Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Adventures in TAing, case 5 (in a ? case series)

It happens that some of the pop culture references I make just don't work, despite my best efforts to keep it as contemporary as possible. Maury and The Bachelorette - effective. Lost - not so much. More generally, I forget that they take certain trends for granted - that, for teenagers, there was never a time before Britney Spears or when slasher and date films weren't, to some degree, self-aware and being actively ironic.

And so, this came out of a discussion of the use of disability in genre films, where I suggested that genre films use physical disability to imply a correlating psychological or moral deformity:

Student 1: That's not true. In Scream, Dewey is disabled but we don't think he's the bad guy.
Neil: Sure, but Scream is an exception. It's poking fun at its genre.
Student 1: No, you're thinking of Scary Movie.
[Other students begin to nod and agree that I must be confusing Scream with Scary Movie.]
Neil: No, I mean Scream.
Student 1: Are we talking about the same movie?
Neil: Scream 1, 2, and 3. With Neve Campbell.
Student 2: With, you know, "Scream". The guy with the white mask.
Neil: With the black robe and the extended face.
Student 3: With Courtney Cox.
Neil: Yeah. It's making fun of horror movies.
[More rumblings that I must still be confusing Scream and Scary Movie.]
Neil: Doesn't anyone remember how all the characters are aware that they're in a horror movie? How they talk about it? How Neve Campbell says that the victims are bimbos who run up the stairs when they should run out the door - and then she runs up the stairs?
Student 1: I don't remember that.
[Looks of confusion and silence from the students]
Neil: Was anyone old enough to see it when it was first released?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The X-Men and identity politics #3: Jason Powell and the limits of mutant activism

Over on Geoff's blog, Jason Powell has been doing an amazing job of critiquing every issue in Chris Claremont's run on Uncanny X-Men. He's also caused me to reassess some of the things that I wrote in the paper that I have linked in the sidebar - to acknowledge some material that I had either ignored or forgotten. So this is write-up is something of a corrective post-script.

Jason has just wrapped up his analysis of UXM #235-8, a storyline set in the mutant-enslaving African nation of Genosha (not so subtly modeled on South Africa's apartheid state). This is not the same team of apologist and acculturationist X-Men from the Lee/Kirby or Claremont/Byrne days that I complained about. As Jason notes, this is a team that doesn't find a world order that's worth protecting and decides to attack it instead: "Wolverine’s oath to tear down an entire nation built on racism feels utterly right for an X-Men story. As if this is the kind of thing they should have been doing from Day One."

Jason's probably right, though I have to give him additional credit for having revealed both how gradual and convincing the slow transformation of the X-Men - on the level of individual character, Storm and Wolverine, but also the composition of the team itself - from an anti-mutant police force to a pro-mutant terrorist cell is achieved. And there's no denying that the team that tries to destory Genosha is composed of terrorists - sympathetic ones that should encourage us to avoid reductive explanations of terrorism, but terrorists nonetheless. Jason remarks that one of the issues - and I think this comment is applicable to the storyline as a whole - is "the apex of Claremont’s creativity and expression on the Uncanny X-Men series". It's also, sadly, an indication of the concept's limits.

The storyline completes the reversal that began with the old Brotherhood of Evil Mutants becoming the government-sanctioned super-team Freedom Force - the X-Men have, effectively, become the new Brotherhood. That Claremont could pull this off speaks volumes to his skill in building the transformation up slowly and carefully over a period of years, but it's telling that he blows the team up over the next 12 months. You can turn the X-Men into terrorists, but you can't then write an ongoing book about terrorist "heroes" who punish governments for human rights abuses. (At least, not until Warren Ellis and Mark Millar did so with The Authority, which feels as if it owes something to this version of Claremont's X-Men.)

Nor could Claremont, after writing such a convincing and inspiring change of direction, take a step-backward and return to superheroics-as-usual. And so, after the Inferno crossover that has nothing to do with politics and a couple of stand-alone issues, Nimrod reappears to kill Rogue, Wolverine and Longshot leave, Storm is thought dead, and the other four X-Men sacrifice themselves to escape certain death. And then Claremont builds the concept back up from the ground, (and, in so doing, creates something quite unlike what we've seen before) reunites and returns the group to face a different kind of Genoshan threat, and is summarily removed from the book.

But for those few months...

Friday, September 25, 2009

The creationist's guide to Darwin...

Kirk Cameron and company are releasing a new edition of Darwin's Origin of Species, including a new introduction (by Ray Comfort) that's full of non-sequiturs, fallacious arguments, and anecdotes from scientists-turned-Christians*. (And, occasionally, something kinda useful - like descriptions of Darwin's more problematic premises about women and race. Totally eschewing the fact that Darwin was actually quite the anti-racist in his time. And ignoring the fact that the Bible is far more misogynistic and racist than Darwin could have ever hoped to be. But I digress...)

The hits come early and don't stop coming. Take this ill-conceived metaphor for natural selection:

Consider for a moment whether you could ever believe
this publication happened by accident. Here’s the argument:
There was nothing. Then paper appeared, and ink fell from
nowhere onto the flat sheets and shaped itself into perfectly
formed letters of the English alphabet. Initially, the letters
said something like this: “fgsn&k cn1clxc dumbh cckvkduh
vstupidm ncncx.” As you can see, random letters rarely produce
words that make sense. But in time, mindless chance formed
them into the order of meaningful words with spaces between
them. Periods, commas, capitals, italics, quotes, paragraphs,
margins, etc., also came into being in the correct placements.
The sentences then grouped themselves to relate to each other,
giving them coherence. Page numbers fell in sequence at the
right places, and headers, footers, and footnotes appeared from
nowhere on the pages, matching the portions of text to which
they related. The paper trimmed itself and bound itself into
a Bible. The ink for the cover fell from different directions,
being careful not to incorrectly mingle with the other colors,
forming itself into the graphics and title.

First things first - no scientist believes that there was ever "nothing", nor did matter come from "nowhere". And regardless, Darwin doesn't concern himself with the beginnings of the universe, so the relevance of this passage to his book could only be apparent to - and be written by - someone who doesn't understand the book or its theories. Or science, for that matter. "Mindless chance" hits closer to the mark, if "mindless" is meant to mean "without direction from on high". "Chance" a bit pejorative for my taste - insofar as an organisms competition for resources depends on factors beyond its own control, chance plays a big role. But
biology determined whether, say, dinosaurs would be wiped out by an unlucky encounter with an asteroid while alligators would survive, not random chance, which is what "chance" here seems to imply. And that bit about ink "being careful not to incorrectly mingle"? He's mixing up his theories - its creationism that thinks the universe can be correct or incorrect according to some mystical standard, not evolution.

Who proof-reads this crap, anyway? Certainly none of the scientists who granted them testimonials. But anyway...

To liken DNA to a book is a gross understatement.

Actually, it isn't. Because "understatement" implies that the analogy, on some level, works. It doesn't.
To liken DNA to a book is an exercise in absurdity.

After completing the mapping of the chimp genome in 2005,
evolutionists are now hailing the result as “the most dramatic
confirmation yet” that chimps and humans have common
ancestry. Their overwhelming “proof” is the finding that the
genetic difference is 4 percent—which is interesting proof,
because it’s actually twice the amount that they’ve been
claiming for years.

Those sneaky scientists - hypothesizing one thing and then, after years of research and testing, amending their position slightly. Damned flip-floppers, why can't they remain stubborn and unmoving in the face of new and contradictory evidence? You know, just like religion? Well, that's the scientific method for you.

In addition, even if the difference is only 4 percent of
the 3 billion base pairs of DNA in every cell, that represents
120,000,000 entries in the DNA code that are different!

And, oh, about 2.9 billion that are the same -
2.90 billion versus 0.12 billion.

Men and monkeys also have another fundamental
difference: humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes while
chimps have 24, so the DNA isn’t as similar as you’ve been
led to believe.

Who is "you" in this sentence? Someone who knows nothing about science and about how remarkably close, when compared to the rest of nature, this similarity actually is? Maybe someone who is easily fooled by the lack of context that's presented in this introduction? Because it can't be a "you" who knows anything about biology.

But I've wasted enough time. A commentator interlaces some hilarious refutations of Kirk Cameron's video introduction to the book here:

And a brief and hilarious rebuttal to Ray Comfort's video extolling the common-sense linkage of bananas and intelligent design. Except that common-sense ignores their actual origin and spread across the globe - their evolution, if you will - which is part mutation and part cultivation and is explained in more detail at the end of the video:

Scary stuff.

Remember how arguments would be resolved in team games when you were a kid? When there were no adults around, I mean. If someone on your team showed any indecision, much less entertained the thought that the other team was right, it didn't matter that he or she was the only one - a tiny minority - that thought so. Some jerk on the other team would take that as proof that you were wrong - even though the rest of your team was certain you were right.

This guy is that jerk.

(Besides, for every Antony Flew there's a Bart Ehrman. And even Flew, held up as evidence that science can lead a person to God, is a deist who believes in the existence of an unknowable, disinterested original force that he calls God, not the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God.)

Friday, September 18, 2009

So i finally saw Watchmen...

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from Watchmen, and having gone straight to the Director's Cut DVD means that I'll never be able to weigh-in on the same film that came out half a year ago. So bear that in mind. And I also tried to avoid reviews in the meantime. I read the Rotten Tomatoes 'consensus' and overheard a few details - like the replacement of the faux alien with a faux Dr. Manhattan - but otherwise went into it with no idea of what to expect outside the trailers. So here are my thoughts, scattered as they are, repetitive as they may be:
  • Two scenes stand out to me as the best: The opening credits which, while long, are particularly effective in setting the stakes and establishing the tradition within which the rest of the film works (both with and against), and the death scene of the first Owl, which revisits the aesthetic of that credits scene and brings some closure to it, albeit not the sort of closure that we're looking for. (And so it anticipates the penultimate scene, in which Adrian makes clear that the failure of heroes-as-heroes requires that heroes act villainous.) I liked that Snyder played up the movie-star quality of those old Minutemen by giving the scenes a decidedly Old Hollywood feel. (A touch, no doubt, that also owes something to the particularly effective vocal affectation that Carla Gugino brought to her Silk Spectre.) I subsequently learned that the Owl I vs. the knot-heads was cut out of the theatrical release, which is a travesty.
  • Acting wise: Dr. Manhattan and Dan were great; the Comedian and Rorschach were okay; Laurie (and Laurie's wig) and Adrian were awful.
  • Script wise: I think that Adrian was badly bungled. There's a certain element of mystery surrounding the identity of the killer in the comic, but the script and Goode make it impossible for us to not realize that it's Adrian. (Victoria, having never read the comic, figured it out about a minute after he was introduced.) We're also not really given a chance to root for him - we have to take him at his word that he's doing this for the good of the world. It was clear in the comic, at least, that he genuinely thought he was doing this for the good of the planet. Not so much in the movie. It would have helped if they had cast the movie's ostensible villain against type. (And by that I mean they should have appeared to type-cast him: someone pretty and/or typically heroic, a Jude Law kind of guy.)
  • CGI-wise: Dr. Manhattan looked great when it was obvious that they were touching-up Billy Crudup himself. When it was a computer-generated Crudup - especially when he was talking - he looked distractingly awkward and awful.
  • The lack of a consistent narrative focus bugged the hell out of me. In the comic, you can get away with having Rorschach narrate entire issues because you only have to maintain that perspective for the duration of a single issue. In the movie, it's distracting to be guided by Rorschach for one scene and then lose him entirely for the next 20 minutes. Either the film is being filtered through his diary or it isn't; either you're explicitly focusing each scene/episode through the perpective of one character (as Moore did, more or less, in the comic) or you're not - make up your mind and stick with it.
  • The violence. I have no strong objection to how much more violent the movie is than the comic - the fights look appropriately cool, certainly. (The scene with the cleaver made me a bit queasy, though. But it had a practical purpose - if everyone is excessively violent, why would we ever question the lengths to which Rorschach goes? It would appear that the only option is to make Rorschach even more violent.) But it did confuse me - are we supposed to understand that the Watchmen do have super-strength?
  • The pacing. I needed a break and I felt like I never got one. This is both a good and a bad thing - it felt shorter than it was, and it kep things exciting, but it felt rushed. Was there ever more than 5 seconds of silence in the film? It felt like Snyder couldn't possibly allow us time to decompress. And this applies in-scene as well as in the (non-existent) space in-between them. Adrian's reveal that the attack had happened 35 minutes earlier requires a certain dramatic pause in order to sink in, for it to register as truly horrific. Instead, it becomes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment. Have the screenwriters ever heard of a 'beat'?
  • The decision to replace alien with Dr. Manhattan had me skeptical, initially. But seeing how compressed the story was even without that incredibly complicated element has me thinking that it was for the best.
So what did I think, on the whole? That it was merely okay, perhaps a bit closer to 'good' than 'bad', though I don't know how much of that is filtered through my inability to separate it from the source material. There was plenty to like and plenty to dislike, and I think it hit the extremes at both ends of that spectrum more often than most films.

Next up: Another superhero film from earlier this year that I wasn't able to see, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The body bag gaffe and racism

The Canadian of Health is preparing for an H1N1 epidemic: training their staff on how to handle an epidemic, testing vaccines, and so on. Which seems sensible enough. You wouldn't think that racism could possibly creep its way into the preparations. But if you thought such a process was above racism, you'd be wrong.

What my government-funded workplace did for me, my co-workers, and my students:
-They installed hand sanitizer in every hallway that I use to get to classroom that I teach in. Pretty thoughtful, really, since I have to open so many doors. Not wholly necessary, though.

What (until very recently) government-funded Aboriginal reserves received:
-Well, not hand sanitizers. Because, some bureaucrats suggested, they contain alcohol and the people might drink them instead.

What I, the white urbanite father, personally got by way of preparation:
-An somewhat informative pamphlet in the mail, telling me how to reduce my risk of infection, like by washing my hands frequently. A colorful and affable reminder to do more or less common-sense stuff.

What Aboriginal reserves in Alberta got by way of preparation:
-Body bags, reminding them implicitly to isolate the bodies of the people killed by the flu so as to prevent them from infecting others. Because we can't trust these people to separate the living from the dead, it would seem.

Mind you, they finally got those hand sanitizers in the same shipment. Something like 3 or 4 months (or more - I don't know when they were first requested, just when it was reported) after they asked for them, but they got them. Some victory.

The cover to Batman and Robin 3

This blog entry has nothing to do with the comic itself and everything to do with how good Frank Quitely is.

Take a look at the cover to Batman and Robin #3:

Pretty nifty, eh? All these trippy colors, a bunch of scary hands in the foreground and a bunch of Dollotrons for Batman and Robin to POW! PAFF! and BOP! (The SCT and BANG made of blood in the hospital scene? A perfect demonstration of Quitely's ability to adapt the TV show's aesthetic to the new title.) I did, however, wonder why two of the baddies seemed to be looking backward - looking at us, maybe? Looking at Professor Pyg? But that wouldn't make sense because he didn't wear those gloves. Weird.

But I put it down on my desk and when I came back the cover was upside down. Not only did I notice some now conspicuous design choices, but those two backward glancing characters made sense - because the cover is actually face:

The faces are eyeballs, the logo is a maniacal grin, and the white gloves a face, with Batman, Robin, and the throng in the background being a nose, of sorts. And those conspicuous details that now make sense? Well, green and purple can't possibly be random choices. And there's also a curious green glow on the thumbs of a Dollotron in the foreground - cast on them from the background, I guess, though it doesn't make physical sense. More likely it's a purely aesthetic choice, and when we reverse the cover it suggests green eyebrows for this face.

And the owner of that face: can it possibly belong to anyone other than the Joker? Very cool.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Stuart Hall on Marxism

From a longer piece by Michael Bérubé that nicely sums up why I don't call myself Marxist:

Indeed, if there was one thing that [Stuart] Hall inveighed against above all others in his debates with his fellow leftists, it was economism, the favorite monocausal explanation of the left intellectual. "I think of Marxism not as a framework for scientific analysis only but also as a way of helping you sleep well at night; it offers the guarantee that, although things don't look simple at the moment, they really are simple in the end," Hall wrote in 1983. "You can't see how the economy determines, but just have faith, it does determine in the last instance! The first clause wakes you up and the second puts you to sleep."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Caster Semenya and 'gender-testing'

I'll resist the urge to rant about how patently absurd it is to 'gender-test', given the impossibility of finding an exact scientific standard that expresses a common biological truth among all men or women, or a single (or even short list of) biological difference that clearly delineates one group from the other. In fact, I'll leave it at that.

A bunch of things are annoying me about all the attention that runner Caster Semenya's ostensible 'failure' of the gender-test - that is, it was revealed that she's intersex, that she has testes where her ovaries were expected to be - has produced. Foremost is the disturbing regularity with which news outlets are reporting the test results as if Semenya is some entirely undiscovered breed of humanity.

She isn't - Anne Fausto-Sterling lists some three-dozen different medically-defined sex variations that are collectively called intersex, and estimates that some 2% of the world's population fits one of those categories. (I've seen more conservative definitions and estimates, but even these would put the number of intersexed people across the globe in the millions.) She isn't even the first intersex person to be identified after medalling in a track and field event. More recently, a total of 23 women at the '92 and '96 Olympics were DQed for failing a DNA test. But, I suppose, the difference there is that they were tested prior to racing. Which is why no one noticed or cared.

Strangely, the wholly problematic tradition of sex and gender-testing in international sport - a 70 year long tradition - hasn't been contextualized or addressed at all. One would think that responsible journalism would note that it was commonplace in the 60s for female athletes to participate in a "nude parade", that the earliest genetic tests focused exclusively, and rather arbitrarily, on the presence of a "clump" of chromatin, and that failing the test doesn't necessarily indicate a chemical or biological advantage for the athlete. (In the majority of failed tests, in fact, the athletes displayed no other evidence - physically or hormonally - that they weren't normatively female.) Also, I obviously lied about saying that I wouldn't rant about gender-testing.

To their credit, I've haven't found a news outlet that has gone so far as to state that Semenya is 'actually' a man. There's a certain distress in their response to her ambiguity - and a lot of effort is taken to avoid using gendered-pronouns - but at least they're willing to entertain the possibility of ambiguity. Now if only they could actually use the opportunity to spread some understanding, rather than make it seem like something of a freak show.

(Note: Tavia Nyong'o has written a particularly good synopsis and analysis of the issues here.)