Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best of Everything 2014

2014 happened. Here is the best stuff I encountered in it.


New Fiction:

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

My first encounter with Jeff VanderMeer was in the pages of Steampunk, an excellent anthology of short stories and other excerpts from various steampunk writers that Jeff and his wife Ann VanderMeer put together as an introduction to the genre.1 Until this year, I only knew his writing from the introduction to said anthology. This spring, someone on Tumblr mentioned that he's a great speculative fiction writer himself, so I bought a copy of City of Saints and Madmen2 off Better World Books and enjoyed it so much that I immediately headed over to the Ball State library to scrounge for more Jeff VanderMeer. The only book of his on the shelves was Annihilation, but boy, they picked a great only book by Jeff VanderMeer to have, I tell ya.

Annihilation messed me up something fierce. From the first moments of the book, I felt this palpable dread radiating off the page, wafting gently onto me like tropical humidity until I was drenched with it. The dread in this book clung to me for days afterward, messed up my sleeping patterns and work habits.

It was great.

Equal parts Stalker, Twilight Zone, and Goosebumps-cranked-to-11, Annihilation is a first-person account of a biologist sent as part of a team to explore Area X--about which, the less said the better. She quickly realizes that everything she thought she knew was a lie, but instead of trying to figure out the truth, or leave, she kind of just realizes she's screwed and decides to stick around to see what happens. It's all quite terrifying and magnificent and weird.

Runner Up: The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

Old Fiction:

The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun, by N. K. Jemisin

I spent the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 digging up fantasy and sci-fi from authors of color, because, let's face it, you can only read so many books by white guys before you need someone else's perspective. One great find was N. K. Jemisin, who creates fantasy worlds where, just like in our world, most of the characters are people of color. How about that.

The Dreamblood books, The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun, take place in a world dominated by various Middle Eastern- and African-inspired cultures, deities, and political powers. The plots are full of political conspiracy, culture conflict, and strange magic. They're also just really rad, so I'm quite glad I found them. I'm pretty stoked for her next book, which is coming out in August, 2015.

Runner Up: the Xenogenesis trilogy, by Octavia Butler

Honorable Mentions: If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino;
Embassytown, by China Mieville

New Nonfiction:

The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, by Dana Goldstein

This fall, I started taking classes toward an elementary school teaching certificate. But my interest in education, and education policy, goes back a number of years. So I was delighted to hear Terry Gross interview historian Dana Goldstein about her book on the history of teaching in America. It's actually mostly a history of Americans fighting about teaching: who should teach, what they should teach, and what they should be paid.

It's a very balanced, thoughtful, and thorough treatment of the subject, but it never gets bogged down with all the details, and almost always retains a human, personal touch, examining the issues of each period through the lives of a few key figures. The key lesson I walked away with was that, however much we may fight about education today, Americans have tried a lot of the current strategies for reforming education before, and we can actually just look to history to help us decide what works (teacher mentoring and coaching!) and what doesn't (merit pay!).

Old Nonfiction:

Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, by James Oakes

Race and racism in America were on my mind a lot this year; I think many Americans can say the same, what with police brutality protests in Ferguson, NYC, and around the country, as well as "The Case for Reparations" and other racial issues coming to national attention throughout the year. I wrote several posts on this subject, and I researched them all as thoroughly as time would allow. My best find while researching was Freedom National, a book that examines in fine detail the ending of slavery in America.

It's a rich book, full of lively detail and incisive analysis. Most crucially, though, it functions as a striking rebuttal to historians and laypeople alike who allege that the Civil War was not "about" slavery, or that Lincoln and the Republicans had no intention of abolishing slavery. At every turn, author James Oakes points out how fervently anti-slavery Lincoln and the Republicans were, and the measures they were taking to destroy slavery within the boundaries set out for them by the Constitution of the United States. (Read about Oakes's thoughts on revisionist Civil War history here.) Freedom National is a great work of history, and a brilliant read to boot.

Runner Up: When I Was a Child, I Read Books, by Marylinne Robinson

  Jesus and the Victory of God, by N. T. Wright;
The Information, by James Glick

New Comics:

The Shadow Hero, by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew

I've been in love with Gene Luen Yang's work ever since my friend Daniel put his copy of American Born Chinese in my hand and said, "Read this." Yang's work is elegant in its simplicity, always poignant, yet never maudlin. His latest collaboration with Sonny Liew brings new life to a forgotten character from the Golden Age of comics, the Green Turtle. Yang and Liew reinvent the Green Turtle as a gangster-era, Chinese-American superhero, stirring up trouble and upending the corrupt social order in Chinatown. The art is zippy and kinetic, colorful, lively, and keen. The story is a fun, light-hearted tribute to a bygone era, with Yang's perennial theme, the Chinese-Western culture clash, never far from view.

One of my favorite things in comics is when creators include commentary on their work within the book itself: Scott McCloud's combination of nostalgia and faint embarrassment about his early work in the Zot! anthology, Chester Brown's copious historical notes at the back of his Louis Riel biography, Juanjo Guarnido's meticulous color studies in A Silent Hell. So it was a special treat for me to open my copy of The Shadow Hero on Christmas and discover at the end, not only a detailed commentary on the original Golden-Age character and his creator, but a full reprint of the original issue of the Green Turtle's debut comic! This volume is a delight.

Runner Up: Blacksad: Amarillo, by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido

Old Comics:

Finder: Talisman, by Carla Speed McNeil

My entry point into the world of comics was Douglas Wolk's book of essays, Reading Comics. It's a great volume, partly because just about every chapter is an essay on a single comic creator's work, so you end up with a good idea of who you'd like to look up (and who you might want to steer clear of) when you're done.

Carla Speed McNeil's Finder universe is one of the ones I initially decided to steer clear of. Her work is rich in the way that Tolkein's is: when you read it, you sense a carefully thought-out, extremely detailed world in the background, of which you're just glimpsing bits and pieces of the surface. This can make it pretty daunting to the beginner. I've tried reading her collected works a few times, but had trouble getting into them because of how little handholding she does in the beginning; your introduction to the Finder universe--a sort of indigenous, retro-punk, post-disaster future--is a glorious, cacophonous mess, not because McNeil is bad at her job, but simply because that's how the world she writes in is. It's clearly great inside; it's just hard to get in.

Talisman finally broke the world open for me this year. It's short, it follows a single character all the way through, and it's beautiful, sometimes wrenchingly so. I'm hoping to finally get into Finder now that I've finally found a way in.

Runner Up: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, by Hayao Miyazaki


Feature Film:

Coherence, directed by James Ward Byrkit

Coherence is the movie I made everyone watch this fall; I must have screened it five or six times for various groups of friends. I told each of them this: Coherence is like if you watched Primer and actually cared about the characters. If you haven't seen Primer, it's on Netflix instant, it's like 70 minutes long--just do it, go ahead, I'll wait.

Okay, so Primer uses a small budget to play with a sci-fi concept--time travel--in ways that deliberately mess with the viewer and, hopefully, makes you want to watch it again to puzzle out what you miss the first time. It's really great if that's what you're into; but the major flaw is that you don't necessary come away from it caring very much about the people who are caught up in its convolutions. Not so with Coherence, which rapidly establishes each character in its eight-person cast, creating buy-in from the audience from the first moments, and providing an emotional through line that keeps you invested even as the plot starts to spiral into madness. Best of all, it rewards multiple viewings even better than Primer (since you can actually figure out what's happening in another watch-through or two).

Maybe my favorite thing about Coherence is the story behind the movie. The film flows really well, with realistic, overlapping dialogue and an intimate feel. That's because it was all filmed at the director's house over the course of a few days, with the actors improvising their lines. (The actors were given their motivations and basic to-do's by the director each night, but not told what anyone else would be doing or saying.) It's a testament to how important the editor's job is that this film is even watchable; I can't imagine how hard it must be to assemble a normal film with lines and discrete scenes, never mind an ad-libbed deal like this one. But it's not merely watchable: it's a marvel, clear and gorgeous throughout, and loads of fun to boot.

Runner Up: Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-ho

Honorable Mention: Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky

Short Film:

Straight Down Low, by Zach Wechter


I'd never heard of Wechter before I saw his short, Straight Down Low, but he's definitely talented. The film nails the film noir feel, to a T, but rather than taking the Chinatown route and revisiting the 30s, 40s, and 50s settings of the original noirs, it heads the way of Brick instead, and uses the genre to explore different territory--in this case, a 90s-era gangland. It's twisty, gritty, wicked fun.

Runner Up:  Submarine Sandwich, by PES

Honorable Mention: The Missing Scarf, by Eoin Duffy

Music Video:

Shia LaBeouf, by Rob Cantor

I don't really have words for this one; just watch it, and you'll either get it, or be like "who is Shia LaBeouf lol." 

TV Show:

Bojack Horseman

Okay, so apparently this is a controversial choice: Bojack Horseman divided critics and fans alike. I thought it was gut-bustingly funny, and also weirdly mesmerizing. I watched it all in a single day, which is almost unheard of for me. It's about a washed-up former Hollywood sitcom star--so about half the jokes are about being a has-been in Hollywood. But he's a horse, and other people are animals also, so the other half of the jokes are about what it would be like to live in a world where some people are animals: a chicken woman lays an egg after a fight in a bar stresses her out; Cameron Crowe is a raven, who is really annoyed that people can't get that he's not actually a crow; and so on. It's fun/weird.

All of that wouldn't be enough to put this on top for me. The two things that did were (1) the opening credits, for which see the above clip--it captures the essence of the show so perfectly, so surreally, and so catchily, that just those 54 seconds of music and visuals obsessed me for quite a while, and (2) the way the series winds up, which is surprisingly emotionally resonant--beautiful even. Check it out sometime; it's all available on Netflix instant.

Runner Up: High Maintenance

TV Episode: 

"Food Chain" from Adventure Time

Adventure Time is probably my favorite current piece of pop culture, in any medium, currently being created right now. This episode was a great demonstration of why: we're six seasons in, but the creators are still experimenting. This gives me life.

In this case, they handed the reins of the show over to a complete outsider for a whole episode, and the result is a masterwork of psychedelic visuals, zany music, and surprisingly educational content; yet the emotional core, the friendship between the two main characters, remains intact. That ability to balance emotional resonance with experimentation and zaniness is what keeps me coming back for more.

Runner Up: "Island Adventure" from Steven Universe

Honorable Mention: "Matilda" from High Maintenance

Video Game:

Gone Home

Gone Home
is not a conventional video game, and that's a big part of its appeal. There's no bad guys to fight, no puzzles to work out, no points or lives or any of that. It's purely an interactive story, one that you investigate at your own pace, watching it, and--crucially--hearing it unspool in front of you. The sound design on this game is unreal. A game like this lives and dies on atmosphere--and Gone Home has atmosphere in spades.

The game takes the player back to the pre-internet 90s, a world of CD players, typewriters, video cassettes, and zines. The human story is the real heart of the game, though--and the less I say about it, the better, because you should experience it for yourself. If you hurry, you can get it on Steam for ten bucks.

Gone Home is an evocative, poignant, lush experience. I loved it.

Runner Up: Gunpoint

Honorable Mention: 2048



You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes

Podcasting can be anything, but the classical form is two people talking smack into a microphone, and no one in my experience talks better smack or finds more interesting people than Pete Holmes does on You Made It Weird.

Pete Holmes is a comedian, and he brings a lot of fellow comedians on to talk to him, which is great, and he's great at it. But what I love most about You Made It Weird is that, no matter who he brings on, Pete almost always brings up religion at some point, and he's great at drawing people into religious conversations in a way that you won't hear on On Being or pretty much anywhere else. Mostly because they're usually pretty uproarious.

Runner Up: The Nostalgia Trap

Honorable Mentions: Meet the Composer

Podcast Episode: 

"Love Hurts" from Strangers

Lea Thau's podcast Strangers is pretty great, but you wouldn't really know it from the premise: it's really just people telling their stories. But Lea Thau was one of the main people behind The Moth--she was its Executive Director for a decade, and she started the podcast--so when it comes to getting people to tell their stories, she's a legend.

What makes "Love Hurts" so special is that it's Lea's own story, just not from her perspective. She lays out her romantic woes, true, but then she does something unique: she interviews an ex, to ask him: what went wrong? The question we all have but can't ever really ask--was it me? is there something wrong...with me?--she asks it. And it's brilliant, involving stuff, let me tell you.

Runner Up: "60 Words" from Radiolab


Oh Christmas Trees Volume Two, by Oh Christmas Trees

I've stopped buying or even really looking for new music over the last few years--I dunno why. But that hasn't stopped me from occasionally making some of my own. In 2013, some friends and I put together an album of Christmas songs, and this year, we came back and did it again. This year's album was a lot of fun, and I was really proud of my contribution, a recording of the Advent hymn Lost in the Night.

Runner Up: Enamored, by Dave and Erica


Life Event: 

Got married. Our wedding was really, really cool, and we still think back on it with pride and glee. The music, the ceremony, the guests, the food--it was all a blast. Check out the summary below, or heck, just watch the whole thing here.

Runner Up: Went back to school.

Trip Destination:

Washington Island, WI.

We went here for our honeymoon. It's an island in the middle of Lake Michigan. Ask me about it sometime.

Runner Up: Manhattan, Isle of Joy

Friday, November 28, 2014

Doing the Right Thing in Ferguson

"Ferguson Day 6, Picture 44" by Loavesofbread
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons 
Got to give us what we want 
Gotta give us what we need 
Our freedom of speech is freedom or death 
We got to fight the powers that be
—"Fight the Power," Public Enemy

Spike Lee's 1989 film Do the Right Thing ends with a race riot. Neighborhood tensions between black and Latino residents, the cops, and white and Asian shopkeepers, already seething below the surface, are exacerbated by the heat of a sweltering August day. These tensions are pushed to the breaking point when a fight erupts in Sal's Pizzeria; the police are called in and end up killing beloved local character Radio Raheem in order to break up the fight. In an act of spontaneous rage (or maybe just a desire to get started with what everyone knows is coming?) the main character, Mookie, takes a garbage can and hurls it through the front window of Sal's Pizzeria, which the angry crowd enters, smashes up, and sets on fire.

Earlier in the movie, Mookie is admonished by another character to always do the right thing. The question for the viewer is, when the cops kill your annoying friend and everyone's mad as hell because it's hot and people aren't safe in their own neighborhood, what on earth is the right thing to do? Whether you think smashing up Sal's Pizzeria is right or not, you can (and should) end up understanding the motivation behind it—even as it frustrates and angers you.

~   ~   ~

Unless you were living under a rock, you know that this week a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed unarmed black teenager Mike Brown over the summer. You also know that a lot of people were angry about it.

What you know beyond that probably depends a great deal on whether you live in the conservative or the liberal media bubble, but either way, someone in your circle has gone out of their way to condemn the subset of those angry people who reacted by smashing things.

I think this is a distraction. It focuses attention on something of small consequence—the destruction of property, usually insured, rarely animate—and away from something of enormous consequence: the destruction of black life, without remorse and without consequence.1 If the story you’re getting about Ferguson is centered on black people stealing, you’re getting a racist story. It’s the story a racist would tell, and it's the story that racists would like you to believe in and tell others. And if you’re creating that story—well, you do the math.

My reaction to the week's big Ferguson news was to post a month-old column from Rolling Stone called “Smashy Smashy: Nine Historical Triumphs to Make You Rethink Property Destruction,” which points out that:
[I]t's a familiar refrain for anyone who's been involved in Occupy Wall Street, the anti-Iraq War movement, or any of dozens of other protest cycles: The "good" protesters march, carry signs and make their voices heard, but anyone who smashes, burns or vandalizes contaminates the otherwise defensible show of democracy. This attitude is complicated by the facts, to say the least. In fact, the historical pedigree of property destruction as a tactic of resistance is long and frequently effective. To cite just one example, in recent years the largest police reform packages were only adopted after large-scale rioting.
I hoped that posting this would get people to see that, what do you know, the looting isn’t the main story here, and that in the course of time the rioting might actually be part of the reason things change. Like the viewer watching the end of Do the Right Thing, I wasn't necessarily happy about rioting, but I understood the emotional place that it came from, and I wanted others to do the same.

I had hoped that maybe I’d get to discuss the article civilly with someone, or that people would like it and move one. But no:

(Let me just note as an aside that derailing someone's conversation into an abortion debate strikes me as at best a bad idea and at worst a real jerk move. Since as far as I'm concerned, it is a derail, and doesn't actually belong in this conversation, I'm not going to address my second commenter’s second question in the body of this post.2)

Suffice it to say, I slightly underestimated the quotient of anger I might stir up among my Facebook friends.3 It’s too bad, too, because I could have actually had an interesting and more extended conversation with the first commenter. It’s hard to have a multi-threaded Facebook conversation at the best of times, though, and angry friends compound that difficulty a hundredfold, so I kept it brief.4

There are actually several good cases to be made for rioting as tool for change, better than Rolling Stones' rather tongue-in-cheek and slightly off-base treatment.5 I’m not going to try very hard to make such a case myself, though, because I can’t come up with a solid, specifically Christian reason to justify said destruction, and I don’t believe in attempting to hold my faith and my politics apart as if they were magically separate realms of my life and thought.6 (Take a look at those links and judge the case for yourself. The worst that can be said of them is probably that they do seem to boil down to “the ends justify the means,” as my second commenter worried/jibed. But note that, again, usually what gets destroyed is just stuff, not people.)

I said I wasn’t going to try very hard to make a Christian case for rioting, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to take a stab at it. So here’s a thought experiment:
  • As a Christian, I believe I have a duty to try to keep people from murdering each other, rooted in the parts of scripture where God tells us not to murder each other. 
  • I see someone who I know is going to eventually murder someone (because they do it all the time and haven’t expressed any real desire to stop). 
  • I know that I might be able to keep them from murdering someone if I smash up a shoe store. 
  • Would I, as a Christian, be justified in smashing up that shoe store? 
  • My gut says yes.
If that doesn’t satisfy you on a deep emotional and intellectual level then, hey, get in line. The nice thing is, it’s not the point.

The point is, black lives matter, and in America they’re often treated as if they don’t. And as a Christian, and an American, and a human being, I have a big problem with that, and you should too, whether or not you’re any of those things.7

If Ferguson is about anything, it’s about the value of black life. Forget about the looting. If you must, think about it briefly on your way to being angry about the real problems. And remember: always do the right thing.

1. I write “without consequence,” but Darren Wilson supporters have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on his behalf, and he was reportedly paid handsomely for his ABC interview. So really, just without negative consequence. But I digress.
2. I will address it in a footnote though, because who doesn’t love footnotes about abortion. Bombing an abortion clinic would be unlikely to actually halt abortions, because historically women have sought unsafe and illegal abortions when they don't have access to safe and legal ones. These are dangerous for both woman and fetus. It's bad tactics, in other words, and there's no particularly moral way to justify it. If your concern for fetuses/the unborn (there's no neutral term in this debate, I find) is genuine, then you can help them by supporting broader access to birth control, which is a very reliable, fetus- and woman-friendly way to reduce the number of abortions in a society.
3. Only slightly though! Shout out to all my non-angry friends posting in the feed. Bonus points for the Do the Right Thing reference, which gave me the framing device for this post.
4. And then wrote this post. So, uh, hooray for temporary brevity! Is there a Christian case for destroying the oppressor’s actual property rather than whatever happens to be nearby? Most definitely, and it’s rooted in the example cited by the first commenter. Basically, if Jesus can smash stuff in the Temple to make the point that the Temple system is corrupt and that he’s going to replace it with himself, then I can pour concrete on anti-homeless spikes to make the point that, hey, don’t be a jerk to homeless people. The principle is the same. There may be other ways to get people's attention and make a point, but few are as effective as blowing up their stuff, and stuff doesn't really matter much anyway.
5. Off base because none of their examples is about rioting as a means for creating change; everything they cite is about either directly or symbolically blowing up the oppressors' stuff, rather than going nuts on whatever's available.
6. Look, I like pasteurization and encyclopedias as much as the next guy, but I could lose the element of our Enlightenment intellectual heritage where religion is supposed to be personal and private. Religion is by nature public, communal, and therefore political in nature, so deal.
7. Future alien archeologists: this goes double for you.

Friday, October 17, 2014

American Slavery: Aberration or Founding Principle?

A former slave displays the scars from
being bullwhipped, 1863. Source

'Zekiel saw de wheel of time
Wheel in de middle of a wheel
Ev'ry spoke was human kind
Way in de middle of a wheel
—"Ezekiel Saw the Wheel," Traditional Negro Spiritual1

Slavery was the flywheel on which America’s market revolution turned—not just in the United States, but in all of the Americas.
—Greg Grandin, How Slavery Made the Modern World

Raphael painted, Luther preached, Corneille wrote, and Milton sung; and through it all, for four hundred years, the dark captives wound to the sea amid the bleaching bones of the dead; for four hundred years the sharks followed the scurrying ships; for four hundred years America was strewn with the living and dying millions of a transplanted race; for four hundred years Ethiopia stretched forth her hands unto God.
—W.E.B. DuBois, Africa, Its Geography, People and Products

~   ~   ~

Recently, I've had cause to return to the subject of slavery, because of a project my father and I are working on together. (More on that in the near-ish future.) You may recall that the last time I visited the subject, I talked about reparations for slavery and the idea of collective responsibility for wrongs.

Slavery fascinates me because it is the stick in the spokes of any purely positive view of American ideals and history. Take this one, for example:
American Exceptionalism and greatness means that America is special because it is different from all other countries in history… The sad reality is that since the beginning of time, most citizens of the world have not been free. For hundreds and thousands of years, many people in other civilizations and countries were servants to their kings, leaders, and government. It didn’t matter how hard these people worked to improve their lives, because their lives were not their own…The United States of America is unique because it is the exception to all this. Our country is the first country ever to be founded on the principle that all human beings are created as free people. The Founders of this phenomenal country believed all people were born to be free as individuals. And so, they established a government and leadership that recognized and established this for the first time ever in the world.2
Slavery gives the lie to this. The sad reality is that since the beginning of American history, most of its residents have not been free, either.3 And that should prompt us to seriously question whether the original Americans believed that all people were "born to be free as individuals."

Have the temerity to suggest this in public, however, and you risk the wrath of people who are really into American exceptionalism:

My point in saying this is not "Anything that Thomas Jefferson ever wrote about liberty is invalid because slaves,"4 nor is it that we should tear up the constitution5 (partly because Thomas Jefferson did not write the constitution: it was written by a whole team of dudes and he was not one of them).

What my point is is merely that slavery complicates things, and that it's worth paying attention to.

In my experience, there are basically two broadly opposed views of American history, and thus two ways of accounting for slavery as a part of American history. First, if you believe that America was truly founded on the principles of individual liberty and equality, and that it has in fact been an exceptional country from its founding, then slavery and sexism and racism and colonialism and all the other oppressions and inequalities in American history are aberrations. They represent nothing about the true American spirit; they were simply things that needed to be struggled with, fought, and gotten past in order to truly fulfill the American vision.

The other view of American history is that, as a country, it is no different from what you would expect of the people putting it together at its time: a crowd of elite white men. In forming a new nation, they naturally sought to protect their own interests, and the inevitable result was that slavery, white supremacy, economic inequalities, sexism, and colonialism were built into the system from the start as founding principles. The movements to overturn these injustices have had to fight against the very spirit of the country itself, which might explain why so many Americans have historically opposed said movements.

I have next to no patience for the former reading of American history. But as attractive as the latter reading is to me, I think it's missing something.

Which is to say: nuance exists.

Harriet Tubman with rescued slaves. Source

There's a notion in the study of American history, on the Left in particular, that Lincoln and the wave of Republicans who were elected in 1860 had no intention of ending slavery in the slave states.6 The Civil War, according to this view, was exclusively about preserving the Union. Supporters can point to several actions by Lincoln early in the war as evidence: a pair of executive orders in 1861, rescinding the freeing of slaves in Missouri and reversing the abolition of slavery, declared by a Union general, in three border states that had remained in the Union. In 1862, Lincoln even writes a letter stating that, if he could, he would end the war without freeing a single slave. The South was bad, sure, but the North was full of racists, too. The Civil War was a mistake and a sham.7

All of this happens to fit fairly well with the second, more cynical view of American history that I described above. The Civil War was primarily about projecting power and authority and crushing rebellion, rather than the destruction of an odious institution: and why should it be otherwise, if the odious institution was designed from the beginning to be at the heart of American life?

As it happens, though, this reading also completely ignores what the abolitionist movement in America really was—the ideas behind it and the constraints it operated in. To fully understand this, we need to take quick leap backwards in time to the Constitutional Convention:

In the 1780s, slavery looked very much to be on the wane in America. The abolitionists at the Convention were confident that it would soon die out on its own, and felt more or less comfortable compromising with pro-slavery convention members on slavery in order to get other favorable terms for their other ideas. What they did not feel comfortable with, however, was allowing people to be described as "property" in the new constitution. So it was that slavery was indelibly, legally inscribed in the US constitution, but the slaves themselves were described everywhere as "persons held in service" rather than the more usual "property in man." These facts were to have consequences for both sides.

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the Unites States, Howard Chandler Christy. Source
Note the lack of Thomas Jefferson, assuming you're able to distinguish him from all these other white dudes. 

What no founding father anticipated was the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 and the resulting cotton boom in the Southern states, with an accompanying boom in the American slave trade. While the Northern states phased out slavery gradually over a few decades, as the constitution's authors had anticipated they would, the South expanded its slave population by hundreds of thousands. Abolitionists soon realized needed a plan for eradicating slavery, because it was clearly not going to die out on its own any time soon.

Because slavery was written into the constitution, abolitionists and slaveholders alike agreed that the federal government had no power to abolish it in the states: that was up to the states themselves. Abolitionists, though, felt strongly that the constitution did not actively support slavery. The preamble spoke in terms of fundamental human equality; the constitution as whole spoke of slaves not as property, but as persons. In the abolitionists' reading, the constitution considered slavery an unnatural state, that had to be actively instituted by local state laws in order to exist. The conclusion that abolitionists drew was that, while the federal government couldn't ban slavery in the states that already had it, it could ban it everywhere else: on the high seas, in trade, in the capital, and in new territories.

Thus was born the abolitionists' political strategy for ending slavery: use the power of the federal government to form a "cordon of freedom" around the slave states. Cut off the expansion of slavery, and, "like a scorpion surrounded by fire," it will surely sting itself to death.8

This is what the Republicans planned to do, and it's what they would have done if the slave states had not seceded. Secession was not a panicky overreaction on the South's part: it was a completely rational response to its opponents coming to power with a policy in hand, ready to undermine its economic foundations.

The war itself was waged on the legal grounds of preserving the Union. The constitution granted the federal government the power to quell insurrection and rebellion, which is what the secession of the South was. When Lincoln writes of waging war to preserve the Union, of ending the war without freeing slaves, he speaks not of his personal desires: he is after all a man who has always hated slavery, for a variety of reasons. Rather, he's speaking of what is constitutionally allowed for the federal government to do. The war was waged to preserve the Union, but the Union was broken to preserve slavery, and mending the Union was meant to bring about an end to slavery. 

Battle of Port Hudson, J.O. Davidson. Source

The abolitionists saw in America's founding documents the right to liberty and equality. For them, the institution of slavery was an obvious contradiction to these rights, and to the natural law of the world itself. Slavery had to be destroyed, and its destruction was consonant with the true principles on which America was founded.

Whether we agree with them or not—whether we see slavery as a founding principle or a temporary blight on our nation's true nature—it's worth pondering whether the abolitionists would have succeeded if they'd seen the situation differently. If liberty and equality are not key American principles, how can you build an American political movement to bring them to bear? If oppression of all kinds is the bedrock of the American way, can you erase it without remaking the nation itself?

In other words, if you want to make a truly pessimistic reading of America's origins and history, you need to confront the possibility that America cannot be changed. I think the abolitionists, as well as other American movements for liberty and equality, point us in another direction.

Great good and great evil have dwelt here from the beginning. The task of Americans who want justice is not to burn it all down and start anew, nor is it to throw up our hands and say, "To heck with this, I'm moving to Switzerland." Rather, it is to build movements that point people toward justice, and seek actively to root out and destroy oppression, recognizing all the while the potential for either outcome has been there from the beginning.

1. I haven't been able to find a recorded version of this song with precisely these lyrics, which I found here. The linked version above is easily the best one I've been able to find, a gleefully weird rendition by Louis Armstrong and co.
2. This quote is from a book about American history that Rush Limbaugh wrote for kids.
3. Note that, if you tell American history starting with the founding of the English colonies—and, in my experience, that is how we tell American history to our children—then we've been a free society for about a hundred years less than we were a slave society (149 years vs. 258, counting from the first permanent settlement at Jamestown, where there were indeed slaves.) Adding to this the even lengthier period of legal subjugation of women to men, in the form of, for example, the lack of suffrage rights until 1920, and the legality of marital rape until 1993, we have a compelling portrait of a society in which most members have not been free for most of its history.
4. Although the whole "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants" thing is pretty terrifying, and also pretty wack, in my opinion. That said, it was an offhand remark in an obscure letter, not a lifelong personal maxim. So far as we know.
5. Though there is certainly a case for that. At any rate, the constitution could certainly use a number of amendments right about now, on things like campaign finance, the right to voteprivacy, and others.
6. What follows borrows heavily from the work of James Oakes, whose wonderful book, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, I'm currently reading. Much of it is summarized in an excellent article that you can find here.
7. James Oakes puts it better than I can, but I'm resisting quoting him at length in the main body of this post, because frankly I use block quotes way too much on this blog: "We are repeatedly told that the North did not go to war over slavery. The Civil War is once again denounced as morally unjustified on the grounds that the North was not motivated by any substantial antislavery convictions. Emancipation itself is described as an accidental byproduct of a war the North fought for no purpose beyond the restoration of the Union. A recent study of the secession crisis states that during the war, slavery was abolished 'inadvertently.' Contemporary scholarship is saturated by this neo-revisionist premise. Like the antebellum Democrats and the Civil War revisionists, neo-revisionists have insistently shifted the terms of the debate from slavery to race. Virtually any Republican in 1860 would have recognized this argument as Democratic Party propaganda."
8. Apparently, scorpions don't actually commit suicide when surrounded by fire, in part because it's physically impossible for them to do so. Which may actually point toward the possibility that slavery was simply never going to end on its own, regardless of the hopes/fears of Americans in the 1800s. This quote is from secessionist senator Robert Toombs, who was describing the Republican policy in what he presumably meant to be negative terms, but it just ended up sounding kind of awesome.

Friday, September 26, 2014

In Defense of Boring Movies - Raiders of the Lost Ark, B&W Silent Cut

Part of a series of essays In Defense of Boring Movies.

There's no color and no sound
I've been ten feet underground
—"Black and White Town," by Doves

Welcome back to In Defense of Boring Movies, an occasional series in which I talk about a movie that sets out to confound viewers' expectations and entice them to ponder big questions. Today's entry is on Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Steven Soderbergh cut.

Steven Soderbergh is a filmmaker with a diverse body of work; it includes mainstream successes like Erin Brockovich and Ocean's Eleven, as well as more eccentric fare, like his biopics on Che Guevara and Liberace, or other oddities like his Solaris remake and the male stripper movie Magic Mike. What makes him particularly interesting as a filmmaker, though, is his recent retirement from movie-making at age 50, citing the troubling state of the film industry and the fact that making movies just wasn't fun anymore.

It's been a prolific retirement: he's directed a Broadway production (The Library), created a short TV series (The Knick) and even started a liquor brand. He's active, is what I'm saying, and his activity has continued this week with the release of a black-and-white, silent cut of Raiders of the Lost Ark (the first Indiana Jones movie). Why? I'll let him tell it:
I value the ability to stage something well because when it’s done well its pleasures are huge, and most people don’t do it well, which indicates it must not be easy to master (it’s frightening how many opportunities there are to do something wrong in a sequence or a group of scenes. Minefields EVERYWHERE. Fincher said it: there’s potentially a hundred different ways to shoot something but at the end of the day there’s really only two, and one of them is wrong). Of course understanding story, character, and performance are crucial to directing well, but I operate under the theory a movie should work with the sound off, and under that theory, staging becomes paramount (the adjective, not the studio. although their logo DOES appear on the front of this…). 
So I want you to watch this movie and think only about staging, how the shots are built and laid out, what the rules of movement are, what the cutting patterns are. See if you can reproduce the thought process that resulted in these choices by asking yourself: why was each shot—whether short or long—held for that exact length of time and placed in that order? Sounds like fun, right? It actually is. To me. Oh, and I’ve removed all sound and color from the film, apart from a score designed to aid you in your quest to just study the visual staging aspect.
So, like all the movies in this series, this Raiders cut is about getting the viewer to set aside plot and escapism and fun, and ponder another subject deeply instead. Unlike most of the series, it's a deliberate manipulation of someone else's movie. (The lone exception so far is the "director's cut" of The Dark Crystal that was released by an avid fan last year.)

Soderbergh wants viewers to focus on staging--the deliberate placement of actors and scenery that, when done well, tells viewers where everything important in the imaginary on-screen world is, and how it's related in space to everything else. Staging also helps define visually what might be expressed in as narration or thought in another medium: the relationships between characters, and their personal psychology.

So, in the scene below, notice that the camera stays to the left of the characters as they proceed through the first section of the temple, only straying to the head-on or back-on position occasionally, and never moving to their right. The director is adhering to the 180-degree rule, which is a filmmaking guideline that, when followed, keeps the audience aware of where two characters in a scene are located in relation to each other. By staying on one side of the actors, the camera keeps Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) on the left and Satipo (Alfred Molina) on the right throughout the sequence. (If the camera went back and forth between the actors' right and left, the actors would appear to switch back and forth one the screen in relation to one another, confusing the audience.) This pattern is only broken when a shot of the branch above the pit, followed by a long shot from inside the pit of Indy swinging over it, alerts the audience to new spacial orientations.

Additionally, note how the actors' spacial relation to each other gives us a sense of their personal relationship to one another, and their own personalities. Ford strides ahead, confident but duly cautious; Molina cringes and minces along behind, often covered visually by Ford's body. As a bonus, pay attention to the way the lighting allows us to see each of Molina's horrified expressions, but tends to keep Ford's countenance in shadow.

The reality is, though, that I'm not a filmmaker. I'm not even a film student; I've never taken  a film class, so my love of film is 100% amateur-level, derived from reading Roger Ebert, the AV Club, and (more recently) The Dissolve. So I don't feel hugely qualified to talk at length about staging, though I found the task of focusing on it to be fascinating.

I am a musician though, and what's most striking to me (and what I feel somewhat qualified to speak on) is the use of music in this cut. Soderbergh says the musical score is meant to "aid you in your quest to just study the visual staging aspect," but to me it seems primarily designed to play with and break the viewer's expectations around the interaction of moving picture and musical accompaniment.

You may have noticed the jarring disconnect between the feel of the action on screen and the mood of the music in the first clip; this is a theme that's carried on throughout Soderbergh's cut, with some exceptions. Perhaps the most fitting, if still tongue-in-cheek, selections is the use of In the Hall of the Mountain King, with its gradual but inexorable ramping up of volume and tempo, for a chase sequence:

Soderbergh is using primarily (or possibly exclusively; I can't say for sure, more on this below) music from two David Fincher movies, The Social Network and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, to score this cut, perhaps simply as a reminder to the viewer of Fincher's motto about staging, which he quotes in his explanation of what this is all about. Whatever his reasoning, the music, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails, often has a haunting effect, imbuing scenes that play as funny or frenetic in the original with a sense of eerie calm in this version. At other times, the music matches the mood of the scene, while still bringing an eccentric vibe to the proceedings, as in this tense fight sequence, which pulses with industrial energy in the score:

What this sequence, and indeed much of the rest of this cut, brings to the fore, is just how little of acting is line reading. Without a single word to help them, the actors convey menace, fear, rage, pain, and relief, to our complete comprehension. That said, I can't tell you for certain if the movie makes complete sense without words: I know it too well to get confused anyway, and I decided against trying to badger my wife (the only person I know hasn't seen Raiders) into watching with me.

~   ~   ~

Wrapping up: I did as thorough a check as I could on the music used in the film. Below are all the songs I was able to identify (I used a music identification app called Shazam). The rest is enough like it that it's probably other stuff from the same artists, whether more obscure than the stuff identified, or (just maybe) original compositions for this project.

Here's a list of songs used: 
  1. 0:00-5:06 - "In Motion" - Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network soundtrack)
  2. 5:07-9:35 - "Soft Trees Break the Fall" - TSN soundtrack
  3. 9:36-10:50 - "Penetration" - TSN soundtrack
  4. 10:51-13:03 - "In the Hall of the Mountain King" - Pier Gynt, arr. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (TSN soundtrack)
  5. 13:04-15:44 - "Revealed in the Thaw" - Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (Girl With the Dragon Tatoo soundtrack)
  6. 15:45-19:55 - "A Pause for Reflection" - GWTDT soundtrack
  7. 19:56-22:09 - "While Waiting" - GWTDT soundtrack
  8. 22:10-25:38 - "Almost Home" - TSN soundtrack
  9. 25:39:-29:03 - "Painted Sun in Abstract" - TSN soundtrack
  10. 29:04-33:24 - "Intriguing Possibilities" - TSN soundtrack
  11. 33:25-36:34 - "Complications with Optimistic Outcome" - TSN soundtrack
  12. 36:35-42:26 - ?
  13. 42:27-46:16 - "Almost Home" (again)
  14. 46:17-58:58 - "The Heretics" - GWTDT soundtrack
  15. 58:59-1:03:02 - "On We March" - TSN soundtrack
  16. 1:03:03-1:05:25 - ?
  17. 1:05:26-1:08:35 - ?
  18. 1:08:39-1:12:44 - "People Lie All the Time" - GWTDT soundtrack
  19. 1:12:45-1:16:15 - "Painted Sun in Abstract" (again)
  20. 1:16:16-1:20:05 - ?
  21. 1:20:06-1:22:25 - ?
  22. 1:22:26-1:29:38 - ?
  23. 1:29:39-1:32:15 - ?
  24. 1:32:16-1:34:08 - "While Waiting" (again)
  25. 1:34:09-1:38:40 - ?
  26. 1:38:41-1:42:07 - "A Familiar Taste" - TSN soundtrack
  27. 1:42:08-1:45:45 - ?
  28. 1:45:47-1:49:42 - ?
  29. 1:49:43-1:50:40 - "Penetration" (again)
  30. 1:50:41-1:55:38 - "In Motion" (again)
Finally, I feel I would be remiss if I didn't provide my favorite scene, the truck chase sequence. Enjoy it, in all its silent, frenetic glory:

You can watch the whole thing over at Soderbergh's site, here

Friday, September 5, 2014

Why I Am Considering the Teaching Profession

Photo credit: Todd Petrie

Speak with words that you gathered from the ground,
Hold a light up to the sky,
Give the dove just one more chance to sing,
And replace the morning light.
"Built for This," Ben Sollee

The following is a short essay I wrote this week for my elementary education class; since it answers a basic question I get asked a lot—why do you want to teach?—I thought it'd be appropriate to share here. Enjoy!

~   ~   ~

“Okay, so, what are we playing tonight—Settlers of Catan? Cool. Have you played Settlers before? No? Great, well let’s get James over here to teach it to you—he’s good at that.” Settlers of Catan is a popular board game among young people,1 and whenever my friends get together to play a new board game like Settlers, someone will say something like the quote above: James should teach it to you; he taught me to play, and I understood right away. I am the resident teacher of new board games in my friendship circle, because I am, and always have been, just that: a teacher.

I have always, always loved learning, and passing along what I learn has just come naturally as part of that love. As an elementary school student, I learned math with relative ease. My peers often struggled with math, though; once other kids realized that I knew my math pretty well, they would come to me for help. I learned to like helping them: it strengthened my grasp of the material and made me feel kind and intelligent all at once. Teaching, in other words, improved my sense of self-worth, enriched my own education, and gave me a chance to serve others. I held it close from then on, nurturing my skills as a teacher of one kind or another through camp counseling,2 Sunday school teaching,3 and running tutoring and mentoring programs.4

My teaching method: wear hats; point at things.

Thus, teaching has always been something I have considered doing professionally. As an undergraduate, I studied linguistics in the hopes of someday becoming a college linguistics professor. Unfortunately, I graduated in 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession, when legions of other young adults were delaying entry into the decidedly unfriendly job market by applying to grad school. Prospects for secure, long-term employment as a professor looked grim, and have continued to do so ever since, as university budgets shrink and higher education in the U.S. leans more and more heavily on adjuncts to prop itself up. Fortunately, though, I learned through a variety of post-college experiences that I was adept at teaching children, and that I enjoyed it a great deal. I also knew that male elementary teachers were few and far between, and I relished the thought of bringing something unique to children’s lives with something as simple as my gender. So it is that I have turned my sights on elementary education.

I do this knowing that there are risks: education in this country is a fraught business everywhere, not just at the college level. While poverty and other external social factors are at the root of many problems with education in America, the education reform movement has placed most of the burden of solving these problems on teachers, most notably through tying school funding and even teacher pay to standardized testing. Charter schools and turnarounds place additional pressures on teachers, often minimizing their job security and compensation in the vain hope that this will somehow empower them to improve their students’ educational outcomes. I have seen these issues and others in person, in addition to reading about them extensively in the news.

To put it bluntly, the culture of education in this country is a mess. I fully expect to be frustrated and hampered in my attempts to work with my kids. But in a way I look forward to the challenge. After all, if not me, who will serve? If no one steps forward to improve kids’ lives, how will they improve? If people do not set out to change the world, why should it change? I hope to be the change that I want to see, in the lives of my students and, just maybe, in the system that serves them. That is why I am considering the teaching profession.

1. Well, some young people. My friends, anyway. Yes, we are nerds. Well, some young people. My friends, anyway. Yes, we are nerds.
2. I was a summer camp counselor for both younger kids and teenagers, starting at age 17 and continuing through college. I had the privilege of working at a camp that I attended throughout my childhood, so I felt very at home there, which was great for my ability to jump right in and lead each year.
3. Before moving to Muncie, I was a Sunday school teacher for 1st-4th graders for three years. I have also signed up to be a Sunday school teacher at my new church in town, the Lutheran Church of the Cross, though the Sunday school year has not begun yet.
4. I was a team leader for City Year teams in Chicago public schools on the south side of Chicago for two years. City Year is an AmeriCorps program that provides young adults with service opportunities in underserved schools. My teams did reading tutoring, after school programs, and mentorship for elementary and middle school students, and I oversaw their work, as well as participating in much of it myself.