Monday, April 30, 2007

A Series of Fortunate Events

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - This Saturday was my big thesis presentation day. Every year, the Livingston College Honors Program sponsors a day in which all the seniors must go up in front of a crowd of fellow honors students and faculty and present essentially a summary of the thesis they wrote this year. So, for 10 minutes, I had to basically speak about Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino and summarize my thesis regarding them both, in which I basically tried to show, by delving not only into a comparative discussion of their respective films but also comparing personal backgrounds and the historical and social contexts in which their work was created and received. In other words: they're both interesting and important in their own ways. (That's certainly a rather different proposition from the one I initially started out with in undertaking this thesis project, one that I'd like to think has come from a lot of careful consideration.)

I have a pretty checkered history with public oral presentations. I don't think I'm bad at them; give me something to read and I could probably deliver it in a fairly dynamic and engaging manner even with every word written out. But I've always been distrustful of my ability to think on my feet as I'm speaking in public without faltering or stuttering. So my impulse in the past has almost always been to write everything out so I could read it smoothly up there on the podium. It's an impulse I somewhat tried to curb this time. No, the speech paper I brought up with me on both Friday---when I rehearsed my presentation for a few of my honors peers as well as the scholar-in-residence who monitored our thesis progress this year---wasn't a model of economy: I used bullet points, but I still wrote portions of it out as a guide for whenever I felt lost on-stage. (I had actually had an entire speech written out word-for-word, but when I tried to read it to myself a couple of days before my big presentation day, I was startled to realized that I actually felt uncomfortable with simply reading something verbatim, that it didn't really sound like me at all.)

A bigger enemy of mine is Q & A. Now, I know that I'm supposed to know my material like the back of my hand by the time a public presentation like this comes bout. I know I'm supposed to be able to anticipate questions that might be asked me if I have to answer them from audience members after a speech. Hasn't helped for me all that much in the past: if I get asked a question on a public stage that I don't know how to respond to, in the past I've often automatically tensed up and barely stammered out an incoherent, pathetic excuse for a response. Often extreme self-consciousness has contributed to this: I don't have much of a response if a fact or opinion of mine I've expressed in a speech is challenged, but somehow I'd rather try to come up with something to say instead of just honestly admitting, "I don't know how to respond to that," or else I'll risk sounding like I don't know what I'm talking about after all. Of course, if I knew what I'm talking about, maybe I wouldn't have so much trouble answering this particular damn question I was just asked... Anyway, so I've had some nasty experiences with Q & A in the past, and in general, sometimes I feel I do an infinitely better job defending myself in print---when I have time to think of a response to something---than in person, when I often have to think of a response on my feet.

All those concerns seemingly disappeared on Saturday. I was able to get my speech in just under the 10-minute limit (my original speech ran about 8 minutes over the day before, so I skipped rainy, indoor Rutgersfest on Friday---not that I was really planning to go in the first place---to work on cutting it down), and, most importantly, I was actually able to answer the question I was asked! Yeah, I rambled an answer that probably barely answered the question, but hey, at least I felt confident in responding to it, like I actually knew what I was saying.

So I'm quite satisfied with how my presentation went on Saturday, and I seemed to get good response from not only my peers and the scholar-in-residence (he asked me the question), but also from one of the most critical of audience members: my parents. Yes, they were there, and while obviously my opinion on the success of my presentation doesn't live or die by what they think, I was pleased to hear my mother compliment me later that day at home.

My actual written thesis is pretty much finished; I just need a signature from my thesis advisor, and I'm done! (I got it strip bound by Kinko's today, complete with clear plastic cover in the front and black leather cover at the back; I'm tempted to spend a bit more to get a copy bound for myself.) Semester over---though, as my previous blog entry explained, undergraduate college career not quite over. (I finally told my parents about my situation on Sunday over dinner, and thankfully my mother didn't throw any kind of fit as I half-feared she would.)

Anyone interested in reading my senior thesis? I'll be glad to send an electronic copy of it to anyone who wants to read what I have concluded about Godard and Tarantino. Drop me a line at and I'll send it to you.


Other good stuff that happened these past few days:

I didn't think it would happen, but after a State Theatre shift Wednesday evening, I found out that the house manager decided that I did a superior-enough job that he selected me as Usher of the Month for March. "I was a little hesitant to hire this person," the house manager began as he was trying to build suspense as to who it was, "but he's become a valuable part of the staff, and I'm glad to have him around."

Is it ungrateful of me that my initial thought when I find out he's talking about me is to wonder what he thought about me at first that made him hesitant to hire me?

No matter. I got a $100 gift certificate to Sapporo's for my, uh, value as a staff member, and I used it to celebrate my thesis presentation success yesterday. It's probably been the first time the family---sans our poor dog Dusty, of course, who we left restless and panting at home---went to an actual restaurant---as opposed to the cheaper buffet places we usually frequent---since...oh, I'd say, that eventually-disastrous Maine trip. But the salmon teriyaki dinner, the sushi and the red bean ice cream I had was worth it.

Also: on Thursday evening, the whole Desktop Publishing class went to a printing press up in Wall Township to see our AlumKnights newsletter get printed. It was actually a pretty fascinating trip. I've never seen a printing press in action before, so it was interesting to discover, for instance, that the press actually has to waste a whole slew of printed copies in the beginning of the process in order to allow the color balances to adjust. Believe it, it takes a while before the colors are balanced out.

I took a couple of pictures of the printing press in action on my cell phone, but I still have to figure out how to upload them on my computer, if possible. (I disabled my text-messaging ability on my phone because some asshole kept sending me weird text messages saying "Go get laid" or "Get a life" and leaving callback numbers that were disconnected or never picked up by anyone when I tried them.) If I figure it out, I'll post them in a future entry.

Now I have 10 fresh copies of the upcoming issue of AlumKnights! One of my professors insisted that we send complimentary copies to our interview subjects. Being that I had five of them for my one story---which, if you recall, made it to the front page of the newsletter---obviously I have to send five issues to five different addresses. I really hope I didn't fuck anything up facts-wise!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Big Oops

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - So a couple of days ago I just found out something that throws a sizable dent into my plans to graduate after this summer's Wall Street Journal internship. Turns out, I can't do it for credit as I thought I would.

I was planning to make this WSJ thing my 6-credit internship to complete my journalism major here at Rutgers. But---stupid me---I only decided to ask the internship coordinator about the possibility of doing it for credit a couple of days ago when I should have asked, like, say, in December, when I decided to take the internship in the first place? <> And here I am telling everyone I'm going to be graduating after this summer internship is over.

Chalk up another highlight in the Kenji Fujishima Wall of Shame---or, to put it more optimistically, Wall of Stupid Mistakes to Learn From In the Future.

Thus, it looks like I'm going to be a student here for about a semester longer than I had anticipated. Those 6 credits are all I really need, though. I'm thinking about whether I'd want another internship for the fall, or simply to take two more classes to finish it up. The journalism department here at Rutgers doesn't absolutely require a credit internship; the department strongly recommends it, but it isn't technically required. Frankly, though, I'd rather try to get more real-world experience through an internship, paid or unpaid, than sit through more dull lectures and stuff. But then I'd have to try to find that fall internship in the first place. It's just like a finding a job. I guess that's a good thing.

I'm trying not to get too hysterical over this as I probably would have if I were the Kenji of, say, two years ago, when this kind of temporary setback might have depressed me for days. In the past, I might have dwelt on things that I should have done or didn't do. This time, I try to say to myself: Hey, I made a dumb mistake. No use dwelling on it now, because what's done is done. Move on.

One thing, though: obviously this is my fault, and I take full responsibility for it. But why didn't anyone tell me that usually paid internships usually mean internships that aren't for credit? When I told people that I was hoping to get credit out of this, no one said to me, Are you sure you can do that? Because, from my experience, most paid internships don't allow you to get college credit out of it. Now I hear this is the trend? The obvious response to that is, I should have done my research. But still...

I haven't told my parents yet, by the way.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Threnody for the Victims of Virginia Tech

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I want to express my deepest condolences to everyone who was affected by Cho Seung-hui's violent rampage at Virginia Tech this past Monday, when he gunned down 32 victims before turning the gun on himself. I won't pretend to totally understand how it feels to be part of a community that has been rocked by this kind of tragedy; I can only imagine the feelings of grief and devastation that must have hit the campus full-force after Monday morning's tragic events.

I've been meaning to blog a little bit about the Virginia Tech incident, because, I mean, college students got killed---as a college student myself, this kind of thing hits close to home at least a little bit. But I haven't really been sure of what to say that hasn't already been said by various journalists and pundits already. Pointing fingers at the ridiculously easy access Cho had to guns? Check. Reviving the debate over the Second Amendment? Check. (Not sure where I stand on that issue, although it seems to me that something deeper needs to be done instead of simply banning civilians from owning firearms.) The backlash against Koreans and Korean-Americans across the country and in Korea? Disturbing (as was the backlash against Arabs after Sept. 11), but check. Criticizing the media for exploiting tragedy in various ways? Check. (I'm still a little iffy on NBC's airing of Cho's videos and pictures, since that'd be giving him the publicity he clearly wants; but if it gives us in the audience a slightly better understanding of what drove him to coldblooded murder, then maybe it was worth something.) Blaming movies like Chanwook Park's Oldboy (a movie I love very much, although in hindsight his other two vengeance movies---Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance---are in some ways deeper and more serious meditations on the futility and spiritual bankruptcy of revenge than the more pop-accessible, though no less devastating, Oldboy; maybe Cho might have thought twice about his actions if he had seen the bleak and near-Kubrickian Sympathy, especially) for inspiring Cho's own "revenge," even as most of those critics inevitably ignore context? Check and check.

So what's left to talk about that hasn't already been discussed in these past few days since the tragedy? Well, let me take a more personal tack---always a useful strategy for trying to say something fresh about a topic discussed to death (no insensitive pun intended there!)---and admit right upfront that, for me, there's something morbidly fascinating about this whole incident...about Cho.

If my movie-watching and movie criticism-reading over the years has taught me something valuable, it has taught me to embrace empathy, nuance and complexity instead of feeling more comfortable in black-and-white. It's a complicated world out there, and the people inhabiting it are no less contradictory and complex. So, when the Virginia Tech story broke and we found out the killer was this South Korean 23-year-old with paranoid-schizophrenic problems and an apparently, long-held grudge against hedonistic rich kids, my first reaction wasn't to decry him as a human monster, a mentally-disturbed freak. My first reaction was to try to understand what drove him to his actions. Maybe this stems from a special feeling I sometimes have toward loners---I sometimes felt like one myself during my high school years---but I, perhaps morbidly, immediately wanted to know more about Cho, to understand what may have happened in his life to have led him to this. Did neglect or lack of interest from fellow students or teachers lead him to a path of destruction? (Maybe not so much in this case; more on that below.) Did that neglect lead him to feel that the only way for him to make any mark on society would be through violence? Is this a sick fascination to have? It's the same perverse fascination I felt when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot up Columbine High School eight years ago. In fact, I'll admit it: I was almost ready to at least empathize with the killers, perhaps unduly projecting my own occasional bouts of isolation and loneliness to try to give a semblance of humanity to these people.

But, of course, however understandable their motives, their actions are, by any human standard, atrocious. There were plenty of other ways to express themselves; is it a statement about the society we live in that the only thing they could apparently think to do with load themselves up with ammo and gun people down in cold blood to do it?

Cho Seung-hui's story bothers me in a different way, though. He did express himself, apparently---through, by all accounts, extremely violent and profane plays he wrote for an English class. He wasn't really neglected by fellow students; they knew of him, and they were disturbed by him (rightly so, it seems). When you dare to take under-the-table pictures of women during class, how else are people supposed to think of you? As healthy and normal? (I'm as horny and as sex-obsessed as the next guy, but I don't try to take informal upskirt pictures and stalk them.) And it's not like people didn't try to reach out to him; he simply rejected all the help, preferring to indulge in his perverted fantasies of violent conquest. It sounded like he figured he wasn't the one with the problem; to him, the so-called "rich kids" were the ones with the problem. And he, I guess, would be the savior of all the "oppressed"---their "Jesus Christ," as he labeled himself.

I could try to find numerous twisted ways to feel even a little bad for Cho, to try to empathize with him. (I could try to do the same thing for Harris and Klebold, for that matter.) But as someone who likes to think I try to look at things and people with a measure of nuance and complexity, should I even bother to try to empathize with messed-up people who themselves seem to have trouble recognizing nuance, who regard other people with apparently little regard for their humanity except as pawns in a game of good and evil? It doesn't sound like it's worth the trouble or the emotional resources.

Maybe a daring artist will one day come along and attempt to understand Cho Seung-hui, to pick at his brain. (Not even Gus Van Sant was willing to go quite that far with the killers in Elephant, his formalistic response to Columbine.) For now, though, I think I'll just leave at this: Mr. Cho was one disturbed human being. The humanistic side of me refuses to believe that it's not worth trying to understand what led him to his mental collapse and killing spree, but understanding him certainly doesn't excuse him, especially since it looks like he didn't try very hard to look at the reality beyond his own fucked-up worldview. He brought it on himself, and maybe, in the end, he has only himself to blame. (And Koreans and Korean-Americans everywhere, by all means don't feel the need to apologize for this guy! He's no more a reflection of how Koreans really are than Adolf Hitler is an indication of how Germans are in general.)

To the victims: all our hearts are with you. Here's hoping you can all successfully move on from this.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - A short entry for today. So the past couple of days, a nor'easter has drenched our area with heavy rain up the much that it has flooded the heck out of both Rt. 18 and Ryders Lane here in East Brunswick. And so much that Rutgers has canceled classes for two days in a row, yesterday and today.

Can you believe it? Rutgers stubbornly stays open during snowy winter conditions, but it shuts down for two days because of rain. I guess not even snow could shut down Rt. 18, that's why.

It didn't really matter much to me yesterday, because I don't have any scheduled classes on Mondays, but today's cancellation of classes means I don't have my Cinema Studies seminar.

Funny thing: after last night's episode of 24 (which kinda sucks this year) had ended, an apartment-mate and I were watching a preview for Fox 5's upcoming 10 p.m. newscast, and one of the anchors described the rains that fell these couple of days as "Biblical." We both burst out laughing. Biblical??? It was certainly heavy, but Biblical on the scale of the 40 days/40 nights storm that led Noah (directed by God, of course) to build his ark? I don't think so. Sensationalism, anyone?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

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


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? 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.