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I wish I believed in a quantity theory of stupidity.

[ 23 ] August 22, 2012 |

Because if I did there’s a chance that it’d eventually run out. But no. Colonel Mustard’s newest endeavor‘s gone live, and it’s about damn time? Because the Internet’s really been lacking for a place where college students can settle grudges against their professors behind the veil of anonymity?

No and no.

As a preview of the thoroughly unpredictable content to come, the person (or persons) named “College Insurrection” has (or have) already pre-posted about how universities discriminate against rapists and conservatives and how kids these days really love Paul Ryan despite the fact that he wants to steal their Pell Grants. How long before the walruses arrive?

Everything I do, I do it for you.

[ 36 ] August 22, 2012 |

As is often the case at the beginning of the school year, even secondhand and samizdat copies of textbooks become difficult to acquire. But if someone can score me a copy of the apparently very august Elements of Literature for Christian Schools, I promise I’ll make it worth everyone’s while.

Realism and bad manners in Breaking Bad

[ 36 ] August 21, 2012 |

In the previous post, I wrote:

[W]hy do people insist that Breaking Bad is a realistic portrayal of the perils of the methamphetamine trade? Because of scenes like what I’ll call “The Story of Jesse and the Beans.”

I suggested that the answer is the power of conventions: if you shoot a family sitting down to dinner, the audience will peg the frame as being realistic because they’ve seen so many television families sit down to dinner. And there’s something to that. Quite a bit actually: film conventions normalize human relations. Consider the last frame from the previous post:

Breaking bad00021

Even if you’ve never seen the show, you know exactly what this is: a family sitting down to dinner. How do you know it’s a family? Because there’s a husband on the right and a wife on the left and a son in the middle? How do you know that’s a son? Because he’s smaller than the father and the mother. (Even if Aaron Paul were taller than Bryan Cranston or Anna Gunn, the director, Colin Bucksey, could make him appear smaller by staging the scene as he does here and simply placing Paul further away from the camera.) How do we know it’s dinner? Because they’re at the dinner table. But they eat breakfast at the dinner table too, which is why Bucksey doesn’t backlight the window and instead employs the light above the table to illuminate the scene. I know they could be eating before dawn, but the mother has a wine glass in her hand and people don’t conventionally drink wine with breakfast.

All of which is a long way of saying that the elements in the frame demand it be read as an image of a nuclear family sitting down to dinner. This shot is effective because its formal conventions militate toward the nuclear family interpretation, whereas our knowledge about the content of this situation requires we draw the exact opposite conclusion. The tension between form and content creates an awkwardness analogous to the awkwardness each of the three characters in the scene currently feels. That’s not a husband on the right nor is it a wife on the left: that’s a terrorist on the right and that’s his hostage on the left. That son isn’t their son, though it could be said that the father adopted him—except that this surrogate son is only at this dinner table because he stopped by to break up with his fake father. And the mother only knows this soon-to-be-emancipated not-son as the father’s former drug dealer. At this precise moment in time these people couldn’t be more unrelated, but if I show you that frame your brain will insist that it’s a nuclear family sitting down to dinner.

Director Bucksey takes advantage of this. As I noted in the previous post, the sense of isolation experienced by each of these characters is typically reinforced by sequencing their conversations as a series of shots and reverse shots. The camera tells you that even though these people are in the middle of a conversation, there’s something (literally the camera) preventing them from sharing the same filmic space. Even when they share the same diegetic space they’re still not together, and because we know that they seem more alone than they otherwise would. Given the circumstances outlined above, you’d assume that Bucksey would film this scene in a similar manner: establish that they’re at the dinner table with an establishing shot and then hammer home their isolation with a series of reverses. But no. The irony is strong and painful:

Read more…

The post I should’ve written about The Hunger Games

[ 4 ] August 21, 2012 |

It reads like I actually did:

On screen, when two characters or objects exist in relationship to each other, an imaginary axis between them constitutes the 180º line or line of action. In order to maintain geographic continuity and consistent screen direction in film, it is standard practice for the camera to stay one side of this line or axis.

For example, recall the scene where Katniss gives the Mockingjay pin to Prim. The whistle of the Capitol’s train startles the Everdeen women from their preparations. Katniss sits down across from Prim and, along with the reassurance that “as long as you have it, nothing bad will happen to you,” Katniss hands it over and wraps her sister’s fingers around the pin.

Standard film practice would have the line of action drawn between the sisters; Katniss on screen right facing Prim on screen left. When the pin is handed over, the pin would be passed from Katniss’s hand emerging from screen right handing it over to screen left. Yet, in the film during this moment, the camera jumps the line. Viewers see Katniss’s hand emerge from screen left while passing the pin to Prim’s open hand on screen right. This jump reverses screen direction during the gifting of the pin and the proffering of comfort.

[Director Gary] Ross is aware of that the film must allow audiences an understanding of the filmic space, or geography, in which the characters exist. Yet, Ross and his editing team are interested in selectively breaking the rules that provide clarity between the relationships and actions of the characters. By crossing the axis of action, the film formally disorients viewers during moments of significance. Specifically, it would appear that Ross crosses the 180-line whenever Katniss has a poignant moment with someone she cares about.

I initially thought the axis-jumping signified Ross’s commitment to the Michael Bay School of Editing Is Hard I Don’t Wanna, but Robert Chang’s analysis is damn compelling. My only problem with the article is that I wish I’d written it first.

Concerning John Nolte’s scrotums

[ 64 ] August 21, 2012 |

I post a link to this sketch from Mr. Show a little too often, but only because it’s so regularly germane:

More and more, I read conservatives and find myself taking umbrage at their anatomical logic. Case in point, John Nolte’s review of The Hunger Games:

In Panem, the left’s idea of “equality” has finally been achieved. There’s “them” and then there’s “us.”  “They” are our know-betters, our elite overlords, living in wealthy decadence and devoted only to pleasure. We, on the other hand, are all equally poor, desperate, and starving.

This class system is also known as socialism.

He doesn’t know what words mean, does he? The “class system” in which a wealthy elite toy with the proletariat for fun and profit is “also known as socialism”? A “class system” predicated on state-mandated income inequality is “also known as socialism”? I’m not saying the film isn’t open to interpretation: liberals see in it an indictment of the 1 percent while conservatives see liberal elites with their big government and pet press-corp ruling from the Capitol. I get that.

But what I can’t understand is how a self-professed conservative can look at a “class system” in which the wealth is so mightily sequestered that the images of District 12 could come straight from the pages of The Pornography of the IWW and declare the system depicted to be socialist. That’s one hank of unbraided hair that’ll never be untangled.

Breaking Bad is the worst show in the history of television.*

[ 129 ] August 20, 2012 |

I’ve just now finally caught up with Breaking Bad, which I just started watching last week.** Amazing how a show about meth has the same effect on its viewers as its subject does on its victims. But as I start to catch up on the years of episode breakdowns and critical analyses, I can’t help but be a little annoyed by the repeated claim about the show’s “realism.” Joe Kugelmass wrote about this vis-a-vis The Wire, and though I can’t seem to find the post, I want to give credit where it’s due, because I’m no Zakaria. Joe’s point, in brief, is that people always claim that The Wire is a realistic portrayal of the tangled mess of conflicting interests that is the great city of Baltimore, except that isn’t realistic in the least. Consider one of the infamous “Omar’s coming!” scenes: it’s a classic Western sequence whose sole post-modern twist is that it’s a shoot-out within a shoot-out. I’m not saying it’s not clever or well-executed, only that it’s highly stylized, i.e. not realistic and not attempting to be so.

Breaking Bad is equally unrealistic, except unlike The Wire, whose overarching narrative does actually embrace a realistic ethos, Breaking Bad is a thoroughly naturalist narrative. What do I mean by “naturalist”? Even I’m not entirely sure. But a decent (if stripped) working definition might be that a naturalist work is any in which a person’s character is determined by the restrictions of the social environment in which it operates. No matter what its author claims a naturalist narrative isn’t a realistic project: it’s a thought experiment that amounts to “If I place Person A into Environment B how will he or she react?” It may aim for realism but its logic is beholden only to itself. (Which is why naturalist novels often begin with a dentist winning a lottery ticket but end with a man handcuffed to a corpse in Death Valley.) Breaking Bad clearly fits into this tradition.

A high school chemistry teacher learns he has cancer. He can’t afford to pay for the treatment. What will he do? He’ll make meth. How will inserting a tidy high school teacher into the seedy world of meth production and dealing change this man’s character? The show’s spent five seasons answering that question, and the answer, as is always the case with naturalist narratives, is astoundingly unpleasant. If you win the lottery, you kill your wife before dying alone in the desert cuffed to a stranger. If you win the cancer lottery, you can’t afford treatment and estrange your wife such that she’s counting down the days until your cancer can mount a comeback. In short:

Read more…

What is wrong with you black people?

[ 251 ] August 16, 2012 |

Can someone find me a single black person who isn’t a paid Republican token who was offended by Joe Biden’s comments? Didn’t think so. How anodyne were his words? Here’s the Fox News transcript:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Romney wants to let—he said in the first hundred days, he’s going to let the big banks once again write their own rules. Unchain Wall Street!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Boo!

BIDEN: They’re going to put y’all back in chains!

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

Fox News could have edited this clip howsoever it pleased—and it chose to edit it in a manner that indicates that whatever Biden meant to say, he communicated it effectively to his intended audience. Note that the “Boo!” appears right where the “Boo!” should be, as does the “LAUGHTER.” It’d be really condescending for someone to come in and tell these people that they were booing at the wrong time. It’d be patronizing for someone to insist that they laughed at the wrong moment. It’d be …

SARAH PALIN, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR/FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: There weren’t enough groans and boos when he said such a disgusting comment, really, especially to a demographic there that is—includes about 48 percent of the community being black Americans.

Of course it’d be her. What would “black Americans” do without the unwavering support of Sarah Palin? It’s the important question that’s on the lips of not a single solitary black person in America today.

As an official professor of rhetoric, I really just wish Paul Krugman was a better writer.

[ 46 ] August 13, 2012 |

I mean seriously:

Ryan hasn’t “crunched the numbers”; he has just scribbled some stuff down, without checking at all to see if it makes sense. He asserts that he can cut taxes without net loss of revenue by closing unspecified loopholes; he asserts that he can cut discretionary spending to levels not seen since Calvin Coolidge, without saying how; he asserts that he can convert Medicare to a voucher system, with much lower spending than now projected, without even a hint of how this is supposed to work. This is just a fantasy, not a serious policy proposal …

What Ryan is good at is exploiting the willful gullibility of the Beltway media, using a soft-focus style to play into their desire to have a conservative wonk they can say nice things about. And apparently the trick still works.

I much prefer Bob Odenkirk’s profile of Ryan:

He’s a man of habits, believing that they “simplify life and make room for brainstorms.” A voracious reader of history, he’s been known to clip favorite words from books and eat them. Sometimes he’ll eat whole paragraphs. His New York Public Library card has been permanently revoked.

He doesn’t observe Tuesdays. He wears a watch that he smashed on purpose at exactly twelve o’clock. As a result, scheduling is not his strong suit. He famously missed his own birthday by three months.

He reads the Bible in Aramaic to himself through a bullhorn every night and says it’s the perfect mix of the old and the new.

He has three children by four women whom he has never met. He has adopted a man older than himself whom he has affectionately dubbed Grandbrother and with whom he trades birthday cards three times a year.

Development has officially been Arrested.

[ 39 ] August 12, 2012 |

Because this weekend should consist entirely of good news, I am pleased to announce that the University of California, Irvine, has accepted a most exceptional student:

That is correct: George Michael Bluth is now “officially” enrolled at UCI. I couldn’t be happier. Unfortunately, it appears that George Michael’s not the only new member of the UCI community. A ghost was spotted disembarking from a flight into John Wayne Memorial Airport:

I’ve never been a prouder Anteater. Happy days are here again, my friends. (Even if they are wearing socks and sandals.)

Red Meat

[ 110 ] August 12, 2012 |

Sarah Palin again proves why she so richly deserves the hole she’ll soon crawl into: “Obama’s America is today’s California–complete with $100 billion taxpayer funded bullet trains to nowhere.” Neither Los Angeles nor San Fransisco is a “nowhere.” The same can’t be said of Ketchikan and Gravina Island.

And yet as I write this, 70,897 people think that Ketchikan and Gravina Island are more American than two of the fourteen largest cities in the country of America. Please deliver to them the mockery they so richly deserve.

A parable

[ 52 ] August 11, 2012 |

It’s fourth down and seven with two outs in the bottom of the ninth of the Super Bowl of Sport. COACH ROMNEY calls a timeout.

COACH ROMNEY: Brees, I’m going to have to take you out.

DREW BREES: Why Coach? I’m just about throw a strike-out on the winning drive!

COACH ROMNEY: I know you throw your throws at the appropriate height, but this is just too important. We need to be winning this sport.

DREW BREES: But I am winning it!

COACH ROMNEY: I mean we need to be winning it. (Sends BREES to the bench and signals to the bullpen. Enter TIM TEBOW.) I trust you know what to do with this.

TIM TEBOW: Run it to left outfield for a touchdown!

COACH ROMNEY: Exactly. Let’s go win this sport!

TIM TEBOW: Jesus Christ!

JESUS CHRIST: I want no part in this.

COACH ROMNEY: Of course you do. You’re our new power forward!

JESUS CHRIST: Jesus Christ.

TIM TEBOW: Jesus Christ!

How will the World Series of Sport end? I don’t know either. But I guarantee it’ll be entertaining.

Would someone please teach these people how to plagiarize?

[ 72 ] August 10, 2012 |

Every quarter I tell my students a joke. I tell them that I’ll let them plagiarize so long as they paraphrase their source material and attribute the original idea to its author or put it between quotation marks and identify where they found it. They usually stare at me agog for a seconds before what I’ve said sinks in. But it usually sinks in. It’s a shame I didn’t teach Fareed Zakaria, who’s not only a plagiarist, but one of the most stunningly untalented plagiarists I’ve ever encountered. Another thing I tell my students is that if they’re going to plagiarize well, they need to find source materials specific to the argument they want to parrot, which means that they can’t just type “visual rhetoric Blowup” into Google because the first few links will direct them to stuff I’ve written. Only an idiot would quote my only words back to me. I encourage them to find obscure material—like academic essays on Antonioni or Italian New Wave—and pluck their attributed paraphrases or quotations from there. So what’s so stunning about Zakaria’s plagiarism?

He plagiarized from one of Jill Lepore’s articles in The New Yorker. The New Yorker. I know most people only read it for the cartoons, but I promise you that Google has access to the words as well as the pictures. But Zakaria’s even dumber than that. He plagiarized from a recent New Yorker article in the pages of Time magazine. It’d be one thing to plagiarize a recent New Yorker article in an essay that only one person, your professor, will ever read. It’s dumber thing entirely to publish material lifted from one national publication in another national publication. He should have known that anyone interested in the material he quoted would pop onto Google and see that it appears in two different places in a very nearly identical context. But wait! It gets even better!

It seems as if Lepore herself might have a problem with plagiarism, which if true means it’s possible that Zakaria second-order plagiarized the work of a graduate student at Harvard. And we let this man talk to president and kings? To coin a phrase: Why oh why can’t we have a better press corps?

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