Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

National Poetry Month 2022

National Poetry Month is almost over, but as usual, I wanted to link the Favorite Poem Project and feature a poem. I was looking for good choices and came upon this one, a lovely piece I hadn't read in a long while:
somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
by e. e. cummings

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens (touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose
or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

Saturday, April 02, 2022

2021 Film Roundup: The Oscars and the Year in Review

I was able to see a handful of the nominees this year, but still not that many. Going to the movies is safer than it was before a COVID-19 vaccine was available, but it's still a bit daunting. Many of the nominees are not on disc yet and some of them are only available on a single streaming service. I did see Dune on the big screen, and it definitely benefits from it. I also managed to see Belfast, The Power of the Dog, Don't Look Up and No Time to Die. I expect to see Licorice Pizza, Encanto, West Side Story, Spider-Man: No Way Home and Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings later this year. I also hope to see Coda, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Drive My Car, The Worst Person in the World, Parallel Mothers, The Lost Daughter, Being the Ricardos, Summer of Soul, Flee, tick, tick..BOOM! and Raya and the Last Dragon, among others.

The Oscars this year had two big scandals. The first was the decision not to include several "craft" awards during the live broadcast, and instead record them earlier and edit the footage into the live show. The decision was widely criticized by industry professionals, and led to some Academy members resigning. The slighted awards were the three short film categories, film editing, music (original score), sound, production design, and makeup and hairstyling, as well as all the honorary Oscars. The segments were at least edited in fairly well, but excluding the categories from the live event was a horrible choice. It showed a lack of respect for the art and craft of filmmaking. And the Academy once again chose to fruitlessly chase a larger audience while alienating the core audience of film lovers. The show could have been made shorter by not adding an un-nominated Encanto musical number, for example, but it's a Disney film and Disney owns ABC. The ratings did jump up significantly from the previous year, but given the pandemic, that's hardly surprising; ratings were still the second-worst ever.

The second scandal, which obviously got much more attention, was Will Smith storming the stage and smacking comedian Chris Rock over a joke: "Jada, love ya – G.I. Jane 2, can't wait to see it." The joke fell flat in the room and it took me a minute to figure out what the intended gag was – a reference to Jada's bald head. (G.I. Jane came out way back in 1997, and pop-culture-wise, it's mostly known for Demi Moore shaving her head.) Like the audience in the theater, when Will Smith went on stage, I thought it was a planned bit, until the audio cut out and the camera showed Smith angrily yelling without sound. (You can see the footage here.) I've seen umpteen takes on this, and at least one sympathetically condemns Smith's actions while contextualizing it within his tough, even abusive upbringing, and theorizing that Smith still needs to come to terms with it. I thought Smith's actions set a horrible precedent – assaulting a comedian because you don't like a joke, or any performer because you don't like their act. I also thought it completely undercut what should have been Smith's biggest night, because he was the favorite to win Best Actor, and did indeed win it. I understand the audience being shocked and not sure what to do, but I thought it was gutless to give Smith a standing ovation after what he did. There's some disagreement over whether Smith was asked to leave and whether he refused, or if he was told to stay. Although Smith's PR team put out a well-written, contrite statement the next day, Smith himself waspartying that night as if nothing had happened. He's since resigned his Academy membership and been banned from attending the Oscars for 10 years.

I can't say I'm a big Will Smith fan but don't dislike him, either – I think he's become a pretty good actor and was quite good in The Pursuit of Happyness. And his reputation had been getting steadily better over the years. I understand getting upset over a personal joke against one's self or a family member, but it's par for the course for these events, public figures should be used to it, the joke was pretty tame, and it fell flat with the audience. No one was really laughing at Jada Pinkett Smith, and most viewers probably thought, like me, that she had shaved her head and didn't know she had alopecia. The Oscar after-parties can get pretty wild, but many attendees also show up drunk or high before the ceremony, and I have to wonder if that contributed to Will Smith's astonishingly poor judgment and lack of restraint and maturity. The way to deal with a joke you don't like is to talk to the comedian afterward, or make a joke back, or to call it out in the press as a cheap shot, not assault and battery on live television… especially when you're a featured guest favored to get a big award. My sympathies are strongly with the performers for all such incidents.

Although Will Smith's actions overshadowed most of the night, it's worth checking out some of the award speeches if you missed them, particularly Ariana DeBose for Best Supporting Actress, who gave a shout-out to queer youth and the power of the arts, and Troy Kotsur for Best Supporting Actor, who hailed the deaf community. I was also personally happy to see the multitalented Kenneth Branagh finally win an Oscar, in this case for Best Original Screenplay. As for the rest of the ceremony, I thought the triple hosts of Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes were pretty good. The song-and-dance number during the Montage of Death was rousing and fine on its own merits, but a pretty bad choice in context, because it completely distracted from the images of the deceased.

In any case, I'm going to try to see all the films mentioned earlier, and I hope 2022 turns out to be a good year for film.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Maus Banned

Just in time for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a Tennessee school district has banned Maus, an amazing, Pulitzer-winning graphic novel by Art Spiegelman about his family but especially his father, Vladek, who survived the Holocaust. The Associated Press reports that the ban was...

...due to "inappropriate language" and an illustration of a nude woman, according to minutes from a board meeting. . . .

In an interview, Spiegelman told CNBC he was "baffled" by the school board's decision and called the action "Orwellian."

"It's leaving me with my jaw open, like, 'What?'" he said.

The decision comes as conservative officials across the country have increasingly tried to limit the type of books that children are exposed to, including books that address structural racism and LGBTQ issues. The Republican governors in South Carolina and Texas have called on superintendents to perform a systemic review of "inappropriate" materials in their states' schools.

The minutes from the school board meeting indicate objections over some of the language used in "Maus." At first, Director of Schools Lee Parkison suggested redacting it "to get rid of the eight curse words and the picture of the woman that was objected to."

The nude woman is drawn as a mouse. In the graphic novel, Jews are drawn as mice and the Nazis are drawn as cats. . . .

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which does not play a role in McMinn County, noted the timing of the news on Twitter. Weingarten, who is Jewish, pointed out that Thursday is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

"Yes it is uncomfortable to talk about genocide, but it is our history and educating about it helps us not repeat this horror," Weingarten said.

The U.S. Holocaust Museum tweeted that "Maus has played a vital role in educating about the Holocaust through sharing detailed and personal experiences of victims and survivors. . . .

"Teaching about the Holocaust using books like Maus can inspire students to think critically about the past and their own roles and responsibilities today."

The Tennessee school board emphasized in the minutes that they did not object to teaching about the Holocaust but some were concerned the work was not age-appropriate.


This is a stunningly bad if not entirely surprising decision. It sure seems to be yet another case of conservatives rejecting good art (and accurate history) out of prudishness and a desire to control their children. But such attempts, in addition to being harmful, rarely succeed in the long run.

As I've written before, Maus is a good introduction to the Holocaust. I used excerpts from it when I was teaching high school, at least one other colleague taught the entire series, and I knew some students read it on their own. I wouldn't give Maus to elementary school kids, but it's completely appropriate for high school students and many junior high students as well.

When I first saw the cover of Maus and heard the pitch – Jews as mice and Nazis as cats?!? – my concern was that it seemed like a cartoonish, oversimplified approach to the Holocaust. But I heard from several people who read Maus and assured me it was not simplistic, and was actually really good. That's all true, and the series is well worth checking out if you haven't yet.

Maus recounts, in detail, what happened to Art Spiegelman's father Vladek and how he survived in Nazi-occupied Poland and later Auschwitz, through luck but also ingenuity and courage. Spiegelman also depicts his fraught relationship with his father in the present day and Vladek's failings, as well as his own. Spiegelman even interrogates the creation of Maus itself and questions if depicting Jews, Nazis, and other groups as animals trivializes the Holocaust, and whether the series' success means he's exploiting a great tragedy. Maus is a complex, multilayered work, suitable for younger readers, and interesting and instructive as a Holocaust survivor's story, but it also raising some pretty significant questions about the nature of history, art, memory, and judgment. It's an engaging read, and can also be a bit emotionally exhausting, as pretty much any good, honest Holocaust tale is.

Something positive has come out of the ban, because a number of people – some famous, some not – are buying copying of Maus and donating them to Tennessee libraries. And the news stories about the ban is introducing new people to the existence of Maus. Maybe they'll check it out to see what all the fuss is about. Conservative attempts to ban something can backfire.

Years ago I lent my copies of Maus to my father, who had introduced me to comics, and he was impressed by the series as well. From where I'm sitting, I can glance over to a bookcase and see those same copies of Maus, sitting atop a copy of Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved. That's also an amazing work, but should only be read when someone's well-acquainted with the Holocaust already. Maus has a great track record in that regard, introducing people to the Holocaust. Let students read it, and may the efforts to provide more copies in Tennessee libraries and elsewhere flourish.