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To the list of items which are always excellent ideas…

[ 22 ] February 10, 2012 |

…I suggest we add “conservatives rapping“:

After all, there’s nothing wrong with a “knicker” joke among a room of wealthy white Republicans and that one black guy.


UPDATE II: For the sake of comparison, here’s your modern conservative movement in two images. First, immediately before (1:49) the “knicker” joke:

Second, here’s immediately after (1:57) the “knicker” joke:

That’s where this “rapper” is asking that one black guy “What? I can’t say ‘knickers’?” I’d be indignant too, I suppose, if I wasn’t allowed to proudly be the provocative asshole I am.

Foreshadowing and Genocide and Quite a Bit More, Actually, in “Amy’s Choice”

[ 17 ] February 8, 2012 |

(Another one of those now-more-conveniently-located posts, only significantly longer than usual because I’m squeezing three episodes into one three hour course. So apologies for the length in advance.)

One of the core assumptions of the way I teach visual rhetoric is that directors often know more than they know (or are letting on). This is because shooting schedules often don’t track with air dates—for example, the episode I’m going to be discussing today, “Amy’s Choice,” was the seventh aired, but last one filmed in Series Five of Doctor Who, meaning that writer Gareth Roberts and director Catherine Morshead already knew what would happen in the four episodes that would follow it. The result is a kind of foreknowledge masquerading as foreshadowing: the audience experiences the latter because the writer and director possess the former.

Sound obvious? That’s because that’s how we think foreshadowing works. Only one problem: foreshadowing doesn’t require authorial intent to be visible in a work. The Jews didn’t sit around writing a book foreshadowing the eventual arrival of some guy named Jesus—they wrote a book that a bunch of Christians later interpreted to contain a number of moments when the coming of some guy named Jesus was foretold. Foreshadowing, in other words, often functions as an interpretation used to bolster the authority of a particular reader. (“What do you mean you didn’t see Jesus’s coming foretold in the Hebrew Bible? What are they teaching at the monastery these days?”) Whereas foreshadowing was once largely a matter of readerly interpretation, thanks to some technological innovations I haven’t the time nor the space to get into here—it starts with books and evolves into lending libraries and marches forward—foreshadowing is now considered to be more a matter of authorial (or directorial) intervention.

More succinctly, material that used to be wrenched from variably willing texts is now forcibly inserted into them. The classic example of the latter would be the medical drama in which someone suddenly feels a sharp pain in his or her head. The cause? Some writer forcibly inserted a tumor into it as a cheaps means of “foreshadowing” death. It’s about as subtle as:

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The face of malevolence moments after discovering it’s dead inside.

[ 39 ] February 6, 2012 |

My wife claims that because I pay so little attention to lips when watching television—the deaf love nothing more than a tolerant spouse and a volume button—I end up pausing faces in the most awkwardly hilariously positions. Over the course of an evening my ring finger can lay waste to thousands of dollars of cosmetic surgery and three-point lighting and those bricks Tom Cruise’s costars are contractually obligated to ignore. So she thought it’d be a hoot for me take this talent to the masses and try it out on some politicians. Unfortunately, the results have been entirely awkward without being the least bit hilarious. Consider Mitt Romney:

There’s quite a bit to be said about Romney’s reaction to this bit of self-inflicted political theater, but the obvious message seems to me much more primal. As Darwin wrote in The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animal (1872), Romney’s “expression of misery [as almost] ludicrous caricature” is typical

with respect to infants when doubtfully beginning to cry, or endeavouring to stop crying; for they then generally command all the other facial muscles more effectually than they do the depressors of the corners of the mouth. Two excellent observers who had no theory on the subject, one of them a surgeon, carefully watched for me some older children and women as with some opposed struggling they very gradually approached the point of bursting out into tears; and both observers felt sure that the depressors began to act before any of the other muscles. Now as the depressors have been repeatedly brought into strong action during infancy in many generations, nerve-force will tend to flow, on the principle of long associated habit, to these muscles as well as to various other facial muscles, whenever in after life even a slight feeling of distress is experienced. But as the depressors are somewhat less under the control of the will than most of the other muscles, we might expect that they would often slightly contract, whilst the others remained passive. It is remarkable how small a depression of the corners of the mouth gives to the countenance an expression of low spirits or dejection, so that an extremely slight contraction of these muscles would be sufficient to betray this state of mind. (193)

In short, Romney’s desire to not be “bursting into tears” at all times has, “on the principle of long habit,” created a situation in which his hang-dog muscles “are somewhat less under the control of [his] will.” Meaning, of course, that any debate with Obama has the possibility of witnessing theatrics more grandiose than anything seen this side of a playpen.

Fighting the good fight

[ 21 ] February 1, 2012 |

To the ever-loving shock of all concerned, Bérubé does just that:

First, it is going to be very hard to tell people that many college faculty members are exploitatively underpaid. It’s going to be a particularly tough sell in communities already devastated by prolonged economic hardship. But it might be possible to play on the still-widespread belief that college professors are professionals and that parents who are sending their children to college should have some expectation that professors have the professional resources — offices, phones, mailboxes, e-mail and library access, meaningful performance reviews, participation in department governance — that make it possible for them to do their jobs. Let’s say you need an attorney, I suggested, and you go to a firm that fobs you off on an associate who has to consult with you in a hallway because he doesn’t have an office. Who would stand for that? Is it O.K. that your kid is going to a college that treats its faculty that way?

Second, it is going to be even harder to tell people that non-tenure-track faculty members need a measure of job security and academic freedom if they are going to be able to do their jobs. It amounts, I suggested, to telling parents, students, administrators, and legislators that they have to fight for the right of professors to challenge their students intellectually, free from the fear that they will be fired the moment they say something unfamiliar or upsetting about sexuality or evolution or American history or the Middle East. This argument will resonate with people who understand what higher education is all about. They are a subset of the American electorate, but they know why academic freedom is essential to an open society, and they believe in the promise of higher education. The question is whether they can be persuaded that the promise of higher education is undermined when three-quarters of the professoriate is made up of los precarios.

Bucking the frame

[ 11 ] February 1, 2012 |

(This isn’t only one of them posts, it’s the bastard child of this and this one.)

I feel this post nips too obviously at the heels of previous ones, as I’m not going to be discussing anything I haven’t discussed before. Creating a claustrophobic environment is a technical accomplishment that can be done irrespective of the environs in which one shoots a scene. Cramped quarters help, obviously, but they’re not necessary. That said, the quarters in the second half of the Doctor Who episode “Time of Angels” are quite cramped, so the fact that director Adam Smith chose the default shots of his principles to be medium- and medium close-ups exacerbates what would’ve been a feature of every frame anyway. To wit:

Doctor who time of angels2012-02-01-09h35m38s29

That’s the Doctor discussing the impending arrival of the Angels with the soldier-clerics assigned to assist him. Important here isn’t merely the framing—though compositionally, the soldier-clerics bookending the Doctor can’t be considered insignificant—but the tightness of it. The shallow focus leaves only those three in focus—although Amy’s still visible by virtue of her ginger dress, not unlike a certain someone else—but the shot’s overstuffed with folks in a way that completely obscures the background. Given that that the imminent threat isn’t any of these three shot-stuffers, obscuring the background denies the audience access to whatever it is that might be lurking in the dark.

Point being, it’s not just that this shot is claustrophobic, but that the claustrophobia it elicits is deliberately obfuscatory: by focusing, shallowly, on these three, the dangerous statues currently spooky-fishing* their way towards them are perforce crushed from the frame. They’ll be revealed in shot/reverse shot sequences shortly thereafter, but the tight framing here makes the situation in which the Doctor et al. find themselves seem all the more hopeless. Consider:

Doctor who time of angels2012-02-01-09h38m03s201

This is the Doctor coming up with one of his patented plans, but the framing still indicates that whatever trap he’s in still possesses the upper hand. It’s entrapping him, not the other way around. Of course, this entrapment is but a preface to a spectacular escape, and the way in which Smith films this desperation is but a means to increase the glory that said escape entails, but the heightening of this effect is a significant moment in this season.

Rarely do the Doctor’s plans include genocide, no matter how malevolent the species he’s dealing with. Daleks and Cybermen he traps in other universes or the empty space between them, but this Doctor? He disappears his enemies like a Chilean dictator—erasing them from history—or outright murders the last of them if they pose a threat to Earth.** There’s much more to say, but for now I’m focusing on the abreaction of Doctor and audience to the claustrophobia he and it encounter. It’s cathartic, most certainly, but there’s purging and then there’s purging, and only one of them is just and healthy.

*I can’t directly link because Comedy Central is a … but the relevant material’s at 3:58.

**As in “The Vampires of Venice,” which I’m also teaching today. Stupid three hour classes.


They can (mostly) hear those whistles blowing. (Mostly.)

[ 29 ] January 31, 2012 |

Juan Williams wrote a column on conservative dog-whistles in which he points out the obvious:

The language of GOP racial politics is heavy on euphemisms that allow the speaker to deny any responsibility for the racial content of his message. The code words in this game are “entitlement society” — as used by Mitt Romney—and “poor work ethic” and “food stamp president”—as used by Newt Gingrich. References to a lack of respect for the “Founding Fathers” and the “Constitution” also make certain ears perk up by demonizing anyone supposedly threatening core “old-fashioned American values.”

Conservatives are pouncing on the idea that “Founding Fathers” could be what Williams calls a “racial code word,” and admittedly, it’s his weakest example. (Though you need not be a Constitutional scholar to understand that everyone who signed that document was not only white but that many of them owned slaves.) The dog-whistle status of the public fellation of  source texts is questionable, but Gingrich’s refrain about Obama being a “food stamp President” certainly isn’t. Because not only is it a dog-whistle, it’s a dog-whistle whose etiology is a matter of public record.

According to a source of unquestionable integrity, on January 5, 2012 Newt Gingrich told an audience in Plymouth, N.H. that if he were invited to speak at the NAACP’s annual convention, he would accept and “talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” Far from being an idiopathic charge arising from some haze of liberal thought, the connection between blacks and food stamps is present right there in the very words Gingrich said:

NAACP + Food Stamps = Dog-Whistle

This isn’t that complicated: Gingrich created a rhetorical situation in which any invocation of food stamps would signal to his intended audience that he was talking about black people. The fact that he dispels this notion is belied by the undercurrent of thought that gave rise to the equation in the first place. If he didn’t associate black people with food stamps, mentioning the NAACP wouldn’t have triggered a canned statement about food stamps.

Conservatives may wish this weren’t the case—that is, they may want to talk about the rise in food stamp consumption under the Obama administration—but Gingrich has made it impossible for them to do so without invoking the racist undertones of his statement.

Claustrophobia, as Wolfgang Petersen recognizes, is a cumulative effect.

[ 26 ] January 24, 2012 |

(The continuation of the previous post which, like this one, is yet another one of those posts.)

I was going to jump right into the episode of Doctor Who I’m teaching tomorrow, but due to a non-Whovian coup, I’m going to prove my point differently first. To that end, I asked my however many Facebook friends I have the following:

Please name the five most claustrophobic films and/or episodes of a television show you’ve ever seen. If your nominee is chosen, I’ll honor you by naming you by name in the post I’m going to write this afternoon. (Not much of an honor, but hey, it’s better than nothing.)

Patrick Slaven, Kyler Kuehn, Carrie Shanafelt and Gary Farber all recommended Das Boot, and since I own a copy of said film, Das Boot it is. Short plot summary: back when Wolfgang Petersen had talent, he directed a film about a German U-boat and its discontents, and because the majority of the film took place on the boat, it had plenty of shots that approximate the “coffin shots” I discussed yesterday. (Being stuck in a metal tube leagues and leagues below the sea is roughly equivalent to being buried alive.) But unlike the frames discussed yesterday—in particular, the awkward image of Reynolds in his coffin—Petersen relies on standard scaled shots to create a claustrophobic atmosphere for his audience. So long as the audience grants him the conceit that the men in his film live precariously in a long metal cylinder, he need not 1) employ conventional “coffin shots” nor 2) improve upon convention or go whole hog (as Rodrigo Cortés did in Buried).

Petersen’s audience knows that these men are confined behind a brittle shell of metal and will miles below the sea, so the enclosed atmosphere of the film is implicit. But that’s not enough. As I mentioned yesterday, audiences key in to conventions in ways that subvert their effectiveness. A director can put a person in a closed coffin, but because so many have done so previously, the effect is merely communicative. The simple fact of being entrapped comes across, but the sympathetic feeling of entrapment doesn’t.Das Boot is different. It lacks any of the obviously constricted shots and opts instead for a directorial ethos of tight framing (much as I discussed in my counterfactual Bones yesterday):

Doctor who daleks2012-01-24-14h24m32s161

That’d be a typical dinner shot. It lacks the ostentation of Reynolds in a coffin, but by framing this medium close-up as he did, Petersen’s use of shallow focus indicates that there’s little more to the room than what’s seen here. Typically, shallow focus emphasizes a face (or faces) and blurs the unimportant background into a hazy nothing; here, however, the shallow focus reveals that the walls behind these folks abut them so closely that they can’t be excluded from the shot. There’s simply no way for them to be in focus and the walls around them not, which an audience will realize (even if it doesn’t consciously understand) means that these men are very close to their walls. (Or vice versa.) It’s not a “coffin shot,” merely a medium close-up with a depth of field that reveals, in its entirety, how little there is to see. Stack a few hundred similar shots together and the claustrophobic intent of every director who’s ever buried an actor for effect can actually be realized. Just to prove my point, here are some other shots from the film:

Doctor who daleks2012-01-24-14h24m59s172

That shot of the living quarters need not be perfectly centered in such a way as to create a frame whose composition is so damn mathematical as to be oppressive, but Petersen’s got an agenda. Also:

Doctor who daleks2012-01-24-14h25m10s25

There are many ways to depict a man amongst his crew, but framing his head as Petersen has (in a close-up) and situating it in the composition against many other similarly framed heads limits the scope of the frame to this head and these other ones. The face, again, is in shallow focus and yet because every other head’s within the depth of field the constricted effect is only heightened. Imagine watching a film composed thus for 209 minutes (if you spring for the director’s cut): the knowledge of the predicament of the crew is augmented, visually and viscerally, by the manner in which Petersen frames them.

All of which is only to say that a claustrophobic effect isn’t bound to a claustrophobic situation. Certainly, both coffins and U-boats lend themselves to a claustrophobic treatment, but the reason Das Bootsucceeds where yesterday’s episodes and films failed has nothing to do with the narrative situation. It’s all about the mechanics of how such a situation is filmed.

Tomorrow, I promise, I’ll address this within the dictates of my class and discuss Andrew Gunn’s direction of “The Victory of the Daleks.”

Claustrophobia is a cumulative effect.

[ 8 ] January 23, 2012 |

(Yet another one of those posts.)

Representing claustrophobic situations on screen should be simple enough: you take a person, put them in a confined space, and then you bury them alive. Doesn’t matter if they’re Buffy (in “Bargaining”):

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What we talk about when we talk about hands.

[ 18 ] January 23, 2012 |

(Check me out, I’m inadvertently topical!)

As I was writing and writing and writing and writing about Jack London in my dissertation, I noticed something I was never able to fully incorporate into my argument: the man’s obsession with hands. He not only wrote about them regularly in his fiction, but his letters are heavily peppered with references to his own “deformed” mitts. I scare-quote “deformed” because history has no record as to whether his hands were as he believed them to be—the scarred and calloused collection of fingers that his life of hard labor had created. That a leading voice for the working class was embarrassed by the signs that he’d once and long been a member of the same is one of those historical ironies that’s better left for braver souls to judge. I’m more interested in the evidence. For example, were you a photographer taking a profile picture of London, he would present you with this:

Jack london hands portrait

Or this:

Jack london hands

Decent shots, no doubt, but ones in which the palms of his hands have been deliberately obscured. If you were a different sort of photographer entirely—one who wanted to take pictures of famous authors in diapers, for example—London would oblige thus:

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Why Romney Lost South Carolina

[ 26 ] January 21, 2012 |

Not much has been written about The Ibogaine Effect as a serious factor in the South Carolina primary, but toward the end of the race—about three hours before the vote—word leaked out that some of Romney’s top advisors had called in a Brazilian doctor who was said to be treating the candidate with “some kind of strange drug” that nobody in the press corps had ever heard of.

It had been common knowledge for many weeks that Gingrich was using an exotic brand of speed known as Wallot … and it had long been whispered that Romney was into something very heavy, but it was hard to take the talk seriously until I heard about the appearance of a mysterious Brazilian doctor. That was the key. Later that night, it was reported that Governor Romney was a known user of a powerful drug called Ibogaine.

I immediately recognized The Ibogaine Effect—from Romney’s near-breakdown on the flatbed truck in Iowa, the delusions and altered thinking that characterized his campaign in New Hampshire, and finally the condition of “total rage” that gripped him in South Carolina. There was no doubt about it:

The Mormon Savior had turned to massive doses of Ibogaine as a last resort. The only remaining question was “When did he start?”  But nobody could answer this one, and I was not able to press the candidate himself for an answer because I was permanently barred from the Romney campaign after that incident on the “Tall Corn Special” in Iowa … and that scene makes far more sense now than it did at the time.  Romney has always taken pride in his ability to deal with hecklers; he has frequently challenged them, calling them up to the stage in front of big crowds and then forcing the poor bastards to debate with him in a blaze of TV lights.

But there was none of that in New Hampshire.  When the Boohoo began grabbing at his legs and screaming for more gin, Big Mormon went all to pieces … which gave rise to speculation among reporters familiar with his campaign style, that Romney was not himself.  It was noted, among other things, that he had developed a tendency to roll his eyes wildly during TV interviews and debates, that his thought patterns had become strangely fragmented, and that not even his closest advisors could predict when he might suddenly spiral off into babbling rages, or neocomatose funks.

In retrospect, however, it is easy to see why Romney fell apart in South Carolina.  There he was—far gone in a bad Ibogaine frenzy—suddenly shoved out in the blinding daylight to face an exuberant crowd and some kind of snarling lunatic going for his legs while he tried to explain why he was “The only Republican who can beat Obama.”

It is entirely conceivable—given the known effects of Ibogaine—that Romney’s brain was almost paralyzed by hallucinations at the time; that he looked out at that crowd and saw gila monsters instead of people, and that his mind snapped completely when he felt something large and apparently vicious clawing at his legs.  We can only speculate on this, because those in a position to know have flatly refused to comment on rumors concerning the Governor’s disastrous experiments with Ibogaine.  I tried to find the Brazilian doctor on election night, but by the time the polls closed he was long gone.  One of the hired bimbos in his Holiday Inn headquarters said a man with fresh welts on his head had been dragged out the side door and put on a bus to Salt Lake, but we were never able to confirm this.

Who does Newt want to kill?

[ 40 ] January 17, 2012 |

Last night’s debate provided yet another example of Gingrich’s firm grasp of history:

We’re in South Carolina. South Carolina in the Revolutionary War had a young 13-year-old named Andrew Jackson. He was sabred by a British officer and wore a scar his whole life. Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America’s enemies: Kill them.

He was in South Carolina and had just related an anecdote about Andrew Jackson, so I can see why he’d quote Andrew as the Jacksonian source of the “Kill them!” quotation. Only Andrew Jackson didn’t say it—Stonewall Jackson did. Accounts as to who he said it to vary, but the circumstances in which he said it don’t. Union forces greatly outnumbered Southern forces at the Battle of Fredericksburg, and shortly after the death of Brigadier General Maxcy Gregg, someone asked Jackson how the Confederate forces could win. He responded

Kill them, sir! Kill every man!

Which, of course, refers to the Union soldiers. So America’s enemies are, by Gingrich’s account, other Americans. (Most likely Democrats.) There’s the possibility that his error represents an eleventh dimensional dog-whistle blown for the benefit of the strong neo-Confederate presence in South Carolina, but I somehow doubt it.

Follow that thought!

[ 3 ] January 16, 2012 |

(Yet another one of those posts.)

The opening credit sequence in Fight Club is a nifty little reverse-literalization of a common directorial device for representing thought on screen. The technique typically works in the manner it does at the end of the film’s first scene. Start with a medium close-up of a face:

Fight club2012-01-11-14h02m31s183

Note that the narrator indicates that he’s had a revelation. The camera supports his claim by zooming into a close-up:

Fight club2012-01-11-14h02m34s212

Then into an extreme close-up:

Fight club2012-01-11-14h02m35s231

By zooming in on his face, David Fincher indicates that the audience is about to enter his mind. It’s as if the camera’s going to continue through his eyes and into his memory, which is why—as is the case here—such zooms are so often followed by a flashback:

Fight club2012-01-11-14h02m36s240

Call it an abuse of frontality—that feature of a frame that allows the audience to drink deeply of a character’s eyes and acquire sympathy with or knowledge of what lies behind them—but it’s really just an arbitrary convention. There’s no logical reason zooming in on a face should signal the beginning of a flashback. But it frequently does. What’s interesting about the opening title sequence of Fight Club is that it reverses the convention. Via CGI, the audience sees an idea—represented by an electric flash of blue light—form:

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