next three paragraphs if you watch the clip): The first five minutes of Cowboy Jimmy are standard Wild West parody. Most of it isn't very clever. The small frontier town is represented as on-set facades from a movie set. Cowboy Jimmy is the full-chested hero, whose body sways from side-to-side as he rides a horse. The villain is in black. The first dead body is represented as a coffin which shoots out of a saloon, followed by a cowboy hat filled with bullet holes. A wasp-wasted woman descends a staircase singing a blues song. During a chase scene, the camera pulls back to reveal a movie audience watching the movie. A small boy, dressed as the hero, imitates Cowboy Jimmy. Cowboy Jimmy defeats the bandit. The bandit, in a clever gag forces Cowboy Jimmy off the screen into the movie theater, into the "real world."

From here, the cartoon turns sadistic. The boy feels up Cowboy Jimmy, recognizes that he's real, and then leads him from the movie theater. Outside, we see the first marker of Zagreb in the sign that reads "Kino" that stands atop the movie theater. The English word "saloon" with an arrow points to the makeshift children's toy-saloon that sits in the middle of an empty city space, surrounded by dilapidated apartment buildings. Inside, a young boy leans against the counter, dressed as the bandit in black.  of the city's apartment buildings. A boy in glasses plays the harmonica, as a young girl descends a ladder, imitating the love interest in the original film. Cowboy Jimmy enters with his biggest fan. The boy imitating a bandit steps up to him and Cowboy Jimmy teases him. The bandit responds by stepping on Cowboy Jimmy's foot revealing the movie hero's essential weakness. The children visit all sorts of cruelties upon the poor man. They hang him on the light, electricute him so that he turns into the outline of neon lights, reduce his body to jelly. On a Cowboy Jimmy poster that hangs on the wall, the image comes to life, watches what happens to the real Cowboy Jimmy and then blows his brains out in shame.

The children tie up their former hero and return him to the movie theater. They toss him through the screen and then all their cowboy toys, marking their break from the childish fantasy represented in the theater, as well as their break from the constraints of American culture.

This is one of the earliest films of the Zagreb School. And it announces itself as distinctly Yugoslav. These children watch an American film in a Yugoslav theater. They are fans of American culture. But when the American hero can't live up to his image, they torture him, punish him for disillusioning them. And then they return him to the movie theater, where he belongs. These boys don't need American fantasies. Yugoslavia doesn't need American films. They now have their own films, among them Cowboy Jimmy.

In other words, this is a literal rejection of American filmmaking. And yet, unlike other films of the Zagreb School, among them Vukotić's own Concerto for Sub-Machine Gun (1958), Cowboy Jimmy does not attempt any innovations in the realm of animation aesthetics or storytelling, and very little new in the realm of criticizing Hollywood norms. Bugs Bunny had tortured many Hollywood heroes, overpowering them in the world of animation where he could be the lord of chaos. What is new, if anything, is the setting. What is new is Zagreb.

How conscious is this film of its Yugolsav-ness? The film is cool with using English words like "cowboy" and "saloon," but a poster on the wall reads "Pucaj brzo," which literally translates as an imperative, "Shoot quickly," but may be the Serbo-Croatian translation of "quick draw." The city of Zagreb is portrayed with buildings as non-symmetrical, and goofy as the Wild West set of the Cowboy Jimmy movie. And the childrens' clubhouse is as goofy for its child-like reimagining of the Western fantasy as it is for its Yugoslav-ing of American culture. From my own perspective as a fan of these things, I feel a bit of joy anytime I see a mid-century theater marquee with the word "Kino," which reminds me of the many theaters of the former Yugoslavia which are closing down, making way for the cineplexes, which have better sound and more comfortable seats. But in the context of the film, the word "Kino" announces Yugoslavia, the experience of theater-going in Yugoslavia. Although Zagreb Film would become a distinctly internationalist studio, often with more non-Yugoslav than Yugoslav viewers, here in Cowboy Jimmy it describes an ideal audience.

On My 21 Books

A few years ago, people were posting lists of the 10 books that had stuck with them. Here are my 21:

1. Shel Silverstein's A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends. Like every kid, I remember reading and re-reading these books, memorizing the poems, running my hand along the illustrations. (Ages 6-7)

2. Judy Blume's Blubber (Age 10). I had seen a lot of movies and TV shows that depicted bullies as large, ugly, fat psychopaths, Aryan bitches, or high school football captains. This was the first book that matched my own experience. There was maybe one villain in the book. There were no heroes.

3. Various Spider-Man comics (Ages 10-11). I read a hell of a lot of Marvel Comics. But Peter Parker always meant the most to me. This essay explains why.

4. Les Daniels' Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics (Age 11). With everything that's come since -- particularly Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story -- there's no reason to read this hagiography. But it was the first book I ever read that explained craftsmanship of any kind.

5. Isaac Asimov's original Foundation trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation). (Ages 11-12). Maybe because it made learning and amassing knowledge sound really badass.

6. The Sun Also Rises. (Age 13). I related to Robert Cohn, the anti-Semitic stereotype in the book, which has given me a lot to think about through the years.

7. War and Peace (Age 15). I can't remember if I wanted to be Pierre Bezukhov or believed I was Pierre Bezukhov.

8. One Hundred Years of Solitude (Age 16). It was a hallucinogenic rush for at least the first 150 pages.

9. Miss Lonelyhearts (Age 18). The first book I ever read which had a sicker sense of humor than my own.

10. Satyricon (Age 18). I picked up a worn copy of the William Arrowsmith translation at a used bookstore my first week in college. In that stale-smelling orange book lied a pornotopia. Fellini's adaptation is my favorite movie.

11. American Pastoral (Age 20). It taught me what it meant to get inside the head of your diametrical opposite.

12. Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (Age 20). To call it conservative means nothing within our current political system. But the book has kept me skeptical of anyone who believes he knows all the answers and anyone who wants to burn down beautiful buildings. It taught me to always be aware of the fundamentalist voice.

13. Darcy O'Brien's A Way of Life, Like Any Other (Age 21). The book is hilarious. A Fitzgerald-esque comedy about 1930s Hollywood, written by the son of Marguerite Churchill and George O'Brien. If I ever taught a class on classical Hollywood cinema, I'd put it on the syllabus and then figure out a way to justify its inclusion later.

14. John Dower's War Without Mercy (Age 22). This was the last book I read in college. I believe it should be required reading for every single elected official in the country and every military soldier. I am not a pacifist. But this book made me rethink exactly why we go to war and the bogusness of the very concept of a "national character."

15. In Search of Lost Time (Age 22-23). I read the whole thing, front to back, during my first year out of college when I was in Vietnam. It was like having a friend at hand, always ready to talk to me about the things that mattered and the things that didn't.

16. Edmund White's States of Desire (Age 24). I picked it up at the office of a gay rights organization in Sofia, Bulgaria. It's a portrait of homosexual America on the eve of my birth, which was also the final years before the AIDS epidemic. It's a joyous book about a world that's long gone and that will never come back.

17. Cancer Ward (Age 24). I also read this in Bulgaria. For most Americans, Eastern European literature will always be the literature of dissidents, of Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, and Milosz.  I could list the wonderful books that push against those narratives, but I give in and list Cancer Ward, if nothing else than for the final chapter's quiet wail against the existence of human cruelty.

18. Primo Levi's The Reawakening (Age 28). The original title in Italian was The Truce, which is more accurate. "Reawakening" suggests a moment of regrowth, a look towards the future that ignores the past. "Truce" suggests a willingness to accept the past, to always remember the pain, and to choose to continue living in a continent that had given the world Auschwitz. Primo Levi is a beautiful man.

19. Anton Kaes's Shell Shock Cinema (Age 29). The first film studies book I ever read and still my favorite! This is how to write about the past, a foreign country with its own way of making movies.

20. Leaves of Grass (Age 30). I read various versions for Ed Folsom's seminar at the University of Iowa, which remains one of the three best classes I have taken on any subject. I'm angry that I discovered this book when I was 30 and not when I was 13. I'm angry at myself for not being more Whitman-ian, for not having more comrades.

21. Slavko Goldstein's 1941: The Year That Keeps Returning (Age 34). It's a memoir/history from someone who had the bad luck to live through two genocidal wars. Among other things, it's a plea for compromise. Goldstein finds nobility in the most mediocre of human beings. Goldstein is another beautiful man.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

On that Sexual Assault Bill in California

In response to the Brock Turner case, a bill is headed to Jerry Brown's desk that would require jail time for anyone convicted of sexual assault. Probation won't be an option. Jail.

If you are on the left, or, more accurately, a Jezebel-reading, MSNBC-watching, partisan Democrat, you probably believe there are certain classes of criminals our justice system has failed to adequately punish in the past few decades/centuries: white collar criminals, particularly those at the upper echelons of Wall Street; police who have abused their power; sexual offenders. You also probably believe our justice system punishes other classes of criminals too harshly: non-violent drug offenders, including dealers, users, and traffickers; petty thieves. You probably welcome the new bipartisan movement to reform our prison system, so that we no longer lock up about one percent of our country's population at any given time. And you probably believe that non-violent drug offenders should be the first people we should release.

The problem, as has been noted by anyone who has studied the issue across the political spectrum, is that in order to pursue serious prison reform, we will have to free many people who have committed terrible crimes. We will have to free murderers who took people away from those who loved them and armed robbers who may have cursed their victims with a lifetime of trauma when they pointed a gun at their heads and demanded their wallets. And, unfortunately, we will also have to free people who defrauded the elderly and we will have to free at least a few rapists and child molesters.

Should everyone who commits a sexual assault be sentenced to jail time? Maybe...Absolutely maybe. The answer may be yes, but I don't know. I don't know if society would be better off if every sexual offender had to spend time in jail or if that would bring all that much more comfort to the victims of sexual assault. I do know that there are various degrees of sexual assault. And as a believer in restorative justice, I wish we didn't consider jail the first solution whenever we want to think about solving crime.

(I don't like using the personal to define objective truth here, but for what it's worth, I was twice a victim of what would legally be considered sexual assault. Not rape. I don't have lasting trauma from the experiences. I remember both moments the way I would a bad car accident or a broken finger. That is to say, I remember that I felt physical pain and fear, but I no longer have access to the feelings I had at those moments. I don't consider my lack of trauma a sign of any inner strength. I attribute the absence of trauma to luck. I recognize that not everyone would feel the same way if they were victims of these two particular sexual assaults. My experience is not universal.)

It's always a bad strategy to pass a law based on the facts of one sensational case in the media. It's bad strategy for the public to pressure any judge or prosecutor to be more bloodthirsty. Brock Turner is one kind of rapist, the kind of rapist my friends on the left would hate the most -- white, privileged, capable of affording a smart, aggressive lawyer who doesn't much care about his victim's feelings -- but there are many other people who will be affected by this law. Many of them are non-white and indigent. And just as there is a long history in this country of authorities treating rape and sexual assault victims like garbage, there is also a long history of black and latino men being falsely accused and convicted of crimes, particularly the rape of white women.

Maybe this law will make life better for women in California, as well as the minority of sexual assault victims who are male. Maybe it will lead to a world with less rape. But forgive me if I'm worried about unintended consequences.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

On the Antediluvian in The Return of Philip Latinowicz

There's a cliche in travel writing. Every country has one foot in either the 13th 16th, or 19th century, and another foot in the 21st. (The only countries that don't have their legs spread out across the expanses of human history are located either in North America or Western Europe, or are Japan or South Korea.) Travel writers love the African woman with a cell phone who carries a water jug on her head, the fundamentalist Muslim with an Apple computer, and the remote Black Hmong village in Vietnam where the kids listen to Britney Spears on Friday nights.

There's plenty of Orientalism or neocolonialism or or essentialist thinking or whatever you want to call it that underlines these surprises. Anthropologists and other academics have done a lot of interesting work through the years to describe the ways technologies and various cultural trends coexist and continue to inform one another.

I am in the middle of a novel by the great Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža, The Return of Philip Latinowicz, which was published in 1932. It tells the story of a painter who returns to his small Pannonian village. The paragraphs are structured to reflect the creative processes of a collage artist. As in any modernist novel, various sensory stimuli are thrown together and incongruent images are juxtaposed and given new and subtle meanings. The difference is that Latinowicz as he combines these stimuli is thinking through the act of collage-making of the ways these various sensory stimuli may serve as the sources for his work.

He has his own one-foot-in-X-century and one-foot-in-the-20th-century moment. He describes his journey on a carriage through the countryside. He meets two nuns carrying baskets of eggs. Above them flies a passenger airplane.

"Above the pig-breeders' hovels and mulberry-trees, the silvery aluminium guitar, with taut canvas wings, a soaring musical instrument, sailed above Joe Podravec's carriage with its sacks and Philip's suitcases. Above all that is static, fixed and immovable, great azure circles of light, and clear sky. Above the roofs and branches and lightning-conductors and steeples and peasant carts, which crawl like snails along the muddy roads and creak antediluvially, and get stuck in the mud, -- a wonderful shimmering flash of lightning. And watching this glittering metallic streak which moved above the earth like a line of silvery chalk across the heavenly dome, Philip felt like taking out his handkerchief to wave to the aircraft in greeting. To signal his presence, like a shipwrecked man catching sight of a white, sunlit ship, which with mathematical precision sails towards a shining harbour across the whole gloomy morass of present-day reality." (Translation: Zora Depolo)

Latinowicz's eye sets a clear marker between the images of the 20th century and what is to his mind the primitive past through which he travels. Up there is the brightness, the lightning, the "soaring musical instrument." Down here is the "static," and the "mud." This is the eye of a man who grew up in this past world, travelled, and then came back. But is this the eye of the peasant, of the nuns with the egg baskets, of the driver of Latinowicz's carriage who tells fart jokes? Is this what the reader sees?

When I imagine this scene in my head, I can't quite see what Latinowicz sees. I can't see a clear marker between earth and sky, between the modern and the antediluvian. I see a collage of shapes that interact with one another. An" aluminium guitar" and the "steeples and peasant carts" are one with each other, part of the same tableau, the tools and architecture made up of a series of geometric shapes, all the work of the human species.

(This post is part of some notes in which I consider certain passages in Serbo-Croatian literature and their possible relationship to the "flat graphic" animation of Zagreb Film. I wrote another such post a few months ago about Aleksandar Tišma's The Book of Blam. I don't know if any of these posts will make it into my finished dissertation, but I'd like to think they're productive brainstorming jams.)

Friday, September 2, 2016

On Signing a Petition in Support of Unions

I just signed a petition from the AFL-CIO to ask Columbia, Harvard, and the New School to end their anti-union campaigns. If you are an alum of these three schools, I greatly urge you sign it. If you aren't but believe in the importance of labor, I still urge you to sign it.

I wasn't very attuned to labor issues until I joined a union, at the age of 29 at the University of Iowa. That union had no real power because it couldn't strike, but achieved plenty before I showed up -- like health care and a decent wage -- and was then in the process of holding onto their achievements.

I joined a more powerful union at the University of Washington at the age of 31. The union was allowed to strike, which meant that it had a major bargaining position. For that reason, I have a decent wage -- although it is still uncompetitive with wages for graduate students at other state universities -- good health care, and a support system should my supervisors exploit me or break any laws in the course of my employment.

The union is imperfect. All unions are. It hasn't been able to achieve everything that I would want, namely the elimination of student fees, longer guaranteed funding, and lower class sizes. I think the priorities of the union leadership more or less match my own, and even when they don't, well, that's the nature of being part of a democratic institution.

The TAs at Columbia, Harvard, and the New School have something I don't have. They have greater access to resources for research, probably greater access to various grants, and, most importantly, an imprimatur on the job market. But after six years of graduate school, I wouldn't trade places with any of them. As an ABD, there's a lot I freak out about on a daily basis. I have terrifying night-thoughts in relation to a dissertation that grows ever more painful and that I am ever more unsure of, and I remain angry at myself for not knowing how to organize my day. (I just figured out to let myself spend about 45 minutes a day on this blog if I'm writing about something other than my dissertation. I offer myself unlimited blocks of time here if I am writing about dissertation.) But I don't worry about paying for a cup of tea when I go to a shop to do work. That's a luxury a lot of my counterparts at Columbia don't have.

I was in awe of my professors when I was an undergrad. I respected my TAs, but realize now that they deserved more respect than I gave them. Some of them did things that weren't great and it is a little painful to see myself making those same mistakes. But I still remember the TA who told me that I seemed to know what I was saying when I wrote long paragraphs and not to know what I was saying when I wrote short ones. She suggested I write long paragraphs and then divide them later. I may have rolled my eyes in the class when we talked about bell hooks, but that advice has served me to this day. Another guided me through the first paper I ever wrote about comics, a study for an American history class about the Incredible Hulk and the nuclear age. He taught me how to structure a paragraph when doing historicist research. I don't remember either of these two TAs' names.

The bad TAs might have been better in other classes, just as I have better quarters than others as a teaching associate today. But I remember the complaints from my undergraduate years, complaints that I've heard from some undergraduates today: "TAs are arrogant, embittered, and they need someone to kick." Well, I had those TAs and I know those TAs. But if you think they're the majority, you're probably the problem. And if you give them enough money to drink a coffee in a nice shop while they grade your papers, they might be less arrogant and embittered, and less in need of someone below them to kick.

P.S. I know a lot of alums from my year who did very well for themselves. They encourage us to give money back to Columbia. I urge them to cease making those requests until Columbia agrees to accept a graduate student union.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

On Dušan Vukotić's Concerto for Sub-Machine Gun

(This is another post from a working part of my dissertation. In the interest of appealing to a wider readership, I don't reference important film studies scholarship. In the dissertation, I will certainly consider Paul Wells's work on animation genre and various writings on animation and violence. I will also offer comparisons to Ivan Ivanov-Vano and Yuri Norstein's Secha pri Kerzhentse / The Battle of Kerezhenets (1971). Film studies readers of this blog are welcome to offer recommendations of other material. All help is appreciated.)

In his early shorts, Dušan Vukotić studies the conventions of various Hollywood genres. Koncert za mašinsku pušku / Concerto for Sub-Machine Gun (Dušan Vukotić, 1958) falls within the borders of the heist film. In the three canonical heist films of the 1950s -- The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950), Riffifi (Jules Dassin, 1955), and The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956) -- a group of men seek to carry off the major job. They develop a clever plan, one we admire because of its precision. They are masters of time and space. They are masters of their craft. But their mastery fails in the face of their own base natures. They are criminals, after all, with low morals, as willing to betray each other just as they are society's sense of human decency and religious devotion to capitalism. A dame gets involved -- thanks Yoko -- and convinces one of the members to break up the band for his own good. Greed takes over. The heroes die or find themselves arrested, doomed to a lifetime in prison.

In Koncert, the master planner is a technology genius -- there's as much science fiction here as there is film noir -- and a master of the two-dimensional universe of "flat graphic" animation in which he lives. He manipulates the imperfections of his society's value system, namely its adherence to justice and and its deification of high culture. But in the end, his fundamental nature destroys him. Greed and an indifference to the lives of others leads to his own violent death and his entrance into a particular hell in which his greed will leave him perpetually as non-sated in the afterlife as he is in this world. There are no dames in Koncert and the anti-hero lacks any history, any character development, any desire to pull off the "last job." But Vukotić does follow plenty of the tropes of the genre.

There's much to consider in the short, but I would like to most to discuss its approach to violence. Huston, Dassin, and Kubrick focus on their heroes' doomed rebellion against the capitalist order, their death drive, their internal human suffering. Vukotić emphasizes that which Hollywood would not discover until the climax of Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), namely the mutilation of its heroes' bodies.  In Koncert, policemen are systematically riddled with bullet holes. The criminals are decapitated, their circular heads are removed from their quadrilateral chests and torsos. In the climax of the film, the master planner kills his minions. The shapes of their bodies break apart. The lower body of one of the minions becomes a mess of squiggly lines and loose paint. Just as the master criminal attempts to break apart the wonders of the society aboveground, so his own body -- made up of the lines and paint of his animator/maker/father -- must be destroyed, lose its sturdiness, its unity, and its order.

A nightmare.