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I only mock the brilliant, responsible students. (And only when they ask for it.)

[ 63 ] October 22, 2012 |

I apologize for the lack of posts lately, but since I sent in my absentee ballot, the election’s lost a little luster for me. Turns out that voting ruins elections.

Go figure.

That said, look forward to much more on Game of Thrones from me in the near future. I’ve already written the posts, I just can’t publish them yet because my students are on to the fact that I post my lesson plans before I teach them, which has resulted in a truly frightening situation in which they actually know everything I’m going to say before I say it. So I have to hold those back until after class on Tuesday. (Grumble stupid students being responsible grumble.)

But my kids are still blogging, and they’re producing all sorts of interesting material. I assign them 1,000 words a week, 500 of which I script for them via a prompt, the other 500 they’re free to write whatever they want so long as it includes the course’s critical vocabulary. Last week I covered the neuroscientific argument about frontality, the short version of which I discussed here, and now I have students who can’t stop seeing faces everywhere. Including one particularly bright apple whose free post this week concerned Prometheus in a very interesting way. He began by noting that the film opens with an intelligent designer ceding its DNA to fertilize the Earth—the pun was intended in the original—and that the first scene in the film that includes humans opens thus:

Seems innocuous enough, right? But according to my student, Ridley Scott—whose name is but an inverted “d” from being “Ripley Scott,” as my student pointed out—wanted to remind viewers that this was a seeded world with this shot. How so? By including evidence of intelligent design in the rock features:

Prometheus00003a

See how sad that rock is? See? It’s this sad:

Prometheus00008a

Just tilt Mr. Intelligent Designer man about 35 degrees to the left and you’d have Mr. Sad Rock:

Prometheus00008b

I’m not sure I buy this argument—and strongly suspect that I may have overplayed the frontality hand—but I can’t help but admire the pluck of this close-reading, especially given the fact that stretched as it is, it does conform with the overall (and problematic) logic of the film, which is all about, as the audience is informed immediately after Mr. Sad Rock makes his appearance, the existence of “the same configuration” appearing across Earth and the universe. I informed my student that this was an impressively terrible argument—far too overdetermined to be correct—and he responded by saying I should put it out there for others to decide. I warned him about what happens on the wilds of the Internet, but given that he’s taken legitimate points about frontality and merged them with a solid accounting of the film, he feels comfortable putting his theories out there.

So what do you think?

Comments (63)

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  1. Downpuppy says:

    To the right of the 3 vertical rocks is the recumbent face of Howard the Duck, bill open.

    I take that as a warning to flee the theater.

  2. ajay says:

    I cannot see a face in that rock at all.

    And it’s not a CGI rock – that rock actually exists on Skye. It’s called the Old Man of Storr.

    (“Old Man” is a Victorian euphemistic translation of the Gaelic word meaning “Rock that looks vaguely like a huge dong”).

    • SEK says:

      I take it the student means this, but then again, I’m not sure I’m seeing what he’s seeing, so maybe I’m just projecting faces on the world now.

    • delurking says:

      If it’s an actual rock, and the actual name of it is The Old Man of Storr, wouldn’t that support this student’s reading?

      That is, the director probably knew the name of this famous rock, and *is* using it to reflect the sad designer’s face? Given that (if we go with this) he’s the “old man” or father of all life on this planet?

      If it’s a penis, this reading also works, yeah?

    • Julia Grey says:

      It doesn’t look like any (human) dong *I’VE* ever seen.

      Hmm. I’ve been under the impression all these years that I’d gotten a good look at rather a lot of these things, but maybe my experience is more limited than I previously thought….

      Seriously, though, to me it looks like a giant SEED, upon which I do see a vague face. To me, though, the face looks almost agonized.

    • Steve says:

      Sometimes, a rock is just a rock.

  3. JazzBumpa says:

    I perceive a vaguely duckish aspect in the face on the leftmost rock.

    So what if your student is wrong? Is there really right and wrong in this area?

    If so, I say that if you’re going to be wrong, be wrong in some originally creative, and perhaps even spectacular way.

    Then again, he could just be yanking your chain.

    JzB [who sees rock faces in the rock face at the far right]

    • SEK says:

      I say that if you’re going to be wrong, be wrong in some originally creative, and perhaps even spectacular way.

      I agree with this, for the most part, so long as the student’s still doing a close-reading of the film. I don’t want them to claim that everything a Freudian would consider a penis is actually evidence of unicorns — which would also be penises to a Freudian, but that’s beside the point. And this student did a solid job of bringing the scientific argument about facial projection in line with the theme of the film (creationism) and claims to see the two converge … which is a better argument than simply “I see a face in that rock.”

      Plus, this was in his free post, which I love, because it means they’re watching everything closely at this point. I have another student writing about how FOX and NBC film injured NFL differently from CBS. It’s all about the angles of framing — high on FOX and NBC, both to see inside the circle of trainers and to make the injured player look weak and sympathetic, low on CBS to make the injured player look manly and resilient — but he re-evaluted his last night after watching Fred Davis hop off the field and down the sideline, in what even I thought was a bit egregious coverage of an obviously injured player.

      But it’s only Week Three, so they’re supposed to be going a little hog-wild with their new-found knowledge. I admit that I have more fun watching their first attempts to fly than I probably should, but …

  4. wengler says:

    If only Ridley Scott had put as much work into finding a good script.

    A brilliantly shot turd of a movie.

    • Auguste says:

      From what I’ve been able to reconstruct from people who have watched the DVD extras, he actually did find a good script.

      Then he changed it.

      • SEK says:

        Agree on both counts. Brilliantly shot, terrible film that could’ve been decent were it not for Scott’s “improvements” to the script.

        • Medrawt says:

          Isn’t Scott also responsible for over-explaining who is and isn’t supposed to be a replicant in Blade Runner?

          • Karate Bearfighter says:

            He was actually on the right side of that one. The only confirmation in the director’s cut that Harrison Ford is a replicant is the origami unicorn Edward James Olmos leaves outside his apartment door. The theatrical release added the voiceovers and the happy, “she gets to live forever” ending.

            Uh, oh yeah, *spoilers*.

        • timb says:

          so disappointing. I watched this on a plane this week and was so disappointed.

          POINT OF ORDER
          How can yoiur oxygen suit be at “30 seconds of air” when you take it off and be fully recharged when you put it back on, 27 seconds later and how did TE Lawrence know “He” was coming for her?

          • BigHank53 says:

            A pissant quibble.

            Why are there worms crawling around a chamber that was described as “sterile” seconds before? Why don’t these people have anything remotely resembling a decontamination protocol? Why have the last two survivors forgotten how to run away from things rolling downhill? Where did that fetal facehugger come up with 600 lbs of muscle mass?

            The stupid, it burns.

      • JREinATL says:

        From what I’ve been able to reconstruct from people who have watched the DVD extras, he actually did find a good script

        The Blu-ray’s 3 hour and 40 minute making-of doc is an abosolute incredible document about the way big-ass Hollywood movies get made these days and (if you’re so inclined to read it as such) how they go off the rails.

        • Medrawt says:

          Holy shit. I skipped this movie because I had no desire to be disappointed, as I was sure I would be on reading various spoilery reviews, but that almost makes me want to buy a Blu-ray player for the sole purpose of watching that.

          • JREinATL says:

            Yeah, I’m mezzo-mezzo on the film itself, but bought the Blu-ray anyway for the supplements.

            As a bonus, I was nicely surprised to see how much work Scott & Co. did to make sure that the film relied primarily on practical special effects and real sets.

      • John F says:

        That’s the story for most of the film Franchise, I read the treatment for what Alien 3 was supposed to be- right up until filming started and it took a massive left turn into suckitude…

    • Steve says:

      Hear, hear. Even with the extras, it is incomprehensible. The only thing Scott can do now is make a sequel to try and explain this baffling series of amazing scenery shots. I’m waiting for Mr. Plinkett to tear it a new gaping chest hole.

  5. JazzBumpa says:

    Under certain lighting conditions, the formation between The Old Man of Storr and recumbent Howard the Duck could be seen as howling at the moon.

    Really, the possibilities are endless.

    JzB

  6. RJB says:

    Teachable moment! Go for it.

    • SEK says:

      I’ve already worked it into the lesson plan, clipped my less-than-legally acquired copy of Prometheus and everything. Also, I’m going to let the student teach this bit of the class, as a presentation. He’s excited, as I am, to see if he can convince his classmates. I’ll update tomorrow afternoon.

  7. Izzy says:

    Okay, on the one hand, that reading is, as you say, wildly overdetirmined. If this film was directed by Alan Moore, then I’d retract this criticism.*

    That said, since the film hits the design argument (to call it an argument is being generous) repeatedly and unsubtly, I think it’s plausible that, even if Scott didn’t intend to have a face there, he intends for us to see design everywhere in the film,** which makes your students reading reasonable again.

    *Dog Help Me, I’m teaching V for Vendetta tonight. I can’t ever figure out why Moore gets a pass on misogyny from so many.

    **SEK, I’d love to know your thoughts, more broadly, on the question of directorial intent. I find it almost impossible to believe Scott intended a face in that shot, but if enough thoughtful viewers see the face, I’d be inclined to say it is there in a meaningful way, whether Scott intended it to be or not.

    • Hogan says:

      I can’t ever figure out why Moore gets a pass on misogyny from so many.

      THANK you.

      • SEK says:

        I can’t ever figure out why Moore gets a pass on misogyny from so many.

        Because he criticizes later what he indulged in earlier. V for Vendetta isn’t Watchmen nor in the same league as Promethea. V was his first “serious” work. (He was working on Captain Britain at the same time, I believe.

        I’d love to know your thoughts, more broadly, on the question of directorial intent.

        Given that films, especially Hollywood films, are so micro-managed I think it’s safe to assume intent so long as you can make a reasonable argument for a particular visual artifact. So, as in the case above, I believe a case can be made, and the fact that the rock formation’s both 1) famous and 2) an important, balancing element of the composition, it’s certainly there for a reason. Whether Scott’s ape-brain sees the same face I assume my student and I see in it, that I can’t say for sure. But it’s not implausible.

        As for non-contemporary Hollywood fare, it’s a case-by-case basis. Films from the ’70s, at the height of the auteur era, I have no problems attributing intent to. Same thing with 95 percent of Kubrick, given what we know about his meticulousness. I extend that same courtesy to contemporary directors with complete creative control — like George Lucas, for example, who’s solely responsible for the Jamaican monster inhabiting those films. With television it’s a lot trickier, because you have show-runners and shooting-books and I’ve-been-told-by-television-directors-that-I’m-wrong, but I’m still find it useful to begin from the assumption that artifacts are meaningful … so long as you can accept that many times they’re not. I think people assume I think everything’s meaningful, but that’s only because I don’t post about terminal rabbit-holes. If I don’t find anything interesting, I tend not to write about it.

        • Izzy says:

          Because he criticizes later what he indulged in earlier.

          That’s true, but I find that defenses of his work go beyond even what Moore was willing to defend. Since he’s hardly one to avoid expressing an opinion, I’m a little baffled that his defenders will go so much further than he in defending his work.

          —–

          More broadly, I like that interpretive framework, though I wonder if we couldn’t push it even further; it’s a plausible reading of the text, not contradicted by other textual elements. I tend to agree that your student’s reading is an artifact best explained by neuroscience, but even so I can’t find any reason to reject it. Just because Bradbury argues Fahrenheit 451 isn’t about censorship doesn’t make that reading invalid. So I’m not sure that the unlikelihood of the face being Scott’s intent undercuts your student’s reading in any significant way.

          • SEK says:

            I’m a little baffled that his defenders will go so much further than he in defending his work.

            Because most comics scholars have a little Comic Book Guy in their guts, and feel the need to defend ALL OF THE THINGS instead of only the defensible. I liken it to Faulkner scholars who can’t see that the early, explicitly racist works are actually racist, and that claiming as much doesn’t undermine the complicated racial politics of the later works, you know, the ones he wrote after he started struggling with his assumptions.

            I tend to agree that your student’s reading is an artifact best explained by neuroscience, but even so I can’t find any reason to reject it.

            I want to reject it because it feels too squishy — to use the, uh, technical term. But given that the kid’s only taking the interpretative framework I provided and applying it to the text, I’m not about to fault him for it. If the rest of his argument is sound — and it is, for the record — I can’t deny him his flourishes if they accord with everything else. I can say I still think it’s implausible, but given the conditions of the argument as he’s established them, I’m sort of compelled to grant him that point (Which, as a former debate, makes me feel like he’s backed this Baby in a corner.) As for whether Scott put it there deliberately, well, we’re dangerously close to [PDF WARNING] literally replicating Knapp and Michaels’s argument about beach poetry, which one of these days I’m sure I’ll be fine with, given that Michaels is my intellectual grandpa.

            • Izzy says:

              Because most comics scholars have a little Comic Book Guy in their guts…

              This is the best explanation of the phenomenon I’ve ever read. Thank you.

              It also puts me in mind of a related reason I’ve always suspected: that defenders of comics-as-art worry that accepting any attack on Moore weakens their overall project, and so are sometimes overeager.

              —-

              I happily concede the danger I’ve opened myself to here. Part of the reason I’m finding it impossible to object to your students reading is that Scott has created a film so focused on artifacts of design (albeit incoherently so) that, once apparent design is pointed out, there’s essentially no way to refute it, unless we could find Scott explicitly rejecting the face-in-the-rock example (and possibly not even then).

              • JazzBumpa says:

                It also puts me in mind of a related reason I’ve always suspected: that defenders of comics-as-art worry that accepting any attack on Moore weakens their overall project, and so are sometimes overeager.

                Why do I think of Republicans when I read this?

    • So maybe an overdetermined reading that matches the other elements of the film is inherently more plausible than one that runs counter to them? There is a lower bar for reinforcement than there is for revisionism… though this would imply that the real weight of the argument comes from outside the argument itself.

      I still think the student has identified the wrong face — put me in the duck camp!!

      • SEK says:

        So maybe an overdetermined reading that matches the other elements of the film is inherently more plausible than one that runs counter to them?

        Absolutely. If nothing else, if something’s evident in other, non-visual elements of the film, you can argue that clearly that something was on the director’s mind, which makes it more plausible that it’d work its way into his or her shot selection.

        I want their arguments to come from the film, to be immanent, and one that begins (as this one does) from an obvious plot element in the film is going to be more plausible than one that claims, e.g. that in that shot Howard the Duck has an erection, literalizing the otherwise Freudian cigar that’s always in his mouth, etc.

    • rea says:

      I find it almost impossible to believe Scott intended a face in that shot

      I find it difficult to believe that he could take a shot of the Old Man of Storr without intending a face. It is not particularly obscure–there would be signs at the trialhead–”This way to the Old Man of Storr.”

      • rea says:

        “trailhead”

        • ajay says:

          I find it difficult to believe that he could take a shot of the Old Man of Storr without intending a face. It is not particularly obscure–there would be signs at the trailhead–”This way to the Old Man of Storr.”

          It’s not called The Old Man of Storr because it has a face on it, though. And there is, in fact, no trailhead, and no signs. I’ve been there.

  8. BigHank53 says:

    Now, what I see in that rock is a distinct reminder of the big ol’ Engineer ship that takes off in that same opening scene.

  9. Manju says:

    I may have overplayed the frontality hand

    Well, that’s what you get for watering your wife’s succulents on the porch.

  10. Paul Clarke says:

    By including evidence of intelligent design in the rock features:

    I didn’t see the face either – my immediate guess was that the rock suggested intelligent design by resembling a flint hand ax.

  11. Leeds man says:

    the film opens with an intelligent designer

    It’s not intelligent design. It’s just anthropocentric bollocks.

  12. JimInMissoula says:

    Rock looks more like a seed than a face… maybe a genetically engineered seed.

    Just watched this last night and while it was pretty to look at, it really didn’t hold together at all.

  13. [...] I only mock the brilliant, responsible students. (And only when they ask for it.) [Via Lawyers, Guns and Money] [...]

  14. Bill K says:

    That wasn’t an intelligent designer/Engineer. The movie makes a muddle of this, as it does so many things. That was a member of a servant race of the Engineers. There was a rebellion, and the leader was condemned to die on a barren planet. Call him Lucifer, if you will. When you look at it that way it explains a lot. Of course, it was still a screwed-up movie.

  15. Peter Hovde says:

    Raises an interesting question on what counts as visual rhetoric. Viewers can be cued by the angle of a shot without conscious recognition that it’s the angle that is doing it, but in this case, if viewers don’t see the face, arguably they’re not really getting any cue at all, unless it’s analogized to a subliminal cut.

  16. Ashley Casas says:

    I admire your student’s bravery for allowing his argument be put forth in the unforgiving Internet. I admire his depth, hilarious as it may seem.

  17. xaaronx says:

    As I said on your Facebook, showing the picture after saying “ceding its DNA to fertilize the Earth” leaves me little choice but to see a penis.

    The fact that my mind notices that if you flip that rock upside down it would kind of fit into the cleft in the next formation is entirely my fault, though.

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