Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Informal Academic Job Market

I wrote the following on my old blog four years ago, and it's as relevant now as ever.  With May here all kinds of academic departments will be hiring, just not in public.


It's been awhile since I've talked about the academic job crisis in these pages, but recent things I've observed and heard about merit comment. I've been reminded this week that the month of May is an intense one in the academic job world, but one you won't discover in the jobs section of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Oh yes, many jobs are being offered and taken right now, but very few of them have been advertized.

Here's the deal: at the end of the school year, department chairs have to scramble to fill all the slots in their introductory level classes in the Fall. Because of hiring freezes, this year the gap between class sessions that need to be taught and the number of faculty on hand will be quite severe. However, department chairs can safely rely upon the large reserve army of unemployed academics to take low paying adjunct work at the last minute. They never have to look far. Just as a contractor knows the corners where the day laborers wait and can be hired for low wages, department heads have a steady supply of newhomegrown MAs and PhDs who need work and are willing to teach classes for peanuts and without benefits.

The key to the informal job market is to be at the right place at the right time. Most department chairs want to put as little work as possible into finding the warm bodies necessary to fill in the classroom gaps. In the past I have witnessed patently incompetent people get jobs simply because of desperation on the part of department chairs. These incompetents (who are a minority of adjuncts, btw) then managed to retain their jobs because it was just too much bother to replace them with someone who knew what they were doing. The quality of education received by the students very rarely factors into the equation. Even worse, the naked exploitation of a captive labor force making poverty-line wages never, ever seems to make those doing the hiring lose any sleep.

As the formal job market gets worse with each passing year, the informal market will only get bigger. The math is pretty simple, actually: tenure track positions keep getting scarcer, but enrollments are still growing. Until we shine a light on the informal market and force the same "accountability" on university administrators that's being forced on faculty by them, in no time at all the "formal" market will be a thing of the past.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Bundy And Sterling Make Us All Too Comfortable

The racist words of Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling have justifiably raised hackles across the land.  In a sense, however, their blunt bigotry has allowed the nation the breathe a collective sigh of relief.  It is so much easier and cheaper to discuss racism as something spewing from troglodytes like Bundy and Sterling, rather than talking about the much messier (and more damaging) institutional racism in this country.  I am afraid that in the broad outcry against these two men we are rushing to avoid deeper questions.

In fact, these two men are both great illustrations of institutional racism at work, and that fact ought to be playing a bigger part in our discourse on them.  In Sterling's case he had to pay the federal government a large settlement after being accused of striving to keep African Americans and Latinos from living in some of his housing developments.  Residential segregation is sadly an old story in this country, and something that has helped contribute greatly to wealth disparities.  As awful as Sterling's words were, his housing decisions were at least ten times more damaging and damning.  And yet for some reason his behavior in this regard received a fraction of the media coverage that his ignorant tirades have garnered.

In Bundy's case the connection to institutional racism is less direct, but no less profound.  Bundy is essentially claiming the right to graze his animals on federal land for free.  Even if he actually bothered to pay the fees, he would be paying well below market rates, a huge giveaway for ranchers.  Not only do we not refer to ranchers as "welfare queens," our media often plays them up as rugged individualists.  The ranchers who benefit greatly from this system are overwhelmingly white, as are the farmers who rake in federal subsidies.  Those facts are the result of the influence of white supremacist politicians on New Deal legislation back in the 1930s.  I doubt a black man brandishing a gun at law enforcement officers in the cause of getting access to public land without paying would receive fawning media attention, either.  Instead of being met with the praise of Fox News and the like, he would have a fusillade of hot lead to look forward to.

Bundy and Sterling aren't just unreconstructed bigots, they are both all too apt illustrations of the all-pervasive structural power of racism in this country.  That subject, however, tends to make people (especially white people) uncomfortable, and it is certainly more divisive.  When the supreme court struck a blow against affirmative action last week, public reaction was decidedly mixed, with mainstream conservative sources like Fox News praising the decision.  These same outlets have been running as fast as they can from Cliven Bundy after his remarks, even though they made him into a media figure and exalted his defiance.  His and Sterling's words are considered universally repugnant, but Sterling's racist business practices have barely registered.  Isn't about time that we focus on racist actions over racist words?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Track Of The Week: Bruce Springsteen, "Dancing In The Dark"

Over the last week or so I have been on a big Bruce Springsteen jag, and have listened intensely to albums and songs that I took for granted years ago.  I've been especially struck by "Dancing In The Dark," the first Springsteen song I was ever really aware of.

From the summer of 1984 to the spring of 1986, songs from Born In The USA ruled the airwaves, making the former scruffy poet of Asbury Park into a massive pop star along the lines of Madonna, Michael Jackson, or Prince.  (And not to sound like a bitter old man, but that lineup beats the heck out of what dominates the charts today.)  He gained a lot of new fans in the mainstream who had little idea of his older material, and that was hardly a mistake.  "Dancing In The Dark," which announced Springsteen's presence as a pop star, has all the hallmarks of Top 40 in 1984.  Synthesizers carry the melody, reverby guitar is merely a texture, Clarence Clemons' once brash sax just coos a little at the end, and driving things forward is a propulsive beat from an electronically enhanced snare drum.  The accompanying video made the bid for popularity that much more apparent.  It shows The Boss grinning sillily, dancing around on stage and then bringing a young Courtney Cox out of the audience to cut the rug with him.  This was my first impression of Bruce Springsteen, and had no clue this man was capable of wrenching songs like "The River" and "Highway Patrolman."

It could be easy to listen to this song and think that Springsteen had sold out, but I actually think its sound makes it more subversive.  The musical textures are appropriately bright, but there are lots of dark undertones.  This is a song of hope prompted by complete lonely desperation, beginning with the great, almost frantic lines "I get up in the evening/ and I ain't got nothing to say/ I get home in the morning/ I go to bed feeling the same way/ I ain't nothing but tired/ nothing but tired and bored with myself."  The song's narrator seems to be trying to romance someone, but is losing his cool and just pouring out his emotions because he doesn't have anyone to talk to.  Just because the song has the same jaunty, shiny feel as other 1984 tunes (like say "Tenderness") that doesn't change its dark core.  By taking one of his tales of loneliness but wrapping it in an upbeat sound and drenched with 80s studio magic, Springsteen may have made a subtly subversive song a big hit.

Regardless of how well it's aged, I still enjoy "Dancing In The Dark."  Whenever I listen to this song it reminds me of the times in my life where I've moved alone to a new town, feeling cut off and desperate.  Since I've made these moves either as a graduate student or junior academic, it's also meant being poor and being far away from anyone I know.  It's something I've done way too many times in my life, but thankfully I'll never have to do again.  Listening to this song makes it easy not to feel nostalgia for being young and single, since it's a good reminder of just how miserable that lifestyle could make me.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Hidden Cost Of Contingency

A friend of mine of Facebook is about to leave his second temporary gig in as many years, and posted a comment from his student evaluations: "This is the best class I have had in college so far."  On this same day, the last for the seniors in my elective class, one of them came up to me to let me know how much he appreciated having me as a teacher.  I have taught many in this group of seniors for three years now, and it has been one of the great pleasures of my life to see them develop and help them along the way.  My academic friend will never get to do that, because he has to hit the pavement and find another gig.

His story reminded me of my last day of my visiting assistant professor gig.  I wore an ascot to class on a bet between two of my colleagues over who among us would be the first to score a tenure-track job.  The students in my class that day were a memorable bunch, one of the best classes I've ever had.  They asked me why I was leaving, and felt hurt, as if I someone was rejecting them.  I had to then explain that I was not a "real" professor, and had to go somewhere else if I wanted to be one.  I had proved myself in that job, had developed a loyal student following, and liked the city where the university was located and wanted to stay there, but in the end, that didn't really matter.

One of the hidden costs of contingency is never being a full member of a university community.  It doesn't just mean not having a voice or a seat at the table, it means not being allowed to develop long-term student relationships.  I came back to the university where I VAPed two years later for a conference, and one of my favorite former students was there, who had sent me some punk rock mix CDs after I moved to my t-t job in Texas.  It was great to catch up with him but bittersweet, knowing that I only knew him as an intro-level student, and never got to teach him in any upper-level electives.  At the place where I taught, like so many others, first year students were introduced to college-level disciplines by temporary laborers who would be long gone by the time they graduated.  Perhaps some of those students were confused the next year when they looked for our names in the course catalog and couldn't find them.  We were ghosts hovering over the commencement ceremony, I hope fondly remembered.

Monday, April 21, 2014

When Cable Sucked

Many things about our 21st century existence never cease to amaze me, and I am not talking about the device in my pocket that can be a computer, phone, and hold my entire music collection.  I am equally amazed at the vastly superior quality of coffee and beer in this country compared to three decades ago, and with the rise of basic cable television to respectability.  I want to talk about the latter today, because back in the 1980s few could have imagined shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men even existing, much less on the lowly and much-maligned medium of basic cable.

In the first place, the cable pre-history before digitization meant only a limited number of channels were available, and there was no "guide" function to tell you what was on.  My mother is an assiduous neat freak, and as a child I had to watch the TV listings section of the local Saturday paper like a hawk, lest my mother toss it out with the rest of the newspaper.  (Her TV watching habits are so regular, rare, and narrow that she never needed the listings.)  Much of what was on consisted of cast-off, unwanted crap from the networks.  The reruns were often shows so slight that they never made it to network syndication, and the movies of B-grade quality.  Cable was so scuzzy that they had their own awards show (The Ace Awards) because no cable show was ever going to win an Emmy.

It's hard to say when exactly cable started getting respectable.  It became less of a joke roughly between 1987 and 1991, dates that marked the advent of NFL games on ESPN and CNN's coverage of the Gulf War, respectively.  I miss my old low-rent cable, and here are some reasons why:

Cubs and Braves Games
My love of baseball was nourished by WGN and TBS, since they were so starved for programming back then that they broadcast all of the Cubs and Braves games, respectively.  I really learned about baseball by listening to Steve Stone's commentary during Cubs games, and to this day will watch games played at Wrigley on TV just to rekindle old childhood memories.  Oddly enough, the experience never turned me into a fan of either team.  I got sad in later years when both networks cut back on their baseball coverage.

USA Up All Night
My love of guilty cinematic pleasures and so-bad-it's-good movies originates in many a Friday and Saturday night spent watching the fare on USA Up All Night hosted by Gilbert Gottfried on Saturday and Rhonda Shear on Friday.

Music Videos On MTV
I read an oral history of MTV a couple of years ago, and realized that the folks behind MTV were ingenious because they got their programming for free.  The record labels paid for all of those videos, which were much more interesting and compelling than anything any one cable company could have afforded to produce at the time.  I've written a lot about music videos on this blog, suffice to say that they captured my youthful imagination like little else at the time.

Odd Movies
Every now and again I will be flipping channels and see that a cable station in running a Star Wars or Indiana Jones marathon.  Such a thing would have been a complete impossibility in the days of old cable.  On old cable you'd be much more likely to see a Billy Jack or Walking Tall marathon.  Yes those movies are silly by comparison, but they are damn hoot, something there's just too little of these days.

Odd Sports
Before ESPN was the "Worldwide Leader" they filled their hours with roller derby, monster trucks, kick boxing, and Australian rules football.  My dad and I loved to watch these events together, it was a real bonding experience for us.  We especially loved Australian rules football, a sport that combines some of the best attributes of football, soccer, and rugby.  The international programming that ESPN resorted to probably made me a more cosmopolitan, broad-minded person.

Old School CNN Headline News
I was a huge lonely nerd as a kid and abnormally obsessed with the news.  Our local podunk paper had little international news, so I loved watching CNN, back when it was a hard news channel with a heavy emphasis on global events.  I liked Headline News best, since I could get a thirty minute newscast any time of the day, complete with sports highlights at 19 and 49 minutes after the hour.  I was bored and living in the middle of nowhere, so there was nothing more exciting than seeing footage of things like the anti-poll tax protests in Britain or the Ayatollah's funeral.  This once humble channel, which is now a haven for bad morning shows and Nancy Grace, did a lot to educate me about world events.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Track Of The Week: Blind Willie Johnson, "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground"

Last night I was motivated by Good Friday to sit down and watch Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew.  It's an amazing film in that Pasolini takes the techniques of Italian realism (spare dialogue, non-actors, stark black and white imagery) and applies them to the story of Jesus, which usually gets the gaudy Technicolor treatment of the likes of Ben-Hur, King of Kings, and The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Although Pasolini's sexuality, religion, and politics make him an unlikely chronicler of Jesus (he was a gay Marxist atheist), the film might be the most moving depiction of the Christ story I've ever seen on film.  In this rendering Jesus is both mysterious and utterly relatable, a slight-looking fellow with intense eyes and a fervent manner of speaking.  He comes across as a determined revolutionary, barely concealing his fury at those who refuse to help their fellow humans even while preaching love.  (Pasolini's politics are pretty close to the surface in this regard.)

Just as the filming techniques are unorthodox, so is the soundtrack, which uses passages from 20th century music.  The most effective in this regard is a snippet from Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground," which is a lamentation for Jesus lying dead in the tomb on the evening of Good Friday.  Johnson was a Texas bluesman who may have been the greatest artist of the slide guitar that there has ever been.  It's actually hard to call him a bluesman, since he sang Gospel and devotional songs, but with blues accompaniment and a deep, gravelly voice that gave his words of heaven an unusual earthiness.

"Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" has no words, only an unearthly slide guitar that sounds like it's a transmission from Mars, rather than Texas in the 1920s, and Johnson's emotive, wordless singing.  It puts chills down my spine every time, and reminds me of the pain I felt as a child when I went to do the stations of the cross on Good Friday.  Each year I mourned as if Jesus had died that day, and while my piety is much less intense as an adult, I am still moved when I think of a man who did so much for others dying in such a horrible way, abandoned by most of his own disciples.  As a child I was always haunted by the fact that Jesus himself cried out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  Forget your hymns, "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" is the only song I know that articulates the utter and complete despair of the crucifixion.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Heartland Doesn't Want To Be Saved

I've always winced at the term "heartland" because I grew up there.  Locals deployed it constantly, affecting a kind of moral superiority over the more supposedly wicked and less righteous parts of the country.  It seemed to me an evasion of a grim reality, like the scion of an impoverished noble family trotting out his coat of arms and wearing a flea-bitten ermine coat.  In reality the "Heartland" is a backwater not at the heart of much of anything in this country whose population loss has occasioned plenty of talk about what can be done to revive it.  Those who have a stake in Great Plains (a term I prefer) like myself know that it is a region in dire circumstances.

Timothy Egan, who knows the area well, wrote the latest entry in this venerable genre in the New York Times last week.  I agreed with much of what he had to say. He noted that irrigation-heavy agriculture is sucking the Ogallala Aquifer dry, and that the recent wave of immigrants from Latin American and Asia to the Plains needs to be encouraged, in order to bring new blood and arrest the alarming population decline in the area.  He could also have added that the proposed Trans-Canada pipeline would cut right through the Aquifer, and a blow-out would effectively destroy the whole area's water supply.

However, I feel Egan missed something crucial, which I know to be true: the Heartland doesn't want to be saved.  If you dare bring up the aquifer's depletion and the need for conservation you'll be treated like a communist.  For more evidence of a lack of desire to change, look no further than how many of the locals are treating recent immigrants.  Instead of welcoming them with open arms, ecstatic that an area that's literally dying off is getting a fresh infusion of young people, immigrants are being met with ugly nativist and racist pushback.  States like Kansas and towns like Fremont, Nebraska, are passing laws intended to drive immigrants from the area and make it harder for them to vote.

What about the youth who grow up on the Plains, you ask?  Those who get an education tend to get the hell out at their first convenience.  They might stick close to home, in places like Omaha, Denver, or Kansas City, but those cities are increasingly foreign to their rural hinterlands.  There are few job opportunities for young educated ruralites, and the culture of the area is so oppressively conservative that those who aren't Republicans, aren't straight, aren't religious, and aren't interested in maintaining a 1950s version of gender roles do not feel welcome.  Of course, the locals actually tend to see that as an asset rather than a curse, since it keeps things just the way they like it.  To say otherwise would challenge the aforementioned sense of moral superiority.

Despite all of this I can't help but love my Nebraska homeland, its wide vistas, laid-back attitude, and lack of pretension.  Whenever I go home I mark in my head just how much emptier and more lifeless it seems with each passing visit.  It makes me sad, especially when I recall my faint memories of how vibrant my hometown was before the farm crisis of the 1980s.  Like an alcoholic friend who refuses to admit they had a problem, the "Heartland" will only heal when it realizes it needs healing.  Don't count on that happening any time soon.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

My Baggage At The Grand Budapest Hotel

I had off work today because of Passover, and my wife only had a half day at her school.  This meant that with the girls at day care, we would actually be able to go out on a date by ourselves.  We saw a matinee of The Grand Budapest Hotel, which we both enjoyed.

My enjoyment was bittersweet, however.  The historical Central European setting reminded me that I had once studied German history (and European history more broadly) for well over a decade.  I developed a real love of the lesser known period of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and while the film takes place in the early 1930s, the main characters (Zero and M. Gustave) both long to return to the world before the Great War.  That sense of having been ripped away from a more comfortable world feels very real to me.

In recent years my bitterness towards my time in academia has infected my feelings towards my former field of study.  I read a lot of American history these days, and little European history, mostly because it reminds me that my dream of being a scholar of nineteenth-century Germany ended in disaster.  I teach mostly American history at my school, and I'm just fine with that.  I've dreaded ever having to talk about my dissertation ever again, and find myself feeling actual loathing towards it.

Watching The Grand Budapest Hotel reminded me that I still do truly love Central European history and literature.  (When I heard that the film had been inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig, I knew I had to see it.)  I've written some book reviews on my field in recent years, and each time I felt my mind working in familiar and happy ways.  Despite those positive experiences, I haven't been able to stop transferring my bitter anger towards my old profession towards what I used to study.  I really and truly would like to continue some of my old research (I've got a long-completed journal article gathering dust), hopefully I can unburden my baggage and allow myself to enjoy something that once gave me such pleasure.  The film is in many ways about holding onto what's good in the past when life and fate conspire against us, I think I can gather some inspiration from that.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Notes On A Trip To Branch Brook Park

Spring has finally sprung here in New Jersey, which meant I spent a lot of this weekend with my daughters outdoors.  On Saturday my wife and I decided to take them to Branch Brook Park, a massive, beautiful landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in Newark that juts into neighboring Belleville.  We were married in nearby St. Lucy's church and had our wedding photos taken in the park, so it was a sentimental journey of sorts.  Although the park has lost some of its glory over the years (I remember the photographer having to get a stray condom in the grass out of the shot,) it's still a wonderful place, and still draws plenty of people.  We walked our giddy daughters along its path, saying hi to the other strollers and enjoying an island of fresh air in north Jersey's tangle of expressways and traffic.

Instead of taking the Garden State Parkway to Branch Brook, we decided to explore the backroads through South Orange, Orange, and East Orange.  (Northern New Jersey is a bewildering patchwork of towns akin to the Holy Roman Empire.)  I began to notice that these towns, like Branch Brook Park itself, were the product of the period between 1890 and 1930.  I began to feel sentimental because that also happened to be the heyday of my rural Nebraska homeland before its long slow decline.  The architecture of these towns too reminded me of my hometown: elegant yet tidy.  There were flourishes, cornices, and bits of whimsy among the brickwork that modernism later killed in favor of sterility.

The industrial growth of the time was cruel and sometimes horrific in its inequalities, but at least it left behind some nice things.  Enough of a public-minded spirit existed to build something like Branch Brook Park in the first place.  If such land was up for grabs these days I am sure it would be turned into a subdivision, corporate office park, or a line of strip malls.  Many of the old buildings in impoverished East Orange have fallen into disrepair, but beneath it all their lovely bones live on, and the city still has its gorgeous city hall it can be proud of.

We live today in a new Gilded Age, one of ridiculous wealth next to grinding poverty.  However, public-mindedness has not persisted, and public institutions are under increasing attack, especially schools.  The new wealthy do not build elegantly, but in a vulgar and ostentatious fashion.  Our era is alarming in it frivolousness and impermanence.  When we are dead and gone there will be little built in our time left around.  I'm still willing to bet that Branch Brook Park will still be there, though.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Track of the Week: Depeche Mode, "Enjoy The Silence"

Every now and then I make an effort to dig up beloved music from my past that for some reason or another I haven't listened to for awhile.  Recently I gave Depeche Mode's 1990 classic Violator a spin, the second CD that I ever bought.

I was particularly struck by "Enjoy the Silence," the song that got me to buy the album in the first place.  Back in 1990, there wasn't a whole lot of good music on the Top 40.  Sure, there were some classic hip-hop records, but to hear that music I had to rush home from school to catch the tail end of Yo!  MTV Raps.  Because of the local Musicland's draconian enforcement of the parental warning labels requiring ID proof that the purchaser was 18 years of age, many of those records were out of reach for me.  (Thank goodness for a friend who dubbed his copy of Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet onto a blank tape for me.)

Rap music was where it was at for me, and I was one of the few people in rural Nebraska to be listening to Eric B and Rakim on a daily basis.  In the early summer of 1990 I spent many a lazy afternoon glued to the MTV tube, and in between forgettable crud like Poison's "Unskinny Bop" and faddish hits like MC Hammer's "Can't Touch This" I would see the video for Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence."  Its synthesizer and reverb guitar sound would soon be made obsolete by the coming of grunge a year later, but in June of 1990 it was a cooler, more artistic form of pop music than Billy Idol singing "Rock the Cradle of Love."

As a shy and retiring fourteen year old I appreciated the song's basic message, that words are inherently hurtful, and silence a blessing.  Today the lyrics of the song seem a little-heavy handed to my cynical, hard-bitten early middle-aged ears, but the atmospherics of its electro-soundscape still intrigues me.  Depeche Mode was never a true pop band, nor an underground darling, either.  However, on this song they managed to find an irresistable pop hook, something that gave an isolated kid on rural kid a small bit of pleasure in an ocean of cultural refuse.  I loved the song so much that I bought it on cassingle even though I already had the CD.  It was like a secret message in a bottle sent to my lonely rural island, and a reminder today that as much I love music now, it can never truly mean as much for me as it meant back then.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A List of Memorable VHS Boxes

While I was writing my last post on my old video store, I got to thinking about the long-dead practice of shelf-scanning.  Sometimes I'd go into the store not knowing what I wanted, or what I did want was checked out.  That meant scanning the shelves for something to watch, an activity that I never stopped enjoying.  Some of those VHS boxes were so memorable that I can recall them today, even though I did never get around to seeing the films themselves.  In most cases these were B-movies that needed a flashy image to get noticed.  Here's my list, feel free to add your own in the comments.

Silent Night, Deadly Night, 1984

As a child the thought of an axe-murdering Santa really disturbed me, but I could not stop looking at this box.

Joysticks, 1983
1981's Porky's spawned a whole genre of "boob comedies" in the early to mid-80s that were perfect for the home video market, especially for those who wanted some titillation and cheap laughs but not hardcore pornography.  The young me was simultaneously thrilled and scared by this box, which was raunchier than most in the boob comedy genre.

The Empire Strikes Back, 1980
I never had to rent this film because I taped it off of TV during its first ever broadcast and then wore that tape thin.  However, I just loved this cover, with the romantic embrace of Han and Leia.  The human element of the Star Wars was never more evident.

National Lampoon's Vacation, 1983
Remember when Chevy Chase was cool?  It was a long time ago, and this was him at his coolest, as far as I was concerned as a kid.  The Star Wars parody of the image on the front was perhaps the first time that I "got" a pop culture reference.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch, 1982
This flick is legendarily bad, and doesn't even feature death-machine Mike Myers.  I've never seen it, but as a kid I found the silhouetted trick or treaters to be especially eerie.

Friday the 13th Part III, 1982
I've always hated slasher flicks (they're usually dehumanizing, misogynistic, and sexually regressive), but many of their VHS boxes intrigued me.  For some reason the image of the bloody blade sticking through the shower curtain, which in retrospect looks tacky, always stuck in my head.  (I guess the movie was in 3-D, so the blade coming out was part of the whole 3-D effects of the film.)

The Pirate Movie, 1982
Here's another legendarily bad movie, this one starring teen idols Kristy McNichol and Christopher Atkins on the downslope of their careers.  As a kid I was much confused by the combination of the Jolly Roger with naked youth.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ode To A Video Store

I've spent a lot of time lately thinking about much the landscape of daily life has changed in the last decade of digital disruption.  It's been especially strange to see the destruction of Blockbuster, the behemoth that destroyed local video stores back in the 1990s.  As late as 2004 it looked to bestride the earth like a Colossus forevermore, now it's gone.  I refuse to weep a tear for that wretched chain, with its philistine insistence on fullscreen movies, censorship, and strong-arm late fee collections.  However, I do mourn the local video store, mostly because I have been lucky to enjoy some truly great ones in my life.  My favorite, That's Rentertainment in Champaign-Urbana, thankfully still stands.  Sadly, Video Kingdom, my cinematic lifeline in my isolated small Nebraska hometown, still sells electronic equipment, but no longer rents movies.

Its fate was intimately tied to the mall where it was located, a mall that might as well have tumbleweeds blowing through it nowadays.  Back when I was growing up it echoed with laughter and the sound of kettle corn popping at Karmelkorn in the Food Court.  You could spot Video Kingdom at the mall because it had one of those huge knight in armor mock-ups standing out front.  I was going there so long ago that I can remember a time when the boxes on the shelves had two colors of tags in the back that you'd take to get your tape at the counter: blue for VHS and yellow for beta.  The tape did not come home in the shiny video box (remember, those tapes cost a king's ransom back then), but in a brown container in the bland color style so beloved in America circa 1984.  (My family bought a brown 1984 Chevy conversion van, so it's a color I knew well back then.)

Although there was a rival video store opened across town shortly later, Video Kingdom would still always be hopping.  In a town with few entertainment options, it was an embarrassment of riches.  I also wonder nowadays if its proprietor was a film buff, because I was able to get my hands on lots of things that were fairly obscure, and which never would have come to the threeplex at the mall theater.  (Not only did it only show the most mainstream fare, it often took weeks or even months for movies to show up there.  I am little ashamed to admit that I drove thirty miles to see Forrest Gump with friends in another town in 1994.)  By the time I reached high school I religiously watched Siskel and Ebert, and read magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone.  I would often hear and read rave reviews of films that did not come within 100 miles of where I lived.  Without fail, I could find them at Video Kingdom.

Because of Video Kingdom I was able to rent Reservoir Dogs, the first contemporary film I'd seen that suggested something wildly different from the narrow limits of mainstream Hollywood.  I was able to see Do The Right Thing, perhaps the first film I watched that really forced me to think about how life was lived outside of the confines of my Nebraska homeland.  Video Kingdom stocked Short Cuts, a movie that began my lifelong love of Robert Altman.  One weekend my parents were out of town, and instead of throwing a party (no one would have come, anyway) I rented Taxi Driver, a film I knew would be so gritty and violent that I dare not see it in my parents' presence.  It both thoroughly shocked and excited me in ways I didn't know movies could do.  My best friend and I watched Blade Runner and Apocalypse Now! avidly, my friend going so far as to tape some of the audio track on cassette and play it in his car's tape deck.  I was a social outcast and a bit of a weirdo in high school, but having access to these films made me feel special and smart, like someone who was in on something that other people could not possible understand.  Without that video store, I would not have had such a comforting past-time, nor would my love of cinema be so well-developed today.

Of course, if I was a teenager in my hometown today I wouldn't need a video store to give me access to these things.  Netflix has pretty much any movie you could ever want.  It would have made my process of discovery easier, but by being easier, much cheaper and less thrilling.  At a time when I needed to believe that my being a misfit was actually a sign that I had transcended my surroundings, the local video store gave me hope.  For that I owe it my eternal gratitude.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Loaded Meaning Of My Grad School Newsletter

It's been almost three years since I have left academia, and my happiness with my current life is so total that I rarely, if ever, feel bad about being gone from it.  However, there are strange, mundane events that have the capacity to trigger regret and bitterness in ways that I just can't seem to control.  One such event happened yesterday, when my mail contained the quarterly newsletter/magazine (it's way too glossy to be a newsletter) from my old grad program.  I was initially going to toss it aside, but for some reason started flipping through it, and I was powerless to stop the tide of ill-feeling washing over me.

I generally actually have very positive feelings about my time in grad school.  I made an amazing group of friends, learned a lot, broadened my mind, and lived in a place with plenty to do which also happened to be livable on a TA's salary.  There was even some sweetness to match the bitter taste in my mouth when I flipped the pages of the newsletter.  It was good to see the familiar faces of the professors, and sad to read the obituary of a prof whose classes I never took but knew well because he was just an all-around good person.

All the same, I could not get over the fact that I was holding in my hands a clear erasure of reality and the lived experience of so many people so close to me.  Turning newsletter's glossy pages you'd never guess that so many of the department's graduates are suffering so badly right now.  I don't begrudge my old department their need to promote themselves, and of course they want to project an image of success.  However, that newsletter was a vivd reminder that my grad program, like so many others, sent scores of its graduates straight into the maw of our Moloch-like academic job market, only to be quickly forgotten about if they ended up quitting the life or mired in contingent hell.

Everyone back there remembers the success stories, the students who have gone on to good jobs and impressive institutions.  Nobody remembers the failure stories, despite their mounting number.  One article focused on this year's crop of incoming graduate students, and as I looked at their faces, I wondered what they were being told about their chances, and whether my experience and those of so many other of my fellow graduates had simply been erased.  I get the feeling that such willful forgetting is happening in a lot of graduate programs, which will no doubt reap another bitter harvest in the years to come.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Revisiting the Fantasy Films of the Early 1980s

Tonight I finally got around to watching the first of the new Hobbit flicks.  (Parenthood made seeing it in the theater last year a non-starter.)  It got me thinking about how robust the fantasy genre has been since the first Lord of the Rings films came out in 2001, after years of being B-grade straight to video fodder.  If you would have told someone in 1994 that twenty years later that big-budget adaptations of works by Tolkien and George RR Martin had been made into hugely successful films in the case of the former and an acclaimed and popular television show in the latter case, they would have thought you were nuts.  This has been part of a general nerding of American popular culture, where comic book-inspired films have joined fantasy in the multiplexes and computers are cool, not geeky.  It has not always been thus, of course.  A few years ago on my old blog I discussed how there had been an attempt to bring fantasy mainstream in the early 1980s, and speculated as to why it didn't take at that time.  Here's what I had to say:


Looking back on it, I'm struck at the number of fantasy films released during the early 1980s. Here's but a cursory list: Dragonslayer, Krull, Beastmaster, Excalibur, The Dark Crystal, Heavy Metal (I count it as fantasy, at least), and the genre's cream, Conan the Barbarian. I didn't notice at the time, since I was starting to get into D&D and was reading fantasy novels (particularly the Dragonlance series) in the mid-to-late eighties, it all seemed so natural for these movies to be crowding the shelves at the video store. (Perhaps this proliferation of these films even helped spark my interest in the games and books.)

How to explain this sudden spurt in sword and sorcery? Part of it might come from the growing popularity of role playing games at the time, as Dungeons and Dragons burst onto the scene in the 70s. (Hollywood always wants to jump onto the latest trend picked up by The Kids.) Some of it, I think, grew out of the counter-culture's embrace of Tolkien, and the general New Age interest in magic and paganism. Most of all, however, the new spate of fantasy films was enabled by the massive success of the Star Wars films. Although it could technically by classified as "science fiction," the Star Wars saga derives its true power from its inherently mythic nature. The Force is a kind of magic, Obi Wan a Merlin, the lightsaber a sword from the stone etc. (I'm not saying anything Joseph Campbell hasn't said before.)

George Lucas thus inadvertantly paved the way for a slew of films featuring magic, sword wielding mythic heroes, and quests. The death of New Hollywood and its cinematic realism along with the heretofore unimaginable success of films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars made Hollywood see big bucks in escapism. Funnily enough, this meant that formerly B movie genres like fantasy and sci-fi finally got made with real budgets.

The burst in fantasy films would be short-lived, however. I blame it on the failures of 1984's Conan the Destroyer and 1985's Red Sonja, which made it hard for Hollywood to keep pouring dollars into what had long been considered a low-end genre. In fact, I can't think of a major fantasy film hit between 1982's Conan the Barbarian and 2001's Fellowship of the Ring. (And no, Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time doesn't count.) The original Highlander is about the only thing that comes close, and the highly hyped Willow didn't live up to expectations.

It's hard to say what the fantasy films of the early eighties say about their time, or at least a lot harder than interpreting slasher and post-apocalyptic. I would say that fantasy worlds are always past worlds, even if they are in another world, like Middle Earth. They are roughly medieval, bereft of gunpowder and modern technology, and most importantly, still enchanted. Because these settings are the bedrock of the genre, fantasy expresses a deep seated ambivalence about modernity. (This, by the way, is why Luke Sykwalker must destroy the technological terror of the Death Star not with his targeting computer, but with his "feelings.") Just as post-apocalyptic movies exhibited a pessimism about the future, fantasy displays a disenchantment with the present. As the economy recovered and faith in the nation revived in the mid-80s (as can be seen in films from Top Gun to Red Dawn), the retreat to an imagined past offered by fantasy became less attractive. The deeper meaning of fantasy and its ambivalence towards the present might explain (beyond the film's obvious quality) how The Fellowship of the Ring became the first cinematic sensation after 9/11.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Track of the Week: Buffalo Springfield, "Bluebird"

Every now and then I have a strange experience where an artist whose music I have known for years but never loved suddenly becomes a favorite.  This happened to me a few years back with Tom Waits, who I appreciated but didn't embrace until I suddenly had to be listening to him every day, all the time.  Something has been happening to me recently on a smaller scale with Buffalo Springfield.  I have always really liked "For What It's Worth" and "Mr. Soul," but never rated the rest of their output that highly, preferring to think of them as the early proving ground for Neil Young and Stephen Stills before they went on to bigger and better things.

For some reason I've always associated their music with springtime, and I put on their greatest hits album on my iPod for my walk home from the train station the other day, and since then have listened to practically nothing else.  Whatever it is, Buffalo Springfield has totally clicked with, and songs I used to listen to passively are new favorites.

"Bluebird" is one that has really stuck with me, and is a good example of the Springfield's uniqueness.  Part of the reason I had a hard time fully embracing them is that they really don't sound like anything else.  There are flashes of psychedelia, folk, Americana, and baroque pop, but the band never fully conforms to any of those genres, and is prone to switching gears completely mid-song, especially on "Bluebird."  It starts with a searing Stills guitar line that jumps in and out of an absolutely gorgeous curtain of acoustic guitars and trebly singing before slowly breaking down like a pick up truck on side of the highway in need of a dose of forty weight.  The acoustic guitar then inexplicably rocks out, and it's a sound that is so rooted in the late 1960s but yet sounds quite like nothing else at the time.  "Bluebird" takes another break in the middle, giving way to an old-timey banjo figure that sounds like Bill Monroe by way of Sgt. Pepper, which quietly and beautifully plays the song out.  It's a daring move, and one that used to confound me.  I have somehow seen the light, because I have listened to this song about ten times today, marveling at both the uniqueness of the sound and the deftness of the changes.

Musical moments like this cheer me, since it's a revival of the feeling of discovery I used to get a lot more in my youth, which is less common these days when it's hard for me to find anything new under the sun to give me the same buzz I got when I first heard "Fight the Power" or Copper Blue.  It's just really odd to get that feeling from a 45 year old song, and one I've heard many times over.  Strange, but I'll take it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

My Marriage Of Convenience to the Democratic Party Is On The Rocks

My political party affiliations have changed over the years.  As a child I considered myself a Republican, mostly because that's what my parents were.  In my teens I realized that my evolving political ideals bore no resemblance whatsoever to the GOP, and by the time I reached 17 I was calling myself a socialist with a small s.  Those inflamed adolescent ideas mellowed into the social democratic perspective that I've had since my early twenties.  If I lived in Germany I'd gladly throw my hat in with the SPD (or perhaps the Greens), but no such party exists in America.

In my youth I held the Democrats in low regard, and did not care all that much about their situation, even though I detested (and continue to detest) the conservative movement, which has pretty much held the Republican party captive for the past two decades.  The feeling was sealed by the Clinton administration.  I was just too young to vote in 1992, but would have voted for Clinton as the most representative option I had.  When he took office I had some hopes that his administration would begin to turn the tide against twelve years of Reagan/Bush and bring about positive change.  Instead Clinton focused on deficit reduction over social spending, welfare "reform," and generally triangulating his way to reelection rather than doing anything to improve the plight of the middle and working classes.  The bid for health care reform crashed and burned, and after that Clinton seemed to give up on any kind of progressive agenda.  During the last part of his presidency the country was consumed by a frivolous scandal related to his inability to control his own libido.  Yes it was overblown by his enemies, but if Clinton had kept it in his pants it would not have been an issue.

I am not sure where the current nostalgia for Clinton among progressives comes from.  It's probably related to the booming economy of the 1990s, but that economy grew in ways that exacerbated the wealth inequalities of the Reagan years, and made them worse, rather than better.  For that reason I gladly voted Nader in 2000.  People seem to forget that Gore's 2000 campaign carried barely a hint of anything bold or progressive.  Our country had a massive budget surplus, and he still wasn't willing to push for universal health care or new programs to alleviate poverty.

Ironically, it was the 2000 election that forced me into a shotgun marriage with the Democrats.  The Bush administration was so awful that it made Reagan's look preferable by comparison.  When Shrub spun his web of lies to get the country into war in Iraq I began to feel that I had to throw in my lot with the only political organization with the ability to stop him.  In 2003, for the first time, I really began to care about the fortunes of the Democratic party.  I followed their candidates and rooted for them to win.  Politics began to feel like a life or death struggle, and it was useless to sit on the sideline and feel like I was above it.

My investment only increased in 2008, when for the first time I voted for a presidential candidate with enthusiasm.  I didn't think Obama was perfect, but he seemed to be by far the most progressive candidate to get a Democratic nomination in my lifetime.  After eight long years of Bushworld he was a welcome breath of fresh air, and his election gave me hope that three decades of conservative dominance were coming to an end.  When he started his presidency with an honest-to-goodness economic stimulus plan, I felt vindicated in my vote.  The years of neoliberalism looked to finally be over.

Of course, that's around the time that the problems started.  Obama decided to give Congress a reduced stimulus and one full of tax cuts in the hopes that they would pass it.  This would the first of Obama's bad negotiations, where he gave away concessions before coming to the table with the idea that his opponents would just accept his charity and come to a quick agreement.  He realized much too late that his opponents wanted to destroy him, and had no interest whatsoever in compromise.  While the Affordable Healthcare Act is lauded these days as a major accomplishment, I see it as a huge missed opportunity.  The "public option" got excised from a plan hatched essentially by the Heritage Foundation which has been a huge gift to insurance companies.  We are still stuck with the unwieldy and unsustainable employment-based system, making the ACA at best a temporary patch.  I realize that much of this is due to the unreason and vehemence of Obama's political adversaries, but it does not excuse Democrats' cowardice.

At the same time, Obama has continued Bush's heinous NSA policies and has ordered deadly drone strikes around the world that have killed many innocent people.  He has actually increased the deportations of undocumented workers.  These are the kinds of things that led to my great antipathy towards the last president.  While I still generally like Obama on some level, I am slowly beginning to realize that it was a mistake for me to invest myself in and support the Democratic party.  Because it is beholden to corporate monied interests and the demands of American empire, it will never be a force for true change, just a second-best option in a rotten political game.  The Democrats' feeble, ineffectual nature is easy to see in this year's midterm election, where they stand to lose to a party that has gone insane.  The answer is simple: the Democrats are so tied to their rich donors that they can't reach out and do the types of things that will make their base happy.  Without having a reason to vote other than "the other guys are evil," it's no wonder that many registered Democrats will be staying home this November.

I usually like to think that I have become smarter with age, but when it comes to party affiliation I am beginning to think that my teenage self had it right all along.