Tuesday, October 23, 2007

It's Official: David Chase is an Asshole

So, a perfect storm of school, a new job and my general laziness have conspired to cause my unplanned 2-month retirement from blogging. But, much like Jay-Z's, my retirement was short.

And what could motivate me to come out of retirement? What else but the one topic that I swore never to speak of again: David Chase and The Sopranos. Take a look at this. I will give you a minute to digest it . . .

. . . .


OK, wow. What the hell? Is it possible that David Chase could really be that big of an ass? "There was a war going on"? That is the best you can do?

Why don't you just admit that you freaked out and didn't know how to end the show? That you were afraid that if you gave us a definite ending it might not go over and that your genius would possibly be questioned. That an indefinite ending would allow sycophantic critics and fans to praise you and call anyone that didn't "get it" an ignorant philistine. This show has made you enough money that you will never have to work again, so please, David, just be honest and admit that even you know that you are not the genius you claim to be. Your continued douchbaggery is doing nothing but casting a shadow on the show's achievement. It will be lucky to survive that god-awful Jersey Boys montage at the Emmys, so you don't need to hasten its resignation to the dustbin of TV history.

Friday, August 24, 2007

One Step Closer to The Most Dangerous Game Reality Series

A few years ago, around the time the reality TV template shifted from "put a group of random assholes in a contrived location" (The Real Word, Survivor, Big Brother) to "put a group of random assholes in a contrived location and physically and psychologically torture them" (The Swan, The Biggest Loser) I half-jokingly predicted that it was only a matter of time before we saw a reality version of The Most Dangerous Game. Well, we haven't got there quite yet, but we are getting closer. That's right, Lord of the Flies: The Reality Show. We have already had reality versions of The Great Gatsby (Joe Millionaire), every Jane Austen novel (The Bachelorette) and Othello (The O.J. trial), so they will get to The Most Dangerous Game sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Stanley Fish Goes to Starbucks

In his piece in Slate yesterday, Ron Rosenbaum called attention to Stanley Fish's latest senile ramblings in the Times (here's the link, but you need to be a TimeSelect member). Rosenbaum does a pretty good job of eviscerating it, but I just felt the need to add a few thoughts of my own.

If this had simply been another case of an elderly, sheltered intellectual rambling, Grampa Simpson-style, about the confusions of the modern world, it would have made for good comedy. However, what takes it from comedy to ire-inducing insult are the last few paragraphs, in which Fish complains about having to pour his own cream and sugar: "And worst of all, what you're paying for is the privilege of doing the work that should be done by those who take your money."

This would be offensive enough if it were coming from any run-of-the-mill septuagenarian with a six-figure salary. But it has special resonance coming from Fish, who famously chaired the Duke English department during its heady rise to the forefront of Theory. Duke perfected gameplan of the Theory department: hiring highly-paid "star" professors, letting them do whatever the hell they want, and shifting the burden of dirty jobs like actually teaching to low-paid TAs. In other words, having the bourgeoisie espouse Marxism while exploiting the proletariat.

So, to summarize: Fish, public face for a group of academics who refuse to do the jobs they get paid to do, is complaining about Starbucks baristas making him stir his own sugar. Of course, if Fish ever bothered to teach an undergraduate class at whatever university is employing him this week, he would most likely recognize those baristas as his students, and realize that they are working at one of the most demanding service industry jobs available (you have to memorize a recipe book roughly the size of Paradise Lost-remember that book Stanley?-and be almost sickeningly chipper and energetic 8 hours a day) in order to keep from being buried in student loans for the rest of their adult lives. And where does that student loan money go? To Stanley Fish, who, instead of doing his job and teaching, is busy complaining about them in the pages of the New York Times.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Medium Inferiority Complex

I just finished watching the first season of The Wire and so far it has lived up to the great reviews. It is a smart reinvention of the well-worn police procedural infused with authenticity brought to it by creator David Simon's years as a Baltimore Sun reporter and his collaborator Ed Burns' experience as a Baltimore homicide detective.

I was throughly impressed with the show, but then I made the mistake of listening to Simon's commentary track on the DVD. The commentary is half great insight and half self-congratulatory pretension in which he talks, without irony, about "deconstructing the mythology of the police procedural" and congratulates himself on challenging the audience by making them pay attention to small details in order to understand the story. He uses the classic argument of the creator of the low-rated critically-acclaimed show that they are victims of the Pavlovian lowered expectations of the TV viewer.

Simon does not seem to be aware of other serial dramas such as Lost and their HBO mate The Sopranos, which have attracted large audiences while demanding that the viewers pay attention. Now that TiVo and DVD can allow us to watch TV the way we would read a book, picking it up whenever we want and not having to be home every week at a specific time, we finally can dedicate ourselves to more complicated stories.

But I digress. The point I am coming to here is that, in his self-praise, Simon compares the show to a novel, in order to separate it from "mere" TV, which must be wrapped up neatly in an hour. This goes to the heart of an idea that I have been kicking around since the finale of The Sopranos and which finally crystallized itself while watching The Simpsons Movie a few weeks ago.

During the run of The Sopranos, critics often praised it by comparing it novels and films, once again to save it from the epithetic designation "TV show". The problem is that, somewhere around the show's fourth season, David Chase began buying his own hype and set out to create something that would not just be a great TV show but would be the 21st-century version of the Great American Novel.

And that is the exact moment the show went off the rails. Why? Because The Sopranos cannot be a great American Novel anymore than The Great Gatsby can be a great work of Elizabethan theatre or Hamlet can be a great work of epic poetry. In other words, Chase was suffering Medium Inferiority Complex. Just like the novel and the theatre did before it, TV is still fighting the stigma of being a deliverer of mindless entertainment as opposed to true art. He wanted his work to be associated with more respectable forms, so he emulated them.

However, a work cannot be truly great unless it fully understands and embraces its medium. Elizabethan playwrights tried to emulate epic poetry, and we got Troilus and Cressida. Hamlet stands as the masterpiece of theatrical art because it can be nothing but theatre. It is both a philosophical examination of the nature of man and a bloody good revenge tragedy (which, of course, subverts the conventions of the revenge tragedy). The Great Gatsby works in a similar way. It can be nothing but a novel.

Which is why The Sopranos will go down as a great experiment, but not the masterpiece of the television medium. No, for now that title still belongs to The Simpsons. The Simpsons not only understands its medium, it seems to have digested the entire of history of television and the 20th-century pop culture to which it is inextricably linked. The Simpsons Movie solidified this impression. It is an enjoyable celebration for the fans, but would not be a great movie without the 18 years of history we have with these characters. That is because The Simpsons has embraced TV's greatest asset - the ability to create complex characters that we get to know like our own family - and taken it to new heights, making us care about a group of crude, yellow-skinned drawings. It succeeds as a TV show while subverting everything we know about TV shows.

Monday, July 30, 2007

RIP Bergman and Walsh

In atonement for the picture of that idiot Ward Churchill that has been disgracing the page for the past few days, today we bring you a tribute to two truly brilliant men who have left us in the last 24 hours: Ingmar Bergman and Bill Walsh. These are two guys who made it cool to be a nerd before Rivers Cuomo was born. Both were unabashedly intellectual men working in mediums not know for rewarding intellectualism. They redefined their jobs and influenced all that came after them, raising the collective IQ of their chosen professions.

Bergman, of course, was one of the last surviving members of the great generation of post-war international art film directors who created the idea of cinema as a means of personal expression. Bergman was the most cerebral of the bunch, typically not going for the genre film action of Kurosowa or the decadent carnivals of Fellini. But that doesn't mean his films were boring. His major works, such as The Seventh Seal and Persona, grabbed you with their compelling visuals and intense acting, leaving you enthralled even if 90% of the Big Ideas were going over your head. He was more daring than Kurosawa and more consistent than Fellini, and he opened up narrative cinema in the second half of the 20th-century and the early 21st to experimental new directions. All of the most important films of the last decade, from The Matrix to Fight Club, would be impossible without the marriage of philosophy and experimental filmmaking with conventional narrative storytelling that Bergman pioneered.

Walsh did something similar for the sport of football. Until Walsh came along, football coaches from Knute Rockne to Vince Lombardi to Tom Landry fashioned themselves at Patton-esque generals whose power derived from their ability to discipline and inspire large groups of men. Walsh was passed over for NFL head coaching jobs for more than a decade because it was thought he lacked the toughness to be a coach. But when he finally got the chance to take over the lowly San Francisco 49ers, he unveiled the wild experiment he had been tinkering with in his years as an assistant and college coach. His West Coast Offense was built on strategy and precision, with the players as interchangeable moving parts. The personal mythology Walsh built around himself fashioned him as more Bobby Fisher than Patton, winning with innovative strategy rather than brute force. He didn't believe in inspiring "Win one for the Gipper"-style speeches, but instead spent practice and locker room time drilling his playbook into his players' heads. Like Bergman, Walsh's influence has spread everywhere in football. His pass-heavy style has entirely changed the way the game is played, and his quiet cerebral persona is aped by current coaches such as Bill Belicheck and Tony Dungy.

So, in a world where it seems like we are getting dumber and dumber everyday, especially when reading the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed, let's take a minute to remember two people who made it cool to be smart.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

I Come to Bury Ward Churchill . . .

The fraud that is Ward Churchill, university professor, is no more. For those of you late to the party, Churchill was a University of Colorado Ethnic Studies professor who turned into David Horowitz's wet dream after being invited to speak at Hamilton College two years ago. A Hamilton conservative group began circulating an essay Churchill wrote after 9/11, in which he famously called the 9/11 victims "little Eichmans". In the media shitstorm that followed, it was discovered that Churchill:

A) Had somehow become a tenured professor and chairman of the Ethnic Studies department with a six-figure salary despite only holding an M.A. in communications from from a hippie-dippy experimental college that did not assign grades.

B) Could not prove any of his claims to membership in three different Native American tribes. His claimed Indian heritage had been part of the reason he had got his job as a diversity hire, but the closest he came was an honorary membership from the Keetowah Band, which has since publicly disavowed him.

C) Had plagiarized his work and falsified and misrepresented his sources on multiple occasions.

It is this last point that finally got Churchill fired after two years of committee hearings and faculties reviews. But the first two points make it clear that he never should have had a job to begin with.

But that is neither here nor there. Because, as his well-intentioned but misguided supporters have frequently pointed out, this is "not about Ward Churchill". No, it is about the assault on academic freedom that it represents. According to his supporters, Churchill was not being fired because of his shoddy scholarship, but because of his political views. If he had not written his essay about 9/11, the investigation would have never began. If he is fired because of the investigation that his controversial statements started, it will discourage other professors from speaking truths that make people uncomfortable. . .

You know what, screw this. I was seriously trying to present the pro-Churchill camp's views in a serious manner before refuting them, but I can't do it. I really want to understand the pro-Churchill people, I really do. They include many people that I know personally and deeply respect, and I have spent the past two years trying to see what they see that I don't. But I simply can't do it. What is the lesson of Ward Churchill, what is his legacy in academia? Simply this: if you are lucky enough to hustle your way into a cushy, well-paying job you clearly are not qualified for and get by for fifteen years doing terrible work, keep your mouth shut. This is not about a scholar being punished for his controversial views. This is about a charlatan's idiotic statements finally drawing attention to his lack of credentials and bad scholarship and a University Board of Regents finally doing a job it should have done a long time ago.

Academics should be outraged about this story, but about its beginning, not its end. It should anger every honest, hardworking professor and graduate student that, in world where tenured jobs are increasingly hard to come by, this con man was able to steal a job from someone who was actually deserving of it. We should be on the case of the Colorado Board of Regents and the university administration, but instead of accusing them of being puppets for the vast right-wing conspiracy, we should be accusing them of incompetence in ever letting this idiot get by with his scam for so long.

And one final comment about that essay the essay that started all of this. All of the anti-Churchill people have frequently repeated that the firing was not about his political views, but about his shoddy and unethical work. However, it should be, at least in part, about that essay. Not about the position that it ostensibly represents: that U.S citizens should take a long hard look at the things our country has done to create the dangerous climate we live in today. That is an important and potentially unpopular position that should be explored. But it should be done by real scholars, and "Roosting Chickens" proves that Churchill is not a real scholar.

Anyone who has waded through the tortured prose of "Roosting Chickens" can see Churchill's lack of intellectual honesty. That essay proves that he is not about opening minds, but closing them inside of his ideologically-driven agenda. He is not a martyr to academic freedom, which is about protecting open and honest inquiry, but instead he is just the left-wing version of the anti-intellectual Bush administration neocons, who let no amount of reality interfere with their ideology.

Academia has too many problems facing it today for scholars to waste their time on idiots like Ward Churchill. He, as an American, of course has the right to say any idiotic thing he wants to, and his notoriety from this needlessly-prolonged nonsense guarantees that he will make a good living doing so, preaching to the far-left choir and being hailed as free-speech hero at Campus Green Party events and Rage Against the Machine concerts around the country. Good for him. But the rest of us, who aspire to be real scholars, need to work to protect our institution, from the likes of both David Horowitz and Ward Churchill.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Simpsons Top 10

So, I have let my summer relaxation get out of hand and not been by here for awhile. But, I was stirred back into action by my outrage over this Simpsons Top 10 list over at Vanity Fair. While I highly recommend their excellent oral history of the show, timed to coincide with the release of the movie on July 27, the accompanying Top 10 needs correcting. While I agree with several of their choices, they inexplicably left many other classics off and included several duds. So, here is my Top 10. Thanks to The Simpsons Archive for the episode details.

10) Behind the Laughter (Season 11, May 21, 2000)
The token late-seasons entry. I include this episode because it shows how the show, even in its declining years, could still be daring and experimental. Styled as a Behind the Music episode detailing the off-stage life of the Simpson family, it combines two of the shows great strengths: pop genre parody and self-deprecating meta-humor.

9) Treehouse of Horror V (Season 6, October 30, 1994)
The crown jewel of the famous Halloween specials, featuring the Shining parody that gave Homer one of his greatest lines of all time ("No TV and no beer make Homer something something" Marge: "Go crazy?" Homer: "Don't mind if I do.") You also get Homer's time machine toaster and Principal Skinner going all Soylent Green.

8) I Love Lisa (Season 4, February 11, 1993)
Lisa gives a pity Valentine's Day card to dim-witted Ralph Wiggum and then must figure out how to let him down gently. The show's inspired silliness and ear for comedy can be heard in Ralph's reading of the card ("You choo-choo choose me?").

7) You Only Move Twice (Season 8, November 3, 1996)
Homer gets a new job working for a boss who is a cross between Steve Jobs and Dr. No. He moves the family to a prefab community that is stultifying in its cutting-edge appeal. This episode is even funnier in today's post-iPod, Starbucks-besotted world than it was ten years ago.

6) Cape Feare (Season 5, October 7, 1993)
The first one VF actually got right, and it's easy to see why. It is hands down the best Sideshow Bob episode, and that is saying something, as several others could easily make the shortlist (especially Sideshow Bob Roberts and Brother From Another Series). But this one takes the cake with its Cape Fear parody, Homer trying to learn his new name, Bob performing H.M.S Pinafore and, of course, the reinvention of the rake gag.

5) 22 Short Films About Springfield (Season 7, April 14, 1996)
The show's phenomenal success and animated medium have given it the creative freedom to attempt things no other show would do, such as do an entire episode with no narrative. A collection of vignettes about various Springfield denizens, this episode gets points for creativity and daring, but it makes the top 5 because it gives so many of the characters some of their funniest and most memorable moments. What puts it over the top is Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers, with Skinner trying to pass off Krusty Burgers as homemade "steamed hams".

4) Marge vs. the Monorail (Season 3, January 14, 1994)
The late Phil Hartman created two of my favorite characters, Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz, but this was his tour-de-force, as the Music Man-esque monorail salesman Lyle Lanley. The monorail song remains the best of the show's many showstopping musical numbers and Leonard Nimoy is wonderfully strange in his cameo. Of the show's many satirical jabs at the cornerstones of American society, the most persistent and irreverent is the idea that democracy doesn't work, and this episode makes that point in the guise of that most American of art forms: the musical comedy.

3) Homer Phobia (Season 8, February 16, 1997)
One of the signs of the show's late-season decline has been the increasing preachiness of its topical episodes. When the show was at its peak, they could take an issue like homophobia and make you feel bad for the homophobe. Added to that is John Waters, in what is possibly the best celebrity cameo ever. Where else can you visit a gay steel mill and see John Waters chasing away killer reindeer with a mechanical Santa Claus? All that and my favorite Homer quote of all time: "You know me Marge, I like my beer cold, my TV loud, and my homosexuals flaming."

2) The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show (Season 8, February 9, 1997)
Speaking of the show's decline, at least they declined in style. This episode, which marked the show surpassing The Flintstones as the longest-running animated sitcom, is, naturally, about long-running shows in decline. To reinvent Itchy & Scratchy, the network creates a new, desperately "cool" character voiced by Homer, while a new, desperately "cool" character named Roy moves in with the Simpsons. Poochie speaks not only to artists forced to take orders from no-nothing suits, but also to every young person who has ever been condescended to by Hollywood and corporate America.

1) Much Apu About Nothing (Season 7, May 5, 1996)
Another episode that is even funnier and more relevant than when it first aired. The opening "Bear Patrol" sequence is the show's funniest and most true-to-life representation of the Springfield mob mentality. It is probably the height of the show's satiric brilliance. Amazingly, the rest of the episode keeps up this pace. Whenever I read about the current immigration debate, I always hear Chief Wiggum, preparing to enforce the town's tough new immigration policy: "First we round up your tired, then your poor, then your huddled masses yearning to breathe free".