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Month: December, 2011

Day 16 – Film #1: Copie Conforme

If you want a basic lesson in the distinction between European art cinema and the films of Hollywood, Abbas Kiarostami’s Copie Conforme (Certified Copy) is a good start.

Lesson #1 – In Hollywood (and most cinema), a film is a story; it has a narrative that follows a conventional arc to satisfy conventional expectations. Here, film is philosophy. The conundrum up for debate here: is a copy as valuable as an original? If not, why? Of course, this question of representation plays a significant role throughout philosophy, from Plato’s cave to Deleuze and Foucault. It has also played an essential role for film because, as a photographic medium, film “copies” or records the real world. So, what is the responsibility of the medium to accurately portray that world? Can a film, a “copy”, be immoral? Can it be ethical? Does it matter?

Copie Confome begins with Elle (Juliette Binoche) attending a lecture by art theorist James (William Shimell) about the value of authenticity in art. His argument is that a copy carries just as much value and weight as the original. Elle has to leave early, but gets her number to James and the two meet up after the talk at her antiques store. From there, they drive into the Italian countryside, discussing his theories, and arrive in a town where Italian couples go to get married. At this point, this is a rather conventional art-house film. It focuses on conversation and ideas, not plot and events. The framing is simple, the soundtrack non-existent. At about the 50 minute mark, things change. As James takes a phone call outside a coffee shop, Elle and an older woman who works there discuss the nature of marriage. The woman assumes that Elle and James are married and Elle plays along. We learn of her unhappiness in her real marriage, and when James returns, they do seem to be married. The rest of the film sees them tour the village while having a mixture of serious and light conversations about their 15 years together. She is unhappy because he has been absent, while he believes relationships change and so should expectations.

Lesson #2 – “Art” films (this feels like a dirty term) prefer questions, not answers. Of course, we don’t get an answer to the driving question: are they married or are they pretending? Either the first half of the film was an elaborate play-act by the couple to rekindle their waning relationship or the second half is simply two strangers pretending to be married. Both sides can find support, and ultimately, answers are only valuable to the extent that they open up new questions; they don’t hold any value in and of themselves.

Lesson #3 – Composition matters. Just as great writers think about and contemplate each word, great directors focus on every element that enters the frame. While this film doesn’t provide laugh out loud moments or riveting action, there is so much pleasure in seeing how carefully everything is presented. Kiarostami plays liberally with mirrors and depth of focus. Because the film is basically an extended conversation filmed in long takes, you have the freedom to really explore the frame. There are frequently side-stories occurring in the background that comment on or contradict what is presented in the foreground. Mirrors open up the frame and show us things we shouldn’t be able to see. Even the dialogue sequences are handled uniquely. Both Binoche and Shimell are filmed head-on instead of the traditional over-the-shoulder two-shot. As a result, the characters are looking at and speaking to us. It is an easy way for Kiarostami to play with the conventions of this type of film (as an Iranian filmmaker, this is Kiarostami’s first “European” film, so, naturally, Copie Conforme is itself a copy).

Lesson #4 – Pay attention. A film like this requires you to actually watch it. While typical comedies or action films practically beg us to stop thinking (for me, this isn’t a bad thing, just a thing), Copie Conforme carries most of its weight in small things. For example, the fact that the film is in three languages is a playful exploration of its key philosophical question. In one scene, Binoche has to translate a tourguide’s Italian into English for Shimell. What is interesting here is that the tourguide’s speech is itself being translated into subtitles for us, and Binoche’s verbal translation for Shimell does not quite match up. Likely, if Shimell were to retranslate the English into French, it would come out quite different still. How better, or more simplistically, can Kiarostami illustrate his position? Because he plays with the concept so simply, you are left to make most of the jumps and connections. During the last scene, I started  to question whether I was even watching the same actor as the one that started the film. Surely it wasn’t a new person, but his hair was different. Or was it?

Lesson #5 – Juliette Binoche is awesome. I’ve loved her in everything I’ve seen her do. In America, she is probably most famous for her roles in The English Patient, Chocolat, or more recently Dan in Real Life (with Steve Carrell), but she’s worked with many of the biggest directors in world cinema (Michael Haneke, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Olivier Assayas, and David Cronenberg). Basically, she is a force. She is just a compelling presence that dominates the screen. In a film with basically two characters, it is essential that you have that dominating performance, and she delivers (in three languages nonetheless.)

Lesson #6 – Don’t Judge. It is easy to dismiss a fi

lm like this rather quickly. It seems boring, erudite, dry, etc. Additionally, the characters aren’t necessarily likable. Elle seems to be a poor, disconnected, overwhelmed mother and James is narcissistic and petty. What they say and do will frustrate and grate at your nerves. But, at least for me, the events and quarrels rings true; humans are by nature self-interested and when we argue, we are at our worst. Now, perhaps that is simply not what you want to see on screen. That is fine. But if you are going to watch, give yourself over to it. You may not end up in a place you like, but you also might be surprised. Let the judgment come after, not during.

Most of the films I watch probably won’t warrant this type of response, or maybe I just have too much time right now. Either way, it feels good to write seriously about film again. It has been too long.

Day 15 – In Lieu of a Top 10 Film List

I’m back after an extended Christmas retreat from posting. It was a good break, but I’m ready to get back into the swing of things.

As a neurotic, compulsive collector of information, around this time of the year, I am generally consumed with creating Top 10 lists. Usually focused on my Top 10 films, it turns out I just like judging things and putting them in preferential order.  When I started, I was watching a lot of movies (like hundreds) a year, so I was able to reasonably construct a Top 10 knowing I had seen almost everything I wanted to see. But with school and relationships, it took me longer to compose my lists, so I was prone to posting them a year late.  The last two years have been my craziest yet, so I have seen a shamefully low number of movies. Yes, the fact that I haven’t seen very many movies this year is sad to me, and should let you know all you need to know about me.  I had already planned on having a New Year’s Resolution of watching at least 50 films in the coming 12 months, so I’ve just decided to watch 50 films from 2011.

Here is what I have already seen: X-Men: First Class, Bridesmaids, Green Lantern, Drive, Hall Pass, Horrible Bosses, Source Code, Battle: Los Angeles, and Cedar Rapids. So…fluff, and Drive. I am already pretty positive that Drive will be my favorite film of 2011; I think it was made for me and me alone (you can enjoy it too, just not in the same way). But I’m willing to test it out. To guide me, I’ve created a list of the 50 films I want to see. The films are included for a variety of reasons: general accolades (appearances on critics’ Top 10s, Award Show hype), associated talent (directors, actors), and general plot appeal. For the same reason, there are movies I won’t be watching. Someone would need to offer me money to watch War Horse or The Adventures of Tin Tin, and something like The Artist just doesn’t appeal to me. Although they will be around in award season, I just can’t muster the energy. Of course, a lot of this comes down to availability.

Alright, here it is (I’ll be updating with brief reviews of all of these and this list will probably be constantly updated with strikethroughs for films I watched):

  • 30 Minutes of Less (Ruben Fleischer)
  • A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
  • A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
  • A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (Todd Strauss-Schulson)
  • Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)
  • Captain America: the First Avenger (Joe Johnston)
  • Carnage (Roman Polanski)
  • Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
  • Contagion (Steven Soderberh)
  • Cowboys & Aliens (Jon Favreau)
  • Crazy, Stupid, Love (Glenn Ficarra, John Requa)
  • Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
  • Drive Angry (Patrick Lassier)
  • Hanna (Joe Wright)
  • Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
  • J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood)
  • Limitless (Neil Burger)
  • Margaret (Kenneth Lonegren)
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene (T. Sean Darkin)
  • Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
  • Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
  • Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
  • Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird)
  • Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
  • Mysteries of Lisbon (Raoul Ruiz)
  • Paul (Greg Mottola)
  • Rampart (Oren Moverman)
  • Rango (Gore Verbinski)
  • Restless (Gus Van Sant)
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt)
  • Shame (Steve McQueen)
  • Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Guy Ritchie)
  • Super 8 (JJ Abrams)
  • Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
  • The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi)
  • The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
  • The Ides of March (George Clooney)
  • The Interrupters (Steve James)
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
  • The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry)
  • The Rum Diary (Bruce Robinson)
  • The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar)
  • The Thing (Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr.)
  • The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
  • Young Adult (Jason Reitman)
  • Tabloid (Errol Morris)
  • Thor (Kenneth Branagh)
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
  • Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
  • Weekend (Andrew Haigh)

Let me know if there is anything I’m missing that I should watch.

Day 14 – Reason #1245 Liverpool Sucks

Tuesday, Liverpool’s best player, leading scorer, and all around terror Luis Suarez was banned 8 games and fined 40K for calling Manchester United’s Patrice Evra “negrito”, which roughly translates from the Spanish as “bold face”, but you can see the obvious racial overtones. It is a remarkable ruling for many reasons and should be a difficult blow for the Reds. It also isn’t a good sign for Chelsea’s John Terry who also has a racism charge pending with the FA. Hopefully he gets mercilessly destroyed too.

For those who only pay attention to soccer during the World Cup, Luis Suarez is perhaps most infamous for his deliberate handball against Ghana in the Quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup. He was red carded for it, but Asamoah Gyan missed the resulting spot kick and Ghana crashed out in penalties. It isn’t a surprise then that Liverpool would want him.

Since he clearly hates the continent of Africa, it wasn’t a shock to hear him accused of racism. I’m just glad he was properly punished. The English FA has done well to try and root out racism in footy, while other countries like Italy and Russia still have hooligans throwing bananas at black players. It is especially interesting in light of FIFA President Sepp Blatter recently claiming that racism isn’t an issue in the modern game and, if an incident does occur, it can be settled with a handshake. Obviously, the FA doesn’t agree and have seen fit to offer their own form of a handshake.

What is perhaps most shocking about this…let me retract…what is least shocking and completely predictable about this is Liverpool’s response. Have they done what any normal, savvy organization would do in light of a charge of racism from an employee and shut their idiotic mouths? Of course not! First, they issued a letter basically calling Evra a liar (yes, Evra is the jerk who spearheaded the general French revolt at the 2010 World Cup), even though Suarez himself told the FA he called the Frenchmen “negrito”. Then, before yesterday’s game against Wigan (which they drew 0-0 after missing a penalty!!!), the players warmed up in these shirts in support of their oppressed striker:

Glen Johnson Does High Kick!

What a bunch of jerks.

It is really a joy to watch the Carousel loving fools at Liverpool take a stiff nose-dive while the Arsenal flies back up the table.

Justice is served.

Day 13 – Christmas Comes Early!

Tomorrow is the last day of Metro’s quarter before Winter break. Because I don’t really know how to manage a 2+ week gap in the middle of a quarter, I made it easy on myself: have the first paper due the last day before break and show a movie the first day back (which won’t be fluff, but part of an actual essay). So far, this quarter has gone very well. I am really enjoying my class; they are engaged, thoughtful, and hard-working. I even walked in to class one day to find them already discussing the day’s reading (which is unheard of!). I’d like to give myself the credit, but really I just got lucky.

Because I promised to do so, here is the prompt for the first essay, followed by my own version. I’m posting it a day early so maybe it is of some use to the more dedicated (or terrified) of my students who check here.

PROJECT #1 – “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Rhetorical Analysis

Our first assignment of the quarter is designed to begin the process of in-depth Critical Reading. The goal is to begin a more objective form of writing that doesn’t judge the source, but rather attempts to explain how it works, why it works, and who it works for. For this assignment, you will be analyzing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”.

To write about this letter, you will be creating a rhetorical analysis. A rhetorical analysis attempts to explain what the main purpose of the given text is, who the main audience is, and how the text works to achieve its purpose with its intended audience.

Your paper will be split into 3 sections:
Section 1: Introduction and Summar

Section 2: Audience and Context

Section 3: Presentation: Ethos, Pathos, Logos

With this assignment, I want to see that you are able to synthesize and explain someone else’s ideas. This is an important skill, especially as you progress in your classes. But more importantly, I want to see that you are able to think about and explain why the author is saying what they are saying. This is a much more important and difficult task.

Quotes are required for this assignment. You must include at least  3 quotes that help support your claims. This is something we will be doing all quarter, so it is important that you begin now. These quotes must follow the basic MLA style with parenthetical citations that we go over in class. While you will not need to provide a Works Cited, I do want you to begin using in paper citations. These will be graded strictly.

In the 1960s, black leaders fought for ideological control in the movement for civil rights. Fiery black leader Malcolm X urged his followers in the Nation of Islam to “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.” His belief in violent self-defense found its greatest opponent in the form of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., whose famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail” urged his followers to respond to increasing police resistance with love, peace, and self-control. His call for non-violent protest catalyzed the movement and eventually led to the Civil Rights Act of 1965. In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail”, King effectively uses logic to persuade the Alabama clergy that his path of non-violence was the best option in the inevitable struggle for racial equality.

According to Martin Luther King, 1960’s “Birmingham [was] the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States” (3). For the Civil Rights movement, it became the focus for one of the most sustained protests in the South. Led by King, black citizens began a series of actions that systematically closed off downtown Birmingham. The police responded with massive arrests, but also more forceful methods like spraying protesters with fire houses and provoking them with trained police dogs. The situation in Birmingham soon gained national attention, and images of the protests were aired around the country.

The unwanted attention led a group of Alabama clergymen to craft a letter urging black leaders to stop the protests and enter into negotiations to end the racial tension. Having been arrested in the movement himself, Martin Luther King took the clergymen’s letter as an opportunity to lay out the movement’s goals, motives, and strategies. This “Letter From Birmingham Jail” argued that non-violent direct protest was a fundamental step in creating a chance for real, honest negotiation. For him, the tension caused by the protests was therapeutic and only when the forces of good began to use time effectively would true racial harmony ensue. For King, if the white power structure refused to respond positively to the movement, blacks would be forced into a hopeless situation in which violence was the only solution; it wasn’t a question of whether blacks would continue the fight for civil rights, but what form that fight would take.

One of the underlying messages of the Alabama clergymen’s letter is that the movement’s methods incited violence and created an instability that hampered any hope of racial progress. They repeatedly urged for leaders to “[work] peacefully” to “find proper channels” and to “observe the principles of law and order and common sense” (1). In his letter, King directly responded to the clergy. He repeatedly addressed them in second person, saying, for example, “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern  for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations” (2). He even went out of his way to clarify and explain the clergymen’s original letter, writing, “You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling for negotiation” (3). By addressing the clergy directly, and in places even agreeing with them, he was able to speak with them, rather than at them. He argued with them as equals, in a calm and rational manner, and also framed his responses directly for them, using references, metaphors, and allusions that he assumed they would be familiar with.

King’s “Letter” used logic to persuade the clergy that non-violent direct action was the best method of resistance for the civil rights movement. Although he could have easily pressed the inhumanity, degradation, and violence that blacks faced, he instead appeals to his audience’s intellect. For him, the emotional argument could only cloud the clear-cut issues he wanted to discuss. Here, he spoke to the clergymen’s claim that “extreme measures are [not] justified in Birmingham” (1). He claimed that initially he was “disappointed that fellow clergymen would see [his] nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist” (7), but that he eventually realized that he stood between two extremes: those blacks who were secure in and profited by segregation and “the various black nationalist groups that [were] springing up across the nation” (8). For King, the former group symbolized an extreme form of despair and self-disrespect while the latter symbolized an extreme form of rage and fear. Only his path encouraged love.

King argued that the clergy, the rest of Birmingham, the South, and America had only three options: maintain the status quo, which even the clergy admitted was not ideal, endure the “frightening racial nightmare” that a turn to “black-nationalist ideologies” (8) would ensure, or accept and engage with his own non-violent protests. He rested this forced choice on the logic that “oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro” (8). With this, he cut out one of the three choices, maintaining the status quo. He narrowed the options for the white power structure to violence or peaceful protest and asserted that the segregated system had led blacks to internalize “many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations” (8). Here, he concluded his argument by assuring that “If [the Negro’s] repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history” (8). By leaving the clergy with a choice between his own methods of non-violent direct action and the violent self-defense of black nationalist organizations, King brought into question the very definition of extreme. If his actions were extreme, what would the clergy call a situation in which “many streets of the South […] flow[ed] with blood” (8)? Certainly, if it was inevitable that Blacks would stand up and fight for equality, even the white power structure would prefer a method of resistance that utilized peace instead of violence.

By calmly and logically addressing the Alabama clergy, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” put its stamp on the civil rights movement. Although the clergymen never formally responded to King, his methods of non-violent protest dominated the civil rights movement and led to dramatic changes in the South and across America. Although groups like the Black Panthers began to engage in violence with local and federal police in the 1970s, they were never successful in their aims. King and his followers had already created a path in which peace, love, and restraint could achieve dramatic goals.

Day 12 – The Dark Knight Rises

It seems like I would be doing some sort of disservice to myself and the nature of whatever it is this is if I didn’t talk about the newly released trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, the concluding entry into Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy (before it is, like Spiderman, rebooted [re-re-re-rebooted?]).

First, as a preface. I’m generally indifferent to the first two Nolan Batmen. Batman Begins feels claustrophobic, and not in a way I like. The villain isn’t scary and I don’t find Christian Bale as Batman compelling. In fact, I’ve seen it 2 or 3 times and I don’t really have very many clear memories of it. I can vaguely recall Arkham…and some rail-line to the center of town? In my brain, it is just a blue, grey, and brown hodgepodge.

The Dark Knight is an exponentially more interesting film, if only for Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. After one viewing, I was so overwhelmed by it that I thought the film was amazing. Watching it again, I realized I was just waiting for Ledger to come back on screen; the rest of the movie I can basically do without. Again, Bale doesn’t compel me as Batman. He fits all the molds of who Batman is, but it just doesn’t work for me. I don’t feel the natural goodness that I like in Batman. Again, it is just too claustrophobic and detached.

Additionally, I don’t really like Nolan at all as a filmmaker. His films are paper tigers: they seem dark, scary, deep, and difficult, but there is nothing deeper happening. They just seem. He is also a poor director of action, which makes his action scenes feel chaotic, unclear, and disjointed. Jim Emerson has done a great job breaking this down on his website: http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2011/09/annotated_transcript_in_the_cu.html#more. (And I will never forgive Nolan and Hans Zimmer for what they’ve done to contemporary film scoring.)

For me, Nolan’s Batmen ultimately come down to actors and villains: If those two things don’t come into cohesion, I probably won’t like it. In this final entrance, we get Catwoman and Bane. Catwoman is a great character (currently rocking in the New 52), but Anne Hathaway would be one of my last choices to play her. I just don’t get that casting. Selina is crazy, sexy, buxom, and feisty. Although Hathaway likes to get frisky, it is always in a girl-next-door sort of way, which Selina definitely isn’t. Now, Bane. Bane I can get behind. I don’t love Knightfall in which he “breaks Batman”, but he’s a badass character. Now, Tom Hardy rules. Bronson is one of my favorite things I’ve seen in the last year and he destroys as a psychopathic maniac. He could not be better cast for this role.

From the trailer and what people are saying about the extended preview that showed before Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Bane is terrifying and intimidating. People will want to compare him to Heath Ledger and the Joker, but that isn’t fare. Bane is pure pain without the sarcasm and reprieve and lets hope he delivers.

Now, for my personal favorite trailer of all time, Kill Bill. I have no idea how many times I watched this thing. Perfect music, editing, violence amalgamation.

Day 11 – A Young Girl’s Journey from Milan to Minsk

This morning was the draw for the Round of 16 in the UEFA Champion’s League. Since Arsenal won their group, they were matched with a group runner-up. The options were Lyon, Napoli, AC Milan, Basel, Leverkusen, CSKA Moscow, Zenit St. Petersburg, and Marseille (although I don’t think we could get them as they were in our group). Basically, we wanted to avoid the Italian teams, so naturally, we drew Milan. This is easily the worst draw: Milan is sitting just 2 points back in Serie A and have won the Champion’s League (or equivalent) 7 times. They have plenty of quality players that should pose problems for us.

Although this doesn’t make sense, I can’t help but also feel good about this. I actually think we could go in favorites. First, Ibrahimovic and Robinho are big game sissies and we might have Wilshire back in time for the return game at home in March. Maybe this will give Wenger the impetus he needs to strengthen our attacking options in January (although we can’t get someone that is cup tied).

But more importantly, I remain optimistic because one of my greatest Arsenal memories occurred against these dirty Italians. In 2008, we also drew Milan in the Round of 16, but this time as a runner-up (which means you play the second leg away). We held Milan at home which was critical and had it all to play for at the San Siro. Since Europe can’t be generous and adapt to our time zone, all Champion’s League games kick off at 1:45 Central Time. On March 4, I had an anti-Semitism seminar at 2 that was like 3 hours long or some crap. I remember watching as much as humanely possible before leaving and praying that my DVR didn’t screw up. When class was over, I rushed back to Husker Courtyards with Matt and got the game all set up.

It was a super tense match that looked destined for extra time. But with 5 minutes to go, little Cesc Fabregas picked up the ball at midfield, drove in, and uncorked a laser from nearly 35 yards. I remember exploding and running around our apartment. To this day, I’m still not sure how the ball found its way in. The goalkeeper might have been dozing and got to his right late, but still, it was a classic goal. We added a clever second from He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named and we moved on to the Quarters (we won’t discuss the screw job we received from the idiots from Liverpool). But we went to Italy and knocked Milan out on their home pitch.

But that is the joy of the Champion’s League. While Arsenal has never won, I have some of my fondest memories from those games. If I’m ever feeling down, I watch Arshavin’s game winner against Barcelona (and pretend the second leg didn’t happen). If you are interested in soccer, the Champion’s League is where its at. Yes, the World Cup is awesome, but it doesn’t match the quality on display when Europe’s top club teams compete.

Day 10 – Batwoman

When people ask me who my favorite comic book character is, I instantly respond with Batwoman. And sure, to be honest, as this is an honest blog, no one has ever asked me that question because as much as I had hoped that getting into comics would up my social standing, it just isn’t working. So, even though I drop hints that I want to talk about some really great art I just saw or that lesbian goth chicks are so in right now, I’m just going to come out and say it: Batwoman is the greatest Bat of all.

Upon learning that yes, there is a comic character named Batwoman, your instant reaction was probably laughter, followed by, “Is her mom Batgrandma?” Well, that makes you a heartless idiot because her mother is dead, as is her twin sister. Like all Bats, and like most superheroes, Batwoman, aka Kate Kane, has suffered loss. And like  all Bats, she is thirsty for vengeance.

Just as Robin and Batgirl are titles filled by a revolving door of people, Batwoman is a legacy with a number of holders. Her first appearance was in 1956’s Detective Comics #233. Katherine was a wealthy heiress with the hots for Batman, so she became Batwoman to get his attention. It worked, and the Batpeople had an on again, off again relationship. But she was a boring character and Batman treated her with typical chauvinism: “Quit fighting crime, you’ll hurt yourself and spoil your womb!” Not knowing what to do with her, DC erased her from the Multiverse with the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths (so this is why people look at me with pity when I tell them I just got back from the comic shop). But a comic character can never truly die, and with Infinite Crisis, Batwoman was revived as Kathy Webb, a cult film director who married a man named Kane who bought her a circus (stick with me……). He died, as all Kane’s are cursed, and she was finally murdered by the Sensei (all of this was actually brilliantly handled and interwoven in Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated).

The newest incarnation of Batwoman appeared in the weekly mega-event 52 (which is how I entered DC and its convoluted continuity). Like her predecessors, Kate Kane is a wealthy heiress who also happens to fight crime. She’s also a super-babe who uses her feminine wiles to manipulate men. But here’s the caveat, and here’s what makes her interesting (again, you have to stick with me because it isn’t going to be immediately obvious): she’s also a lesbian.

While this might seem like a silly thing to see as interesting, it is in the world of comics, which is a decidedly closed, beefed-up-dudes-and-buxom-babes world. In 2011, there is still huge debate about whether there are enough minorities in comics (Community‘s Donald Glover was in a homemade push to be the next Spider Man and nerds freaked out because “SPIDERMAN IS WHITE” [and Brian Michael Bendis promptly killed Peter Parker in Ultimate Spider Man and replaced him with a mixed race kid]). So the idea of approaching any “non-standard” sexuality is even further down the line. The problem with 52 is that Kate Kane is a man’s fantasy of a lesbian. She flirts with guys and she looks like the typical girl Bruce Wayne carries on his arm. But it is a start.
Kate Kane turned into something radically her own under the pen of Greg Rucka and artist J.H. Williams III in Batman Detective #854. In their 7 issue run, they redefined the character: she is still a lesbian, but the wealthy heiress, lipstick lesbian schtick is gone. She is darker, introverted, and vulnerable. The arc continues the Religion of Crime story from 52 but adds a radical supernatural twinge. We also get Kate’s deeper backstory: the daughter of a Marine Colonel, Kate herself was kicked out of West Point under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell because she wasn’t willing to lie. But she still felt a duty to her country, she took up the reign as Batwoman, with the help and financing of her father. We also learn that her mother and twin sister had been murdered at a young age.

Rucka and Williams handle Kate’s sexuality in a subtle, nuanced way. It doesn’t feel exploitative like 52 and they’ve radically altered her style from her prior versions. She has choppy, short hair and her skin is milky white: she’s butchy goth with rockabilly tattoos and she dates even butcher women. Sexual encounters are only alluded to and it seems clear that Kate is an aggressive mate. But in general, sexuality doesn’t drive her and we aren’t put in positions where her sexuality becomes a punchline. Men don’t flirt with her only for her to shock them with the truth and the key relationship she does have feels more normal and real than anything else going in comics; these are real people, not superheroes.

When Rucka left DC for Marvel, Batwoman was handed to artist J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman and was set for release as a solo title. After numerous, numerous delays (even including a Zero Issue that was supposed to tease the coming launch), Batwoman #1 was finally launched in conjunction with DC’s New 52. Many feared that Williams couldn’t handle writing duties, but they were wrong. The new series doesn’t miss a beat and has seamlessly picked up where the Detective run ended (which also shows the strange position of continuity in the new DC universe).

I’ve really been putting off the most important thing about Batwoman: the stunning art. In comics, every issue has art, but the illustrations infrequently qualify as such. And this isn’t to downgrade what the army of pencillers, inkers, and colorists do. But for many comics, illustration is a rote skill with repeated moves and techniques. While some artists are clearly better than others, there is a general style that you can expect. J.H. Williams III is on a completely different level. The art drives the story and you can tell Williams has written the story to fit his style.

Each page is its own creation. The first thing that differentiates him from everyone else is his panelling: how the images are arranged on the page. Panels traditionally move from left to right, top to bottom. Here is the most basic form of comic panelling from an issue of 52 with Kate Kane. It features 9 equal panels that follow a clean, clear narrative move. It is simple, yet efficient.

Now, here is a sample of a 2 page spread from the latest issue of Batwoman:

Now, keep in mind, this is a fairly basic spread by Williams’s standards. If we start with the whole image, we have an elevated shot of the Gotham skyline. We are close in on the window of an apartment. Here, Williams frames the action even more with the outline of the Batwoman logo and also creates a black and white world outside the logo and colored world within. Inside, we’ve got what initially appears to be 6 panels of action, each bounded with dark black frames. Batwoman is also clearly perched on the window to the apartment and appears to be a backdrop too. As you read the panels left to right, it quickly becomes clear that there is a seventh panel, naturally integrated into the page. The doctor’s window frames the now sixth panel and Batwoman isn’t perching, but rather exiting the apartment. Is it completely necessary that the page is paneled this way? Of course not.  But it allows Williams to use Kate’s flowing black and red cape to add contrast to the blue and gray background. In retrospect, it seems so simply constructed, but it takes the kind of planning and execution that most artists in the business don’t take or have the time for.

Now, his paneling his unmatched, but Wiliams also excels in his style. You get a sense in the previous spread just what sets him apart: his ability to mix and match artistic approaches. In Batwoman, there are upwards of 6 main, female characters: Batwoman (the superhero), Kate Kane (the woman), Bette Kane (Kate’s cousin), Flamebird (Bette as superhero), Agent Chase (Government agent trying to figure out the secret identity of Batwoman), and the Weeping Woman (this arc’s baddy). Each character gets their own visual style that he handles to perfection. In the above panel, you see a mixture of Batwoman’s painted, heavy approach with the more traditional cartooning he gives secondary characters. Even Kate’s personal life is radically portrayed. In contrast to the dark, noiresque night scenes, her out-of-costume exploits are drawn in a delicate, pastel infusion. What gets really interesting is when these different worlds meet and you see Williams handle 3 or 4 different art styles on a single, complicated page. The pages themselves are a joy to look at; the characters could be speaking like The Sims and I’d still buy it.

Since I started reading comics, I’ve always found it hard to get invested in actual characters. I enjoy reading about Batman, Daredevil, and Swamp Thing, but I don’t care about them (and I’m fine not caring about them. I’ve never needed characters in books or film to be likable, relatable, or even believable). They are avatars through which stories can be told. But Batwoman is different. There is a humanity in the character that is strongly absent in most comics and that I find extremely compelling. Or more precisely, her humanity isn’t illustrated by the great responsibility she has undertaken to protect the world. Batman is a zombie. I can never believe that he truly cares about anyone because he is so mindlessly hellbent on rooting out evil. For him, relationships get in the way of what he wants to do. But Kate’s humanity comes instead from the day to day struggle she goes through living in a shitty world. She’s compelled to help people in some way, but really she just wants love. The mask is a burden that no one is asking her to carry, but she continues wearing it even though it gets in the way of what she truly wants.

Day 9 – Martian Luther, the King: Day 1

Posting this one a little early for you folks. I will have way, way more to say about this because it is one of my favorite essays ever. But this is a short, one paragraph homework I assigned my class over Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” They were supposed to compose a paragraph summary of one argument made by King in the letter.

Here’s mine:

Martin Luther King, Jr. begins his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by addressing one of the most superficial and ridiculous arguments put forth by the Alabama clergy: that racial problems in Birmingham should be dealt with exclusively by local citizens. As will become standard in the letter, he approaches the argument from three different levels: the local, the Biblical, and the global. He begins by noting that he is in Birmingham because, as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which has branches across the South, he was asked to be there by fellow members. He continues to his second level by comparing himself to the Apostles of the eighth century. Just as they spread out “to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so [is he] compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond [his] own home town.” Finally, and most convincingly, he argues that the provincial notion that outsiders should have no say in local matters is fundamentally flawed. For King, what happens in Birmingham affects and reflects on the rest of the country. He writes, “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” He globalizes the issue by issuing the essay’s most famous proclamation: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Through these three levels of approach, he reveals that the prevalent idea of “outside agitators” is just one more barrier to ending widespread discrimination.

Day 8 – Storage Wars?!

I finished watching Season 1 of the History Channel’s enthralling docu-drama Storage Wars. It is a stupid show, but one I watched for an entire season. The premise is simple: when people don’t pay their rent at storage facilities, those facilities auction the lockers off to the highest bidder. But the bidders are only allowed 5 minutes to look into the lockers; they can’t walk into them and they can’t touch anything. In some cases, it is pretty clear what is within, but in other cases it is sheer guesswork.

The show follows 5 people who make their living selling used items and antiques. You have to give the History Channel credit for trying; they’ve really attempted to follow interesting characters and create some sense of drama, even if it largely fails. They’ve got genuine jerk Dave Hester who sees buying other people’s stuff and selling it for a profit as important, righteous work. He gets under your skin by inflating bids and making other people pay too much for lockers. He also occasionally brings his creepy son around who has mistaken locker buying for playing poker. Dave is a moron who spent too much time getting picked on in high school and yearning for his father’s attention. Darrell and his son are a non-descript duo who’s main point of interest is provoking Dave with childish taunts. They are big brutish guys with no sense of taste. Then, you’ve got husband and wife team Jarrod and Brandi who own a small used item store. They are idiots who frequently have to be told by other auction buyers that they’ve bought something of real value; they also bring with them a minimal amount of sex appeal (Brandi is as good looking as you can get in a show about buying dirty storage lockers) and forced marital conflict. Finally, you’ve got kooky, white old rich guy Barry Weiss, who seems to have amassed a small fortune in the movie business and is now wantonly throwing it around while looking for treasure. He’s notable for looking and dressing like Robert Evans, trying to be young and hip, and being witness to the Sharon Tate murder. Altogether, this collection of uninteresting dolts serves as an entrance point into the thing that is fascinating, what average Americans will put into a 10′ by 10′ metal box.

Alright, I’m not selling you on Storage Wars. In fact, I’m questioning why I watched 19 episodes of it in the span of 2 weeks in the first place. Frankly, I think I just kept wanting to see what was in those lockers. Just like each of the participants, I wanted to know what was in the box, and I wanted to know even more what was in the boxes inside of the box. I watched one episode with Lizz and she hated it instantly. All she could think about was the poor people who’s stuff was being bought by these assholes. I guess that didn’t bother me. In a show like American Pickers, you watch 2 guys with too much information scamming 85 year-old widowers out of the sword they took off a dead guy at Iwo Jima. That show bummed me out. In Storage Wars, I just imagine that every locker belonged to someone who just  got arrested for grand theft auto and that’s why they can’t pay their rent.

As a kid, I was obsessed with finding treasure. When I was young, my parents worked for a small video production company that occupied a huge building. Everyone that worked there was close, so I always loved going in with my mom because I was free to roam around. Although there were normal offices, the building also had a huge soundstage that they would use for shoots. In the very back of the building, behind the soundstage, they stored all of their old equipment and props. It was a massive collection of weird stuff and I would spend hours rummaging through it and looking for things that I thought they wouldn’t miss. The building had once been a movie theater, so when I was feeling courageous enough, I’d climb up to the old projection room that was also used for storage. Most of the building had been remodeled and looked like a normal office, but the projection room was authentic. It had brick walls, the lighting was spooky, and it still had the old shelves used for holding prints (my brain is remembering canisters of film, but my brain is also a liar).

I realize now that the company was a large collection of hoarders; the stairs (and every available corner) were jam-packed with old VHS tapes; the storage room in the back was really just old, unused junk sitting in a massive pile; the spooky side-storage room was the world’s largest collection of cords. They kept everything in the event that a future shoot needed it, but there was no way they’d be able to navigate through the mess and find what they thought was there. Really, it is a marvel I never knocked into a swaying column and trapped myself beneath a pile of computer parts, fake plants, and unused Pizza Hut boxes (the company once shot a series of Pizza Hut training videos and had a full, working restaurant kitchen).  I would explore the nether as much as I could before I spooked myself and returned to the land of people. But I always went back, and I always found new stuff.

Storage Wars allowed me to reengage this excavation, but without any of the physical effort or expense. It was just fun to try and guess what was in the locker and to see if my own hunches paid off. It was also just flat out weird to see what people had piled away. They found old-fashioned bleeders, handheld spittoons, microcars, and rhino horns. And often these apparently valuable things set right alongside old bras, cheap mattresses, and hand-drawn porn. People will bury interesting things away and forget to pay for it, but that doesn’t guarantee that interesting people will pay to get it out.

Day 7 – Torture in the Classroom

One week down, two to go before Holiday break. Quarters are weird, and having such an extended break in the middle of the quarter is strange. The first week went well. I’ve got an engaged class that really carried the discussion on the Klosterman reading. We went into realms I never really thought we would and the homework was fantastic. I was really surprised with the level of engagement with the text, so hopefully that will continue as we enter the depths of winter.

For our second class, I assigned three short essays from the textbook on the use of torture in American foreign policy and the War on Terror. I like these essays because they speak to one another directly. Ross Douthat’s “Thinking About Torture” is a muddled piece where he, on the one hand, condemns the policy while, on the other hand, admitting that he too would ok the use of torture. Glenn Greenwald responds directly to Douthat in a blog post and calls him out for being a typical American exceptionalist. There is a third essay which asks a basic question: What would Eleanor Roosevelt say about America’s enhanced interrogation policy? Altogether, you get three perspectives on a single policy and it opens up solid discussion on something students have probably heard about, but aren’t actually familiar with. I like this topic because it is controversial, but the discussion is usually better than if we discussed something like abortion, the death penalty, or gay marriage (on which there are also 3 readings in the book). Students already seem to have rigid ideas about these topics and people are more likely to get offended than enlightened (although I once had a student that advocated wide use of torture within the US, especially on gang bangers. This didn’t go over well and I was kind of at a loss for words).

To match the reading, I’ve given students the job of writing one paragraph that compares the Douthat and Greenwald essays. We talked briefly in class on Wednesday about Topic Sentences, so the real goal is that they were able to read the essays, see how they were related, and pick one point that they can compare. Hopefully that Topic Sentence will be clear and they will support it with at least one quote.

Here’s my own homework:In their discussion of the American use of torture or enhanced interrogation in the War on Terror, Glenn Greenwald and Ross Douthat fundamentally disagree on whether a clear, black and white stance can be taken on the US policy. In Douthat’s “Thinking About Torture”, he argues that, although he disagrees with the use of what he calls “torture-lite” in US detention facilities, he can’t help but also understand why the Bush administration pursued such a policy. In fact, he argues that “anyone who felt the way [he] felt after 9/11 has to reckon with the fact that what was done in our name was, in some sense, done for us – not with out knowledge, exactly, but arguably with out blessing” (248). Were he in the same position, he would have OK’d practices like water-boarding and stress positions. Douthat, on the other hand, sees Greenwald’s reasoning as just another case of “American exceptionalism” (249). For him, something either qualifies as torture or it doesn’t. If it counts as torture, which he certainly believes the US practices did, then it is a war crime and it should be illegal. The fact that the Bush administration thought it was saving American lives doesn’t excuse the practice. Every dictator and tyrant has “good reasons” for the crimes they commit, but the US would never excuse Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez. Ultimately, for Douthat, “to cite those factors to explain away war crimes – or to render them morally ambiguous – is to deny the very validity of the concept itself” (25). Either the stance against torture is applicable to everyone, regardless of reasons, or we should just forget the idea of war crimes entirely.

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