20.2.15

Two things to say about this:

1. I have, apparently, reached the age at which people who are younger than me will die tragically and unexpectedly, but having had enough time to get themselves into trouble and start trying to crawl out of it. It's not Philip Seymour Hoffman throwing away a long and distinguished acting career, and it's not quite DFW succumbing to the pressure of early success. It's someone whose career seemed to be generally on the upswing, and was well-liked by a lot of people. If that's not enough to frighten you, I don't know what is.

2. Related to that last point, I have never in my life done any kind of drug and I've never had the least desire to. When I was younger, it was out of sheer love for my brain and an aversion to doing anything that might mess with it. Now it's with a few decades of seeing that the best case scenario for use is trying it out for a short period where you're young, are not one of the demographics targeted for prosecution on drug-related charges, have no mental health issues, and have the benefit of a stable (or at least good) home life to keep whatever you do moderate and limited. I know people who had the benefit of all of these and still lost years or decades of their lives--and those are the ones who have survived.

For both of these, I credit an adolescent viewing of Trainspotting. Like Renton says in the film, they're not idiots. They just have very little control over their lives. It's not (entirely) their fault, because addiction has complicated social, mental, and physiological components that cannot be willed away. But the easiest way to avoid having to solve that later problem is never to start.

16.2.15

In Which I Discover the Importance of Film Editing

Lord of the Flies
Overlord
Au Hasard Balthazar

Lord of the Flies is not a great movie: the quality of performance given by the children in it is too variable. But it is a good movie that ends on its strongest note. I was quite surprised after watching it to realize that many of the individual scenes features improvisation, including improvised dialogue. As a general rule, I hate improvised movies: Aguirre, the Wrath of God captures indolence and insanity but at the cost of narrative and viewer patience; Drinking Buddies and its mumblecore ilk hang on too little story to justify their meandering run times; Anchorman demonstrates that it might be very funny to be in the room with a bunch of humorous people trying to make each other laugh, but that hardly makes a movie. Lord of the Flies avoids all of these pitfalls. The question is why.

The answer became obvious when watching Overlord, which matches archival footage of World War II to the story of a British man who is called up for service and dies during the D-Day invasion. The director went to great pains to use equipment that would have been available in the mid-40s in order to match up the look of the different parts. The effect is astonishing: the parts don't roll off each other seamlessly, but there's a strong mutual sympathy between the two. It's a film that puts most of its focus not on story or cinematography but editing. The two halves work because each is slotted into the appropriate parts of the overall film, and it is clear that switches between the two are quite intentional. The same applies to Lord of the Flies: each individual scene has a purpose within the overall narrative, so the improvisations are good when they work to the end of that scene (and its place within the overall narrative), and may be discarded when they are not. That is to say, there is a principle that allows the director to decide what remains and what is cut, that principle is tied to the overall thrust of the film, and the director edits the film with these considerations in mind. The principle that affects whether a joke is cut in Anchorman is whether that joke is funny or not, which has very little to do with the narrative of the movie, such as it is.*

The high art version of this is Robert Bresson, who chose people who were not actors to get more instinctive reactions, and frames much of Au Hasard Balthazar around the reactions of a donkey. If the story is well-constructed and the editing purposeful, then the end product can be quite profound and beautiful.

Watching these was one of those rare moments when some new element of vocabulary makes itself known; I'm not sure I had ever thought about how a movie was edited before. But it adds something new to the conversation, a new way of understanding why we like what we do and why certain things are effective and others not.


*The Big Lebowski, which is also mostly concerned with whether its jokes are funny, gets a pass because it is obviously supremely scripted in the manner of most Coen Brothers films. It's the writing rather than the editing that exerts control, but the control is there all the same.

4.2.15

It's going to be a busy week or two between work and other life stuff. Back later.
Le Silence de la Mer

Begin with the irony: a Jean-Pierre Melville film, with the word 'silence' in the title, no less, that is wall-to-wall talking. The film and the novel it is based on use the silence as both a figurative and a literal means of depicting the struggle of French Resistance members during World War II. To resist requires ignoring something central in the humanity of the Germans, and willfully ignoring this is an act of psychic violence on the person ignoring.

The plot is predictable enough: the German soldier will become disillusioned, and the French uncle and his niece will not talk to him. What saves the film is in two rather unconventional decisions about structure and pacing. The first is to film the soldier's trip to Paris in two separate scenes: one where he tours the monuments of the city, alone; and another, separated from the first by five or ten minutes of film, where the soldier interacts with his fellow officers and then begins to notice details of the city and the Nazi occupation. The second key decision is to allow the solider his longest monologue after this revelation: he is allowed to talk himself through all the stages of his own disillusionment, how the hopes he had announced in the beginning of the film were based on lies (not his own lies, but his willingness to believe the lip service others paid to his cultural aspirations), how the entire thing was rotten to the core, how he could not run away from his responsibilities but could not take part in this mission any longer. Allowing him the simple perspective of the outside observer comments more effectively on the Nazi mission than something that attempts to speak directly to it.

3.2.15



A Take Away Show is a web concert series that features hipster-compliant bands playing their music while traveling around Paris. It's half Unplugged and half outdoor concert. Not all the performances are great. The format prizes talent and charisma, which are not always in supply, and sometimes rather surprisingly: The National are slightly underwhelming, and while Phoenix are good, their lead singer is a little too embarrassed to commit properly. It makes clear that St. Vincent is female Jeff Buckley, with great guitar skills and a jazz-friendly voice.

The episodes I like best are Bowerbirds (hipster alert: once saw them in Chapel Hill with Heather MacIntyre's pre-Mount Moriah band) and Yo La Tengo. Bowerbirds are good at making their music fill the space--though, as always, I'm not sure how much I like the songs. Yo La Tengo does simply incredible things with their set-up: "Sugarcube" and "Periodically Double or Triple" sound credibly like their electric versions--Ira Kaplan even does an electric guitar-style solo on the latter. I find something really compelling in their shyness.

Fever Pitch
In which a child from a broken home responds to his devastation by becoming an Arsenal fan, one can only presume through Stockholm Syndrome. (I take it as a sign that my Spurs fandom is rooting than I cannot abide anything having to do with Arsenal)
More concretely: it was very strange to watch this movie, which has so many of the same elements as that other Nick Hornby property I know well, High Fidelity. Absent father, emotionally distant mother, woman who attempts to drag man-child into adulthood, unknown pregnancy, obsession with something generally considered juvenile, even the emotional beats--almost every one of them the same, just in a different order. I was even confused, as I was in High Fidelity, just why the woman takes the man back at the end. Let's just say that it's hard to imagine how this might've been a success as a film if it did not star a young Colin Firth.

Groundhog Day
A Troester family favorite, watched many times. Noticed this time around: when Phil is attempting to woo Rita the first time by learning everything he can about her, he always loses her when he accidentally makes a joke about something he shouldn't. Some of those instances make sense--people have weird majors in college, and it's probably best not to immediately make fun of that when attempting to impress someone--but some of them cast her as utterly humorless. Even if one did only toast to world peace (*rolls eyes*), would a normal person be so offended by the fact that someone else didn't correctly guess that they only toast to world peace as to render further conversation unwelcome or unproductive?

2.2.15

In Which I Watch the World's Most Popular Sporting Contest of the Weekend

Chelsea 1-1 Man City
Yes, Americans, this was not just larger than the Super Bowl, it was five times larger, with an estimated 650 million people around the world tuning in, and this for a midseason game. I rooted for Manchester City out of a residual affection for Oasis, who are City fans from way back, and also because of contempt for all things Mourinho. But it's hard not to notice that neither of these teams is lovable, both in the top two only because they are owned by massive parent companies from politically dubious parts of the world and thus able to outspend everyone else in the world this side of Real Madrid or Barcelona.

Despite this, it was not remotely interesting as a game. Jose Mourinho is famously unconcerned with midfield play as a pioneer of the defense-centric, counterattacking style that is now all over the Premiership and much of the world (Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have also had much success with this method). So there's a lot of strong individual play with the creativity that comes from employing the world's best, but very little of it leads to anything. It's not quite bad football, but it's more like watching Hull and Newcastle than it probably should be. An analogy: it is not unlike NBA basketball when the Knicks were riding high in the 90s--the individual play can almost distract one from the fact that the team can only win ugly.


Not Watching the Super Bowl
As far back as I can remember, I have watched the Super Bowl. I may have been uninterested in anything else having to do with the NFL, but I still watched. Not yesterday, though, and unlikely ever again, after the year the NFL has had. Sports are a bit stupid in the best of cases (though stupid things can be enjoyable and even transcendent from time to time), and one has to reckon with the fact that anything done by humans will also be done by some morally questionable humans, but there comes a point at which the evidence amasses beyond a point that one can continue to associate oneself with it. FIFA may be cartoonishly venal and willing to associate with the worst people--see the slave labor being used to allow Qatar to build stadia to host the World Cup--but if Cristiano Ronaldo got in trouble with the law, no one would be bending over backwards to save him, and certainly not in the manner that the NFL and its teams routinely interfere with law enforcement investigations, usually by already having someone in the police department on team payroll. The Shield very clearly thinks it can have whatever it wants, and for the most part this view seems to be correct. I would rather not have anything to do with it.
Crooked Timber discusses the lack of education for instructors on the fine art of college teaching:

Tenure track faculty receive no training as teachers, and whereas they engage in intensive, daily, professional development activities with regard to their research, they typically receive only the lightest mentoring concerning their teaching, and they receive it from people who, themselves, have had no training and for whom neither teaching nor mentoring new teachers have been part of their professional development.

On this matter I have become something of a zealot, the end process of having a difficult time arranging a classroom in a way natural to me and satisfactory to students, and having talked many (,many) people through the same process. A (now successful) colleague in grad school once remarked that the academic job market is a strange one. One is hired to do a particular job--teach--but one's hiring and promotion depend almost entirely on research. While that is certainly stylized and not entirely true, depending as it does on the type of higher education institution one ends up at, it does get to one of the central oddities of the grad school process, namely the distinct emphasis given to research over teaching. I learned after a few years on the job market that expectations will be both high and low: most jobs will assume that someone who possesses a PhD will be able to generate decent new syllabi for any course reasonably within their field of study given no more time than a summer, but virtually no experience other than serving as Instructor of Record will count as 'actually' teaching.

While the assumption of general competence is usually correct--it doesn't take that long to master new subject matter once one knows how to research--the idea that teaching is just a natural outcropping of the research process is exceedingly strange. To see this, one need look no further than people who are grading for the first time, who are usually plunged into a state of existential terror by the prospect of being objectively wrong in their assessment of a student's work and of properly calibrating the grading scale for the entire class. It applies to matters great and small: putting together a lecture (hearing hundreds or thousands of lectures is not much of a help unless you already know what to be listening for), writing assignments, determining the right balance of out-of-class work in a syllabus, running a discussion section (especially in a class where controversial subject matter will come up), and on through such basic questions as where does my authority in the classroom come from? and into such intricacies as handling plagiarism, mental health issues, and failing students. The average instruction given to the average grad student about this is minimal. Though I believe I was (and remain) a good instructor in the classroom, I got there by cobbling together the information my own professors would periodically share about their teaching, through the luck of TAing for the same courses multiple times (and so being able to think about what made the professor so effective and beloved rather than making sure I followed the content), a healthy amount of outside reading on pedagogy, and notably crashing and burning my first time as Instructor of Record. (It was not a failure, for the record. I did fine. But I made a few missteps, did not enjoy myself by the end, and it showed. I would also completely revamp that syllabus.)

The biggest leap came from finally getting access to the teaching and learning opportunities available to tenure-track faculty. By that time I had the combination of experience and theory necessary to take control of the courses I was teaching, and the general teaching-and-learning material that came into my hands could be put to use; most crucially, I knew when to put aside the advice of others as being unfit for what I was attempting to do. The solution to this problem is more intensive focus on teaching at the earliest stages (where there is more time and the incentives are different than once one is on the job market), hand-holding through the first attempts and gradually increasing the skill set of grad students as time goes on. Duke had a few of these programs when I was in my PhD program, and I did not take advantage of nearly as many as I should have--but more are needed.

30.1.15

A Little Aside About Sports and the Limits of Statistical Analysis

This sort of thing drives me crazy. After a very careful analysis of the math and statistics involved in judging whether or not the Patriots cheated by under-inflating their footballs, an analysis that talks about the available data, properly constructing the pool of data to be used, and finding the right measures for that data, the result is what it usually is: there's some evidence that might be suggestive of something, but no obvious conclusions to be drawn. The piece then draws some obvious conclusions:

You judge a theory based on all the evidence you have for it: past Patriots’ transgressions, the pressure gap between the home and visitor game balls in last week’s AFC championship, your personal feelings about Bill Belichick’s moral foundations, and so on. The Patriots’ sudden improvement in preventing fumbles doesn’t close the case against them, but it’s one more piece of evidence.

A bunch of non-statistical pieces of evidence are mentioned but not discussed. It could be a matter of space. It could be a oddly-worded suggestion for Bayesian updating--no individual piece of evidence is sufficient, but each should increment you toward believing one possibility over the other. But it seems like all of these should get more attention, not less, precisely because the statistical results were inconclusive. Past Patriots transgressions, for example, would only count if you had a theory which suggested that, having been busted for cheating, the Patriots would turn around and select a new means of cheating which no one talked about for nine years. But when one puts it that way, it seems like an uncertain candidate for updating one's prior beliefs, since it is related to one's underlying beliefs about the situation, and people don't think about the many possible factors that might lead to either continuity or change. Like the data, it's not a simple matter.

I like statistics in sports like football and soccer specifically because they contain individual elements that are harder to measure in abstraction from everything else. Statistics here are a way of gaining entry into seeing specific parts of the game that might otherwise go unnoticed. Nobody claims them to capture everything that's important: any analysis has to be supplemented with many others. Soccer has many moments like this Harry Kane goal against Chelsea. The play works only because a player who never touches the ball runs himself out of the play before it even begins, and by doing so takes the key defenders out of the play. How does one measure that? (I sometimes think the popularity of Total Football amongst the stats-friendly has to do with the fact that it correlates lots of objective measures to winning: time of possession, passes completed, tackles, takeaways, fouls, etc)

The answer, of course, here as in Deflater-mess, as in every other type of data analysis, is that smart observers know when to use stats and when (and how) to use and judge other types of evidence and data.

29.1.15

A friend of mine from high school--more correctly, a Harvard-attending semi-notable journalist friend of mine--attempted to engage productively with Jon Chait's essay on microaggression (or something: I learned long ago how to sniff out and avoid that which reeks of this is not going to lead to a productive discussion) by pointing to various true and accurate facts about what it's like to be a white male heterosexual in the United States of America if one is aware that it is such a thing to be one of those, and not neutral experience. It did not go well. 

As one of those white men, here's (some of) what I've learned about interacting across boundaries. It is important, first, to recognize that not all spaces are yours. You may be interested in them, you may want to learn from them, you might see them making errors that could be corrected, but you will always and fundamentally be an outsider. That is fine. Remember that people are not always looking for allies who have disagreements with them, even if those disagreements are reasonable and limited and could be worked out in dialogue (see Tim Burke on this topic). That is also fine. There are some situations in which dialogue, even in the best of situations, will prove to be unproductive. That's fine, too. You're dealing with neither more nor less than the standard burdens of having a conversation in a world where people disagree with each other. You don't know everything, but neither does anyone else. You're not obligated to give up an argument because someone else is making a different one (even if that argument is an emotional appeal, even appeals based on life experience), but you should be careful to always be testing what you believe and trying to find potential things you may have overlooked. That is neither more nor less than the standard ethical duty of being a human. 

(There are a lot of books out there that talk about experiences far removed from your own. It's probably a good idea to read widely from them. This is true for everybody.)

If you find yourself in a position where you are not welcome in a particular space, or find yourself having an unproductive conversation, it's worthwhile to remember how much of the very important work happens when no one is arguing: in the things we teach our children, in how we treat friends and strangers, in the attitudes we demonstrate and in what we expect from others. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt ends by quoting Augustine--initium ut esset homo creatus est, "that a beginning be made, man was created"--and relying on the hope presented by every new-born person as the real vehicle for change. That seems as good a basis as any around which to work.

(There are some supplementary issues for those of us who teach, or have taught, in the obligation to create a classroom that is theoretically and in practice open to the spectrum of opinion, which requires a careful selection of texts and an authoritative hand in guiding discussion to create a space where people are allowed to disagree--to be wrong--without fear of their grade or the immediate reaction their comments may inspire. This is true for conservatives and liberals, the religious and the secular, and every socioeconomic and ethnic group. We were all once 18-22 and probably held at least some views we wouldn't agree with today; certainly we didn't know as much then as now. If people are being driven out of a classroom, as in some of the stories that have floated around, then it's an absolute failure on the part of the instructor.)

In Which I Try to Understand Why I Like The Americans

The Americans

On paper, a show I should dislike immensely: period setting, focus on character, generally dark tone, regular violence. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys (and Noah Emmerich and half a dozen others) are superb, a fine example of the way television still credits itself for artistic breakthroughs when reaching a level considered basic competency in a film--the actors are all good and credible in their parts.

Speculative reasons for enjoying:

1. The setting provides a neutral backdrop. 1980s suburban DC is just a place, chosen for the types of stories it makes possible. The show never deliberately stages either of the kinds of nostalgia that frequently appear in such shows: no "man, people were crazy back then!" and no "things were so much better!" of the sort that Mad Men can never quite manage to shake.

2. Female characters comma Large Proportion of. Mad Men may be Peggy Olsen's show, but after Joan or Megan there's a long way to go to another fleshed-out female character, and the show will periodically make clear that Peggy's professional success comes from her willingness to Work Like A Man. In the Americans, each male character has a female equivalent, and some of the female characters have no male equivalent. The female characters get all the same shadings of motivation and interest that the male characters get, and are much more rarely treated as obviously lesser because they are women. I suspect a body count would be evenly divided between men and women.

3. There's a moral weight to the violence, some large portion of which happens offscreen. Whenever someone dies, people are upset. If one of the characters did the killing--even if they have done a lot of it--the show depicts them struggling with themselves for having done so. All the spies know themselves to be morally compromised, and spend a reasonable amount of time struggling with that: they want to win, but not at any cost.

4. It's not a spy show in the same way that Archer is not a spy show. Archer is a radio program for English majors who enjoy literary and vocabulary jokes that uses a spy show as its pretext. The Americans is a show about marriage and relationships that occasionally does very intricate chase scenes.

5. Marriage comma A Credible Depiction of. The general options are to stick two happy people together and mostly ignore them, or generate a bunch of soap opera relationship complications. Friday Night Lights had its moments of tension between Coach and Mrs Coach, but they were ensemble players in a much larger story. The Americans excels at putting Elizabeth and Philip at cross purposes and then forcing them to work together, so that openness and vulnerability lead way to actual changes in their relationship, that they literally and metaphorically fight over how their family is going to be, how they will raise their kids, what their KGB-mandated relationship is supposed to consist of. They are parents, and they are married, and they have time apart from each other for things other than work.