Jennifer Jason Leigh Lovefest (JJLL): Rush (1991)

When we first meet Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Kristen in Rush, we’re watching her through a fence as she’s being doubted. The film invites us, like Jason Patric’s veteran narco, to think that this woman isn’t going to be up for a job, before she blows past her male opponents on the track on which she’s training. That’s kind of the recurring theme for this movie, and it’s a familiar one in the tradition of “Don’t call me Babe!” But it works here because of what we see of JJL in the next scene – she’s passive, quiet, and scared.


A typical JJL performance pits her as a woman who struggles with her desires, who is vulnerable but exhibits unusual bravery. There are usually drugs and sex – sometimes gratuitous – and JJL  embraces these highs and lows and has ever since playing a teenager in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Here, JJL is a cop who is tough but doesn’t act it: that role goes to the assured fuck-up Jim Rayner, played with occasionally excessive intensity by Jason Patric. The strength of Patric’s performance is how JL responds to him, and the way her confidence comes and goes as she gets deeper into doomed romance and the heroin addiction that comes with it. It’s easier to be impressed by Patric’s tics and shakes and shudders, but Leigh is the one who owns up to how awful she feels and tries to keep her emotional and physical earthquake from showing.


There’s no scene where, like the pipsqueak Hooks in the Police Academy movies, she flips the switch of repressed rage. She likes being scared, she tells Rayner, in a Texas accent that it feels like the character is a bit ashamed of. Rush came out at the end of 1991, the same year that Jodie Foster would appear in Silence of the Lambs. Like Foster’s Clarice Starling, JJL’s Kristen is a smart woman of a dubious past with ambitions that lead her to the lairs of dark people. It’s easy to see JJL playing Clarice – she’s only a bit younger than Foster and has a similar intelligence, stoic but often unglamorous beauty, and vulnerability and toughness that are identical. Foster won her second Oscar for Silence, while Leigh has only been nominated once for her supporting role in The Hateful Eight. While Foster was working with Jonathan Demme at the top of his game, Leigh had to create her own luck by pursuing unconventional roles in uncommercial films. After Silence, Foster struggled with a string of high-profile duds like Sommersby and Maverick, and has really never had the right kind of role since. In choosing a career in mostly independent movies, JJL thrived and yet never became a big box office name – in this case working with Lili Fini Zanuck in the only feature film she ever directed. The wife of grand producing poobah Richard Zanuck, this might be seen as nepotism, but the film is unpretentious, unromantic, and solid (it depends too much on its Eric Clapton-heavy classic rock score, and it’s mostly known today as the movie that gave us Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” which seems kind of out of place given that it’s about the death of his son). But it never ascends into the kind of operatics you expect from a movie with this kind of heavy material.


Intriguingly, the early 90s  were a  good time for young stars to play smart and capable but haunted cops – alongside Leigh and Foster, we could also include Jamie Lee Curtis in Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel. All three of their movies feature women trying to establish themselves to male superiors (Sam Elliott, Scott Glenn, and a cadre of suits in Blue Steel). All three feature the women struggling with their desires for violent, dangerous men. It’s the last part of this formula that I like the least – I think I’d prefer a Clarice Starling movie that doesn’t have Anthony Hopkins’ stagy Hannibal Lektor. But even if they had to share the stage, it was a welcome sign that strong women in the movies didn’t have to carry machine guns or karate-kick Roger Moore to show that power.

(You can watch RUSH on Tubi, with ads, for free; it’s a pretty good service and the ads aren’t overwhelming.)


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 ( 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)

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

A letter from Kentucky State President Raymond M. Burse

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

Gofundme page for supporting transportation for involved students

A recent article in the New York Times


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:


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:


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.


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!”