Sunday, February 21, 2010

Culture Corner: Star Wars III

Here is the last installment of my serenely calm examination of the first three Star Wars films.



Unlike I and II, III has at least a clear story line: Mr. Lucas had to accomplish definite things to link with IV. But with advances in CGI and SFX, this one is even more dependent on mere visual glitter than the first: the incomprehensible opening battle is a good example. Alas, Mr. Lucas and his coterie of animators and computerists have been seduced by the dark... I mean, have reached the point where in their minds flashy things on the screen are a desirable substitute for story and acting. The com-mentary is taken up by the usual technicians putting on airs, telling us how ingenious they are, preening themselves on their mastery of the “cutting edge” techniques of making movies without sets (or actors).
Look, you rude mechanicals, what you are doing is making cartoons. People have been making cartoons since the 1930s. Your cartoons are, indeed, more elaborate than, say, Steamboat Willie, but not inherently more moving or entertaining. Get over yourselves, computer boys. We do not stand in awe of your creations because making them uses some shiny new thingamajig. Illogic, nonsense, plot holes a mile wide, glitz for the sake of glitz, do not become great because they are confected on blue screens. You would be doing more service to movies by reminding Mr. Lucas of this fact than by praising to the skies his every idea and enabling his increasing dependence on whiz-bangs cover up his lack of substance.
My chief objections concern the end of the film.
Anakin joins the Sith primarily to save Padmé from death. But Palpatine finally tells him that this can be done only with additional research. (“If we work together, I know we can discover the secret.”) Since Padmé is to die in childbirth, however, and is nine months pregnant, it does not seem that there is much time to do this research, does it? Anakin should at this point have realized that Palpatine can do nothing to save his wife, and has been lying to him.
Padmé’s death is entirely unconvincing. She is in good physical health. She is conscious and rational: she names her children. Then she dies. Why? Of a broken heart? Would not her maternal desire to raise two healthy babies keep her alive? Would she die and abandon them? The real cause of Padmé’s death is the plot: Mr. Lucas has to get rid of her because she never appears in IV - VI (except for Leia’s now-obsolete comment that she remembers her mother, which is impossible). Surely our great auteur could have come up with a more convincing way to dispose of her.
“Hidden, safe, the children must be kept,” says guess who. Yes, fine. How shall we do this? Let’s give the girl to Bail Organa, one of the most conspicuous figures in the senate. No one will notice her then. As for the boy: “to Tatooine and his family send him.” (That will fool the Emperor and Darth Vader--they’d never think to look there, would they?)
Mr. Lucas should have hired a writer--several writers. He no longer has the imagination and skill to write good scripts. He is interested mainly in spectacle (and marketing. Several times I almost wrote Lucre instead of Lucas.) He has been seduced by... oops, there I go again.
One last, finicky note: I wish that Obi-Wan Kenobi did not look like Tsar Nicholas II. It is disturbing for any historians who happen to watch the film.
It would be churlish, after this philippic, not to commend Mr. Lucas for Star Wars IV. A New Hope is a masterpiece. Mr. Lucas was inspired in his plotting and characters, and tireless in making the film in spite of all difficulties. He created a world we all love to see and heroes we love to root for. Bravo!

Perhaps Mr. Lucas started so very well that there was no way to go but down. Maybe, like Harper Lee in literature or Leoncavallo and Mascagni in music, he had only one great work in him. Maybe the crude state of Special Effects helped him: he could not use his glitzmeisters to cloud the screen with mere spectacle and he was thus forced to depend more on his talent and wits, which atrophied as it became easier to cover up poor plot and characters with bigger explosions.

How are the mighty fallen!

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Test of the Future

A major trend in secondary (and, for all I know, primary and college) education is to downplay the acquisition of factual knowledge in favor of such things as "critical thinking," "relevance," and catering to supposed "learning styles." In a short time--perhaps already--we may expect to see certain modifications in traditional tests--insofar as "tests" are given at all, there also being some feeling among those advocating "alternative assesment techniques" that expecting students to know things is really quite an obsolete notion. Here is my contribution to more "user-friendly" examinations, a presage of what forms of traditional evaluation may survive into the next decade.


EUROPE 1870-1945 (Senior Elective) / Dr. Libby
Final Exam, Winter Term / 20 Points

ESSAY. (4 points)

Write at least three sentences (or fragments) showing that Adolf Hitler was not a nice man.
(If you prefer, you may write about Joseph Stalin).

CHRONOLOGY. Arrange these important battles of World War I in the order they occurred by numbering them from 1 to 5 (1 being the earliest event, 2 the second, 3 the third, and so on all the way to 5, which is the last.) ( 5 pts.)

____ The 9th Battle of the Isonzo

____ The 3rd Battle of the Isonzo

____ The 7th Battle of the Isonzo

____ The 11th Battle of the Isonzo

____ The 5th Battle of the Isonzo

TRUE/FALSE. (1 point each.)

____ Russia is bigger than Belgium.

____ Benito Mussolini was Italian.

____ Germany and Japan lost World War II.

____ Many people died in World War I

____ Belgium is not bigger than Russia

IDENTIFICATIONS. Do any one. Skip any four. ( 4 points.)

1. The Battle of Caporetto

2. The Blomberg-Fritsch Crisis

3. The Beer Hall Putsch

4. The Reichstag Fire

5. Your mother

GEOGRAPHY. (2 pts.) Put these items on the accompanying map of Europe, using the numbers.

1. Land

2. Water

Note: If this test is too "high stakes"--if it gives you a headache, causes convulsions, or induces a negative self-image--you may instead write 500 words on the topic "What hockey means to me." Note that for "hockey" you may substitute "soccer," "figure skating," or "Ritalin."

Kinesthetic students may, instead of taking the test, perform an interpretative dance on the Battle of Verdun or the Stock Market Crash.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Culture Corner: Star Wars II

A look at the second film in the series:


This weak film features several very large plot holes. The most obvious is the inability of the Jedi Order to see Anakin Skywalker’s unfitness for his job.
Anakin is a precocious boy with little discipline. He is a hothead, a loose cannon, and emotionally involved with Padmé. He is not yet a good Jedi. But the Jedi Council--that collection of oh-so-sapient magi presided over by the Green Guru--ignores Obi-Wan’s explicit warning and sends Anakin to guard Padmé. (“The Council is confident in its decision.”)
A major source of Anakin’s anxiety is his mother. This problem could of course have been solved if it had occurred to anyone to buy her freedom and bring her to Coruscant, but nobody cares about poor Shmi. Even her loving son, with all his powers, is unable to come up with such a brainstorm as setting her free. And how limited communications seem to be in the galaxy: there have been no messages between Anakin and his mother for years. One thinks she would drop him a line occasionally--at least a postcard, if she can’t afford a hologram--to mention little things like her marriage. Anakin might even try to write to her.
Obi-Wan and Anakin go to tremendous lengths to run down Zam, the assassin. When Zam is killed, however, and the two Jedi see the killer take off via rocket-pack, they just sit there looking at the dart. Why not chase him?
The diner scene is what Mr. Lucas calls a “homage to American Graffiti,” but it is still idiotic. The resources of the Galactic Republic cannot discover where a dart comes from, but a short-order cook can (a cook who of course prospected “on Subterrel beyond the Rim”, but apparently without much success considering the job he now has). And how humble of Mr. Lucas to pay homage to himself.
Among all the bizarre fairy-tale creatures with which Mr. Lucas populates his universe, the Kaminians are the silliest. These effeminate giraffes hardly seem tough enough to run a war college, and they are so dumb they cannot see that Obi-Wan has not been sent to collect the clone army but is an intruder. (Jango Fett deduces this instantly.) Given such stupidity, one wonders how the Kaminians have managed to figure out how to clone humans. But they are very generous in granting credit to customers: they have never written anyone about the 1,200,000 clones they think the Jedi ordered; instead, they wait years for someone to show up and ask how things are going. (And who is paying for all this? Who’s writing checks to Kamino? Why don’t the Jedi try to find out?)
The comment track reinforces what I said before. The mechanics again bloviate on how clever they are. See how Sebulba’s tentacles move! Behold him walking on his hands! Lo! Lama Su brushes his knee! (“An extra level of acting and realism” says the commentator. Really.)
The weirdest scene in any of the films is Scene 23 in this one. Senator Amidala—who, we recall, is five years Anakin’s senior—tells her young admirer they cannot fall in love. [As Mr. Lucas mellifluously puts it in the commentary, “She’s obviously older and, and, you know, in a professional thing that a queen, a senator, a leader so that she’s much more reality-based in all of this…”] When giving Anakin this message, Ms. Amidala chooses to wear a strapless black leather bustier and shoulder-high gloves, and to meet her ardent bodyguard on a comfy sofa in a richly-furnished darkened room with a cozy fire burning on the hearth.
If this film had any depth, one would assume that the senator is actually trying to seduce Anakin, saying no with words but yes in every other way, or that she is setting him up for an assault charge when the overheated teenage Jedi quite understandably jumps on her.
But because the film has no depth, we may infer that this scene is a tiny serving of cheesecake made to the long-suffering daddies accompany-ing their tots to this kiddie flick—a motif that is repeated at the end of the film, when Ms. Portman, wearing a form-fitting body stocking, has her costume lacerated by a big ugly monster, exposing her cute midriff, after which her bosom unaccountably gets bosomier in subsequent scenes until she is very bouncy indeed at 2:10:26. The commentary track, usually so loquacious, does not specify if this involves CGI, although the effect is certainly more enticing than Lama Su brushing his knee. (The reader will understand my attention to such details is evidence only of rigorous scholarship.)

So farewell to Star Wars II, another testimony to Mr. Lucas’s inability to write any more decent or logical scripts, to the poverty of his mind, to the victory of appearance over substance. But let us close with a game. I was hoping to see, among all the wondrous machines shown on the bonus disk, the Alphabet Soup Generator that picks character names. From the list below, select the memorable names of real characters from among the silly names I made up.

1 - Fangor Pondictat

2 - Cronash Tal-Avarin

3 - Figraz Kloongarth

4 - Oppo Racisis

5 - Depa Billaba

6 - Pooja Naberrie

7 - Sio Bibble

8 - Plo Koo

9 - Ash Aak

10 - Elan Sleazebaggano

11 - Gilranos Libkath

12 - Triz Estonna

Answer: Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 12 are mine. The others are Mr. Lucas’s.

Monday, February 1, 2010


Here is a chapter from And Gladly Teach, my satirical look at life at a prep school. This is Chapter 5.
And Gladly Teach was published in 2001. It's set at St. Lawrence Academy (SLA), an entirely fictional location.

As part of the opening week’s meetings, the faculty was introduced to Dr. Rodney L. Glennis, the founder and president of the firm of Broad Horizons, Inc., educational consultants. SLA had hired Broad Horizons to study all aspects of school life and to recommend ways to attract more students, reduce expenses, and, in general, make more money. (As a non-profit organization SLA was naturally very concerned with making as much money as possible.)

What is a “consultant”? The dictionary says, “an expert who is called on for professional or technical advice,” but a far more comprehensive definition might be “someone who is paid a lot of money to figure out things you ought to be able to figure out for yourself.” Another definition, apt for the sort of consultant the educational world produces, is “someone who, not liking to be a teacher or an an administrator, now makes more money than either by telling them how to teach and administrate.”

The world of education teems with consultants, it seethes with them, it is lousy with them. There is probably no school in the country whose substance has not been drained by at least one of these academic lampreys. It is not easy to say why communities consisting of well-educated adults, with decades of experience in every aspect of their profession, shell out thousands of dollars to these self-proclaimed experts. But they do. In the private school world there are even consultants to whom parents can go for the purpose of finding the “right” school for their child. This is a particularly lucrative field, since parents driven to use such services are so desperate to get their kid(s) out of the house that they will pay any amount to find a school which will take them. Such consultants, with just a computer, a phone, a copy of the Bunting & Lyon guide, and a knowledge of which schools are in financial trouble, could place Jack the Ripper in a private school, for a suitable fee.

Dr. Glennis (exactly what he was a doctor of was not clear, but the title engendered confidence in his clients) was a tall, gaunt, balding man in his late fifties, with bushy brows and bright brown eyes. He had arrived with a staff of three and several suitcases full of charts, tables, graphs, and overheads. He spoke for two solid hours. He painted an unnerving picture of the future. He explained how American teenagers were with each passing minute becoming stupider, lazier, and more undisciplined, how their parents were becoming less and less competent at raising them, how independent schools would soon be inundated with these creatures, and how any school which hoped to survive would have to develop “new and innovative programs,” “a clearer vision of viable objectives,” and “a distinctive cachet to proclaim itself unique among the profusion of similar institutions.”
All the while he spoke, his aides were busy flashing transparencies on the screen and whisking them away before the squinting audience could deduce their meaning, if indeed they had any. One chart was displayed upside-down, but that really made no difference.
“Broad Horizons has been conducting an in-depth study of SLA, which will be concluded shortly. We will then be in a position to make further recommendations as to how you can improve recruitment and retention. You have already taken a great step forward by energizing your hockey program, as I recommended to the Board two years ago.”

“So it’s his fault,” whispered several of the teachers.

“SLA cannot rest on its academics. Remember, parents take for granted that every independent school has an excellent teaching staff, superb courses, unlimited individual attention, and fine college preparatory opportunities. That’s a given.”

Now many teachers were glancing at each other. Was this true? Were parents really that dumb?
“What you must have is a further extra-curricular, I mean co-curricular, ...” Dr. Glennis’s volubility momentarily stopped. The word he had almost used, “gimmick,” didn’t seem elevated enough. Then he went on, “... dimension. which will individualize your identity. You must not be thought of as a ‘plain vanilla’ school, but rather as a Neapolitan one, a sort of tutti-frutti, which offers things unique, distinctive, sui generis!”

The teachers didn’t clap, partly because they were mostly appalled, and partly because they did not know he was done. But he was done, for the moment.

In the back row Mr. Vetter turned to Mr. del Rey. “But I like vanilla,” he whispered plaintively.
Mr. Jones, the European History teacher, a crabbed and reactionary man who had a particularly low tolerance for consultants, and indeed for innovations in general, looked at his schedule and noted with regret that tomorrow another speaker would appear. Mr. Jones often wondered who did this scheduling. He thought it was done by the Senior Staff, or SS, at its weekly meeting. The term SS did not mean--as one might think--those members of the faculty who had been at SLA for the longest time. No, the SS was an ex officio group which did not include any full-time teachers. Exactly who it did include was hard to say. Mr. Jones had never seen any list which specified the members of the Senior Staff. The SS exercised power anonymously, like the Venetian Council of Ten, the Neapolitan Camarilla, and the Illuminati. Perhaps the members had a secret handshake or a special tie clip. At any rate, these ghostly councillors seemed to be responsible for bringing to the campus the succession of quacks, mountebanks, and assorted humbugs who periodically bedevilled the busy teachers with their crackpot theories and impractical advice.

On the morrow, the latest speaker turned out to be some sort of child psychologist, an adolescent development “expert.” His presentation was so bizarre that many of the teachers wondered if it was an elaborate practical joke, similar to the one at a convention some years before where the keynote speaker, billed as Margaret Thatcher’s educational advisor and the youngest pilot to have flown with the RAF in the Battle of Britain, turned out to be a comedian. Certainly the clouds of jargon which befogged the room had about them an aura of comic implausibility.

First came something called the “Optimal Environmental Conditions” (which made Mr. Jones think of seventy degrees and low humidity,) which were engendered by a teacher having “Congruent Anticipatory Sets” with his students. This led, somehow, to “Cognitive Behavioral Change.” Intervention in student discipline would succeed, said the speaker, only if “environmental conditions” were “appropriate.” One had to “assess the lethality” of a situation so that one could provide “value-added opportunities” which students would “buy into.”
With everyone reeling from this barrage, the speaker--Dr. somebody, they were always “doctors”--physician, heal thyself--went on to the topic of “Gaining a Meta-Perspective.” A “teacher-student interaction” was something which happened on the “subjective level.” When the teacher then discussed this “interaction” with one or more colleagues, he gained a “meta-perspective.” A discussion of this discussion furnished one with a “meta-meta-perspective.” And ...
Mr. Jones quietly got up and went away. He knew that he might be reprimanded for this desertion, but he thought that a reprimand would be preferable to being jailed for murdering the speaker, which, given his state of mind, was his only alternative to departure. On his way home he marvelled, not for the first time, at his colleagues’ patience in tolerating these verbal assaults. He knew that SLA was not unique. All over the country, probably all over the world, these “experts” were going to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down in it, chanting their incomprehensible mantras to captive audiences at conventions, school openings, and faculty meetings, and being well-paid for doing so.

At least, thought Mr. Jones as he entered his apartment and sank into his easy chair, this guy hadn’t had us “break up into little groups.” That was a favorite technique of those people. The faculty would be divided into squads of five or six and sent hither and yon to discuss some problem concocted by the speaker. Often each group would be instructed to write its collective thoughts with a magic marker on large, poster-sized sheets of paper. When the faculty reconvened, the speaker would pin up the sheets of paper all around the room, so it resembled a kindergarten, and then everyone would compare the various ideas and try to find “congruence.” After it was found--and it always was--the now-congruent teachers could go home, the speaker would gather up the posters and throw them away, and no one would ever hear or speak of the matter again. This was called a “very productive meeting.”

Looking at the school calendar, Mr. Jones saw that in two weeks the faculty would hear from a firm of architects. He smiled wryly. This would be the third or fourth architectural presentation in about as many years. The Headmaster and the Board were always coming up with wonderful plans for renovating the dorms and classrooms, erecting new buildings, and generally modernizing the campus. This led (of course) to hiring a consultant, who, in return for a few tens of thousands of dollars, would produce plans of striking beauty and marvellous utility. These beautiful plans would be displayed at a faculty meeting and explained by a voluble expert who would make it seem as if paradise would come as soon as the school built the magnificent structures so carefully delineated on his expensive charts.

Mr. Jones recalled the plan for the huge field house connected to Laud Hall by an aerial walkway; the completely-renovated boys’ dorm, with its suites and lounges; the new main entrance to the school, which would have made coming to SLA an experience similar to that of arriving at Versailles. Ah, yes, they were all so wonderful...

The only problem was that none of them was ever built. SLA had barely enough money to perform the routine maintenance required to keep its existing buildings from falling to the ground. Starting work on the architects’ plans depended on a successful Capital Campaign, and this campaign, for which (of course) consultants had been repeatedly hired and paid more tens of thousands of dollars, never started. It never started because the consultants said that one does not start a capital campaign until after half the money has already been raised quietly and behind the scenes, so as to convince prospective donors that the whole amount would indeed be collected, and so far the SLA Board and alumni who were solicited had not promised enough.
And so the architectural plans remained, insubstantial and fairylike: pleasure-domes decreed but never built, until replaced by other, newer, ephemeral drawings and evanescent figments of imagination.

Mr. Jones reflected that if the Headmaster and the Board could remove the opium pipes from their teeth and come down to planet Earth, they might take all the money spent on these consultants and just do something useful with it, like repairing the scandalously decrepit boys’ showers. In thinking this, however, Mr. Jones was merely demonstrating that he would never be a Headmaster, because he lacked “Strategic Vision.” Strategic Vision is the ability to ignore mundane realities completely and to immerse oneself in a world of dreams. All great educational leaders have it.

As for Mr. Jones, well, he really felt, after being exposed to all these consultants, advisors, and experts, that a school in need of guidance would be better off if it hired an astrologer. The fees would be less, and the advice every bit as reliable.
From the back cover:

And Gladly Teach is funny, sarcastic, poignant, outrageous, light-hearted, serious, and more realistic than you would wish to believe. It is also short and has a happy ending. It is highly recommended for reading on long plane rides, at the beach, and at dull faculty meetings (as long as you sit way in back so the Headmaster can't see you.)