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".

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Book Recommendation: Reduced Shakespeare by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor

It is summer and I finally get a chance to read for pleasure. So what do I do? Buy another book about Shakespeare, of course. But not just any Shakespeare book, but Reduced Shakespeare, by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, heads of the Reduced Shakespeare Company.

Everyone knows and loves the Reduced Shakespeare Company, creators of the The Compleat Wrks of Wlm Shkspr (abridged). Having skewered Shakespearean performance, they now set their sights on Shakespearean scholarship with this. The book's thesis is explained in this quote from the book jacket:

So what do you need to know about Shakespeare? Just this: The entire Shakespeare industry consists of people simply guessing about who Shakespeare was and what he wrote. Not knowing much about Shakespeare’s life hasn’t stopped everyone from cashing in, filling in the blanks with scholarly supposition when they can, and simply making it up when they can’t. It’s a shocking record, and we’re proud to be part of it.

While they destroy the Greenblattian school of Shakespearean biography and criticism with their typical style, they also cut through the bardolatry to provide a good deal of information, both on the plays and the biography (having hashed through the biographical details, they sum up Shakespeare's three primary preoccupations as "money, social standing, and money"). They also skewer bardolatry in their criticism of the plays. Explaining that some critics interpret Kate's speech at the end of the extremely misogynistic Taming of the Shrew as ironic, they ask, in an "Essay Question", "How much in denial are they?"

For all of their humor, anyone who has seen an RSC production know that they are seriously in love with the theatre, and the chapters on Shakespeare in performance are more serious (relatively speaking). The book's best chapter is the overview of Shakespearean films. It is in fact one of the best run-downs of Shakespearean film available for the casual viewer. Going play by play, they review and rate all of the classics, and also give serious consideration to offshoots ranging from 10 Things I Hate About You to Vincent Price's Theatre of Blood. If you are a Shakespeare fan looking for a rental, it's the best guide you can buy.