movie roundup

Considering that most of I am Legend consists of watching one guy go through his daily survival routine, it's fairly engaging. I like most apocalypse, survival, and zombie movies -- and this one combines all three. What I found irritating or inconsistent might be problems in the original novel, but I'm guessing they were somebody's bright idea during the adaptation process: the whole Bob Marley thing was painfully overdone and heavy handed and didn't really add to the "meaning" of the film, which was never really made clear. Sure, medical science is overreaching in trying to present cures before they're tested -- that's a message I'm wholeheartedly behind. But then is the main character supposed to be heroic or not? because he's arrogant, hung up on a messianic complex, and justifying experiments that look an awful lot like torture. The ending of the film would make him a heroic figure but the body of the film doesn't. Which, if this were a more complex film could be an interesting tension. But it's not. It's an adventure movie that's trying a little too hard.

I really liked Margot at the Wedding, and it has fantastic actors giving great performances -- and yet it's not a film I'd lightly recommend to just anyone. All of the characters are pretty repellent, and the conversation veers wildly between caustic wit and wounding blows -- it's not a film that one necessarily enjoys so much as experiences, feeling grateful for those moments that don't seem too familiar. And feeling a mixture of shame and relief at seeing those moments that do seem familiar displayed on screen. It's smart, painful, and kinda funny -- like most art made out of the suffering of reflective intellectuals.

Best unexpected response to The Golden Compass: we'd invited GF's father to the movies with us, and were a bit surprised when he said yes to this film. 5 minutes into it, he turns to GF and says "is this an adaptation of the Doris Lessing book"? But, to the credit of the material and the film, he actually wound up enjoying it. I liked it pretty well -- it's nothing compared to the books, which I've read and reread for years -- and they cut out lots of important stuff. But it was a fun holiday season spectacle.



Now, I'm all for transparency as a general rule: clarity in communication, in organizational processes, and in storage bins around my house. But over the past few days, as I completed some holiday elf-like tasks, I was surprised by the number of f2f retailers who were handing my purchases to me in a clear plastic bag. (A heavyweight, handsomely designed bag -- but clear nonetheless.) And then there were online retailers who mailed packages in translucent mailer bags, and one that printed the package's contents on a label right on the front of the box.

Hello, people. Ever imagine that one might need to transport the gifts inside the doorway and would like a little obscurity to do so?


25 days!

Finally, at about 5:48 this evening, I put this fall semester to bed. My grades were submitted a few days ago, but there were administrative reports to complete, letters of recommendation to mail, and various other odds and ends to deal with. So now I have 25 days stretching ahead of me. Realistically, that's more like 19 before I'll have to go in and put on the administrator's hat again. But 25 before the semester begins in earnest.

This was supposed to be a "light" term for me, but it didn't feel that way. I have nothing to complain about -- and I'm not complaining -- but I do feel like the end of term requires some reflection, as does the end of the year. Reflection and planning are major goals for these next couple of weeks -- for all areas of my life, not just the professional. I really like new beginnings, new years, new semesters -- the chance to improve things, improve myself, become somehow smarter, stronger, better, or happier -- this is nearly always appealing to me. Which is strange, since I'm really not much of an optimist. But give me a pen and a piece of paper and 30 minutes
and I'll happily redesign my filing system, or sketch out the next year's goals, or plan how we should redo the living room. And for a while I'll feel a burst of energy and possibility that must be kind of like what optimists feel -- kind of like a triple shot latte, come to think of it. (As an INTJ, of course, I'm much better at the planning than at the implementing -- that's where my depression and cynicism start to kick in and get the better of me.)

So, since I've been on winter break for about 5 hours, I'm still feeling full of possibility about what I might be able to accomplish or enjoy in these next couple of weeks. Unscheduled, unplanned, mellow time with GF, Speedy, The Boss, and Old Girl is high on my list, as is yoga and the gym. Some sorting, purging, and cleaning of the house. Some organizing, stock-taking, planning of work related materials as well -- a purge of my bookshelves and files is long overdue. I'd like to do some crafty stuff as well, which is an itch I haven't scratched in a long time. I've got some library books to read for fun, and some to read for work. A long list of movies to watch. Some new recipes to try. Etc, etc. I've got far more that I'd like to do than will ever actually fit into the time. But it's a lot of time, and I want to get the most from it.


why so stupid

I've been visiting my mother for a few days -- originally scheduled to be after the semester was all over, but this year it wound up being during the bitter bitter end of things. Combine that with my usual feeling lobotomized when I'm in this place and it's been really hard to imagine writing anything. The combination of stressful family circumstances, bad internet connectivity, and piles upon piles of tedious chores always turns me into a dull, depressed lump.

Not everything is so bad, of course. I have some great things to look forward to upon my return to my own home. I just feel awfully far away from my home, from my routine, from my own brain.


down to the essentials

vitamin C

eucalyptus essential oil




repeat, repeat, repeat.


tipping point

Apparently, 12:30 in the afternoon is the tipping point beyond which it seems futile to drive into the office for the day. I'd planned to work at home this morning finishing up the proofs, then go into the office to deal with administrative stuff and power through some grading. But now it just seems like I might as well stay home. I can, after all, do the grading from the couch.

Should I flee the germs of GF's sickness that might be lingering in our house, or stay home to grade in a somewhat restful fashion to ward off the beginnings of congestion I've begun to feel. Just because I got dressed in work-casual style and even put on mascara doesn't mean I have to leave the house.

I think this is the right thing to do. I know I'm capable of over-thinking it (wrestling between following my usual structure/plan and being flexible). It's also possible that I might not get enough done -- either by wasting time driving, parking, and then having to deal with chit-chatty office staff or by staying home with dogs and teakettle and the internet. But it seems 50-50 either way at this point. And at home I have more rewards available for each block of grading I get through.



How is it that during the same 10-day span in which I must sit in grading jail, write two end of term administrative reports (with spreadsheet appendices), assist weeping students with graduation problems, and attend 2 and possibly 3 department holiday parties, that I receive first-stage page proofs and a page of editor queries for a forthcoming article? Proofs and queries that must, of course, be returned, within 8 days.



Ellen Paige (who I loved in Hard Candy) is perfectly cast in this movie: alternately snarky and sad, her teenage heroine navigates relationships and identity formation with an appealing down to earth sense of humor. I only wish the film was as appealing to me.

It's certainly not everything the media hype about its writer Diablo Cody would have you believe. It's not the feminist (or feminine) "answer" to Judd Apatow's recent hit comedies. It's not the smartest movie about teenagers since John Hughes. And is Cody the best writer under age 35? She photographs well and has certainly seized the imaginations of a lot of journalists. But I'm waiting to see what she'll do next.

It's enjoyable, sure. I laughed. The audience I was with laughed a lot too. But it's cutesy-edgy, suffering from the mainstreaming of so-called "indie" attitude -- here signified by wordplay that is only semi-current, semi-funny, semi-successful. It's very hit or miss. The shorthand phrases instead of character development, the colors and camerawork, the clothing, the interior set design all scream at you: this is a film that wants to be like a bunch of other films (Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State, etc). Now, imitation is flattery, and also smart marketing. So in and of itself, that's not the worst.

But even reading this as a fantasy movie (no less a fantasy because it doesn't involve wizards (although that is one of Juno's nicknames) it suffers from a lack of conflict: she has no serious struggle in deciding what to do about her pregnancy, and pregnancy itself operates as a kind of bodily fate. There's nothing really for her to do except wait to be done with it. Her parents are astoundingly mellow and supportive; and her boyfriend's parents somehow never find out. School is supposed to be tough on Juno, but that's never really shown to us, except in the occasional glances of students in the hallway. This is a fantasy world in which Juno's pregnant and allowed to stay in regular high school, is not physically or verbally harassed by other students or teachers, and has all the time in the world to flirt with inappropriate older married men. But even that situation is watered down so that it doesn't really constitute a conflict. So there's nothing for her to overcome, nowhere for her to grow, because the film presents Juno as already so wonderful that she just has to keep on keepin on, and wait to deliver the baby.

The sharks really started to circle, though, in a couple of painfully self-conscious and juvenile scenes that demonstrate the film's need to proclaim its coolness. It reminded me of the 13 year olds I used to supervise at summer camp. Who's cooler, Iggy Pop or Sonic Youth? Who the f* cares? I know I'm not the target demographic for this film -- but watching it was ultimately kind of tiresome. And I'm someone who likes the romantic comedy genre. Give me Some Kind of Wonderful or Valley Girl any day. Those movies have characters who develop and change; class and family conflicts; and awesome soundtracks that the characters don't feel the need to talk about, sing along to, or otherwise announce.


The Formation of Scholars

There's an article in today's Chronicle about the forthcoming Carnegie Foundation report entitled The Formation of Scholars, which argues that PhD-granting departments and programs aren't adequately preparing doctoral students for the challenges of conducting top-quality research today. The article doesn't explain how preparation or education in research was measured, across many different fields and disciplines, but some of the general points seem applicable to many areas:
The solution is not to add more requirements and components to doctoral education, say the study's authors, but to investigate whether many of the traditions that have grown up within academe still serve their intended purpose. The authors question many conventions taken for granted in doctoral education, such as qualifying examinations, program requirements, and even the doctoral dissertation. Many of the origins and purposes of those practices are opaque or forgotten, they argue, and continue only through force of habit.

That "force of habit" is a real obstacle to change. My own department has been through several bitter fights about proposed changes to our PhD program, which tend to pit generations of scholars against each other, most of us arguing for whatever methods and formats trained us. So if you passed a 6-field comprehensive exam, that's what you think every student should do. If you took orals, or defended each chapter of your dissertation separately, you tend to think that's the way it should be.

What's especially pernicious within my own department, and within the field generally, is the way that institutional hierarchies get mapped onto program requirements. Thus if an Ivy department required all of its doctoral students to stand on their heads while reciting the first page of their dissertation, then other departments would eventually take this method as the accepted mode of examination. Faculty are often caught between the real identity and projected fantasy identity of their own department ("we are a fourth rank research school but we want to be second rank") as well as their own internalized professional ranking, which is frequently calculated using PhD institution and number of publications as factors ("I'm a first-rank PhD with the median number of publications for graduates of my program with x numbers of years in the profession").

These hierarchies -- real and imagined -- are also involved in how we envision the futures of our own doctoral students and how we train them. In my experience of an R1 doctoral program, we were never explicitly instructed in research or professionalization. It was assumed that we were able to figure it out along the way. This meant those with good mentors figured it out sooner; the rest of us developed our own various compensatory strategies. I'm currently teaching at an R4 university, where we know we need to teach our students a lot of things they probably didn't get in their previous BA programs. Yet many of our faculty (most educated at R1s) believe one "shouldn't have" to tell students how to do basic research.

I'll be interested to see how or if this forthcoming report affects our institutional and professional conversations about graduate education.


special steps

Tonight I went to get The Boss some steps, because she's starting to slow down from arthritis. She's 14, and has been very athletic all her life. So she's kind of depressed about now having to go on the slow dog walks with Old Girl. Meanwhile, Speedy is alternately excited about having her own (fast and long) walks, and nervous about walking with only a human for company. So having her own special steps to get up on the couch with did make The Boss feel important. But we're all feeling a little sad that age has come upon her rather suddenly in the past two months.

I love to go to the companion supply store -- there's always adorable and desirable stuff to look at. And lots of people bring their dogs into the shop. But most of all I just find it heartwarming, all the people in there looking for toothbrushes or sweaters or bowls or cookies for their special friend.



Because December is full of possibility!

Fred Claus

Vince Vaughn and 7 year olds don't usually go very well together, so I was a bit skeptical of the parenting skills of the women sitting with 15 children in the row behind us at the movie theater. Sure, we were going to see a holiday movie, but still, it was rated PG13 and these kids were awfully young. But I enjoyed the film, for what it was, and I suspect the kids did too. It's skillfully double-layered, so that kids would only see Santa and some slapstick comedy and some elves dancing around. The adults, on the other hand, get to enjoy Vaughn's usual slacker antihero and a hilarious scene of Siblings Anonymous featuring Stephen Baldwin, Roger Clinton, and Frank Stallone. Because that's Fred's problem: he's always been overshadowed by and compared to his brother Santa. (Oh, and there's a little vampiric immortality clause invoked by the offscreen narrator to explain why the Claus family look almost the same today as they did back in their medieval hut.)

The main message of the film, oft-repeated and heavy-handed, is simple: there are no naughty kids, just kids who have been overlooked or misunderstood. So, target one is the old-school Santa practice of divvying up the list of kids into naughty and nice. Fred's guerilla tactics on behalf of neglected siblings shakes things up at the North Pole. But Santa's also fighting the black-coated "efficiency expert" (brilliantly played by Kevin Spacey) who wants to find any excuse to shut him down. So, like most Christmas movies, this one pits heart and humanity against cold misanthropy. Guess which wins?

But there's another interesting subtext that runs throughout the film, which serves as a kind of corollary to the updating of childrearing philosophy: it's very pro-exercise and anti-fat. For instance, when Fred's working as a repo man, he tells the little girl who complains that he's removing her flat screen TV that she should play outside and do sports. Everyone makes jokes about Santa's weight problem, and he's so fat that throwing snowballs gets him winded. And the simple toys the elves make in their all-nighter are athletic, too: baseball bats and hula hoops. It's clear that Santa's responsibility to eat all the cookies set out for him are what's hindering his health, and that maybe we should start putting out carrot sticks instead.

I'm not criticizing this element in the film -- it seems more positive than a lot of the usual holiday ideology -- but it was the fact that I could agree with it that got me noticing. Yeah, Santa's fat and probably heading into diabetes, and kids who get into fights are probably misunderstood, or mistreated at home. I accept those ideas without much question. I just haven't figured out what else I might have been absorbing as I watched this movie.

Other than the simple happiness of a holiday movie that actually is fun for grownups, even if it's about Santa.