Friday, September 28, 2012

It Still Shocks

I should know better, and yet, because of my own social and cultural position, reading American history still has the capacity to zap me, to remind me that other people not born of any privilege faced/face atrocities that I will very likely never experience.

I recently came across this book excerpt of Alice Kaplan's Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis.  Kaplan's basic premise is that understanding the time these three women spent in Paris in the fifties (or in Davis's case, the early sixties) gives the historian a remarkable glimpse into the way that Paris helped shape their public personae.   It's a fascinating premise, though since I have not read the entire book, I can't really argue in support of or in opposition to Kaplan.  (I will say that Kaplan's writing has hooked me enough to try and find the time to read the whole thing.)

The shock I received came in the form of a parenthetical sentence in a section where Kaplan describes Angela Davis's parents, their origins and their roles as community leaders in Birmingham.  After noting that the Davises lived in a border neighborhood (that is, a Black neighborhood bordering on a white one) that was nicknamed Dynamite Hill "because of the bombs planted there by segregationists," Kaplan writes in parentheses, that "There were some fifty unsolved bombings in Birmingham between 1957 and 1962."

Even as someone who has studied the nexus of race and crime for years,  I kept seeing that sentence -- again, one Kaplan puts inside parentheses -- and shaking my head, uncomprehendingly that so many explosions could go off in one American city and no one held accountable for any of them.  And if such a statement can shock someone of my years, who does know a thing or two about American history, imagine how such a statement gets read by young people my students' age, whose sense of history is hardly formed yet, and whose awareness of race may be very limited.   (Of course, if I were teaching at one of the Manhattan CUNY schools, where I'd worked off an on for many years, my students would probably make fun of me for being so shocked; wake up, dude, they might admonish me.)

Later, Kaplan very poignantly describes how Davis, staying in Biarritz before heading to Paris to study French literature at the Sorbonne, read the headline of the New York Herald Tribune, which reproduced an AP wire story about the church bombing that killed four teenaged girls.   Kaplan summarizes what Davis would write in her autobiography about seeing the headline: she was overwhelmed not simply by the deaths, but by the feeling that her white friends from college, who were studying with her, could not possibly comprehend the bombing and its deeper meaning. As I read Kaplan's summary, I of course knew that Davis's feeling was right on target. 

I am not making any broad claims here.   Had any of Davis's Jewish classmates' families fled from or were lost in the Holocaust, they would have had a very good understanding of what the church bombing meant.  I'm speaking only about myself, and thinking about those I teach, and my children, too.   I won't let my social and cultural position prevent me from understanding the meanings of the unpleasant facts of history, even as I am aware that my position may limit my understanding.   Not knowing is worse.  

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Film Friday: A Dispatch from the Film and History Conference!

Greetings from Milwaukee!

(Yes, everyone is still talking about the lousy refs costing the Packers the game Monday night...)

I'm presenting a paper at the Film and History Conference.  The conference theme is "Film and Myth."  I've attended several fascinating panel discussions so far, examining a range of topics and approaches. Without getting very specific, it seems very clear from the panels I've attended that the post-9/11 landscape has precipitated a whole set of film and television narratives that confront or reinforce many mythic narratives America tells about itself.   Eleven years after, with people now serving in Afghanistan who were mere children then and have to be told about it, the September 11 attacks momentarily disabled our capacity to narrate: for a very short while, nothing was comprehensible.  Before the evening arrived, the narrations were being formed, though imperfectly.    We began to fit the events into modes that we could comprehend: the western genre, evoked by Bush's "Wanted: Dead or Alive" rhetoric on bin Laden; the gangster genre, evoked by Bill O'Reilly suggesting on Imus's show that some of the response will resemble the finale of The Godfather; and of course the proliferation of the superhero film.

There is no singular, dominant narrative that has emerged in American cinema post-9/11.  I suspect this is the case because the Bush invasions of Afghanistan and especially Iraq have not been uniformly discussed -- and the longer those occupations dragged on, the less and less support they have maintained.  

Myths are very powerful ways that we make sense of our surroundings.  The line between history and myth is a thin one at best, an arbitrary one at worst.  Films contribute significantly to our history and our mythology.  The films that have lasted are the ones that don't just re-tell our stories, but make us think about how we make them.  Long after the vanity documentaries of Justin Bieber and Katy Perry are forgotten, we will still turn to the Maysles Brothers' and Charlotte Zwerin's documentary about how an ill-conceived free concert turned what could have been a vanity documentary about the Rolling Stones into an examination of the nature of the image and the relation between the performer and the camera, Gimme Shelter.  While superhero films may re-cast themselves in the War on Terrorism, there will still be those that force us to think allegorically about the nature of the superhero, like many of the X-Men films.   What I think we try to do in academia at conferences like this is to examine the processes at work, and make all of us re-examine our own assumptions. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Here are some pages you might like...

On my Facebook mobile app, I was shown two consecutive suggestions for pages I might like.  Here they are:

I have whited-out the name of my FB friend who had been randomly selected as one of my friends who likes the Paul Ryan Facebook pages.   (A few other FB friends have liked that page.)   The number of people who like the other Ryan page refers to, obviously, the total number of Facebook users who like it, not just my friends. (As with the Ryan page, I have FB friends who do like this other page, too.)

This is indeed rather funny, since again, these are pages that FB suggested I might like.  Facebook's suggestions are based in part on what my pages my friends like.   And since I have friends who have opposing political views, that, I presume, explains why Facebook might think I'd like Paul Ryan AND at the same time think he's a douchebag.   Just as I have friends who like different pop music acts and other artists across a range of views, right? After all, maybe only two friends have liked the Bruno Mars page, and one of them likes the Grace Slick Fan Page, but I certainly can like both if I want. (I have "liked" neither page, and for a moderately active FB user I have few pages that I have officially liked, and I'm betting that my motivations in the future will be driven not by taste but by the desire to get free stuff.)

But can one really like both pages on Paul Ryan?   Well of course you can! There's nothing to stop you from liking the pages of every politician on every side. Maybe you'd get more information that could help you decide which politicians you really like and which ones you think are douchebags.  And these two pages are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  After all, I might not like Ryan's political views, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I believe him to be a douchebag (although if I do think that he is one, I probably don't like him.)  No reason to be extremist, really!

Nevertheless, the selections of pages I might like from social media like FB and Twitter are just plain funny; it's remarkable how wrong those algorithms are as they try to match your interests to other pages you might enjoy.   And while the kind of selectivity can be problematic, restricting your points of view, in this case, because I have Facebook friends who are on opposite sides of this election, I have a chance of reading more stuff on all sides.   (It's not likely to affect my vote in November, but it's very easy simply to turn off ideas from your political opponents without actually hearing them.)

(A note on language:  I have not clicked on either of these two pages, so I cannot really discuss any specific posts from the Paul Ryan is a Douchebag page that might explain the views and ideas of those who created the page.  Some people might be offended by the term "douchebag," but I will confess that it's an old insult that I remember finding very funny in my youth, and it still strikes me as hilarious when I hear it in movies like Mean Streets or And Justice For AllGeorge Takei recently has taken to using the term to characterize homophobic politicians.  I'm sure many a scholar has unpacked -- so to speak -- the various cultural meanings surrounding this insult and its relation to discourses of gender and identity.  Fine.  But I also think the humor in it is the very sound of the word; it just sounds funny to me, regardless of the various meanings to be found.)

Film Friday: Going to the Dentist

Okay, I had no ideas for today's post.   I'm tired, I'm preparing for a short trip to a conference, and I don't have as much time as I thought I'd have because I'm going to the oral surgeon to have a tooth pulled. 

So, in honor of the profession, here are some film (and in one case, tv) tributes to the dentist.  First, here's Bill Cosby from his concert film Bill Cosby: Himself, describing the experience.

Some people of course like going to the dentist.   Like Jack:

Of course, sometimes patients get too involved in helping the doctor...

It's enough to drive a dentist to suicide!

But of course, the first question you must ask before starting any major dental procedure is:

is it safe?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Steve Sabol, 1942-2012

There was a time when gods and heroes walked among us, and the poets told us of their legends.  As Science and Reason began to replace the gods and heroes, and Industry made men mere extensions of machines, the gods and heroes disappeared.   It is not coincidence, really, that the rise of organized sports culture coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the urbanization of society.  (In America, the population nearly tripled as the 19th turned to the 20th century, due to immigration to the big cities of New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco.)  Men still needed an arena to prove their strength.  "We live in softer times," Theodore Roosevelt once said. 

Sports have long been understood as a locus of myth-making in the 20th century.  An entire field of sociology is devoted to sport and its meaning, its rituals, its power (economic, cultural, gender discourses, race discourses, etc.).   As a scholar of media, I can articulate those social discourses in any number of ways; indeed I'm preparing to present a narrative-mythic analysis of one sporting ritual at a conference taking place next week.  Even though I can take a look at sports with a more detached view of the academic, I still acknowledge the role consuming sports media has in my life, and its influence on my childhood.  (My doctoral thesis was on the media coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial.)

This week, the President of NFL Films, Steve Sabol, died of brain cancer at age 69.  His father Ed, who is in his 90's, founded NFL Films in 1962, and it remained a family business for the next fifty years, with Steve helping create one of the most successful partnerships between a media company and sports organization in history.   NFL Films was for the NFL what Homer was to Odysseus.  

NFL Films preserved football games weekly, producing a regular series for many years in syndication highlighting the previous week's best moments.  In the days before ESPN, NFL Films told the story -- and not in that snarky ironic fashion that SportsCenter anchors can get away with because their recaps are so quick and immediate.   NFL Films productions were quality affairs, shot always of real film, not videotape.   (And that's why they have lasted so well; as I mentioned in a recent blog post, film is the preferred archival medium, not digital.)  The great short films of each Super Bowl, narrated for nearly twenty years by John Facenda, aka the Voice of God, presented epic tales of men against men, in a remarkable arrange of camera angles and positions.  These were as perfectly edited as any Hollywood production, as real as any great British documentary.   Sabol was a great film-maker -- it just so happened that he filmed football games.  He did this combining the poetry of slow-motion footage with crisp voice-over narration and the real sounds of the combatants on and off the field.

This is not to say Sabol took himself too seriously.  His weekly series in the 1980's, which he co-hosted with Harry Kalas, often found them doing silly stuff, especially at Halloween.   (Kalas, more famous for being a baseball announcer for the Philadelphia Phillies, began an association with NFL Films in 1975,  with Facenda mentoring him on the voiceovers. Sabol said that where Facenda was the Voice of God, Kalas was the Voice of the People, and I think he had it right.)  

Sabol continued to expand NFL Films, creating the reality series Hard Knocks for HBO.  He never stopped trying to tell stories of the game he loved, and you can see the enjoyment he had in all those films of graceful catches, punishing hits, and the eyes of the warriors on the sidelines, breath steaming from their faces, caught in a moment of reflection.  

As most guys my age will tell you, watching Sabol's films fueled our own fantasies.  Why did we suddenly play our games on the street or in the backyard in slo-mo? NFL Films.  Why did we narrate our own plays in our best imitation of Facenda?  NFL Films.   The action of a Sabol film carried the beauty of a John Woo shootout.  It was ballet; it was opera; yet it was real.   Watch any Super Bowl film.   I don't care if you don't like football.  Better that you not; perhaps you too will be drawn in by the tale Sabol tells for you. 

The first sentence of Sabol's wikipedia entry says that he was a film-maker.  Not an executive, not a broadcaster: a film-maker.   Okay, cinephiles, be snobs.  Go back to Antonioni.   I'll take Hank Stram telling his coaches that the Minnesota Vikings can't stop his team's screen pass attack, calling for the big play known as 65 Toss Power Trap.   Or John Riggins' bouncing off Don McNeal to deal the final death blow to the Miami Dolphins.  Or Joe Namath walking out of the Orange Bowl waving his index finger to the crowd, having backed up his guarantee.  The world lost a poet Monday.   RIP Steve Sabol.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

OK, Fine, I'll join the Chorus: Mitt show us your damn tax returns!

There. I've said it. 

A lot of lefties have insisted we should see the Republican Party candidate's tax returns, turning up the rhetoric, you know: what's he hiding, etc.   But the campaign rules don't require him to do it, so if he doesn't want to, that's his prerogative.  It might look better if he did, and you can complain all you want about his unwillingness to disclose them, but I have a hard time believing that Mitt Romney's refusal to release them is going to make a difference -- most of the chorus demanding them aren't really going to vote for him anyway. 

But then out came the recordings of Romney's comments about the 47 percent.  You all know about them by now, how he comes across as suggesting that the people who don't pay taxes are sponging off the government, etc.  

I don't think anyone should be shocked at Romney's statements.  It's been a commonplace among conservatives since Reagan: government relief encourages laziness and a refusal to work for a living.  Yes, we can turn to all the kinds of corporate welfare that exists, the percentage of the federal budget that goes to military contractors and all that, and you can talk about the misguided teaheads all you want, but I'll cast all that aside.   So much has been made about Bain Capital and Romney's involvement in it that the question of Romney's tax returns may have an impact on his economic policies -- and now, the question becomes legitimate, in my view.  If you're going to characterize everyone who is going to vote for your opponent as leeches who don't pay their taxes, the time has come to show everyone how much you've paid (if anything), what kind of breaks you've received (if any),  and any places where government assistance might have helped you sustain the wealth you inherited.

If it turns out you've really paid no taxes because of various loopholes pertaining to capital gains/losses, etc, then welcome to the 47 percent, I guess.  If it turns out that you've paid a load of taxes -- even in proportion to your income -- then I suppose you can keep a clean conscience regarding these remarks that seem to have ticked a lot of folks off.    Either way, I think it's time Mitt Romney comes clean if he wants to stop the hemorrhaging of his campaign. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Privacy ended when...

As you probably heard, a paparazzo was able to take pictures of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, while she was sunbathing, topless, on private property in France.  Obviously, a lot people are very disgusted at the violation of the princess's privacy, especially in the country where the Duke of Cambridge's mother, Princess Diana, was killed in an accident caused in part by the paparazzi.  I found this particular story quite interesting, peppered as it is with posts from the Twittersphere condemning the magazine.  There is also a link to a column by the Telegraph's William Foxton, who points out that with the technology now available, no one is safe, and certainly not the royals. Privacy, he writes, will be "a thing of the past."  The paparazzi will no longer need the telephoto lenses; the iPhones (and their Samsung clones?) will be sent in on radio-controlled flying drones. 

It's interesting that he mentions the telephone in this context.  But first, a step back. 

Privacy is a concept that has evolved over time.   Tribal man, to use McLuhan's terminology, was a public one.  Privacy only emerges in the age of domesticating animals and husbandry, and the building of permanent structures.   "Old media" like print establish another level of privacy, as the solitary author writes for an audience he/she may never meet, and a solitary reader will read works from authors long-dead.  But electric media, as McLuhan points out, marks a kind of "return" of tribal man, a new kind of village.   And I would argue that this revolution really began with the telephone.   Once the telephone is installed into the domestic space, anyone can penetrate the walls of our home at any time.  Where messages by mail or even telegraph required time, a sense of space, and a human messenger (the mail carrier), the phone was instantaneous and traversed space and time.   Welcome or not, the ringing telephone alarms us, sends out a jolt, shocks us.  Caller ID may help you ignore calls you don't want, but the shock is there nonetheless.   In this sense, as one media veteran told me once, privacy ended when Don Ameche invented the telephone.   If you want real privacy, he said, turn off your phone, disconnect your internet connections, and build a moat (or live in Jersey, where the tolls to cross the Hudson function pretty much the same as a moat).  

With the taking of naked royals with our mobiles, we once again find the telephone returning to its place as the "original violator" of privacy.  Of course, the royals will take the French magazine to court and might even win.  It's easy enough to see that the Duchess of Cambridge should have an expectation of privacy in that setting, and a judge may agree.   (Said judge will be very sensitive, I imagine, because of what happened to Princess Diana in 1997.)  But such scenarios are the social consequences of the electric media, where all our central nervous systems can touch one another -- and make no mistake, celebrity is a very large central nervous system on display constantly.  

Friday, September 14, 2012

Film Friday: Rumors of My Death are...

This past weekend, the Times ran a feature piece with its two chief film critics, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, discussing the many implications of digital technology taking over in the film-making, distribution, and projection industries.  If I may summarize their differing perspectives: 

Scott argues, playing somewhat of a devil's advocate, that throughout the changes that have taken place in the film industry -- for example, the conversion to sound, the advancements of widescreen and color cinematography -- there have been filmmakers who have made outstanding works with the tools they have been given, and just as notable, there have been hacks who have made cliche-ridden drivel.   Scott is also a realist:  he prefers the image a projected film image presents, but the conditions for quality film projecting are relatively rare these days.  

Dargis, not a digital-film-phobe, clearly believes in film's artistic superiority, and points out that digital projection is not always so perfect, either. (Anyone who has suddenly had an image on their HD TV set freeze for a moment and had sound and image out of sync knows what she means.)   Furthermore, the film medium itself has become acknowledged as a superior form of archiving movies, so 35mm and 70mm strips of film are not going away (though manufacturers are supposedly phasing out 35mm cameras). Dargis also points out that the central motivating drive behind the various video revolutions (pre-digital and now in the digital era) has been one of cost and convenience.   Converting to digital makes economic sense for the studios and the theaters.   And the ability to play and replay a video -- whether on a high-def tv or an iPad -- is a major driving force for consumers, who don't have to leave their homes, even if the image quality is not as aesthetically beautiful as that of a perfectly projected image from Kubrick's 2001. (Except that it's almost impossible to see Kubrick's film in its original projection format, Cinerama, anyway, but that's another story.)

The real question that both Scott and Dargis come to is: are we on the verge of something that should no longer be called cinema?   Has not digital format already changed the film medium to the point where it is not what it once was?   (Keep in mind: one of the problems archivists face is that digital media formats keep changing rapidly: A video clip I have stored on my computer might not be playable in ten years, unless I can keep my computer.)   The implication in Dargis's final comments is that film itself contains some kind of mystical aura, a trace of humanity left on the film strip that (presumably) is not the case with a digital image, no matter how many megapixels it contains.  She evidently concurs with the famous film critic Andre Bazin, who saw film as a kind of mummification, a means of preserving life onto the strips of film.  If film is poetic, then digital is prosaic, best suited for the immediate moment, especially in the iPhone age.

I would suggest indeed digital film-making is its own medium, though it is of course a hybrid one -- just as film was in its beginning and will always be.  Movies began as a mix of portrait photography, cartoon panel/strip, plays, and novels.   (The bulk of feature films made today are based on works from another medium, mainly novels and nonfiction books.)   Film may become something of a more specialized industry, but there is clearly institutional support for the medium that is not going to shrivel up, even in this lousy economy.

It's also worth considering Marshall McLuhan's famous aphorism: what is the message of digital media?   Digital media, which is so pervasive, is another of many examples McLuhan cited of a medium that extends -- or really puts outside of our bodies -- our central nervous system.   The medium can function in a way that film -- still rooted very much in the mechanical age -- does not.   Digital media projection and recording are instantaneous. The experience is often very immediate.   Film is about sequencing, process, order.   Filmmakers working with digital cameras should approach the medium in a totally different way: it's not just filming with different cameras.  The best films shot on digital have makers who get this.  

(Because Scott mentions P.T. Anderson's latest film, The Master, shot on 70mm film, I also thought back to Anderson's earlier film Boogie Nights, and the frustration of Burt Reynolds' porn film director when force to confront economic realities and shoot his movies on videotape.  He was stuck in the "artistry" of the film medium, and could not recognize that tape was not simply inferior film -- it was a different means of communication altogether.) 

I'm pretty certain that I have taught my last class where I show a projected image on the screen.   College campuses under tight budgets are not able to maintain 16mm projectors, nor are they able to house 16mm prints.   We don't have any movie cameras, and I can't imagine I can persuade my administration officials to invest in 16mm or even Super8mm film cameras and the necessary editing equipment for them.  Is the alternative to what I teach simply NOT to teach film, but only teach other media like television?  Do I not bother to introduce young people to the genius of Chaplin or the vision of Kubrick?   For me, to do so would be to admitting failure.  Would you ask a literature professor to give up teaching Chaucer? 

You may say: but literature is not film: poetry on a printed page is the same. A film on video is not the same as a film on 70mm.  True, but don't forget: poetry was once an oral medium and now it is by and large a written one, and the nature of poetry has changed.   (Could Whitman's poetry been even remotely comprehended as such in an age before Gutenberg? Before writing?)  Digital media will change film -- maybe to the point where we don't recognize it as such.  That is something to ponder, though not necessarily to lament.  

Monday, September 10, 2012

For a day, we put aside the bickering and remember

Because this is a serious election year, with much enmity and hatred being slung back and forth, I hope that tomorrow will be a day where all that will be cast aside as we remember those who were lost eleven years ago... and those whose subsequent deaths have been classified as connected to the attacks and their immediate aftermath...and those who will die because of the illnesses that took root on that day.  

This is my affirming flame for Sept 11, 2012.

A short post for my Freshmen class on the "Morgan Freeman RIP" Hoax

A very popular hoax was perpetrated on Facebook this weekend. Here's one short story on it, concerning a page indicating "RIP Morgan Freeman."

I saw the page being "liked" by a couple of my friends.  I thought first, what? But my first instinct was to suspect its falsity. I went to my NY Times iPad app, checked the Obituaries section.  No mention of Freeman.  A quick Google search revealed the hoax.  Of course, all you had to do was look at the FB page's "about" page and there you have your taunting suggestion: stop believing what you see on the internet.

It's kind of scary how fast rumors can be spread thanks to social media.   What are the implications?  And on this anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on American soil, how do you imagine we would have experienced it so differently had Facebook and Twitter been firmly in place as the news of the plane attacks began to spread? 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Need a copy of your property deed? That'll be 90 bucks... or 4...

Got this letter in the mail today.   Some outfit called "New York Record Retrieval, Inc."   Their records, so they say, indicate that the deed to my house was filed on such and such a date indicating that the deed was now mine instead of the previous owner's. Ok.  (Anyone can look up such public records easily enough.)

The letter continues: "The U.S. government web site recommends that property owners should have an official or certified copy of their deed."  Now, since the web site is really a portal that can take you almost anywhere you need to the right site you're looking for, it's hard for me to find that particular piece of advice, though the truth is, of course you need a copy of the deed to prove the house is yours.

"If you don't already have this important document, you may obtain one now."  Ok, but how?  Ah, here it comes: "To obtain a Certified Copy of your Deed, complete the order form below, etc."   The payment: $89.50.  This covers locating the deed, retrieving it, and of course the infamous postage and handling. 

But interestingly, there is a notice in boldfaced type:

"Certified copies of property deeds are available at the county clerk's office. The county clerk's office may charge a small fee for certified copies of such deeds, usually between two and four dollars a page. Since most property deeds are between two and five pages in length, a certified copy can usually be obtained for between four and twenty dollars."

And indeed, to obtain a certified copy of the deed to my house -- if I can't find the one we have -- will cost me, according to my checking via the City's web site -- will cost me four bucks.  

The notice at the bottom of the letter is actually required by New York State law, General Business Law 393-D, sponsored by State Senator Stephen M. Saland in 2008, in response to such huckster outfits charging people exorbitant retrieval fees. 

Now, that such companies exist does not shock me; they prey on the stupidity and fear of people, especially elderly homeowners who might not know where there deed is, and charge them up to twenty times  the cost you'd pay for a copy if you filed a request with the county clerk's office.  What baffles my mind is that such con artists would still present their dry offer even with the notice that they are required by law to have.   If it were me, I'd point out: okay, NYS law says we gotta have this here, but c'mon, get real: you wanna go to the country clerk's office, in the biggest city in the country and wait half a day to file a request?   Or do you wanna hope your grandchildren can file the request on the internet for you?   We save you time. Time is money.   Fill out the form.  Send us a check.  And Relax!

Stupid Bloody Tuesday

It looks like it's going to be another clear sunny day Tuesday.  This I believe is the second time since that the anniversary of the attacks takes place on the same day of the week that the attacks actually took place, a Tuesday. 

That day, New Yorkers were getting ready to vote in the primary elections, the most significant one being the Democratic Party primary race for New York City Mayor.  (Mike Bloomberg was running relatively unchallenged on the Republican side.) 

There really wasn't a cloud in the sky.

Then smoke.  Collapse. And dust.  

Hospital workers uptown, waiting for victims that never arrived.

The bridges and tunnels locked down.  Everybody walking, or running, north.

the smoke that lingered in the sky and in the lungs.  And the heart.

A Thích Nhất Hạnh poem from the Vietnam War.

Auden's poem announcing the beginning of World War II.

The next day, in class: looking at my students, saying nothing for ten minutes before asking if they have anything to say.  Because of religious holidays I will not see them for about ten days.

The signs  on every lamp post, with pictures.

The heaviest empty space in the world.

Stupid Bloody Tuesday.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Film Friday: More Womb Envy!

I took my kids to see Young Frankenstein at the BAM Cinematek this week.   It was interesting to talk about the film with my young scientist, who also has a great sense of humor.  I'm glad my kids don't have a strong aversion to black and white films, an aversion many young people have and one that I don't comprehend at all. 

It was a good crowd of people there, who obviously loved the film, and we were all applauding our favorite bits, like this: 

The line is so legendary that Brooks made it into a whole song in his musical version of the film.

I've always had a greater affection for Young Frankenstein than for Blazing Saddles, generally considered to be Brooks' best work.  Blazing Saddles is outrageous, brilliant, and howlingly funny, with hilarious anachronisms and stinging anti-racist commentary. (Not for nothing are there tons of youtube videos interspersing Obama's inauguration with scenes of Sheriff Bart's arrival in Rock Ridge.) But Young Frankenstein, co-authored with Gene Wilder, tells a richer, more human tale. 

Granted, when you're starting off the plot of a great novel like Mary Shelley's, it's easy to tell a good tale.  But Wilder was very committed to his script; indeed, he agreed to step in at the last minute to play the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles with the understanding that Brooks would produce and/or direct the script Wilder was still working on at that time. And Wilder crafts a wonderful tale of a man who has rejected his past (much as the original Dr. rejected his creation) but who ultimately learns to embrace it and discover his true identity.

Okay, it also helps that the film is just funny.  Watching it today, with so many of these gifted people gone, makes me a little sad at their loss.  Madeline Kahn, as Frankenstein's fiance Elizabeth, is  perfectly cast.  Dear Marty Feldman, as I-gor, also died too soon.   Peter Boyle (the Monster) and Kenneth Mars (Inspector Kemp, who uses his artificial arm for many purposes) have both died in recent years. 

Watching it with my kids reminded me that it was one of the first films I saw on my own at the movies, with friends of mine.  I'm almost positive it was just four or five of us and no adult supervision.   This is another reason for my preferring Young Frankenstein to Blazing Saddles, since I didn't get to see it on the big screen, only on tv, and for a long time, in a truncated version (no farting).   It comes with a lot of nice memories of a theater that's now a Chinese supermarket and friends I have not seen in three decades and more. 


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Another Armstrong who Fought the Big Boys and Surrendered

As you know, about two weeks ago a guy named Armstrong decided to end his fight against a pretty big institution.  

The general reaction in the media culture seemed to be one of disappointment tempered with claims that the entire business Armstrong was in has long been corrupt.  George Vecsey's editorial took that approach.  Some have come to his defense by attacking the agency that attacked him. I heard ESPN's Steven A. Smith muse, as he likes to do, that the kid-gloves treatment of Armstrong -- a hero to tens of millions -- is very different from the media treatment of Barry Bonds, who has been vilified for his use of illegal steroids in his baseball career. 

Some commentators are not buying Lance Armstrong's claim that he could no longer keep fighting the USADA's claims of his using steroids because he no longer wanted to waste his energy on a fight where the fix is already in.  They see Armstrong's refusal to keep fighting as a silent admission that he did do steroids. 

I have no idea what Armstrong did.   Of his sport, I only know what little I have read in the papers, as it were.  I know what he's raised through his foundation, and I'm sure he's saved a few lives by promoting awareness of the cancer that he refused to allow to beat him.

But as I prepared to teach a course on the history of American broadcasting, I was reminded -- largely due to the Ken Burns-produced documentary Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio -- of another Armstrong who surrendered to a big institution, with more tragic results. 

Edwin Howard Armstrong was a gifted engineer who made several important contributions to the development of radio-receiving and radio-transmitting technology.  You can find the details pretty easily enough at the usual sites; here's a nice short bio from Donna Halpern.  What concerns me here is the story of his final battle, with the Radio Corporation of America, RCA, owner of NBC, one of the largest communications corporations in the world in the 1950's. 

Armstrong had one time been a close friend of NBC boss David Sarnoff, but in the forties, Armstrong developed a new technique of receiving radio signals by modulating the frequency of the waves instead of their amplitude, removing all the static interference and producing remarkable life-like sound. This, of course, was FM, still for most of us far superior in quality than AM.   Armstrong went to Sarnoff for backing of his discovery, but Sarnoff demurred.  Why?

The cost of re-fitting the large home AM radio sets to accommodate FM would have been too great at the time. Remember: RCA manufactured radios at the time, and the major R and D was going into television.  FM would have thrown a monkey wrench into the works. Armstrong struck out on his own, creating a sizable FM radio network, but as he began to arrange for licensees for manufacturing, RCA began to stifle Armstrong.  Although the government had decreed that newly manufactured TV sets would have to carry their audio via FM sound, Armstrong, inventor of the patent, would receive no royalties from RCA, who simply refused to pay him. RCA used other tactics to keep Armstrong from succeeding. Time and money were on their side.

Armstrong fought a long battle with RCA over all forms of patent infringements, but he became so obsessed that he lost control.   One night, he attacked his wife Marion, who had once been David Sarnoff's secretary.   With his money running out because of legal fees, and his patent rights soon to expire, Armstrong finally gave up -- by jumping to his death outside his New York apartment.  (Eventually, RCA did settle the case with Marion, but she had to fight almost as hard to get that.)

Let me make this clear: Armstrong was a very successful man.  He'd made millions from his inventions. He had several properties and lived a financially comfortable life.   But when faced with the army of lawyers and other suits who could get the FCC on their side, Armstrong wasn't in a fair fight. 

This little parable of American industry doesn't necessarily tell us anything about Lance Armstrong's motives in not contesting the USADA's allegations.   But it does suggest to me that even a man as famous and successful as Lance Armstrong has a limit to his resources.  Of course, if Armstrong was juicing, that becomes a much simpler reason he gave up.   Sources who know both the sport and the Agency can better tell us what's plausible, if there are parallels between the stories of these two men named Armstrong.  

Sunday, September 2, 2012

White Riot: Clint Eastwood, an Invisible Man, and the final images of the RNC

It is hard, very hard, to refrain from all the obvious jokes about the Republican National Convention of 2012.  Just when the commentators had exhausted themselves -- on screen, blog, and tweet -- in comes Bronco Billy talking to a chair. After all the lying and pandering, something that actually mattered unfolded on inside the "We Built It (with half the money coming from government) Arena" in Tampa.
The most popular tweet was Jamell Bouie's  "This is a perfect representation of the campaign: an old white man arguing with an imaginary Barack Obama." There have been many variations on this, you can get a ton of memes with hilarious remarks concerning the image of Eastwood and the chair. (My favorite is "Every which way but lucid.")

Of the octogenarian actor and director I have little to say.   What disturbs me is the image and the underlying discourses of race politics that are behind Eastwood's "debate."   I was thinking about Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man before coming across Craig Detweiler's post on the matter.  And when his political opponents see Barack Obama, they don't see him: they see him as a Kenyan Muslim Socialist etc.  When others who took to the podium lied about the President's policies, they were constructing an image of a man who does not exist.   (This of course is nothing new in politics: for some campaigns, that's the very point.  Think the notorious anti-Goldwater ad of the Johnson campaign.) 

In thinking about Clint and the chair, I also thought of someone else who didn't get to sit in a chair and explain himself: Rodney King.   In the state trial against the four officers charged with beating the crap out of him, Rodney King did not take the stand to explain any of his actions on the night he was finally pulled over (after leading the cops on a high-speed chase, driving while intoxicated).   Only the officers who beat him and their lawyers explained what he was doing, and how all they did was react to his movements.  In that sense, Rodney King beat himself up. At one point, an argument was put forth that in beating King up, the cops may have saved his life

Welcome to the postmodern world. 

Some on the right have suggested that it is lame to accuse Eastwood of racism, or that those who are crying racism now are just part of the media elite, and the "regular" Americans liked Eastwood's rambling.  Of course, his speech took place at a convention where a couple of yahoos attacked a Black CNN camerawoman and said obviously racist things, so in a sense, sure: Clint's not a racist! 

It's not about the explicit racism that does still exist in America, though yes, it frightens me.  It's about the assumptions we all make about social norms.   It's about a party that has made no bones about changing voting rules to minimize participation of people of color.   It's about a party that has successfully demonized Black people since 1968, and still gets majority votes.

All that said, Eastwood's speech to the Invisible Man does highlight something very real:  the last stand of a generation of white males to hold on to cultural power. (Their money, too? Maybe.)  Fact is, the Republican party is going to have to appeal to non-white, non-heterosexual, non-males if it is going to survive this century.  And they can't make them invisible, no matter how hard they try.