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Thursday, May 17, 2007

In their inimitable style, Becker and Posner, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of dry libertarian analysis, take on the question of the value of higher education, having earlier discussed the dubiousness of the U.S. News and World Report school rankings (schools can game the system in response to the more or less arbitrary way they are determined). Posner finds that college is mainly a way for businesses to offload the costs of screening potential applicants to the state and the potential employee.


Colleges and graduate (including professional) schools provide a screening and certifying function. Someone who graduates with good grades from a good college demonstrates intelligence more convincingly than if he simply tells a potential employer that he’s smart; and he also demonstrates a degree of discipline and docility, valuable to employers, that a good performance on an IQ test would not demonstrate. (This is an important point; if all colleges did was separate the smart from the less smart, college would be an inefficient alternative to simple testing.) An apprentice system would be a substitute ... but employers naturally prefer to shift a portion of the cost of screening potential employees to colleges and universities. Because those institutions are supported by taxpayers and alumni as well as by students, employers do not bear the full cost of screening.


Because college performs this screening function regardless of whether what you learn has any relevance to anything—the substance of education is meaningless since its function is primarily to signal how well you can follow directions and work the bureaucracy. So if Posner is right, fights over the canon of what gets taught is essentially an academic parlor game with little ramifications beyond whose ego is assuaged.


Posner also argues that college is privately useful but far from a collective good, as the ceaseless calls from politicians for more college graduates might lead you to believe.


I am skeptical that it should be a national priority, or perhaps any concern at all, to increase the number of people who attend or graduate from college. Presumably the college drop-outs, and the kids who don’t go to college at all, do not expect further education to create benefits commensurate with the cost, including the foregone earnings from starting work earlier. This would be an entirely rational decision for someone who was not particularly intelligent and who did not anticipate network benefits from continued schooling because the students with whom he would associate would not form a valuable network of which he would be a part, either because he could not get into a good school, in the sense of one populated by highly promising students, or because if he did get into a good school the other students in the school would not consider him worth networking with.


He’s perfectly to leave the “not particularly intelligent” to their rational choices—one thing this line of argument illustrates is the difference between intelligence (a socially useful ability) and rationality (mental biofeedback). But it is also pretty harsh, indicative of the Brave New Worldish thinking that inevitably haunts meritocracy, a sense that there is a biological destiny behind one’s place in society and it does little good—is downright irrational—to fight it by, say, trying to get an education.


The marginal students are unlikely to be kids who, with a little more education, would make the kind of contribution to society that a worker is unable to capture in his wage. Nor are these marginal students likely to be educated into an interest in political and societal matters that will make them more conscientious voters or otherwise better citizens.


These marginal types are society’s Epsilons, and we shouldn’t waste money trying to change that even if they don’t have the good sense to accept it.


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Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Before the days of DVD, when commentaries and behind the scenes featurettes were restricted to the occasional Criterion laserdisc, the only way to get the making-of scoop on your favorite troubled production or flamboyant film personality was to actually pick up a book and read. Indeed, this sort of non-fiction reportage had the specific goal to lifting the lid on major motion pictures (especially highly publicized fiascos and flops) and the people who made them, providing the insider information that studio publicity people fought so stridently to restrict. Even today, in the tell-all tabloid nature of the media, there are many untold stories, onset situations and backstage dramas that never get divulged. So it’s up to the willing journalist to smoke out the scandal and discover the real reasons why a tripwire talent implodes, or a promising production ends up causing chaos – both critically and commercially.


However, the low down dirt is not always found in a detail-oriented dissertation or an interview-laden overview. Instead, several famous faces have decided to expose themselves, giving incredible insight into the mechanics of moviemaking – the dizzying highs and the Hellish lows. Even the standard biography, crafted by someone on the outside looking in, can offer a wealth of worthwhile context. It’s just a matter of picking through the glorified love letters and pasted together products to find something that supplies both substance and spice. While the following list is far from all inclusive, it does represent the kind of benchmark these books should strive for. Indeed, after paging through any or all of these varied volumes, you’ll be a much more qualified film fanatic. Without them, you’re just a sham cinephile. Let’s begin with:


Shock Value by John Waters (1981)


The man responsible for the bad taste triumphs Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble has actually led a life as interesting – or in some cases, more so – than his famously campy trash classics. From a childhood fascination with car accidents to an ongoing obsession with crime, this collection of clever essays touches on all aspects of his career, including in-depth descriptions of his various low budget epics.

Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate by Steven Bach (1986)


After taking home Oscar gold for his grossly overrated The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino had his heart set of making a post-modern Western revolving around a mythic range war between cattlemen and immigrant farmers. Unfortunately, his attention to obsessive detail bankrupted the production and destroyed a studio. One of the most notorious cases in all of cinema, Steven Bach’s brilliant breakdown stands as an amazing must-read.

The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco by Julie Salamon (1991)


If you want a blueprint for how a high concept adaptation of a critically acclaimed novel can go horribly, horribly wrong, look no further than this intriguing take on the Brian DePalma disaster known as Bonfire of the Vanities. Salamon doesn’t hold back, offering scathing criticism of everyone involved, saving special ire for the idiots who took Thomas Wolfe’s tome and robbed it of all its social satire.

Step Right Up!: I’m Gonna Scare the Pants off America by William Castle (1992)


As the king of hucksters, the bad boy of ballyhoo, William Castle turned borderline b-movie garbage into sensational cinematic schlock thanks to his various inventive promotional gimmicks. Here, in his own words, he explains his profession both behind and in support of the camera, and argues that all movies would benefit from his concrete carnival barker approach. In retrospect, he couldn’t have been more right.

Killer Instinct by Jane Hamsher (1998)


Long before the controversial film hit theaters, Natural Born Killers had a simmering scandal going on behind the scenes. Screenwriter Quentin Tarantino was livid at how director Oliver Stone had eviscerated his original vision, and he was taking it out on producers Don Murphy and Hamsher. In this wonderfully vitriolic bit of backwards glancing, we learn that Hollywood is actually ruled by two things – money, and unchecked hubris.

 


A Youth in Babylon by David F. Friedman (1998)


He is known as the Mighty Monarch of the Exploitation Game, and after reading this amazing autobiography, it’s not hard to see why. A confirmed carny at heart, Friedman helped form the 40 Thieves, a band of producers who prowled the unheralded underbelly of the taboo-busting genre, and created the grindhouse ideal that’s recently become a cultural lynchpin. A great man, and an even better storyteller.

The Battle of Brazil: Terry Gilliam v. Universal Pictures in the Fight to the Final Cut by Jack Matthews (2000)


Terry Gilliam’s career has been a contentious and continuous war between artistic merits and artificial mandates – none more notorious than his confrontation with Universal head Sid Sheinberg over the director’s brilliant dsytopic fantasy. From the role played by the LA film critics to the full page ad antagonism used by Gilliam to embarrass the corporate head, this is as perplexingly personal as the film business gets.


Losing the Light: Terry Gilliam and the Munchausen Saga by Andrew Yule (2000)


After his less than happy experience with his previous spectacle, Terry Gilliam was hoping that this adventure romp centering on the famed Germanic fairytale legend would be smooth sailing. Instead, it turned into one of the more infamous production nightmares in moviemaking history. Everything that could go wrong did, from unseasonable weather to financing in freefall. Unlike Brazil, however, the battle was all on set.


The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan by Jimmy McDonough (2001)


He’s one of exploitation’s unsung heroes, a director who lived the psychosexual potboilers he wrote and directed. In fact, had he not been aiming at the needs of the metropolitan raincoat crowd, Milligan may be viewed today in a similar light as Kenneth Anger or The Kuchar Brothers. Instead, he is continually categorized by his association with softcore cinema. Thanks to his amazing bio, his reputation can finally be rebuilt.

If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor by Bruce Campbell (2002)


Somewhere, in one of the special circles of Hell, there is a place for every studio executive or foolish filmmaker who ever denied the vainglorious appeal of our man Ash. Campbell’s amusing memoirs are so self-deprecating that you wonder if he’s ever really serious. Then you read between the lines and see a savvy performer who’s more than content to pave his own way through the Tinsel Town jungle.


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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Over the weekend, Scott Horton published at Harper’s this withering indictment of Alberto Gonzales, considered from the point of view of honor (via The Daily Dish).  Horton develops his argument on the basis of his reading of Anthony Trollope, the humiliatingly prolific Victorian novelist, focusing particularly on Plantagenet Palliser.


Horton’s argument is worth reading in full for its take on contemporary American politics; however, I’m more interested in his opener:


Anthony Trollope was a very great novelist, a man who in a sense is a far better surveyor of English society in the Victorian Age than Charles Dickens. His works are filled with humor and wisdom and importantly, they never tire the reader. I hardly embark on a long trip without a volume of Trollope in my carry-on bag, and while his works are entertainments, they go far beyond that.


If “surveyor of English society in the Victorian age” means “provider of a comprehensive view of all social classes, in something like an appropriate perspective,” then, no, Trollope is not better than Dickens.  But, if “society” is taken in its more limited sense—the upper crust of the social order—then Horton’s absolutely right: Dickens is famously bad at sketching gentlemen, and his lords and ladies are the stuff of farce.  Trollope, by contrast, is brilliant at capturing the nuances of this social milieu.  And this milieu is worth representing accurately, since it undergoes a remarkable transformation in the 19thC, from a landed aristocracy to a class much more dependent on the complex shifts of capital and democracy.  It’s great stuff.


One of the things that’s interesting about Trollope is that he seems to be more widely read outside American universities—i.e., by general readers—than he is in, say, Victorian novel classes.  Partly this is because some of his best novels belong to series, and most draw on a dense cultural context that’s hard to pull off in a semester.  Part of it is that, given what undergraduates are able to read these days, plus the length of canonical Victorian novels, there’s a pig-ugly attrition: You’ve got to teach at least one Brontë (and maybe 2), at least one Dickens, and Eliot.  If the Dickens is, say, Bleak House or David Copperfield and the Eliot is Middlemarch, then there just isn’t that much semester left.  Who else makes it in?


Like Horton, I have found that Trollope makes splendid vacation reading.  In fact, each of the past 5 summers and winter breaks, I have read at least one Trollope novel.  He has been good for cross-country flights, for bouts of the flu, Connecticut blizzards, trips to the parents, and much else besides.  Of the major Victorian novelists, Trollope’s sensibility is probably the brightest.  His novels’ darkest moments are usually pretty carefully quarantined, allowing the social order to reconstitute itself more readily at the end.  (Compare The Way We Live Now with Little Dorrit, for example.)  These are fine distinctions, of course, but I’m pretty sure people will grant me that Trollope is the Victorian novelist least likely to have a character vengefully ripped to pieces.


At any rate, because we’ve now cleared Mother’s Day, and opportunities for summer reading are starting to beckon, here are three Trollope novels that are first-rate introductions to his work:


  • He Knew He Was Right: A man’s jealousy—or, perhaps more precisely, his overliteral insistence on Victorian social mores and their enforcement—leads to the downfall of his marriage. 
  • The Eustace Diamonds: Does the widowed gold-digger get to keep the family jewels, or not?
  • The Way We Live Now: Very Enron: An impossibly wealthy man buys his way into society, even though no one can quite figure out where his money comes from.  David Brooks wrote an introduction to the Modern Library edition, which seems just about right.

All three novels are perfect beach reading, and, for the city-bound, will keep you safely off of this list (via Unfogged). 


A special note: If you see The Warden at the bookstore, you may well be tempted to buy it.  It’s 300-ish pages shorter than any other Trollope novel, and it kicks off the Barchester series, and so seems like a natural beginning point.  And, really, it is a fine little novel.  It does require a bit more familiarity with the Church of England hierarchy than the concept of “beach reading” strictly requires, however. 


 


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Wednesday, May 16, 2007
by PopMatters Staff
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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I’ve already crowed about a wonderful Alternet article to a number of friends but I have to say something here about it also.  It’s Yvonne Bynoe’s Hip Hop’s (Still) Invisible Women and it’s a great read not only because it’s so astute but it also suggests ways out of the problem of womens’ too-often degraded image in hip-hop (though note that this does not happen in ALL hip-hop, OK?).  I’m especially intrigued by the idea of a hip-hop version of the Lilith Fair.  Sounds like a great idea.


On a totally different tip, I was intrigued by this article about NEA head Dana Gioia.  While he deserves kudos for preserving the NEA in the wake of a conservative backlash that it faced in the ‘80’s, shouldn’t he also be promoting some American playwrights and not just Shakespeare in the schools?  It’s not as if we don’t have a fine tradition of the stage here in the States: off the top of my head, there’s Eugene O’Neil, Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard, August Wilson, Arthur Miller and David Mamet.  That’s not even mentioning musical theater, which I usually can’t stand but is definitely part of the American cultural landscape: Rodgers, Hammerstein, Hart, Sondheim for starters plus West Side Story, Dreamgirls, Hair and so on.  Surely, at least some of that won’t ruffle the feathers of conservative critics who want schools or even the general public to appreciate some of our cultural heritage.


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