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“This was probably scrubbed by a brown person. Let me help you clean that.”

[ 48 ] October 15, 2012 |

Paul Ryan’s committed to doing work that doesn’t need to be done because someone has to do it. Or something:

Is there anything more odious than conservatives pretending to do the work of a class for which they don’t care one whit in order to secure the votes of those who spit on the very people these conservatives are pretending to be?

Visual Studies 401: Films You Can’t Unsee

[ 222 ] October 15, 2012 |

Futzing around on Facebook last night, I had an idea—which turned into a very interesting thread—about teaching a class on “films that can’t be unseen.” My suggestions were Requiem for a Dream, Happiness and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, but a number of horrifying suggestions followed, including: Dead Ringers, Oldboy, Irreversible, Dancer in the Dark, Blue Velvet, and Gummo, among others.

Obviously, this is a terrible idea for a class—or a fine way to find myself fired—but those of us not disturbed enough by the prospect of a Romney presidency need something to foreclose the possibility of ever sleeping again. So I wonder what would find its way onto your syllabus, were you to teach this course?

Comedy vs. Drama*

[ 24 ] October 12, 2012 |

I caught the latest 30 Rock this afternoon and noticed something:

30 rock 03

The guy in the midground is off-center:

30 rock 04

This may seem like a blindingly obvious point, but one reason this shot is off-center is because the characters in it are off-kilter. The director, Robert Carlock, stages this shot in order to maximize the misdirection: Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer) encourages viewers to follow an eyeline match left and somewhere north of his mother (Catherine O’Hara) before the camera gently racks the foreground out and the midground in to focus. The audience resets its eyes and sees nothing of interest until the movement of Kenneth’s step-father (Bryan Cranston) attracts its attention, at which point an eyeline match again suggests viewers look left and somewhere north of his mother. Compelling the audience to bounce its eyes around this quickly within a sustained shot redoubles the manic impression the dialogue and narrative want to create. As I said, this point may seem obvious, but if you want to think about the difference between comedy and drama on a visual level, the scene above may be the perfect place to start.

Situational comedies are filmed in an unsettling manner in order to maximize the capacity for surprise. When the audience haphazardly spirits its attention across the frame, the director literally has more space with which to work:

Read more…

All you need to know about Paul Ryan’s skill as a debater

[ 135 ] October 11, 2012 |

When you debate competitively there are some issues you know not to address. There are others you know to better than to pursue. Then there are those that must be avoided at all costs — that must not even be mentioned lest your loss become an object lesson in unwitting self-immolation. Whether Ryan’s handlers wanted to watch him burn or Ryan was simply too stupid to recognize the brutal inefficacy of his anecdote matters less than the fact that he said it with his “honest face” to Joe Biden’s actual one:

RYAN: Mitt Romney’s a car guy. They keep misquoting him, but let me tell you about the Mitt Romney I know. This is a guy who I was talking to a family in Northborough, Massachusetts the other day, Sheryl and Mark Nixon. Their kids were hit in a car crash, four of them. Two of them, Rob and Reed, were paralyzed.

The one thing you don’t address — the one you know better than to pursue — the one that must be avoided at all costs — the one that must not even be mentioned in a debate with Joe Biden is a tragic car accident. The attempt to elicit sympathy for Romney by anecdotal proxy is a poor enough of a play. The decision to do so via an anecdote about a tragic car accident in a debate with Joe Biden means you’re either a sociopath or possessed of an idiocy of immeasurable power.

Clearly I’m a terrible liar

[ 48 ] October 10, 2012 |
SEK accidentally cracks the control panel on the Smart Lectern trying to turn on the lights after playing a clip. He calls the tech people. Afraid that The Library will somehow blame him for this, SEK asks his class not to tell on him. TECH PERSON arrives.

TECH PERSON: What happened here?

SEK: Don’t know. Was like that when I got here.

TECH PERSON: (points at the clip still displayed on the wall) How’d that get up there then?

SEK: It was working at first.

TECH PERSON: At first? Before you got here?

TECH PERSON looks up from behind the Smart Lectern and eyeballs SEK’S STUDENTS.


SEK: (to no one and everyone) Almost done?


TECH PERSON: (turning on the lights) All done.

SEK: Thank you. Now as for you lot …

“The place you put your money is a pretty good indication of where your heart is.”

[ 19 ] October 3, 2012 |

It is, Governor Romney. Shall we have a look at where your heart is?

Switzerland is beautiful this time of year, but it’s getting a little cold. Maybe you could find your heart another home?

The Cayman Islands? Much more temperate. You and your heart will be very happy there. As will your money.

“To be a football player, you’ve got to have alopecia.”

[ 24 ] October 1, 2012 |

I know Jon Gruden means “amnesia,” since he’s talking about Dez Bryant forgetting that he’s being paid millions of dollars to catch balls. But as a fan of speculative fiction, I can’t help but wonder what it would mean to live in a world where, “[t]o be a football player, you’ve got to have alopecia.”

It’s not just me, right? That’s a strange mistake to make, repeatedly, isn’t it?

Fellowship of the Ring: Conventions of film, conventions of genre

[ 182 ] October 1, 2012 |

(One of the visual rhetoric posts born of this course. If it seems a little more basic than the rest of those posts, that’s because it’s the first real day of class and I have to start somewhere.)

I have one goal here: to define “high fantasy” as a genre through Fellowship of the Ring. There will no doubt be academic arguments about the particulars—the true extent of Tolkien’s influence, for example, or the necessity of orcs—but I want to sketch out the basic generic qualities of high fantasy in a portable manner, i.e. one that will also apply to Game of Thrones. Meaning the most commonly argued generic feature to qualify as unnecessary baggage is this one:

Works of fantasy exist in a world utterly unrelated to the one in which we live and are therefore purely escapist.

Because, at the very least, whatever work I do with Fellowship also needs to apply to Game of Thrones. That and it’s just wrong. Anything written by a human being in a particular historical moment belongs to that particular historical moment even if it depicts a different or invented historical moment. The rest of the generic features of high fantasy I want to pull from Fellowship via an immanent analysis of the film itself, and what better place to begin than with maps?

Lord of the rings - fellowship of the ring00001

Maps are important because 1) sentences like “Go north until you hit Chicago and hook a left and you’ll end up California” don’t make intuitive sense in fantastic worlds, and 2) the most common plot elements in fantastic works, quests and wars, are map-driven affairs. You need to know who’s where and in relation to what in an invented world, and that requires special attention be paid to maps. Though the visual presentation and manipulation of maps is prevalent in high fantasy—as is evidenced both above, viewing Peter Jackson’s zooming around the map of Middle Earth, or in the opening credits of Games of Thrones—it should be noted that as a film convention, it predates high fantasy as a genre. (Spielberg’s clearly referencing something here.) Another common element in high fantasy would be a token of power:

Lord of the rings - fellowship of the ring00013

Like one of those. In the case of Fellowship, the ring functions as both a token and embodiment of power, whereas in Game of Thrones, the Iron Throne will merely be the token awarded to the winner of the game, but in both cases there’s an item whose acquisition is certral to the plot. In Fellowship, Jackson establishes and maintains the significance of the ring by constantly zooming in on it. The frame above, for example, belongs to a sustained zoom:

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Game of Thrones: “Winter Is Coming” for Will and Bran

[ 39 ] September 28, 2012 |

(This is yet another one of those visual rhetoric posts that’s born of this frighteningly imminent course.)

You’ll recall that according to the first post, Van Patten made Will a sympathetic deserter and oath breaker; according to the second, Van Patten established the family dynamic through Bran’s perspective; according to the third, Bran remained the focal point because everyone believed themselves to be acting in his best interest; and according to the fourth and final post in this series, which would be this one, we’ll finally witness the “punchline” of the preceding scenes. To begin:

Games of thrones - winter is coming00302

The scene shifts from inside Winterfell to somewhere outside it. It’s difficult to tell exactly where because there’s a notched log occupying the majority of the frame. Why the log? Because Will’s world is now the size of its notch. His world closes in on him as his death nears, so it makes sense that his purview, visually speaking, follows suit. It momentarily expands into an extreme long shot when he believes he’s found an excuse that might could maybe save him:

Games of thrones - winter is coming00306

But only momentarily:

Games of thrones - winter is coming00311

Note contrast between these two shots: in the first, the camera is at a distance and captures a large swath of the highlands that are bright despite the mist blanketing them; in the second, the camera tightens in and centers on Will in a medium close-up, and the compositional structure is oppressive: he is flanked on both sides by armed guard and the hill behind doesn’t, as the one in previous shot did, suggest freedom so much as unscaleable-rock-that-might-as-well-be-a-wall. He’s trapped within the structure of the shot, and the medium close-up reminds us of the fear and pain we saw on his face when he was captured:

Games of thrones - winter is coming00131

The irony of being imprisoned on an open field is more apparent in the above because the framing is looser, but it’s essentially the same shot as the one in which he confesses his oath-breaking with one important exception: when he confesses to have broken his oath, he knows all hope is lost. In the shot above, the possibility of escape still exists, if not on that field, then possibly through pardon—hence his mentioning the white walkers two frames previous. But by the time he enters that structurally oppressive medium close-up, he knows his fate.

As do the other characters in the scene, and more importantly, the extent to which they sympathize with is indicated by the distance of the camera from their faces. This may seem like a simple means of identifying a complex emotional response, but it has a long history in film theory, the short version of it goes something like this:

Films used to be silent. Because actors couldn’t tell us what they were thinking and many directors found intertitles aesthetically unappealing, the close-up on actors’ faces became the preferred means of communicating their emotions. The heightened expressiveness evident in the close-up compelled audiences to pay more attention to the micro-expressions written upon the actors’ faces, which made directors pay more attention to directing their actors to wear particular micro-expressions to communicate particular emotions, and so began the vicious cycle that led to the conventions of the modern close-up. Combine that with the fact that we’re so hard-wired to pay close attention to faces that we’ll “see” the face of Satan in a cloud formation, Saint Mary slumming on some toast, or this Martian fellow looking at whatever it is he’s looking at. We want to see faces, and when we see them, we want them to communicate something to us. Just look at my cat. Can’t you see the wonder in his eyes? Of course you can’t. Whatever emotion Finnegan’s feeling might be the feline equivalent of curiosity, but it’s inhuman. Its humanity is merely imputed, drawn on his mug by our brain’s intense desire to find meaning in anything structured like a face.

All of which is a long way of saying that conventional close-ups have been building on extant brain architecture for more than a century now, which is why the simple act of reversing from long shots of some characters to close-ups of others will make it seem as if the narrative’s being focused through the latter. Let’s continue with the scene:

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Jeff Goldstein’s “‘mental health problems,’ revealed!”

[ 221 ] September 26, 2012 |

I have nothing to add to this … except to say that I have emails and chat transcripts that prove that Jeff’s not lying. His fellow conservatives went far beyond the emails and chat transcripts he links to in order to diminish and discredit him. I still don’t entirely understand why.

But it’s worth noting, publicly, if only because that’s what movement conservatives have stooped to.

Shorter Ann Althouse: Racists can’t be racist because they love their racism.

[ 118 ] September 25, 2012 |

So some of Scott Brown’s staffers were caught tomahawk-chopping while war-whooping, which is absolutely not a traditional means of representing Native Americans as tomahawk-chopping, war-whooping, nothing-noble-about-them savages. There’s no history of American cinema in which Native Americans were a violent bulwark against the tide of civilizing white men eager to manifest their destiny. There’s no history of American literature in which Native Americans played the roles of “Captor #1″ and “Captor #2″ and let’s just call them “Tribe of Captors” in popular captivity narratives that identified war-whooping with lady-taking and child-killing. None of that is real because Ann Althouse said so:

Someone doing the “tomahawk chop” is himself playing the role of Indian. This Indian character making a stereotypical gesture can’t be read as expressing hostility toward Indians. The Indian is his hero.

See? “The Indian is his hero.” Whose hero exactly? According to Althouse anyone doing the tomahawk chop. Which means that she believes that performing a racially offensive can’t be considered racist because the performance itself is necessarily an act of loving emulation. For example, if one of Scott Brown’s white staffers were to create a television show called

It couldn’t be considered racist by definition because its use of the stereotypical Chinese immigrant is evidence of that this white staffer considers Chin-Kee to be “his hero.” In all seriousness, Althouse’s problem is that she’s so ignorant that she doesn’t realize that the stereotype of Native Americans that Brown’s staffers invoke isn’t historically accurate, which is why she can claim, straight-faced, that “these fake Indians, the staffers, are pretending to be real Indians,” when in actuality they’re pretending to be racist stereotypes of Native Americans.

One day I will wake up in a world in which “Ann Althouse” is revealed to be the work of an art collective trying to win a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the Longest Sustained  Installation of  a Person Who Couldn’t Possibly Exist. I pray that day comes soon.

In the meantime go read my other post. It’ll cleanse this stupid clear off your palate.

UPDATE [SL]: This is even funnier when you remember Althouse’s hallucinations about the subliminally racist pajamas in a Clinton campaign ad.

UPDATE II [SEK]: Wow. I mean. Just wow. Wow. I mean. Just wow. Wow.

Game of Thrones: “Winter Is Coming” for Catelyn and Jon Snow

[ 28 ] September 25, 2012 |

(This is another one of those visual rhetoric posts that’s born of this upcoming course … which now has its own website that’s only a demo at the moment so don’t judge.)

To recap: in the first post, I demonstrated how Van Patten turned Will into a sympathetic character. In the second post, I established that the scenes in Winterfell that weren’t in the novel were designed to establish a perspective on Will’s coming execution that’s focalized through Bran, but which also introduces the audience to the larger Stark family dynamics. (I also, as Julia Grey pointed out, inadvertantly indicated how Arya’s character would develop over the course of the season. I’ll let Julia’s analysis carry the weight of that interpretative thread for now and return to it when it comes to fore later.) Before I can yoke those arguments together, though, it would behoove us to see what happens when Bran steps off-stage, as it were, beginning with the announcement of Will’s capture:

Games of thrones - winter is coming00270

Those smiles are residual: for one of the only time in the series, Ned and Catelyn have watched Arya and Bran engaging in what we might call “play.” She hits his target and he’s encouraged by his brothers, bastard and true, as well as his parents, to take off after her:

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