From the archives: January 2005

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Comical symmetry (and culture)

Thursday, 20 January 2005 — 5:37pm | Comics, Literature

As a subscriber to The Economist, and a satisfied customer at that, every now and then I feel a need to point out how cool they are. While I maintain that their Christmas edition last month was probably the best issue I’ve seen in the few years I’ve followed the magazine – what, with a year-end summary in verse, discourse analysis, jazz record reviews, the DS/PSP wars and a board game feature – most of what I want to acknowledge, as you probably realized if you clicked on any of those links that just passed you by, is subscriber content in the online edition. If you are a subscriber, you are aware of these pieces already. If you aren’t, then change.

But every now and then, my favourite periodical pumps out an excellent article that anyone can access. Such is the case with this article on the Web as a linguistic corpus, a piece that cites my favourite blog.

And how cool is this: in last week’s print edition, their weekly Obituary page was a feature on Will Eisner (again, subscriber content, but you should really sign up). The Eisner Awards – the comic book industry’s equivalent of the Oscars – are named after the late Will, and not Disney’s resident evil clown.

Curiously, while the otherwise rigorous obituary goes at length about Eisner’s own projects and his influence on the maturing of comic storytelling (indeed, The Economist concurs with the view that he practically invented the graphic novel), it has nary a mention of his masterwork Comics & Sequential Art, which everyone, everyone, recommends as the definitive textbook on how to make a comic book, and with good reason. Eisner literally wrote the book on graphic storytelling. Comics & Sequential Art is highly technical in its focus, but presents itself as introductory in the way it boils everything down to simple design principles. To comics, this book is what The Animator’s Survival Kit is to animation: all the basic principles collected in one place. The true artist doesn’t just stop there – he works his way upwards – but this is where to start.

The definitive book on reading comics is a beast of a different nature, and its name is Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Between McCloud and Eisner, we have the foundations of what is a theoretical canon of the medium.

Needless to say, theoretical texts only go so far, and it’s the experience of reading the works of fiction themselves where you see them applied.

The other day I dropped by Wizards Comics & Collectibles across the street and down the road apiece from the Garneau Theatre. It isn’t a great shop for blokes like yours truly who prefer to catch up on the seminal graphic novels and mini-series in the form of a durable trade paperback – in fact, they don’t have much in the way of TPBs at all – but from what I can tell (from my limited experience in such matters), it’s definitely a store meant for single-issue collectors.

In one of the racks, I found several original issues of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, including multiple copies of the remarkable fifth chapter, “Fearful Symmetry”, which shares its title with Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye‘s study of William Blake. It makes sense, since they both take their names from Blake’s poem “The Tyger” – which, if you think about it in the context of Watchmen, is an entirely appropriate allusion.

The thing that makes “Fearful Symmetry” (Watchmen #5, that is) so remarkable is that, well, it’s symmetric. In the 28-page chapter, pages 1 and 28 have mirroring panel layouts, down to the colour coordination of alternating reds and blues. The same goes for pages 2 and 27, 3 and 26, and so on until you get to the pivotal assassination attempt bridging pages 14 and 15. Moreover, each of these symmetric pairs follow the same characters. You see the same juxtaposition of the newsstand and the fictitious Tales of the Black Freighter on page 12 as you do on page 17, and a parallel shipwreck on pages 9 and 20. It opens with Rorschach, and it closes with Rorschach.

A gimmick? Far from it. It doesn’t just preserve the flow of the story, it adds to it. Like the other visual motifs that characterize every chapter of Watchmen, the layout is at the service of the story – and to its credit, this is a prime example of something comics can do that other formats simply can’t. At the end of the chapter, the question at the end of Blake’s poem – “What immortal hand or eye, / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” is turned on its head and directed to the reader as a riddle to be answered.

If you’ve read Watchmen and know the solution, look at the question again. The answer lies in that very chapter, embedded in the symmetry itself.

And while on the subject of fearful symmetry – you didn’t think this post was over, did you? – I want to mention the cover of Tuesday’s Gateway, which, for reasons intrinsic to what you can do in print that you can’t on the Web, has not been reproduced in the Web edition.

While I typically keep this weblog text-only aside from attaching the occasional Scrabble post-mortem photograph for illustrative purposes, I feel like saving a thousand words:

Maybe I missed a few issues, but I can’t recall this ever having been done in the three years I have been on campus, and it’s going to take a historian or editor armed with a few bound editions to tell me if it’s ever been done. As with Watchmen, at first glance it’s a simple trick anybody could devise, a gimmick. Here we see two cover stories instead of the usual one, but the real kicker that makes it worthwhile is that they are two opposed cover stories. In this corner, Blatz – in this corner, Amrhein. It’s nice to see a paper take some risks every once in a while – real risks, not just your standard old Transformer blowjobs.

One thing, though: the cover would have been cooler if it were really symmetric.

There’s one more thing I want to mention about this issue, and it has to do with Kristine Owram’s piece in the Opinion section, “English really isn’t teaching English anyway.” To quote:

I couldn’t agree with their arguments more, but I must admit that I find these views of the English department more than a little ironic. After all, this is the same department that completely overhauled its course guide last year to offer a much more theory-based approach to the study of literature. Yep, nothing’s going to teach me how to communicate better than a course called “Textualities: Signs and Texts,” in which students will be introduced to “the structural study of sign-systems and discourses.” Take heart, though, for it will not be “an exercise in structuralism alone”! No, my friends, instead it will provide us with a “comprehensive historical review of the principles of semiotics and the analysis of discourses.”

Now, as someone who actually took ENGL 217 (“Textualities, Signs and Texts”) last semester, I find it rather amusing that Owram pinpointed it as her example. Naturally, this has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that it is arguably the best and most intellectually exciting course I have taken at this fine institution, and alongside the MATH 117/118 Honours Calculus route, the one I am readiest to recommend to every student who thinks he has the wits, bowels and overall academic machismo to handle it.

See, here’s the thing – the English department’s restructuring last year wasn’t moving in a more theoretical direction. The creation of the Textualities series, that being the 217/218 pair, was a direct result of axing ENGL 216 from the course catalogue. 216, a full-year course in literary theory exclusive to English majors, was effectively split in two.

This entailed two consequences. The first is that now, non-English majors can get their fill of the foundations of sign theory. Of course, according to Owram, critical theory is “only important to someone interested in a career in the humanities, like an aspiring English professor.” You’d never have, say, a Computing Science major take a course like that, so why let them? Everybody knows sciences and humanities don’t mix.

The second consequence is that the two courses no longer go hand in hand – you can take one, but not the other. Unless you take both 217 and 218, you can’t compare and contrast across different intellectual traditions. Moreover, without 216, there is no integrated alternative.

You will also notice that the 300-level catalogue is about as bold a move away from theory as it gets. Take a look: “Postcolonial Literature and Culture.” “Medieval Literature and Culture.” “Early Modern Literature and Culture.” What are cultural studies, if not literature placed in context? What are cultural studies, if not literature applied?

Actually, what’s really interesting is that the 217/218 professor, in his introduction to either course, stated his personal conviction that they should be properly offered at the 400-level, and in fact are at most other universities. That’s an assessment of relative difficulty, really. I think the courses are fine where they belong.

My reasoning here is that an introduction to critical theory is purely that – an introduction. These courses consist of readings that are foundational, and more importantly, interdisciplinary. By cataloguing them in the 200s, you encourage students to take them earlier – which means they can apply those theoretical concepts elsewhere instead of acquiring them at the end of their educational careers, when the theoretical rudiments are but a footnote.

Mathematics courses are analogous, and that’s why I so highly recommend the 117/118 route to entering students. The standard 114/115 path (or for Engineers, 100/101) will give you what you need to proceed along your merry way and work with rates of falling objects, basic electrical circuits and all the other fun stuff calculus is good for. But it’s one thing to have the tools, and it’s another to understand the tools and have an upper hand later on. That’s why theoretical foundations, particularly those that come early in your education, are a good thing.

As it stands right now, if the English department encounters further cuts, it’s actually the theoretical disciplines that you can expect to wither away. It’s a crying shame, because theory is exactly the direction in which university-level English should be moving, but isn’t. Owram states that the common defense of English courses is that everybody needs competent writing skills and a background in major works of literature. If that is really the case – and it probably is, given the department’s reorganization in favour of an easily defensible attachment to culture – it really is a pity.

I posit that it is a defect in K-12 education that students enter university without basic skills in composition and critical reading. Higher education isn’t just about vocational preparation, and certainly shouldn’t be. Theory is only relevant to aspiring English professors? Preposterous. Theory should be what the Department of English exists to offer.

I conclude my discussion of the matter with this morsel of advice: take the Textualities courses. They are, in a word, rewarding.

Among the required readings for 217 was Northrop Frye, whom you may recall from earlier in this post as being the author of Fearful Symmetry. The book that was covered was a more theoretical text, Anatomy of Criticism, which is such an essential addition to your bookshelf (even if you don’t care much for structuralism) that suggestions to keep this material away from casual passersby, lest we scare them away, is really quite unbelievable.

Also on the reading list last term was The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man by the Patron Saint of Wired Magazine and my second choice for the Greatest Canadian. Interestingly enough, much of the book is a critique of print media and layout design. McLuhan would have loved Watchmen.

We come full circle back to comic books as I leave you with this piece of trivia: The Mechanical Bride makes a cameo appearance in The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist #4, nestled in a pile of books that a killer robot from the far future studies in his quest to destroy the Escapist once and for all. Industrial Man, indeed.

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Vibraphones and French guys

Monday, 17 January 2005 — 7:51pm | Film, Music

Of all the Golden Globe victories that were announced yesterday, the one I find to be the most curious is Howard Shore’s music in The Aviator being handed the Original Score prize. Now, let’s get a few things straight: for reasons that I have yet to publish here because they are far too numerous, The Aviator is one of the best films I have seen in this year (and by movie terms, we are still in 2004). It’s increasingly obvious that it’s going to take home the top prize at the Oscars this year, and I wouldn’t be one to complain. Howard Shore, on the other hand, is the man who delivered what is probably the most monumental triumph of a film score in the past decade – indeed, one of the all-time pinnacles of film music composition – The Lord of the Rings. As should be evident, I have nothing less than a tremendous degree of respect for his work.

That said, the score to The Aviator is one of the less remarkable things about the picture. Mostly, it is notable for its swelling orchestral moments in the style of the Baroque concerto, cues that would not be out of place in a documentary snapshot of the Palace of Versailles, and are by no means out of place in the early scenes when Hughes is shooting Hell’s Angels from his own rickety cockpit. It reflects the grandeur and scale of Hughes’ ambitious imagination (not to mention Scorsese’s own), and sticks out as a noticeable abandoning of the early twentieth-century American texture that one would expect of such a big period film, but a justified one.

Like Tarantino’s Kill Bill, though, the laudable musical qualities underscoring the film are less attributable to the original compositions than to the prodigious deployment of popular tracks in all the right places. In The Aviator, this selection comes primarily from the swing era, and one would be hard-pressed to find a more delicate use of classic Benny Goodman arrangements anywhere. The best example of this is when Goodman’s recording of “Moonglow” brings us to the wonderful little scene where Hughes takes Kate Hepburn flying over Hollywood by night, and the Lionel Hampton vibe solos by which that track is instantly identifiable capture every sparkle of ambience there is to capture about the mood of the moment. Shore’s music, for all its qualities, sums to a footnote in comparison.

As I never tire of repeating, 2004 delivered two scores that stand above the rest when it comes to thematic resonance, integration into their respective films and overall timelessness: Michael Giacchino’s work in The Incredibles and John Williams’ exuberant charms in the film that everyone forgot, The Terminal. Neither were nominated for a Globe, and we’ll be lucky to see one of them pop up at the Oscars. I am, however, eager to hear Clint Eastwood’s compositions for his $30 million-dollar baby, Million Dollar Baby. He’s no slouch as a musician; if you think back to Lennie Niehaus’ score to Unforgiven, the part that everyone remembers is “Claudia’s Theme”, the sombre guitar melody that bookends the movie. Well, that was actually written by Eastwood himself, though he went uncredited; a Man With No Name, perhaps?

Now, on a completely different note regarding what’s happening in Movieland nowadays: Jean Reno has been cast in The Da Vinci Code. Indeed, is it possible to put an actor in a more self-parodying role than to have the quintessential tough-guy Frenchman play an angry French police inspector named Fache?

I like the direction that they’re going with this project, from the little I’ve heard (i.e. Tom Hanks, Jean Reno, Ron Howard, Akiva Goldsman). The correct approach is to admit that the source material is the World’s Bestselling Ball of Cheese, pick it up, and run with it. Good show, gentlemen, good show.

As far as the ever-consistent Goldsman’s screenwriting duties go, here’s a point of reference for what he is capable of: A Beautiful Mind. Here’s another: Batman & Robin. And we all know what happened to his last literary adaptation, I, Robot. In short, The Da Vinci Code is the movie he was born for.

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A much-needed dose of qualified snobbery

Thursday, 13 January 2005 — 6:08pm | Debate, Film, Scrabble

Some advice to my regular readers: if I don’t post for a week, it’s usually because of something I call “deadlock”. In other words, there are multiple topics at hand that deserve a lot of attention, and the act of completing a post on any of them becomes an arduous task – especially when the urgency and topicality demanded by some of these end up negating each other. Nash equilibria, kids, Nash equilibria.

First of all, there really isn’t much I can say about my rather disappointing performance at the 12-round New Year’s Marathon, where I went 5-7 (-84). I could harp on such trivialities as how, revealingly, the last word I played at the end of a bitterly long day was CUNT; or how it took until Round 9 for me to get my act together and score a tournament victory in the 500 range (a four-bingo 533-243 wipeout over a decided unlucky Jeff Smith) after a very long drought of not doing so – but neither of them make up for the fact that for the first three rounds, I missed bingos like crazy, and played way too safely for my own good.

A tip for players who want to move up the ranks – and I say this as someone who has learned this both the hard and the easy way: play with confidence. Nothing teaches you what the phoneys are like taking a risk and playing one; nothing is so rewarding as the feeling of playing a word you are uncertain about out of desperation, drawing a challenge and unexpectedly winning it. It’s like what Indiana Jones discovers as he faces the test of the Path of God on his way to the final resting place of the Holy Grail: it takes a leap of faith.

Then again, your stupid words may get challenged off in a jiffy, whereupon you lose.

Regarding my earlier post on Martin Kennedy – I’ve had it verified by numerous sources, including Mr. Kennedy himself, that he was a former World Schools Champion, having claimed victory at the inaugural event in 1988, the same event that Calgary is set to host in February. That year, like the WUDC, the WSDC was also held in Australia. This is also why CUSID history is not the place to look if you want to fill in the gaps in the UADS chronology, because ten to fifteen years ago, there really was no CUSID West – at least, none that counted. Back then, what we now know as British Parliamentary (Worlds Style) was not even hard-coded into the Worlds format, let alone accepted in any capacity by Canada.

Now that we have multiple BP tournaments a year attended by those who aren’t even on their way to Worlds, I’d say intervarsity debating has come a long way since those forlorn days.

Speaking of which, if at this point you still haven’t read the Globe and Mail story on Jamie Furniss, read it.

And now for something completely different. Those of you who are in the Gateway distribution area will have noticed a letter published today in response to Production Editor Dan Kaszor’s picks for 2004’s five worst feature films in Tuesday’s year-in-review issue:

In regards to the Gateway‘s bottom five movies of the year list by Daniel Kaszor (11 January), I was shocked and dismayed to see the list dominated by “urban comedies”.

Mr Kaszor – who I assume is white – puts down these films that were clearly created for an audience that he does not understand. Just because the movies aren’t made for you doesn’t mean you have free license to pan them in the press.

Maybe next time you want to unleash your cultural imperialism on the world, Mr. Kaszor, you should decide against it instead.

Now, being an unapologetic cultural imperialist myself, maybe I’m not the most unbiased person to write in Kaszor’s defence – but there’s a reason why I commonly point to him as one of the very, very few people I have encountered on this campus who not only knows how film works, but knows it damn well. If you read what he’s written on movies in the past, you should know that he is exactly the kind of filmgoer who should be writing about what he sees – in that he appears to value good filmmaking most of all above any trivial genre-bias that you often find proliferated amongst casual audience.

Now, this isn’t to say that I agree with him on every occasion. For instance, I don’t think Alexander is nearly as total a disaster as he describes. But like all the critics for whom I have some respect – that is, people who know what they are talking about – the skill of presenting a value judgment about movies lies not in what that judgment is, but how it is reasoned.

In other words, maybe people who are so quick to defend “movies” such as White Chicks and Soul Plane should realize that the cultural sympathies of an individual audience member do not excuse the narrative failings of a woefully inadequate stinkbomb.

(I rarely use boldface for emphasis in this manner, but I thought that mantra was sufficiently deserving of special treatment.)

There is a reason why “urban comedies”, loath as I am to dignify them as such, generally suck. They are patterned after one another on the momentum of commercial appeal, oblivious to the valid criticisms of those of us who care about the filmmaking art form. Being made by black people for black people, should one be so clueless as to resort to such crass self-applied stereotypes, isn’t enough to justify stupid storytelling by stupid storytellers.

I happen to think that cross-dressing and rap “music” are pretty yucky (especially the latter, though I do admire some of the technical production work that goes uncredited), but I enjoyed 8 Mile and absolutely loved Some Like It Hot. Why? Because they are good films.

And until there’s a good “urban comedy” – and one would think it would need to be a) urban, and b) comedic – films of the genre deserve to be spat upon. The same goes for the mercifully dying fad of the “teen comedy”, which has only ever given us one film worth mentioning, that being American Graffiti (advantaged by a pre-Star Wars Lucas at the helm, fast cars, Ronny Howard, doo-wop music and not being gross). But as long as these “movies” keep imitating each other, they can go ahead and assert their place in the cinematic wastebasket.

I could go into further detail about why critic-bashers are by and large fundamentally ignorant about what good criticism actually entails (but with an admission that bad criticism is certainly out there in droves), but that’s one of those hot-button issues that I am keeping at bay until I can present my philosophy in a way definitive enough that I can just copy and paste from it in the future.

The frankest way to put what I’m saying here is this: qualified judgments of films are not simply matters of personal taste, and those who leap to the defence of works that are so devoid of merit as to be critically indefensible neither understand movies or know how to watch them.

Oh, is it ever bothersome to deal with the proponents of the bottom of the barrel. At this rate, I’ll never get around to finishing my comments on A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Aviator and A Very Long Engagement – not to mention all the other actual movies coming down the pipes.

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Unlocking the Key Lepanto

Thursday, 6 January 2005 — 11:36pm

This comes a bit late, but word is that the U of A Students’ Union Building will now be open 24/7.

Regardless of your views on the matter, I think there is one positive benefit on which we can all agree: at long last, a convenient venue for all-night Diplomacy marathons.

Doughnuts, unfortunately, will not be served.

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Never assassinate Archduke Ferdinand

Wednesday, 5 January 2005 — 5:07pm | Literature

And never, under any circumstances, let the Virginian Wolfsnake near a typewriter.

This barely scratches the surface of what a fortunate reader can learn from A Series of Unfortunate Events. Granted, I am only through The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window and the composite film adaptation of the three directed by Brad Silberling and screenwritten by Robert Gordon. At this stage the series is still of a detached and serial nature with only loose ties between successive volumes, but I hear the story arc undergoes some fleshing out later on. At the end of The Wide Window, there is a subtle development that provides a clue to the antecedent mystery that sets off the series, that being the Baudelaire fire.

Even without any continuous narrative yellow brick road that works its way back to the circumstances of the initial incident, in the first three books, the narrator Snicket – presented as a shadowy eccentric in his own right – tells the story in a way that reveals it to be more of a stylistic exercise than anything else. In an earlier post I briefly discussed performative speech acts in The Bad Beginning; in Reptile and Window, the author continues to weave studies of language into the prose. Lemony Snicket’s trademarks are an expert grasp of dissecting English idiom and commendable skill at wrangling “apposition” – which here means the method of defining something by the adjacent placement of a description, sometimes qualified by the phrase “which here means” – in order to make a point. As in the example concerning performatives, the genius of the books lies in Snicket’s ability to take something remarkably complex about the conventions of rhetoric and encapsulate it in a dazzlingly simple, yet lossless explanation.

There is also something to be said for how Snicket harnesses the physical aspect of turning a page in order to create an effect, which is something that you see very often in comics but rarely in prose, where differing editions leave the way the words fit on the page to happy chance. Here, I refer to what happens when the reader is on page 153 of The Reptile Room, and the immediate revelation upon turning the page. You’ll know it when you see it.

I’m beginning to think that the very presence of A Series of Unfortunate Events in the Children’s sections of bookstores – and the fact that children are still its core audience, in spite of its devoted adult following – is the greatest joke the author has played.

On the surface, these are short and easy reads of the same single-digit age level you would expect from, say, Roald Dahl. For those new to the English language, there is no question that there is hardly a more entertaining way to pick up its idiomatic quirks, but that attests to the ease of the reading level. Plotwise, file them under “not that special” and wait on the docks for the July shipment of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. These are simple serial adventures, and (after three volumes, anyhow) they do not incite speculation as to what will happen next, though it’s a given that each successive adventure will be characteristically miserable.

My theory – and one that is hardly the revelation of anything obscure, but a directional arrow towards something hidden in plain sight – is that this series is not intended for children at all. As with any and all claims pertaining to a book’s target audience, this is an inclusive property and not a limitation, but by “target audience” I here mean those who will get the most out of the experience; in other words, language nerds.

Dismissing Lemony Snicket as mere children’s fiction and a language acquisition tool is akin to dismissing the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams as writers of sci-fi. It’s clearly a satirical attack on the happy-go-lucky conventions of standard children’s writing and its socializing mechanisms. He marks the fable of the Boy Who Cried Wolf as an insipid fable, the moral of which ought to be “Never live somewhere where wolves are running around loose.” He dangles babies from towers and kills off their guardians in a matter-of-factly way. He goes out of his way to remind us time and again that these stories are not intended to entertain small children, but in the fog of satire, we don’t take him seriously, and actually derive entertainment from that very claim.

The reading level is accessible to nine-year-olds, but the subtextual criticism elevates the books to being for the literate and clever of all ages. These are not children’s books, and it should be blindingly obvious that Snicket’s appositive definitions are rarely, if ever, instructively literal.

Those who miss the point in their search for literary entertainment (or worse, something morally virtuous) will no doubt find the series to be about as useful as a chocolate teapot. The books are formulaic yarns, and the prose has an elegant air of simplicity, but most of the reading is between the lines. If anything, that rare mastery of short words indicates a mastery of the language, and here it can be found in spades.

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