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Certified Copy Certified Copy

Posted by metaphorical on 4 February 2012

Is a perfect copy of The David as good as the original, if you think it’s the original?

Is the Mona Lisa just a copy of the woman it is a painting of?

Is a memory a copy? What if it’s not really a memory? And what if we simply don’t know? How does our knowledge—or lack of knowledge—change something?

In Certified Copy, an author, James (William Shimmel), has recently published a book in which he asserts that copies have their own integrity. As proof, if someone doesn’t know it is a copy, he is filled with all the same feelings of beauty and artfulness as is the person who looks at the original. In the opening scene, he gives a reading, eagerly (though only briefly) attended by a woman, Elle (Juliette Binoche). What is her interest in him? We wonder.

The thesis seems wrong, maybe even a bit absurd. At one point James looks at a newlywed couple and says they ought to know what lies ahead for them, that their happiness is an illusion they should be disabused of. What is the harm, Ellie asks him. And hasn’t he just repudiated the thesis of his book?

Partway through the movie, the two, having traveled to another town to look at a work of art—a copy, naturally—are mistaken for being married to one another by an old woman who runs a café. Elle, does not correct the error. For the rest of the movie, the couple—on their own, far from the café, continue the charade. But what if it isn’t a charade? Our understanding of the couple, our feelings for and about them, change depending on whether we think they have just met, or have been married for 15 years.

As far as reality is concerned, it makes all the difference in the world whether they are married or strangers. But this is a movie, a work of art. How we regard (look at) it determines how we regard it (assess it as a work of art). Is a perfect copy of as good as the original, if you regard it that way?

IMDb / Box Office Mojo / Rotten Tomatoes (88%/69%)

Posted in movies, pop culture, screenwriting, the arts, writing | 2 Comments »

Hugo – short for huge letdown

Posted by metaphorical on 30 January 2012

Hugo’s ratings at Rotten Tomato—94% for the critics, but only 83% for audiences—is the first clue that all is not well inside this giant clockwork of a movie.

Look inside, and you’ll see a lots of gears that need oil—David Edelstein’s review for New York Magazine, for example, is counted as favorable, but to read it is to find more green splattered on the page than red. He concludes it by noting that Hugo tells his young friend Isabelle that

machines have no extra, unneeded parts, and if he were a piece of a machine he’d have a reason for being. We know, of course, that he is a piece of a machine: Scorsese’s Colossal Stupendous 3-D Thrill Generator. It’s not clear if the irony is intentional.

That hints at what Joe Morgenstern says directly, over at The Wall Street Journal:

thematic potency and cinematic virtuosity—the production was designed by Dante Ferretti and photographed by Robert Richardson—can’t conceal a deadly inertness at the film’s core.

That’s it exactly. The movie’s dialogue is so entirely on the nose, from beginning to end—as if it isn’t enough have Hugo explicitly say that people are machines and need to have a function, and he says it several times—with Isabelle finally replying, gee, maybe that’s what’s wrong with my dad. Doh! Marty, we got the point an hour ago when you made an automaton a central character in the movie.

Even the 3-D didn’t work for me. As it was supposed to, the effect heightened the distance between them when one person was closer to the audience than another, but the people themselves, especially the front person, looked like a cardboard cutout—two dimensional, in other words. And throughout, the 3-D was just plain distracting.

Then there’s the matter of the movie’s tutorials on the history of cinema. I can think of no one I would rather hear lecture on the subject than Martin Scorsese—and if he would deign to teach us, a thousand at a time in a big lecture hall at NYU for twelve bucks a night, sign me up for all of them. But I didn’t take the subway in the other direction to a theatre in the middle of Queens to watch Marty at his most didactic, channeled through the character of Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg). You know that public service commercial that Scorsese does for film preservation? That’s most of the third-act plot in Hugo.

Finally, speaking of film school—Screenwriting 101 isn’t too early to learn a handy little rule of thumb: The protagonist has to resolve the biggest conflict—the crisis—by his own actions. James Bond can’t just sit there enchained by Blofield until Felix Leiter comes to rescue him, he has to escape by his own devices. But Hugo’s final salvation—I’m not really giving anything away, because it’s inconceivable that this movie not have a happy ending—comes as he stands hopelessly in the middle of the train station until Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) saves him.

I have no doubt that Hugo will enter the pantheon of great films, as The Departed did. If only the Academy had given Gangs of New York the Best Director title it arguably deserved, we wouldn’t have to keep rewarding Scorsese for the disappointing movies that have followed.

IMDb / Box Office Mojo / Rotten Tomatoes (94%/83%)

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p2947-eH

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Posted by metaphorical on 26 December 2011

Directed by David Schwimmer; Written by Andy Bellin and Robert Festinger; IMDb / RottenTomatoes / BoxOfficeMojo

“Trust” is a hard movie to watch; it isn’t so much enjoyed as experienced.

A 14-year-old girl, Annie, falls into a relationship on a teen website with a boy, Charlie, who’s 16, then 20, then 25, then, when they finally meet and end up in a motel room, 35. The police get called in fairly quickly, but it takes much longer for Annie to see him for what he is, a sexual predator of adolescent girls.

Roger Ebert’s one-liner in his top 20 films of the year, on which it occupies number 17, is “The bravest thing about David Schwimmer’s ‘Trust’ is that it doesn’t try to simplify.” That’s a fair statement. It doesn’t try to simplify Annie, nor her father Will (Clive Owen, brilliantly playing a role that has almost no place to go), nor even Charlie, who is all the more creepy for how normal he appears, and is never demonized even as the audience, like Will, wants to kill him for what he’s done to Annie and her entire family.

Nor does “Trust” take a simple path even in its structure. It has a plot point number 1, of sorts, but not a plot point number 2, not least because it doesn’t really have a protagonist (nor an antagonist, beyond the demons in Will’s mind and, eventually, Annie’s).

“Trust” strikes something like false notes only occasionally, as the characters all too often are able to articulate exactly what’s going on with them in a preternatural way, but when it happens in the climactic scene, the words fit the characters like gloves and they give the entire film a prefect resonance.

“Trust” is eminently worth enduring. I don’t see nearly as many movies as Ebert, but for me, too, it’s one of the best of the year.

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Fringe 2011 Review: The Toughest Girl Alive! (Candye Kane)

Posted by metaphorical on 25 August 2011

The Toughest Girl Alive!

1h 50m
VENUE #15: Le Poisson Rouge
Performance seen: Tue 23 @ 9:15
Remaining performances: Fri 26 @ 5:45 Sat 27 @ 7:45

Rating: 8
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

For most of her life, singer and sex star Candye Kane was told if she would just slim down she’d be perfect. As a longtime aficionado of the female form, I beg to differ. As a longtime aficionado of theatre, however, it’s pretty much dead on when it comes to her autobiographical show, “The Toughest Girl Alive!”: if the last half hour could go on a diet and exercise regimen, the show would be just about perfect.

Photo of Candye Kane by Marco HermanHere are some of the elements of her perfect show: Great singing (both country and western, and blues), great honesty, and a great story of genuine aspirations and enormous obstacles in the way of achieving them. Candye’s desires aren’t so unusual; she wants a singing career, and she wants love. Nor are the two unrelated. She explains (twice, for some reason) that when she was 6, she learned she could get people to like her by singing.

What’s unusual is two things. First, she’s almost completely uninhibited. She starts working at a young age on a sex phone line and soon is posing for girlie magazines. (I may have the order wrong—Candye unfortunately jumps around chronologically without much in the way of signposts along the way. I asked the three people I sat with, and they all had the same problem I did.) Second, she’s overweight, normally a problem in building a career in show business. She perseveres, however, and helps create a niche within the porn industry for large women.

The obstacles in Candye’s twin paths to music and love are epic. An abandoning father, an alternatingly loving and cruel step-father, exploitive photographers and producers, gang violence, teenage pregnancy, a suicide attempt, the premature birth of her son, drug dependencies, prostitution, abusive boyfriends, a music manager with a conflicting and unrealistic vision of her career, more pregnancies, and throughout, a psychologically abusive mother and physically abusive men.

There are also high moments as well—her first magazine cover (Juggs Magazine), high-paying stripping gigs, the health of her low-birth-weight son, relationships that work out, at least for a while, great friendships, and the way Candye gets closer and closer to a record deal with a major label, which provides a much-needed narrative thread through the ups and the downs. Also helpful were the many photographs of Candye throughout her varied career. Her extremely public life is documented in way that is common only now that we have cellphone cameras, blogs, and Facebook.

Toward the end of the show, unfortunately, Candye begins to preach to the audience, against the censorship of large breasts, the anti-choice movement, and the criminalization of sex work (“We should outlaw poverty, not prostitution”), to name just three occasions when Candye breaks faith with the particulars of her story. It’s not only untheatrical and counterproductive, it also serves no purpose. The audience has no trouble drawing these lessons from Candye’s wayward life.

This represents the only major flaw in an otherwise stellar show. The minor flaws include the hard-to-follow chronology, and a similar difficulty in sometimes understanding who is who. Scenes from Candye’s life are enacted by her with the aid of two excellent singer-actors, Robert Kirk and Bethany Slomka. They necessarily represent many people over the course of Candye’s life story, but the two women in particular jump from person to person like body-snatchers being chased through a crowd. In one scene, for example, Candye plays herself until Slomka says, “Your mother and I,” at which point we’re supposed to understand that Slomka is Candye’s grandmother and Candye is now her own mother. (At least, that’s what I think happened.)

Kirk and Slomka have beautiful voices and do an excellent job of distinguishing by gesture, volume, and accent the many people they’re portraying. The live band (bass and lead guitar, drums, and keyboards) was excellent as well. Much praise is also due Javier Velasco, who wrote the story. It’s common in publishing that an autobiographical story is written by someone else, but rare in theatre. Here, as there, it seems to be a good idea. The story is well shaped and has a powerful arc.

Candye is a terrific singer in both her genres, and something like this show would easily work well as cabaret with the story reduced to patter—especially easy to imagine in the lounge atmosphere of Le Poisson Rouge. As a full-blown narrative, though, it’s perfect for the Fringe.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Fringe 2011 Review: The Bardy Bunch

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady

1h 40m
VENUE #9: The Ellen Stewart Theatre @ LA MAMA
Performance seen: Sat 13 @ NOON
Remaining performances: Fri 19 @ 9 (sold out!) Sun 21 @ 8:45 Wed 24 @ 2

Rating: 8
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

When I say I thoroughly enjoyed “The Bardy Bunch” you have to take into account that I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of the Brady Bunch (nor the movie); I was not a fan of the Partridge Family; and I don’t have the greatest head for Shakespeare.

Yes, Shakespeare.

“The Bardy Bunch” is a telling of Romeo and Juliet where the rivaling families are the Bradys and the Partridges and there are two forbidden loves, not one: Marcia–Keith, and Greg–Laurie.

But the Shakespearean references only start there. Midsummer Night’s Dream, All’s Well That Ends Well, Tempest, and most especially Macbeth and Hamlet—I can’t tell you all the plays quoted from and referenced (the playbill claims a dozen), because they come fast and furiously and, as I say, I don’t have the greatest head for Shakespeare, confusing the various gender-bending ones, for example. Sorting out the Hamlet from the Macbeth was particularly tricky until I realized that the same ghost was doing double-duty: For the Bradys, he’s Duncan, for the Partridges he’s Hamlet’s father.

It’s a clever idea, and that kind of cleverness pervades the show—notably in the mixing of Shakespearean plots, without losing itself in fealty to any one of them, but also in the use of music, especially the way “Woke Up in Love” and “I Can feel Your Heartbeat” hurtle the conflicts toward their inevitable tragic and hilarious conclusion.

The huge cast is entirely outstanding—it seems unfair to single anyone out, but Marcia (Cali Elizabeth Moore) and Greg (A.J. Shively) are particularly aptly cast, Erik Keiser’s singing channels Keith’s voice perfectly and is terrific in its own right, and speaking of voices, Craig Wichman gets Reuben’s so right it’s eerie. It’s probably not possible for the Alice part not to be a crowd pleaser, but Joan Lunoe does a terrific job of milking the small role for all it’s worth.

I have only two small complaints about this show—the name, and the fact that in an early scene Marcie and Jan make an explicit reference to Romeo and Juliet. It’s unnecessary, and undermines the show’s greatest charm—that the subtext to a story grounded in the most ephemeral of 1970s pop culture is rooted in the 16th century writer who created the most enduring cultural monuments we have. Indeed, the number of Fringe shows that reference the Bard is literally and figuratively uncountable, but I can’t remember enjoying it this much.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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8 Out of 10 Americans Still Crazy

Posted by metaphorical on 30 January 2011

First the good news: The number of Americans who believe that humans evolved over millions of years without God’s active intervention is greater than ever. The bad news: it’s still less than one-sixth the population.

Two and a half times as many—40 percent—hold a strict creationist view that God created humans sometime in the last 10,000 years. The rest hold a hybrid belief that acknowledges evolution while still asserting that “God guided the process.”

Gallup has apparently been asking people since 1982 to choose between

Human beings have developed over millions of year from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process

(1982: 38%; 2010: 38%)

Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part of this process

(1982: 9%; 2010: 16%)

God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so

(1982: 44%; 2010: 40%)

I’m characterizing that squishy middle ground as not believing in the theory of evolution, because the theory of evolution makes no reference to God and describes a mechanism that weighs out the future without a divine finger on the scale. But Americans themselves aren’t so clear on what constitutes a belief in evolution. In 2009, Gallup asked this:

Do you, personally, believe in the theory of evolution, do you not believe in the theory of evolution, or don’t you have an opinion either way?

The result:

On the eve of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, a new Gallup Poll shows that only 39% of Americans say they “believe in the theory of evolution,” while a quarter say they do not believe in the theory, and another 36% don’t have an opinion either way.

Anyway, the split in the more exacting three-way question runs pretty strongly along party lines. A majority of Republicans reject evolution entirely, while only a third of Democrats do; only 8% of Republicans believe in the theory of evolution, while 20% of Democrats do.

Maybe the most shocking stats of all: 22% of all those with postgraduate degrees are strict creationists, 37% of all college grads are. While those numbers are lower than among those without college degrees, given the strong self-selection that probably takes place, it would seem that college changes few minds about creationism. So much for the powerful liberal hegemony in academia.

Posted in education, language, politics, pop culture, religion | 4 Comments »

2010 Movie favorites to date

Posted by metaphorical on 16 January 2011

Without picking winners or trying to predict how the Hollywood Foreign Press Association will pick ’em, here are some favorites, out of the movies I’ve seen to date. Interestingly, two of my favorite performances were by teenagers.

Inception, The King’s Speech

Inception, The King’s Speech, The Town

Christian Bale in The Fighter
Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone
Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right
James Franco in Howl (I haven’t seen 127 Hours yet)
Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit
Colin Firth in The King’s Speech

Posted in language, pop culture, screenwriting, the arts | 1 Comment »

Golden Globe nominations

Posted by metaphorical on 13 January 2011

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association doesn’t award separate Golden Globes for adapted and original screenplays. Of the 2011 nominees two are adaptations, 127 Hours and The Social Network.

According to a November article in the UK Telegraph about screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s writing process,

he decided to write the script after reading a 14-page proposal submitted to publishers by Ben Mezrich, whose subsequent book, The Accidental Billionaires, became a bestseller.

Though Sorkin was undoubtedly inspired by what he had read – he knew by page three that he wanted to bring the story to the big screen – his script and Mezrich’s book were written simultaneously and independently of each other. If Sorkin has produced an adaptation rather than an original screenplay, it’s an adaptation of an idea (albeit highly developed) rather than a finished work.

In an article in the Jan/Feb issue of Script magazine, which doesn’t seem to be online yet, screenwriter Charles Randolph said his screenplay for Love and Other Drugs bears a similarly loose relationship to the book it’s nominally based upon, Jamie Reidy’s 2005 nonfiction book, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman.

As his script came into focus, he confesses, “I didn’t really use much of the book.” Reidy’s anecdotal tales quickly became “more of a background resource than story points. It’s not really an adaptation in that sense.”

The original work was similarly disregarded when it came to David Lindsay-Abaire’s adaptation of Rabbit Hole. Here, though, the original work being disregarded was a play and a the original author being disregarded was himself. Again from Script magazine:

I had to re-imagine the play fairly entirely to turn it into a movie. When I decided to turn it into a screenplay, I put the play aside and thought, “Okay, if this never existed as a play, how would I tell this story as a movie?”

Lastly, what’s also interesting about the Golden Globe nomination list is the many movies with acting or other award nominations that are not on the Script magazine list of potential screenwriting Oscar nominees. I may have to expand the also-worth-seeing list. Here’s the list of major Golden Globe nominations for film.

Best Motion Picture, Drama

    The Fighter
    The King’s Speech
    The Social Network

Best Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical

    Alice in Wonderland
    The Kids Are All Right
    The Tourist

Best Director – Motion Picture

    Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
    David Fincher, The Social Network
    Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
    Christopher Nolan, Inception
    David O. Russell, The Fighter

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama

    Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
    Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
    James Franco, 127 Hours
    Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine
    Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama

    Halle Berry, Frankie and Alice
    Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
    Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
    Natalie Portman, Black Swan
    Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Comedy

    Johnny Depp, Alice in Wonderland
    Johnny Depp, The Tourist
    Paul Giamatti, Barney’s Version
    Jake Gyllenhaal, Love and Other Drugs
    Kevin Spacey, Casino Jack

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Comedy

    Anne Hathaway, Love and Other Drugs
    Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right
    Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
    Emma Stone, Easy A
    Angelina Jolie, The Tourist

Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture

    Christian Bale, The Fighter
    Michael Douglas, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
    Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
    Jeremy Renner, The Town
    Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech

Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture

    Amy Adams, The Fighter
    Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech
    Mila Kunis, Black Swan
    Melissa Leo, The Fighter
    Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

Best Screenplay – Motion Picture

    127 Hours
    The Kids Are All Right
    The King’s Speech
    The Social Network

Best Animated Feature Film

    Despicable Me
    How to Train Your Dragon
    The Illusionist
    Toy Story 3

Best Foreign Language Film

    The Concert
    The Edge
    I Am Love

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Throw down your thesis

Posted by metaphorical on 24 April 2009

In my beginning writing classes, the one idea I spend the most time on is something that’s often called the thesis statement. It isn’t enough that a college essay—or any essay, or any piece of writing, or film, or play, for that matter—have a topic. It has to have a specific thesis within that topic. The thesis statement is like chess or go—it takes a few minutes to learn, and a lifetime to master.

It doesn’t have to be long or complicated, but it does have to be a specific assertion. “My summer vacation” is a topic. “My trip to Disneyworld last summer was the best vacation of my life” is a thesis. (“My summer vacation, the first my husband and I took in our twelve-year marriage, saved our relationship” is an even better one, but we don’t always have as much drama in our lives as a writing class would like!) One sign of a bad thesis, or no thesis, is boredom in the face of crisp prose and strong action—when readers don’t know where the story is going, it’s impossible to keep their interest.

Once you have a thesis, you know just what to write—what to include, and, equally importantly, what to exclude. Unfortunately, a thesis doesn’t always come to us tightly wound, whole, and perfect, like a new ball of soft colorful yarn. And so sometimes we start in, thinking we’re writing about one thing, and it turns out we’re really writing about another. I once heard the writer Liz Braverman say, writing is a product of the struggle “between the words in your head and the words that come off the page.” The path to a thesis sometimes looks like the ball of yarn after the cats have played with it all afternoon.

I tell my students that often you don’t know what an essay is about until the first draft is done. When you read the draft over, think about what the thesis of the actual essay—the essay as it exists on the page—is. Then reread the essay with an eye to what comports with the new thesis and what does not. Every section, every paragraph—and eventually, after the final polishing, every sentence and every word—ought to advance the thesis in some way, so add and subtract accordingly.

Which brings us to Throw Down Your Heart, a documentary film about a trip the musician Béla Fleck made to Africa. It opens today, but I saw it back in November at the American Museum of Natural History’s 2008 Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival.

First, let me say that it was a wonderful evening and a wonderful show to watch. And the film is destined to be popular, and well-liked by anyone who likes Fleck’s kind of music, or just the wonderful sounds that can result when one culture’s symbols are made to clash with another’s. The movie gets an astonishing 8.1 out of 10 on IMDb, though only 15 people have voted, and I notice it won an audience award last month at SXSW, among others listed on the film’s website.

How could one not love a film named for a story that when men from Africa’s interior were brought to a certain coastal port in Tanzania, from which they would be shipped overseas, never to see their families again, they were advised to “throw down their hearts.”

That said, Throw Down Your Heart fails as a film. It fails for the same reason many of my students’ essays fail—the failure to rethink and rewrite the work, after the true thesis emerges from the first draft.

The film’s original idea was apparently to take the instrument Fleck is most closely associated with, the banjo, back to Africa. It was described that way in the promotional material that drew me to the AMNH. It’s described that way in the IMDb blurb: “A film crew follows the well-known banjo player Béla Fleck on his travels to Africa, where he learns about the instrument’s origins.” This thesis is still expressed in the movie’s trailer: “Where the banjo has come from” “A lot of people associate it with white southern music,” “There’s an instrument [in Africa] that may be the original banjo,” etc., and it’s expressed in the first few minutes of the film.

And indeed, throughout, the movie contains vestiges of that thesis, including the intinerary that forms the backbone of the narrative, taking Fleck and the crew through four candidate countries for the origins of the banjo (Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia, and Mali).

In looking for the precursors to today’s banjo, some of which are instruments that are still played in Africa, Fleck encountered extraordinary musicians, some famous, some known only within a single village but of world-class caliber. It was, perhaps, inevitable, that the movie would devolve into a celebration of those musicians, and Fleck’s interactions with them, including a couple of terrific duets and other performances in which Fleck not only plays the banjo with them, but some of the precursor instruments as well. And that’s fine. But that’s a very different movie.

Worse still, there was a third thesis available to director Sascha Paladino, hinted at in the movie, and it is in fact the movie he should have made. The AMNH viewing ended with a Q & A with some of the film’s crew. In the course of describing how hard Fleck worked, we were told that he stayed up far into the night trying to learn new forms of music and getting the hang of those African instruments. Fleck didn’t allow those late-night moments to be shown.

It’s understandable that an eight-time Grammy winner wouldn’t want to be seen making bad music late at night with unfamiliar instruments he had only just been given. But the story of one of the world’s great musicians struggling to master new instruments and new musical forms would have turned a enjoyable music travelogue into an unforgettable musical odyssey.

The New York Post put up a short review of the movie yesterday that unwittingly gets it exactly right. “The movie is at least 20 minutes too long,” the Post wrote—an extraordinary thing for a review of a 97-minute musical film in which the music is called “infectious.” (Karina Longworth, in a generally very favorable review at Spout.com, agreed, calling it “somewhat overlong.”) Boredom is the inevitable consequence of a defective thesis.

The anonymous NY Post reviewer also wrote, “Fleck fails to provide any personal charisma.” Exactly. By withholding Fleck’s failings, the movie withholds its central character. Béla, if only you had thrown down your heart.

Posted in language, pop culture, screenwriting, the arts, writing | 1 Comment »

For once, spending like there is a tomorrow

Posted by metaphorical on 3 November 2008

A consumer-led recession is upon us, and it
promises to be a serious one.

  — Josh Shapiro, chief economist at MFR,
   a global consulting firm

I’ve been listening to Planet Money, NPR’s daily podcast follow-up to their two wildly, and deservedly successful This American Life episodes devoted to the world financial meltdown. (If you’re one of the three people on earth who missed them, they’re The Giant Pool of Money and “Another Frightening Show About the Economy”.)

There’s a weird thing going on at Planet Money, where they call in expert economists, analysts, and investment gurus to explain what’s going on. To a person, they say, “buy more stuff.” The NPR staffers themselves also continually exhort us to buy more stuff.

If people stop buying, the economy will crash, jobs will be lost, and people won’t have the money to buy anything. So the creepy idea, which they acknowledge, is that the common good dictates we all engage in a behavior that, everyone seems to understand, is individually risky and arguably incredibly stupid, which is to stop saving money for a rainy day when you can already see the lighning and hear the thunder.

That people have stopped spending is undeniable.

The economy as a whole is already off by 0.3% in the last quarter, led by a killer 3.1% decline in consumer spending. Bloomberg reports that that’s “the first drop since 1991 and the biggest since 1980, after President Jimmy Carter imposed credit controls.”

Online spending is also sharply down, according to Comscore. On a monthly basis, online consumer spending growth has declined for five consecutive months. September’s 5 percent growth rate was the smallest increase since comScore starting tracking e-commerce sales in 2001.

And the reasons people have stopped spending seem pretty obvious. People are terrified they will lose their jobs, or their spouses will lose their jobs, or their aging parents will lose their jobs, or their kids just entering the workforce will have to move back home because they lost their jobs or never got one in the first place. A story yesterday asks, quite plausibly, Will US Unemployment Hit 10%? The most recent figure is 6.1% and, as the article notes, will certainly have risen to about 6.3% when the October numbers come out. And that’s taking the government’s bogus numbers at face value. A government-certified 10% would of course be as much as twice that in real life.

The obvious next question, which people haven’t yet really started to ask, is, If people are not spending money in general, what about the Christmas shopping season? If holiday spending falls off a cliff, might that not be enough to push us from recession to depression (if we’re not already headed there anyway)?

An article in today’s NY Times notes, almost parenthetically, that a bunch of big retailers are already in bankruptcy, including Mervyn’s and Linens ’n Things. The focus of the article, Debt Linked to Buyouts Tightens the Economic Vise is that

Private equity firms embarked on one of the biggest spending sprees in corporate history for nearly three years, using borrowed money to gobble up huge swaths of industries and some of the biggest names — Neiman Marcus, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Toys “R” Us.

The new owners then saddled the companies with the billions of dollars of debt used to buy them. But now many of the loans and bonds sold to finance the deals are about to come due at the worst possible time.

That comes in the face of news that Circuit City plans to close 155 of its 700 stores, which broke later today, and some truly grim auto sales figures, led by GM’s “incredible 45 percent decline in its sales.” Even Toyota and Honda were off by about 25%.

Of course, GM’s financing arm, GMAC, is owned by private equity, so there’s a double-whammy all its own. Speaking of which, private equity firm Apollo Management, which owns Linen’s ‘n Things, also owns Century 21, which surely would be in trouble anyway with the real estate market in a deep freeze.

You can just imagine what effect that news will have onconsumer sentiment which is already badly shaken.

The Reuters/University of Michigan index of consumers sentiment dropped from 70.3 in September to 57.6 in October. The measure, in which the larger the number. the greater the confidence, averaged 85.6 last year.

In a further dose of gloomy economic news, the Institute for Supply Management-Chicago reported that its index — a gauge of employment and demand — fell from 56.7 in September to 37.8 in October.

The stories in the news right now are about stores preparing to woo customers for the holidays.

Stores work to attract holiday shoppers

Shoppers To Spend 1.9% More This Holiday, Compare Prices on Internet

U.S. Retailers Use More Creative Techniques In Attracting Holiday Bargainer Hunters (buried within this one is this little tidbit: “Home Depot and Sears Holdings expect an 8 percent reduction in their holiday sales this year.”)

Office Depot and Chase to Help Shoppers Boost Their Spending Power This Holiday Season with the Worklife Rewards Visa Card

But with consumer confidence already at an all-time low and surely headed lower, can’t we just cut to the chase and picture businesses going out of business left and right this winter?

Because the fact is, Christmas spending is about more than just gifts, people buy stuff for themselves, not least because end-of-year bonus checks go both ways. As Paul Krugman pointed out the other day, buried within the steep 3.1% decline in consumer spending is a plummet in spending on big-ticket items: “real spending on durable goods (stuff like cars and TVs) fell at an annual rate of 14 percent.”

To appreciate the significance of these numbers, you need to know that American consumers almost never cut spending. Consumer demand kept rising right through the 2001 recession; the last time it fell even for a single quarter was in 1991, and there hasn’t been a decline this steep since 1980, when the economy was suffering from a severe recession combined with double-digit inflation.

Also, these numbers are from the third quarter — the months of July, August, and September. So these data are basically telling us what happened before confidence collapsed after the fall of Lehman Brothers in mid-September, not to mention before the Dow plunged below 10,000. Nor do the data show the full effects of the sharp cutback in the availability of consumer credit, which is still under way.

So this looks like the beginning of a very big change in consumer behavior. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Posted in language, politics, pop culture | 2 Comments »

Too Clever By Half

Posted by metaphorical on 10 October 2008


When Triarc Companies Inc., the parent company of sandwich chain Arby’s Restaurant Group, Inc. acquired Wendy’s International, the move created the third largest fast-food company. The company was renamed as Wendy’s/Arby’s Group and required a new brand identity to embody the innovative spirit of both restaurant brands. The new brand identity also needed to illustrate the collective strength of the organization to its employees, franchisees and shareholders.

Wendy’s and Arby’s merged?

KCSA Strategic Communications worked closely with Wendy’s/Arby’s Group management to define the shared, core brand values of both Wendy’s and Arby’s, and articulate the company’s unique value proposition and intangible qualities that surround the Wendy’s/Arby’s name.

“Value proposition” – heh.

“Intangible qualities” – heh-heh.

“Each company’s brand is a valuable strategic asset,” said Joshua Altman, Managing Director at KCSA. “The challenge in this type of situation is to develop a symbolic, clear new brand language that creates new meaning to audiences without losing the tradition, legacy, and the already important values established by the previously separate entities.”

Tradition? Legacy? This is fast food we’re talking about, right?

The Wendy’s/Arby’s Group brand identity references identifiable visual characteristics from both Wendy’s and Arby’s, structured as a form reflective of the “W” and “A” in Wendy’s/Arby’s Group. The icon and the tagline, “Serving Fresh Ideas Daily”, support Wendy’s/Arby’s Group’s commitment to innovation and high level of quality.

Wendy’s has a new logo?

“The Wendy’s/Arby’s Group brand identity is designed not only as an acronym, but as a spiral continuum, maintaining the idea of continuous, flexible movement forward,” said Margaret Wiatrowski, Creative Director at KCSA. “The overall visual direction remains neutral by introducing entirely new elements to the combined entity, both formalistically and typographically. Symbolically, the two entities are combined through a mutual sense of innovation, authenticity and tradition.”

Innovation? Authenticity? Tradition (again!)? This is fast food we’re talking about, right?

Wendy’s/Arby’s Group unveiled its new brand to key stakeholders the first week of October, 2008.

Oh, it will have a new logo.

To learn more about this project or how we may serve you, please contact Joshua Altman at jaltman@kcsa.com.

Who wouldn’t want to learn more about this “project?

KCSA, a public-relations firms I’ve worked with, is better than this. Is there anything more inauthentic than saying that you have authenticity?

It’s time to return to the words of the master.

Pretentious diction. Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basis, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.

Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader.

– George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

“Key stakeholders,” “valuable strategic asset,” “overall visual direction,” “formalistically,” “value proposition,” “intangible qualities,” “innovation,” “tradition,” and “legacy” are all words that are used to dress up simple statements, give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments, and, as the master would be quick to say, are almost completely lacking in meaning.

Since only “key stakeholders” have seen the changes, it’s too soon to say whether this rebranding effort will be a success or a failure. And there’s no denying that brands are important. GM is trying to sell its Hummer brand, and according to today’s N.Y. Times, hopes to get a few billion for it. Since, in a era of $4/gallon gas, no one is buying Hummers (or cars at all; GM’s and Ford’s stocks jumped out the window yesterday, and even Toyota is going the zero-percent financing route), Hummer’s entire value is that it’s a name that is universally recognized (albeit often mocked).

What KCSA needs to remember, though, is that rebranding isn’t a sexy runway show. Rebranding is a little bit of backoffice sketching, and a lot of sweatshop work – cutting, sewing, ironing, fitting, and resewing. It can’t be dressed up with meaningless words. In fact, for a PR agency to talk of value propositions and strategic assets is like the designer showing up at the runway in a bathrobe.

Come on guys, you’re better than this.

Posted in language, Orwell, politics, pop culture, writing | 2 Comments »

Gender, power, and the presidency

Posted by metaphorical on 5 October 2008

It’s impossible to understand John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin in political terms, so we’re forced to turn to psychology – just as we are when trying to understand the presidency of George Bush.

If you think about it, in traditional gender-role terms, the vice presidency is a kind of feminized version of the presidency – its external functions are largely ceremonial, while its only power is internal and domestic – almost literally inside the House. For a misogynist like John McCain, Sarah Palin is the perfect personification of this role – as was Al Gore, who, with his concern for the environment was never manly enough for the American voter; as was the castrated Bush 41, who was bullied into endorsing Reagonomics soon after calling it “voodoo economics”; as was Bush’s own tow-haired boy-toy, Dan Quayle. (One of Dukakis’s many, many problems was that Lloyd Bensen was far more presidential – more masculine – than he was.)

The current Bush’s main failings – the events for which he will go down in history as America’s worst president ever – stem from his own late-to-light feminine submissiveness. In Freudian terms, Bush, like most men, was forced to symbolically kill his father in order to complete his own maturation. He did so only imperfectly, however, in the process replacing Pere Bush with other powerful men who mentored him. These are the men who bailed Bush out of one bad business after another, set him up at the Texas Rangers and then stuffed money into his pockets by subsequently overpaying him for his share. Dick Cheney – the most powerful vice president in history and the most atypical one ever – is the latest in a long line of older, powerful men to whom Bush cannot say no.

Is it a coincidence that Carol McCain is a former model, Cindy McCain a former rodeo queen, and Sarah Palin is a former beauty pageant contestant? It’s a commonplace that womanizers are misogynists, and McCain the womanizer – a man who could dump his first wife, saying that after her car accident she was no longer the woman he had married, a man who could call Wife # 2 a cunt – would obviously feel most comfortable with a vice president modeled after the feminine women he has surrounded himself with his whole life.

Posted in language, politics, pop culture | 2 Comments »

Shea Stadium: game over

Posted by metaphorical on 28 September 2008

Long before baseball playoffs, before Super Bowl III, before the Miracle Mets, the Jets still played at Shea, and the two sports seasons hardly overlapped. The Amazin’s would schedule their last series for the road (half the teams have to anyway), and the Jets traveled to their first game (half the teams have to anyway) and during that final week of the summer season the grounds crew would convert the field from a diamond to a gridiron and Mike Medina and I would bike there after school and watch.

If it were early enough in the week the bullpen would still exist and that’s where we would go to throw a football back and forth and watch the crew move rows of seats around or fill in the dugout. Mike would throw one high overhead and I was George Sauer stepping back to catch a perfect Broadway Joe spiral. In my mind the day is always blue for the sky and green for the outfield and the air is clean and silent except for the distant roar of jets at LaGuardia.

I have a lot of memories of Mets and Mets games—the doubleheader where only 3 runs were scored in 30 innings (the only game I remember my mother going to); getting Ron Hunt’s autograph at the department store around the corner from my neighborhood library; eating two tables away from Joe Torre at an Italian restaurant in nearby Corona; the game when Ron Swoboda caught three fly balls in one inning and I proudly told my father that that had to be a major league record—but that’s my only fond memory of the stadium itself. It’s an ugly little park, stodgy, overly symmetrical, named for a political hack. But the pattern of orange and blue tiles that surrounds its exterior evoke for me the early 1960s, when Jack and Jackie were still in the White House and my parents never fought.

I was there the night the Mets took first place for the first time in club history. That summer, 1969, I was 13. I would open up the Long Island Press after school to see who was pitching. If it was Seaver or Koosman I would ask my mother—this was the year before she started working, the year before their divorce—for $1.70, enough for a general admission ticket and two subway tokens. I don’t remember who the Mets played but they won the first game of a doubleheader, and Montreal lost their game. For the next hour or so, the Mets led the league by a few percentage points, until they dropped the nightcap. First place was as ephemeral as these memories—as ephemeral, it turns out, as the stadium itself.

The Mets played their last game at Shea tonight. I don’t don’t know who won, and I don’t much care these days. I’ll miss the sport not at all and the stadium only a little. Baseball is too expensive, too spoiled, too full of itself as the national pastime. The playoffs have trivialized the season, and instant-replays on a giant television screen trivialize the time spent at the park. The season stumbles into frosty October now. That’s not a problem for the grounds crew, because the Jets decamped to a bigger, cleaner—if no prettier—stadium in New Jersey decades ago. Goodbye, Shea.

Posted in pop culture | 1 Comment »

Let’s take a moment to remember Warren Harding: publisher, senator, rock climber, president

Posted by metaphorical on 4 July 2008

Fifty years ago, President Warren Harding set out to climb El Capitan. It took him 47 days of repeated assaults, but he finally made it.

I think I need a new blog tag, something like “How Stupid Can You Be?” This time the hapless news network is NPR. (Thanks, Rachel, for the link.) Is there really anyone at that venerable organization who thinks that Warren G Harding, the 29th President, who died in office in 1923 at age 57, climbed El Cap? Fifty years ago? 35 years after the hapless Calvin Coolidge succeeded Harding in the Oval Office, because, you know, Harding had, um, died? In 1923?

Let’s try to imagine the process here as some NPR intern somewhere on the East Coast gets a San Francisco Chronicle report that the speed record for climbing El Cap has been broken. (We’ll leave aside why breaking the old record by a mere 2 minutes, or about a 1.2% improvement, is worth reporting at all.)

The Sfgate story lists all the de rigeur stats for a story like this: how many on El Cap, how many have died climbing the particular route that the record-breaking climbers chose, and, with no other distinguishing description, the name of El Cap’s first ascentionist, which happens to be Warren Harding. Warren J. Harding, the sports-car-driving, rotgut-wine-drinking, rock-climbing, one-time land surveyor, not Warren G. Harding, the the former newspaper publisher, Republican Senator from Ohio, and President of the United States.

How little history do you have to be acquainted with to possibly confuse the two Hardings? If the first ascent of El Cap was 50 years ago, it took place in 1958. Let’s make this really simple. If you know nothing else about Warren G Harding’s presidency, could you at least, dear intern, locate it in the first half of the century? You know, the other one, the one that 1958 isn’t in?

I don’t mean, dear intern, you should be able to definitively rule out the idea of President Harding as the man who spent 47 days over the course of two years climbing an impressive but obscure rock face in central California. No, of course not. I’m just wishing your shaky grip on American history could have at least been firm enough to at have gone to Wikipedia and check, oh, say, when President Harding died.

Oh, here’s another request, dear intern. When you sneak back into the HTML and update your story to delete the word “President,” put a little note on bottom saying that the story was corrected. Someone, after all, might have been industrious enough to take a screen shot of your blinding stupidity.

NPR gets it wrong

NPR gets it wrong

Posted in education, journalism, Orwell, politics, pop culture | 3 Comments »

Pigeons prefer Chagall to Van Gogh

Posted by metaphorical on 18 June 2008

Okay, there’s no evidence (yet) that pigeons prefer Chagall to Van Gogh or vice versa. But they can tell them apart. How much evidence of sentience is enough, before we start to rethink the way we treat our fellow sentient creatures?

Self-recognition is found in large primates such as chimpanzees, and recent findings show that dolphins and elephants also have such intelligence. Proving that pigeons also have this ability show that such high intelligence as self-recognition can be seen in various animals, and are not limited to primates and dolphins that have large brains.

UPI has the story on the wires (thank you, Claire, for the heads-up), but more details can be found at Science Daily.

Pigeons Show Superior Self-recognition Abilities To Three Year Old Humans

ScienceDaily (Jun. 14, 2008) — Keio University scientists have shown that pigeons are able to discriminate video images of themselves even with a 5-7 second delay, thus having self-cognitive abilities higher than 3-year-old children who have difficulty recognizing their self-image with only a 2 second delay.

Prof. Shigeru Watanabe of the Graduate School of Human Relations of Keio University and Tsukuba University graduate student Kohji Toda trained pigeons to discriminate real-time self-image using mirrors as well as videotaped self-image, and proved that pigeons can recognize video images that reflect their movements as self-image.

We can argue over the details of how to prove self-cognition, but the article has a detailed discussion of the methods and functional definitions that studies like this one have been using for almost 40 years now.

The wire and other reports of this study make much of the fact that, using these functional definitions, pigeons do better at self-recognition than 3-year-old humans. Personally, I find at least as interesting a fact in the UPI story not even mentioned in Science Daily, that the pigeons can distinguish Chagall paintings from those of Van Gogh.

People with cats and dogs routinely ascribe to them motives, beliefs, preferences, fears, desires, and other complex mental states. People on farms, who spend as much time with cows and pigs and horses as we do with dogs and cats, talk about them in the same way.

Leaving aside the question of eating them for food, how can we confine them, keep them perpetually pregnant, separate them from their young at birth, feed them cement kiln dust, testosterone, progesterone, anabolic steroids, and chicken manure…. how can we hang a 1500-lb animal upside down by its ankle when it’s still conscious?

How can we treat an animal with cognitive abilities that can, at least in some ways, be favorably compared to a 3-year-old with wanton disregard for its obvious suffering?

Posted in animal-rights, language, politics, pop culture | Tagged: , , | 12 Comments »


Posted by metaphorical on 29 April 2008

Human Rights Torch Relay protest, Union Square, New York City, 17 April 2008

In April 1968, when Mark Rudd and other students took over the halls of Columbia University, I was 12 years old – too young for anything other than hero-worship. So I read the newspaper accounts, watched the news on television, and wrote in magic marker all over my bedroom walls.

I carefully drew peace signs, Rudd’s name, and “Columbia” from the closet at one end of the room’s longest wall to the rear window at the other end. And the word “Love,” scrawled Peter-Max style – big balloon sans-serif letters that overlapped one another, with the “O” being yet another peace symbol. I don’t remember asking my parents about writing all over my walls, and I do remember my mother’s odd smile when I showed her my handiwork.

That year students took over college campuses from Berkeley to Bonn. They drew their energy from the Civil Rights protests that ended Jim Crow and the antiwar demonstrations that ended Lyndon Johnson’s reelection campaign.

Where did that energy go? Where are the protest movements of today? As it turns out, there’s still plenty of energy, and still plenty of protest. What’s missing is the reporting of it. Consider Human Rights Torch Relay, a world-wide ongoing protest that has taken the traditional Olympic torch relay as an occasion for repeated protest of China’s subjugation of Tibet. Yesterday, Reuters published a nice timeline or their protests, beginning with the March 24th Athens torch lighting, and continuing, among other places, in San Francisco, Paris, Bangkok, and, last Sunday, South Korea.

Indeed, the print media has done a pretty good job of covering Human Rights Torch Relay. But where are the television networks? A google search looks in vain for them until the 48th link, where a story by CNN is the first network-based one to appear.

And even if the big wire services such as Reuters, AP, and AFP can cover a big protest like Human Rights Torch Relay, they fall down when it comes to smaller ones. Did you know about a protest at Penn State that has lasted more than two weeks now? They are “demanding improved conditions in the factories where Penn State apparel is made.” Nor has Penn State been the only anti-sweatshop rally in recent weeks; there have been at least three others.

I learned about them at a new blog, http://studentactivism.net/, that hopes to provide a focal point for “News and analysis on student organizing, student activism, and students’ rights.” The blog, which launched yesterday, is maintained by Angus Johnston, whose goal is to fill the middle ground between the mainstream media, which doesn’t cover smaller activist efforts, and student networks, which largely preach to the choir.

Students provided much of the early white support for black civil rights activism, they spearheaded the anti-Vietnam movement, and they’ve never stopped being in the forefront of protest, whether it’s over environmental issues, Nicaragua, corporate responsibility, the death penalty, or the war in Iraq. Whether we agree or disagree with the stances that students take (and they’re by no means all of one mind in their concerns), I hope that many of us will subscribe and link to the site, as I now have.

Posted in journalism, politics, pop culture | 4 Comments »

Sneaker collecting is dead!

Posted by digglahhh on 9 March 2008

Once an idiosyncratic, almost anthropological pursuit practiced by hip-hop devotees, sports fans, and urban fashion connoisseurs being a “sneakerhead” is now simply about hollow consumerism.

Sneaker manufacturers churn out one low-quality, theme-packed, limited edition gimmick shoe, after another, at unprecedented rates, all the while forgoing attention to detail on the reproduction of retro classics. As is often the case when mainstream producers discover a niche market, the suppliers did a better job of feeding the market before they were fully aware of its existence. Why is it so difficult to understand that the essential beauty of something that arises naturally in the marketplace will only be preserved if it continues to evolve organically?

But this post isn’t really about sneakers, it’s about identifying impending co-optation, exploitation, and death through language and labeling.

It didn’t take much sneaker savvy to see what was going to happen to “the sneaker game” when fourteen year-olds with five pairs, all released this calendar year, started calling themselves “collectors” and the “box-stacking” photo became de rigeur on the (supposedly) urban teen’s Myspace profile. A “collection” isn’t some sort of goal to aspire to; it’s the natural outgrowth (side-effect?) of a passion. And veterans of the sneaker culture don’t refer to themselves as “sneakerheads.” Personally, my relationship with sneakers is a part of larger culture(s) with which I identify. To call myself a “sneakerhead” would be treat the signifier as the signified.

That outsiders, particularly the mainstream media, have a cute little name for a group of people who participate in a lifestyle, is a sure sign that the purity of the community is compromised—a process of erosion that will progress exponentially. It is only a matter of time before you will be gazing at the putrid shell of what was. Shortly after that, you can only curse what your culture has become.

The term “hippie,” in the sense that we understand it now, was coined by a San Francisco journalist in a piece about the Blue Unicorn coffeehouse to refer to the new generation of Haight-Ashbury residents. Within a few years, “hippie” was being widely used by the mainstream press. The Haight-Ashbury residents weren’t calling themselves “hippies.” It wasn’t long until the term gained enough traction that every slacker in search of drugs, sex, music, and fun headed West, destroying the socio-political underpinnings of the lifestyle as it originally existed in the process. Of course, next came the stereotyping, followed by a marketing wave that completed the neutering process.

So beware that cover story in New York magazine or People identifying some group with whom you share a passion. The Nehru jacket will follow soon enough. Meaning, substance, and texture will be replaced by a two-dimensional stereotype subtrate upon which corporate America will culture a hideous market fungus., The edginess of the lifestyle will be turned into soft smooth sides. Salsa becomes onion-flavored ketchup; bagels nothing more than tiny loaves of Wonder Bread with holes in the center. Resist the labeling of your passion. By doing so, you resist definition, and hence pigeonholing, subsequent exploitation and metamorphosis, and ultimately, cultural death.

For the sneaker enthusiasts, we have it easy. We can just hope the fad runs its cycle and soon we can go back to finding classics at remote outlets and mom and pop stores for 30% of retail price. And we can go back to the day when wearing a pair of Nike Air Pressures leads to suspicious looks from the NYPD and being pulled out of the security line at the airport.

Posted in digglahhh, language, pop culture | 8 Comments »

A Brief History of History

Posted by metaphorical on 3 March 2008

Are students abysmally ignorant? Of course they are. Are they more abysmally ignorant than ever? That’s not so clear. The NY Times is far from the only publication taking a new survey at face value, but it does such an exemplary job of it, let’s start with them.

History Survey Stumps U.S. Teens


Published: February 26, 2008

Fewer than half of American teenagers who were asked basic questions about history and literature during a recent telephone survey knew when the Civil War was fought, and one-quarter thought that Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World sometime after 1750, not in 1492.

The results of the survey, released Tuesday, demonstrate that a significant proportion of American teenagers live in “stunning ignorance” of history and literature, according to the group that commissioned it. Known as Common Core, the organization describes itself as a new, nonpartisan research and advocacy organization that will press for more teaching of the liberal arts in American public schools.

We get the usual litany of teen ignorance: one-fourth failed to identify Adolf Hitler, only 4 out of ten 10
could pick the name of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” from a list of titles, and “only about half knew that in the Bible, Job is known for his patience in suffering.”

It seems to me that in a nation where half of all adults reject the truth of evolution in favor of the six-day theory of creation, the fewer teens who know their Bible the better. But let’s leave that aside.

Arguably the two most serious educators in the new group are its co-chairs, Antonia Cortese, of the American Federation of Teachers, and Diane Ravitch, who now teaches in at the Steinhardt School of Education of New York University but was assistant secretary of education in the elder Bush’s administration. According to the Times, they’re leading the charge against NCLB.

The group argues that President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law has impoverished America’s public school curriculum by holding schools accountable for student scores on annual tests in reading and math but in no other subjects.

But over on the History News Network, Ravitch wrote

I cannot now speak for the board, as the organization is just getting underway and board members have yet to articulate their areas of agreement and disagreement.

The Times later says:

In a joint introduction to their report, Ms. Cortese and Dr. Ravitch did not directly blame the No Child law for the dismal survey results, but argued that the law has led schools to focus too narrowly on reading and math, thereby crowding time out of the school day for history, literature and other subjects.

“The nation’s education system has become obsessed with testing and basic skills because of the requirements of federal law, and that is not healthy,” Ms. Cortese and Dr. Ravitch said.

Yes, certainly Ravitch, and probably the rest of Common Core, take issue with the way NCLB tests knowledge.

However, it is increasingly clear that the law’s relentless focus on raising scores in the basic skills of reading and math has the effect of reducing time for all other studies.

But she also says,

The board of CC is not opposed to testing. We view it as a necessary but not sufficient part of education.

I would prefer to see development and implementation of more thoughtful kinds of testing than those that are now in general use; in particular, I would hope for new tests that call on students to describe, analyze, explain, and demonstrate what they know and can do, not just asking them to pick a bubble.

That’s a lot more nuanced a view than the Times represents. But let’s cut to the chase.

Are things getting worse? And is NCLB to blame? Prof. Ravitch doesn’t seem to entirely think so. She wrote,

it appears to me that the telephone sample of 2007 were somewhat better informed than their parents’ generation of 1986. In 1986, only 32% knew that the American Civil War occurred in the half-century between 1850-1900 (this was NOT a trick question!); now, 43% do. In 1986, 64% could identify the main holding of the Brown v. Board of Education decision; now, 71% can. On most questions of a factual nature, the proportion who answered correctly was either higher or the same, seldom lower. So perhaps the pressure to improve history education over the past 20 years was making some headway.

NCLB is not uniquely responsible for causing loss of knowledge of history. The 1986 survey demonstrates that the problems of “I don’t know” existed long before NCLB.

The Times couldn’t be bothered to compare the 2007 survey with the 1986 results, even though it knew enough of the earlier study to say, of the newer one, “The questions were drawn from a test administered by the federal government in 1986.”

The point of history, the Times, sadly, needs to be told, is to learn from it.

The Times even acknowledged, though it didn’t know what to make of it, that in the 2007 study, “Ninety-seven percent of teenagers correctly picked Martin Luther King Jr.” as the man who said, “I have a dream,” and an astonishing four-fifths of all teens knew the plot of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The lesson seems clear: students learn what we teach them. But the newspaper of record would rather take a swipe at No Child Left Behind in the course of an article that, starting with its headline of “History Survey Stumps U.S. Teens,” mainly consists of blaming the victim.

Posted in education, journalism, pop culture, religion, the arts, Times-watch | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

A Modest Proposal: The Netflix Jury

Posted by metaphorical on 3 March 2008

I blog at work, and it can be a close call whether to post something here or there. So from time to time, I’ll be providing a note and link to ones that end up there.

I received a questionnaire for jury duty yesterday in the mail. It wasn’t a summons, though surely it will lead to that. I don’t mind. Serving on a jury is one of our few civic duties, a cornerstone of free and fair trials, which itself is a cornerstone of democracy.

The notice says that my name was culled at random from voter registration, driver registration, unemployment, or other social service records. I have no problem with that. But it did make me stop and think. That’s not a bad way to come up with a jury of my peers – I do, after all, vote, drive, and rely on the social safety net from time to time. But to really come up with a jury of my peers, how about getting records from Netflix?


Posted in pop culture, technology, the arts | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

William F. Buckley Jr. (1925-2008)

Posted by metaphorical on 28 February 2008

I suppose I’m not supposed to mourn the passing of William F. Buckley Jr. but I can’t help myself. Buckley was was a fierce proponent of a sort of spare, consistent arch-conservativism that one almost longs for in these days of big-government, big-business Republicanism.

Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker article this week, “On the Bus: Can John McCain reinvent Republicanism?” reminds us, as if we need it, that there are many types of Republican – the radical religious right-wingers who flocked to Huckabee; the strangle-government types such as Grover Norquist; the small-government Goldwater/Reagan types; the oddly pragmatic sort that Gingrich has turned into; the moderates in the tradition of Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller (it’s Lizza’s contention that McCain falls into this category); and the libertarians, such as Ron Paul (except that Paul is also a bat-shit-crazy conspiracy theorist).

While I’ve never been a connoisseur of conservatism, and so I might get this wrong, Buckley struck me as one who straddled the Goldwater and libertarian camps, reminding them both to be at once pragmatic and pure. And while he sometimes wore the same ideological blinders as, say, Reagan, he was also committed to reason in a way that few hard-core conservatives are. And so it is that the moment I remember best about Buckley was also one of his most rational and therefore also, surely, one of his finest.

I couldn’t have been more than about 16. It was, therefore, about 1972, and my grandmother had that still-rare commodity, a color television. I’m not sure that’s why I was downstairs, in her part of the house, while she was out, or whether it was just to watch some TV without arguing with anyone about what to have on. I don’t know why I would have stopped turning the dial at Firing Line, except that in the days of 9 channels and no remotes it was sometimes even harder to find something worthwhile than it is with today’s 999.

And so I sat on her worn couch, watching her Sony television. Any memory of her place necessarily includes the lingering smells of olive oil, chicken livers, overripe bananas, and Chesterfield nonfiltered cigarettes. If it was winter, then her place was also much warmer than the basement couch I slept on.

Certainly the topic itself was interesting – decriminalizing drugs. I’d certainly done my share already, but one certainly knew what a Buckley would think about them, and who needed to hear that? I guess the thing is, I don’t channel surf as quickly as most people do.

I don’t know who Buckley’s guest was. All I know is that he advocated decriminalizing drugs, and he had plenty of good reasons, and he was kicking Buckley’s ass, because he had none. And there was this moment somewhere down near the bottom of the hour, maybe at the 28 minute mark, when you could see this look on Buckley’s face as if he was hearing the guy for the first time and you could see that 2+2 was starting to equal 4 for him.

Wait, you could hear him think. A small government doesn’t care what adults do in the privacy of their own home. Wait, these people are only hurting themselves, if anyone, and a small government is okay with that. Wait, why should a government care about whether people self-medicate with cocaine instead of caffeine? Actually, that’s more of a 1980s thought. But I do think I remember his guest asking Buckley where he would draw the line: what if the government decided to consider caffeine a narcotic?

Right then and there I saw that rare thing, someone listening to the voice of reason enough to switch sides. On television, with millions (okay, some significant fraction of a million) watching. And a hard-line conservative to boot.

But Buckley wasn’t just any hard-line conservative. He was a thoughtful guy. He could hear, and even heed, the voice of reason. And forever that made him and me more alike than different. Farewell, WFB, Jr. Goodspeed.

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