Shame

ShameShame by Steve McQueen

A disturbing movie for unexpected reasons.

First off, it’s not shocking, which says something about how pornographic images of sex (as opposed to other kinds of images) have saturated our culture, public spaces, private imaginaries. The desire to show all is matched today it seems by a sense of having seen all.

The movie is most interesting for how it imagines a private space in the city. The city in this story is merely the backdrop for an intensely private drama and the occasion for beautiful photography. The landscape is window dressing (literally in the many scenes where characters are seen in front of or through window glass). And other characters simply don’t exist as anything other than place holders. The protagonist is alone and to the extent he feels shame at any particular moment, the feeling emerges from his brief recognition of his loss of contact with others. When others break contact with him–in a bar, in a restaurant, at work, in an apartment–and look away, then he has failed and shame is what he feels.

If the pornographic desire to show all can become a vehicle for carving out a private space for individual experience and then remind us that this private experience can support our need for emotional connection with others  (which is what I think this movie suggests), then feeling shame may be the most positive emotional experience available to us today. And if that is the case, then all that queer work on abjection and identity construction in marginal communities might become a major tool for understanding dominant cultures in the age of Facebook. Holy shit, right?

ps–my main annoyance with the film was that (and maybe this relates to my last point?) “rock bottom” is signalled in the movie by two queer encounters. One anonymous in a gay bar, the other bought with two women. Why is such a “risky”, “taboo-breaking” film about sex so boring in its sense of the bounds of what shameful sex is? Apparently treating women like meat might be bad, especially if it goes too far or happens too often, but anything not one man, one woman is really really bad bad bad right from the very start. …Stupid stupid stupid.

The Devil’s Double

The Devil's DoubleThe Devil’s Double by Lee Tamahori

I haven’t looked but, judging by the visual style and celebration of tastefully ostentatious consumption, I’m assuming the director of this film started out in fashion photography or bling-centric music videos. For all its self-importance, the film looks like an advertisement. The problem is that it wants to celebrate, revel in, and mythologize the very things the narrative uses to characterize the antagonist as villainous.

So watching this film is a bit like watching someone hitch a donkey to the front and the back of their cart and say “Giddyup!” Both start pulling and throwing up dust, but they don’t really get anywhere.

The best work is done by the main actor…but again, like the movie, he’s playing both the hero and the villain. So his energies cancel each other out too.

All in all, a noisy, busy bit of tastefully done fashion photography. And boring.

Rango

Rango Theatrical posterA friend suggested this film, and I’m glad. It was a smart, funny movie that looked great. I guess the kids were into the animals on-screen, the site gags and the over-arching story? Otherwise, this movie is all for adults and is constructed around an elaborate set of movie references. It’s a fun and well done movie about Hollywood film culture.

Update: I just reread my off-the-cuff thoughts and realize I’ve made this sound like every other animated movie for the past fifteen years:  kiddie story dressed up in pop-culture references to keep mom and dad happy and smug. So just to be clear, that’s not what I mean. This movie’s narrative is built in relation to to Johnny Depp’s career, the western (but especially Eastwood’s Leone films), and importantly, Polanski’s Chinatown. These references are not “nods toward” but instead are full-blown allusions that enable and enrich the story. I’m risking making the movie out to be bigger than it is here, but it is good enough to make “too big” safer ground than the “too small” my original comment mapped out.

Students Learn in Classrooms Too?

What Is College For? – NYTimes.com:

“Students readily accept the alleged wisdom that their most important learning at college takes place outside the classroom.  Many faculty members — thinking of their labs, libraries or studies — would agree.  But the truth is that, for both students and faculty members, the classroom is precisely where the most important learning occurs.”

Law & Culture Wars

In Teaching Law – NYTimes.com Stanley Fish writes his best piece in a while. He argues that, law is more than a skilled affair. Knowledge matters–both in its constitution and in its practice. He bases this claim on John Searle, pointing out that:

[K]nowledge is reflective. It is developed not on the wing, but in a course of study. It is academic knowledge in the best sense, knowledge that becomes yours by pondering abstract, hypothetical questions; and while the answers to those questions may not have an obviously direct relationship to a particular moment in practice, moments in practice will be illuminated by them in ways of which the practitioner may sometimes be unaware.

Agreed.

But the next paragraph he makes a turn I have real problems with. He writes:

Brian Leiter, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, rejects the question of whether what one learns in law school is of any help: “The criterion of scholarly inquiry is whether it makes a contribution to knowledge and understanding, not whether it ‘helps.’” Leiter adds that what he calls “genuine” knowledge often does help with “a host of concrete and practical problems.” But he refuses (rightly, I think) to justify the academic study of law on that basis, for, he explains, “it is the central premise of a research institution that the measure of its achievement is the quality of the scholarship, i.e. its contribution to knowledge — whether of law or biology or literature — not its practical payoff in the short-term.

Now out of fairness, I should say that this is Fish the Blogger responding to comments. But in this case, the comment he pulls into his text stands proxy for Fish the Culture Warrior and serves as a provocation. The move is familiar, and we know what the next one is: someone objects to this definition of the university project–and it doesn’t matter whether the objection is “the university isn’t useless” or “Damned useless universities”–then Fish follows up from the well-established 90s script that celebrates the inaccessibility of the Ivory Tower, talks over the plebes heads, leads nowhere and, ultimately, lays waste to everything. In short, offering this definition of the university scuttles the original and much more interesting question about the relation between knowledge and practice, replacing it with a debate about the relative value of the university as an institution.

So my question: is there an alternative to the technical/useful/skill/practice versus intellectual/useless/knowledge/institution dichotomies of the Culture War or are they inevitable today?

He’s certainly putting a lot of weight on the distinction between short- and long-term. So is temporality perhaps the place to start thinking about this? Or perhaps the distinction I made between question and debate?

Jhereg

JheregSo in the days leading up to my defence, I found myself at the Bibliothèque nationale and grabbed a copy of a fantasy novel I read long, long ago but remember quite well, Jhereg by Steven Brust. I remember it for one reason only: the narration. This is a first person novel told by a snarky, world-weary, sly guy who skips telling everything that matters except in retrospect and then always says some version of “Oh yeah, that thing? It was nothing.”

This is rhetorical trickery of the best kind. It allows the story to avoid having to narrate action or portray extreme states of emotion, both of which are difficult to do without appearing forced or even false. It also elicits a lot of sympathy for the narrator by setting up so much of the story as things he doesn’t need to tell because we both already know what’s up. This is the contrived intimacy of the coworker leaning in, eyebrows raised, and whispering “I know I don’t have to tell you this but…” and it works here. I’m asked to imagine a world I don’t need to be told about, which makes the novel a work of (my) imagination. Literally.

I was over a hundred and twenty pages in and having a blast before I realized how much of the story was just random invented actions, one followed by another, with no strict causality and few consequences. A few formal repetitions of action at the end provide closure as the overarching problem is returned to and solved, and then the novel was done. It was completely satisfying.

And I’m very impressed.