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Monday, Jun 9, 2008

Ronan McDonald’s recent book, The Death of the Critic, which argues that literary criticism should be evaluative so that it can reach a broad audience and therefore be relevant, has prompted some discussion at The Valve and Salon. Writes McDonald, in a passage excerpted by professor Rohan Maitzen here, “Perhaps the critic is not dead, but simply sidelined and slumbering. The first step in reviving him or her is to bring the idea of artistic merit back to the heart of academic criticism. ‘Judgment’ is the first meaning of kritos. If criticism is to be valued, if it is to reach a wide public, it needs to be evaluative.”


McDonald appears to be serious in arguing that the academic study of literature should focus on whether works are good or bad, inviting a return to the “warm bath” approach to pedagogy that invites us to luxuriate in the Great Works and congratulate one another on how perceptive we are in appreciating them. But who establishes the terms of correct aesthetic judgment? It seems like a will to power is all that’s required, and then the spread of one’s aesthetic tenets serves no greater function than oppressing the world with your particular tastes. And if it’s not simply egotism, usually a covert political agenda is being served—the way the New Criticism tended to denigrate political works in favor of sterile formalism, which guaranteed quietism in the humanities. McDonald argues that true criticism was destroyed by cultural studies and its political agendas, but passing judgment is a political act. What is so hard to understand about that? You can’t impose an aesthetic value system on the public without imposing at the same time an implied set of political views, usually conservative ones, since the very act of imposing your judgment on others is an elitist proposition. (Not surprisingly, McDonald doesn’t like the democratization of criticism—probably because he suspects democracy as a principle. What, all those rubes out there get to have their own opinion, and it should count in the social world we share?) An aesthetics is always political; otherwise it’s merely solipsistic.


Speaking of solipsism, McDonald’s concerns over the democratization of criticism prompts this blithe statement from Salon’s Louis Bayard:


The problem with arguing for cultural gatekeepers is that, if you’re a professional critic, you inevitably look self-serving—“Hey, that’s my job!”—and yes, elitist—“Don’t try this at home, guys.” I myself don’t have any particular training or qualifications to be a reviewer, other than my own experience as a reader and writer, so I feel silly arguing that someone else isn’t qualified to deliver an opinion. And believe it or not, I’ve learned things from Amazon reviews, from letters pages, from literary blogs, from all sorts of non-traditional outlets. The quality of writing is certainly variable, but then so is the quality of traditional journalism.


Believe it or not? Bayard’s point is well-taken but is undermined utterly by that condescending interjection. Oh, is the great Louis Bayard to deign to find himself informed by the great illiterate mass of monkeys pounding away at their naive Amazon reviews and noncommercial blogs? I’m left with a sense of the mammoth amount of entitlement that critics seem to feel by their appointment to their prominent perches, and if that sort of critic is dying, I’d be happy to shovel the dirt on the grave. You have to hope he was being ironic in a way that is not coming across—which itself is an index of the distrust between critics and readers (readers like me, anyway).


Maitzen’s conclusion seems pertinent to the question of that distrust:


I share McDonald’s concern about the isolation of academic expertise from today’s reading culture more generally…I think, too, that he is right to be looking at questions of judgment and how they are understood and articulated as one of the flashpoints for misunderstanding or resentment between academics and other readers. I just don’t see how his prescription to be more evaluative is an adequate response, unless (at the minimum) it is accompanied by a commitment to showing why the question “Is it of any merit?” requires substantial complication before a worthwhile answer is possible. The responsibility here is not all ours: ideally, readers would want, not to be dictated to, but to be engaged in debate worthy of the books they are considering.


Criticism that prompts readers to become critics themselves in their own way would be healing the divide. That’s why the flowering of millions of critics on the internet should be heralded as success, not failure or death.
If critics—any critics, academic or otherwise—deserve our attention, it seems that should be a matter of their being interesting in their own right, producing something compelling from their interaction with some other work that makes us want to think and talk about it too. Mere evaluation seems the least interesting outcome of such an interaction. At best, it prompts tautological arguments about taste.


McDonald believes that “If criticism forsakes evaluation, it also loses its connections with a wider public,” but I’m not sure why that matters. Does criticism need to compete on the same turf as marketing, and should it really strive to become more like marketing (evalutive criticism of the most straightforward sort), because it happens to have an extremely wide public in our commercial society? McDonald apparently laments academic critics’ loss of public influence, but I’m not sure why they would deserve it; surely it’s better that critics are taking less of the attention away from the art they would, under McDonald’s system, be judging? Academic critics in general write repetitive and aggressively unreadable prose; this is because the mechanics of the profession demand it. (Academics must prove their mastery of a field through tedious recounting of previous scholarship, then they must prove a mastery of the field’s arcane lingo, which helps establish the discipline’s authority.) Were they to write in a more accessible fashion—for lay readers rather than their peers—they would be undermining the credibility of their field, th epresumption that special training is required to perform the sort of analysis in which they have become specialized. If we don’t think these specialized analyses are worth performing, better then to argue for the abolishment of literature departments, and turn literary analysis back over to the Virginia Woolfs of the world, the leisure-class dilettantes with the time and inclination to parse fictions.


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Monday, Jun 9, 2008
New Releases for the Week of 2008-06-09...

I’ve never been someone you could call a launch-day adopter, usually opting to wait until brand new consoles get a) cheaper and b) a little bit more readily available.


We're counting the minutes…

We’re counting the minutes…


There was a time, however, when my then-girlfriend and I decided that paying out the ear for a PlayStation 2 was a good idea (this was in January of ‘01), because hey, it was a DVD player too!  And for the better part of that year, it was a fun toy that occasionally came in most handy when we really, desperately felt that we needed to have a DVD (a format which, at that point, was still something of a novelty).


In November, everything changed.


I hadn’t actually played anything past the demo of the original Metal Gear Solid, but I got swept up in the massive amounts of hype for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, purchasing it as soon as it came out.  It remains, to this day, my favorite PlayStation 2 experience of all time.  It was something that I could play while my girlfriend watched, and while I would be entertained by the stealth and the constant tension, my girlfriend could be entertained by the lengthy (and often hilariously convoluted) storyline.  It was a game we would play instead of watching our favorite television shows, and the turning point that transformed the PS2 from a fun curiosity to an all-out entertainment machine.


The guy could have a walker and be out of teeth; I stillwouldn't want to mess with Snake.

The guy could have a walker and be out of teeth; I still
wouldn’t want to mess with Snake.


Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was just as good a play experience, but it came at a time in our lives when games simply could not take the priority that they once did, so it didn’t leave nearly the impression that MGS2 did.  Still, the affection I hold for MGS2 means that anything related to the series gets my full attention—especially a full-on sequel.


Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots looks incredible.  From the shock and awe of the Movie Voiceover Guy trailer to the 15-minute beast that’s been floating around for a couple of years now, every little bit of publicity I’ve seen for MGS4 makes it look like an incredible experience.  Heck, even Raiden, the much-ridiculed primary player of MGS2, looks like he’s grown up a bit, perhaps inspiring a mite less criticism for his presence.  All in all, the thing looks incredible, and I’m going to have a really, really hard time paying attention to anything else until next week.  Maybe this game is what transforms the PS3 into its own full-on entertainment machine.


Once again, it's style over realism on the Wii.  Developers arefinally getting the hang of this little console…

Once again, it’s style over realism on the Wii.  Developers are
finally getting the hang of this little console…


Obviously, things are pretty quiet elsewhere on the release front.  Nascar fans get the latest iteration of EA’s circuit simulation, and Jake Hunter: Detective Chronicles looks fun in a sort of Hotel Dusk meets Phoenix Wright kind of way.  Wii owners also have the inventive-looking shooter Blast Works: Build Trade Destroy on its way this week, in which you get to build up your own ship out of the pieces of other ships.  Like a cannibalistic Vic Viper.  It’ll make a perfect game to play with the kids (rated E and everything!) during those times of day when Metal Gear Solid 4 might not be, you know, appropriate.


The full release list and the Movie Trailer Guy trailer for Metal Gear Solid 4 (just because I’m obsessed with it) is after the break.


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Monday, Jun 9, 2008

It’s a totally mixed bag this week. I’ve just started reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and I’m halfway through Markus Zusak’s I am the Messenger. Firoozeh Dumas’ Funny in Farsi is also in the bedside pile, as it caught my eye when I was shelf-reading the biographies last week at the library.


image

The more ‘literary’ graphic novel trend continues as well as I am slowly working through Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History on short breaks at work; Art Spiegelman’s incredible Holocaust memoir (rendered on behalf of his father) was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, which was a huge step forward for the graphic novel genre.


Time is not on my side, however, because the high school is going to close soon and all materials are due to be returned in the next week. Perhaps I can try to do without sleep for a few days?


I tend to read mostly fiction, but I’m trying to be more openminded about nonfiction, biography, and other genres. Do you stick to one genre most of the time or alternate between several? Perhaps get caught up in historical nonfiction for awhile, then switch to Victorian fiction and on to comic books a few weeks later? What genre(s) are you reading this week?


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Monday, Jun 9, 2008
Pictures by Craig Bailey / Words by Christian John Wikane.
Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo


A heat wave swept through New York City last week as Donna Summer held court at the posh west-side haunt, Mansion, to officially celebrate the launch of her new album, Crayons (Burgundy, 2008). Greeted by an ovation that lasted well towards five minutes, Summer was moved to tears by the genuine adoration of fans, friends, and industry folk gathered for the occasion. Though Summer has consistently worked onstage and in the studio over the past two decades since her last full-length studio album—a fact she emphasized to the intimately gathered audience—this appearance marked an emotional, poignant “coming home” for the woman whose voice has echoed through the hallowed dance halls of Gotham for more than 30 years.


Hosted by Burgundy and radio station WKTU, the evening featured Donna Summer joined by a full band, including husband Bruce Sudano on background vocals.  Vocally impeccable throughout the eight-song set, Summer served up a cocktail of sass, humility, and divine diva stylizations. Thunder roared out of the speakers (and from the audience) on the opener, “MacArthur Park”, where every set of ears and eyes was porous with anticipation for Summer’s classic, chill-inducing belt. Turning to Crayons, the seven-minute “I’m a Fire” translated extremely well to the stage from the studio recording’s neo-disco beat thanks to the deftness of Summer’s drummer. After hitting number one on the club play charts earlier this year, “I’m a Fire” is already an audience favorite.


All photos: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

All photos: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo


Summer sizzled during a simmering medley of “Bad Girls”/“Hot Stuff”, playfully exchanging moves with the lead guitarist and striking a stance befitting a rock star with the mic stand. “Science of Love”, arguably the best track on Crayons, continued the blistering dance-rock fusion to scintillating effect while the anthem-like “Stamp Your Feet” (her latest single) elicited a sea of fist-pounding pantomime. Summer clearly relished the opportunity to perform new songs. Based on the number of people singing along, so did the audience.


Still moved by the uproarious reception, Summer extemporaneously included one verse of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” in the evening’s repertoire, dedicated especially to the audience. The spontaneity of that moment was followed by the inevitable—moments later, the familiar chords of “Last Dance” raised the energy in the room to a feverish pitch. Summer’s extended performance of the Oscar-winning song signaled the conclusion of a night that succinctly paid tribute to Summer’s iconic status across three generations of listeners.


Donna Summer embarks on a two-month U.S. tour beginning July 3 in Newport News, VA.


All photos: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

All photos: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo



Tagged as: donna summer
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Monday, Jun 9, 2008
In preparation for the franchise reboot starring Edward Norton, SE&L looks back at Ang Lee's 2003 version of the Big Green Meanie, a criminally marginalized movie that truly didn't deserve the critical or commercial drubbing it took at the time.

It’s true: you either “get” what Ang Lee did to the Hulk or you don’t. It’s not a “love it or hate” it kind of quandary. It’s much more of a “yes” or “no” proposition. If you are used to the Raimi ideal of comic book moviemaking or think that Bryan Singer got the X down to a simple science, then avoid this movie at all costs, and chalk up the big green monster man to yet another misguided attempt by Hollywood to bring the graphic novel to life. But if it clicks for you, if you stick with it, buy into the premise and the way director Lee presents it, Hulk will stay with you for days after you’ve watched it. It will be the first superhero action film that actually says something profound about parental relationships, the untapped power of emotion, and the struggle for self-control.


The nature of the Hulk has always been described as the out of control id of Bruce Banner’s mild-mannered scientist nerd. The original origins for the character were steeped in repressed memories and parental abuse. Lee magnifies this concept, wanting to fully explore all aspects of it, to make the beast not only the representation of the human mind, but also the true physical interpretation of it. Most fans of fast action cartoon chaos claim Lee missed his chance to make the monster of all cartoon films. They lament how he instead focused all the fun into a dry, dreary drama revolving around Bruce Banner’s childhood and the genetic experimentation that physically mutated him and the emotional trauma that mentally manipulated him.


And still there were those who wept for that forgotten foe in the standard comic film canon, the arch villain, a Joker/Magneto/Green Goblin of equal energy and emergence. But in Lee’s marvel universe, there isn’t one. All the bad guy vibe lands on the shoulders of Bruce’s father, which means that we must deal with Banner the son/man first and Banner the CGI beast secondary. And for most fans of carefree eye candy blockbusters, individualized character studies and special effects fantasy just do not mix, nor should anyone try.


It’s the more human issues in Hulk (interesting how Lee chose to skip both the “Incredible” tag and the impersonal pronoun as well) that Lee wants to focus on. If the idea of massive back story and flashbacks o’plenty make your stomach seize, or if you really wish the actors would just shut up and fight/blow something up, this movie will not be a pleasant ride for you. Lee is striving for something deeper here, something more philosophical and universal. He wants to tap into that time-tested relationship between parent and child and work its intense Freudian fire into an inferno of pent-up rage. Hulk is meant to be a release of that rage, to show how failures on the part of our guardians result in destructive behavior.


This is not some subtle, cinematically created symbolism. This was the basis for another Lee’s - Stan Lee’s - desire in crafting the original character. The genius of the Hulk as an entity is that he is indeed us, fueled at the genetic level by trauma and terror and overblown into a destructive force that must be reckoned with. It’s intriguing to note how there is not a real revelatory arc to the Hulk’s development. At one moment, Bruce Banner is a normal human being. The next he is an outraged giant with an even larger, deadlier chip on his behemoth shoulders.


The transformation of the psychological into the physiological is at the heart of Hulk as a character and Hulk as a movie. The entire film is actually about our biological and emotional heritage, about how our bodily chemistry and interpersonal lineage, become the reason for who we are. Unlike the comic book version, this Hulk was a fiend just waiting to be forged. Daddy Banner’s experiments and the unfortunate ramifications are just a more modern, less meat-fisted way of handling the humongous’ foundation. In Stan Lee’s comic book world, Bruce is escaping an abusively alcoholic and murderous father. In Ang Lee’s world, David Banner is DNA destiny, the reason why Bruce is who he is at the molecular as well as the persona level.


This one-two punch makes the movie Hulk a far more complex, preordained brute. The notion of not being able to control one’s own providence is a fear that most offspring have, and Hulk blows it up into a big green overtly violent twisted mass of muscle without the ability to properly control itself; again, another part of the panic of growing up. True, we all aren’t worried about growing thirty feet in every direction and raging without rhyme or reason, but we do concern ourselves with the notion that our past controls our present and future and we are unable to keep it from happening.


This is, perhaps, why Hulk does not resonate with the standard blockbuster audience: the teenage boy. As the unbearable kings of the planet, they have yet to figure out how their past and their father figure (or lack thereof) has influenced their life. To them, Hulk should be about smashing and bashing. He should not be a reflection of a youth unfulfilled or a life filled with empty pain. So this is really the first adult action film, a movie that uses a unique cinematic style and obvious operatic tendencies to invoke more than tell its tale. Indeed, there is not a lot of mood swinging going on in this film. Lee gives us emotional archetypes versus real three-dimensional people.


Thankfully, all this deep-seeded child rearing rhetoric is couched in a wonderfully visual and abstractly arresting set of moviemaking ideals. There are those who find Ang Lee’s choices suspect and/or even irritating. He uses more split screen sequences than Brian De Palma has ever fantasized over and loves to overlap shots to give us multiple “every conceivable angle” opportunities. It helps to propel the narrative over the deeply bruised sequences of psyche in somersault and shows us that someone can literally take the structure of a comic book, apply it to the movies, and make it work.


As a CGI creation, the Hulk himself seems one shadow and character crafting computer map pass away from being the most amazing digital creation ever. It appears that, after the success of Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the computer-generated imagists at ILM just can’t quite figure out how to make something not look fake. While this may seem like an oxymoron, the completely green, oversized giant never once looks natural or “human” enough. He is overly detailed, all carefully placed ripples and dirt. We never get the full effect of the Hulk being flawed or part of his environment. Instead, we can see the environment conforming to him, with tanks and planes and houses becoming more “cartoon” like to fit in to what the Hulk has in mind.


No place is this more abundantly clear than in the much-discussed ‘Hulk Dogs’ sequence. While overall it’s a very well done action scene (what else would you expect from the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?), the oversized mutts look Scooby-Doo awful. They don’t appear as genetically altered hounds; they’re animated cartoon monsters in puppy suits that look phony from the minute the binary spit flies from their flapping jowls. What many computer artists forget is that they are supposed to be rendering the unreal real, not crafting perfectly painted practicality. For all his accurate body movement and incredible facial gesturing, more times than not the Hulk just looks like a well-painted drawing.


Thankfully, the depth of symbolism and the sheer cinematic artistry of Ang Lee keep Hulk afloat. Yes, the movie is too long and the effects are not always special, but what this Lee does is prove the Stan Lee thesis of Marvel’s best comic creations. It was the elder Lee’s belief that the best entertainment came out of the personalities and storylines, not fancy ink sketches. Hollywood, in turn, definitely lives by the bright lights, pretty colors theory of superhero movies. Details just get in the way of the next attractive explosion or the fast food tie-in moment. Hulk is a good movie burdened by expectations it could never meet and limitations that couldn’t be overcome. It is an effective denouncement of the parent/child relationship, of the basic progeny’s fear that we will grow up under the direct influence of our parents, almost to the point of pinpoint replication.


Bruce Banner’s problem is that, if he indeed matures exactly like his father, there is truly no hope for mankind. In order to survive, he will have to come to terms with what he is, and how he can manage it - if ever. Actually, this critic predicts that ten years from now, Hulk will be viewed as way ahead of its time in grappling with subjects that something like X-Men only skims over or Spider-Man avoids altogether. With a push to give every bi-monthly name a cinematic incarnation of its own (and even the revisiting of some previous franchise presentations), Hulk is destined to get lost. But wipe the blockbuster mentality from your perception and view this film again. Perhaps you’ll see an excellent exploration of human nature wrapped inside a thick green shell.


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