le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

educate yourself

One of my favorite discoveries on the internet this year is the writing and visual arts work of Frank Chimero. Today, he writes about something that, coincidentally enough, is something I'm currently dealing with myself: online learning.   He defines the type of "class" he's looking for thus:
Why don’t more of these things exist for every topic? I’m going to call them SurveyCasts in lieu of a good name, mostly because they act as those typical 101-level surveys of topics most students are asked to take at liberal arts universities. Except these are created, made for, and distributed using digital technology and the web instead of classrooms filled with students in chairs.

 Serendipitously, I'm trying to learn all about classical Greek and Roman history and mythology in advance of teaching a class on Myth & Folktale in the spring.  Though I know the myths themselves, I don't know much about them, or the history (cultural, social, political, military, literary) that gave rise to, and perpetuated, them. So I did some googling and found, via "Open Yale," the class lectures from a basic history class on Ancient Greece. I listened to part of one, and it's immensely interesting; the problem, as Chimero points out, is  "no one wanting to watch a 50-minute video of a guy speaking at a podium, but also how the courses are built on the semester schedule, and 16 weeks is entirely too long for a successful SurveyCast."

My own needs would be extremely well served by these "SurveyCasts" that Chimero suggests, especially ones in history and science.

But then I think, as well, that I would LOVE to curate my own survey - I love, more than anything, talking about books. And teaching, of course, though to create these surveys one would be operating in lecture/presentation mode, rather than discussion-leading/teaching. But I'd love to do such a thing, had I the technical wherewithal (and, let's admit it, the time) to do it.

But what would I - what could I teach?
One of the issues the SurveyCast idea raises, for someone with my pedagogical orientation, is that literature anyway isn't a question of pouring in knowledge. It's not accumulating a series of details, dates, events into a neatly memorized timeline. It's about...grappling with a text.
But then again, I could see a SurveyCast doing just this, being an example of excellence in close reading as well as in teaching. Say my survey is Golden Age Classics of Children's Literature (how original). So each SurveyCast would be on a different text, and there'd be maybe 15 episodes all together. Maybe 10. Each no more than 15 minutes in length. Let's take Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as an example.

Images! the episode would need to include images: photos of Charles Dodgson, just for kicks; photos of Alice Liddell and her siblings, taken by Dodgson. Images of Dodgson's original, handwritten manuscript with his accompanying illustrations; images from Tenniel's editions. Maybe a sort of montage or collage of other editions - the Sabuda pop-up, the Helen Oxenbury edition, Arthur Rackham's illustrations.

Intercut with the images, or perhaps as voice over, the little biographical note I give about Dodgson when I teach Alice. I try, when I do this, to explain Victorian photography and Victorian attitudes about children and sexuality (ie: very few Victorians would look at a photo of a child and think: "erotic art!"), but to do it in a fairly brief way that doesn't make a huge issue out of the obnoxious question: Wasn't Lewis Carroll a pedophile? Instead, I focus on his documented work and interests - his mathematics and logic work, his photography, his writing, his relative conservatism, his work as a deacon.
I also try to position the book in children's literary history; the Golden Age narrative, the Alice-as-watershed narrative. I don't embrace this wholeheartedly, because I think you can find examples of "delighting" texts prior to Alice, but I do think that Dodgson's book marked a large shift.
I might mention nonsense verse, especially Edward Lear's work, and its relation to Alice.

Then the Myth of the Creation of the Story: that "golden afternoon," the boating excursion, etc.

Then, on to the text! Assuming knowledge of the plot, I'd point out some of the institutions being question or attacked: the judicial/legal, royalty, social norms, education, etc. I'd talk about Alice's out-of-control body, and some of the critical hypotheses about that. I'd talk about the peculiar conclusion. I'd talk about wordplay, and punning, and who the audience really is for this book. I'd talk about its persistence in our culture, as text/story for adaptation and re-telling, and as a referent. I'd probably do a close reading, or something like it, on the Tea Party chapter, particularly because it gives an opportunity to look at Alice's rather unpleasant personality.

Could this be done in an entertaining 15 minutes? i don't see why not.

It would be an intriguing project to undertake. I can't, of course, since I lack all necessary technical resources, but it's kind of interesting to think about.

I can think of several people off the top of my head who I would LOVE to see do this kind of SurveyCast, though. I love the idea of it. The shared knowledge that comes out of a small class discussion, when the classmates are all engaged in the material as well as involved with their own academic interests - it's one of the things I miss most in my post-class-taking (frankly, post-New College) life.

So: SurveyCasts! Consider the possibilities.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Dear Glee:

Glee, I love you. I really do. Mostly, mainly, I love you for Kurt and Burt Hummel. This week, I love you for Brittney and Artie.
But Kurt is the reason I come back, time and again, Glee, because you have shown - beautifully - that you know how to handle a complex character. Your episodes on bullying were remarkable.

But. BUT! Glee - what are you doing? You've added Ashley Fink as Lauren into the Glee Club (which is cool! I liked her on Huge, and she's been a cool quirky bit player on Glee since the first season).

Except, Glee, you're....you're being mean. You're being sizest. You are perpetuating some very, very unkind and narrow-minded stereotypes about fat people, which is, in essence, a form of bullying. Every time we see Lauren, she is eating, and/or talking about food. She demands food as a requirement for joining Glee club. She demands food before she'll perform at sectionals. You've done a pretty shoddy job in making her a real character - you've made her a caricature, a rather tired, unpleasant stereotype of a fat person who eats all the time. 

This is not cool. Do you not know any of the statistics about women - especially young women - and body image? I understand if you're not up on the latest in academic Fat Studies; I wasn't, until fairly recently. But Fat Studies intersects with body politics, which intersects with Queer Studies - and Glee, I know you know about that.

Glee, I expect better from you. I expect WAY better from you. You've done amazing things - amazing - with your representation of a gay teenager. Kurt's character has been dazzling to watch, especially this season, as you've given him a gay love interest. You know how to push boundaries and change the way people think and talk about things. You can do this with Lauren's character, too, and it doesn't even need to be a big plot point. Just turn her into a person who isn't just, only, and all about eating. As Marilyn Wann (a leading Fat activist and Fat studies pioneer) writes in the introduction to the Fat Studies Reader, the only thing you can tell by looking at a fat person is the level of your own prejudices.

Making Lauren into a fat person who does nothing but eat and/or talk about food is no different than any other offensive or bigoted stereotypical representation. Glee, you do a good job of being playful about difference, but you also are always respectful and supportive of difference. Except in the case of Lauren (and sometimes Mercedes), the non-thin members of the cast.

You can do so much better than this, Glee. If you're not sure how, please watch a few episodes of Huge. If you don't want to watch a show from a competing network, why not go read Lesley Kinzel's extremely intelligent blog?

I don't want to have to stop watching Glee because of indirect body shaming and fat jokes. I will if you continue, but I'd rather see Glee do what it does well (superbly well, in the case of Kurt) - push its viewers and its cast toward a more inclusive, comprehensive view of the diversity of human existence.

most sincerely yours,

Kerry M

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Tangled up & new

I saw Tangled this weekend, courtesy of the strong-arming of two friends of mine. Though I like Disney, and I'm crazy about Pixar, somehow I don't always do a good job of getting to the Disney animated films when they open (case in point: still have not seen Princess & the frog).

But I am glad I saw Tangled, especially since I very recently taught two pieces of Disney criticism to a class, and so had my Disney-critic brain finely tuned. A lot of people in the children's lit academic community are passionately opposed to Disney, for a variety of reasons (many of them pretty good reasons, too). I do not share this wholehearted opposition to Disney, though I am pretty much on board with the skepticism and disapproval of the "princess" films and attendant marketing, etc.

Tangled does the Rapunzel story with some nice twists. The original story, collected by the Grimms, is not particularly charming nor enlightened. It seems that Disney's collaboration with Pixar, and perhaps, response to criticism, has created a more serious effort at remedying the outdated princess formula.

We get the backstory in an opening sequence: the magic golden flower of the sun takes the place of the rapunzel-lettuce; the generic man & woman are replaced with the king and queen - but essentially, we get the gist. Gothel steals the baby to use the magical powers of her golden hair, which is how Gothel stays young (youthfulness and healing are its powers, incidentally). Rapunzel is raised in a tower in valley enclosed by cliffs and a waterfall.

But what Disney does is give this princess an actual personality, with some real psychology. We see Rapunzel going about her daily activities (accompanied by a forgettable song) - she bakes, cooks, reads books, sews, brushes her hair, looks out her window, dances - and paints. Rapunzel's paintings are one of the most charming effects in the film - soft washes done on the walls of her tower. They tend to imagine scenes featuring Rapunzel and her immense quantity of hair, but they have a very charming style, especially the van gogh-esqu central piece picturing the floating night lanterns released by the kingdom annually, in honor of the lost princess.

Gothel, the villain of the piece, is a masterful and terrifying piece of psychological abuse. She is sickeningly sweetly passive-aggressive, wearing down Rapunzel's natural curiosity, playing on her emotions, telling her she is getting "chubby," telling her she is too weak to handle the world outside. Gothel & Rapunzel have a truly disturbing dysfunctional psychology between them, and it's the most realistic thing in the film. It's scary. Gothel's big number is titled "Mother knows best," and its manipulative force makes it perhaps the most frightening villain song of them all (though Scar's nazi-esque "Be Prepared" in The Lion King is pretty creepy). This psychology is continued consistently throughout the film - we get a number of scenes of Rapunzel alternating between joy at freedom and weeping and wringing her hands in anxious self-loathing and self-reproach at leaving her poor mother.

Having just taught June Cummins' essay on Beauty and the Beast ("Romancing the Beast"), I was especially aware of Rapunzel's dream or motivation. Cummins points out, accurately, that Belle initially wants to travel, explore, see new places - but jettisons all of that for life in the castle which (oddly) creeps ever-closer to the village as the film progresses.
Rapunzel's dream, her one goal and desire for a large part of the film, is to go in person to see the night lanterns.
That's it.
That's her goal, and she sticks to it.

Enter Flinn Rider, our erstwhile Hero, who is a bad guy (more like an arrogant guy) at first but eventually, of course, softens into a sweet romantic hero.
I don't expect, in a huge and hugely mainstream movie, to see the heterosexual romance plot disappear. I'd LIKE to see that, but I don't expect it. I don't expect it in Tangled, in Love and other drugs, in any of those comic-book-movies. Feeling angry, disappointed or frustrated in the presence of this plot, in this kind of film, is truly counterproductive. The Disney princess films - and this one especially - operate as fairy-tale romantic comedies, and those follow a very set formula. Even the really great ones (Bringing Up Baby) follow the formula. We can criticize the heteronormativity of this love plot - and we should - but to react as if Disney is doing something unusual and/or unusually bad in continuing to follow this pattern is simply unfair and unrealistic.

But Rapunzel is - despite her creepy appearance, which is a cross of Precious Moments figurine and Bratz Baby doll - a truly spunky heroine. The movie isn't paying lip service to the spunky heroine, as I think it does in Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. Rapunzel is in charge of her quest from minute one, when she clocks Flinn Rider with her cast-iron frying pan and locks him in her wardrobe. She keeps her hold on that frying pan for much of the movie, in fact. She bullies Flinn into guiding her to the city for the night lanterns, and emotional outbursts about her mother aside, keeps a pretty solid grip on things.
Look at this still: this is essentially a bondage scene, with a dominatrix. Rapunzel has the upper hand here, and not because she's captivatingly beautiful - it's because she's got some weapons (frying pan, and her hair, which she wields like a lasso, a rope, a whip), and she's got a whole lot of determination.
Even the moments of romance or sentimentality are cut with Rapunzel's almost-edgy sense of humor. In the Snuggly Duckling, the tavern to which Flinn guides her in an effort to get her to renounce her quest, the viking-esque thugs who threaten them all are disarmed when Rapunzel yells "Where is your HUMANITY? Don't you have a dream?"

The opportunity for treacly sentiment is huge, but the movie doesn't take it: Mandy Moore puts an edge in Rapunzel's voice, and she sounds more exasperated and impatient than saccharine. There's no soft focus here. The song that follows, sung by the thugs, reveals that all of them do in fact have dreams - and those dreams have a decidedly queer tone (one wants to do interior design, one wants to bake, one wants to be a concert pianist, another is a mime, and finally one is passionate about collecting tiny ceramic unicorns). But the number is staged as a kind of comic tavern-song, reminiscent of Gaston's big song in Beauty & the Beast (but much, much more positive and much, much more playful about gender norms). These same thugs reappear to aid Rapunzel and Flinn, and their arrival is signalled by the presence of a tiny ceramic unicorn placed strategically for Flinn to see.

Throughout the film, we see Rapunzel insist on her own dreams; we see Flinn agreeing to help, and then helping (but not taking over) along the way. Rapunzel rescues him more than once from various sticky situations - the Snuggly Duckling is just one of these - and it is only at the very end of the film that Flinn sacrifices his own life to rescue Rapunzel from Gothel.
The scene when Rapunzel realizes that she is the lost princess is done with psychological smartness; you do not feel like you're watching a Disney Princess soft-focus number. There are "camera tricks," which of course are animation tricks, there is horror registering in Rapunzel's (still disturbing) babyface. It's a moment with as much emotion as the scene of the Queen's transformation to the Witch in Snow White, a scene that was (and is) much heralded for its effectively. Rapunzel decides to confront Gothel with her new realization, and fight for her own life, her own self - unlike princesses of old, who usually attempt to flee when something goes kaput.

Visually, this movie is lovely - Rapunzel's hair is an absolute masterpiece of digital animation. The scenes with the night lanterns are beyond stunning - I want to live in that kingdom. I'm partial to floating lanterns anyway; ever since the millennial new year's celebrations and the glorious, gorgeous lanterns released from - Thailand? I think. But this is rendered beautifully, affectingly - it's the moment of Rapunzel getting her wish.

The movie also takes up what happens after your dream comes true, in a way that works really well. Flinn and Rapunzel discuss this more than once, coming to the conclusion that when you achieve your dream, you move on to a new dream. There are always more dreams to be had. It's uplifting in a matter-of-fact way.

This movie does not fix all of the problems with the romantic comedy and/or fairy-tale genre. It doesn't shatter fairy tales the way Angela Carter does in The Bloody Chamber. Like all romantic comedies, you know the outcome from the first moment you see the two main characters - you know before you get to the theater that Flinn and Rapunzel will live happily ever after. But Tangled does something different, for a Disney film: it gives us psychologically developed characters, with complications and personalities of their own. More than that, it places Rapunzel in the true center of the film - she is the sun around which the whole story orbits. It is her gravitational force directing this show, and none of the characters are allowed to forget it. Compared to Disney princess films of the past, this one has made some very big leaps forward. It isn't perfect, for sure; it's not a masterpiece of feminist rhetoric. But it creates a space in which that kind of progressive ideology can be glimpsed, and even achieved, in moments.