Why Blog About Tolkien?

When I first decided to devote the entire month of December (and, obviously, the latter part of November) to posting strictly about Tolkien, my first thought was:  What do I have to offer that hasn’t already been said?  Why should anyone read anything that I post about the venerable Tolkien and his voluminous corpus?  After a while, however, I finally decided that my decades-old fandom of Tolkien gave me enough credentials to talk about my favourite elements of his work, and so here I present the inaugural entry in what I hope will be an annual event:  Tolkien Appreciation Month, here on Queerly Different.

My love affair with Tolkien began when I was somewhere between 8 and 9 years old, when my Mom gave me a very old and battered copy of The Hobbit.  It was something of a rite of passage, as she had been waiting to share her love of Tolkien with me (her only child) for quite some time.  I quickly devoured that book and moved into The Lord of the Rings.  Since that fateful reading, I have since revisited Middle-earth countless times in both the written and film form, ranging from Tolkien’s works themselves to works of criticism, from Jackson’s films (all of which I have seen in the theater 3 times each) to message boards devoted to picking apart those films.  I have even had the privilege of both taking and teaching courses on Tolkien’s material.

Every time the Tolkien bug bites me, I can literally think of little else than that magical world that so enchanted me all those years ago (and my numerous copies of the films and the books tells you how often that bug bites me).  While my original love of Tolkien stemmed from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I have subsequently gained a richer and deeper understanding of not only Tolkien’s literary genius, but also his incredible devotion and intense affection for his created world, its peoples (especially the Elves), and its languages (especially the various strands of Elvish).  More than that, however, I have also come to appreciate Tolkien’s academic works, such as his magisterial essay “The Monsters and the Critics,” as well as his lesser-known fictional works such as Leaf by Niggle and Farmer Giles of Ham.  

Imagine my excitement when, in 2001 (my senior year of high school) I discovered that a film version of my beloved novels was at last being brought to complete fruition.  Like many others, my only cinematic Tolkien experiences had been with the dreadful Rankin/Bass The Hobbit and the slightly better The Return of the King, as well as Ralph Bakshi’s compelling but flawed The Lord of the Rings.  When I saw Jackson’s Fellowship, I was immediately smitten, and I have remained so ever since.  While I do have some misgivings about a few of Jackson’s choices, as a whole I think he has done a wonderful job translating Tolkien’s work into his own particular vision.

As I got older and made my way through my undergraduate years, my understanding and appreciation for Tolkien’s genius only grew, as I took courses that deepened and enriched my understanding of Tolkien and the context out of which he sprang.  Though I have yet to teach a full course devoted to Tolkien, I frequently incorporate the fandom of his work into my course on popular culture, in order to show how sophisticated his work is, as well as how complex and nuanced fan production can be.

Now that I’ve had a chance to teach my own students the joys of Tolkien (or at least a very small part of it), I now realize there is so much more I could do (pedagogically) with him.  Though my own scholarship (as some of you may know) focuses on representations of history and issues of gender and sexuality, there is much in Tolkien’s legendarium that fits well with those interests.  Indeed, so rich is the vast web of Tolkien’s creation that one can find something there for any interpretive lens to investigate.  Though the broader fields of literary criticism and film studies still possess some reluctance into admitting either the work of Jackson or of Tolkien into the canon of significant works, I think there is definitely a case to be made for an interdisciplinary area known as Tolkien Studies.  After all, his influence upon the 20th and 21st Century has been vast, so why not reward that influence by giving him his own field of study?  If Shakespeare has one, why not Tolkien?

There is, then, much still to blog about when it comes to Tolkien, far more than even an entire month’s worth of blog posts can accommodate.  Nevertheless, I still feel the compulsion to share my love and my reflections on Tolkien and his work with the world.  I don’t really have a plan as of yet, but I hope to share my thoughts on The Hobbit (which I am re-reading in anticipation of the upcoming release of the final film, The Battle of the Five Armies), as well as on the various pieces of Tolkien criticism that I find enjoyable (I particularly love Tom Shippey’s two magisterial works, Tolkien:  Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-earth).  However, I’ll also probably make some notes about The Hobbit film trilogy (including a review of the last film), as well as some thoughts about the workings of history as revealed through The Lord of the Rings.  As you all know by now, my mind is voracious and roving, so it’s really hard to say what all might appear (all of this is to say that I have blog ADD).

Though much has been written about Tolkien, his work, and his fans, I am of the opinion that there is still much more to explore and much more to be appreciated about the ways in which his works continue to posses relevance for many types of audiences.  What’s more, Jackson’s interpretations of Tolkien’s work, as well as the numerous critical pieces devoted to both Tolkien and Jackson, provide even more rich fodder for delving into the increasingly complex web of texts surrounding Tolkien’s work.  So, for the next month, I will be blogging about various Tolkien-related things.  I truly and sincerely hope that you will share your own thoughts and experiences with his work in the comments section, as I greatly look forward to engaging with others, whether to agree or disagree.  Here’s to a month of Tolkien!

Re-Reading “Harry Potter”–“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”

Well, it’s been quite some time since I shared my thoughts on the Potterverse, but with a Prospectus due to my Advisor and my annual Tolkien reading commencing, I haven’t had as much time to indulge in the world of HP.  However, I have had the chance to finish Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, so here are some of my reflections on the fourth, and in many ways the best, of the Harry Potter books.

Even more than Prisoner, this novel reveals that shit is finally getting real.  We as readers know this from the very beginning, when the unfortunate Muggle gardener runs afoul of Wormtail and the frail Voldemort and pays with his life.  We now know, if we hadn’t before, that Voldemort is absolutely willing to murder anyone who threatens any aspect of his plans, no matter how trivial.  I remember being shocked when I first read this novel over a decade ago, and that earliest murder, as well as the darker conversation the gardener Frank overhears, still sends shivers down my spine as I read it.

There is much in this novel that is actually quite chilling, not least the fact that Barty Crouch’s wife actually sacrificed her life for the son that was so unambiguously in league with Voldemort.  There is something fundamentally touching and disturbing about the lengths to which she was willing to go to save a son that was, by all accounts, as monstrous as any of the other Death Eaters.  For all that her actions have made possible all manner of atrocities, one cannot help but be at least somewhat sympathetic for a mother’s desire to save her son from the horrors of Azkaban.  Although Rowling’s world is typically painted in broad strokes of black and white, this is one of those moments when a shade of grey gradually begins to make itself seen.  Who can say that they wouldn’t do the same thing, if presented with this sort of perilous and terrible decision?

More than perhaps any of the other novels in the series (except for perhaps Half-Blood), Goblet allows us to see the true consequences that come from the battling of evil.  Voldemort, however he may have begun, however oppressed and abandoned he might have been in his youth, has now become a creature so far beyond the emotional capacities of ordinary human as to be something else altogether.  His casual dismissal of Cedric as “the spare” vividly illustrates this, and Cedric’s death still remains one of the most saddening in the series, in no small part because it is both so unexpected and sudden.  Indeed, Cedric’s death illustrates something that will become increasingly clear as the rest of the series unfolds:  the battle against evil inevitably leaves the bodies of many innocents in its wake.  And that, I think, is one of the key features of the best fantasy.  The best fantasy, especially epic fantasy, is that which does not end on an entirely happy note.  Indeed, I am most satisfied after reading something that leaves me with a sense, however faint, of melancholy after I have finished the last page.  It’s good to  be reminded that, even when the quest is over and the war is won, nothing can ever be the same again.

It’s quite astonishing, really, how much this novel manages to accomplish, and accomplish well.  As with the previous novel, it has a beautiful artistry all of its own that allows you to recognize its brilliance only after you have read through the entire narrative.  Only after you are finished do you realize that all of the goings-on in the beginning were part of a larger master plan, delicately laid and executed (both by Rowling and by Voldemort).  Likewise, the elements of the Triwizard Tournament are compellingly written, with just enough mystery layered in to make them worth reading (though they do, of course, play second fiddle to the larger narrative of Voldermort’s return).  And who could forget the revelation that so many prominent members of the Wizarding community still maintain their loyalty to their master.  It is this revelation, perhaps even more than that of Voldemort’s actual return, that really brings home to me the reality that this world, far from being a safe haven, is itself full of dangers and betrayals as grave as any that appear in the Muggle world.

All in all, Goblet emerges as one of the best-written and tightly plotted of the series.  Unlike its successor, Goblet manages to weave its various plot threads together into a cohesive whole without seeming overly long or drawn-out.  At this point, we haven’t yet got mired in the teenage angst that plagues the fifth and seventh volume of the saga, but we still get the richer and more compelling character development.  Ironically, this was actually the first Harry Potter novel that I read (being the weirdo I am), and so it will always occupy a special place in my heart.  Having re-read it for the first time in many years, I recognize that it fully deserves that special place.

Teaching Outrage

In my course on reading popular culture, I spend several weeks teaching students how to discern the ideologies at work in popular culture texts, focusing each week on a particular reading method.  After several weeks of vigorous and intellectually engaged discussion about the vexing nature of popular media, one of my students asked, “So, what do we do, now that we’ve learned how to read texts in this way?”  At first, I was somewhat flummoxed, as this is not normally a question that arises in my lower-level undergraduate courses; I was quite pleasantly surprised to see my students thinking at such a high level.

And, to be honest, I didn’t know how to answer at first, simply because this remains a question with which I also struggle on a daily basis.  However, as I ended up telling my student, we can do a great deal with the outrage we feel at the vexing representational strategies utilized by the popular media.  We can blog, we can write letters, we can even become involved in the production of texts ourselves and reclaim the narratives that have been hijacked and used as weapons against us.  For those who remain politically and socially disenfranchised, gaining a vocabulary in which to express moral and political outrage, as well as what to do with that outrage, can become a solid means of effecting political and social change.

That remains one of the most challenging aspects of teaching the reading of texts.  How to get students to see the stakes of their critical reading strategies?  After all, we live in a culture that routinely tells us to stop over-reading and overreacting to incidents of micro-aggression, to simply sit back and enjoy the entertainment value of popular culture.  Indeed, this impulse to dismiss any critical approach to everyday life–including the “basest” or “dumbest” forms of entertainment–as over-reading is itself a function of a society and a culture that stubbornly refuses (in the main) to engage in self-critical evaluation.  Part of our jobs, as critics and as educators–and I would like to stress that I see the two functions as inextricably linked–is to encourage students to break away from those habits of thought that let these elements of our culture remain unexamined and uncommented upon.  This can be quite challenging, as being critical often gets coded as being a killjoy, as bringing down the life and the energy of the cultural party.

The job of the cultural critic and educator, I argue, is to guide students so that they can see not only the ways in which media propagate and draw upon existing ideologies and systems of power, but also learn how those representations can have real-world effects on shaping and reinforcing existing patterns of thought.  Once they realize how even the most seemingly banal and “entertaining” texts are part of a larger set of discourses that are themselves dependent upon intertwining systems of power, it becomes easier to see why it matters, for example, that Game of Thrones utilizes existing racial stereotypes in its presentation of the Dothraki wedding, or why Looking can be seen as an example of the mainstreaming and commercialization of queer sexualities.  Further, they can also realize that they, as the consumer of these texts, can also have power over them rather than being controlled by them.

This, I think, is one of the great things about teaching in the humanities.  Contrary to what Arthur Krystal claims in his recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, there is still a great deal at stake for those who engage in the rigorous and sustained study of texts (especially for those who still occupy a marginalized or denigrated corner of our culture).  We live, after all, in a culture that is hyper-saturated with images and narratives that our students, and we ourselves, have to interpret every single day of our lives.  As a teacher of media, I remain absolutely committed to teaching students not only how and why they should be outraged at what appears in popular culture, but also what is at stake in their outrage.  As I stress again and again, I do not believe in “mere entertainment” or “pure escapism.”  I do, however, believe in pleasures, and the power that can come with both resistant pleasures (as my insistence on queer pleasures demonstrates) and the pleasure of the act of critical engagement.  It’s time that we stop seeing (and stop encouraging our students to see) critical engagement as a chore.  Instead, we need to encourage them to see the pleasure, and the power, of critical outrage.

Leave your Message, not your Trash

Metathesis

On a frigid yet sunny day in January 2014, I happened to find myself a couple of blocks away from the annual March for Life in Washington, DC. I was in the capitol visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library for some research, and had arrived early in the morning for a long day of archival exploration (or, let’s face it, geeking out over old books). As the day went on and I occasionally stepped out for food or sunlight, I slowly realized what else was happening that day on the Hill. It was a special year for the March—the 40th anniversary—and thousands had managed to show up despite the 10-degree weather and recent city-stalling snowstorm. I myself am avidly pro-choice (and have been since I read The Cider House Rules in high school) so I will admit I was less than pleased to find myself among the throng of pro-life…

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Review: “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Extended Edition”

Given that the release date for The Hobbit:  The Battle of the Five Armies is now less than a month away, I thought I would take a few moments to review the Extended Edition for The Desolation of Smaug, which I finally had the pleasure of watching the other day.  While I have not had time to go through all of the extras (and thus will not review them here), I did have time to watch the entirety of the film with the added footage, and I have to say that these are 25 minutes that are well worth watching.  They not only help to expand on some of the more vague moments of the theatrical edition, but also help set the stage for the release of The Battle of the Five Armies.

To begin with, they help to clarify the motivation and development of several key characters, most notably Beorn.  The great skin-changer got a bit of short-shrift in the theatrical edition, and the extended edition features some crucial new scenes with him, including the gradual introduction of the Dwarves.  Though Beorn remains as aloof and inscrutable as always, his new scenes do allow for a least a measure of levity in what a film that characterized by a significant degree of encroaching darkness.  Though he is still on screen for a fraction of the film, this Beorn is someone we can genuinely like, even if we are also aware of just how dangerous he can, even to those who are his allies.

There were also several new scenes that flesh out the Master of Laketown, easily one of the film’s most gloriously campy (yet sinister!) villains.  Stephen Fry is, as always, deliciously slimy and evil, but these new scenes also help us realize that he may not be as in charge of his fortunes and his desires as he would like everyone to think.  Alfred, like many other characters of Tolkien’s universe (including his most obvious parallel, Grima Wormtongue), is incredibly skilled at both flattery and manipulation, allowing the Master to think that he is the one with all of the ideas, when in fact it is Alfred that is (ever so subtly) pulling the strings.  All of this neatly sets the stage for what will no doubt be a cathartic moment when the Master and Alfred get their well-deserved comeuppances (there is also a viscerally disgusting scene involving the messy eating of bollocks, but I won’t go into that here).

Most notable, however, was the addition of Thrain to the Gandalf in Dol Guldur sequence.  Maddened by his long imprisonment, this is a Thrain that is a mere demented shadow of his former self, though Gandalf does help to restore some measure of his sanity.  Of course, we in the audience (especially those of us who have read the novels), know that the venerable Dwarf will never escape Dol Guldur, a bit of knowledge that proves all too true as he is snatched from Gandalf’s side by the increasingly powerful Necromancer.  His pleading with Gandalf to tell Thorin that he loves him pulls at the heart-strings, even as the revelation that his Ring of Power was taken from him reveals what is at stake in his imprisonment.  (It is important to remember that though we know that Sauron is seeking the One Ring and its fellows, Gandalf does not, presumably, realize this yet).

There are many more additional bits of footage that largely serve to flesh out the narrative.  The scene in Mirkwood with the crossing of the stream (and the white stag!) are included here, which enhance the feeling that this is a wood shrouded with the darkest and most sinister of enchantments.  I remember feeling that this sequence was a bit muddled and rushed in the theatrical cut, but those issues have largely been addressed by this new footage.  There are, of course, numerous other scenes that are lengthened by minutes (and sometimes seconds) and, while these do not pack the punch of their longer brethren, they do nevertheless give a sense of fullness and roundness to the production that was notably lacking in the theater.

In short, the addition of these pivotal scenes renders this into the film that it should have been.  Crucial gaps in narrative logic and character development were filled quite nicely, leaving us with a more complete sense of what Jackson was trying to accomplish with this second volume of The Hobbit trilogy.  Like the extended editions of LoTR, these new editions of The Hobbit should, in my opinion, be considered the definitive version of these texts, a more fully-developed and well-articulated version of the story that Jackson is trying to tell.  If you take my advice, you’ll definitely watch the extended edition of Desolation of Smaug before heading to see The Battle of the Five Armies.

Unruly Instruction: Pedagogy, Feminism, and the Unruly Woman

Metathesis

Hello world! It is a pleasure to be the blogger this month for Metathesis and I look forward to sharing my thoughts on a few different topics with our readers. Don’t forget—if you like this blog YOU, TOO could be a contributor. Check out our CFP here

For my first post I thought I would share a (very) condensed version of a paper I presented at Syracuse’s annual Future Professoriate Program Conference in Spring 2013. Last year, a colleague of mine (and, full disclosure, editor of this blog) organized a panel on “embodied pedagogy” and invited me and a fellow colleague to participate. I had never deeply considered the term “embodied pedagogy” before, yet a recent course evaluation had me questioning my physical presence in my classroom and its relationship to my pedagogical strategies. On an evaluation for my British Literature survey course, a student responded to a prompt to…

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“American Horror Story: Freak Show” Review: “Bullseye”

Well, the title of this week’s episode of American Horror Story pretty much sums up my viewing experience.  It hit all of the right notes:  the acting was on par, the narrative was nice and tightly focused while still moving forward, and there were some interesting cinematographic choices that really showed how dexterous some of the directors for this series can be.  And, last but not least, there were some compelling bits of character development that are, I suspect, going to have some pretty significant consequences in the episodes to come.

To start with the last point first, what really stood out to me this episode was how Dandy and Elsa have come to be mirror images of one another.  Both persist in engaging in their own delusional fantasies; both are supported by someone who clearly loves and cares for them, even against all the evidence; and both are clearly capable of murder.  Yet tonight’s episode threw a bit of a twist into the comparison.  Whereas Elsa continues to cling to her own delusions of grandeur, as well as her self-proclaimed love for her “monsters,” Dandy finally comes to recognize his own monstrosity.  Of course, that doesn’t make his monstrosity, nor his murderous compulsions, any the less horrifying, but it does allow us to see the ways in which Elsa’s delusions are nearly as dangerous and destructive, both to herself and others, as Dandy’s.

What’s more, the scene between Elsa and Ethel revealed a great deal about both of their characters.  While Ethel has so far been willing to take Elsa at her word where the twins are concerned–and who could fail to be touched by the fact that she went forward with the plan to give Elsa her piece of birthday cake–tonight she also made clear that she is not above exacting her own violent form of justice should she find that her boss has been lying to her about their whereabouts.  The fact that Elsa reveals in this scene her feeling that Ethel is the sister she never met (although how we are supposed to read her sincerity is up for debate), coupled with her poignant birthday wish that she only wants to be loved, added a note of wistfulness and melancholy to this episode.  Say what you will about Elsa, but the way that Lange portrays her makes her tug on your heart strings even as you revile her.

The narrative tonight, while not as gripping nor as adrenaline-filled as the last two weeks’, nevertheless gave us a bit of a respite from the absolute depths of horror and terror while still moving the plot forward.  There are still quite a few balls in the air, especially since Dell was nowhere to be seen tonight, and Dandy is still the wild card that he always has been.  And I, for one, still do not trust that Dandy’s mother doesn’t have something up her sleeve.  There was a moment tonight, right after Dandy announced that he knew that he had been put on earth to kill, that suggested that there might be more to her than meets the eye (and I have thought this from the beginning).  Frances Conroy is too brilliant, and too nuanced, of an actress to simply portray a one-dimensional character.

No review of this episode would be complete without mentioning the colour scheme, especially the nifty juxtaposition of Dot’s and Bette’s bows.  My good friend Brian Faucette pointed out to me the Sirkian elements of this season of AHS, and nowhere is this more conspicuously on display than here.  The lurid, almost Technicolor quality of Dot’s red bow in particular practically screamed out for interpretation, but I don’t think it’s so easy to map onto their respective personalities; neither of them is pure.  Nevertheless, the red does at least help us to understand the complex knot of emotions at the heart of Dot’s character and, just as importantly, it also helps us to understand just how close her and Dandy are (since he is also dressed primarily in red).  In this world, no one is safe from being pulled into the vortex of the darkness of the human spirit.

All in all, this episode hit all of the right spots to be a success.  While I wouldn’t say that this was the strongest outing from this season, it did contain enough formal and narrative complexity to make it one of the more interesting.  Hopefully, things will pick up a little bit next episode.  AHS can pull off these slower episodes every once in a while, but hopefully it won’t become a habit.

Re-Reading “Harry Potter”–“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”

Since it’s been a while since I posted about my return to the world of Harry Potter, I thought I’d finally get down to writing about the third volume, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  Although its film version is by far my favourite of all of the films, the book version is not my favourite of the series, though it does mark, in my opinion, a significant turning point in the way that the story develops and is for that reason a linchpin in understanding the series as a whole.

If the first two books saw Voldemort neatly defeated and banished back to his in-between life, this book finally starts to suggest that he may in fact be making a more significant and longer-lasting return.  The revelation that Scabbers the rat–a character that, while tangential, has nevertheless maintained a constant presence in the earlier two novels–is in fact Wormtail is sheer brilliance, as it forces us to reflect on just how much of the doings of the wizarding world were inadvertently revealed to him after Voldemort’s original fall from power.

What is most striking and enjoyable about this novel, however, is the way in which the big reveal brings so much else of the narrative into clearer focus.  I have written before about how it is only after you have read the entire series that you can recognize the gradually-unfolding brilliance and structure of the whole, and I think this novel illustrates that fact better than any of the others.  It is only after we find out about Wormtail’s real identity, as well as Sirius’ innocence, that we recognize the instability of meaning and everything that we have up until now taken for granted about this world.

And speaking of Wormtail…in many ways, I find him to be the most reprehensible character in all of the Potterverse, even more than the horrid Malfoys and even Lord Voldemort himself.  There is something disgustingly lurid about his absolute cowardice and his willingness to betray even those who loved him best, all out of his alleged fear of what the Dark Lord was capable of doing.  Mind you, I’m not entirely sure that I take Wormtail at his word that his reason for submitting to Volodemort was his fear.  It seems just as likely to me that he was as ambitious and ruthless as any of the Death Eaters but found it convenient (and safe) to hide behind his mask of ineptitude.  That, I think, makes him even more reprehensible.

Just as importantly, this novel finally begins the series’ turn toward the endlessly and relentlessly tragic.  As we learn throughout this novel, both Lupin and Sirius have suffered unjustly because of the conditions that govern their world.  Lupin’s affliction in particular has decidedly queer overtones, as the Wizarding world’s rejection of him as a result of his werewolf nature evokes the specter of what happened to those with AIDS during the height of the pandemic.  And the injustice of Sirius having been imprisoned all of these years, while tragic and profoundly pathos-inducing in itself, is only compounded by the fact that everyone believes he betrayed the people that he loved most.  One cannot help but wonder how he could live with that knowledge through those long years of imprisonment in the worst place imaginable (Harry wonders something along the same lines in The Order of the Phoenix).

This novel, in other words, begins the slow process of revealing just how repressive the Wizarding world truly is.  While we have gained glimpses of this in the earlier references to the obsession with blood purity and the Malfoys’ ability to manipulate those who are in power, Prisoner really begins to tear away the flights of fancy motif of the first two novels to reveal the darker, more sinister side of the magical realm.  The fact that this world relies on a prison that uses the Dementors–easily one of the most potently evil and unpleasant forces in this universe–as the guards indicates what type of world we are dealing with, and it is not a very flattering portrait.

Lastly, no review of this novel would be complete without at least mentioning the vitriolic and unpleasant Aunt Marge.  Though she disappears from the narrative early on, she leaves a lasting impression, as Harry remains haunted by his lack of knowledge about his father.  What stands out most to me about the scene where she continues to assault his parents’ is just how angry became while reading it.  Small wonder that he loses control and ends up blowing her up to several times her normal size.  And small wonder that he reacts with such joy when he thinks that it is his father who has summoned the Patronus charm, and with such disappointment when he realizes that it was himself all along.  It will not be the first time we weep with Harry, as my next Harry Potter post will show.

A Faculty Perspective on Shutting Down Crouse-Hinds

THE General Body

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Dear Chancellor Syverud,

I write to appeal to you to stop and not repeat the lock-down situation in Crouse-Hinds that took place this weekend. I am a tenured faculty member who was worked at SU for 18 years and who has served in various leadership capacities at SU, as a former Department Chair and as the former Agenda Chair of the University Senate.

After a long day working on campus with various committee meetings and students,  I went to Crouse-Hinds on Friday at 6 p.m. to visit several students participating in the sit-in. Two of my doctoral students and one undergraduate student I mentor were e inside taking part in the sit-in. I wanted to check up on them and make sure they were doing OK. I also wanted to see if I could do anything for them–provide food, necessities, or anything they might need for school work as well as let them know I…

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Review: “Interstellar”

This is not the 2001:  A Space Odyssey You’re Looking For

Warning:  Full spoilers follow.

I went into Christopher Nolan’s new opus expecting our generation’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey, one of the most visually and philosophically profound films I have ever seen.  Indeed, there are only two films that have really come close to capturing (for me, at least) something of the terrifying beauty and force of the sublime (the other being the original version of Solaris).  Going into Interstellar, especially having paid extra to see it in IMAX (not, alas, on celluloid), I expected something similar, something that would challenge my sense of self, my subjectivity, if you will.

To my disappointment, I got a film that was beautiful in terms of its aesthetics and impoverished in its saccharine, trite narrative and overused trope that love conquers all.  To summarize briefly, Cooper (McConaughey), a retired NASA pilot, is called upon by his former employers to save mankind from an extinction caused by the growing levels of nitrogen in the atmosphere.  He sets off with a team, including Amelia (Anne Hathaway), heading through a wormhole (created by 5th-dimensional beings) that will take them to a galaxy that may contain planets that can sustain human life, leaving behind his daughter Murph (played as an adult by Jessica Chastain).  Eventually, he is able to get in touch with his daughter and avert the extinction of mankind, and at the end of the film he sets off in search of Amelia, who may have landed on one of the other planets and begun a new colony.

There is much to like about this film.  The acting is solid (for the most part), and it seems quite genuine in its attempt to ask some of the larger questions about the nature of time and our relationship to it (see below).  At the same time, however, it relied on far too many irritatingly problematic cliches that Nolan of all people should be able to avoid.  At one point, for example, Hathaway’s Amelia breaks down into tears and explains that love is what has motivated her choice for which planet they should explore, not the objective science utilized by her male co-pilots.  The fact that we as viewers are invited to both question the validity of her emotionality and ultimately take it for granted (she is a woman, after all, and we know what emotional creatures they are), indicates just how shortsighted and annoyingly cliche the film’s gender politics remain.  And, of course, in typical sci-fi fashion, the only person of colour is killed off and forgotten (though this happens fairly late in the film, he’s never fully developed as a character).  White men, as always, get to save the human race, while the women and people of colour get to stand on the sidelines (or, in Amelia’s case, serve as the biological propagator of the new branch of humanity).

To be fair, though, Interstellar is a beautiful film, with absolutely stunning cinematography and composition.  It’s just that the beauty, unlike in 2001, doesn’t really serve to do anything substantive or meaningful, caught up (and bogged down) as it is in the ruthlessly heterosexual love plot that could have come straight out of a screenwriter’s how to manual.  I wouldn’t belabour the unfavourable comparisons to 2001 if the film wasn’t so insistent on drawing attention to that earlier work, but I suppose that’s unavoidable in a film of this scope and with this particular subject.  If you’re going to make an homage, however, you should make sure that it’s at least as good as the original, even if tackling different issues.

As I said earlier, the film raises some compelling questions about time and about our relationship to ourselves.  Perhaps the most fascinating instance of this is film’s use of excerpts from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl, which appear sporadically throughout the film.  For those in the know, this generates an uncanny frisson of pleasurable terror, as we gradually realize that the past and the present have come together and that this world, which lives in the terror of the growing power of dust storms, is what will become of ours.  In the end, however, the neat resolution of the plot undercuts the philosophical complexity that the film might have raised if it was willing, like its predecessor, to eschew the common expectations of what narratives do.  Perhaps, in this era of the blockbuster and the studio assumption that people are idiots who want mindless entertainment, this is all we can expect of a film of this magnitude.

For myself, though, I think I’ll go back to 2001:  A Space Odyssey.