Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Frontline and the Cyberbullies...

I found Frontline's report on Wikileaks, WikiSecrets, transmitted 24 May 2011, quite "fair and balanced". Wikisecrets counterpointed critics of Julian Assange at the NY Times, the Guardian, and a former Wikileaker, Daniel Domscheit-Berg now critical of some the actions taken by Assange, with Assange himself and his responses to criticisms. It wasn't in any way, shape, or form one-sided. WikiSecrets even went so far as to portray Private Bradley Manning, that other major protagonist in WikiSecrets, the man accused of leaking government "secrets" to Wikileaks, as a tragic figure of almost Shakespearean dimensions, very sympathetically in other words.

As is so often the case, however--the way humans read TV programmes, films, books, etc, varies for a number of reasons (class, status, gender, family background, personal characteristics, and so on). A group of cyberhackers, in fact, disagree with my reading of WikeSecrets (LulzSec & the Lulz Boat claimed responsibility for the hack job), finding the programme so "one-sided", and have responded to what they see as the unfair and unbalanced nature of the expose by hacking into PBS where they posted a fake story about Tupac Shakur being alive and well and living in his dream home of New Zealand, their twenty first century version, I presume, of the old late twentieth century myth that JFK was alive and living on a (Greek?) island somewhere with Jackie O. Some critics are even referring to PBS, the network of Eyes on the Prize, Tales of the City, Steambath, Vietnam, Freedom Riders, Stonewall Uprising, Bill Moyers Journal, as the propaganda and fascist network.

What I haven't seen from these cyberhackers and critics, however, is a discussion of what specifically they found unfair about the Wikisecrets or how a network that shows programmes like Out and Proud in Chicago is either propaganda or fascist. To be frank I wonder if the critics actually watched the report. In all honesty I suspect that some didn't and I suspect that for those few who actually did watch the programme their response to WikiSecrets is reflective more of their own knee jerk sense of ideological correctness than an empirical assessment of the programme. A cynic, I suppose, might say that some cyberhackers don't care about content and that they are simply looking for any excuse to flex their cybermuscles in cyberspace.

I find the response of some to WikiSecrets and the hacking of PBS to be quite unfortunate. I think, in fact, that these reactions suggest that something dangerous is afoot in cyberhackerland. Why? Because I find these cyber hackers rather like the officials and priests of the religious inquisitions of the past. Judging from the actions of many cyber hackers online they seem to have a strong sense of their own rightness and little if any sense of freedom of speech ironic given the claims of many of these cyberhakers that they are all in favour of free speech and transparency. All hail the new cyber priesthood of self righteous cyberbullies. Anyway, I will make sure that in the future I will show the Frontline report to my students and allow them to analyse the show without censorship from me or others. Hey, call me bourgeois. I will also from now on temper my support for Wikileaks.

And yes I expect the cyberinquisition.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Revelation and Reason?

One of the things that really fascinates me about contemporary literalist Christianity, when one goes native, when one views literal Christianity from the standpoint of a literalist Xitan theological position, is the problem of revelation within literalist Christianity.

Talmudic Judaism, the Judaism that developed in the first century CE and afterwards in the diaspora, assumed, as did post-Solomonic Hebrew religion one surmises, that YHWH, with the Torah, the Law, had revealed a code of 613 laws or mitzvah that the faithful had to obey in all times and in all places (http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm). The prophets (nevi'im) were those who called those who weren’t following the mitzvah of Torah, particularly those elites violating the social ethical precepts of the Torah related to the poor, to repentance, to return to the laws G-d had revealed. The prophets, in other words, aren’t so much prophets in the contemporary Xtian conception of the term, predicting the coming of the Christ or some other later event like the battle between Russia and Israel as a prelude to the second coming of Jesus, as they are those calling the faithful back to the mitzvah of the Torah, backto the revelations at the heart of the ancient Hebrew faith.

Christianity, of course, had a different conception of revelation. What Jesus was up to is unclear. The stories about Jesus in the gospels, after all, are often inconsistent and contradictory. Did Jesus come, as he once claimed, to change not one jot and title of the law, the Torah, (here is a link to one Xtian group that makes a similar claim, http://www.therefinersfire.org/original_commandments.htm), or did he, as Paul later claims, transform Judaism from a religion grounded in ancient “revelation” and its mitzvah to one in which that previous revelation was irrelevant and circumcision became a matter of the heart rather than a physical act of obedience? Christians have generally taken the latter position since Christian orthodoxy was manufactured with Nicaea in 325 BCE and after.

One, of course, can’t avoid historical and sociological issues here. Xy before Nicaea was diverse having Gnostics, Docetics, Arianites, Marcionites, and other variants, and, before the destruction of the second temple by the Romans had a Pharisaic variant, the Christian community led by Jesus' brother James, a group, in Weberian terms, dominated by patriarchal authority and which continued to live according to the law (mitzvh) of Moses. They continued, in other words to act much like Pharisees.

It was Paul, of course, as has been long understood, who transformed this Jewish sect into a “gentile” faith, Orthodox and Roman Catholic, that would come to dominate Roman and post-Roman Europe. One of the things that is transformed in this great transformation of Christianity is the notion of revelation. After Paul a notion that previous revelation can be surpassed by later revelation (dispensationalism) develops in Xy. The theological problem with this notion of revelation as unfolding, as continuing, is that it opens a theological can of worms that later Christians simply haven’t wanted to face up to. If revelation is continuing than what makes Christian revelation—-Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant—-superior to the revelations at the heart of Islam, the Baha’i Faith, or Mormonism???

Talmudic Judaism, the Judaism that developed as essentially an intellectual if increasingly ritualistic commentary or set of commentaries on Torah mitzvah, has its own set of problems. If G-d reveals himself through Torah why does he only reveal himself in the Torah and then, apparently, become tongue tied? Do new historical, social, and cultural circumstances not merit comment from YHWH? On another issue it is worth noting that many contemporary Talmudic Jews do not follow all of the 613 mitvah. Contemporary Talmudic Jews essentially ignore many of the more misogynistic mitzvah, the commandments to kill blasphemers and magicians, the commandment to genocide ones enemies, the commandments against usury, and the commandment to institute the law of Jubilee.

While it may be intellectually fun to play these going native theological games from the inside a more critical and empirical perspective on the issue of metaphysical revelation must inevitably come into play at least for those of us who don't simply accept things on the basis of "faith".

I am not a "believer". I have never really been "religious". I have never really believed in the existence of some personal God or some metaphysical teleological first principle in the Scholastic sense. The thing that really clinched that there is no G-d for me was and is the Holocaust. As those who know these issues better than me have said before me, how can anyone believe in G-d or a god after the Shoah? How can anyone believe in G-d or a god after all the horrors of the twentieth century: Armenians genocided. Jews genocided. Hiroshima nuked. Nagasaki nuked. Cambodia genocided. How can one believe in a God given the slave trade that enslaved Africans and justified it all through ideologies of superiority and inferiority? How can one believe in a god who would allow pogroms against Jews to occur? How can one believe in a god after all the human depravities, big and small, over the course of human history and particularly during the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? It seems impossible given the real circumstances of human existence to believe, at the very least, in a personal God who cares about human beings, even those he is supposed to have chosen as his special own

Reiigion as Peter Berger notes, functions to help people deal with questions of theodicy: why does bad stuff happen to me (the theodicy primarily of the poor and powerless)? Why am I so blessed (the theodicy primarily of the elite and powerful)? Why did g-d allow the Shoah?. Where was he as it was happening? What the Holocaust says to me and continues to say to me is that G-d is a fiction that allows some of us to deal with the pain of life. Religion in all its forms helps most humans to deal with that suffering and pain that is life. And life is, as Buddhism and the writer or writers of the wisdom Book of Job, long ago realised, all about suffering and pain. That is why we have meaning systems like that which we call religion that explain why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people, to explain the randomness that is real life.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

An Old Person's and Young Person's Guide to DVD Companies...

Ok, so I am a film, documentary, and television junkie. I have probably close to a thousand DVD's that I have bought over the years. I thus have a lot of experience with DVD's and DVD companies. Here is what I have found.

Criterion Collection. Along with Masters of Cinema the Gold Standard of DVD and Blue Ray Companies. Criterion does the highest quality transfers of the best cinema has to offer. Its packaging is sometimes an art form in itself. Outstanding and informative booklets. Lots of extras with informative content on releases. Stands by its product. I had a bad package for Monsoon Wedding once and they replaced it. Of the almost 500 plus Criterion's I own I have had problems withonly four discs.

Masters of Cinema. Along with Criterion the Gold Standard in DVD's. Highest quality transfers of the best cinema has to offer. Like Criterion MoC does great booklets and puts lots of informative extras on their releases. And like Criterion it stands by its product. I once had a bad booklet which they replaced immediately. Of the almost 100 MoC's I have I have had only three discs arrive damaged.

CBS/Paramount. Mediocre in its transfers. Some like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners are good, very good. Others, like Dragnet, are clearly not restored and are mediocre at best. Purveyor of some very poor to awful packaging. With MGM has a tendency to design packages in which the discs are stuck into very tight cardboard slats meaning that they scratch easily on the way in or on the way out (e.g., Beauty and the Beast). Another thing to beware of with CBS, particularly with respect to their TV releases, is incomplete episodes of TV series. Many of CBS's TV programmes are the shortened syndicated versions (e.g., some episodes of Lucy), some are shortened for some reason that is unfathomable (e.g. Holocaust), some have been cut for copyright issues (usually music the costs of which the megacorporation that owns the television programme doesn't want to pay while the megacorporation who owns the music wants megabucks for). Surprisingly, CBS/Paramount does note that a programme may be cut or doesn't have its original music in tiny print at the bottom of the information on the back of their keepcases. Another problem: CBS/Paramount sometimes puts content on both sides of their discs leading to scratching. Some of their product has limited if any extras. They do stand by their product, however. My Dragnet season one double sided disc one was scratched to kingdom come and they replaced it at their cost.

MGM. Mediocre in transfer quality. Some quite good. Many, most of them, quite mediocre. Purveyor of some poor to awful packaging like CBS where DVD's are stuck into cardboard slats and damaged as a result (e.g., Star Gate, Hitchcock collection). Why do these companies spend tons on box design and, at the same time, stick disc into tight cardboard slats. Can you say very stupid? Variations in number and quality of extras.

Warner Brothers. Clearly and easily the best of the big boy corporate home entertainment companies. Some outstanding transfers with lots of extras. On occasion, normally with TV product, WB produces very poor quality product with double sided discs which easily get scratched and poor transfer quality (e.g. The Waltons). Also on occasion WB releases, inexplicably, widescreen films solely in standard format (Stand and Deliver and Running on Empty), usually they release them in both. Heresy.

LionsGate. Mediocre. Sometimes releases high quality films and TV programmes though in mediocre to fair transfers. Beware of their TV releases. Some contain syndicated versions (e.g., Little House on the Prairie) though this isn't entirely the fault of LionsGate and Imavision, the Quebec company that originally released Little House, since both companies released what they were given by NBC (see below). Caveat emptor: LionsGate doesn't stand by their product. I bought their Mad Men season one which came poorly packaged in a plastic skin that I had difficulty getting off and found it was defective when I finally got it off. They refused to replace this meaning that they don't stand behind the product they produce. Unfortunately LionsGate has acquired some films formerly done by Criterion. Boo. Hiss.

Universal/NBC. Mediocre in every sense of the word. Their Will and Grace release contains syndicated versions of some of the episodes though in decent unrestored transfers. On the other hand their releases of the first two seasons of Beaver were quite good. And then they stopped releasing any further seasons presumably because sales didn't meet their expectations (reasonable or not). Yes Virginia we live in an age in which everything is a commodity with a dollar sign plastered in front of it. By the way, I have been happier with the British Universal Playback releases (including that of the wonderful BBC All Creatures Great and Small) then with US Universal releases.

Shout Factory. Good though not Criterion or MoC. Some great releases in good to excellent transfers. As a company that licenses product from other sources they are prisoners to what they are given by the megacompanies that own the films or TV programmes they release. Their box set of Leave it to Beaver is excellent but contains some versions of episodes that aren't in their original transmission form. Who do we have to thank for this? I think NBC/Universal. Shout deserves credit for their Corman releases, Max Headroom, and Beaver. Shout also responds to customer concerns: they did away with that stupid and unnecessary hard to get off tape (as did Criterion, by the way; European releases have never had it in the first place) at the top of their releases.

Timeless. Mediocre but they deserve extra points for trying. Timeless releases a lot of American television Westerns like the excellent Laredo, the brilliant Alias Smith and Jones, Wagon Train, and The Virginian in decent transfers. Unfortunately, Timeless has also released British and Australian TV programmes like To the Ends of the Earth and The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant in incorrect aspect ratio transfers. Buy these from the UK if you can.

HBO. Generally very good. Some of their releases, like the original box set of The Sopranos and The Wire, are very poorly packaged: the dreaded DVD's stuck into the dreaded cardboard slats. As such HBO is rapidly catching up with MGM and CBS as the DVD company with the stupidest designers.

2 Entertain/BBC. Some excellent releases (Dr. Who, Quatermass). Transfer quality can vary given the condition of the original material. The BBC didn't start to archive and preserve until the 1970s. Some of their keepcases, the ones that have DVD on both sides of the box, have a tendency to lose their discs which, as a result, get scratched while floating around free range in the keepcases. Apparently it requires a Ph.D. in physics to make good keepcases unless you are Criterion of MoC.

I have contacted 2Entertain on a number of occasions about the problems with their keepcases. Sadly, it was a waste of time and energy. Each time I contacted them about their poor quality keepcases I received essentially the same reply: it's not our fault. What I gained from dealing with BBC/2Entertain is this: there is perhaps no more arrogant institution in the English speaking world than the BBC and no institution I know of which has less reason to be arrogant given their poor their poor keepcases. That the BBC is as bad as American corporations like Universal, MGM, and Paramount says volumes about this public institution. I guess we should be thankful that one of the few megacorporations that cares about product, the WB, does some of the BBC's American releases. Someone, after all, has to save the BBC from itself.

ITV. Virtually a carbon copy of BBC/2 Entertain. No difference between the public BBC or private ITV here though I think 2 Entertainment is a for profit enterprise partly owned by the Beeb. That said their restroratons and remasterings of Lean's and Powell's and Pressberger's films are quite nice

On the downside ITV's transfer of some of their TV shows is an absolute and unmitigated disaster. The wonderful Raffles, for instance, was, like so many shows in the 70s shot on videotape. Some gumby at ITV, however, (the same ones perhaps who turned the 4:3 World at War into a widescreen disaster epic) has decided that it was best not to release Raffles in its original form, defacing history in a manner almost akin to what happened to photographs in Stalinist Russia. Instead ITV apparently has chosen to transfer the video portions of Raffles onto film changing the look of the programme, not to mention its contrast, in the process. Americans are the lucky ones here for the Acorn US release of Raffles contains the show as originally broadcast (though I don't recall whether it has the Yorkshire idents and act breaks). Shame on ITV. Who would have thunk (well me because I know that capitalists and commies all love their history whitewashed) that a capitalist corporation would have Stalinist tendencies that led it to, in this instance, change history for economic rather than political reasons.

Acorn UK. Licenses product largely from the Beeb and ITV. Good transfers though the quality varies due to the quality of the original material. Like 2 Entertain and ITV there are problems with discs staying on the spindles of Acorn's double disc sets for the same reasons as 2 Entertain/BBC and ITV. The Foyle's War (great ITV series) complete set had a lot of scratching and buffing problems.

Acorn also has a branch in North America. I have purchased their DVD's of the excellent Canadian shows Da Vinci's Inquest and Intelligence. Both were very good in terms of quality and packaging. Acorn's release of Upstairs Downstairs and the 35th anniversary edition of I Claudius are outstanding in every way.

Channel 4 DVD. Generally good transfers of some great stuff. Channel 4, originally established of offer more innovative fare than the Beeb and ITV, played a major role in the renaissance of British cinema in the 1980s and 1990s and in bringing innovative shows to the small screen in the 1980s and 1990s. 4DVD has released great cinema in good to very good transfers like Bill Forsythe's Local Hero and My Beautiful Laundrette (the US release of this seminal film by MGM is mediocre). It has released great and seminal TV shows like Spaced in a very good transfer. Given 4's support for innovative films and TV programmes, at least at one time, I like to support 4DVD.

Second Run. Not quite in the Criterion and MoC league but close. Great library of seminal Eastern European films (such as Valerie and Her Week of Wonders) and documentaries (such as In the Land of the Deaf). Excellent booklets, good extras.

E one Entertainment. Like Second Run not quite in the Criterion and MoC league but close. Great releases in fine transfers of TV shows like the Ellery Queen Mysteries, Sondheim's Evening Primrose, and Studio One teleplays. Nice releases of Canadian shows like Being Erica and Republic of Doyle and classic BBC shows like Anne of Avalon. The problem with Being Erica is the original aspect ratio. Most of the E one season one of Being Erica is in the standard TV ration (4:3) while the British edition on Channel 4 is in widescreen (1:66 or 1:78). The show, as far as I know, was originally in widescreen. Why the standard frame in most of season one of Being Erica E one?

Recently my appreciation for E one declined thanks to their very poor release of the complete series of what is in my opinion the best American television spy show and one of the best American TV shows ever, It Takes a Thief. The remastering is poor. The box the set it comes in is awful. The discs are stuck into cardboard slats though they weren't terribly damaged upon arrival. Why do I have a sneaking suspicion that Universal, the owner of It Takes a Thief, and one of the worst DVD companies in the business, from whom E one licensed It Takes a Thief, is probably responsible for most of the problems with the transfer quality of this set? Because that is the Universal way. Apparently the German transfer of the first season and a half of the show is vastly superior.

BFI: Like Second Run and E1 not quite Criterion or MoC but pretty close. A great library of releases of seminal films (and once upon a time a few TV programmes) from around the world in generally very good quality transfers. Now releasing wonderful combo DVD/Blue Ray packages of great directors like Ozu and Bunuel.

Network. It is hard not to like Network because of what they release. Network by and large re-releases classic British television. They also release the best transfer of the wonderful Canadian show Due South. Most of their releases are not restored but a few, like The Prisoner, are. Since they are simply mastered the quality of the transfers are not always spectacular. But then the quality of the original material is not always particularly good either. Some of the early keepcases were flawed allowing discs to pop off the spindles and get scratched in the case as a result. Recent releases have much superior keep cases. It is nice to see a company in today's world respond to complaints about their product and improve them. Too bad that this is an anomaly in the modern world dominated by take it or leave it megacorporations. Sad that more consumers don't complain about poor product and avoid buying it. But then we live in a gotta have it and gotta have it now Western world, don't we?.

Blue Underground. Cut from the E1, Second Run, and BFI cloth. Very good but not quite the gold standard of Criterion and MoC. Blue Underground releases a lot of "classics" from the European and American gore underground along with art film classics like My Brilliant Career, Newsfront, and the Alan Bennett collection. I did have a problem with the Newsfront keepcase. The disc fell off the spindle and arrived scratched so I exchanged it for another. It had the same problem so I returned it. Blue Underground promised to replace any such occurrence in the future. And they did. When I bought a third copy and the disc was off the spindle and damaged Blue Underground replaced it promptly.

Park Circus. One step down from Criterion and MoC. They recently released Peter Greenaway's Pillow Book in a fine quality transfer.

Optimum. Generally good transfers of some great films including those of the great Godard. Optimum also releases some interesting Asian film and some past and contemporary horror classics. Optimum's Bergman releases are generally excellent.

Arrow. Generally good transfers of some classic and contemporary cinema. Arrow does a good box set of Rohmer's wonderful Com├ędies et Proverbes.

Artificial Eye. Generally good transfers of some classics and some good contemporary cinema. I treasure my two Rohmer box sets from Artificial Eye and have been eying the Resnais box set.

Zeitgeist. I don't own any of their DVD's but hear excellent things about this company that releases highly critically regarded films on DVD.

Raro Video. An Italian company that has just arrived in the US market with several releases including Fellini's The Clowns. Good transfer. Some have complained about Raro quality and lack of response to quality concern issues.

VCI. Generally good and sometimes very good transfers. VCI's release of Joseph Losey's famous noir The Prowler. That disc has been restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and so looks quite nice.

BFS. What is it with BFS. Their recently released Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders, a great ITV adaptation of Defoe's starring Alex Kingston and Daniel Craig. Unfortunately, BFS's transfer does not appear to do this superb show justice. There is no information on the BFS website about the aspect ratio of the transfer. The original is widescreen (1:66 or 1:78). The BFS transfer is, if Amazon is accurate (not always the case, by the way) 1:33. So if you don't mind missing a significant part of the show buy it. As for me I will stick with the ITV release in the correct oar I purchased some time back and will remain annoyed by the BFS tradition of not telling consumers anything about the oar on the packages or on their website and their tradition of transforming a widescreen film or TV programme into a TV screen box oar. Pathetic and sad. I expect more but I never get it from BFS. In fact, I still haven't figured out whether the BFS transfer of the superb BBC docudrama about Arthur Conan Doyle and his mentor Dr. Joseph Bell, one of the inventors of modern forensics, The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Bell and Mr. Doyle is in the correct oar. There is certainly no indication on the package what the aspect ratio of the transfer is. The only thing I do know is that it is not in the 1:33:1 format Amazon claims. There should be as any consumer respecting DVD company knows. By the way Dr. Bell and Mr. Doyle was the pilot for the superb BBC series Murder Rooms which is available in the States from MPI in a good quality and correct aspect ratio transfer.

Mill Creek. Bargain basement quality at bargain basement prices. Some of their public domain unrestored transfers are, however, sometimes more than passable. Their Ozzie and Harriet collection actually contains, in most cases, the original broadcast releases rather than the syndicated versions something which can not be said of the Shout release of the official versions licensed from the Rick Nelson Company. Now releasing some stuff with Shout, megacreator Stephen Cannell (Cannell was too cheap to pony up for music rights so his stuff is absent the original music as it was on the Anchor Bay releases), Freemantle, the British production and rights megacorporation, and NBC/Universal (Howdy Doody).

Echo Bridge. An echo of Mill Creek. Bargain basement transfers at bargain basement prices of stuff in the public domain. Echo Bridge recently cut a deal with Miramax and is now releasing, in generally poor transfers, Miramax product.

Olive Films: Olive Films, an independent producer of DVD's, has recently released a version of the Migenes, Domingo, Maazel, and Rosi realisation of Bizet's great opera, Carmen. On the plus side: the transfer looks pretty good and appears to be in or close to its original aspect ratio. On the down side: the subtitles are in white and yellow and unremovable. Unremovable subtitles are unforgivable as any self-respecting quality DVD company should know. The extras contained on the new restored Second Sight British DVD are absent from the Olive. Unfortunate.I may, after purchasing Olive's transfer of Carmen, never buy another DVD or Blue Ray from this company again. If you have an all region DVD, and every film and opera buff should, get the two DVD Second Sight transfer. You may get the PAL speedup with the Second Sight version and you cannot remove the subtitles, apparently you can on the French Gaumont version, but at least you will have the two extras. So for those of you who do have an all region DVD player you have a choice between the bare bones Olive, the more fulsome Second Sight, and the superior French version. I really wish I had chosen the last.

Let me close this guide with a few more words about packaging. I have noted some of the problems with the fancy box sets put out by MGM, Fox, HBO, and others, those box sets that are gorgeous on the outside but have their DVD's stuck into cardboard slats on the inside. The result of this is almost always scratched discs. There are other problems with DVD packaging in the US in particular, however. WB and HBO originally had these hybrid plastic and paper keepcases that didn't fit well next to the other plastic DVD keepcases on the shelf and occasionally were damaged when one tried to take that security and name tape plastered on, in some cases, three sides of the keepcase. And then there is the issue of what to do when the spindle is damaged in these keepcases since it is not easy to replace a damaged one with one that isn't damaged. But back to the security tape. The security tape, particularly on older DVD's, also on occasion damages the plastic of the keepcases themselves as well. I find this tape along with those black plastic meets metal security devices annoying because they are totally unnecessary. European DVD's manage to get along without either. Kudos to Criterion and Shout Factory for doing away with the tape on the top of their keepcases.

The packaging of DVD's and the fact that many DVD's don't stay on their spindles far too often raises questions about the intelligence of whatever species designs these keepcases. Given that there are so many unnecessary faults with DVD keepcases and packaging has led me to wonder whether DVD companies need to consider hiring PhD's in Engineering to design keepcases. Given the track record of far too many DVD companies at present my answer to this query is yes.

Postscript, 4 December 2011:
Thoughts on BBC/2Entertain and Acorn.UK Product. From my Amazon.UK review of the new Upstairs Downstairs

I give four stars for the show and no stars for the keepcases BBC/2Entertain uses to store their product in. That gives us two stars.

I am going to skip reviewing the show since others have written about the quality of the show better than I could. Suffice it to say that this is more Upstairs Downstairs than Downton Abbey, the most recent semi-rehash of the old Upstairs Downstairs. History and the relationships between upstairs and downstairs have always been at the heart of Upstairs Downstairs and they remain so here. Downton Abbey, of course, has played with these classic elements of the subgenre as well.

Now to the keepcases. No company, in my experience, does keepcases or buys keepcases as bad as BBC/2Entertain (save for Acorn UK, more about that later). It almost seems that the BBC's/2Entertain's lack of interest in quality control for their keepcases rivals that, on occasion, of their transfers and that both express their cynicism about consumers, a cynicism that seems to be the fools will buy anything. Nothing reflects this cynicism more than the Beeb's and 2Entertain's release of Only Horses and Fools in a sliced and diced transfer that no company that cares about its customers let alone any self respecting company would release unless they were cynical or simply operating on greed. And nothing expresses the cynicism and contempt the BBC and 2Entertain must have for their customers than the keepcases they use.

To put this into context. I have purchased over five hundred discs from the Criterion Collection. Only three of the discs have wiggled off their keepcases and been damaged as a result. I have purchased around one hundred discs from Masters of Cinema. Only three have had discs loose in the keepcase and damaged. I have purchased some seventy five DVD's from BBC/2Entertain and fully one-third if not more of the double disc sets have arrived with discs off their spindles and were seriously damaged as a result. The BBC's response to this when I contacted them was to blame Amazon.UK's packaging of product. Interestingly other discs I have ordered and received simultaneously from Amazon.UK, including ITV product, have not had this problem. The only other UK DVD corporation whose keepcases regularly have the same problem as the Beeb, as I mentioned earlier, is Acorn. Not surprisingly Acorn regularly uses the same brand or type of keepcases BBC/2Entertain does for its two disc sets. Will the Beeb and Acorn get this rather obvious connection here, a connection that even someone as limited in deductive powers as the Gumby's could get? I doubt it

One would hope that the BBC and Acorn would recognise this problem and fix it. The BBC has an easy fix. Use the same keepcases you use for the Dr. Who double disc sets. That neither BBC or Acorn switch to these sets I am afraid says something about their sense of quality control and their cynicism about consumers who, I am sure they believe, will buy any piece of crap as long as they feel they have to have it.

By the way, I think that the fact that so many of the DVD products of so many corporations are so bad or at best mediocre says something not only about corporate quality control but also about global capitalism and corporate cynicism in general. It also tells us something about how corporations, via advertising propaganda, have created consumers that so "need" to buy product that many will buy the product regardless of how poor or how bad it is. Ah, life in the modern world of consumer capitalism.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Buffy Blog: "Band Candy"

OK, in the spirit of full disclosure I must admit that I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I love “Band Candy”. Because of this I sometimes wonder what role the love of cinema, what role my love of television, and what role my love of “progressive politics”, and what role my love of Buffy plays in my analysis of Buffy.

In recent years some commentators have begun to distinguish between “scholar fans”, fans who write scholarly essays on films and TV shows like Buffy, and “fan scholars”, academic fans of films and TV shows like Buffy who write scholarly essays on the series for academic publishers. Assuming this distinction is a valid one—and one can and several have questioned whether it is—one must ask whether there is a real difference between “scholar fans” and “fan scholars”. My answer to this question? I think there is.

The difference between the fan scholars and scholar fans has, in my opinion, a lot to do with the different contexts that surround and envelop academic Buffy fans as opposed to Buffy scholar fans. Many contemporary academics, for a variety of historical reasons, are obsessed with things like the male gaze, colonialism, racism, sexism, feminism, and Lacanianism, all important intellectual movements of post-60s academic culture. On the other hand, scholar fans, by and large, still work within the critical framework that dominated film studies prior to the transformation of one of the leading French film journals, Cahiers du Cinema, from a journal dominated by auteurism to a journal dominated by structuralism and later by that theoretical blend of Marxism, Lacanianism, and feminism perspective, a theoretical genre blending recapitulated in that other influential journal of the era, the British journal Screen in the 1970s, that became dominant in academic film and TV academic culture from the 1970s until today, auteurism, the notion that a director or a writer is the author of a film or television text.

I mention all of this because I see myself as as much a fan as a scholar. I have long been a film fan and a fan of British and to a lesser extent American television. I have long been a devotee of the polemics and apologetics associated with auteurism though I have to admit that even I went in for fads when I was deeply influenced by the structuralist variant of auteurism prominent, briefly, in Cahiers and the writings of film scholar Peter Wollen, particularly his monograph Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, in the 1970s and 1980s. But interrogating my auteurism is not a simple task. One must, though far too few do, ask what kind of an auteurist I am. Am I one of those straw man auteurists of so many critics of auteurism, the auteurist who seems to reside in a lala land intellectual romantic universe where the auteur is the individualist genius of romantic legend? Or am I an auteurist of the contextualist variety, an auteurist who realizes that auteurs exist in social and cultural contexts including, in some instances, the collaborative nature of the film and televisual “art”? Regardless of what type of auteurist I am, I am, in my heart, a cinephile, and my cinephilia tends to work its “magic” through my auteurism.

So how did I become a cinephile? I blame my Dad for it. My father was a Hitchcock devotee. It was him who introduced me and my sister, Cindy, to Hitchcock. He made us watch Hitchcock films—and I am thankful he did—thereby instilling within me over time a love of and for the cinema, a love, I am happy to say, that continues to this day. I vividly recall my father taking me and my sister to see Richard Lester’s and the Beatles’s A Hard Day’s Night at one of the old movie palaces, the Embassy I think it was, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the city in which we were living at the time. We were both very young at the time. I must have been around nine, my sister eight. And we were both Beatles fans which is why we begged my Dad to take us or allow us to see A Hard Day’s Night. We were not yet cinephiles, in other words. But that was about to change. I also fondly recall me and my sister spending our teenage years watching every film we possibly could particularly during the weekends because one local independent channel from Bloomington and Indianapolis, WTTV, Channel 4, showed large quantities of mostly classic American films every Saturday and Sunday afternoon. This situation was, as we found out, a cinephiles delight and we were becoming cinephiles.

When I went to college in Bloomington, Indiana, my cinephilic tendencies continued and grew as foreign films were added to the ever increasing numbers of movies I’d seen. It was during my college years that I expanded my horizons beyond simply watching films into also reading about films. I increasingly looked to the criticism of Andrew Sarris, Leonard Maltin, Francois Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard, auterists all, to find out about other directors I should pay attention to in my voracious search for great cinema. I also took a few film classes now and again. And fortunately for me there were great teachers of film in Bloomington when I was a student there. I took a course on Billy Wilder and Stanley Kubrick with the late lamented Harry Geduld, I sat in on an Italian cinema course with the Italian cinema specialist Peter Bondanella. I took a semiotics and cinema course with the Hitchcock, Welles, Minnelli, film noir, and acting in the cinema specialist James Naremore. All three would have a major influence on my conception of cinema and my conception of what constituted great cinema.

It was also during my college years that I grew to appreciate British TV. During my spare time I discovered PBS and wonderful TV shows like Upstairs Downstairs, Danger UXB, I Claudius, Shoulder to Shoulder, All Creatures Great and Small, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, Blackadder, Monty Python, and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, among others. Television with a brain. By the 2000s after I moved to Albany, New York I discovered that US TV could have a brain too. That was when I happened upon Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time while channel surfing. I soon became obsessed with it. I became, as a result, and remain a Buffyphile even a Buffynatic. I regard Joss Whedon as Buffy’s auteur (without the romanticism often attached to such a concept, however). I would argue that Buffy is one of those few television programmes which shows that television, with its greater length and its consequent greater depth and narrative and character complexity, shows that television can be, though on far too rare occasions at the moment, of comparable or superior quality to film.

So what does this all have to do with “Band Candy”? Well actually a lot. “Band Candy”, one of the many Buffy episodes I truly adore, is the first episode written by one of my favourite Buffy writers, Jane Espenson. Espenson along with Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon, Doug Petrie, and David Fury, would become the core writers for Buffy between season three and season seven of the series, the last season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In my book Espenson is second, a close second to the master himself, Joss Whedon, when it comes to writing Buffy episodes.

“Band Candy” continues the season three thread. The big bad of season three, the mayor of Sunnydale, Mayor Richard Wilkins III, has an obligation, he has a sacrifice to fulfill to the monster of the week, the reptilian like (shades of the snake monster in “Reptile Boy”?) demon Lurconis. The sacrifice Lurconis demands? All of Sunndale’s newborn babies. The mayor has to figure out a way to give Lurconis his ritual due while keeping all of this a secret from the adults of Sunnydale and his role in it secret from our Scooby heroes.

To fulfill his obligations to Lurconis Mayor Wilkins has his henchman, the Mr. Trick we have seen in earlier episodes, subcontract out his plan to sell magic laced band candy (Milkbar) to the adults of Sunnydale who as a result and to the horror of our Scoobies, turn into mirror images (“sobering”, says Oz), sometimes darker mirror images (Giles becomes a Ripper version of the James Dean from Rebel Without a Cause and of the Marlon Brando from The Wild One) of the irresponsible kids our Scoobies are sometimes sometimes seemed to be or are sometimes perceived to be. The subcontractor? Giles nemesis Ethan Rayne who we last saw in “Halloween” and “The Dark Age” in season two. The purveyors of this magical candy? Ironically the students of Sunnydale High themselves including our Scoobies. Principal Snyder, presumably following the orders of the mayor, forces even those who aren’t in the band—including Buffy, Xander, and Willow—to sell candy to raise money for the high school band of Sunnydale High School. Hence the title of the episode.

The plot is now in motion. Adults turn into juvenile teenagers thanks to the candy. The real teenagers are aghast at the behaviours of the juvenilised adults. Mr. Trick’s henchmen steal the innocent children from one of Sunnydale’s hospitals to give to Lurconis. And it is Buffy to the rescue. “Band Candy” ends with conflict in the sewers of Sunnydale, where Lurconis lives, between Buffy, Giles, and Joyce and Lurconis, Mr. Trick, and the mayor. This battle, which ends with the triumph of Buffy over Lurconis and the rescue of the babies.

This closure, is, as is often the case with episodes of Buffy, not complete. During the battle scene Trick tells Buffy that he has to see what Buffy has got in terms of fighting skills. Buffy responds to the challenge by telling him that she is ready to fight (“Just tell me when it hurts”). The big fight between Trick and Buffy is interrupted, however, by Giles who steps in to fight Trick and is quickly thrown into a pool of water near Lurconis and is, as a result, put in danger of being eaten by Lurconis. Buffy, of course, comes to the rescue. The big knock down drag out fight between the two, as a result, won’t come until later in season three. The mayor responds to Buffy coming to the rescue by fading into the shadows of the sewer so, as a result, he isn’t seen by Buffy and Giles, appropriately enough since the big bad of season three is, of course, unknown to the Scoobies at this point. He will become known to the Scoobies later in season three.

The episode and seasonal arcs aren’t the only ones which weave their way through “Band Candy”. Other more “mundane” threads weave their way through the episode simultaneously as well. Buffy and the rest of the Scoobies prepare to take that high school ritual the SAT (the Scholastic Aptitude Test). Giles is helping her study for this college entrance examination in one of Sunnydale’s many cemeteries in the teaser of “Band Candy”. We will hear the results later in season three. Buffy is still keeping Angel’s return from a hell dimension to Sunnydale and is bringing him animal blood from the butchers to help restore his health. We will see the fallout from this later in season three. Giles is playing the role of Buffy’s father figure even more than before. This motif will continue to thread its way through the remaining seasons of Buffy in interesting ways. Xander and Willow continue their illicit if innocent relationship with each other despite the fact that they are boyfriend and girlfriend of Cordelia and Oz respectively. We will see the fallout from this later in season three and even into later seasons of Buffy.

It is not only arcs which run through “Band Candy”. Themes also appear in the episode most prominently the themes of responsibility, irresponsibility, keeping secrets, and growing up. Buffy, once again, raises the issue of driving to Joyce but Joyce rebuffs Buffy by telling Buffy she wants Buffy her, home. Joyce is still traumatized by Buffy’s irresponsible running away from home at the end of season two and the beginning of season three. Buffy, by the way, is a horrible driver so Joyce may have good reason for not letting the Buffster drive. Buffy is acting irresponsibly by lying to Willow, Joyce, and Giles and by keeping Angel’s return from hell secret from the other Scoobies. Xander and Willow are acting irresponsibly by continuing their secretive relationship with each other playing footsies under the science class table. Faith is irresponsibly absent from “Band Candy” doing what we do not know. Buffy accuses Joyce of acting like a child when she becomes the miniskirt wearing and Seals and Crofts loving teenage Joyce thanks to the juvenilising effect of the band candy.bGiles and Joyce have an immature and somewhat surreptitious relationship with each other. Buffy will, of course, learn about the full extent of this tryst in another (brilliant) Jane Espenson penned episode of season three, “Earshot”. The mayor is keeping his big bad of season three role a secret from most of the residents of Sunnydale and the Scoobies. These themes, of course, run throughout season three—Buffy, for example, as we will see, flirts with irresponsibility during season three while Faith drowns in it—and the seven seasons of Buffy as we will see.

It isn’t, by the way, only on the narrative level that the themes of Buffy and Buffy season three weave through “Band Candy”. The music of “Band Candy” comments on the themes of Buffy as well. Giles listens to a song by the British super group Cream, “Tales of Brave Ulysses” from 1967. The song’s subject is the journey of Ulysses from Troy, where he was fighting for the honour of Helen and Hellas, back home. Not coincidentally Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about the journey of a hero as well. The journey of the hero Buffy, the Vampire Slayer toward acceptance of slayerness.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Musings on the Culture of Misreading...

Occasionally I read reviews of books, CD's, and DVD's online at places like Amazon.com, Amazon UK, and a host of fan sites. As I read more and more of these reviews what I typically find is what I think is an unfortunate trend in online reviews, most reviews tell us more about the cultural and ideological biases of reviewers than they do about the book, performance, film, or TV show they ostensibly set out to review. They, in other words, skip exegesis and hermeneutics and go straight for the homiletic (polemics and apologetics) jugular.

Recently I came across a review of Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's critical study of Visconti at Amazon.com, a review which symbolises the tendency of many reviewers to skip exegesis and hermeneutics entirely and move to polemics. Lawrence R. Holben criticises Nowell-Smith's monograph for not being a biography of Visconti asserting that any book on the great Italian director must put any study of Visconti's work in the context of his life. The fundamental problem with this "review" is that it is, like what so many "reviewers" write these days, somewhat irrelevant in part because it misses the point. Nowell-Smith's critical study of Visconti's films, now in its third incarnation (if memory serves), does not purport to be a biography of Visconti. It is, as Nowell-Smith intended it to be a study of Visconti's films from a structuralist and post-structuralist perspective. As such any review must deal with Nowell-Smith's, or should I say "Nowell-Smith's", intentions and explore whether it accomplished what it set out to do or not.

One can, of course, after exploring authorial intentions and whether what was intended was achieved (exegesis), raise questions about the theory and methodology undergirding any critical study. If one feels that a biographical approach is essential to an understanding of say Visconti one can and should point this out and make an argument as to why and show how a biographical approach gives one a better understanding, a better grasp, of Viconti's films. This means, by the way, that one has to engage the many critiques of auteurism that are out there, note the problems associated with the death of the author approach, and note why these problems are problems.

Unfortunately, many "reviewers" never reach this stage because they begin and end with apologetics and polemics.