Wednesday, March 14, 2012

RIP Pierre Schoendoerffer

Pierre Schoendoerffer (1928-2012), director, screenwriter, documentarist, novelist, made one of my favorite movies of all time, Le Crabe-Tambour (The Drummer-Crab), based on his own novel, in 1977. As a dramatic tale of the sea, it's up there with Moby Dick, and I'm not exaggerating one iota. Godard's frequent collaborator Raoul Coutard was responsible for the breathtaking nautical cinematography. Although this is the only Schoendoerffer film I have been lucky enough to see, he was by no means a one-hit wonder; he won best screenplay at Cannes in 1965 for The 317th Platoon, and an Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary in 1967 for The Anderson Platoon (which is about the ongoing conflict in Vietnam, an obsessive subject for him; he was at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and later made an epic about it).

Schoendoerffer worked with or adapted other great French writers: Joseph Kessel (the author of the novels that Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows and Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour are based on); Jean Larteguy (author of the acclaimed war novel The Centurions); Jorge Semprun (author of the screenplays for Costa-Gavras's Z and The Confession, and Alain Resnais's La guerre est finie and Stavisky); Pierre Loti (two of whose neglected novels he made into films). John Milius made Schoendoerffer's own novel Farewell to the King into a movie with Nick Nolte in 1989.

I suspect that Schoendoerffer's entire creative output, always valued in France (where he served as President of the Academie des Beaux-Arts), will at some point receive a thorough (and deserved) international assessment.

Teaching Notes: A Warning for the 21st Century

In my Introduction to Social Sciences classes, we are nearing the end of our Economics unit. A very bright and capable young woman who knew plenty of econ before entering the class called me over at the end of one session and asked, "Mr. Harris, do you think that capitalism could collapse? Are you worried about it?" I had to confess that I was, and we had a really good conversation, which led to my adding a section to the tail-end of my teaching notes for tomorrow's classes on Economic Indicators. I don't often use my teaching platform as a soapbox, but somehow in this case, I think it's a good idea.

A warning for the 21st century

Investors are understandably very interested in the rates of return on their investments

In today’s economic world, a lot of people make a lot of money by just moving a lot of value and pseudo-value around

And they do it very fast, in micro-seconds; trading computers are programmed with algorithms (formulas) that tell them when to buy, when to sell, when to do other things

These days, it’s all a speed competition = my computer is faster than your computer

Pseudo-value = money in the money supply that may have been created by government fiat in the form of currency, or by commercial banks in the form of loans (deposit multiplication), but that is not actually backed by real increases in the economy’s productiveness

At some point, all those billions and trillions of “value” that show up as digits on computer screens have to relate back to real people making real stuff for which there is or will be a real demand

Otherwise, the economy is an empty game and it will end badly

Monday, March 12, 2012

TED Talkers

A short piece at The Millions links to three longer articles "hating on TED" and the "public intellectuals" and wannabes who crowd it:

As these glamorati yap and network their way from conference to conference, getting off on their personal branding, I don’t see the world becoming a noticeably better place from all the hot air being expelled. Years ago, Thomas Merton wrote of the danger of becoming associated with, and therefore the representative and inevitable defender of, any particular set of ideas; he felt that it could only limit him as a thinker. Before the concept of personal branding was branded, he was wholeheartedly against it. And that is one reason why Merton is a profound, unpinnable thinker (just as Freud is not a Freudian, and Marx is not a Marxist), while Richard Saul Wurman, Chris Anderson, Malcolm Gladwell, and David Brooks, for all their occasional virtues, are not. Rather, they are mainly pseudo-intellectual opportunists for whom the conference world (along with the obligatory appearances on Charlie Rose, etc.) is just another way of growing their bottom line. If they and their ilk have anything genuine to offer amidst all the publicity-mongering, I'll try to figure that out. As far as their making the scene goes, however, even though they may be consumed by it, why should I care? Never let yourself be used by people who are primarily trying to get excited about themselves - not even by clicking on their links, harmless though that may seem. For politicians, actors, and conference talkers, including the talented ones, attention, like the ability to hob-nob with others at their wattage level, is primarily a masturbatory aid. Remember Faye Dunaway in Network, climaxing as she goes on about ratings shares? Like that.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Found on the Web: The Sinking of the Lusitania

As often as possible, I want my students to read information in their textbook or other sources, hear it from me in class, and see it on screen. So whenever I prepare a lesson these days in any of my subjects, I poke around YouTube to see if I can find any interesting and relevant videos, and quite often I come up with unexpected gems. I like to mix up documentary footage, bits of dramatizations, videos created expressly for the Web, other students' posted projects, humorous takes, musical takes, older educational productions (which now have a period charm(, cartoons, materials in Spanish, and so on.

In the midst of my prep for teaching World War I, I discovered an incredible documentary/propaganda short created in 1918 by the great cartoonist and experimental animator Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland), based on The Sinking of the Lusitania by a German U boat in May 1915 - one of those events that pushed the United States a little closer to entering the Great War on the Allied side, which it eventually did do in April, 1917. McCay and his assistants drew 25,000 cels for this unusual and beautiful piece.