Friday, April 25, 2008

Casual Friday-Poetry

Well, this wasn't supposed to be my next post, but the one I'm currently working on is taking a bit longer than expected. So instead, I'm posting a mini-poetry project that I've been meaning to do. This might be a recurring idea, so keep looking for it.

In all of my discussion on writing and theory, I don't think I've mentioned poetry. Personally, I cannot write it for the life of me. Going into college, I quietly dismissed it, but gained a new appreciation after taking two classes on the subject. Certain kinds (villanelles, sonnets, etc.) represent a sort of poetical mathematics that I enjoy--mentally tracing the placement of lines, the number of lines, and the beats that go along with them. In addition, "found art" has always been endlessly fascinating. Websites and publications such as FOUND Magazine find items (anything from actual poems to photographs to grocery lists), and show them, unedited. There's a certain bittersweet quality to it, being both funny and sad at the same time.

I decided to create my own sort of "found" poem. On the main Blogger homepage, there is a streaming list of all the blogs that have been updated at that given time. I picked ten random blogs by writing down the names of them, starting with one, and then looking up at the screen for the next update, and so forth. To create this poem, I went to the ten blogs and wrote down the first sentence that appeared (sadly, two of them were advertisements; they will be pretty easy to spot). There's no real need to say which blogs these lines come from. Let the sentences form the poem and do all the work.

"The Blogger Poem"
Welcome to Resources is Anatomy, Physiology, and Other Medical Subjects
Fatsack Rools
High interests or job loss got you down, we can help
I have not really taken advantage of RSS feeds but I really see the value.
Everyone wants a sexier, flatter tummy, don't you?
rita home
Enjoy Made In The Dark's 'Ready For The Floor' below
Yes, You Have Read Right, This Is The Online Journal Of The Future's Brightest Pop Star...Me!
Jezebel
Most viewed jim rome video
Go surrealism!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Dealing With It All--Notes on "The Birth of a Nation"


During the past week, I've been thinking extensively about ideals and presentation in relation to racial depictions in cinema. This all began with a viewing of D.W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. Outside of select horror films, I cannot remember a movie that filled me with as much discomfort and unease (actually, I take that back--it's tied with Todd Solondz's Happiness). Saying that Griffith's controversial masterpiece is offensive does not do the idea any justice. In comparison, a film like Gone With the Wind looks positive; it's nowhere near perfect, but at least Hattie McDaniel had the chance to play a strong, respectable character. Yes, her Mammy was a slave (tinted with the air of caricature), but she was presented as honorably as one could expect from 1939 values.
The Birth of a Nation portrays blacks in astoundingly negative ways. The main roles are done by white actors in blackface, and the actual black extras provide nothing but a perverse minstrel backdrop. Stereotypes abound--they eat watermelon, lust after virginal white women, and connive to deprive Southern white males of their supposed birthrights. The disturbing imagery was fresh in my mind as I continued my ongoing readings of my former professors. This week, I started The Trouble With Principle by Stanley Fish. Admittedly, I was very lost during the advanced theory course I took with him, yet the book contains passages that both made sense and had me mentally referring to The Birth of a Nation. Fish can be a difficult theorist to agree with at times, but his ideas can help us look into the ideals and morals behind the film. A (very) condensed summary of Fish's book is that principles too often exclude other views, or are so vague as not to offend that they end up expressing no opinions at all.
"One may practice one's religion, even if it is devil worship, in any manner one likes, but one may not practice one's religion to the extent of seeking to prevent others from practicing theirs by, say, supressing their sacred texts or jailing their ministers (Fish 58)."

Fish writes this in relation to freedom of speech, and as moral individuals we can disagree with the ideologies of Griffith and Thomas Dixon (who wrote the play The Clansman on which the film was based). Modern viewers need to take the bad with the good. The two men had every right to express their visions, as despicable as we may find them. When I mention "the bad with the good," the good is the quality of Griffith's filmmaking. Story and content aside, The Birth of a Nation was the Citizen Kane or Pulp Fiction of the early 1900s, showing people the power of storytelling and visualization in cinema. The film has to be respected, remembered, and taught in that sense.
Roger Ebert's excellent essay on the film says that Griffith should be commended for his genuine attempts to atone for the film's racist imagery (Ebert cites his follow-up, 1916's Intolerance), but at the same time, the idea that Griffith wanted to adapt such a play shows that he had prejudices. However, wasn't he just exercising his First Amendment rights?

"...what is at stake in First Amendment disputes is never a principle, even though it is in the vocabulary of principle that the argument is usually conducted. Pornographers, Holocaust deniers, and cross-burners are not for free speech but for pornography, the denial of the Holocaust, and the intimidation of minorities. And on the other side, the homeless advocates who wish to sleep in federal parks, animal rights activists who heap scorn on fur-clad women, and antigovernment protestors who burn American flags are not for free speech either but for housing for the homeless, humane treatment of animals, and a change in U.S. policies (Fish 90)."
I both agree and disagree with Fish's assertions here (he would probably say that because of that, I have no opinion whatsoever). He defines speech in the literal sense of the word, whereas the examples constitute thoughts and actions. The First Amendment protects thoughts, but not actions; one can think about stealing a DVD from Best Buy, but violates the law when he/she puts those thoughts into action. How does filmmaking fit into this idea? The act of making a racist film is acceptable under these guidelines, because viewers can agree or disagree with the ideology, and buy a ticket or not.

Disturbing images abound in the history of film to make points, or to show stark realities. For example, take the scene of Gus's trial and subsequent lynching in The Birth of a Nation. In a non-racist film, these scenes could: 1.) show how life used to be, 2.) show the horrendous mistakes made in the past, and/or 3.) show the understanding that as a civilization, we've made great improvements (we're by no means perfect, but the majority of us now view lynchings as depraved crimes). However, juxtaposed with the rest of the film, the scenes are intended to show the "proper" mindset, despite title screens like the one above. According to Wikipedia, a white man killed a black teenager after viewing the film when it opened. Could (or should?) the blame have been attributed to Griffith? The film depicts lynchings as acceptable, but one could argue that the murderer had those feelings long before seeing the film. However, early film was greatly influential on the public, to a fault. The first filmed image of an oncoming train caused an audience to run in fear. Undershirt sales supposedly fell drastically after Clark Gable was shown without one in It Happened One Night.
On another note, I feel the need to identify myself as a white male in relation to criticism of the film's content. As a human being, I can acknowledge the destructive power of racist imagery, but I also have to acknowledge that I don't know how it feels. I can sympathize, but I don't know the anger of being stereotyped or depicted negatively in mediums, nor will I try. It is necessary to have white opinions on these ideas, but I don't want to come across like one of my former classmates at UIC (I've forgotten her name, not that I would use it here). She was a white woman who hailed from the suburbs of Chicago, and during a discussion on race and religion, she claimed to know how it felt to be discriminated against. Being outraged and educated on the subject is acceptable and necessary, but not pretending to have feelings that you know nothing about.
In conclusion, I can add nothing new to discussions of the film. Every article I've read has the same opinions: The Birth of a Nation is both a landmark and an embarrassment. However, the best idea comes from Ebert: "If we are to see this film, we must see it all, and deal with it all." As educated adults, we simply need to accept it as part of our history. In discussions of civil rights and racial history, as I've said before, we need to take the bad with the good.
Work Cited:
Fish, Stanley. The Trouble With Principle. Copyright 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.




Saturday, April 12, 2008

Love and Basketball

(Preface: It is not without a lot of internal debating that I post this essay. As the blog description shows, I will occasionally steer away from fiction analysis, but this is a major detour. I generally find sportswriting mediocre at best. Despite my passion for baseball and basketball, this is my first attempt.)

A strange feeling came over me last month. The Houston Rockets won twenty-two straight games, and a decent handful of these contests were broadcast on national television. With each win that I watched, I felt as if I were winning along with them. However, I couldn't place where these emotions were coming from. I live outside Seattle, having spent the first twenty-four and a half years of my life in Chicago. I've only been to Texas once, but nowhere near Houston.

The players grew before me, and I made copious mental notes. Tracy McGrady was a revelation, hitting shots from both inside and outside, but most importantly to me, gave great courtside interviews. His obvious glee and enthusiasm belied his half-asleep face. The only adjective I could find to desribe Carl Landry was one that I hated: plucky. However, before he went down with an injury, he was just that. Plucky, hitting three-pointers and making the most of his rare opportunity. Luis Scola did his best to fill in for the injured Yao Ming, despite not playing the same center position. When he was on, he dominated the inside game with timely rebounds and putbacks. I desperately wanted to be on the Rockets' bench to high-five Rafer Alston, who I remember from my high school purchases of SLAM magazine. Despite not having anything close to a photographic memory, I've always carried with me the image of him on the cover with his Fresno State uniform, dribbling the ball between his legs. A few inches away were the words: "The Greatest Point Guard In the World."

So why was someone like me, someone who doesn't even consider himself a Rockets fan, so happy? My enthusiasm was nothing like the near-sexual excitement of watching the Bulls a decade ago. McGrady is no Michael Jordan, and Scola is no Dennis Rodman. On top of that, it wouldn't surprise me if the Rockets were to be eliminated from the first round of the playoffs this year. Even though the national media blew the winning streak out of proportion, there was a prominenty possibility in my mind that the NBA was making a comeback.

One of my favorite writers is Chuck Klosterman. In addition to being able to craft smart essays about everything, he is also a fan of the NBA, despite its shortcomings. I've been an NBA fan myself for over ten years, even when everyone else scoffs and (rightfully so) says that NCAA basketball is much more fluid and centered around teamwork. I can think of several times when I agreed with this, even though the NBA was secretly first on my list. Mr. Klosterman gives me hope. There were other people in the world besides me who hoped that professional basketball would rise again, even after a lull of unmemorable play and seemingly pre-determined (i.e. rigged) playoff games in the early 2000s.

So what made me fall in love with the Rockets for the roughly five games I saw? The quality of play had me focused in a way that I wasn't thinking NBA or NCAA.

I was just watching quality basketball.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Transgressional Fiction

My original essay on this subject started off as an unbiased look at a genre that I used to consider my favorite. My initial appreciation for "transgressional fiction" started with my first reading of Choke by Chuck Palahniuk. This lead me to read all of his works up to that point, along with healthy doses of Bret Easton Ellis. As I read and grew more as a reader, I still retained a staunch admiration for the genre, even in the face of Palahniuk's declining skills as a satirist and the mild scorn I received from old college classmates who viewed transgressional fiction as a "low art."

However, the only definitions of the genre were more or less the same: it deals with sex, drugs, violence, debauchery, and unconventional ways of ultimately finding the right track. These themes can be found in virtually every style of fiction, dating back hundreds of years. For example, I found the sex and violence in Emile Zola's Therese Raquin extremely ahead of the novel's 1867 publication, yet I'd have a difficult time classifying the work as transgressional. Perhaps the problem comes about when certain works are defined only to fit specific labels. The Bible contains transgressional themes, to take this idea to an extreme. Therefore, in my mind, I've almost totally disregarded the term from my vocabulary, at least in the literary sense. It's too broad to define a handful of literary works.

This is not to say that extreme works should not get the attention they deserve. As the sign on my high school English teacher's desk read, "I read banned books." Ellis' American Psycho will always be a queasy, perfect metaphor for consumeristic excesses. Catcher In the Rye will continue to stand alone above cheap, horrible imitations (that is another topic--I cringe whenever a book or film comes out, and a character under the age of 20 is inevitably compared to Holden Caulfield). But transgressional fiction will remain to describe works that have no overt metaphors, stories and novels aimed to stir up raw emotions. In my mind, there is no better example than the works of Charles Bukowski.

"I drank until closing time. Cass the most beautiful of 5 sisters, the most beautiful in town. I managed to drive to my place and I kept thinking, I should have insisted she stay with me instead of accepting that 'no.' Everything about her had indicated that she had cared. I had simply been too offhand about it, lazy, too unconcerned. I deserved my death and hers. I was a dog. No, why blame the dogs? I got up and found a bottle of wine and drank from it heavily. Cass the most beautiful girl in town was dead at 20 (Bukowski 7)."

This is a tame example of the nature of Bukowski's works. It defies heavy analysis, unafraid to hit bottom. When I think transgressional, I think of him. No topic is off limits, and nothing is hidden. What Bukowski manages to do besides deal in taboo subject matters is the heart of the genre: The more depraved and unsympathetic his characters are, the more sympathetic they become.

Work Cited:
Bukowski, Charles. The Most Beautiful Woman in Town. Copyright 1983 by Charles Bukowski.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Literature and the Internet

As my previous posts have indicated, I am endlessly fascinated by the marriage of art and technology (more specifically, writing and the Internet). According to Italo Calvino, this union will celebrate many happy anniversaries, provided that certain ideals are kept in mind. I could easily cite many academics and writers in this regard. However, my ultimate goal is to come up with my own pros and cons related to the effect the Internet has on literature. Granted, the fact that I have a blog rightfully indicates that I can think of more goods than harms. People who blog have their detractors, ones who side with William Gaddis's disdain of "every four year-old with a computer."

The focus should always be placed on the quality of the work on hand, whether it is found between the pages of a book or between the pages of the web. An excellent example is Imaginary Year, a former serialized web narrative by one of my former teachers, Jeremy P. Bushnell. He champions web and self-publishing, but in the end, quality reigns over formatting. To twist Marshall McLuhan's statement, "the medium is not the message." On the other hand, "the medium is the message," for someone like Bushnell can publish quality work without having to rely on publishing conglomerates or websites.

Where am I going with this? This week, I've been skimming Joseph Tabbi's 2002 book Cognitive Fictions, an analysis of how technology works with literature. Perhaps a work like this should not be skimmed, but as a former student of Tabbi, I saw firsthand how he preached that philosophy. Case in point: In one of his classes, we spent a single week studying the 1,000+ pages of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. I've always respected Tabbi, despite his occasional tendency to opt for less hands-on teaching. The introduction to Cognitive Fictions has some provoking thoughts on literature in the 21st century.

"What changes is not necessarily the form or content of books per se, but the whole structure of support and beliefs about what counts as (meaningful) signal, and what is noise (Tabbi xi)."

This statement might seem obvious at first glance, but it actually provides a strong thesis statement on how the Internet highlights all kinds of literature. Anyone can publish themselves on the web, giving readers the bad with the good. A strong literary eye is necessary to separate "meaningful" self-published fiction from the "noise." Yes, this applies to printed works as well. If I had to guess, I would say that there is a 1:5 ratio between good books and mediocre ones. The beauty lies in the fact that every writer now has a voice. We as readers have the choice to either listen to or ignore that voice.

I will undoubtedly be exploring these ideas in the future with further readings of Tabbi, William Gaddis, and Jonathan Franzen. Also, I will be researching other blogs and examples of self-publishing, trying to come up with more advanced hypotheses of where the Internet is taking reading, writing, and publishing. Stay tuned.

Work Cited:
Tabbi, Joseph. Cognitive Fictions. Copyright 2002 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota.