Thursday, April 12, 2007

Life Update No. 14: Hallelujah!...Almost/Good Intentions/Bad Intentions

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Done.

Well almost.

That's where I am with my senior thesis right now.

I'm not completely finished. I told my adviser that I'd like her to critique it one more time before I even come close to getting bound something that I'd consider a final copy. But essentially I'm done with the writing of the thing---so all that is left is, I guess, to revise, add endnotes, write a bibliography, etc.

I actually was able to get it up to about 40 pages total. That's amazing---I didn't even think I'd have enough for the Livingston College Honors Program minimum of 25! Guess I have a lot to say on the subject of Jean-Luc Godard versus Quentin Tarantino (the latter of whom has temporarily gotten on my critical good side with Death Proof---his mostly wonderful contribution to Grindhouse---which I'd like to write about soon in a future entry) after all. Of course, it's quality, not quantity that counts...but still, 40 pages. Take that, you State Theatre usher who told me 25 pages "wasn't a thesis"! I have 40 now---is that thesis enough for ya?

Anyway...now all that's left is to worry about my upcoming presentation. I will have to present my thesis to my fellow Livingston College Honors Program peers on Saturday, April 28 over on Livingston Campus. I guess it shouldn't be too bad; I only have to speak for 10 minutes and maybe field questions for about 5. Still, I've never been the most confident public speaker around, and I'm not all that great at improvising or thinking on my feet. And the Q & A? Expect a lot of stuttering and flailing! Everyone tells me "anticipating questions" is the key. Well, it hasn't helped me all that much in the past. I couldn't stand being asked questions when I took IPLE---a high school form of Model Congress---during my senior year of high school because every time I did, I'd inevitably look and sound like an idiot after delivering a decent speech. It was usually pretty embarrassing...and considering how self-conscious I am, it's something I always tend to get nervous about.

Of course, I can hear my mother now: "Think positive." Of course, if I think negative, I'm automatically labeled a pessimist, when perhaps all I'm being is realistic. Either that, or it's all just a big defense mechanism.

But that's for later next week or the week after. Next week I'm probably going to be working on a paper I'm writing for my Cinema Studies senior seminar. It's on Ross McElwee's famous 1986 documentary Sherman's March, a first-person documentary way before Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock came around and imposed their (sometimes entertaining and enlightening) thuggery on the format. Before picking it for my paper (and presentation, which I've done already), I had only heard about its reputation. But it's actually a really good film, folks---witty and touching and interesting, as long as you're not inclined to think of someone who films himself as he tries to struggle with his relationships with women as insufferably self-absorbed. I guess McElwee is a bit of whiner. But at least here he's taking on universal subjects---male/female relationships, history, art vs. life---and doing it in a compellingly confessional style that I find rather endearing. Either that, or I just identify with the guy a bit too much (although no, I don't have dreams about thermonuclear war).

Anyway, I have to write a paper about the movie now, and at this point I only have a bare idea of what I want to discuss. In my presentation, I talked about how McElwee tries to get at the intersection of art and life in Sherman's March: how he explores the idea of art shining a brighter light on our lives, and how he perhaps concludes that art isn't always adequate in that regard (especially for him, since he pretty much ends his recreation of General William T. Sherman's ruinous path of destruction in the South during the Civil War no closer to a personal understanding of his troubles than he did at the beginning of this strange project). No one in the class seemed to really bite on that topic, alas. I'll still write about it, but I hope I have enough for 10-15 pages.

**********

Speaking of movies: again, I haven't seen much in the theaters recently and, with the exception of Tarantino's half of Grindhouse---Robert Rodriguez's self-consciously campy Planet Terror strikes me as pretty disposable and as soulless as his overrated Sin City, even if it was intended to be disposable and soulless---not much I've seen has been worth spending much time on.

Reign Over Me (** out of ****) was a particular disappointment. Adam Sandler is hardly an actor for the ages, but, while back in the day---when I wanted to come off as smart and sophisticated about movies---I used to fall squarely into the anti-Adam Sandler bandwagon, recently I've come to recant my Sandler-phobia. He's not a great actor by any means---his range is extremely limited, and most of the movies he's been in has played variations on his passive-agressive manchild persona. But I can't help but give him a lot of credit for his sincerity and his occasional adventurousness. He was one of the best things about James L. Brooks' underrated Spanglish, and I still don't think the critically-reviled (but popularly-embraced) Click was nearly as bad as many of the mainstream critics suggested. Shamelessly sentimental in parts, perhaps, but it was also disarmingly sincere and had some agreeable things to say about modern overreliance in technology.

In Reign Over Me, Sandler plays an emotional victim of 9/11: his entire family was wiped out on that fateful day, and he hasn't gotten over it since, deliberately sealing himself off from the world and indulging in odd bits of business like decorating and then redecorating his kitchen. As in Punch-Drunk Love, Sandler isn't so much playing a totally different character from his norm as he is playing off his usual persona and trying to suggest more emotional depth. He doesn't always succeed---sometimes his attempts at emotion simply seem like, well, child-like attempts---but more often than not, I found writer/director Mike Binder's use of him fascinating and judicious. Sandler keeps your eyes glued on his character, especially when he's playing off the typically-marvelous Don Cheadle, who plays an old college roommate who is trying to help him out of his frail shell.

The best that can be said about the rest of this movie is that it itself is sincere. But sincerity of intent is often nothing without the execution to back it up, and Reign Over Me is so sitcom-ish and clumsy so often that, after a while, I had trouble buying any of the characters and the situations. As hard as Sandler tries, his Charlie Fineman is basically an abstraction, meant to be some kind of symbol of 9/11 grief. Sandler, alas, isn't quite imaginative enough an actor to glue all those pieces together and come up with a convincing human being. But at least you keep rooting for him. As the movie veers into melodramatic courtroom drama territory, I just kept getting dread hints of Big Daddy, with its equally shameless climactic courtroom dramatics. Reign Over Me is, frankly, a mess, full of one-note characters (Cheadle's wife, Saffron Burrows in a stupid subplot about a potential harrassment lawsuit) and unconvincing situations; even Oliver Stone's nearly-as-sentimental World Trade Center came up with more authentic portraits of grief during a time of crisis (mostly embodied by the women, Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal).

**********

If Reign Over Me reeks of insufferable good intentions, though, this whole Don Imus brouhaha reeks of bad ones. You know the story by now: the old-school shock jock calls the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed ho's" (among other things) and suddenly finds himself in hot water because of it. Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are calling for his resignation, and just yesterday a whole group of Rutgers students rallied on College Ave. calling for the same.

Now, call me insensitive, but doesn't this sudden outcry of rage against Imus's comments strike some as a little over-the-top? Why is his job suddenly in danger now and not five years ago, when I'm sure he was saying similarly racist and sexist things on his "Imus in the Morning" show? Where was the outrage when he called Gwen Ifill "a cleaning lady covering the White House"? I'm not defending Imus in any way, but he's been getting away with this for years (and believe me, I think I've heard his show enough to get an idea what kind of a person he is). And hello...First Amendment??? I know even free speech has its limits, but I don't really think Imus has overstepped any bounds with his derogatory speech. He's exposed himself as a bigot and a sexist, maybe, but that's his problem.

I dunno. This outcry calling for his head just strikes me as akin to a mob crying out for blood---a group of understandably angry people blowing things out of proportion and falling into the rarely-helpful revenge mindset. Despite what you see enforced in your usual Hollywood action movie, though, vengeance rarely gets us anywhere, and I don't see how getting Don Imus to resign will solve anything. Does Sharpton, Jackson and the rest of the people in this country who want him to get the hell off the air really think this will strike a decisive, seminal blow against racism or sexism in this country? It's nice to think that it would, but I, in my usual circumspection, am not so sure.

Sorry, but that's what I think. Either that, or I'm just trying to justify my own indifference toward this whole matter. You can read it either way, I guess.

10 comments:

odienator said...

A 40 page thesis? That's way too short! As someone who had to regularly write several 30-40 page assignments for class, I say that you are slacking, Kenji! My thesis must be at least 50 pages, and I'm sure I'll get about 70 quality pages into it with ease.

SLACKER!!!! (I'm just kidding. Congrats on your achievement.)

Regarding Grindhouse: I grew up with this kind of cinema. We went to drive-ins and the old Forty-Deuce theaters regularly, and the State and Pix Theaters in Jersey City were our neighborhood grindhouses. We would buy a ticket to something PG or G rated, then sneak into the naughty double feature. In fact, when I went to see QT & RR's flick, I purposely bought a ticket to Meet the Robinsons and snuck into Grindhouse after watching the cartoon--yet another pathetic attempt to recapture my youth.

Speaking of pathetic attempts, MTR is almost as bad as Chicken Little.

Your Grindhouse comment confused me a bit. Did you sit through the film in its entirety, or just the QT half? If the latter is true, don't you dare write a review of the movie if you only saw half of it. How you feel about what Rodriguez's piece might be strikes me as irrelevant; film critics don't get a pass on what parts of the movie they can see and critique. I've sat through every single frame of every single film I've written about, including Birth of a Nation. I expect nothing less from the reviewers I read.

QT's section is better, but Rodriguez's half is more fun and closer to my grindhouse experiences. I acknowledge that it gets tiresome and repetitive, and I would rather have seen what Rodriguez could have done with an actual B-movie budget (like the one on his best movie, El Mariachi) than $50 million, but I had fun turning my brain off and my cast iron stomach on. I was more in love with the concept of a stripper with a machine gun for a leg than the execution of it, but at least Rodriguez didn't try to do a Welcome Home, Brother Charles kind of weapon movie. (QT would have done that, actually.)

QT seemed conflicted with his part, as if he realized midway through the film that he actually had more money, but I can't be too angry at him for giving me the Kurt Russell of my adolescence. That badass from one of my favorite movies, Escape from New York, infuses Death Proof with necessary menace. That fake female dialogue sometimes became as tiresome as Rodriguez's gore effects, but it gave me that nostalgic feeling I got as a kid waiting for "the good parts" in these types of movies.

The entire movie is a nice three star package. I loved the sick (and accurate) grindhouse trailers more than both features. I'd kill to see Edgar Wright's Don't.

As for Imus, well I'd expect you to be indifferent. Nobody would call you a nappy headed ho since, well, you're a guy and your hair sure doesn't look nappy. Imus' comments were reprehensible because it was an exercise of his power, not a comedic routine. What he said wasn't as bad as about whom he said it. You can toss around the First Amendment all you want, but my response to that is: if you want to say whatever you want, you should also be willing to accept the consequence. I can go to Staten Island or "down the Shaw" with a megaphone and start screaming out slurs against Italians, but I'd better be prepared for the repercussions of my actions.

My familiarity with Imus' show goes back to B.K. times (that's "before Kenji"), when he was the first half of the "Dubya-Ennnnnn-B-C" double feature of Imus and Howard Stern. You are right--he's been saying shit like this forever, but he's been saying it about people whom I feel are more "his own size." That reporter from the NY Times certainly had the forum, the power and the maturity to rip Imus a new one if she so chose. But what did these Rutgers basketball women do to be referred to as hos?

I love that the coach and the players took the high road, appearing in their press conference as the articulate women they are, not the blatant stereotypes depicted by Imus and the media (and occasionally by the actions of our own). The fact that Imus picked on a target like Black and female college students trying to get an education, and not some celebrity, is what screwed him. He looked like an old racist and sexist bully, a good ole boy who started picking on targets who don't have the power to fight him on his own turf.

Had the advertisers not pulled out of his show, he'd still be on. I don't think the Reverends can take the credit for that pullout, even though they are.

Should Imus have lost his job? I was fine with the suspension, but that guy who accidentally called Condoleeza Rice "the other c-word" got canned during the commercial break, so I guess it's only fair Imus went too. I'm with you on the fact that Imus' dismissal won't do diddly for making race relations better. In fact, perhaps scaring Imus with the suspension might have gotten him to tone down his comments and become more self-conscious and proactive. What I'm watching for is a follow up on the promise by "the Reverends" to go after BET and other venues that show rap videos all day long. My problem isn't so much that those negative Black and female images exist; my bigger problem is the lack of images that balance out and counter them.

kenjfuj said...

odienator:

Don't worry; I saw both features of Grindhouse in full. I only missed a bit of Robert Rodriguez's preceding faux trailer Machete b/c my friend was a little late. Sorry if that wasn't clear.

I'm sure Planet Terror was probably closer to your experiences at those kinds of movies as a younger kid---experiences that I admittedly don't really have, since obviously I wasn't around during the 1970s. (I felt more genuine nostalgia with Eli Roth's Thanksgiving trailer, which reminded me of all those '80s slasher movies I used to know and love. In fact, that trailer almost tempted to check out movies like Happy Birthday to Me and Graduation Day again.) It's pretty clear that Rodriguez's film was meant to be a loving tribute. I'm also fairly sure, however, that Quentin Tarantino was trying for something a little more deconstructive in Death Proof, and that's probably why I enjoyed it more (even if it has its longueurs---but then don't most Tarantino films have longueurs? It's just a nature of his style, I guess). Three stars overall sounds just about right.

Don't have much to say about your comments about Imus. Absolutely he should be prepared to accept the consequences; maybe his efforts to keep himself on the air---his appearance on Al Sharpton's radio show, his supposedly booking a gospel choir as guests on his show (at least that's what I've heard somewhere), etc.---perhaps betrayed a sense that he wasn't prepared to do that.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't quite get what the big deal about his comments were until a) someone explained the meaning of "nappy-headed ho's" to me (and then I had to try to explain it to my mother); and b) I saw the whole video of his complete comments on Youtube. Then the sexism and racism of the comment became terribly clear to me, especially when he invoked Spike Lee and Do the Right Thing. (I wonder if Lee has publicly weighed in on this matter yet.) But yeah, the comment was certainly uncalled for. Doesn't mean Imus wasn't allowed to say it in the first place, however awful it is and however badly it reflects upon him.

Anyway, I take heart the lesson offered by, of all people, Trey Parker and Matt Stone in a recent episode of South Park that took on the subject of racism in terms of Michael Richards, Mel Gibson, etc. Because I'm not black and not a woman, I won't pretend to totally understand how Imus's comments hurt blacks and women everywhere. Still, I can't help but feel that the campaign against Imus---there was even a highly-publicized rally on the College Ave. campus here at Rutgers to get rid of him---was just a tad on the excessive and even bloodthirsty side; I feel like most people will "wake up" and realize that, while Imus's firing might be temporarily satisfying, particularly to the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of the world, it won't be close to the end of the story. If you're going to go after Imus, might as well go after all forms and personifications of racism and sexism in the media (and God knows there is still plenty of both in the media, however subtle they may be). But of course maybe if I was black and female, maybe I'd feel quite differently.

Well, perhaps two good things happened here: 1) this incident perhaps brought this issue of the pervasiveness of racism and sexism in the media to the public forum full force, where now we must question how much both -isms can be tolerated anymore, and 2) it finally got me and my blog mentioned as a "link for the day" on The House Next Door! I was totally not expecting that.

odienator said...

it finally got me and my blog mentioned as a "link for the day" on The House Next Door!

To quote Johnny Carson: "I did not know that!" Awesome!

I agree with you on QT trying to do something more with his part of Grindhouse than Rodriguez did, to transcend a genre that doesn't need transcendence. It's a noble effort to be sure, but part of me felt like it was a cop-out. You can't make Duck a l'Orange out of Chicken McNuggets. The critic in me appreciated Death Proof. The human being in me enjoyed Planet Terror.

Didn't Imus and his producer cite School Daze, not DTRT? They mentioned lyrics from Daze's "Straight and Nappy" number. Spike hasn't said anything to my knowledge, but while he's being quiet I wish he'd consider remaking this movie with the same musical score and a better script.

I wasn't there, but the big rally at Rutgers sounds like a show of school spirit and solidarity, not revenge. Like it or not, this is your school's team, a representation of YOUR school. And further like it or not, the college you go to is a representation of YOU. I understand completely why students were out there protesting. Having been to plenty of college games, at Rutgers, Duke, UC and my own alma mater, I know that a lot of college kids identify with their school's teams.

Where were women's organizations when all this was going on? Does NOW even exist anymore? Has NOW become LATER? The ho part of this was far more offensive than the nappy part, though I seriously question the sanity of any White person who would say "jigaboo" on the air. Where were the women complaining about this?

I do hope that people start to re-examine the depiction of women and minorities in music videos and movies--especially minority women. Like I said, I can't stop these images from appearing because they sell, and I'd be a hypocrite if I said I didn't appreciate seeing things like that Victoria's Secret fashion show thingee that the FCC got overheated over. But I'd love to see more balance. Maybe this will get the ball rolling.

I missed that South Park episode. I wanted to see it too.

Imus will be fine. He'll go on satellite and make millions, and probably be even more offensive. You make it sound like the "bloodthirsty" ended the man's career and he's going to be selling his ass (an unnappy headed ho?) on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. He just proved the economic rule: stations don't like to lose money from sponsors.

(and then I had to try to explain it to my mother)

Now THIS is a blog entry I'd love to read. :)

kenjfuj said...

It's a noble effort to be sure, but part of me felt like it was a cop-out.

What was a cop-out: the idea of transcending a disreputable genre or the way Tarantino went about doing it?

Didn't Imus and his producer cite School Daze, not DTRT?

I actually have not seen School Daze (or, to be perfectly honest, Do the Right Thing, for that matter---an oversight that, I admit, needs to be rectified soon), so I'm not sure what song you're referring to. But one of Imus' crew clearly namedropped DTRT at one point during his fateful broadcast. I guess it was just a random reference, but it's the only one I caught.

And further like it or not, the college you go to is a representation of YOU.

Speaking personally, I don't know about that, and school spirit has never really been a big part of my college life up to this point (although of course I enjoyed the football team's moment in the sun when they beat Louisville on national television). But I see what you mean.

And I'm sure Imus will be fine, especially on satellite, if that's where he wants to go.

odienator said...

What was a cop-out: the idea of transcending a disreputable genre or the way Tarantino went about doing it?

Both. It really did seem like Tarantino tossed aside the general idea of exploitation movies and tried to do something to take it to a level of "respectability." It's interesting that the critics are drooling all over Tarantino but dissing Rodriguez; it feels like Rodriguez followed the premise all the way through to its nostalgic conclusion and Tarantino did not. Like I said, I do think Tarantino's part is better overall. This is just my trash-loving split personality bitching.

But one of Imus' crew clearly namedropped DTRT at one point during his fateful broadcast.

I went back to listen to it. He said DTRT. He meant School Daze because that's the movie that song is in. You should definitely watch the former. The latter is Spike's biggest disappointment for me (but not even remotely his worst movie). I love the soundtrack to School Daze, though. When I finish my big Spike Lee article, I'll send it to you.

Speaking personally, I don't know about that, and school spirit has never really been a big part of my college life up to this point

That doesn't matter. I had no school spirit whatsoever, but I bled, sweat and cried for a piece of paper with my alma mater's name on it (and written in a dead language for which I lost the translation). That makes good ol' St. Pete's a representation of me in some fashion. When people ask where I got my credentials from, I can't say "Sally Struthers."

Gotta love those Jesuits.

kenjfuj said...

That doesn't matter. I had no school spirit whatsoever, but I bled, sweat and cried for a piece of paper with my alma mater's name on it (and written in a dead language for which I lost the translation). That makes good ol' St. Pete's a representation of me in some fashion.

Well, I guess I'll feel differently about school spirit when I finally get my diploma from Rutgers---not next month, though, because I'm hoping my Wall Street Journal internship (do you know about that?) will count as the last six credits of my journalism major.

odienator said...

my Wall Street Journal internship (do you know about that?)

HELLL NO! Is that written about somewhere on this blog? Are you holding out on me, Kenji?!! Can you make my stock go up? How did you get the internship?

Remind me to tell you about my meeting (and arguing) with Julie Salamon back when she was at the WSJ.

kenjfuj said...

I explained it here: http://mylife24fps.blogspot.com/2006/12/kenji-fujishima-copy-editor.html.

Can you make my stock go up?

Sorry, that ain't my thing. But hopefully I will be partly making sure that the Wall Street Journal is in good-looking shape every day.

odienator said...

Belated Congratulations on the WSJ gig! I envy you! I'm sure you'll make one helluva copy editor. If they put you in the accounting section, you'll make your Mom happy too! :)

kenjfuj said...

If they put you in the accounting section, you'll make your Mom happy too! :)

Was definitely not planning on working on accounting in any form even at the Journal, but actually, my mom was pretty happy about the internship. So I guess we're on pretty good terms now.

Remind me to tell you about my meeting (and arguing) with Julie Salamon back when she was at the WSJ.

What's this about? Just curious; don't really know of Julie Salamon all that much.