March for Kentucky

Greetings Kentucky Colleagues!

You may have heard about the student-led protest in Frankfort this Thursday. It will meet at 10 A.M. at Kentucky State University. They have opened up the parking lot at the football stadium for protestors. The march will begin there and will end at the Capitol building. As the article I link below states, “A group of Murray State Students are organizing a march in Frankfort later this month in opposition to Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed 9 percent cut to higher education funding.” These students are working on extended information to other institutions, and I’m trying to help them out.

We are expecting a great crowd, and have already attracted a fair amount of media attention. We are excited about being heard and the community of students and faculty who can join us. I’m including a list of links below that have more information about the event. Please do not hesitate to contact me (ablack9@murraystate.edu) if you have any further questions.

The Facebook page for the event with updated information (you do not have to have a Facebook Account to see this information)

https://www.facebook.com/events/1025777294152916/

An article from our NPR affiliate about Murray State students involved in the protest:

http://wkms.org/post/murray-state-students-change-date-march-frankfort-against-higher-ed-budget-cuts

A letter from Kentucky State President Raymond M. Burse

http://tinyurl.com/ksstateletter

An editorial by MSU faculty member Jeff Osborne in the Paducah Sun

https://chfamurraystate.wordpress.com/2016/02/10/jeff-osborne-op-ed-in-paducah-sun/

Gofundme page for supporting transportation for involved students

https://www.gofundme.com/marchforeducation

A recent article in the New York Times

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/22/business/a-rising-call-to-promote-stem-education-and-cut-liberal-arts-funding.html

Best,

Andy Black

Assistant Professor, English and Philosophy

Murray State University

 

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Reading Quentin Tarantino

Saying Quentin Tarantino is a great screenwriter is like saying that Bach is a good composer or Wilt Chamberlain is a great basketball player – he may not be the best ever, but he’s a definitive and obvious master of the medium and he’s won two academy awards, which seems like too few. But because the only people who read screenplays other than screenwriting students and people who are actually in the films that the screenplays become, there’s something to be said about Tarantino’s craft that goes beyond how well it translates to the screen. Tarantino’s screenplay are reading experiences in a way that few are – they go beyond functionality and economy and into a totally unusual domain where what follows INT – JACKRABBIT SLIMS – NIGHT are eloquent and hilarious and even literary. For that reason, they’re terribly uninstructive for beginning screenwriters, who could never get away with this (aside: the most instructive and economic script I’ve ever read is The English Patient, which is less than a hundred pages even though the movie is about three hours long). Tarantino’s scripts read like novels – they are even broken up into chapters, which often make it into the movies. I haven’t seen a Tarantino movie fresh since Jackie Brown; I’ve read the script for every one through some kind of illegal downloading, most recently because of the leak of The Hateful Eight that made him threaten never to make it. I was delighted and read it within an hour of getting it.

The other reason you should read Tarantino’s scripts is because whole scenes or chapters end up on the cutting room floor for budget or for length. Most famously, this happened with Kill Bill, which ended up becoming two movies even as whole scenes are dropped. Sadly, the ending of Kill Bill involved an epic night-time sword fight on the beach between Bill and The Bride, which the film replaces with her much quicker sneak attack. Inglorious Basterds explains how the orphaned Jewish refugee Shoshanna becomes the owner of a movie theater in Vichy France, and also how Donnie became the Bear Jew. Django Unchained explains how Calvin Candie came to own Broomhilda. True Romance is a very different script, with a less linear structure that creates mystery and ends more tragically – but we have Tony Scott to thank for those changes.

Here’s a few examples of Tarantino’s descriptions at their most vivid, and also some stuff that’s been dropped (all of these scripts are available online; all you have to do is google them).

Kill Bill opens gloriously with the fight between Uma Thurman’s Bride and Vivica A. Fox’s Cobra. And the description realizes the domestic destruction they bring:

qt1

The film obviously (and maybe even wisely) cuts all the specifically observed domestic details, like the commemorative plates, but here we get that Cobra is now Vernita – an assassin who has thrived in the domestic life of a homemaker that the Bride has never known. And that’s precisely what the Bride is set on destroying. But the energy of the film is completely evident on the page. Tarantino apparently can’t type well, so he writes his scripts in spiral notebooks with red and black felt pens (hence the misspellings and typos: it’s “Crispus Attucks”). Reading this, you can see his visual imagination at work.

The early scripts – Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and True Romance – are leaner and meaner. But one abandoned scene in Pulp Fiction deserves to be mentioned. It’s when Vincent Vega goes to pick up Mia Wallace and she talks to him over the intercom:

qt2

This is the classic early Tarantino that would be ripped off over the next few years – spot-on perfect pop culture references coming from unlikely sources as a way of establishing character quirks. And the undeniable fact is that it was wisely cut from the film because it doesn’t make sense: Vincent has just shot up and wouldn’t be this lucid. Mia is nervous yet mysterious and cool and this gives too much away. The film shows a stoned (and equally nervous) Travolta out of it and swaying to the dope, and that works perfectly. With the Jackrabbit Slim scene yet to come, it’s just too much chocolate syrup in your milk. But this exchange, particularly the Encyclopedia Brown reference, kills me. I wish it could exist in another movie.

Django Unchained is full of references to other Westerns, as is The Hateful Eight. But my favorite is the description of “Minnie’s Haberdashery” in The Hateful Eight, which is where (this is not a spoiler) about 70% of the story is set:

qt3Apart from the punchline, and the loving encyclopedic knowledge of Westerns, this seems like the closest thing you’re going to get to shooting the shit with Tarantino at a bar. And since the rest of the film is going to be set there, you can observe how much he makes the setting a character. I seriously doubt we’ll hear any of this in the movie, but if it works, you’ll see the spirit.

There are more, but I’ll return to Kill Bill because it’s one of my all-time favorite reading experiences. I bought it in  New York from a street vendor (they still do this) before the movie came out and read it in a sitting. In the script, Bill is introduced much differently. We never see him in the first film, but we do hear his voice – that’s not the case in the script. When Elle Driver goes to poison the comatose Bride in a hospital, and Bill calls at the last minute to tell her not to, we don’t hear Bill’s reasons – we just see this:

qt4There’s so much more mystery established here than what the finished film ends up showing: Bill from the neck down caressing a sword and adding what the script only hints at through the enigmatic pauses. It makes Bill – the guy in the title who needs to be killed – too cool for us even to listen to yet. He’s as persuasive as he is deadly, and this is something that I feel got lost in David Carradine’s stylized performance – here, you can see the part that was originally written for Warren Beatty, playing on his image as a master manipulator of woman, and making his ultimate demise more satisfying.

And finally, to show that Tarantino can do the whole brevity thing, I’ll close with the way he introduces Bill. This is my favorite thing that was ever cut from a Tarantino script. It’s in a chapter called “Can she bake a cherry pie,” and it takes place in an illegal casino. Bill has knocked at the door and we haven’t seen him yet, so we’re following the perspective of eyes through a slot in the door. And here’s what we finally see. Keep in mind that this is the guy from the title, who has been talked about but never seen or heard, so we’re expecting the same kind of intense and awesome details we get for Minnie’s Haberdashery. But instead:qt5

 

A Livable Galaxy Far Far Away

In his review of Revenge of the Sith, the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane writes:

“After all, the Lucasian universe is drained of all reference to bodily functions. Nobody ingests or excretes. Language remains unblue. Smoking and cursing are out of bounds, as is drunkenness, although personally I wouldn’t go near the place without a hip flask. Did Lucas learn nothing from “Alien” and “Blade Runner”—from the suggestion that other times and places might be no less rusted and septic than ours, and that the creation of a disinfected galaxy, where even the storm troopers wear bright-white outfits, looks not so much fantastical as dated? What Lucas has devised, over six movies, is a terrible puritan dream: a morality tale in which both sides are bent on moral cleansing, and where their differences can be assuaged only by a triumphant circus of violence.”

Lane wrote a much more sympathetic review of the latest movie, but there’s still a hint of the “disinfected galaxy” and “terrible puritan dream” complaint there. In fact, I’d say this is one of the things that Lucas set up so brilliantly in the blueprint of A New Hope: that a populated interplanetary world is a terrible, terrible place. There are deserts and swamps and ice globes, and these are more or less the only places to live. You survive in dive bars, or in caves, or in floating palaces, or by farming ore or sand or whatever Owen Lars has Luke doing on Tattoine. If you take a wrong step, you might get swallowed and digested by a Sarlacc. I mean, what’s disinfected about Jabba the freaking Hutt? I’m reminded of Stephen Crane:

One viewed the existence of man then as a marvel, and conceded a glamour of wonder to these lice which were caused to cling to a whirling, fire-smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb. The conceit of man was explained by this storm to be the very engine of life. One was a coxcomb not to die in it. However, the Swede found a saloon.

It’s telling that when Luke and the gang finally arrive at the Rebel headquarters, we only get a brief shot of the forest world they’ve occupied. That’s not what Lucas wanted to show. The jungle in Endor, the most beautiful of the planets we visit in the original trilogy, is modeled after Vietnam. We spend quality time inside of a Jawa dump truck. Even on the Death Star, he wants to show us the trash compacter. Kashyyyk, the Wookie Planet home to Chewbacca, seemed to be okay because treehouses, but Wookies smell terrible.

Or, you have the sterile, aseptic mechanicalism of Death Stars and the intermediary places like Cloud City. It makes sense that the Empire would be a desirable option when the alternate option is a weekly sand-people cane-beating. So long as you don’t challenge them, the Empire deviously presents itself as the kind of order that doesn’t seem to exist elsewhere in this galaxy.

  • (FWIW: the main thing I remember about the dreadful Attack of the Clones is when Anakin finds his mother in a Tusken village, full of tee-pees, campfires, etc. Are the sand-people supposed to be the native inhabitants, like Indians. Do they raise children in some kind of civilized way? Are they trying to take back a territory that’s rightfully theirs?)

When I lived in College Park, Maryland, I was always delighted to see the signs that welcomed you to the city: “A Livable Community.” No need to double-down on its virtues – “livable,” it’s the most purely functional of descriptors. What was odd about College Park is that it doesn’t fit the values of “livable” as its mostly described: it’s difficult if not impossible to walk or bike anywhere because of the constant traffic flow and tiny sandwalks. It’s livable in the most basic and blandest possible sense, and that’s very much the virtue of a place like Tatooine.

But unlike the George Lucas who had just come off THX-1138 and American Graffiti, J.J. Abrams has always been more into grand vistas of epic, natural beauty. There are Aztec-ians ruins in his galaxy which rest on a palatial lake, and a final battle takes place where it might be cool to go cross-country skiing. And at the end, we find out that SPOILER SPOILER lives on a beautiful SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER, which does seem a bit more like prime real estate than Dagobah. But Abrams does get one aspect right where the prequels failed brutally: shit breaks down a lot. That’s the through-line of American Graffiti to the original trilogy, where Lucas was interested in monster cars and the kind of seemingly pathetic but weirdly inspirational guys who drive them like John Milner and Han Solo (Who you calling scruffy looking?) Those movies were inspired by the then-clunky approach to American car manufacturing, while it’s telling that the prequels came out after the Japanese had the bright idea of making cars that don’t break down a lot. Abrams revises that spirit in The Force Awakens, at least in part – the wonder of the earlier scenes relies on lonely Rey living in the hulking carcass of an AT-AT walker, left over from some unmentioned battle. This seems right: it’s hard enough to land those suckers on a desert planet, and I doubt that Jakku has the kind of civic infrastructure to provide for some kind of reasonable salvaging budget.

And yet, what worked about those early movies was that despite the Wookie scat, we all would want to live there. This is why the first three movies work, and modern epics not filmed in New Zealand could learn a bit from this – its physical trappings are messy, dangerous, foul, and wonderful.

Bob Odenkirk’s Genius

Eight Mr. Show skits that prove Bob Odenkirk is a genius

With Better Call Saul coming out, I thought I’d prove Bob Odenkirk is a genius with these skits from Mr. Show. It wasn’t difficult. You may think I’ve missed one, and you’re probably right.

  1. Progressive Pastor

In which Bob is the put-upon straight man to David Cross’s glass-eating slave-making lunatic. Bob’s humble decency good cheer balances the absurdity and strangely makes you want to see him fail.

  1. Mundee’s Mustmayostardayonaisse

This three-commercial sequence concludes with Bob controlled by the work he has to do spreading Mustardayonaisse and Mayostard while ignoring his daughter until she dies. The haunted melancholy here recalls Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous, depressing maxim that Hell is other condiments.

  1. Lie Detector

Again, Bob is playing the straight man to David and Paul F. Tompkins, who are baffled that he cannot tell a lie because he’s done everything they ask him. Again, Bob’s nonchalance makes the ensuing absurdity funnier.

  1. Nil’s Guitar School

Bob and David were so perfect at finding the right tones to play off of each other. In this case, Bob is a compassionate guitar school teacher whose compassion only goes so far, while David is a baffled sufferer of imminent death syndrome. The way hep-cat Bob keeps convincing David that he’s the greatest guitar player ever is played with masterful false enthusiasm. Bob excels at playing “nice guys” who are also complete phonies.

  1. The Dr. X Save the Earth Telethon

Bob is Dr. X, who is going to destroy the planet unless he gets his money, so he puts on a telethon. Because what this gregarious evil genius really wants to be is Jerry Lewis. My favorite part is when they have a fake Bob.

  1. Car Wash Change Thief Action Squad (starts at 1:45)

Bob was born to play Robert Stack types who tried to convince you that the world was a scary place through hokey reenactments. He mimicks the same sense of paranoid moralism. As the head of an action squad dedicated to catching punks who rob change at car washes, he is the reason we can sleep well at night,

  1. Take Back the Streets

As F.F. Woodycooks – the mustachioed vigilante ice cream serving crime-stick shaker – Bob gives perhaps the goofiest, most inventive performance in all of Mr. Show. Forget Better Call Saul. I want Better Call Woodycooks.

AND MY FAVORITE:

Van Hammersly – he does pool tricks and you can earn your GED by watching him. The smile, the clap, the old-school show business charm, and a pool table!

 

It’s in the Dmn Syllabi, Dmnit!

Over the past few weeks I have openly and egregiously lied about “reading the terms and conditions” of various products I’ve installed. If I were to extend this to years, were we living in a dystopia, I’d already be made factionless and an Avox. I didn’t read that stuff for ITunes 1.0, and I won’t read it when I install ITunes 8.8b, so I’ve just assumed that there was something about a new U2 album appearing without warning and there’s nothing I can do about it. For all I know, when I installed DVDFab9, I agreed to a condition stating, “Andy Black eats boogers.”

And yet, both mentally and verbally, I’m a big fan of the phrase, “It’s in the syllabus!” To students, it’s gentler; with other faculty, it’s a mantra that seems to define our pains. To wit:

I’ve been her, and the unsaid point of that comic is that a caring and intelligent teacher took the time to explain every detail, answer every potential question, and craft a document that’s an exhaustive and fair contract. The syllabus is the product of intense laboring – I don’t get much research done in the week before class because I’m writing and rewriting it. As a PHD student, I had a teaching mentor tell me that it was (more or less) irresponsible not to include a reading schedule, so I’ve included one ever since. I have a page where I explain participation grades and how they’re calculated, a page where I explain tips to succeed: my ENG105 syllabus is longer than most Raymond Carver short stories.

I also give a syllabus quiz, a mind-numbingly easy open-book affair that always ends up prompting confusion. The syllabus quiz is supposed to isolate and identify the most significant parts of the syllabus, and this practice – while necessary – leads me to challenge myself. Why can’t the whole syllabus be as concise as the quiz? Do I really need the section where I explain “virtual participation” as though it is the sixteenth amendment? Do I really need all the paper descriptions, which detail assignments that are four months away? Do I really need to explain to them what Canvas is?

The easy answer to this is that old truism that a syllabus is a contract, and it “protects you just as much as it does me”. But I wonder if it’s that kind of thinking that, like a rubric, suggests a model of neutrality and authority that we don’t really have or want as teachers, or at the very least have been nurturing critical student-centered pedagogies to revise. In my rethinking of the underlying ideologies and theories of the syllabus, my attitude is starting to be something less like “It’s in the syllabus (exclamation point) to “Why is it in the syllabus (question mark)”

Because in the case of my dauntingly exhaustive, prolix, and somewhat idiosyncratic syllabi, I probably wouldn’t read it either, and I honestly can’t be called upon to remember everything that’s in it. Since it’s the first document that my students read, I don’t know that I want to be a textual representation of me as a teacher. So far all I know, I’m contractually obligating my students to acknowledge that I eat boogers.

Alexander Pope and Ed Champion

This article by Laura Miller is the first, and hopefully the last, thing I’ve read about this Ed Champion guy who verbally abuses female authors through various media. I hope the notoriety subdues, rather than enhances him. And this is coupled with the awful attacks on female gamers and game-makers. The internet is becoming an ugly place: in the seventeenth century women authors were snickered at, and it was pretty bad, but now they’re getting rape threats, and guys like Champion are making careers out of being misogynists.

I’m teaching Alexander Pope’s ESSAY ON CRITICISM tonight, which I argue is not so much about poetry or criticism as it is power. For Pope, the problem of criticism is a problem of power rooted in judgment and the way it is wielded against others. He sought to give that power back to the poet, and his “Ed Champion,” a guy named John Dennis, would spend his career bashing him. But living in a masculine milieu of authors, Pope still sensed that the antagonism was going to destroy a literary culture that had the chance of emulating or even equaling the ancients. (To make things more complicated, Pope also liked to make fun of women – they were “at best a contradiction still”). I’ll be passing this article out tonight and highlighting some of the sections, because its (sadly) timely.

Here’s the section from ESSAY ON CRITICISM that most jumps out to me as I read this:

Now, they who reached Parnassus’ lofty Crown,
Employ their Pains to spurn some others down;
And while Self-Love each jealous Writer rules,
Contending Wits becomes the Sport of Fools:
But still the Worst with most Regret commend,
For each Ill Author is as bad a Friend.
To what base Ends, and by what abject Ways,
Are Mortals urg’d thro’ Sacred Lust of praise!
Ah ne’er so dire a Thirst of Glory boast,
Nor in the Critick let the Man be lost!
Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join;
To err is Humane; to Forgive, Divine.

“Nor in the Critick let the Man be lost!”

Mass Effect and the Noble Lover

Mid-20th Century Conservative Platonist Richard Weaver once made the following seemingly reductive yet entirely accurate statement about the affective power of language: “It can move us toward what is good; it can move us toward what is evil; or it can, in a hypothetical third place, fail to move us at all.” Weaver extrapolates this (brilliantly, I think) from Plato’s Phaedrus, in which we’re presented with three types of love that correspond to the above three types of speech: the noble lover, the base lover, and the non-lover. The noble and the base are fairly straight-forward – one dehumanizes his beloved, the other seeks to uplift. It’s the non-lover that I continue to be fascinated with; writing in the 1950s, Weaver compared the non-lover to the semanticists of the 1930s who sought to “purify” language, to seeks linguistic practices that were characterized by “sober fidelity” and “serviceable objectivity.” Yet that tendency towards what I call an “idealized neutrality,” linguistic or social or political, has its roots in the history of science as well (the origins of objectivity), and continues in the kind of thing that Jon Stewart does when he snickers at the excesses of the news.

I could keep going with that – it’s the subject of my on-going research. Richard Weaver would probably be pretty surprised to find himself in an article about video games, but his thinking here aligns so perfectly with Mass Effect and its deceptively simple  conversation wheel. Standard non-interactive video games have yet to figure out a way to do dialogue naturally, and most of the time translation makes it merely awful. To wit:

error

Other than interactive fiction, if you wanted to have a conversation while playing a video game, it was going to be limited to, “Sorry Mario, But Our Princess is Another Castle.” Even advanced games would operate more like a film script that you unlock by completing the actions of the game. Final Fantasy III for the SNES was typical in its monological interactions, and the only variations were in moments that were almost like mini-games. For instance, at one point you had to sing the right notes of an aria in order to lure an amorous airship owner. In another, diplomatic responses to an enemy emperor gave you points that would win you items and gold.

banquet-guide

Fifteen years later, Mass Effect was able to work with a much more complex gaming engine that allowed dialogue to weigh heavier even than the action. It doesn’t matter how many times you were killed by a Krogan Battlemaster, the memory of your saved-game only recalls the successful runs. You can cower behind a crate and let your squad take out your enemies, and no one will call you yellow when you return to the Normandy. But if you tell your talkative paraplegic pilot to “Cut the Chatter,” you’re walking the road to be a renegade, man.

dialogue wheel

As the above screenshot indicates, Mass Effect gives you three dialogue options (and sometimes more; more on that in a minute): From top to bottom Paragon, Neutral, and Renegade. I was delighted how well this matches up to Weaver’s tripartite schema. And as in Plato, these choices for speaking are connected to the soul itself. If I answer “Convince me” to the above question, I’m setting up myself up as a paragon, as someone who will be trusted by the high and mighty “Council.” Saying “Too bad” might earn me the respect of some of the dissident members of my crew, but not playing well with others has its disadvantages. Yet there are advantages to both, as you can complete the game on any of the paths or ideally on all three by playing it through three times. So far as I can tell, based on reading through some walkthroughs, the neutral path is boring; in fact, if you click the X button, it will automatically choose that middle road. Basically, you’re choosing course of action, but you’re doing it through dialogue.

In that sense, the game enacts the overt message of Weaver’s linguistic and rhetorical theory in showing that by rejecting affective and affecting options, we limit the experience that the game offers. That’s not to say that Weaver would have been really into naming his Shepherd avatar. He felt that the arhetorical speech of the “non-lover” was itself a fantasy, an aspiration for “unqualified medium of transmission of meanings from mind to mind, and by virtue of its minds can remain in an unprejudiced relationship to the world and also to other minds.” But then, the technology is probably not there to make a game with 100 different choices of varying rhetorical nuance.

Where the game most uses rhetoric, is in its smart deployment of the traditional leveling up system that’s a staple of Role-Playing Games. As you become more experienced, you gain points for attributes such as “Assault Training,” “Fitness” and “Electronics.” However, you can also gain points for “Charm” and “Intimidate” skills. By mastering these, you get more conversational options, some that change the course of a particular mission. For instance:

kyle

If you have a high enough Charm or Intimidate level, the options on the left are open to you; if not, “You can’t keep me out!” is your only choice. In this case, you’ve been sent to deal with a cult leader and his violent cultists. If you force your way in, you can expect a gunfight. If you charm or intimidate your way in, you might be able to get a peaceful resolution. Sometimes intimidation is necessary on those immune to charm, and vice-versa, so the way you build you character is dependent on whether or not you can unlock these dialogue choices. Here, Mass Effect is smart in showing the way skilled rhetoricians make choices based on the rhetorical situation. But it also shows the way that an ethos is necessary to make certain kinds of statements effectively: this is more of a Ciceronian perspective than Aristotlelian, as in Cicero the character of the speaker is more important the speech itself. If you’re a renegade, you can only get some many charm points.

In doing some Google work about the game, I found this brilliant teaching exercise that allows students to use Mass Effect to ” judge the consequences of Shepard’s rhetorical decisions.” I’ve really only skimmed the surface, but I’m delighted with the implications.