Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Superman & the Mole Men; Comic Relief: "Black Like Lois"

 Originally posted on 8/10/2009 on 

Superman and the Mole Men
Superman and the Mole Men (also known as The Unknown People) was a feature-length movie (dir. by Lee Sholem) that was later re-edited into two episodes for the TV show. The plot revolves around three little visitors from the center of the earth’s core, whose lives are disturbed by an oil rig that has drilled deep into the earth. 
When the little mole men (ignore the zippers on the back of their costumes) come up from their habitat to explore the desert, the townspeople become frightened because they are “different.” A mob (led by a bully) forms, and the three are nearly lynched. 
Racial allegory or justification for segregation?
Of course, the film has been read as a reaction to the Cold War Communist “scare” (and Cold War-era movies), but it can also be read as an allegorical reading of race relations and mob mentality, with Superman, of course, as the voice of reason. The little mole men mean no harm, and after witnessing the evil and hatred and intolerance of humankind, they return to their own world at the center of the earth.
SSo the question I have is: is the film a progressive, forward-thinking allegory on the dangers of mob mentality and a plea for racial "tolerance," or is it instead suggesting that we would all get along we were to remain in our separate spheres, i.e., a justification for continued segregation? I encourage you to watch the film and think about it. I encourage you to watch the film and think about it. 
YouTube has the entire film in segments. Here's the first.

Comic Relief

 Okay, I was going to wait a while to start discussing my childhood obsession with all things “Super”—as in Superman, but I CANNOT resist the following segue from the discussion of being “black like somebody” without mentioning that DC Comics’ fictional Lois Lane did her own Black Like Me experiment at the height of the Black Power Movement, called “I Am Curious (Black).” This comic came out in 1970, when DC and Co. were being “relevant” as they explored social issues like racism, sexism, poverty, and prison reform. 

I found it many years ago, while browsing in Forbidden Planet, a regular haunt when I lived in the East Village. I still have my copy, protected in a plastic cover. It is one of the most famous of all DC comic books—with a quick perusal of the Internet, you can probably find and read all the panels on line.
Those of an earlier generation might find the provocative title quite amusing, as it is based on a 1960s Swedish “art” film (read: nudie) called I Am Curious (Yellow)—which had its own sequel, I Am Curious (Blue). I, of course, was ignorant about that "adult" stuff—I just loved Superman!
The George Reeves Superman series was my favorite television show when I was a kid. It came on in endless reruns throughout my early childhood. My siblings might say that my viewing bordered on obsession. I had a 6-foot Superman poster on my bedroom wall, a Superman coffee mug (years before I ever began to drink coffee), and all manner of Superman comic books (Superman, Action Comics, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Superfamily). I played “Superman” with my G.I. Joes (yes, I had G.I. Joes—no surprise there) and my Jane West doll.
Although I have seen every episode of the television show ever filmed, my favorites were the first couple of seasons of the show, when the emphasis was on crime and mystery, before it turned into a “superhero” kiddie-type of program, with less serious episodes and light comic elements.
The series was much darker in the early episodes—very much B-movie tough guy stuff. These episodes also had the benefit of the superior Lois Lane character, portrayed by actress Phyllis Coates. The early episodes were filled with gangsters, suicide, megalomania, murder, savage beatings and a cynical, dark attitude. I have the first season on DVD and, every time I watch it, I am surprised at the level of violence and pessimism the shows contain. 

I remember when I first found out that Superman actor George Reeves had committed suicide. If I had just seen the first season of the show, I wouldn’t have been surprised—he is a far different actor than in the later seasons. One rumor I remember was that he had taken an overdose of LSD, thought he really could fly, jumped out of a window, and fallen to his death.
Years later, I found out the truth—that he had died of a gunshot wound, perhaps by a mistress or maybe by his own hand. The question was, though, was it murder or suicide? I couldn’t imagine Superman killing himself, and I resisted believing it for a long time. How could he? He was “super,” and he was a hero. It wasn’t until the release in 2006 of Hollywoodland, starring Ben Affleck, that I finally felt a sense of closure regarding Reeves’s death. The scenario presented in that film seemed much closer to the truth than any of the others. Ben Affleck’s* very affecting performance is worth seeing—he is well-cast, and gives an incredibly moving portrayal of an actor trapped in an image he couldn’t escape.
*Also REALLY worth seeing is Gone Baby Gone, which Ben Affleck directed (in addition to co-writing the screenplay). Deep Baby Deep.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Individual Cultural Criticism PowerPoint Project Guidelines

Don't be afraid to sit a while and think.
--Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965)

You will be responsible for delivering a 5-7 minute PowerPoint cultural criticism presentation based on a topic of your choice (DUE Tuesday, 4/6 and Thursday, 4/8). Time yourself and rehearse so that you may give a polished, professional presentation.

With this personal project, you should focus on making a point about something that you have observed in popular or literary culture--films, books, articles, poetry, the news, a public figure, photography, art, language, politics, music videos, a popular fad, clothing, etc. You might want to relate yours to our semester's theme of "the alien/outcast/outsider"--or not--it's up to you!

We are on a continual search for "meaning"--how do you interpret the meaning of what you are presenting?

What is it about what you are focusing on that interests you, excites you, angers you, makes you happy?

What invades your consciousness with a persistence that does not allow you to walk away or turn the page?

If your presentation is dependent on the class watching some video clips or listening to some audio clips in advance for context, please send these materials at least two days in advance to the group list so that we can view/listen to them.

The presentation will be 5-7 minutes. A 1-page paper version will be due one week after you deliver it. Your paper should contain the thesis of your presentation and the main content of your remarks in bullet points. You are free to hand in the paper version at the time you deliver the presentation.

Try these guide questions:

Discuss your favorite poem/novel/play/essay/short story. Why is it your favorite?

Who is your favorite artist--film, fine art, music, dance, fashion?

What television program do you like? Conversely, what program do you find troubling?

What is your favorite magazine? Why?

What trends are you following?

What are you interested in?

What pressing social concern/s do you see reflected in art/fashion/music/television/film/popular culture?

Rules for delivering a great presentation

Do not stand before the class and "wing it." You should not stumble over your words or look poorly prepared.

You should avoid subject/verb agreement errors, and you should PRACTICE your delivery so that you are not standing in front of the class swaying, wringing your hands, avoiding eye contact, and saying "um."

Your slides should be well-organized and free of grammatical errors and should be directly relevant to the presentation.

Have fun!

All best, Prof. Williams

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Links to Electronic Editions of Frankenstein/Keyword Searching and Critical Approaches

 On-line text of Frankenstein/searching using keywords/additional critical approaches and definitions/contexts
Here is the URL for the online Gutenberg text of Frankenstein. Cut and paste it into your browser, and try doing a search, if you think it might help you move more quickly to the chapters/passages that you think will be most helpful to you.

As I mentioned to a couple of students--try using the specific keywords that relate to the approach you are using. For example, try "dream" and "sleep" if you are using a psychoanalytic approach and writing about Victor's unconscious state--try using "glory" if you want to do a comparison/contrast of Walton and Victor, etc. 

Project Gutenberg E-Text of Frankenstein

Also, below is the University of Pennsylvania's Electronic Edition of Frankenstein. Of particular value to you are the "Table of Chapters" and the "Contents." If you click on one of the chapters in "Table of Chapters," you will see that the text has links to clearer explanations of terms, along with more contexts. If you click on "Contents," you will see a variety of materials that are available to you. Some are unavailable, but in terms of providing some overall background, this is a good site.
Within the "Contents," you will see a link titled "Critical Approaches." Click on that link.
If you are using a Marxist approach, click on "Materialist" to see if that is helpful.
If you are focusing on Mary Shelley, take a look at the "Biographical" approach.
Likewise, click on "Gender" or "Psychological" or whatever.
If you are using a Historicist approach, you might find value in examining some of the early reviews of the novel.

I would caution you, however, that you should use this site primarily for help in understanding some of the contexts of Frankenstein. You are to do your own writing--do not depend on this site for YOUR critical analysis--I want to know what YOU are
thinking in relation to your chosen theme.

A word about "plagiarism": Do NOT do it! You should cite your sources properly and make sure that you use quotes. Do not depend solely on your sources for analysis-write your own analysis and try to find a source that supports it. In addition, you may find an article that contradicts your own findings--argue with that source! Feel free to disagree, but find textual support in Frankenstein for your own ideas.

Finally, although this paper is a research project, you should be having fun! Frankenstein is a joy to read and analyze--I have truly enjoyed the class's critical discourse--both sections are providing rich and thoughtful commentary!

All best,

Prof. Williams

P.S. Feel free to email me your questions; however, if you want me to take a look at anything, please send it to me by SUNDAY evening at 9:00 pm if you want an email response--otherwise, bring your drafts and questions in and we will discuss them on Tuesday!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Frankenstein Response

Hi, class,

Please write a brief response(200-400 words) to this passage, narrated by Victor. It appears in Chapter 24. What advice might Victor be giving to Walton? Please post your response on the blog. 

"When younger," said he, "I believed myself destined for some great enterprise. My feelings are profound; but I possessed a coolness of judgment that fitted me for illustrious achievements. This sentiment of the worth of my nature supported me when others would have been oppressed; for I deemed it criminal to throw away in useless grief those talents that might be useful to my fellow-creatures. When I reflected on the work I had completed, no less a one than the creation of a sensitive and rational animal, I could not rank myself with the herd of common projectors. But this thought, which supported me in the commencement of my career, now serves only to plunge me lower in the dust. All my speculations and hopes are as nothing; and, like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell. My imagination was vivid, yet my powers of analysis and application were intense; by the union of these qualities I conceived the idea and executed the creation of a man. Even now I cannot recollect without passion my reveries while the work was incomplete. I trod heaven in my thoughts, now exulting in my powers, now burning with the idea of their effects. From my infancy I was imbued with high hopes and a lofty ambition; but how am I sunk! Oh! my friend, if you had known me as I once was you would not recognise me in this state of degradation. Despondency rarely visited my heart; a high destiny seemed to bear me on until I fell, never, never again to rise.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Frankenstein's Creature: Hollywood Style!

Hi, all,

Below are clips from several film adaptations of Frankenstein--including the full-length version of the first one, made in 1910 at Edison Studios, the 1931 classic, the 1994 remake with Robert DeNiro, and Mel Brooks's hilarious comedic take. I have tried to group them together so that you can see the "birth/creation" scenes together.

Frankenstein, 1931. "It's alive!" (RT 4:05)

Frankenstein, 1931. The creature's awareness. (RT 3:10)

Frankenstein, 1994. Frankenstein gives "birth." (RT 7:37)
Young Frankenstein, 1974. (RT 10:00)
Bride of Frankenstein, 1935. "She's alive!" (RT 6:14)
Frankenstein, 1994. The Creature expresses his loneliness. (RT 3:56)
Frankenstein, 1994. The Creature confronts Victor. (RT 9:58)

Finally, this is the first-ever adaptation!

Frankenstein, 1910. Watch the "special effect" at the end! (Full-length 12:41)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Swift: "A Modest Proposal" and Ehrenreich: The Maids"

Hi, class, attached is a link to Jonathan Swift's essay, "A Modest Proposal." The Barbara Ehrenreich essay is not available on-line--if I have a chance, I will scan it and put it up on Saturday, so check back for it. Hard copies of both essays are available if you stop by my office--they are right outside the door (in Lucite trays). Please read the Swift essay first, and be ready to comment on it.

"A Modest Proposal," by Jonathan Swift

Again, for Tuesday, please answer one of the questions on the Animal Rights debate in the "Writing" section of the handout that follows the Sabine/Goodall pieces. It should follow MLA-style, standard essay format, and should be NO MORE than 1,000 words. No cover page is necessary--just use the MLA heading.

I will collect these essays and hand back your marked online responses to Mencken's "The Penalty of Death."

Have a wonderful and restful weekend!

All best,

Prof. Williams

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Mencken: "The Penalty of Death"

Is Mencken arguing for or against capital punishment?

"The Penalty of Death" (1926)

by H.L. Mencken

Of the arguments against capital punishment that issue from uplifters, two are commonly heard most often, to wit:

1. That hanging a man (or frying him or gassing him) is a dreadful business, degrading to those who have to do it and revolting to those who have to witness it.

2. That it is useless, for it does not deter others from the same crime.

The first of these arguments, it seems to me, is plainly too weak to need serious refutation3. All it says, in brief, is that the work of the hangman is unpleasant. Granted. But suppose it is? It may be quite necessary to society for all that. There are, indeed, many other jobs that are unpleasant, and yet no one thinks of abolishing them--that of the plumber, that of the soldier, that of the garbage-man, that of the priest hearing confessions, that of the sand-hog, and so on. Moreover, what evidence is there that any actual hangman complains of his work? I have heard none. On the contrary, I have known many who delighted in their ancient art, and practiced it proudly.

In the second argument of the abolitionists there is rather more force, but even here, I believe, the ground under them is shaky. Their fundamental error consists in assuming that the whole aim of punishing criminals is to deter other (potential) criminals--that we hang or electrocute A simply in order to so alarm B that he will not kill C. This, I believe, is an assumption which confuses a part with the whole. Deterrence, obviously, is one of the aims of punishment, but it is surely not the only one. On the contrary, there are at least half a dozen, and some are probably quite as important. At least one of them, practically considered, is more important. Commonly, it is described as revenge, but revenge is really not the word for it. I borrow a better term from the late Aristotle: katharsis. Katharsis, so used, means a salubrious discharge of emotions, a healthy letting off of steam. A school-boy, disliking his teacher, deposits a tack upon the pedagogical chair; the teacher jumps and the boy laughs. This is katharsis. What I contend is that one of the prime objects of all judicial punishments is to afford the same grateful relief (a) to the immediate victims of the criminal punished, and (b) to the general body of moral and timorous men.

These persons, and particularly the first group, are concerned only indirectly with deterring other criminals. The thing they crave primarily is the satisfaction of seeing the criminal actually before them suffer as he made them suffer. What they want is the peace of mind that goes with the feeling that accounts are squared. Until they get that satisfaction they are in a state of emotional tension, and hence unhappy. The instant they get it they are comfortable. I do not argue that this yearning is noble; I simply argue that it is almost universal among human beings. In the face of injuries that are unimportant and can be borne without damage it may yield to higher impulses; that is to say, it may yield to what is called Christian charity. But when the injury is serious Christianity is adjourned, and even saints reach for their sidearms. It is plainly asking too much of human nature to expect it to conquer so natural an impulse. A keeps a store and has a bookkeeper, B. B steals $700, employs it in playing at dice or bingo, and is cleaned out. What is A to do? Let B go? If he does so he will be unable to sleep at night. The sense of injury, of injustice, of frustration will haunt him like pruritus. So he turns B over to the police, and they hustle B to prison. Thereafter A can sleep. More, he has pleasant dreams. He pictures B chained to the wall of a dungeon a hundred feet underground, devoured by rats and scorpions. It is so agreeable that it makes him forget his $700. He has got his katharsis.

The same thing precisely takes place on a larger scale when there is a crime which destroys a whole community’s sense of security. Every law-abiding citizen feels menaced and frustrated until the criminals have been struck down--until the communal capacity to get even with them, and more than even, has been dramatically demonstrated. Here, manifestly, the business of deterring others is no more than an afterthought. The main thing is to destroy the concrete scoundrels whose act has alarmed everyone, and thus made everyone unhappy. Until they are brought to book that unhappiness continues; when the law has been executed upon them there is a sigh of relief. In other words, there is katharsis.

I know of no public demand for the death penalty for ordinary crimes, even for ordinary homicides. Its infliction would shock all men of normal decency of feeling. But for crimes involving the deliberate and inexcusable taking of human life, by men openly defiant of all civilized order--for such crimes it seems, to nine men out of ten, a just and proper punishment. Any lesser penalty leaves them feeling that the criminal has got the better of society--that he is free to add insult to injury by laughing. That feeling can be dissipated only by a recourse to katharsis, the invention of the aforesaid Aristotle. It is more effectively and economically achieved, as human nature now is, by wafting the criminal to realms of bliss.

The real objection to capital punishment doesn’t lie against the actual extermination of the condemned, but against our brutal American habit of putting it off so long. After all, every one of us must die soon or late, and a murderer, it must be assumed, is one who makes that sad fact the cornerstone of his metaphysic. But it is one thing to die, and quite another thing to lie for long months and even years under the shadow of death. No sane man would choose such a finish. All of us, despite the Prayer Book, long for a swift and unexpected end. Unhappily, a murderer, under the irrational American system, is tortured for what, to him, must seem a whole series of eternities. For months on end he sits in prison while his lawyers carry on their idiotic buffoonery with writs, injunctions, mandamuses, and appeals. In order to get his money (or that of his friends) they have to feed him with hope. Now and then, by the imbecility of a judge or some trick of juridic science, they actually justify it. But let us say that, his money all gone, they finally throw up their hands. Their client is now ready for the rope or the chair. But he must still wait for months before it fetches him.

That wait, I believe, is horribly cruel. I have seen more than one man sitting in the death-house, and I don’t want to see any more. Worse, it is wholly useless. Why should he wait at all? Why not hang him the day after the last court dissipates his last hope? Why torture him as not even cannibals would torture their victims? The common answer is that he must have time to make his peace with God. But how long does that take? It may be accomplished, I believe, in two hours quite as comfortably as in two years. There are, indeed, no temporal limitations upon God. He could forgive a whole herd of murderers in a millionth of a second. More, it has been done.

"The Penalty of Death" was first published in Prejudices: Fifth Series by H.L. Mencken, 1926.