Wednesday, May 31, 2006

New Wave Punk...Versailles...Running Aristocrats...Sofia Coppola's Marie-Antoinette

There's not a whole lot I can say about the film Marie-Antoinette that has not been said by film reviewers who have already seen the movie. It got "lusty boos" at the Cannes Film Festival and is described by the New York Times reviews that I have linked to as a gilded Versailles presented through a gilded conduit of one bred in Hollywood (not to mention that the soundtrack includes the likes of The Cure and New Order). According to reviewer Manohla Dargis, "Ms. Coppola's period film, which is playing in competition, conceives of her as something of a poor little rich girl, a kind of Paris Hilton of the House of Bourbon."

Reviewer A.O. Scott also sees Marie-Antoinette as "Holding a mirror up to Hollywood." Maybe there is something to the idea that Hollywood has an eerie similarity to Versailles--the frivolity, the unmitigated decadence, the navel-gazing--but it seems like Coppola is too enamored with the ritualistic luxury that surrounded and pampered Marie-Antoinette to realize this. As James Rocchi says, "Much of Coppola's film is given over to sequences of dancing, trying on clothes or relaxing -- all of which may have been important elements of Marie Antoinette's life, but they hardly make for thrilling cinema." I would add that it hardly makes for relevant cinema.

The problem with portraying Marie-Antoinette in this manner is that it neglects that her significance lay primarily in the severe contrast between her (and others at the Court of Versailles's) lifestyle and those of most other French people at the time. Coppola's approach adds yet another uncritical piece of celebrity worship to an already overflowing mass. Perhaps Coppola is so accustomed to the attention she and fellow celebrities get from the press just for being celebrities that, in her mind, the peasants storming Versailles would have been just as enamored with Marie-Antoinette's life as the average American supposedly is with the life of her and her colleagues in the equally insulated and disconnected world of Hollywood. They're not really storming the palace to overturn a social order, they're storming the palace for autographs, right?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Lessons in Jargon: Examining What Obscures Effective Communication

I, like many others, have a visceral aversion to jargon. Jargon is most commonly associated with written and spoken communication in highly specialized areas that require advanced degrees, such as medicine, law, and especially doctorates in many subjects. What bothers me about jargon and those who employ it is that it seems to obscure the relevancy of what is being studied. To some degree, one's specialty must be easily-communicated for it to be relevant beyond the immediate audience of one's colleagues. As far as I can tell, most people who make the effort to get an advanced degree believe that their area of study is relevant, so why is it that some feel the need to actively make their specialty seem less relevant by employing jargon and impossibly confusing sentence structure?

As an effort to expose jargon and as a proposal to simplify communication by obliterating its usage, I present you with my first piece of evidence of this pretentious practice: "the gaze." How often have you read an article, particularly one about literature, film, or another cultural work, and seen this concept employed. One commonly sees terms like "the feminine gaze" in this context. Not surprisingly, the idea of "the gaze" came about in the 1960s advanced by such postmodern theorists as Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan. Since the goal of the postmodernist movement seems to be to write as indecipherably as possible, jargon is at home among these thinkers. I remember first encountering the term in a pretty well-known article about Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window that I read for my film studies class in high school by Laura Mulvey. It was by no means a bad or uninteresting article, but the constant use of the term "gaze" made it more difficult to comprehend.

What is "the gaze?" According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, it is a concept that "deals with how an audience views other people presented." Just by looking at someone, it is proposed that a power structure is established, usually one in which the dominant party is directing the gaze and the submissive party is receiving it. To use Rear Window as an example, L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) is purported to direct a gaze at his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelley) that projects a sort of fantasy unto her. Fremont is perpetually the one being gazed at and never the gazer (is that a word?), which therefore proves that the Hollywood film has a male-centric concern. The gaze is therefore a way of looking at women.

I'm not necessarily proposing that Mulvey is wrong about this but rather that she is unhelpful in her analysis. Why need one use the term "gaze" to describe a complex relationship between these two characters? In my opinion, it would be much more helpful if a scholar like Mulvey were to rely more on textual evidence and less on outside theory--i.e. scenes where Jeffries tries to mold Fremont and the accompanying camera, mis-en-scene, etc. techniques-- that help convey this relationship. This in fact would avoid the substitution of a scholar's own thoughts or agenda and allow as much as possible for the integrity of the text to come out. Using the term "gaze" allows the scholar to characterize an unproven intent of a principal character (i.e. speculating on what this character is thinking when s/he looks at another person). It makes it easier to not rely upon textual evidence, and moreover, it is a word that becomes a bit confusing for the reader who is familiar with its common meaning but not with its academic meaning.

Therefore, I submit "the gaze" as an abused and overused word-concept of academia, as a jargon violation of the highest order!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Fork in the Road

Once in a vision
I came on some woods
And stood at a fork in the road
My choices were clear
Yet I froze with the fear
Of not knowing which way to go
One road was simple
Acceptance of life
The other road offered sweet peace
When I made my decision
My vision became my release.-Dan Fogelberg

Why am I quoting a singer whose best-known hit has probably been played in every elevator and dentist's waiting room in the nation? Well, in fairness to Mr. Fogelberg, I like this quote and when I was younger, pondered it when his tapes were playing in the family car. I remember, for instance, never really knowing which road he meant for us to think that he chose.

I ponder this line again because I am at something of a fork in the road in my own life. I have an exciting--though somewhat open-ended--opportunity to live in France for about eight months of the 2006-2007 year. On the other hand, I can get a job in D.C. in areas that I have long thought myself to be interested in (policy, political advocacy, or public interest). Back when I was merely applying for the job in France, I had it in the back of my mind that I was doing so simply to keep all my options open. The fact that the position didn't seem to promise the beginning of a career (teaching job) and didn't pay very well (though the work hours are hardly demanding) made me nervous. At the same time, gaining a stronger command of the French language and returning to a country I love excited me.

Now, as I think more seriously on the choice, and get admittedly excited about the opportunity to go to France--and simultaneously nervous that I am idealizing this opportunity--I think back to the fork in the road metaphor. For me, this "fork" brings out a conflict of impulses that I have had for awhile now: on the one hand, I get frustrated over the way in which my generation is expected to have everything planned out. From day one at my high school, many students were participating in activities and striving to get grades that wiput them in an ideal college so to get to an ideal graduate school, so to get an ideal job. There's no room in this mentality for what is called (melodramatically, maybe) soul-searching. I long for the era that my parents' generation came of age in, one that I have mythologized as more laid-back than our's. If I go to Europe, I'll be living at least some semblance of what I imagine this era to be.

The other impulse reminds me of how much of an investment college is, how much I want to work to change certain things about the United States (rather than just become a temporary expat), and reminds me that many of my peers are getting their careers started in law school or with impressive jobs. I wonder if only decadent people can afford to take off to France after four years of college.

Maybe I am just as bad as the societies that idealized the "noble savage," when I say that I want to return to a simpler life. Still, I think that there is something to be said for the perhaps trite idea that money and power are not everything and in fact, can make for a complicated, stressful existence. Yes, some level of comfort is ideal, which is why I am for such things as universal health care, but the way the United States values the act of striking it rich (or more recently, being born rich), does not account for the way this devalues other important aspects of life. Such aspects include having a good balance between work and leisure, eating well, getting outdoors (rather than just to the gym), and keeping oneself entertained without the latest entertainment technology gadget. France, to some extent, still allows for this lifestyle. (Granted, they have their own problems there).

Anyway, those are my current thoughts on this difficult but definitely exciting decision.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Stephen Colbert: making news in spite of the MSM

By suggestion, I am writing about Stephen Colbert's bit at the White House correspondents dinner. The way everything has played out--Colbert's great routine, the chilly reception on the part of the dinner attendees, the lack of print accorded to what was certainly the most newsworthy moment at a usually unexciting event, and the subsequent outcry by bloggers and many in the alternate media--point to the mainstream media (or MSM)'s decreasing relevancy.

Of course, they still have the largest megaphone, so to speak, which is free use of our nation's airwaves and mass-circulating, well-recognized newspapers, but as this group continuously clams up when faced with giving attention to events like the Colbert routine (not to mention a lot of troubling societal problems like stagnant wages, decreased social mobility, etc.), others are stepping in. The MSM is unsurprisingly treating them as crazy, unrelenting, out of the mainstream, and so on. They've been trying to write off bloggers forever, but in so doing, they're writing off the actions of average citizens. I don't know what's more elitist than that.

Take for instance how PBS's News Hour
reported an instance in January when the ombudsman of the Washington Post shut down the comments page on the paper's website after posters wrote her that she had misrepresented the nature of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff's donations:
The Jack Abramoff scandal is one of the most explosive stories in politics these days but when Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell recently wrote about the paper's coverage of this story, little did she know that she was setting off a firestorm of her own.
...She was then deluged with close to 1,000 comments, most critical of her suggestion that both parties were complicit in the scandal.
...But the online onslaught didn't stop. [Emphasis added].

Note the words used to describe the commenters and their actions. They're not treated as concerned citizens who would like to see a large newspaper rectify its mis-reporting but rather are treated as a "deluge."

So back to Colbert. Again, the MSM reveals how uninterested--or perhaps just scared--they are to report strong criticisms of the Bush Administration, even if these criticisms are cloaked in humor. Again, the MSM demonstrates their irrelevancy. As a Time magazine television critic said recently, "What anyone fails to get who said Colbert bombed because he didn't win over the room is: the room no longer matters. Not the way it used to." Furthermore, "Colbert's roasting of the president this weekend got nearly 70,000 posts on blogs according to the blog-tracking Web site Technorati -- the most of any subject Thursday" according to an NBC correspondent. As a result, the MSM has had to acknowledge that this is a story.

Now, the talking point among the MSM has become that Colbert's skit was "not funny," which is not only blatantly wrong, but it also doesn't make the event any less newsworthy. (If the news got reported on based on their funiness, the D.C. press corps would be out of jobs). As points out about the "not funny" line:

Milbank’s assessment was shared by many journalists at the dinner, a reaction that can partly be explained by the pressure Washington reporters have long felt from well-organized right-wing media-attack groups to give Bush and other conservatives the benefit of every doubt. [See's "The Bush Rule of Journalism" or Robert Parry's Secrecy & Privilege.]

Consortium continues:

Even before the Colbert controversy, the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner and similar press-politician hobnobbing have been cringing examples of unethical journalistic behavior.

The American people count on the news media to act as their eyes and ears, as watchdogs on the government, not lap dogs wagging tails and licking the faces of administration officials. Whatever value these dinners might once have had – as an opportunity for reporters to get to know government sources in a more casual atmosphere – has long passed.

Since the mid-1980s, the dinners have become competitions among the news organizations to attract the biggest Hollywood celebrities or infamous characters from the latest national scandal. Combined with lavish parties sponsored by free-spending outlets like Vanity Fair or Bloomberg News, the dinners have become all about the buzz.

Plus, while these self-indulgent affairs might seem fairly harmless in normal political times, they are more objectionable when American troops are dying overseas and the Executive Branch is asserting its right to trample constitutional rights, including First Amendment protections for journalists.

Remember Bush's supposedly comic routine from a couple of years ago where he was searching under his desk for WMDs? The sight of an insulated White House press corps sitting in that banquet room watching and laughing a skit that basically trivialized our military's presence in Iraq was pretty sickening. Colbert is just tugging the veil off of a discomfiting relationship between the MSM and the current president, and it's not surprising that they're both mad at him for it.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Daily musings

Today I had some free time and walked out to the lake on the far eastern end of our campus. I'm not the first nor will I be the last to muse about our peaceful natural setting and its ability to transport one to a different plane than is the norm. Life seems fleeting staring out at a vast expanse that appears unending, and it can be liberating to realize this.

Now I am sitting in the library where students are working on various assignments and checking e-mail. For some reason, my eyes are wandering over to the note on my Diet Code Red bottle that says "For Best Taste Drink by Date on Bottle." Maybe none of this is that big a deal or maybe I'm just hopped up on Code Red.