Kesha’s Rainbow

First Ke$ha was an Animal, then a Cannibal, then a Warrior, and now – in her fourth album – a Rainbow. The titles of her albums are thematic and appropriate to her development as an artist and an icon: it’s difficult to imagine a rainbow eating a person or killing a White Walker, and Ke$ha has now dropped from her stage name the central dollar sign, the most materialistic key on your keyboard. When Ke$ha arrived in 2010, she flaunted hedonism at once refreshing and ridiculous, an auto-tuned diva who took the stage as though her hair was still unwashed from her club cavorting the night before. It looked like it would take a silkwood shower to remove all the glitter from her skin. Other than maybe Tic Tac Dough host and crooner Wink Martindale, she’s probably the only person to lyricize “pissing in the Dom Perrignon.”

Unlike the other heavily marketed emerging starlets of the late “ots” – Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga – there was a menace and defiance about her, something vampiric and decadent that offered an uninhibited contrast to Swift’s comfortable t-shirts, Perry’s #woke buoyancy, and Gaga’s gender-bending kabuki. In the delightfully stupid “Tik Tok,” Ke$ha bragged about brushing her teeth with Jack Daniels. She collected teeth (“like, over a thousand”) from her fans and made them into a bra. An early interview with Rolling Stone includes the sentence, “She burps, swears, talks about blow jobs, and, when she needs to take a leak, ducks behind a tree.” In the video from “Blow,” she killed unicorns and 90s teen heartthrob James Van Der Beek. “Blow” begins with a Ke$ha cackle that might be, for me, the best thing to happen in recent popular music. In that second and a half, there’s a ridiculous, even dangerous vitality that is rare for radio-friendly music, coupled with a glorious lack of self-consciousness, traditional glamour, and sophistication. This place is gonna blow.

And then something happened. Ke$ha not only starting giving a fuck, she had to. She went through rehab for an eating disorder. She claimed wide varieties of abuse against her producer, hit-making impresario and creepy lecher Dr. Luke. She went to court to plead breaking her contract with Sony so she shouldn’t have to work with her abuser, which were continually rejected. The Wikipedia page for Kesha v. Dr. Luke has sixty-one footnotes, with titles like “High Court Won’t Let Singer Kesha Out of Contract with Man She Says Raped Her.” Kesha kept losing appeals, and Dr. Luke went to Twitter to remind us that the Duke Lacrosse team didn’t rape anybody even though everybody thought they did. From 2013 on, after the release of her second album Warrior, Kesha’s life became a publicly documented hell.

As judges told her that sure, she was sexually assaulted, just not sexually assaulted often enough to make her own music, her social media accounts documented her depression with a startling clarity and probing honesty that were the kind of core values that Kesha’s earlier raucous music mostly made fun of. For most of us, she went from an icon who embraced a sense of shamelessness and excess to a deeply sympathetic figure who was incapable of doing anything other than expressing her hurt. That sympathy was tough to square for this forty-year old man who listens to “Sleazy” on a elliptical machine and came to lurve her for the way she celebrated her gothic stupidity while ignoring everything else that exists. In a move equivalent to the son of Jor-El deciding he only wants to be Clark Kent in Superman II, she retired the dollar sign. Female pop stars have always gotten a lot of creative energy out of secret identities (Sasha Fierce / Roman Zolanski / Art Nouveau / even Hannah freaking Montana), and the fun thing about Kesha was a luminous lack of ambition to be that thoughtful about really anything. So what would Rainbow be?

On the opening track of Rainbow, when she sings, “don’t let the bastards get you down,” we get the sense that the bastards have done just that. For starters, the song is mostly acoustic, and for the heavily produced Kesha an acoustic song is like the Pope making a public appearance in khakis. With that “you,” she’s addressing the “we” in her earlier anthem, “We R Who We R,” those who were once “running this town just like a club,” but have – let’s face it – been through a lot since 2010. The phrase that Kesha repeats has its origin in Latin – Illegitimi non carbundum – where “illegitimi” actual translates as outlaws, and “carbundum” refers to silicon carbide, an abrasive compound that must be ground down. Traditionally, this cliche has been invoked by hawkish military types, Barry Goldwater, and submarines, where it’s used to represent (respectively) peaceniks, civil rights activists, and other submarines. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred finds the phrase carved into her bedroom closet and has to ask the commander – a bastard – what it means. But Kesha reclaims it, since her earlier songs often are about and accompany acts of grinding. So instead of grind, the “bastards” will attempt to “get” “wear,” “take,” and “screw.” So it’s an intriguing move that she’s not using bastards to define her and her outcast “We R” army, but is reframing the illegitimate as those who have power, are abusing it, and are getting away with it. And this tone-setter, melancholy and soft rather than defiant, positions Kesha as being one of the people who might keep them grinding.

The rest of the album defies easy categorization, even as it aims to be what she later calls “a hymn for the hymnless.” She duets with fellow Nashville native Dolly Parton, chants songs called “Praying” and “Hymn,” and warbles a playful but melancholy song (written by her Mom) about taking Godzilla to the mall that wouldn’t be out of place in Raffi’s catalog if it weren’t that the women singing it had a similarly monstrous reputation. In their usual project of damning with faint praise, Pitchfork claims that “virtually every pop star of the early ‘10s has written off the gonzo sound just as Kesha had,” which suggests they thought the spoken-word part about “being born from a rock spinning in the aether” was her attempt to be taken seriously as an artiste and not the kind of thing even Gonzo the Muppet would find weird. But nonetheless, the point in more or less every review is this: Kesha has abandoned the other coaxing voices and is listening to her own, what’s emerging is now “authentic,” because it’s also “adult” and “serious” (to wit: she just turned 30). That’s fair, but it’s too easy: I don’t think she had a reason to make something rich and meaningful or before. Case in point: her 2013 album Warrior.

Warrior was anticipated as the raucous follow-up to Cannibal and Animal, where she would double-down on bad taste and parasitically devour the zeitgeist that she would capture. But it didn’t. With his typical sympathy, Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone noted that her “crudest, cheapest, cheesiest ideas are her best,” and that Warrior had replaced that fuck-all attitude with a tendency for sensitive balladeering. As the titular opening song proclaims:

We were born to break the doors down
Fightin’ till the end
It’s something that’s inside of us
It’s how we’ve always been

Accompanied by the similarly anthemic yet slightly anemic lead single “Die Young,” Warrior strained for substance. It felt like a bit of a concession that no one was demanding and, even if they did, it didn’t seem like she would make. It’s about empowerment and independence, which had previous been implicit and unrhetorical. Even her duet with Iggy Pop mixed trashiness with higher aspirations, where she pushed back against the stupid world instead of reveling in its stupid excesses. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not like she was talking to Charlie Rose about fracking or anything. She was still going on Jimmy Kimmel to talk about exorcising a ghost from her vagina; her reality show My Crazy Beautiful Life prominently features her mom dressed as a penis. But Warrior was supposed to be her Like a Virgin, and it ended up being her …But the Little Girls Understand, the follow-up to “Get the Knack” that you forgot existed.

So it wasn’t surprisingly in the wake of the recent court battles that Kesha revealed the production was “strained.” Re: “Die Young,” which was unfortunately released nearly immediately after the 2012 Newtown massacre – “I did NOT want to sing those lyrics and I was FORCED to.” Fans put out a petition trying to emancipate her Dr. Luke, claiming that he was “controlling Ke$ha like a puppet.” The album’s relative failure could be easily connected to Luke’s limiting influence, as Kesha wanted to rock a bit more, and realized – like the Beach Boys realized about surfing but Bobby “Boris” Pickett never apprehended about Dracula – that you could only sing so many songs about being in a club. If Ke$ha’s energy was still evident, it was in spite of the oppressive strain of mediocrity that Luke trapped her in at the height of his (literally) hands-on machinations.

On the piano-based “Praying” (co-written, surprisingly, with goof-rapper Macklemore) she emits a broken, strained high note far out of a range that Autotune usually corrects. But that screech represents a new voice emerging from a woman who might previously have seemed incapable of this kind of emotional anger and deep sentiment. And to be clear, she’s not praying; she’s telling Dr. Luke he ought to. In “Die Young,” she didn’t seem to care if she lived beyond a particularly riotous night of dancing and clubbing. On the title track of Rainbow, she now sings “I’m falling right back in love with being alive.” The pathos is sometimes wrenching, and it goes the other way in an empowerment ballad called “Woman,” that is less “I Am Woman” and more “Hear me ROAARRR.” She’s kept the energy, the humor, and even the perverse intelligence behind her earlier earworms, while connecting to a new side that was immense promise: a naked honesty that reflects the album’s cover, where a bare-assed Kesha steps into the water to become somehow baptized.

The typical posture of female pop stars since Madonna has been, essentially, “You think you understand me but you don’t.” It’s the theme behind Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and Lady Gaga’s Artpop and even Beyonce’s transcendent Lemonade (“Y’all haters corny with that illuminati mess”). See simply the title of Swift’s Reputation, or the way Perry’s Witness serves as a verb and not a noun. In the face of spectacle and grandeur, we’re told that the best way to enjoy it is through either passive, uncritical, even inert or rapt adoration. It’s what cultural scholar Joseph Roach succinctly describes as “it,” or “a certain quality, easy to perceive but hard to define, possessed by abnormally interesting people.” Such performers contain “inducing asymmetries” that “register in the mind of the spectator as a miracle of unstable but inevitable harmonies.”

This is a posture that works well in live performances and music videos, particular for the kind of impresario and curator of her identity that Swift seems to have become since the release of 1989. One of the more striking and silly ramifications of this came in 2011 in the wake of Rebecca Black’s viral fiasco “Friday.” Black’s song brought to prominence to the dudes at Ark Music Factory, who for about ten grand will try to turn your kid into a vaguely convincing simulacrum of an existing popular musician. Also on their roster at the time was eight-year old “CJ Fam,” a Curly Sue type who Ark decided should sing a song called “Ordinary-Average Pop Star.” In the video that accompanies the song (public-access-TV-quality videos being, apparently, the reason your stepdad pays for the Ark experience), CJ defiantly announces that she has rejected the trappings of fame (mostly limos and cameras) she has never experienced in her eight years as a person we have never heard of, to embrace the “average” life that she has never experienced anything but and has hired Ark to create. “I wanna have a regular life again,” she says, imagining famous young women who have irregular lives. While almost certainly conceived by Ark studio boss, affable Nigerian Patrice Wilson, the song nonetheless crystallizes the dream that gets so constantly refracted through female pop stars and their encounters with the media. “I wanna be who I am,” she sings, “and who I am is CJ Fam.”

And because of what Roach describes as this tendency for female pop stars to present these assymetries as unified – haters, for instance – in their resistance, they are essential to the construction of artistic identities. The “you” in Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” could be either the fans angry at her evolution, some highly publicized paramour, perpetual irritant Kanye West, or the media. Whatever. “You made” her do it. But in combining them, these opponents become bewilderingly abstract, even as they speak powerfully to the pressures women face when they have the status of an icon pushed upon them. As Rebecca Lush has written in a compelling scholarly article, Lady Gaga constructs “performance identity . . . in a way that deliberately obscures her core personal identity.” In “Aura,” it’s just that: a curtain she hides behind that only certain people get invited into, even though everyone wants to. In that song, “Do you wanna touch me, cosmic lover,” represents the tease at the heart of performance and spectacle by, Lush writes, “relying on extreme opposites: covered body versus exposed body, good versus bad, famous versus unknown.” Of course, Gaga has been such an affirming advocate of the LGBT community that it was considered activism just for her to perform in the same proximity of Mike Pence at the Superbowl. And this only further works to mystify the contradiction – she is an artificiality that can constantly change, that you cannot know, and yet to whom you should attach yourself yourself as one of her “little monsters” in an attempt to diversify the world.

My own work focuses on seventeenth- and eighteen-century poets, one of the most colorful of whom is Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. After the Restoration in England, the monarchy of the swarthy Charles II released the dammed-up sexual energy of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan autocracy. Yet even against this colorful backdrop, Cavendish was extraordinarily weird. She wrote a five-hundred page book about science that included a proto-feminist Utopia filled with hermaphroditic animal people. She received a rare invitation to a Royal Society laboratory demonstration and showed up with a “very pretty black boy” who treated this most solemn of scientific spaces like a playground, as she wore a “dress so antick” that Samuel Pepys, whose diaries serve as a tour guide for Restoration culture, said he did “not like her at all, nor did hear anything that was worth hearing.” Looking back before a recent critical recovery of Cavendish’s legacy by feminist scholars, Virginia Woolf (not a fan) classified Cavendish as “crack-brained and bird-witted,” with the “freakishness of an elf.”

On the frontispiece of several of Cavendish’s works of plays, poetry, letters, or fiction was an image of herself as a statue, with an poetic inscription that began with the lines, “Here on this Figure Cast a Glance./ But so as if it were by Chance, /Your eyes not fixt, they must not Stay /Since this like Shadowes to the Day / It only represent’s . . .” If what Roach describes as the “It” figure is an ultimately false vision of “inevitable harmonies,” Cavendish turns to the spectator and their inability to correctly see “abnormally interesting people,” who are “Shadowes.” That’s not too far removed from Gaga’s aura, but it’s different: the desire to interpret these shadows, to see behind the curtain, says more about our desire than the phantasm she creates.

In that sinister laugh from “Blow,” Kesha announced supreme defiance. But it wasn’t a sense that you couldn’t know her, just that she would trigger the dynamite if you if you got too close, destroying you and her. There has never been, and still isn’t, anything particularly complicated about her. “Godzilla” is an example of a metaphor that works in the same way that Aesop’s do: you’re supposed to get it [paragraph unfinished] . .

Even if Kesha has always adopted a sneer of defiance, embodied in that laugh from “Blow,” but now it’s linked to an off-putting openness about her tendency toward self-destruction and extreme sensitivity. In a typically spellbindingly weird interview with NPR, Kesha stated that she’s “a little bit of an empath and a fragile heart for this world.” It’s all there on Rainbow, a sense that we might do better if we tried to understand her and each other.

 

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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

 

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!”