Previous month:
January 2015
Next month:
March 2015

oscar run 7: virunga (orlando von einsiedel, 2014)

(Nominated for Best Feature Documentary)

Advocacy journalism about the attempt to preserve and protect Virunga National Park in Eastern Congo. At first glance, this seems like a typical subject for a passionate documentary. You can imagine details about how our treatment of the planet is leading us down an unfortunate path … you might know that the park houses some of the last remaining mountain gorillas … you enter into the film hoping to learn something about the topic.

What makes Virunga a different topic from the norm is that the ways humans are impacting on the park are varied, and sadly out of the ordinary. There are poachers, which is familiar territory. There is the evil multinational, also familiar. There is also the civil war in the Congo, which threatens not just the park but entire communities. Against all of this, the park rangers seem seriously undermanned … they can barely keep track of the poachers, much less deal with the British oil company that wants to drill within the park. And when the rebel forces approach the main compound of the rangers, and we have seen the destruction that comes in their wake, that handful of rangers with their rifles are figures of sad bravery. When one ranger says he is ready to die for a gorilla, the film makers have set things up so we understand his commitment, and we understand that he might indeed die defending the park and the animals.

There are factions within factions, with people in every group ready to sell out to the oil company for instant money. (Every group except the park rangers.) Virunga doesn’t present the issues behind the civil war with much clarity, but I don’t think they intended to. Their mission is to tell the world about the threat to the park. Near the end of the film, a French investigative journalist says her fear is that the movie and the associated exposés will grab people’s attention for a day or two, only to fade into the mass of news items.

It is always difficult to evaluate a film like Virunga, because the artistic endeavor and the political statement may exist on different levels. Is Virunga a good movie because it is beautifully shot, because it features interesting characters, because the setting in the Congo is intriguing? Or is it to be judged primarily by how effectively it makes its points. Obviously, the art informs the effectiveness, but the film makers don’t want us to casually toss off Virunga as a pretty movie with a point to make. They want us to help save Virunga National Park. And one way they convince us is by showing us the beauty of the park, the intensity of the relationships between rangers and gorillas, so that we know what is at stake. So yes, the artistic and the political go hand-in-hand, but I sense that if needed, they would junk the art if they didn’t think it was necessary to make their points. 7/10. A good companion piece would be last year’s documentary, The Square, which, like Virunga, was distributed in the States primarily via Netflix streaming. (The Square is also a great movie, well worth your time.)

oscar run 6: gone girl (david fincher, 2014)

(One Oscar nomination, Rosamund Pike for Best Actress.)

When I talk to myself, which happens frequently, I tell myself I’m not much of a fan of David Fincher. But I can never remember which of his films I’ve actually seen, beyond Seven, which I really hated. I just checked his filmography … I’ve seen Alien 3 (5/10), Fight Club and Zodiac (6/10), and The Social Network (8/10), plus I’ve got Benjamin Button sitting on my shelf awaiting my attention. I guess I could toss in House of Cards, which I gave up on before getting through the first season. Sometimes I think my favorite work of Fincher’s is the video for “Straight Up”. Mostly, I’ve skipped his movies because they didn’t seem that appealing to start with (insert obligatory nod to taste preferences). I’d seen the Noomi Rapace Dragon Tattoo, and that was enough for me, so I didn’t see Fincher’s version. Panic Room, The Game … I’m honestly surprised, I thought his filmography would be more imposing, somehow.

[This is where spoilers may creep in.]

One good thing about this is that I am not hyper-aware of Fincher’s tics. Reviews tell me that his style is all over Gone Girl, but I didn’t notice, because I don’t know enough about his style. So I wasn’t comparing Gone Girl to Zodiac as I watched. I was thinking about film noirs, or better still, Body Heat, another attempt to bring noir up to date (Body Heat’s “date” being 30+ years ago, of course). I didn’t make the Body Heat connection until halfway through the movie (those who have seen it know when this occurred), but after that …

Rosamund Pike deserves her nomination. She supposedly drew on Nicole Kidman’s performance in To Die For, and I can see that. Ultimately, I don’t think the role is written to be much different than the classic femme fatale, where the woman appears to be the root of all evil in part because she is trying to create a space for herself in a world of limited options. Pike is believable as such. Ben Affleck’s husband at least seems smarter than William Hurt in Body Heat (not a difficult task), and his likable nature as an actor is pleasing (still, one viewing of Dazed and Confused will show a different side of Affleck). He never quite loses that likable side, which throws Gone Girl off balance a bit. Pike’s character is far more interesting than Affleck’s, and she’s the one getting the Oscar nomination. But he plays the patsy to her dominant woman, and by the end of the film, I think we’re supposed to feel worse for him than for his wife.

It should be noted that I came to Gone Girl completely cold: I didn’t know the book, hadn’t really paid attention to the trailers, so I was genuinely startled at the halfway point. When that came around, my opinion went from “this is pretty good” to “whoa, this is getting better” pretty quickly. By the end, though, I was back in Pretty Good mode. Maybe it was a simple case of going on too long … Gone Girl is more than half-an-hour longer than Body Heat, and I’m not sure why. 7/10. If it isn’t clear by now, the best companion piece would be Body Heat.

music friday: maurice chevalier, "i'm glad i'm not young anymore"

The movie musical Gigi came out in 1958, and it was a big success. Based on a novel by Colette, it was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, and won every category in which it had a nomination. It was a favorite of my parents. In those days, you didn’t own copies of movies on VHS or DVD or Blu-ray. You saw it in a theater, and maybe it would turn up later on network television, and that was it. But, since Gigi was a musical, you could buy the soundtrack album and listen to your heart’s content. So a copy of the Gigi LP sat on the shelf in my parents’ record collection, and I heard it many times as a child. I imagine that’s one reason I love the movie to this day … it’s like comfort food.

The title song won the Oscar for Best Original Song, and the movie also won Best Original Score. I don’t know which other songs are still part of pop culture … I mean, the title song isn't exactly well-remembered. I’d guess that “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” is still in the mix. It’s sung by Maurice Chevalier, who charms his way throughout the film, no matter how retrograde some of his character’s ideas seem to modern audiences. “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” is fun but a bit creepy, considering Chevalier was 70 years old at the time. The song that still resonates, especially for people of a certain age, is “I Remember It Well”, sung by Chevalier and Hermione Gingold, a spring chicken at 61 in 1958.

I don’t think you have to be past 60 to appreciate the song … I loved it when I was just a tyke … but it quite knowingly works those in the audience who are in that age range. What interests me is my parents … when Gigi was released, my dad had just turned 34 and my mom was 30. But, at least as I remember it, “I Remember It Well” connected with them from the start.

Near the end of the movie, Chevalier offers “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore”. He sings it, as he sang most songs, with a twinkle in his eye. Chevalier’s reputation was a bit sullied during World War II, after which he was accused (and exonerated) of collaborating with the Nazis. (He turns up in a very odd scene in The Sorrow and the Pity, explaining his actions during the war.) But by 1958, he was a beloved old-time entertainer, exemplified by the Honorary Oscar he received alongside the nine Oscars Gigi picked up.

He wasn’t done … he lived to be 83.

Here is “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”:

“I Remember It Well”:

And “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore”:

Finally, here is Chevalier in The Sorrow and the Pity:

carta a una señorita en parís

When I was in grad school, I took two upper-division survey courses in Spanish-American literature to cover the language requirement for my English Ph.D. I was lucky to have two excellent professors, the amazing Francine Masiello, and the wonderful Julio Ramos. I used all of my Spanish classes at Cal to further my understanding of the language, and I have said at times that the one concrete thing I got out of my college education was a reasonable fluency in the language of my grandparents.

For this reason, I was driven to read as much of the literature as possible in the original Spanish. Oh, I’d make sure to have an English translation nearby … reading those diaries from the ships of Columbus wasn’t any easier than reading 15th-century English. But I’d always make the effort.

I remember reading many stories by Julio Cortázar, who qualifies for Throwback Thursday because he died 31 years ago today. One in particular has stayed with me for many years. It was called “Carta a una señorita en París” (“Letter to a Young Lady in Paris”). The story/letter begins with the writer explaining that he didn’t want to come live in the recipient’s apartment, because he didn’t want to “intrude on a compact order”:

[M]e duele ingresar en un orden cerrado, construido ya hasta en las más finas mallas del aire, esas que en su casa preservan la música de la lavanda, el aletear de un cisne con polvos, el juego del violín y la viola en el cuarteto de Rará.

It was slow going, as it always was for me when reading Spanish. Just before the above-quoted segment, the letter read, “No tanto por los conejitos” … I read this as “Not just because of the bunnies”. Didn’t make any sense to me, but I never really trusted my Spanish enough to think I was getting it right, and this odd reference wasn’t enough for me to go running to an English translation.

The rest of the opening paragraph continued further to explain how the writer felt uncomfortable changing the “compact order”. In the second paragraph, we learn what has brought him to stay in the apartment nonetheless: she is in Paris, and he is staying in her apartment until her return. Near the end of the paragraph comes another mention of the bunnies: “esta carta se la envío a causa de los conejitos”. OK, that’s two mentions of bunnies in two paragraphs. I know that “conejito” means “bunny” … it’s just the context that has me inching closer to the English translation at my side.

But in the third paragraph, as he describes moving into the apartment, he explains, “De cuando en cuando me ocurre vomitar un conejito.” I think I’ve got this translated … “From time to time I vomit a bunny.” Much of this paragraph, in fact, is about bunnies and vomiting. At least, that what I think it says. I’m starting to wish I had a better handle on magic realism, but mostly, I’m thinking, man, does my Spanish stink. When I read this, I think it’s about a man who vomits bunnies. That can’t be it … just how bad is my translation?

So I break down and start reading the story in an English translation. And, guess what? The man is indeed claiming to vomit bunnies.

Understand, I know so little about the real world that despite the word “conejito” (bunny), I’m thinking “conejo” (rabbit). That is, I’m imagining full-grown rabbits coming out of the writer’s mouth. And that seems a bit much, even for magic realism (if, in fact, that’s what this is). It was almost a relief when my wife later explained that new-born bunnies were indeed very, very small.

To this day, when I think of Cortázar, I think of the man who vomited rabbits.

they shoot pictures, don't they, 2015 edition

It’s out! The 1000 greatest films of all time, according to some method I’ve never bothered to figure out. The top ten is virtually unchanged, with Citizen Kane still #1, with the only difference from last year being The Seven Samurai (#9) switching places with The Searchers (now #10). The 21st Century list is “coming soon”. I’m sorry to see Midnight Run and Swing Time fall off of the list.

I’ve seen 42 of the 77 new additions to the list. Of the entire list of 1012 films, I’ve seen 586, which is 58%. The highest-ranked film I haven’t seen is #26, Andrei Rublev. Then, I only remember seeing one movie by Tarkovsky, Solaris, way back in the day … my only memory is that I was bored, but I might have still been a teenager.

The top directors are Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, and Federico Fellini. I love one of those directors, like a second, am ambivalent about a third, and seriously question a fourth. At least Godard is #5.

For what it’s worth, the #1 film(s) on the Top 50 list I did on Facebook a few years ago are #7 (The Godfather) and #21 (The Godfather: Part II).

masoo's TSPDT 1000 widget

oscar run 5: boyhood (richard linklater, 2014)

(Nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Supporting Actor/Actress.)

Film critics as a rule love innovation, love what is different, love what breaks them out of the lull of the norm. They watch lots of movies, and most of them blend together. So when a movie comes along that isn’t like every other movie, it gets a bit of extra attention from critics who, at the very least, are just glad they aren’t watching something they’ve seen a thousand times before.

As everyone knows by now, Boyhood was made under different circumstances than most other films. It’s a difference you can see on the screen. So right away, Richard Linklater gets brownie points for what seems unique (if reminiscent of the “Up” series). Similarly, Patricia Arquette’s performance is lauded, in part, because she allows herself to get older over the course of the making of the film. Ethan Hawke gets little attention for the same “trick”, mainly because the aging of male actors is more acceptable to the mainstream.

I do not hold these points against Linklater. I try not to let them be praiseworthy in themselves, though … what I want to know is if I like Boyhood, if I like Arquette’s performance, and within that context, the innovative strategies Linklater adopts matter.

Certainly, though, there is no denying the pleasures of seeing the characters (and the times being represented) grow over time in a “natural” way, rather than by the use of makeup, changing actors, CGI, or any of the other ways a movie can emulate a time and place. And I do think Linklater deserves praise for creating a project that could have gone wrong in so many ways. (Of the many anecdotes told about the making of the film, my favorite is that Linklater told Hawke that if the director died, the actor had to promise to finish the film.)

Despite all of this, though, the things I liked best about Boyhood weren’t particularly “new”. I liked Boyhood because it often played very much like the best of what Linklater has given us in the past. Linklater often lets his characters talk. He loves words, conversation, he is not afraid to just give us people talking to each other, and Linklater (and his actors, who are often closely involved in the creation of those words) manages to make talking fascinating in the way it reveals the character of the speakers. Granted, some viewers are bored by this, wondering when something is going to “happen”, fretting about the absence of any obvious narrative thrust. (I tend to be overly obsessive about narrative, myself, yet Linklater won me over long ago.) This is clearest in the “Before” series, and in Dazed and Confused, but also in Waking Life (where the “Before” characters have a cameo), and Slacker, which in retrospect is almost a manifesto about the kinds of movies Linklater will make. (Of course, he also slips in the occasional School of Rock or Bad News Bears.)

The structure of Boyhood doesn’t exactly lead to a narrative progression, but watching the characters age serves as a stand-in for that kind of forward movement. It’s not that specific events happen that move the story forward, it’s that the characters change before our eyes. Mason grows from 6 to 18, we know it’s the same actor, and in the later scenes, recognizing how the actors have changed along with the characters they play, we see a long-form story emerging.

There is something narrow about the world we see in Boyhood, reflected in part by the title. This isn’t the story of Mason’s older sister, Samantha, even though she is ever-present. It’s not that Linklater doesn’t know what to do with Samantha. It’s more than she isn’t quite important enough. I could take this too far … for all of her reported wavering interest in the project, Lorelei Linklater does well in the part. But there is never a point when she is the center of the story … it’s called Boyhood for a reason. The evolution of Mason, and the slower evolution of Mason Sr., offers interesting insight into the lives of American men. Ethan Hawke’s Dad, in particular, is allowed to mature just enough to turn an amiable guy who refuses to grow up into someone who finally seems to accept the passage of time.

Patricia Arquette’s Mom, Olivia, doesn’t get the same kind of growth. (As mentioned, neither does Samantha, but her character is more marginalized from the beginning.) In an excellent piece that turned up in the Wall Street Journal, Sharon Marcus and Anne Skomorowsky point out the importance of Olivia’s final scene, during what she calls “the worst day of my life”:

You know what I'm realizing? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced... again. Getting my masters degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what's next? Huh? It's my fucking funeral! … I just thought there would be more.

Marcus and Skomorowsky note that Olivia is Samantha’s role model: “Samantha’s mother presents care-taking and personal sacrifice as the deepest, worthiest sources of pleasure, but the film also suggests that they can be deeply unsatisfying.” Arquette is getting deserved raves for her performance, but those raves aren’t directed towards scenes where we see her at work as a teacher. It’s the emotionally damaged parts of Olivia that give Arquette the best chance at an Oscar.

One could argue that this shows us the reality of middle-age for women in America (at least in the movies), and we feel great sympathy for Arquette/Olivia. But it is nonetheless a restrictive “reality” that bodes poorly for Samantha’s future. Meanwhile, when we last see Mason, he is on psychedelics and offering the final word on the film: it is always right now. 9/10. For a companion piece, check out the “Before” trilogy, or the ongoing “Up” series.

music friday: fifth harmony, reflection

Looking for something new, so I checked out the New Releases on Spotify. Which is why I was listening to Reflection, the debut studio album by Fifth Harmony.

I read some reviews of the album, for context if nothing else, since Fifth Harmony are outside of my normal listening patterns. What I found were generally positive sentiments that nonetheless sounded less than positive from my perspective. The All Music Guide review refers to the group as “The X-Factor's second season third-place finishers”, which isn’t exactly bursting with confidence. Later, critic Matt Collar writes, “Although essentially a radio-ready pop aperitif and nowhere near the cultural touchstone of Beyonce's [self-titled 2013] album, Reflection nonetheless works as a Revlon ad-level post-feminist girls' night out”.

Spin’s Brennan Carley gave it 7/10, and Carley was more positive: “one of the most forward-thinking, sheerly enthusiastic pop releases in years”.

So, did I like it? It was bright, probably uplifting if I’d paid attention to the lyrics. (Lyrics don’t usually have an impact on me until I’ve had several listens. Having said that, Maria Sherman’s “Top 10 Fiercely Feminist Lyrics On Fifth Harmony's 'Reflection'” suggests there is something going on here. The harmonies are good, and for the most part they don’t engage in too much over-singing. They sound like they have a lot of influences, which is a nice way of saying there’s not much new in their sound, to my ears. I don’t hear anything as good as “Wannabe”, but that may be unfairly raising the bar too high.

Here is “BO$$”, which as I type this has gotten more than 41 million YouTube views:

And, because I can never get enough Girl Power, here’s the classic “Wannabe” video (which as of this post has more than 86 million YouTube views):

throwback to cbs

Yesterday I got another of my many inane ideas. I was thinking about how certain TV series are like comfort food, and I found myself wondering: what if you chose one network, and only watched that network? Say, CBS, beginning when my wife and I got married in May of 1973. It’s like you have a TV set that only gets one channel, and so that’s all you watch. I told you it was inane.

The first occurrence of February 5 during our married life came in 1974. Given the Inane Scenario, this is what we would have watched on TV (i.e. CBS) that night. First, the episode of Maude where Florida left to go be on Good Times:

A Season Six episode of Hawaii Five-O … the more things change (the plot: Steve and the team are looking for the man who is sexually assaulting and killing women.):

And finally, one of the seven episodes broadcast of Hawkins, starring James Stewart:

katy perry

Katy Perry performed the halftime show at yesterday’s Super Bowl. From what I’ve seen online, she was fairly well-received for the grand flamboyance of the show. At the Super Bowl party I was a part of, though, the general feeling was that the halftime show wasn’t going to be worth watching. Not everyone felt that way, but I’d gauge that more than half of the folks planned to use halftime to check out the food situation and maybe grab a smoke. (Notably, once her show began, people began watching.)

Someone I know posted on Facebook that their partner had asked, “Who is Katy Perry?” I admit to reading between the lines, both at that question and at some of the subsequent comments, but my sense was that not knowing who Katy Perry is was something to be proud of. And I wondered, first, how likely it was that someone wouldn't know who Katy Perry is.

I went to everyone’s favorite research site, Wikipedia, where I found the following information about Perry, some of which I knew, some of which I was aware of in a general sense, and a lot of specifics that were new to me:

Her 2010 album Teenage Dream “became the first by a female artist to produce five number-one Billboard Hot 100 songs”.

“[I]n songs such as ‘Firework’ and ‘Roar’ she stresses themes of self-empowerment and self-esteem.”

“Perry has received many awards, including three Guinness World Records, and been included in the Forbes list of "Top-Earning Women In Music" for 2011, 2012, and 2013. … She ranked fifth on their 2014 list with $40 million. … Throughout her career, she has sold 11 million albums and 81 million singles worldwide, making her one of the best-selling artists of all time.”

“Throughout her career, Perry has won five American Music Awards, five MTV Video Music Awards, fourteen People's Choice Awards, and three Guinness World Records.In September 2012, Billboard dubbed her the ‘Woman of the Year’.From May 2010 to September 2011, she spent a record-breaking total of 69 consecutive weeks in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100…Perry was declared the Top Global Female Recording Artist of 2013 by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI).She has accumulated a total of nine number-one singles on the Hot 100, her most recent being ‘Dark Horse’. According to Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Perry is the best-selling digital singles artist in the United States, with certified sales of 72 million digital singles including on-demand streaming.”

I admit that I don’t know a lot about Katy Perry. I like a couple of her songs, and enjoy the “Roar” video. I am also aware that, as is true for many/most top pop stars, there is substantial interest in Perry from culture critics. I don’t think she has reached the level of someone like Madonna, who inspired what was only half-jokingly called “Madonna Studies” as an academic discipline. But it is interesting to think about the level of Perry’s fame, and what that might say about today’s cultural milieu.

My job here isn’t to elaborate on the place of Katy Perry in the world of cultural criticism … I read some of it, I know it’s out there, but in 2015, there is always too much to read and see and experience … we are all, all of us, behind.

Nor am I here to cast aspersions on people who don’t know who Katy Perry is. As I say, it’s 2015 … no one can keep up with everything. Many of us become specialists … when it comes to female pop stars, I’m partial to Pink … I go to her concerts and buy her albums … I know a lot about Pink, and it’s not that she’s a stand-in for all the other female pop stars, but I devote the majority of my pop-star energy to her. There are also people, plenty of us, who throw our hands up and admit we just can’t follow everything. We don’t have a favorite female pop star, because we can’t know about everything. Not knowing of Katy Perry signifies nothing, other than that you have other things on your mind. The number of things I don’t know is pretty immense … I know little about opera, or ice hockey, or reality TV shows. I’m not immune to covering up my lack of knowledge with childish humor … whenever I hear opera, I start singing in ludicrously high and low voices, making fun of the very real talent of the singers because I don’t “get it”. And I definitely indulged in this kind of thinking a lot more when I was younger: if I didn’t know something, it wasn’t worth knowing. In my old age, I’ve hopefully come to realize that you can’t dismiss something until you have a modicum of understanding of that thing.

In general, Katy Perry is not highly regarded by pop critics. Rich Juzwiak’s review of her Super Bowl appearance, “Katy Perry: What Is She Good For?”, was an example of damning with faint praise:

Not that much could be expected of Perry. She is the most underwhelming person to occupy the space of Massively Popular, No-Brainer Hitmaking Pop Diva since Paula Abdul, and at least Paula Abdul could dance. There is no there there with Katy Perry. I don't know if a pop star has ever had less there, in fact. She is superlative at nothing. … If you believe the credits on her songs, she can write a catchy hook. She can carry a tune, sometimes with force. And she can show up to places and do her job without falling on her face or making some sort of career-negating blunder.

But these critics do appreciate that her enormous popularity makes Perry an important subject for examination, if nothing else. And I’m glad for their work, since, as I have noted, I don’t pay much attention to Katy Perry and am glad to have the opportunity to think about her through the eyes of more astute and knowledgeable critics.

Which takes me back to that Facebook exchange. Everything I’m saying falls apart if my “between the lines” reading is off-target, but that reading is based on past experiences. I once taught a course at UC Berkeley on the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer … a common reaction was “that’s not worthy of a course at Cal” (when pressed, they would often admit that they had never actually seen the show). Something that has stuck in my mind for many years was an afternoon when I attended a WNBA game. The giveaway that day was a poster of … well, it was a long time ago and my memory is shot, but I think it was *NSYNC, although it might have been The Backstreet Boys. Anyway, most of the people I was with gave their posters away to kids who might have more interest, which was a generous move. But the gifts were punctuated with prideful statements that “I couldn’t name a single one of their songs”. I knew why they didn’t want the posters, understood that they might not know *NSYNC since they weren’t the target market for the band, but I didn’t get why their lack of knowledge was connected to feelings of pride.

And so, the Facebook post (yes, I’m off on lots of tangents). One of my favorite comments, because of its self-aware sense of humor, read “I miss when the half time shows were semi retired musicians from the 70s.” And I couldn't keep my mouth shut, so I posted the following: “Pop music may be the only place where otherwise intelligent people brag about not knowing something.”

The original poster replied, “I'm pretty sure popular TV falls in the same category. Like me, how many episodes of, say. Friends, have you ever watched?” And that got me inspired. I wrote:

The point isn't how many episodes of Friends you have seen, or whether you know who Katy Perry is. The point is that it's odd when people take pride in not knowing. I can't pass judgment on Friends because I haven't seen it. I can and do recognize it is important; I know what Friends is. I don't often connect with modern sitcoms, which is on me, not on the people who made Friends. But there is a difference between my not having seen an episode of Friends, and someone not knowing who Katy Perry is, just as there is a difference between saying Katy Perry isn't my cup of tea and saying I don't know who Katy Perry is, with a tone that suggests she isn't worth knowing. I'm not saying that everyone should like Katy Perry. I'm saying it's odd to brag about not knowing who she is. It's the pop culture equivalent of saying I don't know who Toni Morrison is, and it doesn't matter anyway.

The reply to that was, “If you're going to compare Toni Morrison to Katy Perry, I'm going to bed. Winking smile“ (Emoticon approximation.)

That was a good line, and I was asking for it, to be sure. But it wasn't just a good line, as I indicated in my reply: “That statement makes my point better than any more blathering of my own.”

And indeed, the comments ended there. But, being a blather junkie, I came to my blog to jabber some more.

Many of the people in the discussion are or were teachers, myself included. We have all had to deal with students who state (with some pride, it must be added) that they never read books. Maybe they read the occasional book, but only current best-sellers. If we assign, say, The Great Gatsby (or, more appropriately here, Beloved), we will always have students who state with confidence that there is nothing in those books that could possibly matter to them. I’ve done the same thing as a student … with a degree in American Studies, looking for a doctorate in English that focused on American Literature, I regularly complained about the requirement that I take a course in Shakespeare or the 18th-century English novel. What could I possibly learn from Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded?

How is this different from saying, “I don’t know who Katy Perry is, and how could she possibly matter?” There is no shame in not knowing. There is no reason why we should seek out every piece of information in the world, even if that was possible, which it is not. It is sufficient to say, “I don’t know anything about The Real Housewives of Orange County”, just as it’s fine when a student says, “I don’t know anything about Toni Morrison”. That student has an entire semester to learn about the author. They’ve only failed if they dismiss Morrison before they have read her. It’s fine if you don’t know who Katy Perry is, interesting if you do know who she is but don’t like her. And there is every reason, in this age of information glut, to admit that you don’t have time to examine Katy Perry, so you’ll be moving on to something you like. You’ve only failed if you dismiss Katy Perry before you know her.