Tuesday, December 30, 2008

An Interruption

Excuse me, I just wanted to interrupt and say there would be no more interruptions.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Not to Embarass Anyone, But...

This is just about the coolest thing ever.

Oh, and Merry Christmas Eve.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Another Semester Older, Another Semester Wiser. ...Well, One Out of Two Ain't Bad.

Some semesters feel like Hemingway short stories: sparse, with a lot of pointless dialogue, and when you're done it almost feels like nothing's happened while it also feels like too much has happened to have fit in that short a period, and it makes you want to go back and see what you missed. This semester didn't feel that way. This one felt like a Dickens novel, with incident crowding upon incident and character upon character almost too rapidly to keep track of; some parts went too fast, while others went far too slowly; and story arcs that should have taken weeks or months to resolve only lasted a few days.

I fear I am being far too abstract. It was a good semester, yes, but my most trying so far. I have a general policy of trying not to regret the past, of seeing the lessons my mistakes have taught me, and were I to do it again there is very little about this semester I would change (an incident, perhaps, a stray word or two). So I am glad and thankful for this semester. I am just not sorry to see it go.

Fairly soon after getting home, I got (I thought) sick. My symptoms were:

1. Chills
2. Headache
3. Muscle Pain
4. Grogginess/tiredness
5. Irritability (though it's debatable whether this is unusual)

I figured I'd sleep it off, but then a bright idea occurred to me. I realized I had coffee, or tea, or Mt. Dew at almost every meal at school, and since coming home I'd had very little in the way of caffeinated beverages. I went online to look up the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, and discovered that they included:

1. Chills
2. Headache
3. Muscle Pain
4. Grogginess/tiredness
5. Irritability


Otherwise, not a whole lot to report. In order to not get bored, I decided to launch a self-study course in film history, mainly watching a lot of the keystone films in various movements, etc. I emailed a couple film profs, and got a recommended list, and ran that by my mom who saved me (or tried to) from Italian Neo-realism. We'll see how this 'course' pans out; I watched Battleship Potemkin today (USSR, 1925) and, well... ugh. Hopefully other films have better results.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Book Challenge

So. There's this book challenge that I have somehow decided to sign up for. And yes, I know I'm in college and shouldn't be doing things like this. But what do you do at college? Well, to quote an excellent line from the movie The Great Debaters, "College is the only place where you can read all day." And all books apparently count. So really, this is just an excuse for me to keep track of all the books I read, a habit I got out of after high school. The rules can be found at the link above; my list will appear below.

Books Read, 2009:

1. The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
2. Salome, by Oscar Wilde
3. The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde
4. De Profundis, by Oscar Wilde
5. Poems, Poems in Prose, and a Fairy Tale, by Oscar Wilde
6. Anecdotes and Sayings of Oscar Wilde, by Oscar Wilde et al.
7. The Critic as Artist, by Oscar Wilde
8. The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie
9. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart
10. This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
11. The Roots of African-American Drama
12. The Adventures of Hucklberry Finn, by Mark Twain
13. Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose [Reading for Class]
14. The Writer's Book of Days, by Judy Reeves
15. Creating The Accomplished Image [Partly read, for class]
16. The People's Bible Commentary: Romans
17. Wheelock's Latin
18. God's No and God's Yes, by CFW Walther [half-read, for class]
19. The Urth of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
20. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken
21. The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis
22. Manalive, by G.K. Chesterton
23. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
24. Magic For Beginners, by Kelly Link
25. The Charwoman's Shadow, by Lord Dunsany
26. One More For The Road, by Ray Bradbury
27. Sailing to Byzantium, by Robert Silverberg
28. The Halfling and Other Stories, by Leigh Brackett
29. Our Town, by Thornton Wilder
30. Figures of Earth, by James Branch Cabell
31. The Man Who Came to Dinner, by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman
32. The Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller
33. The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
34. Coffee at Luke's, edited by Jennifer Cruisie
35. Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger
36. The Crucible, by Arthur Miller
37. The Fabulous tom Mix, by Olive Stokes Mix [half-read, research purposes]
38. Nightside the Long Sun, by Gene Wolfe
39. Who is Mark Twain? by Mark Twain
40. The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
41. Raise High The Roof Beams, Carpenters and Seymour, An Introduction, by J.D. Salinger
42. Dutchman, Amiri Baraka
43. Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller
44. Smoke, by Ivan Turgenev
45. Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev
46. First Love, by Ivan Turgenev
47. The Name Above the Title, by Frank Capra
48. The Story of Film, by Mark Cousins
49. A Sentimental Journey, by Laurence Sterne
50. Lake of the Long Sun, by Gene Wolfe
51. Calde of the Long Sun, by Gene Wolfe
52. Exodus From the Long Sun, by Gene Wolfe
53. Heroes of the Valley, by Jonathan Stroud
54. The Last Siege, by Jonathan Stroud
55. To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis
56. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, by Walker Percy
57. Grace Upon Grace: Spirituality for Today, by John Kleinig [Partly read; book klub]
58. Storeys from the Old Hotel, by Gene Wolfe
59. The Wolfe Archipelago, by Gene Wolfe
60. Calculating God, by Robert J. Sawyer
61. Rude Mechanicals, by Kage Baker
62. Black Projects, White Knights, by Kage Baker
63. Gods and Pawns, by Kage Baker
64. Dark Mondays, by Kage Baker
65. Questions of Truth, by John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale
66. Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, by Garrison Keillor
67. Carry On Jeeves, by PG Wodehouse
68. Either You're In Or You're In The Way, by Noah and Logan Miller
69. A City in Winter, by Mark Helprin
70. The Veil of Snows, by Mark Helprin
71. Swan Lake, by Mark Helprin
72. Believer Beware, edited by Jeff Sharlet et. al.
73. The Merchant of Venice, by Shakespeare
74. Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan
75. Richard III, by Shakespeare
76. Othello, by Shakespeare
77. Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe
78. The Laramie Project, by Moises Kaufman et al
79. Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles
80. The Tempest, by Shakespeare
81. Proof, by David Auburn
82. King Lear, by Shakespeare
83. Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett
84. Sonnets, by William Shakespeare
85. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, the Restoration through 1800
86. Winter's Tales, by Isak Dinesen
87. Franny and Zooey, by JD Salinger
88. The Controversy Between the Puritans and the Stage, by Elbert Thompson
89. Lost Worlds, by Clark Ashton Smith
90. The Taming of the Shrew, by Shakespeare
91. The Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism, various authors
92. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
93. Peace, by Gene Wolfe
94. Great Joy, by Kate DiCamillo
95. Much Ado About Nothing, by Shakespeare
96. Waverely, by Sir Walter Scott
97. Reading the OED, by Ammon Shea
98. Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld
99. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, by Philip Jose Farmer
100. The Fabulous Riverboat, by Philip Jose Farmer
101. How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff
102. Nova Swing, by M. John Harrison
103. Anecdotes of Destiny, by Isak Dinesen
104. The Screwtape Letters, by CS Lewis
105. The Owl Service, by Alan Garner
106. Wizardry and Wild Romance, by Michael Moorcock

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Stacking the Deck: The Failure of the MPAA Rating System

[Another composition piece, prostituted for blog material.]

"Mom, I wanna see Saving Private Ryan!"

I was perhaps ten years old. All the other kids, it seemed, were seeing the WWII bloodbath—arguably one of the greatest movies ever made—but I was not allowed to. Why? Well, in my mom's words, "Because it's rated R."

Of course, this was not actually the reason I was not being allowed to see one of the greatest war movies ever made. The reason was that it was filled with gore and violence on an unprecedented level, and my mom had decided that my ten-year-old mind did not need to be filled with such images. However, the short explanation she used was that it was "rated R."

An "R" rating means, of course, "Restricted." It is generally movie theaters' policy not to admit anyone to an R-rated movie who is under the age of 17 unless they are accompanied by a guardian of some kind. This is a voluntary rule, put in place based on the recommendations made regarding films submitted for review and rating by the MPAA—the Motion Picture Association of America.

The Motion Picture Association of America is one of the most well-known institutions in America. It is a pseudo-Hollywood institution, as it proudly proclaims, because while it is based around Hollywood and the movie industry, it claims to be completely outside of the authority and power of the motion picture industry (http://www.mpaa.org/Ratings_HowRated.asp).

The MPAA rating system is based on the recommendations of a "board of parents," who view each movie and try to apply a rating based on what "most American parents" would think an appropriate rating for that movie. Their ratings are "voluntary" —producers and directors are "free to go to the market without any rating" (http://www.mpaa.org/Ratings_HowRated.asp). However, in today's film industry, doing so would almost certainly mark a movie for controversy and make it a proverbial "black sheep" in the movie industry. So while submitting a film for MPAA rating is voluntary, it is the sort of choice anyone who doesn't want trouble is forced to make. It reminds me of my grandma's cherry pie that she would serve at Christmas time—you only took a piece if you wanted one, but if you didn't want one, you had better be prepared to suffer grandma's glares all day.

The MPAA rating system rose out of a desire to help parents make informed decisions about the kinds of movies they want their children to see; though in some cases, such as R- and NC-17-rated movies, it has turned itself into rules for preventing certain age groups from seeing certain movies altogether. While this is a commendable goal, and perhaps a necessary one in our pluralistic age, its execution by the MPAA is thoroughly imperfect and could use improvement.
A case study, hopefully, will illustrate what we mean.

Take two films, both of which were released in 2007: Once and Live Free or Die Hard.

The first, Once, is an independent film that was released to a limited number of theaters and quickly gained a sort of cult following. Set in Dublin, it is a simple story of a busker and a Czech immigrant who meet and fall in love. They are both musicians, and the busker writes his own songs. They spend a whirlwind three days recording an album, but then, because of very subtle differences that are never really explicated but that don't have to be, they are forced to part.

Personally, I think this is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen. I mean this not just aesthetically, not just because the music was brilliant and the acting was perfect and the composition and everything else about it fell perfectly into place, but I also mean this philosophically. In a normal Hollywood film about a "once in a lifetime" romance, the couple would meet and fall in love, and all the external conflicts would fall away or be made to go away and the couple would live happily ever after. The ending would be generic, and heart-warming, and trite: love conquers all.

Once's message, however, is more artistic and more nuanced. It conveys the idea that a once in a lifetime love need not have a happy ending. The idea that one can act decently despite bad circumstances. The idea that you can improve someone's life, and in fact be the best thing that ever happened to them, despite having known that person for less than three days. Love conquers all, yes, but the world is imperfect and the ending doesn't always go the way it ought to. But that's okay.

The critics seem to agree with my assessment of Once (see A.O. Scott's review for the New York Times, Peter Travers' for Rolling Stone, and Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times for more). Richard Roeper even went so far as to call it a film that "would make any twelve-year-old a better person."

Once was given an "R," or "Restricted" rating by the Motion Picture Association of America. According to that organization's website, this means that the ratings board of the MPAA thinks it is a film that "most parents would not want their young children to see" and that "May include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements." Once's specific rating was "For language," presumably the "hard" language mentioned in the above generalization.

One word is used repeatedly in Once, and it is the one word that, at least colloquially, is considered one of the worst of curse words. Once might actually be a movie many parents would not want their children to see, simply based on the pervasiveness of this word in the dialogue.

However, we will leave off discussion of this briefly, in order to look at our second example, Live Free or Die Hard.

This movie was released in the summer of 2007, and was the fourth Die Hard movie. It was rated PG-13 “for intense sequences of violence and action, language and a brief sexual situation.” The other three installments of the series, Die Hard, Die Hard 2, and Die Hard With a Vengeance, all received R ratings. The creators of the movie claimed they had scaled back the violence and profanity to receive the PG-13 rating.

According to the MPAA's web site, a PG-13 rating “is a sterner warning by the Rating Board to parents to determine whether their children under age 13 should view the motion picture, as some material might not be suited for them… A motion picture’s single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive, initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context.” This seems almost self-contradictory. Words used as expletives are said to denigrate the things they refer to—think of various racial slurs. But using a sexually-derived word in such a way requires only a PG-13 rating. Using these words to actually refer to sex, that is, in a context where it is possible for them to be appropriate, automatically garners the film a higher rating.

But that is not our current point. Live Free or Die Hard is a violent, profane, and sexually oriented movie. Its central message, if there is one, involves solving problems by resorting to violence and an iron fist. As a college student, this sort of thing actually appeals to me for the pure escapism that it is; but when I put myself in the shoes of a concerned parent, the perspective changes. Any child can pay for and walk into this movie without challenge, simply because the movie cut out a few curse words and made its pervasive violence less graphic.

Once, as stated, is a movie about love and about realizing one’s true potential. It is a redemptive and, in some ways, a salvific movie. Yet to see this movie, a child under the age of 17 would have to pass through whatever restrictions a movie theater puts on R-rated movies, simply because the dialogue contains some language the MPAA does not approve of.

The MPAA makes a point of saying it does not exist for the benefit of artists or film makers or producers, but for “concerned parents in order to help them make informed decisions about the type of movies they want their children to see.” But how can “concerned parents” make such decisions when the MPAA’s ratings seem to be increasingly arbitrary?

It is my opinion that the MPAA rating system is at best outdated, and at worst hinders parents in making the “informed decisions” it sets out to help them make. Were I a parent, I might easily prefer my children to see a movie with many swear words to having them see a movie with fewer swear words but with sex and pervasive violence instead.

As consumers and movie-goers, we should hold the MPAA more accountable for the kinds of ratings it gives to movies, and perhaps push for reform of the MPAA. Based on what I have said here, I highly recommend that parents and those in charge of the younger and more impressionable members of our society look at a movie’s content and, even moreso, its themes and message, and pay little if any attention to the MPAA rating.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


At semi-random. The novel is still in its state of being quickly edited.

He said, “I see a flat land, a land that no longer knows distinct color but where the bronzes and the reds and the greys all bleed into one another and the black lies under them all. Creatures wander through it that would put Saint John's vision to shame, but they are no longer dread omens but death itself, and they no longer terrify any but themselves. They flee they know not what to they know not where, bucking and screaming and biting their own tails. They flee across the country and occasionally the people, naked men with skin the color of sunlight seen through smog and women half-clothed with skin paler than white snow, bring them down and feast on them, and they howl their pain and agony and rage at what they must do but they do it anyway because not to do it, I surmise, would bring them much more agony.”

Across from Tatiana and Julia sat the twins. While eating, neither of them looked up from their plates, but pored over them as if they were necromancers and the plates tomes about how to raise their dead loves from the grave. They ate in this manner as well, passing utensils back and forth while scowling at their plates. Every once in a while they would each skewer something on a fork, hold up their forks to each other for comparison, look at each other, nod, and continue eating. It was very strange.

“At least I don't try to ad lib Shakespeare,” I said.

“I don't do that, foolish boy!” she glared at me. “I try to ad lib Spenser. He's much superior anyway.”

And we went to sleep there, in our warm little cocoon, soft and warm and comfortable and secure. We awoke to the roaring of St. John's beasts and the feeling of hell and the flash of hellfire.

“Mom would never do something like that against her will. I know her, and you know her. She would wander the world, forever, alone, rather than stay with a man she didn't love, or with a man who had done something like... like that. Right?”

A long pause, then finally, “Right,” from Tatiana.

“Oh,” said Julia then. “How I wish I'd been there! We would know exactly who to believe.”