Monday, June 11, 2007

Congrats to Grads + Greenfield on Teens + Sopranos Sayonara + Sembene and Rorty

It's official: I sent in my grades today, and the quarter is officially over! The university's commencement ceremonies are this upcoming weekend, so let me say in advance to all this year's graduates, including the sharp, funny, delightful, and talented ones I had the opportunity to work with this year:

and as you've heard me say more than once,


One of the best aspects of this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine issue on money and financial inequality was filmmaker Lauren Greenfield's series of mini-films, "The Way We Spend Now," interviewing L.A. teenagers on the role of money in their lives. I was surprised to find the interviews so compelling, because Greenfield's recent HBO Film, Thin, on upper-middle-class young women suffering from anorexia and bulimia, was so annoying that it nearly made me pull my hair out. But those her sample is small, it's diverse, and these young people were a lot more aware of how capitalism and hyperconsumerism affect their lives than I probably would have credited them.

The slant of most of the other articles was pure New York Times, however, that funhouse mirror perspective in which filmmaker Zoe R. Cassavetes's one-bedroom apartment experience in Manhattan might be viewed as representative....


I do not read Time. To tell the truth, I never have. I think I might have been in 7th grade or something when I came across a description of Newsweek as the "liberal" weekly magazine, while Time was conservative, and that was all it took for me not to make any effort to read it, except at rare moments when it was sitting around in the doctor's office, or on someone's coffee table, or if there was a particular article about someone in it that I felt I needed to view. (I am, however, aware of its historical importance and role in American popular discourse; we have its past editors to thank for such timeless terms as "socialite," for example.) Time has continued to beat the conservative drum, in a bland, conventional, "mainstream" way, though the media in general have shifted to far to the right that it is hardly out of step with a wide array of general interest publications, including Newsweek.

It follows, then, that I do not read Time's Swampland blog, except on rare occasions; when I saw who the bloggers were--Joe Klein, Ana Marie Cox (the original "Wonkette"), Karen Tumulty, and Jay Carney--I knew there was no reason to go near it. Klein, Mr. CBW--Conventional Beltway Wisdom, with heavy doses of Republican National Committee buzzwords and frames--alone is enough to keep me away from it (this outrageous pro-Libby defense post is par for the course) and then there's Cox, who made her name and fortune on cotton-candy gossamer gossip and sophomoric humor, including periodic mentions of anal sex. Yes, you read that right--and the mentions are, well, hardly worth mentioning. Now, to thicken the soup, Swampland has added Dave "Mudcat" Sanders, a thought-challenged, suposedly Democratic ruralist who allegedly works for the John Edwards campaign. All I can say is, Lord help Edwards if he's really employing this man in any way. Sanders's first two posts are not only really stupid and offensive in their vehemence against the leftist netroots, but manage to recite Republican talking points at least once every sentence. I do love his coinage "Metropolitan Opera Wing"of the Democrats, though. That one is actually so ridiculous it verges on brilliance. An operatic swamp indeed!


I really am going to try to blog a bit more now that the summer is here. One goal is to post some reviews of films I've been watching or catching, and books I've been reading (I almost cannot believe that actually have a brief window to read for pleasure and edification again). I also am again trying to watch less TV. Trying. Again. But last night with C I did watch the final episode of HBO's acclaimed drama The Sopranos. Initially, I disdained it because I'd actually gone to junior high and high school school with at least one Mafiosetto (is that the right term for the child of a Mafioso?) and found little allure in watching yet another TV show or film about this particular element of our society, especially given how extensively it's been explored from The Godfather on, but C praised it and I started catching episodes, and then I was hooked, sort of. I think what pushed me over the edge into outright complete enthrallment was the episode when Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) are on the verge of a split up over one of Tony's serial infidelities, and Falco gives the performance of the entire series, radiating Carmela's rage, frustration and disgust in a series of facial expressions that to this day are unforgettable. Performance of life, I think the phrase goes. But the series in general featured outstanding writing and performances, and my main quarrel with it was the sometimes casual racism, which I realize was in keeping with the sta But the end was sure to come, and last night it did. I read today that many (most?) fans were disappointed, but I actually liked what creator David Chase did; there were multiple ways to read the anti-Aristotelian ending, which lacked not only a climax (beyond Phil Leotardo [Frank Vincent] getting his just comeuppance, in the most brutal way), but also a dénouement. In fact, it was so open that it was really a mirror of whatever your projections might be, and it also left open the possibility of a movie down the road. If the writing of a film version comes anywhere near the best operatic moments of the series, I'll be among the first on line to catch it.


I sometimes worry that my mini-commemorations will this site morbid, but then I realize how important it is to invoke and, even if briefly, remember those who've passed away. To that end, let me note the recent passing of two remarkable figures, the Senegalese author and filmmaking pioneer Ousmane Sembène, and the American philosopher and critic Richard Rorty.

Ousmane SembeneSembène (at left,, who passed away at the age of 81, was one of the pioneers of African cinema. A native of the Casamance region of southern Senegal, he began publishing his novels in the 1950s after serving in the French military and working in a variety of low-wage jobs. He then went to study film in Moscow, which led to his film career. Many cinéastes consider his earliest film, La Noire de..., (The Black Woman..., 1965), the story of a young African who accompanies her French employers back to Europe and ends up a suicide, the first (Black) African film. His subsequent films, including Mandabi (1968), Emitai (1971), Xala (1975), Ceddo (1977), Camp de Thiaroye (1987), Guelwaar (1992), Faat Kiné (2000), and Moolaadé (2004), often explored the tension between modernity and tradition, particularly concerning sexual politics and the dialectic of Western influence in Africa, while inventing an aesthetic template for subsequent African cinema. From the sublime Xala to one of my personal favorites, the postcolonially informed Camp at Thiaroye, which I saw at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, only to miss Sembène, who spoke after I'd left, the films won a host of awards and honors, including the Certain Regard Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the Jury Award of the Los Angeles Pan-African Film Festival, and the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. In 1996, he received a lifetime award from the Human Rights International Film Festival, a fitting honor for an artist whose work represented and portrayed, through its focus on one of the least depicted parts of the world, the richness of human experience, universal experience.

Richard RortyFor two years in the 1990s, I was a member of the same department at the University of Virginia as Rorty (at right, © Stanford University), though I think I saw him only a few times, and exchanged correspondence with him as part of my job at the time. But even that minimal contact thrilled me, because it came at a time when I was involved in an extensive autodidactic project to catch up on contemporary American philosophy, and Rorty was one of the figures I was reading assiduously. I wanted to understand the origins of American pragmatism and its connection to particular political and aesthetic questions, and Rorty was central to the intellectual trajectory. As the many tributes to and obituaries of him note, he was a controversial figure; among the Anglo-American philosophy community his rejection and critiques of the picture theory of meaning and the analytic tradition and its conventions, which crystalized in his landmark work Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature(1979) generated quite a hubbub, as did his post-modernist view of scientific knowledge and truth claims, while his pragmatic, incremental liberalism, which in some ways was quite in step with the Clinton era, went too far for those on the right and not far enough for many progressives. Rorty's embrace of contingency, irony and solidarity, his graceful and provocative writing, and his overt political engagement, to the extent of leaving Virginia in part because of what he saw as misplaced financial priorities there and his active, public critiques of the Bush administration, were all aspects of his life and work that I continue to admire, and without a doubt, the United States--and not just the academic community--has lost one of its intellectual titans.


  1. I thought something was wrong with my television set when The Sopranos ended. My cable just cuts off sometimes, so I flew into a panic, then a miniture rage, then helplessness until the credits rolled and I ran upstairs to see if the rest of the family had the same ending.

    I still need to see the rest of season 5 to watch Adrian's demise. It was brilliant. There are a couple more performances that were really amazing too.

    We will compare note.

  2. I have been a fan of the show since day one. Those first few seasons were just amazing, despite some stereotyping of latinos - and gays (I guess Italians say the same thing about the show). The last couple of seasons I felt they were stretching the storyline a bit, mostly due to HBO's attempt to cash in their biggest hit and sqeeze in a few more episodes. I bet they'd want a movie but I doubt there will be one.

    that eddie falco performance in the episode you mention was devastating. it certainly did not make her career (because she has been a tremendous performer before, during and after the sopranos) but it certainly cemented her reputation.

    as for james gandolfini, in some ways he's just as great but i can totally understand his desire to end the show and his concerns of being typecast in the future. i hope he will be able to move on and be able to be seen as something else than tony soprano.

    the final episode - i just loved it. i kept looking at the clock and thinking "Damn! theres 9 minutes left and lots of things have not been resolved!" - just as throughout the show I realized just how much I'd miss some of the characters (Aida Turturro for one).

    And then, lights out! Brilliant! Against every single expectation including the NY Post's readership desire for blood and punishment (when most had been complicit in wanting the bloodletting anyway).