Saturday, June 30, 2012

Buffy Blog: "Living Conditions"

Buffy’s adventures in college studenting continue in “Living Conditions” written by Marti Noxon and directed by David Grossman.

The Story as Metaphor. As virtually everyone who has gone to college knows one of the most potentially frightening of question marks about living in a dormitory on a college campus is the question of who you might get as a roommate. In “The Freshman” we met Buffy’s Stevenson Hall 214 roommate Kathy Newman (wonderfully played by Dagney Kerr). And we learned that Kathy, unlike Buffy, had a thing for Diva Celine Dion thanks to the poster of Dion which she put on her wall dorm room in “The Freshman”, a poster which remains in place in “Living Conditions".

In “Living Conditions” we learn that Kathy’s devotion to the “divas” isn’t limited to Celine. She has, according to the script, a Mariah Carey CD which Buffy is looking at in the teaser of “Living Conditions” and she is spinning the Cher tune, “Believe,” (1998) on her boom box as the episode opens, a tune she continues to spin again and again throughout the episode to the increasing annoyance of our Slayer.

Kathy’s Diva’s and Cher fixation isn’t the only thing that is annoying the Buffster. Kathy is, as Buffy calls her at one point, a "mini mom of momdonia". She is a neat freak who labels her food, makes every pencil the same length when she first sharpens them, makes sure everything, including her rug, is in its place, wants Buffy to log phone calls so they can more easily figure out who owes what on the phone bill, and takes Buffy’s cardigan, ruining it by dropping ketchup on it from a hamburger she eats after she forces her way into the table Buffy, Willow, Oz, and Xander are eating at in the Rocket Café on the UC Sunnydale campus. To keep Kathy from taking any more of her clothes Buffy puts a lock on her closet door in act two.

Buffy isn’t the only one annoyed by roommate behaviour in “Living Conditions”. Kathy is growing increasingly annoyed by the world no longer revolves around you as it did in high school Buffy. Buffy, Kathy fears, will be up all night, is messy, leaves gum on her bedside table that ruins her book, ruins her sweater when she, catching up with a Buffy on patrol so she can have a coffee with a Buffy who told her she is going out for coffee, is pushed out of the way by the Slayer when a demon attacks, and has weapons in her closet which makes her wonder whether the Buffster might be crazy. Willow has the roommate from hell, the proverbial college roommate who apparently parties all night and parties all day to sounds of very loud and very heavy rock music.

The Story as Operatic. This being Buffy the Vampire Slayer a show, which as Joss Whedon Buffy’s creator, once said, takes the metaphors underlying the show to operatic heights, the tensions between Buffy and Kathy ramp up to almost Wagnerian levels at the end of act one, in act two, and in act three. When Kathy horns into Buffy’s table in the Rocket Café the mise-en-scene, particularly the sound, the music, Buffy’s expressions, and Buffy’s eyes in close-up, reflect the heightened and heightening tensions between the two (end of act one). When Buffy returns from Giles’s place to her dorm room and finds Kathy chatting with the same Parker Abrams who Buffy met at the Rocket Café and went all googly-eyed over, tensions escalate between the two roommates even further as Kathy complains that Buffy doesn’t know how to share. The Buffster and Kathy get into a window opening and closing match and Buffy responds to Kathy’s sharing remark by sharing Kathy’s milk, "chug-a-lugging" it from straight out of the cartoon, getting it all over herself and the floor in the process (beginning of act two). When Buffy, on route patrol with Oz, complains over and over again about Kathy Oz wonders whether Buffy’s complaints about Kathy may be scaring off potential demons. The Buffster blames Kathy for her lack of hunting success and tells Oz that something has to be done once and for all about her roommate.

The Monster of the Week. At the beginning of “Living Conditions” Buffy fights a green-eyed monster who, along with his green-eyed monster comrade in arms, and the Tapparich they are summoning, appear to be “Living Conditions” monster of the week. These monsters of the week appear to be performing a weird ritual on Buffy and Kathy while they sleep, a ritual that involves leeches, pouring blood down Buffy’s and Kathy’s mouth, and the taking of something of light out of them.

But all of this turns out to be one of those literary, film, and television tricks. What we have been experiencing as viewers is a bit of narrative misdirection. As the Buffy and Kathy tensions ramp up the Scoobies become increasingly concerned that the dark ritual being performed on Buffy and Kathy and the lack of sleep both are getting as a result is heading toward disaster. Since Buffy is the Slayer the Scoobies become increasingly worried for Kathy’s safety. When Buffy finally tells Willow after yet another tense confrontation between the two, one that uses the exaggerated sound of Cher’s “Believe” spinning, the sound of pencils tapping and cracking, the sound of toenails being clipped, and the sound of the shells of hard boiled eggs cracking, often in slow motion, to heighten the tensions, that Kathy is evil and that she has to kill her the Scoobies finally swing into action. Willow calls Giles to tell her Buffy is coming over to his apartment with some bad puppy toenails that Buffy is sure will prove that Kathy is evil. At Giles’s apartment Oz and Xander capture the Buffster, tie her up, and watch over her as Giles goes off to do futher research.

Though the Scoobies don’t believe Buffy’s claims that Kathy is evil—Willow thinks she has gone all Cordelia-esque—it soon becomes clear, thanks to Giles’s research, that Buffy is right. Kathy is a demon.

The Best Laid Plans. While Giles is engaged in research Buffy escapes from Oz and Xander and returns to her dorm room to have it out with Kathy. Kathy admits, after Buffy tears off the human face that hides her demony visage, that she is a demon and that it is she who has been sucking the soul out of Buffy so she can escape the hell dimension where her parents from continue to think of her, their beloved daughter, as not old enough to leave home yet. “Living Conditions” ends with Tapparich, Kathy’s concerned father, berating Kathy for leaving home and returning her to the hell dimension she hails from. Demons, apparently, are anxious when their kids are away at college too.

Welcome to the Hellmouth: We meet Parker Abrams (Adam Kaufman) for the first time. Buffy has googly eyes for him. Oz patrols alone with Buffy for the first time in Buffyverse history.

Hilarious: Oz’s response to Buffy that nobody deserves mime. Oz’s wonderfully droll, “On the plus side - you killed the bench. Which was looking shifty”, remak after Buffy "kills" the bench because she blames Kathy for her lack of success in finding monsters to kill.

Pop Cult: There is yet another reference to the actor Linda Blair and her most famous acting role as the young girl possessed by the devil in The Exorcist (1973). The first reference to Blair occurred in “Teacher’s Pet” (1:4). Parker Abrams lives in Kresge Hall. Kresge is one of the colleges at the University of California Santa Cruz, the university that writer Marti Noxon attended.

The Ghosts of Buffy Past: Giles is once again Buffy’s unofficial Watcher. There is a reference to Giles’s rather unfortunate recapturing of youthful behaviour in “The Dark Age” (2:8).

Shapes of Things to Come?: Is love on the horizon between the Buffster and Parker? What’s up with the tensions, tensions that arise when Willow takes one of Buffy’s sandwiches and finishes it at the end of “Living Conditions”, tensions which parallel the heightened tensions between Kathy narratively and visually when she eats a hamburger in the Rocket Care,? What does this mean for the Buffy and Willow relationship in season four and beyond? What does it mean for the Scoobies? What’s up with the reference to Giles’s youthful behaviour? Is this going somewhere? Oz takes a quizzical look at a female he passes, and she at him, both of them turning to continue to look at each other, as he is going out to patrol with Buffy. What is up with that?

The Chorus: Enjoyable and very, very humourous episode particularly if you have been to college and lived in a dorm room on campus.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Buffy Blog: "The Freshman"

It’s a new beginning on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As Buffy has aged, the show has grown more and more complex. As Buffy’s characters have grown older (remember when Buffy told Joyce that she felt older on her birthday in “Surprise”/”Innocence”, 2:13 and 2:14?) so has the series.

At the end of season three our Scoobies went through that important rite of passage that virtually all young people in the West go through, they graduated from high school. In season four our Scoobies experience a number of rites of passage associated with growing up. In the first episode of season four, “The Freshman” that rite of passage is, at least for Buffy, Willow, and Oz, the ritual of going to college, a ritual many Western teenagers go through every year.

“The Freshman”, written and directed by series creator Joss Whedon, really kicks the bildungsroman or growing up aspect of Buffy into high gear. The major theme of “The Freshman” is transitions. Willow, Oz, Giles, Xander, and Buffy are all in transition. Willow and Oz are in their element as freshman at the University of California Sunnydale. Willow is almost in orgiastic ecstasy at the prospect of spurty knowledge being thrust into her. Oz, whose band has played at fraternity parties on the UC Sunnydale campus for years, knows the campus well and knows a number of upperclassman at UC Sunnydale making his return to the UC Sunnydale campus, this time as a student, feel a little like coming home. Xander’s on the road to see America car trip got as far as Oxnard where he washed dishes and apparently did the occasional dancing at a male strip joint in that coastal California city near Los Angeles.

Buffy is feeling lost. She is having difficulty choosing classes beyond the one Willow wants her to take with her, Introduction to Psychology. Psychology is Willow’s major, a major, Buffy teasingly says, Willow chose in play group after Willow chides the Slayer for being slow in choosing her fall term classes. Buffy is having difficulty getting her bearings on the, compared to Sunnydale High School, much larger UC Sunnydale campus, as the mise-en-scene in the first scene after the often hilarious teaser full of patented Buffy word play, makes clear. Buffy, trying to find the building she needs to go to to register, walks alone through crowds of other students who seem to know what they are doing and where they are going, students who offer Buffy opportunities for political activism, joining a religious group, and, this being a college campus, partying. The camera follows Buffy as she walks through a crowd larger than we have ever seen her walk through before alone and lonely only kind of getting her bearings once again when she runs into Willow and eventually Oz. The power of Scooby friendship.

One of the other themes of “The Freshman”, and one of the major themes of Buffy in general, is friendship. In “The Freshman” the old Scooby gang from high school is imploding. Willow is caught up in her dream become real, going to college. Oz is Oz, stoic and comfortable despite the change of venue. Giles, no longer Buffy’s Watcher, has become a slacker man of leisure and has a woman friend, Olivia (Phina Oruche). Xander, at the beginning of the episode, is still on his road trip to discover America.

After Buffy meets and then loses another of the college lost, Eddie, who she fears may have been killed by a vampire herd on campus, Buffy goes to Giles for a little Watcher help. What Giles gives Buffy instead, however, is a lesson in self-reliance. Giles gives the Buffster a little pep talk about how she doesn’t need him to help her figure out what has happened to Eddie.

Buffy takes Giles’s words and his lesson in Slayer self reliance but not necessarily the pep talk to heart and begins the nighttime hunt for a vampire herd possibly working the UC Sunnydale campus to thin weak freshman from the UC Sunnydale herd. She sees Eddie, follows him, discovers that he has been turned into a vampire, and stakes him.

But Eddie is not alone. Following behind him is the vampire herd led by the very self-confident Sunday (nicely played by Katharine Towne) that turned him. Buffy is still, at this point, somewhat self-confident as her somewhat diminished punning during the monster sarcasm rally between her and Sunday indicates. Buffy’s punning is a sign of her self-confidence, as the show has made clear from the very beginning. Sunday, however, wipes the floor with a Buffy whose self-confidence takes even more of a tumble than it already has. The fight between Buffy and Sunday ends with Buffy fleeing from Sunday and her lackeys with an injured arm to survive and perhaps to fight another day.

With her self-confidence even more diminished than before Buffy returns home to find her room turned into a storage room full of crates and a mother who didn’t expect her home for weeks. Even the phone seems to be rebelling against the Buffster. When she answers the phone there seems to be no one on the other side of the line. It is actually Angel calling as we find out in the first episode of the Buffy spin-off Angel, the Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt penned and Whedon directed “City Of”. Even he, it seems, won’t help her.

Finally Buffy heads to one of those home away from homes of her high school past, the Bronze. Once again it is Xander to the rescue. Xander who is becoming ever more the sensitive heart of the Scooby gang movingly tells Buffy, right before his moving speech is undercut by one of those patented Whedon and Company self-deprecating humour moves, about how she is his hero, about how when he is scared and alone he asks himself, “[w]hat would Buffy do”. It is Xander who urges Buffy to assemble the avengers (a reference to the Marvel Comics superhero league, a superhero league Whedon went on to make a movie about in 2012) and off these two avengers go to do research on Sunday and her vamp gang so they can find them, defeat them, and get the belongings Sunday and her lackeys have taken from the Buffster back.

It is interesting to compare “Becoming" (2:21 and 2:22), where all Buffy had left was herself, with “The Freshman” where Buffy has, for much of the episode, no one but herself and that is not enough. In “The Freshman” Buffy needs more than herself to defeat Sunday and her gang. By the end of the episode Buffy has defeated Sunday, with a little help from the anger the Buffster told Kendra made them, slayers, stronger which reawakes when Sunday breaks the award for class protector Buffy received from her Sunnydale High graduating class ("The Prom", 3:20) and a little help from the avengers assembled at “The Freshman’s" end.

Welcome to the Hellmouth: "The Freshman" sees the first appearance of Riley (Marc Blucas), UC Sunnydale graduate student and TA for Professor Walsh, who Buffy gets tongue devolved around when she and Willow first meet him in the UC Sunnydale Bookstore, yet another marker of Buffy's failing self-confidence that has resulted due to her arrival as a freshman on the UC Sunnydale campus, and Psychology professor and hero to Psych major Willow, Dr. Maggie Walsh (Lindsay Crouse). "The Freshman" also introduces viewers to Buffy's Stevenson Hall dorm room and her roommate Kathy Newman (Dagney Kerr).

Majors and Minors: We learn that Willow is a Psychology major. Buffy somewhat jokingly and somewhat seriously tells Willow that she, Willow, chose her major as early as "playgroup" after Willow chides Buffy for being too slow in choosing what classes she is going to take in the fall. In terms of majors, Buffy still seems undecided. She doesn't seem to be majoring in Law Enforcement as it was suggested she should by the career test Buffy, along with the other Scoobies, took in high school in "What's My Line" (2:9 and 2:10).

Nasty Blue Meanies: The professor who meanly kicks Buffy out of his Images of Pop Culture class. I have met pretentious full of self academic gits like Professor Reigert. Scary, really scary.

Artsy Fartsy: The hilarious contest between Klimt versus Monet posters Sunday and her vampires are monitoring in their frat house lair. Sunday and her lacking lackeys raid the dorm rooms of weak freshman they have culled from the UC Sunnydale herd leaving notes behind purportedly from those they have killed or turned saying they just couldn't handle college life and so they have left. One of things Sunday and her gang take from the dorm rooms of the freshman they cull are the posters decorating their dorm room walls. When Sunday and her lackeys get back to their dormant Psi-Theta lair after taking Eddie's belongings from his dorm room "Rookie", a surfer dude vampire, records on a sheet on the wall whether the poster belongs to Team Klimt or Team Monet. Team Monet, as "Rookie" notes, is leading but Team Klimt, is coming from behind. I have met many guys and gals who have put these cliched Klimt and Monet posters on their dorm room walls as freshman and sophomores. Hilarious.

Academia Where for Art Thou?: The hilarious exchange between Buffy and Willow in the teaser in which Buffy learns that you can take courses on such “questionably” academic things as film, television, and even commercials in college. I have met people who think that pop culture is the worst thing that ever happened to academic life and dismiss it entirely and I have met people who turn popular culture into a mirror of academic culture's trendy ideological "delights". Scary.

Mise-en-scene: Exterior scenes at UC Sunnydale and in the library were shot at the UCLA campus in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles.

The Metaphor: You may have been a big fish in your high school pond but your high school pond was a small one. Now, freshman, you are swimming in a bigger pond and the question is are you going to be able to adapt to it and survive? College as the survival of the fit.

Shapes of Things to Come?: There is tonnes/tons of foreshadowing, well perhaps foreshadowing, in “The Freshman”. There’s Kathy’s snoring and her Celine Dion poster which, well we will see what this means in the next episode. There’s that sneaking feeling that the Scoobies aren’t on the same page which, well we will see what this means throughout season four. Xander is back home and living in the basement which means, well we will see throughout season four and season five. There's Dr. Maggie Walsh's reference to what her TA's call her when they think she's not listening, the "Evil Bitch Monster of Death". Is she? Only season four can tell. And there’s the black op military types who capture a vampire in the final scene of “The Freshman which, well we will see what this means again in season four.

The Chorus: An enjoyable first episode of the season that typically for Buffy season premieres begins to develop themes, story, and character developments that will play out in episodes to come and which play off of themes, stories, and character developments in episodes past. And away we go.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

My Cinephilic Career: Rewatching "My Brilliant Career"

I have mentioned previously in these blog posts, as you know dear unreaders, that I was a teenage and twentysomething cinephile. It was in Bloomington, Indiana, where I went to take an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies, that my cinephila went global.

Bloomington was a wonderful place to be a cinephile in the 1970s and 1980s. You could see Woody Allen films and films like Taxi Zum Klos (1980) at the Towne Cinema. You could see classic Hollywood films at the Princess Theatre and the Bloomington Public Library, the latter thanks to the wonderful Bloomington Film Society. You could see first run American films and documentaries like Not a Love Story (1981) at the Indiana Theatre, the Von Lee, and the College Mall Cinema. You could see classic Hollywood and classic foreign films in film class showings in the evening and in the cinema in the Indiana University Union on the weekends. You could see films outdoors at the late and lamented Y&W Drive-In Theatre north of Bloomington. I saw Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior) there. And you could see classic and contemporary foreign films thanks to the Ryder, one of the countercultural newspapers that arose in the 1960s in Bloomington, Indiana.

During my years in Bloomington I made the pilgrimage to every cinema house in the city even the College Mall Cinema where I think I saw ET (1982). But it was to the Ryder Film Series, which showed mostly foreign films in various places around the beautiful Indiana University campus and in Bear’s Back Room, the large back room at Bear's Place on Third Street near what was then the Education School and Aristotle’s, purveyor of IU textbooks, that I went to spend most of my cinephilic hours watching Ryder’s foreign cinema offerings.

I think I went to almost every film Ryder ever showed during my years at IU along with my friends Cynthia, Guy, and Ulli. We would often meet at Bear’s before the film, eat a pizza, drink a few beers, and debate, as was our custom at the time (and remains mine to the detriment of my not so brilliant career and interactional life), about almost anything intellectual under the Bloomington sun and moon but especially about cinema and film. Then we would go, filled with joy and anticipation, to see the film in that wonderful back room at the wonderful Bear’s Place.

It was thanks to Ryder and Bear's that I think I first became aware of the Australian New Wave that was taking the cinephilic world by storm in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was at Bear’s, if memory serves, that I first saw Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Weir’s The Last Wave (1977), Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), the first Australian film to be accepted into competition for the Palme d’Or in Cannes, and Gilliam “Gill” Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979), the second Australian film to be nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Margaret Fink, the producer of My Brilliant Career, had purchased the film rights to Myles Franklin’s semi-autobiographical novel (though Franklin often denied that there was an autobiographical element in the book) My Brilliant Career (1901) in the early 1960s and spent some fifteen years trying to find financial backing for an adaptation of the novel. Fink and her production company, writer Eleanor Whitcombe, director Gillian Armstrong, Production Designer Luciana Arrighi, Costume Designer Anna Senior—did you notice all of those women?—DP Donald McAlpine, the New South Wales Film Corporation, and distributor General Union finally brought My Brilliant Career to cinema screens around the world in 1979.

My Brilliant Career stars the then unknown Judy Davis, it was only her second film, as the free spirited Sybylla Mervyn and Kiwi actor Sam Neill, in only his sixth film, as Harry Beecham, the man Sybylla falls in love with and the man who falls in love with her.

I hadn’t seen My Brilliant Career since I saw it in Bloomington in the late 1970s or early 1980s until I re-watched it recently thanks to DVD company Blue Underground’s (2005) release of the film in the US on DVD. As I re-watched the film I found that my memory of the film I had seen so long age was hazy, very, very hazy. What struck me about the film as I re-watched it was how, in so many ways, it, and presumably the book it was adapted from, seemed so indebted to Jane Austen while, at the same time, it seemed to undermine what we readers and viewers have come to expect from a Jane Austen book, a Jane Austen adaptation, and the female Jane Austin heroine.

Like the family of Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the family of My Brilliant Career’s heroine Sybylla Mervyn has fallen on hard times, much harder times than the Bennett’s who still live in relative luxury when compared with the life the Mervyn’s live amidst dirt poor squalor, wind storms, drought, and dirt on the frontier of New South Wales. Like Elizabeth Sybylla is hardly your standard beauty--she calls herself ugly at one point--is clever, and is trapped in a man’s world where a woman is expected to marry and bear children. In order to cure Sybylla of what her mother and grandmother see as Sybylla’s inappropriate dreams of a life as an artist, the wild of spirit Sybylla is sent to her wealthy grandmother’s New South Wales manor house to cure her of these delusions and, of course, to find Sybylla a husband. There Sybylla learns the niceties of Victorian manners Elizabeth is already familiar with, attends, with the help of her aunt, to the feminine arts of skin care, hair care, and fine clothing, and attends balls filled with the sounds of classical music inside the great house while the peasants outside dance the jig. Speaking of music, My Brilliant Career makes excellent use of variations on Robert Schumann's very appropriate, since the film is, in part, a coming of age tale, "Scenes from Childhood" throughout the movie.

But you can't take the wildness of independent spirit out of the Outback frontier female Sybylla any more than you can take it out of the reared in polite society Elizabeth. What makes My Brilliant Career different from Pride and Prejudice and virtually every Hollywood romance since is that at the end of the film Sybylla gets her man but she doesn’t want him. She, instead, wants to have a career, a brilliant career as she imagines it, as a writer. The film ends with Sybylla sending her book about “my people” off to an Edinburgh publisher. The other thing that makes My Brilliant Career somewhat different from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is that in My Brilliant Career we, viewers, are constantly reminded of the poverty of the Australian frontier and of the poverty in a Victorian Australia that has forced men to take to the road and beg for food to eat. We see much less of the poverty of Georgian Britain in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

What is hard to realise and understand today in the wake of the French New Wave of the 1950s, the Czech New Wave of the 1960s, and the new Hollywood of the 1960s itself influenced by the French New Wave, is that in 1979 the ending of My Brilliant Career, an ending which turns what film viewers normally expect to see in a women’s film upside down, as Molly Haskell points out in her seminal book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (second edition, 1987), was radical. So radical, as Haskell notes, that even feminists were angry at Armstrong and company for not allowing Sybylla to get her man. Romanticism, it seems, is a powerful ideology even among those who fancy that they have jettisoned it forever.

The Blue Underground DVD of My Brilliant Career, by the way looks pretty good and sounds acceptable and even has the original mono audio mix. It is hard to believe that this film, with its lavish interior sets, its lush costumes, its gorgeous New South Wales exteriors, and it’s lush cinematography, cost only around $A800,000 thousand dollars to make. For those of you interested in commodity aesthetics My Brilliant Career, according to Film Victoria, grossed more than $A3 million at the Australian box office.

Suggested Readings
For a couple of interesting readings of My Brilliant Career check out:
My Brilliant Career, 22 December 2007, Shooting Down Pictures, http://alsolikelife.com/shooting/2007/12/939-my-brilliant-career-1979-gillian-armstrong/
Coralee Cederna Johnson, The Humanist Approach to Film: My Brilliant Career, Wildwood Press, 20 August 2007, http://wildwoodpress.org/the-humanist-approach-to-film-my-brilliant-career/
Listen to Judy Davis talk about why she doesn't like My Brilliant Career but why she admired Gillian Armstrong's direction of the film here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpUzAgeD1aA
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uf4qxiEk4VE
For another Austenish independent Dominion frontier ugly duckling to swan romantic hero bildungsroman check out the Anne of Green Gables series of books by Canadian writer Lucy Maud Montgomery. The first book in the series, Anne of Green Gables, was published in 1908. The heroine of the Anne books, Anne Shirley, like Sybylla Mervyn wants to be a writer.





Monday, June 25, 2012

'I Didn't Do It': "Intelligence Squared" and the 2008 Crash

Hello again dear unreaders. I wrote in a previous blog post ("The Triumph of the Lame", 25 May 2012) about how I have been recently watching the American version of the British debate programme Intelligence Squared on PBS. I wrote in that blog post that I have been somewhat disappointed with the level of argument in some previous debates I have watched while I enjoyed the level of intellectual debate in others I have seen. What is nice about this age of computers and the World Wide Web we in the West now live in is that I (and other interested viewers) can take advantage of the World Wide Web to watch past debates of the American version of Intelligence Squared I missed thanks to the Intelligence Squared website (http://intelligencesquaredus.org/index.php/past-debates/). Recently I took the Intelligence Squared webpage plunge.

One of the debates that caught my eye since I am interested in economic history, political history, and the ideologies, polemics, and apologetics associated with public policy was the debate over whether the US government or Wall Street were primarily to blame for the 2008 economic crash (http://intelligencesquaredus.org/index.php/past-debates/blame-washington-more-than-wall-street-for-the-financial-crisis/). On the side arguing that the US government was the primary villain who caused the crash of 2008 were that omnipresent polemical celebrity historian Niall Ferguson, NYU economics professor Nouriel Roubini, and author and commentator John Steele Gordon. Arguing for Wall Street were businessperson and Reagan administration regulator Nell Minnow, New York Times business reporter Alex Berenson, and investor Jim Chanos.

Despite the binary division inherent in debates of this sort all of the participants in the was it primarily the US government or was it primarily Wall Street who was responsible for the crash of 2008 debate agreed that both played important and critical roles in bringing about the crash of 2008. The differences between the sides lay in where each side placed greater responsibility for the crash. Those on the US government did it side tended to blame the federal government for its lack of relevant regulation. This position, by the way, is a much more accurate view of what actually happened than the reading which blames the US government and "its" Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac for the collapse thanks to its forcing of poor Wall Street to give NINJA loans to house buyers who couldn't afford to buy houses, or the reading which blames the US government and its Federal Reserve Bank for the collapse, a reading with a very long history among some on the right including Milton Friedman. Those who blamed Wall Street agreed that there was insufficient government regulation but they blamed this not on the government but on the captains of corporate "industry" who control the government and who lobbied the government for deregulation since the 1980s.

Though those present and voting at the debate--the audience votes for which position they support before the debate begins and again after the debate ends and the side that has the greatest percentage shift in its vote "wins" the debate--sided with the government did it side I came down on the Wall Street side though I agree that the US government played a major role in the crash of 2008 for a number of reasons including not enough regulation. By the way, it should be no surprise that not much has changed since 2008 thanks to the continuing corporate control of the American government and state governments.

Why? Because it is clear to anyone with eyes that government oversight of corporations and particularly financial corporations that really matters has been cut off at the knees by corporate lobbying, corporate money, the revolving door between corporations and the federal government, and a Supreme Court that has ruled again and again that corporations are people and which recently ruled that money is free speech thereby giving corporations the right to use their monies in basically any which way they want. Apparently the US Supreme Court has forgotten what Cecil Rhodes is once reputed to have said, "money is power". It is clear to anyone with eyes that so much of the reason for the crash of 2008 was grounded in widespread, including in the press, and popular optimistic ideologies that the economy would continue to go up, up, up, up, up and that the real estate market would never collapse. These recent optimistic ideologies, of course, parallel similarly optimistic ideologies before the crash of 1929. It is clear to anyone with eyes that those naysayers who burst this optimistic bubble were attacked for being spoil sports by virtually everyone on Wall Street, in government, and in the press. It is clear to anyone with eyes that the derivatives developed by corporate bureaucrats at J.P. Morgan, the derivatives given AAA status by ratings agencies who were either in on the scheme or were mystified by derivatives, and diffused from Wall Street to other investment banks around the financial capitalist world played a major role in the crash of 2008. It is clear to anyone with eyes that Brooksley Born, head of the US government regulatory Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), did try to regulate the "black box" derivatives market but was cut off at the knees by free market true believer (at least until recently) and then chair of the Federal Reserve Bank Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton's then Secretary of the Treasury who, by the way and not surprisingly, came to government from investment bank Goldman-Sachs, and then Deputy Secretary of the Treasury and Rubin protege Larry Summers, after their corporate buddies got on the phone to them complaining about Born and her attempt to a regulate derivatives. They claimed that any attempt to regulate the derivatives market, a relatively new and unregulated market that had spreading risk and the belief that risk could be conquered by spreading it at its heart, and which US government regulators knew nothing about because it wasn't and couldn't be regulated would undermine the booming American and global economy. Shades again of the laissez-faire rhetoric that predominated in the 1920s before the Great Crash and the Great Depression. It should be clear to anyone with eyes and minds, in other words, that the government has essentially been bought by Wall Street and is being largely run by Wall Street. It is thus at Wall Street's door that the blame for the collapse of 2008 should lie.

By the way, derivatives, which were at the heart of the 2008 crisis, derivatives which were, as was Wall Street in 1929, unregulated (do you see the connection between a lack of regulation and the periodic booms and busts of capitalism?), were not fully understood by those who were flimflammed into buying them by the used derivatives salesmen and women from the investment bank world who hawked them, including corporations like Proctor and Gamble, convents in Italy, and local and national governments from Greece to Jefferson County, Alabama. After the crash and as a result of the crash the toxic derivatives held by banks, states, and localities resulted in severe revenue problems for all three all around the modern world. As I type this blog post the political right is using the 2008 financial crisis, the financial crisis they helped cause thanks to their mania for deregulation and opposition to re-regulation, to manipulate the masses, via the worst form of demagoguery imaginable, into believing that the government did it and to use popular anger at the bailout of Wall Street banks to do something they have dreamed of doing since the Third New Deal, cutting back on government social programmes and cutting the unions off at the knees. And they are succeeding bit by bit in this Dixiefornication of America.

As historians and others have pointed out for years when you allow the foxes to guard the hen house, anti-regulatory ideologues to run government departments, and corporations to lobby and give millions of dollars to members of Congress and those running for Congress you are going to end up with the "best" government corporate money can buy. And that is what we have and this is what we are likely to have for many years to come thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, a ruling that will continue to give us a government controlled by corporate oligarchs and their minions in Congress, their minions in state governments, their minions on right wing radio, their minions in think tanks, their bread and circuses advertising, and their bread and circuses popular culture, for the foreseeable future.

Beyond the debate over who was primarily responsible for the crash of 2008 there were a number of other things that fascinated me about the Intelligence Squared debate over who was more responsible for the crisis of 2008, the US government or Wall Street. One thing in particular I found fascinating was the seeming consensus among everyone on the panel that greed could not only be good but that it was part of human nature. What I find so fascinating about this assertion, this ideology, this belief that greed is an inherent part of our very humanness, is that is is generally assumed and rarely analysed either empirically and historically. Sure humans can and sometimes are greedy. I give you the infamous Kitty Genovese incident that occurred in 1964 in Kew Gardens, Queens. I give you Wall Streeters in the 1920s and the 2000s who manipulated the market, often using other people's money to do it, for personal profit and gain. But humans can be and sometimes are altruistic as well. Traditionally in !Kung Bushman society the fruits of hunting and collecting were distributed freely to all members of the tribe. This economic communalism or sharing was very likely practised by early humans in general since the earliest humans were all hunters and collectors. Altruism, by the way, was not shoved onto the dust pile of human history as most humans moved beyond hunting and collecting. I give you those Danes who sailed Jews to safety and freedom during World War II. Conclusion? Humans are both greedy and altruistic and no sophistry of how altruism is really greed masquerading will change that.

Given that humans can and are both naturally greedy and altruistic we have to ask whether certain social organisational forms can and do exaggerate one or the other of these human traits. Do hunter-gatherer forms of social organisation, because they place a premium on cooperation, tend to lead to societies characterised by a greater degrees of altruism? Do large scale trading, agricultural, and modern centralised corporate and consumer capitalist societies, because they reduce everything and everyone over time to private commodities, tend to lead to ever greater expressions of human greed? I would answer yes to each.

I want to end this blog post without a mea culpa. I didn't do it. I didn't cause the great crash of 2008. But then I never swallowed the Wall Street and DC utopian gobbledygook that all deregulation was good, that the economy would never collapse, that free markets would make us all rich, and that greed was really really good. Soooooo. Blame each other. Blame yourselves. The enemy as Pogo once said, is some of us.



Sunday, June 24, 2012

Little Boxes Made of Ticky Tack: Musings on Academic Disciplinarity

One of the problems, in my opinion, with academia and, as a result, academic culture as it has evolved, developed, devolved, choose your poison, is the division of the social sciences and the humanities into disciplinary territories with names like History, Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, Economics, Folklore, English, and so on and on and on.

It is interesting to compare academic times present with intellectual times past. In the nineteenth century, before the development of academic disciplines and before social science and humanities fossilised or hardened into what they are today, the interdisiplinary and totalistic and wholisic intellectual life was actually treasured and rewarded. Some of those who engaged in the grand interdisiplinary and wholistic enterprise, in fact, became the totemistic godfathers of the biological sciences, Sociology, and Anthropology and remain very much so today. Charles Darwin, for instance, in his Origins of Species (1859) and Descent of Man (1871) pointed out that all species, including man, humans, were the products of the interaction between biology and environment. He called it adaptation. Karl Marx in his various writings, polemical and "scientific", explored the prehistory and history of human economic activity from hunter-gatherer societies through agricultural feudal societies to industrial capitalist societies. Max Weber explored in great detail and depth the question of why capitalism arose in the West by focusing on variety of factors that contributed to the development of modern capitalism in the West including Western Calvinism. Emile Durkheim analysed how societies made themselves into objects of their own transcendental desire and how modern societies differed from pre-modern societies

The development of academia into disciplines claiming special knowledge over a particular territory of human knowledge in the late 19th and early 20th century has been all for the bad, in my opinion, when it comes to understanding human life in all its shapes, forms, and sizes particularly when compared with the comparative interdisciplinarity of the 19th century. On the historical and sociological level the disciplining of academia is a reflection of the same specialisation of labour processes that have occurred in other sectors of the modern world thanks to such things as capitalism, industrialisation, centralisation, professionalisation, and bureaucratisation. On the sociology of knowledge level this specialisation has had a particularly deleterious effect because, if we really want to understand humankind in all of its historical and cultural forms, we have to look at humans through the broad lenses of biology, economics, culture, politics, and geography not through the narrowly focused nearsighted lenses of academic disciplines. We have to do this because, as Darwin recognised over a hundred years ago, human life is the product of both nature (biology, genetics, demography) and nurture (economics, culture, politics, and geography). For this reason dividing knowledge into little or not so little territorial boxes, as academia has done, does not help us understand human life and human culture in general. In fact it actually hinders us.

American Anthropology recognised this when it subdivided itself into Biological or Evolutionary Anthropology, Cultural or Social Anthropology, Linguistics, and Archaeology as it bureaucratised. What sounds great in theory has not proved as wonderful in practise, however. The various strands of academic Anthropology, like academia in general, have developed their own specialised knowledges, their own bureaucratic practises, and their own distinct languages, making discourse between all four branches difficult if not impossible and not always desirable to Bioanthropologists, Ethnographers and Ethnologists, Linguists, and Anthropological Archaeologists with distinct senses of self and collective identity. Moreover, American Anthropology as practised has long had another problem. Cultural and Social Anthropology has tended to focus on non-modern societies and cultures leaving the moderns to Sociology while Anthropological Archaeology has little if anything to do with Ancient and Classical Archaeology thanks to disciplinary territorial boundaries. So even the one discipline that attempted in theory to be wholistic and which made sacred the collection of materials from around the world on every hunter-gatherer, pastoral, agricultural, water based societies and cultures for their Human Relations Area Files, hasn't really been engaged in this necessary and essential interdisciplinary and comparative work in practise. And while this may be partly due to increasing human complexity and the increasing size of the Western world in particular it also has something, a large something in my opinion, to do with Western specialisation, centralisation, professionalisation, and bureaucratisation.

I regard this little fable about the failures of wholistic Anthropology, by the way, as the proverbial canary in the coal mine waring us that the notion that all disciplines working together will produce a general understanding of and knowledge of the world we live in in all its glory is an illusion if not a hallucination. Specialisation generally leads to the development of separate (but not equal) academic disciplines and "distinct" academic knowledges, academic knowledge specialisation (the higher education bureaucracy's version of the division of labour), and languages. It leads, in other words, to academic little boxes rather than to interdisciplinary interaction or a broad understanding of the world and the humans who live in that world.

Thankfully interdisciplinary and comparative explorations of human life and human culture in all their complexity is not yet dead as the writings of Jurgen Habermas, Anthony Giddens, Pierre Bourdieu, and others show. Such interdisciplinary attempts to get at humans, human society, and human culture are, however, anomalies in an academic disciplinary context that rewards specialisation rather than interdisciplinarity and which penalises unorthodoxy and heresy. And that, dear unreaders, is a tragedy of immense dimensions and that is why I am no longer sure academia really works or functions as much more than an bureaucracy for the accumulation of social capital, cultural capital, and economic capital by some.



Saturday, June 23, 2012

Happy Birthday Title IX...

Happy anniversary Title IX. You certainly aren't perfect but you have brought greater gender equity in college sports even if you have also brought an online sports business, Title Nine, with its trendy if ultimately empty, meaningless, and banal Virginia Slims like advertising slogans in your wake as well.

I keep waiting for the looney right to tell us how socialist and fascist you are, that the Republican who signed you into law was a flaming socialist and fascist too, and urge that Congress eliminate you because you limit human freedom. I keep waiting for these folks to tell us how the interstate highway system and Army Corps of Engineer projects like the reservoirs in the West are socialist and fascist as well and how, despite facts to the contrary, they created absolutely no jobs whatsoever.

You know, if they really believed their own rhetoric then perhaps these watchdogs of creeping socialism and fascism should pay back the cost of all the interstates and reservoirs to the government, i.e., taxpayers like my parents and grandparents and great grandparents who helped fund these projects, and turn the interstates, the reservoirs, the national parks, you name it, over to the Koch Brothers free of charge. Hey if a private for profit health care system is more expensive and less accessible than universal health care systems why can't for profit highways, for profit drinking and irrigation water in a dry region, and public leisure pleasure "lakes" and parks everywhere be more expensive, costly, and unequally accessible too?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

William Shakespeare, Meet Hollywood and Teen

I really find it interesting that so many of the themes of so many American teen flicks have so much Shakespeare in them. Sometimes the Shakespeare in American teen cinema is intentional. 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You is an update of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. 2001’s O is an update of Shakespeare’s Othello. 2006’s She’s the Man is an update of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. 1961’s West Side Story is an update of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

There is a lot of Romeo and Juliet in another teen film I recently watched, one of the films from, to paraphrase Buffy Summers, the legendary Molly Ringwald and John Hughes oeuvre, 1986’s Pretty in Pink. Like Romeo and Juliet Pretty in Pink is about the forbidden high school love between the “low grade” “trash” girl from the, literally, wrong side of the tracks, Andie (Molly Ringwald), and the “richie” boy from the right side of the tracks, Blaine. Unlike Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which ends in tragedy, Pretty in Pink ends in standard Hollywood fashion with girl getting boy despite and in spite of the animosity of the “riches” for the New Wave coutured “trashies” (the film moves primarily to the beat of a "hip" New Age soundtrack that includes the title tune by the Psychedelic Furs and songs by Nik Kershaw, New Order, The Rave-Ups, and Echo and the Bunnymen; can you say target demographic?) and the “trashies” for the preppy designer label “richies”. Presumably Andie and Blaine lived happily ever after, after their reconciliation at the prom in the final scene of Pretty in Pink. And presumably so did “Duckie” (Jon Cryer) who finally gave up animosity toward Blaime, finally gave up his obsession with Andie, and finally found what looks like his one true "Duckette" (Kristy Swanson) at the prom. Ah, true teen love. Cue uplifting happy ending. Cue uplifting music. Cue Hollywood's own Hooray for Hollywood. Two and a half stars.



Documentaries and Me: Musings on "Dogs That Changed the World", "Radioactive Wolves", and "Claiming the Title"...

One of the things I love about documentaries is that I learn something new from virtually every one I watch every week.

I may be a trained historian but I really see myself as someone interested in general in the humanities and the social sciences. As such I generally gravitate toward the more historical, sociological, and ethnographic documentaries on PBS rather than the science ones. I do, however, occasionally watch Nova and Nature and have on several occasions learned a lot from watching documentaries in each series.

In the last year or so two documentaries I watched in the Nature series, one on dogs called Dogs That Changed the World, and the other on the wolves of Chernobyl, called Radioactive Wolves, really intrigued me. I learned from Dogs quite a bit about the state of the art of dog evolution from wolves, the role dogs played in human evolution, dog and human interactions, and dog intelligence. As I was watching Dogs That Changed the World I couldn’t, as someone who did postgraduate work in Anthropology, help but think that scholarly concentration on apes and the attempts of researchers to teach apes sign language, all of which derive from our perception of and the reality that apes are our closest evolutionary and genetic relatives, has led researchers to downplay the fact that dogs seem more capable of learning human “language” than our closest cousins, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos. One Border collie, for instance, knows over 300 human terms. The famous signing gorilla Koko knew only some 100 signs.

Radioactive Wolves was just as fascinating and just as educational as Dogs That Changed the World. Radioactive Wolves tells the tale of what has happened to the area around Chernobyl in the Ukraine and Belorus since the nuclear disaster that occurred there in April of 1986, the worst nuclear power disaster the world had seen until the disaster at Fukuskima, Japan in 2011. Radioactive Wolves shows that humans may have abandoned the region around the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant including the largest city in the area Prypiat which was once the home of some 50,000 citizens, but nature has not. Wolves, beavers, flora, and thanks to beavers waterways are once again thriving in the region despite significant levels of

radiation in the ground and in the wolves themselves, something made eerily clear by the sound of the Geiger counters those researching the wolves in Chernobyl make when they are waved across the bones of dead wolves and the soil.

What was particularly interesting to me about both of these documentaries was their portrayal of animal and human interactions. In Dogs it is the close ties between humans and dogs over time, prehistorical and historical, that seems to have given each a singular relationship with one another. Some scholars, in fact, maintain that humans may not have been able to survive without the aid of dogs while humans have played a major role in dog evolution through manipulative breeding and that this co-evolution allows each to understand and even empathise with each other in unique ways. In Wolves it is the fascinating fact that when humans disappear from an environment, a disappearance eerily reflected in the camera as it moves through the ghost town of abandoned buildings, abandoned books, abandoned furniture, and abandoned graffiti that is now Prypiat, that they have massively transformed, it is still possible for that environment to go "back to nature" despite how much humans have changed the environment.

Something else I recently from a documentary I watched, this one a more historical and sociological documentary, on PBS, was that there had been a fight between the International Olympic Committee (IOC), United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and those involved with the Gay Olympics, San Francisco Arts and Athletics, in the 1980s. The documentary Claiming the Title: Gay Olympics on Trial tells the story of how the USOC successfully went to court to stop the Gay Olympics from using the term “Olympics” in their title thanks to the Amateur Sports Act passed by the US Congress in 1978 which gave the USOC exclusive right to the term “Olympic”. Claiming the

Title
traverses the history of the Gay Olympics from its founding in 1982 in San Francisco through to the 1987 US Supreme Court decision, San Francisco Arts & Athletics, Inc. v. United States Olympic Committee, which ruled in favour of the USOC but which, at the same time, as one of those interviewed notes, found four Supreme Court justices willing to acknowledge the gay minority as part of American life, a legal breakthrough, some of those interviewed claim, in the wake of Hardwick v. Bowers (1986), the case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the US Constitution did not protect the right of gay adults to engage in private, consensual "sodomy".

Some, including many in Claiming the Title, attribute the opposition of the USOC to the use of the term Olympics by San Francisco Arts & Athletics to homophobia in the age of AID’s noting that the USOC did not go after the Dog Olympics or the Police Olympics. Others point out that the IOC objected to the use of the term Paralympics by the Paralympics movement beginning in the 1950s, went after the Frog Olympics in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1958 for the use of the term Olympics, forced the English Transplant Olympics to change its name to the Transplant Games in 1978, and forced the World Senior Olympics to change its competition to the World Senior Games in 1988. Whatever the truth, and perhaps one day we will know if researchers are ever able to get hold of the minutes of the IOC and USOC relating to the Gay Olympics, not an easy task, by the way. As I was watching Claiming the Title I couldn’t help but wonder whether the IOC and USOC would, if they could go back in time, sue the organisers of the original Olympic Games to force it to change its name to the Greek Games because of its nudity, boozing, homosexuality, and infringement of copyright.

Documentaries. The best school someone like me who is interested in learning about virtually everything ever had. Much better than divided into little disciplinary boxes bureaucratic mass education not much in the way of teaching critical thinking academia.







Tuesday, June 19, 2012

From Glen Oaks to Walton's Mountain: Musings on 7th Heaven and The Walton's

I have recently been thinking a bit about two "family shows" I once watched fairly regularly, 7th Heaven and The Waltons, and the similarities and differences between them.

7th Heaven was the brainchild of Atlanta native Brenda Hampton and veteran TV sitcom writer and is, as rumour has it, based on Hampton’s experiences growing up in that Southern city. According to legend, Hampton pitched her idea for a show about one of the last functional families left in America to veteran mega-producer Aaron Spelling (Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place) and the rest is, as they say, history. With Spelling behind the show 7th Heaven was eventually picked up by the fledgling WB netlet reportedly, by the way, over Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It premiered on 26 August 1996 and ran for eleven seasons on the WB and later the CW, the network created by the merger of the WB and UPN in 2006, making it the longest running TV show in the WB’s history and of Aaron Spelling’s career.

7th Heaven always seemed to me a throwback to 1950s family oriented American television. It’s no surprise that the show shares the representational illusions of most 1950s American television. 7th Heaven centers on the sunny Camden family of sunny Glen Oaks, California. Dad Eric (Stephen Collins), a preacher at a local church, his stay at home wife Anne (Catherine Hicks), and their seven mostly biblically named children, Matt (Barry Watson), Mary (Jessica Biel), Lucy (Beverly Mitchell), Simon (David Gallagher), Ruthie (Mackenzie Rosman), and the twins Sam and David (Lorenzo and Nikolas Brino) who were born in the 14th episode of season three. 7th Heaven, like so many other family oriented television shows on American television was always utterly predictable. Over its eleven seasons the Camden children and their many friends, acquaintances, and neighbours, may have had problems with dating, boys or girls, keeping secrets from mom and dad, sexy dancing, smoking, drinking, premarital sex, giving birth to children out of wedlock, not having a place to live, and so on ad nauseum, but by the end of each episode or certainly by the end of each season all of them, save for oldest daughter Mary who in Durkheimian fashion served as a warning to all the other Camden children of where misbehaviour can lead, always find themselves back on the moral path they are supposed to be on in their lives according to the nondenominational gospel according to Brenda Hampton.

While 7th Heaven was never a critical favourite the show did draw the highest audiences ratings for the WB during its run becoming in the process the longest running family drama in the history of American TV. What this says about American TV audiences I will leave up to you to decipher. Praised by such Christian moral watchdog groups as the Parents Television Council, a group that not surprisingly hated Buffy, Angel, South Park, The Simpsons, Veronica Mars, Lost, and Heroes to name just a few, 7th Heaven was slotted for cancellation in May of 2006. High Neilsen numbers for the shows finale that season, however, gave the programme a new lease on life. The show’s resurrection lasted only for one year more, however. 7th Heaven was cancelled and ended its long run on 13 May 2007.

As you can probably tell by now dear unreaders I never really liked 7th Heaven. I often watched the show. The reason? I can only describe my addiction to 7th Heaven as akin to watching a car crash or a train wreck. I had to see how much worse it could get. I should hasten to add that I don’t inherently dislike the family oriented TV genre. I actually have enjoyed some American family TV in the past. Rather I disliked 7th Heaven because, like Friends, it was so unreal. I say this knowing that all film and TV create their own worlds and their own realities. I disliked it because with its sugar coated pat formulas about life it seemed far more of a fantasy show to me than that meant to be fantasy show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show, by the way, which I found one of the most emotionally realistic shows ever to appear on TV.

One family oriented drama I really liked in the 1970s and continue to like today is The Waltons. The Waltons, which ran from 1972 to 1981 on CBS, was the brainchild of veteran TV writer Earl Hamner Jr. Hamner wrote a number of episodes for the classic Twilight Zone series from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Like 7th Heaven, The Waltons, was grounded in autobiography, in this case the real life reminiscences of creator Earl Hamner’s experiences of growing up in rural Virginia during the Great Depression and the New Deal. Like 7th Heaven, The Waltons centred around a large family. There was father John (Ralph Waite), mother Olivia (Miss Michael Learned), grandpa and patriarch Zebulon (veteran Hollywood actor, old leftist, and gay Will Geer) Grandma Esther (Ellen Corby), and children John-Boy (Richard Thomas), Jason (Jon Walmsley), Mary Ellen (Judy Norton), Erin (Mary Elizabeth McDonough), Ben (Eric Scott), Jim-Bob (David Harper), and Elizabeth (Kami Cotler).

Like 7th Heaven, The Waltons could be sugary at times, but not all the time. Unlike 7th Heaven where the middle class Camden family was urban and relatively well off, The Walton clan was rural and poor though not impoverished. Unlike 7th Heaven where the struggles of the middle class Camden’s always seemed to strain credibility, the struggles of the Walton family trying to survive the tough times of the Great Depression of the 1930s always seemed, at least to me, credible and real and often bittersweet. Not everything always ended on a happy note on Walton’s Mountain. Unlike 7th Heaven where Glen Oaks seemed like everywhere USA, a telling commentary perhaps on our times in which all of America seems increasingly to look alike, The Waltons had a wonderful sense of place, some would say a romanticized, nostalgic, and somewhat xenophobic sense of place though I wouldn't, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

Not too long ago I rewatched seasons one and two of The Waltons on DVD. I recall being struck by the quality of the storytelling and the almost poetic quality of the words some of the characters, particularly John-Boy, said. I remember being struck by the quality of the acting in The Waltons particularly from Ralph Waite, Miss Michael Learned, Will Geer, Ellen Corby, and Richard Thomas. I recall being struck by how, despite the fact that it was filmed in a Hollywood back lot—the Walton house, by the way, for those of you interested in trivial pursuits, shows up in another CW show Gilmore Girls—the show gives you a sense of Great Depression era Virginia and the history of America during the Great Depression and New Deal eras. I remember being struck by how touching several of the episodes are including what surely has to be one of the first shows ever on American TV about anti-Semitism in 1930s Germany (“The Ceremony”, 1:9). One of the earliest, by the way, was The Twilight Zone episode "Death's-Head Revisited", episode 3:9, from 1961. I recall being struck by the quality of the cinematography. Walton’s cinematographer Russell Metty had worked, after all, with Douglas Sirk on his classic melodramas of the 1950s and with Orson Welles on his brilliant Touch of Evil. I remember being struck by how literate and literary the show is. I love the short story quality of the show with its wonderfully nostalgic opening voice overs by creator Earl Hamner Jr. And I recalled how much of an influence The Waltons had on me, a teenager in the 1970s.

I grew up with The Waltons. I had watched the television movie in which the Walton family first appeared on the small screen, "The Homecoming: A Christmas Story", when it debuted on CBS in December of 1971 and I watched the series when it came on the air almost a year later in September in 1972. The show appealed to me so much and for so many reasons but I think the main reason I fell in love with The Waltons was because I really identified with John-Boy Walton (Richard Thomas) and I came to believe that there was a lot of John-Boy in me. Or perhaps by religiously watching the show and by identifying so strongly with John-Boy I turned more and more like John-Boy. I didn't dream of becoming a writer like John-Boy but I was, like him, a reader of books and a lover of books and still am. Instead I dreamed, as did John-Boy, I think, that I too might become an intellectual. I don't recall exactly when I started thinking about going to college--I stupidly confused being an intellectual with becoming an academic--but I wouldn't be surprised if it was John-Boy who, because he wanted to go to college and he romanticised it so much, made me think about going to college and who helped me create my own romance about academia, a romance that was very similar to his (that I no longer do thanks to being smacked in the face by reality on several occasions).

It wasn't only because of intellectual yearnings or a dream of going to college that I identified with John-Boy so much. When John-Boy fell in love with Jenny Pendleton (Sian Barbara Allen) in "The Love Story" (1:17), so did I. When John-Boy worried that his father might sell Walton's Mountain to a developer who wanted to build a health spa destroying, in the process, the Walton family heritage ("The Heritage", 2:18), so did I. When John-Boy opposed censorship and the burning of German books on Walton's Mountain ("The Fire Storm, 5:5), so did I. Looking back on it I am not sure whether I liked John-Boy so much because his sensitivities and morality were just like mine or whether John-Boy's sensitivity and morality were increasingly becoming my sensitivity and morality because I admired him so much. Perhaps John Boy made me one part liberal and two parts socialist.

Anyway, I wish I could report that the quality of The Waltons DVD’s is as good as the show is but I can’t. Warner Brothers, usually the best of the big corporate home entertainment boys, has not given The Waltons the Criterion treatment. The show is presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio. Colours seem right. Blacks are fine. Contrasts are fine. Audio is good. There are, however, far too many scratches and pops that appear throughout the episodes and particularly during the opening credits. No restoration here. There are no extras. The French subtitles have to be manually turned off. Despite all of this, this is probably about as good as it is going to get for this seminal and outstanding American TV series. And that, dear

unreaders, is sad but then life in an America that, unlike the rural America of the Walton's, has become a land of commodity aestheticism. Warner Brothers presumably thinks that the rural America of The Waltons has a limited appeal to a largely nostalgia target audience in this now urban and consumer America.

Monday, June 18, 2012

My Once Upon a Time So Called Life as an Illusion...

When I was a teenager I was incredibly naive. To paraphrase the Christian Bible, when I was a teenager I thought as a child. I thought that higher academic institutions were, as some people phrased it in very idealistic tongues, places you went for intellectual betterment. I thought that the academy was a place where you went to get an education for educations sake. I thought that academics were people who were consumed by their vocations to teach their students that great and wonderful ability to distinguish what was rot from what was not rot.

During most of my undergraduate years I was able to maintain these illusions. The university I went to, Indiana University in beautiful Bloomington, was Gothic in much of its architecture and it felt like a holy place, a cathedral, dedicated to freedom of thought and critical thinking and even, thanks it part to IU's size, its pub and restaurant culture, and some of its student and faculty, it truly felt like a place where you could immerse yourself in an intellectual culture of all shapes and forms.

But then I went to graduate school and everything changed. I was hit, one might say, by one of those proverbial reality smacking you in the face moments. In graduate school I found many academics who were less intellectuals than bureaucrats working a 9 to 5 job. I found much academic aristocratic wanna be pomp and circumstance. I discovered that many academic institutions were less interested in the teaching quality of their faculty than in the research dollars, research dollars from corporations, governments, and the military (why did I not expect the military-industrial-governmental complex?) that researchers could bring into the hallowed halls because research dollars (commodity academicism?) was one of the measures research universities used and use to judge the quality of a university by. I found out that many undergraduate students, drugged up on the claims of academic salesman and others, were more interested in education as a necessary but not particularly enjoyable step on the path to a good job. I found disciplines divided as a result of their bureaucratic histories and protective of their own little academic fiefdoms. I found disciplines that divided themselves into little boxes on the basis of nationalist ideologies.I discovered, in sum, that what I was romanticising was not academia but the intellectual life and that the two were definitely not the same even if they did intersect on occasion.

But more than anything else I found at the end of it all--isn't Monday Morning Quarterbacking wonderful?--that I had wasted much of my life on the pursuit of pieces of paper that said more about my ability (or inability it turns out) to jump through bureaucratic hoops and said little about my intellectual abilities. Welcome to the modern world of mass education, a world of mass education that is becoming increasingly a mirror to modern neoliberal society. Welcome to my life as an embittered de-romanticised cynic who has been smacked in the face again and again by real rather than imagined life.

By the way, one of the things I did not expect when I entered graduate school was soap opera. But I found it in the hallowed halls anyway. There was the vanity, vanity all is vanity, in all of its various shapes and sizes. There were a couple of examples of faculty men marrying their female graduate students. But then, as one of my friends told me, people fall in love all the time and get divorced and remarried outside in the world beyond the ivy halls, the same outside world academe reflects. What surprised me more much more than the soap opera light side of academia was the seamy side of academic soap, academia soap opera dark. And it was seamy.

When I matriculated into a doctoral programme in Anthropology at a third level public Northeastern research university (I am using my own rating system here one based primarily on size of libraries and quality of supplemental books in the bookstore, a rating system that I find very rarely fails) I found a hot shot male academic who was forcing any female on whose dissertation committee he served to have sex with him and who black listed anyone who refused to attend his invite for special students only holiday parties.

When I matriculated into a History doctoral programme in the same Northeastern university I found one married faculty member puffed up on his own sense of brilliance who was regularly flirting, sometimes behind closed doors, with a number of pretty young coed things. I found a faculty member who essentially turned his gender history class into an ideological mirror of his ideological self. For him, Newt Gingrich, then member of the US federal House of Representatives, was a "fascist" while fellow academic and disciplinary and subject matter rival Richard Bushman was, as his book The Refinement of America showed, so my professor said, elitist. No matter that it is unclear whether Gingrich is a fascist or not and whether he is depends, to some extent, on one's definition of fascism, one my ideologically correct professor never offered, or that the real heroes of Bushman's book, he is a Mormon after all (another point not in his favour I suspect from the vantage point of my ideologically governed professor), is not the increasingly "refined" Americans he writes about but the very dirt poor far from elitist Smith family. But hey as they say never let reality get in the way of a good ideological tale. And some wonder why I am cynical and misanthropic.

I am so cynical or realistic, in fact, that I think one has to recognise that academia with its means ends modern bureaucratic structure (shout out to Weber), its hierarchical form (another shout out to Weber), its paternalistic follow the leaders culture (shout out to Foucault), and its arbitrary disciplinary boundaries (another shout out to Foucault) or closed doors, its reflection of the modern world in all its "glory", in other words, is not really conducive to an intellectual life of learning and skeptical questioning.

One really has to distinguish between learning as a vocation and a calling and education as a mass business, a mass bureaucracy, and a mass paternalistic and ritualistic culture. The former is a way of life that walks, talks, reads, and observes everything. The latter is a career path that takes place in a mass bureaucracy generally run by businessmen and their hired academic hands who work 9 to 5 jobs and who try to convince potential clients that a good follow the proper leaders education will land you a good job. The former is measured simply by the quality of openness to and love for ever more learning experiences. The latter is measured in quantitative rubrics and numbers because it conceives of education as a commodity to be sold by businesspeople and bought by educational consumers as though it was a Serta mattress or a Big Mac. In the former the interrogated life is the only one worth living. In the latter a well paying career working for the man is increasingly the only educational outcome worth having. Where is Thorstein Veblen when you need him?

And now for something not really completely different. Here is a blast from my music listening past, XTC's "Mayor of Simpleton". XTC was and still remains one of my favourte bands.



Sunday, June 17, 2012

Gay Pride Month and the Gay Themed Documentary: Some Musings on "Be Like Others", "Anyone and Everyone", "City of Borders", and "We Were Here"



Last Sunday, as I mentioned in a previous blog post ("The Day of the Neoliberal Undead", 11 June), was Neoliberal Day on PBS World. Today has been Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transsexual Day on PBS World. It's Gay Pride Month, after all.

As a result of June being Gay Pride Month a number of gay, lesbian, and transsexual documentaries have been running on PBS World recently. I mentioned in a blog post a week and a half ago ("Two Spirits, One Acceptng, One Hateful", 5 June) that I watched the wonderful documentary Two Spirits. This week I watched the fascinating documentaries Be Like Others, Anyone and Everyone, City of Borders, and We Were Here. These four documentaries basically take us on a kind of world tour of what it meant and what it means to be transsexual, gay, and lesbian in the modern world and the difficulties transsexuals, gays, and lesbians face in a world that still largely thinks of gender in binary male-female terms and which still has an irrational often religious derived fear of transsexuals, gays, and lesbians.

Tanaz Eshaghian's Be Like Others takes us to an Islamic Republic of Iran where while it is a crime against, as one Muslim cleric interviewed in the documentary puts it, nature and Allah to be homosexual, it is not illegal to have a sex change operation. Be Like Others introduces us to several men, Ali, Askar, and Anoosh, who feel they are women trapped in men's bodies, men with, as they say, women's souls, who are considering and who, by the end of the documentary, get a sex change operation at the sex reassignment clinic of Dr. Bahram Mir-Jalali in Tehran becoming Vida, Nagar, and Anahita in the process. While sex-reassignment, it is called this because the gender of the men in the documentary is literally changed from men to women on their birth certificates, may seem like a rather enlightened option on the surface, the practise, as we sadly and tragically see very clearly thanks to this film, takes an immense toll on Vida, Nagar, and Anahita.

Susan Polis Schutz's Anyone and Everyone is an emotionally powerful documentary which focuses on the reminiscences of several American families from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, Japanese Americans, Bolivian Americans, Cherokee Americans, Southern Baptist Americans, Hindu Americans, Jewish Americans, and Mormon Americans, about how they came to grips with their gay and lesbian sons and daughters and the reminiscences of their gay and lesbian sons and daughters about their struggles to come to grips with and be who they were and the difficulties they had in coming out. Perhaps my favourite vignette from the documentary was that of the Graves family, a Mormon family from Salt Lake, whose son Robert, after much struggle, came out as gay to himself and to his parents. The reason I like this documentary so much, apart from the fact that I have long been interested in the history and sociology of Mormonism, is Robert's amazing mother, Lanette. As I watched Anyone and Everyone I kept thinking to myself how much I would love to have as intelligent, eloquent, and tolerant a mother as Robert had.

Yun Suh's City of Borders is a documentary about a land about a half a world away from Anyone and Everyone's United States, Israel and Palestine. City of Borders is about borders, several of them, in fact. There's the physical border that gay Palestinians cross to come into Jerusalem to have, as one of them, Boody, says, not to plant bombs but to have fun at Shusan the gay and lesbian club in Jerusalem. There's the ethnic and religious versus non-religious borders that Samira, a secular Palestinian Israeli, and Ravit, a Jewish Israeli, cross in their romantic relationship with one another. There's the border Sa'ar Netanel crosses to open Shushan in that city filled with physical and cultural borders Jerusalem, a city with a significant ultra-Orthodox Jewish population that is not, to say the least, particularly gay and lesbian friendly. There is the political and ideological border Netanel crosses to become, at the time the documentary was filmed in 2006, the only out gay member of the Jerusalem City Council. There's the border of hatred and violence established by fundamentalist Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Jerusalem that Jerusalem's gays and lesbians have to cross as they march through a gauntlet of slurs, hatred, and threats, to simply be gay and lesbian in Jerusalem and to hold the annual Jerusalem gay pride parade. And there's the national borders Boody has to cross to get to the United States in order to escape threats made against his life in Ramallah.

Finally, it's back to the United States, San Francisco to be precise, for David Weissman's We Were Here. We Were Here takes viewers back to the AIDs epidemic in San Francisco during 1980s and 1990s where almost 16,000 people died from the disease. Though We Were Here primarily focuses on the human and personal costs of the crisis thanks to its often emotionally powerful and moving interviews with five people (Guy, Paul, Daniel, Ed, and Eileen) who survived and tried to help alleviate the ravages of the AIDs plague while thousands of friends and lovers died from the disease around them. We Were Here also, if less centrally, touches on the first appearance of AIDs in San Francisco, the nature of the disease itself, the attempt to find a cure for it, the attempt to get the government to expand its funding for AIDs research, the voluntary organisations that arose to help gay men deal with the epidemic, and the homophobia, fear, paranoia, and attacks on civil liberties the AIDs crisis unleashed throughout the nation via very personal and very emotional reminiscences and through the use of photographs, newspaper clips, news reports, and obituaries.

Powerful cinema. Wonderful PBS. Check them out.









Friday, June 15, 2012

We Love the...Musings on Sport, Identity, and Community

I happened to catch an interview between PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley and long time sportswriter and author of books on sports and, interestingly, Miss America, Frank Deford this afternoon on PBS World. One of the things Deford said to Tavis which I found interesting and which has long intrigued me was Deford's claim that sport helps create community even in a place like the United States which historically has had a somewhat difficult time creating a sense of national identity and national community. Sport, in other words, can and often times does play an important role in the civil religions and civic national cultures of nations, modern or traditional.

I agree wholeheartedly with Deford's general point. Sport can and often does play an important role in national identities and it can and often does play an important role in the civil religion of modern nation-states. All one has to do is look at how important football is to Brasil's national identity and civic culture, how important rugby is to New Zealand's national identity, an observation made even clear, if further proof were needed, during the 2011 Rugby World Cup held throughout New Zealand, and how important cricket is to the national identities and civic cultures of India and Pakistan, two nations with a long history of conflict and tensions with one other who faced off against each other in the quarter final of the Cricket World Cup in 2011 leading to spikes in nationalism in both nations.

Where I disagree with Deford is with respect to the role sport plays in American identity and community. When it comes to sport in the United States the US is rather parochial or exceptional. The sports that have and continue to dominate the US sport landscape and which appear in regular rotations on ESPN and Fox television and sports radio, are football, basketball, and baseball. Historically speaking all three of these sports have been played largely only by Americans, at first White Americans something that tells you about American racial history, and played largely only in the United States despite claims that baseball's championship series is a World Series and that the NFL's championship series is the Super Bowl.

I do, of course, realise, that American basketball and baseball have become more international both in competition and in participation since the 1960s but compared to football, real football, the game Americans call soccer, rugby, and cricket international basketball and baseball competitions, there is now a baseball world cup, remain relatively minor sports compared to the world's international sports, and of relatively limited interest to Americans. This American disinterest, by the way, may change if the US football team gets into the final rounds and final games of the football World Cup given the relationship between sport and nationalism, however.

What is so interesting about America's dominant sports of football, basketball, and baseball is that the US really doesn't have a national team or a national team that really matters to most Americans despite the Olympics and the baseball World Cup. American football teams, basketball teams, and baseball teams are city based and draw their support from their cities, their states, or their regions, despite claims that the Dallas Cowboys are America's team or despite the existence of Red Sox or Yankee nation (we shouldn't forget that some places in the US have no major league sports teams or that some jump on the sports team bandwagon for a variety of reasons including winning records and we must not forget migration). They thus are grounded in city, state, or regional identities and communities. They are also often ethnocentric. Fans of the Red Sox, as the photograph above suggests, are not necessarily favourably disposed to other baseball teams or their fans particularly if the team is the New York Yankees and the fans are New York Yankees fans. So in the end, America's dominant sports actually create tribal identities rather than regional identities.

In this American sport teams mirror or reflect, on the microsociological level, what has long been a fact of life in the US on the macrosociological level. The United States, since its inception, has been a country divided regionally between North and South and, as a result, has had significant regional identities, particularly in the South. Expressions of this Southern regional identity can be found in Southern religion and Southern sports, particularly football, the major sport in the South, a sport that is part of the Southern civil religion as the Southern mania for the SEC, the South Eastern Conference, the major Southern collegiate football conference, shows. What impact all of this has had or continues to have on a common American identity and sense of community is an interesting question that deserves further analysis.

What also deserves further study is the role sport plays in vanity identity. How was the great Jewish baseball player Sandy Koufax perceived in the American Jewish community particularly after he refused to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series between his team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and their opponent, the Minnesota Twins because it landed on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish ritual year? What role does Black success in a variety of sports play in Black identity in the US? How does Usain Bolt's and the success of other Jamaicans in track and field impact the Jamaican sense of self and Jamaican nationalism?

Some Concluding Thoughts on Rugby and Nationalism
One of the things, by the way, I have become increasingly interested in, partially because I have an interest in contemporary settler societies like the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and partially because I have developed an interest in rugby to go along with my interest in real football, soccer, is the role the All Blacks, the New Zealand rugby team, plays in the New Zealand civil religion. I offer the following as a dossier in how sport and nationalism intersect and intermix in the civil religion or civic culture of a nation, a modern settler society nation.

Exhibit number one: Neil Finn and Friends, "Can You Hear Us". “Can you Hear Us” was written and performed by Neil Finn of Split Enz, Crowded House, and Finn Brothers fame. It was written in 1999 to celebrate the appearance of the All Blacks in the upcoming World Cup. The video is full of images of the All Blacks including their famous haka, and All Black fans, including the gathering of friends and family to watch the All Blacks in the World Cup imaging themselves, one presumes, doing all they can to help their beloved team win it, thinking about past Kiwi rugby heroes (they come to the door and cary in the sofa), about NZ heroes in general (Xena, Lucy Lawless, who appears in the video is a Kiwi), and dreaming that they one day might actually be an All Black themselves. Not surprisingly the tune hit Number One in NZ where Finn himself is regarded as something of a national treasure.



Exhibit number two: Not surprisingly New Zealand and Australia are rather competitive with each other including on the sports pitch. Sometimes this competitiveness plays itself out on the rugby pitch. Rugby may be New Zealand's national sport but it is not Australia's. That honour belongs to Australian rules football. Anyway, the following promo on Network 7 for the Australian-New Zealand rugby match reveals a lot about stereotypes and caricatures Australians have about Kiwis not to mention about the role national pride plays in rugby matches between the Wallabys and the Kiwis.



Exhibit number three: Here is the TV1 news report on the All Black loss to the French during the 2007 World Cup in Cardiff, Wales. Note the sense of almost religious like devotion and the very emotional response to loss among All Black fans interviewed in Wales.



Finally, here is one of my favourite hakas. This one takes place before the All Blacks-Tonga game and reveals something about nationalism, nationalism and sports, and the role the haka and the Tongan sipi tau play in revving up excitement, much of it nationalist, just before a rugby match.




Thursday, June 14, 2012

Jim DeMint and Educational Malachievement...

So Jim DeMint, Republican senator from South Carolina, said at yesterday's Senate hearing on JP Morgan Chase's $2 to $3 billion dollar loss at which Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon testified, that we shouldn't sit in judgement on JP Morgan Chase for its losses because the federal government looses that much every single day. So does DeMint think that analytically speaking it is possible to compare a for profit economic mega-bureaucracy whose reason to be seems to increase profits with a not-for-profit governmental bureaucracy? And if he does what does this say about critical thinking and education in the United States? DeMint, by the way, apparently went to the University of Tennessee and Clemson University where he took, surprise, surprise, an MBA.

Speaking of MBA's I have never really understood why we need business schools when, according to free market cheerleaders, markets, when markets are free, are guided by an invisible free hand (praise the Adam Smith) and consumers are rational economic beings who have in their very DNA, religious or secular, the laws of supply and demand. Both of these presuppositions would seem to suggest that education in how markets operate and the divine or natural laws of supply and demand are redundant. Public monies wasted on educating the all ready educated?

By the way, I do realise that the federal government, at least ostensibly, is not a for profit entity. I suppose, however, that it might be possible to argue that federal politicians, like, you guessed it, Jim DeMint, might be said to use government in a for profit kind of way for after all they do get good salaries, superb universal, for them, health care, and develop ties to private economic bureaucracies and the campaign contributions they get from them while in office. And once they leave office they often go through the revolving door from government into private mega-corporate businesses where they can and do really earn the big megabucks by, surprise, surprise, lobbying and manipulating the very government they used to work for. Welcome to American oligarchracy.