Monday, February 15, 2010

February 15

Much recent satire -- South Park, The Onion in all its multi-pronged glory (print, web, audio, video), The Daily Show, the fine political film In the Loop which I finished watching last night -- actually pays tribute to its objects, for providing the material needed for the satirists to ply their trade. Thus, they embody no more anger or reformist zeal than a Johnny Carson opening monologue. I'm reminded of a comment that Peter Sagal of NPR's Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me! made about the Bush administration, that they "practically wrote our show for us"; the dominant note there is gratitude, not outrage. All the examples I'm citing make me laugh heartily, and serve a useful function in flagging the idiocies that surround us; but at bottom, they don't really wish those idiocies to go away. Charles Dickens in his satiric mode was not perhaps as funny as these modern exemplars, but he was furious; he intended to have an impact. So did Mark Twain. I'm not saying that there are no contemporary equivalents -- I think Bill Maher is genuinely angry, and I know George Carlin was -- but they are few in number compared to our more amiable satirists.

In the Loop, for all its surface toughness and cynicism and its non-stop parade of profanity, is rather a sweet and toothless film; it enjoys the monsters it portrays a little too much, and it puts forward no argument that "things don't have to be like this." Watching what seems to be a fairly accurate and acute depiction of how current politics works (as others have pointed out, it's a bit like The West Wing uncensored), I felt the instinctive recoil I often do, and thanked my lucky stars that this is one career field I never seriously explored. I wouldn't be up to it; I'm not made of that stuff. I can barely read about Rahm Emanuel, let alone imagine dealing with him. Unfortunately, the high-pressure, ego-ridden political model for "getting things done" (or not, as the case may be) is well established in business, academics, medicine, and elsewhere; there is scarcely any escaping it. Sometimes I feel I should put in for a transfer to a different paradigm.

All that said, In the Loop is an enjoyable, recommendable film. A highlight of the DVD is the section of deleted scenes, which are brilliantly edited together to create a miniature film in their own right, a pendant to the feature that delivers a ton of laughs.

I've been reading a lot about the space programs of the Sixties and Seventies, so I was intrigued by io9's speculations on "Which Country Will Be the Next to Put an Astronaut on the Moon?"

Christopher Hitchens is unimpressed by the role of the Olympics, and sports in general, in fostering human harmony:

Hitchens cites his master George Orwell's famous essay "The Sporting Spirit" to bolster his argument (as Joseph Epstein did in his own anti-sports essay "Trivial Pursuits" several years ago). As long-time readers of this blog will know, I'm down with all of them on this; though I'll never lose a warm feeling for baseball and golf, I think that sports loom ridiculously large in the current Weltanschauung. It's the lack of proportion that offends me.

Samuel Wilson at Mondo 70: A Wild World of Cinema discusses Michael Adams's new book Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro-Zombies: A Film Critic's Year-Long Quest to Find the Worst Movie Ever Made. Ever since the pioneering volumes by the Medved Brothers some thirty years, this whole field of "bad films" has been exceedingly well-trodden ground; reports from it are usually mildly entertaining but also generally somewhat pointless, because, as Wilson perceptively notes,

...identifying a truly Bad film is just a way of saying that it's interesting in some distinctive way that an objectively Bad film shouldn't be. The perfect Bad film, perhaps, would be the one you forget as you're watching it and can't describe afterward. We've all seen films like that, but they'll never be written up in books and unlike those movies memorialized in Adams's and other tomes, they'll take every new generation by surprise.

Mikita Brottman, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, doubts the value of the "learning objectives" which have become a fetish at all levels of educational endeavor:

I do not expect the students who take my courses to absorb any particular "body of knowledge" or attain any new "skills." On the contrary, for the most part, they will probably develop new kinds of doubts and anxieties, concerns and hesitations. They will not learn anything that has any advantageous practical implications, nor will they learn anything that can be "applied" to any other situation, except in the most oblique ways. They will not develop any new "transferable benchmark skills." They will not achieve any "goals or outcomes." Indeed, they will not have "achieved" anything, except, perhaps, to doubt the value of terms like "achievement" when applied to reading literature....for me, teaching and learning are inseparable and driven not by "learning objectives," goals, outcomes, performance indicators, or assessment rubrics, but by complicated, often painful, but always irresistible compulsions.

I read this with empathy, because Brottman is clearly an "existential educator," and that is the tradition that I was educated in myself during the Seventies and that I uphold the value of today. Unfortunately for her and for me, it is not an attitude currently in vogue in the profession -- far to the contrary, I have routinely encountered the most savage denunciations of it. It has gotten to the point where I wonder whether there is any place in education for me at all.

Among notables born on this date are cartoonists/graphic novelists Art Spiegelman and Matt Groening, scientists Galileo Galilei and Douglas Hofstadter, composers Michael Praetorius, Georges Auric, Jean Langlais, and Harold Arlen, feminist Susan B. Anthony, crime novelist Sax Rohmer, philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Alfred North Whitehead, actors John Barrymore, Claire Bloom, and Kevin McCarthy, film directors Tsui Hark and Miranda July, and explorer Ernest Shackleton. The Great American Songbook is among America's major contributions to world culture, and Harold Arlen is one of the most distinguished and original contributors to it. Here is the premiere performance of "Blues in the Night," from Anatole Litvak's underrated 1941 film of the same name:

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