e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu



Steven Spielberg's Munich distinguishes itself as one of the most arresting films of the year. Munich chronicles a series of assasinations (with all of their intrique and all of their blood) of Palestinian terrorists connected to the killing of Israelis at the 1972 Olympics. We glimpse the killings in excruciating detail, but we also glimpse how the assasinations destroy the men rigging the bombs and pulling the triggers. The film is about revenge and the ethics and justifications of taking human life. What I found most remarkable about Munich is the way the film respects and values theme over plot. Viewers remain on the edge of their seats, not merely wondering whether the little girl will perish in the blast, but also wondering the extent to which her death will impact the righteousness of the vengeance-seeking agents. Will they still feel justified? Will I still feel secure in my own moral and political stance regarding the notion of returning violence with more violence?

Eric Bana leads a stellar cast, playing Avner, a former bodyguard to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and the son of an Israeli hero who is recruited to lead the mission. Avner, a dedicated husband, must leave behind his very pregnant wife and become patriarch--albeit a tentative one--to a family of agents. Bana brings a great deal of gravity to a role that challenges him to display ambivalence, cunning, amorality, pride, patriotism, and finally anguish. Bana surely deserves an Oscar nomination for this performance.

I'm struck by words Golda Meir speaks to Avner while recruiting him for the mission: Now is not the time for peace. Later, peace. When? The historical accuracy of the film will be debated a great deal. Good, we should all check facts, consider conflicting accounts, and learn more about the middle east. But Munich is not a history but rather a morality tale about righteous indignation, retribution, and the ways that nations justify killing. Certainly Spielberg's film is a meditation on the post-9/11 American mindset, and the action the Israelis take against the Olympic terrorists prompts us to consider our own counter-action against 9/11 terrorists. Look at the film and consider Avner at the film's end: haunted, hollow, homeless. Then consider our own national righteousness. Where are we headed? At what point are we no longer justified and righteous?


Counter-Statement (reading notes)

Re-reading sections of Burke's Counter-Statement today--incorporating various notions of practical art into article on working-class poetics--and am struck by several lines:

"An author who lives most of his life in his head must perform his transgressions on paper."

“Poets, deciding that the world needs or does not need woman suffrage, or the forty-hour week, or being interested in how some one starts a traction company in Idaho, write accordingly.”

Art and poetry as rhetorical. Burke revises poetics into rhetoric with elements of compromise, symbol-as-generative force, transformation, and revision (revision as Platonic emotion enters material world via "paper").

"In information, the matter is intrinsically interesting. And by intrinsically interesting I do not necessarily mean intrinsically valuable, as witness the instrinsic interest of backyard gossip or the most casual newspaper items. In art, at least the art of the great ages...the matter is interesting by means of an extrinsic use, a function."

Burke elsewhere in the text rejects "proletarian attitude" that art must "deal with life" or be "useful," seeing productive possibilities of abstraction. "The literature of the imagination may prepare the minds in a more general fashion." Thus Burke does not seek to define an extant genre or body of work or discrete set of texts or utterances as working class, but rather opens up the entire realm of poetics as having that kind of potentiality, a potentiality rooted in consciousness of various ilk.

bad news around the "D"

When I was an undergrad at U of Detroit, Focus:HOPE enjoyed the status of local icon. A multi-purpose civil rights outpost, the organization provided a slew of food distribution, job training, and community education services. With a philosophy rooted in catholic social justice teaching, Focus:HOPE went beyond 'charity' and always emphasized 'justice.' Through the university, I went on several volunteer trips to Focus:HOPE's main campus on Oakman Boulevard, near the University, mostly packaging food and, once, helping out at their daycare facility. The flagship program was the manufacturing operation, a full-service (and profitable) production line that built auto parts for the Big Three, while providing industrial training, degree programs, and good jobs to community members. I took several social ethics and social justice courses at U of D with the late Fr. Art McGovern, who had a close relationship with Focus:HOPE and frequently foregrounded and illustrated theoretical issues (historical praxis, consumerism, underemployment) by talking about Focus:HOPE's programs.

With sadness, I heard on the local NPR station this a.m. that, due to Michigan's struggling auto industry, Focus:HOPE will stop making auto parts and begin doing r&d work for the pentagon. The Detroit Free Press confirms, reporting that the organization "will end a 12-year venture making auto parts and shift into research and development work for the U.S. Department of Defense." I can't help but see this shift as a betrayal of the group's long-standing committment to justice issues. Contracting with a D.O.D. engaged in pre-emptive military action--an explicit violation of just-war theory--and a D.O.D. contemplating the legitimacy of torture. The Freep goes on to say that Focus:HOPE COO Keith "Cooley declined to discuss much of the defense-related work except to say that it does not involve weapons systems, but rather various types of manufacturing procedures and products for equipment needed by the government." I admire Focus:HOPE very much and this quote from Cooley leads me to believe that the group is trying to keep its hands clean. I desperately want to give them the benefit of the doubt until more discussion emerges.

Recently re-elected Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has never been very popular with city employees, many of whom have been threatened with layoff since his tenure began. In addition to the alarming news about Focus:HOPE, this morning's papers also included reports that Mayor Kilpatrick will fire 414 city workers as part of his latest too-little-too-late plan to lessen the city's massive deficit. That plan also involves closing the Detroit Historical Museum and various other cultural and recreational centers around town. The kicker is that this plan won't even begin to address the deficit. Four-hundred-plus more unemployed Detroiters in exchange for a drop-in-the-bucket.

Finally, as Jeff reports--and rightly laments--WDET has abandoned its weekday free-form music programming. You could hear indie rock alongside jazz alongside Detroit's storied local garage rock bands alongside electronic alongside classic blues. The station has mostly replaced that daytime programming with NPR shows that most Metro Detroiters can already hear on the station out of Ann Arbor. What a rip-off. Although it's good to see that Democracy Now--which interested lefties could already listen to for free on the web--has a place in the new line-up. Looks like the web really is the only place to hear free-form radio now. Thank goodness for woxy.com and wfmu.org.

To get off the negative tip for a moment, cool story in today's Metro Times about Detroit bloggers. Even inspired me to (finally) update my links.


Lost: Deliberate Caricatures?

So I'm addicted to the tv series Lost and have been since last winter break. Critics seem to praise the show and explain its commercial success based on two related factors: 1) the writing, and 2) the characters. I don't necessarily disagree, but I wonder why--if the show's popularity stems from these two factors--the series traffics in such blatant stereotypes. Aren't these kind of broad, stereotypical depictions usually indicative of lazy writing and/or the substitution of caricatures for real characters?

First and foremost, Rose. Here is an African-American woman given almost "mammy" like traits: humble, faithful, maternal, de-sexualized, stripped of dangerous allure, and physically large. She's the only non-pregnant female character from season one not regularly shown on the beach in a bikini. She also removes herself from the island's decision-making processes. Instead, she's depicted in various servile activities, notably doing laundry.

Second, Sun. An Asian woman with expertise in alternative medicines.

Third, Sawyer and Kate. Two southern whites with working-class roots. Oh yeah, they're also the products of dysfunctional and/or violent home lives. One (Sawyer) is also a racist, and the writers of the show allow terms like "redneck" and "hick" to be used as identity markers for him.

Lastly, the most extreme caricature, the most dangerous stereotype. Sayeed. Arab man and expert in torture.

Of course, elsewhere we get traits that are less-than-original. The doctor loves golf. The rock star has a drug problem. Etc, etc, etc. Are these caricatures deliberate? Many of the conspiracy theories about the show's and the island's secrets involve the notion that the characters are reckoning with/for past sins. But does that change things?

Like I said, what interests me about these stereotypes is that they don't prevent commercial and critical praise for aspects of the show (the great writing, the interesting characters) that would seem to be nullified by the stereotypes themselves.


best music of the year

the second annual top ten list of my favorite music of the past year...

10. The Kills--No Wow.
I got to see these guys twice this past year, once in Cinci. and once in Royal Oak, and they, err, killed both times. Har. Their second album, recorded in two weeks in Benton Harbor, Michigan, has a remarkable consistency. Thanks to the drum machines and electronic flourishes that complement the band's punky guitar sound, the Kills sound a bit like Suicide or Joy Division, but with a closer eye on catchy melodies. Their debut two years ago had some good songs ("Cat Claw" and "Fried My Little Brains"), but No Wow please from start to finish, lacking even a single weak link. They even pull off a ballad of sorts, with the bitter, country-ish "Rodeo Town," which wound up being my favorite tune on the album.

9. Death Cab for Cutie--"When Soul Meets Body"
When I lived in Ohio, the local indie station used to play a lot of Death Cab and I could never really get into their whole sad-sack vibe, though I appreciated them lyrically. And for the past three years, I've had a boatload of students who would absolutely rave about everything they (along with Bright Eyes) released. This, the lead-off single from their newest record, finally caught my attention though. Beautiful melody, very Beach Boys-ish.

8. Kanye West--"Diamonds from Sierra Leone"
Another brilliant single from the preppy, Bush-bashing hip hop star Kanye West. To funny, catchy, and provocative effect, Kanye samples the Shirley Bassey-sung theme to the James Bond movie Diamonds are Forever. The lyrics are mostly nonsense. One verse recounts Alicia Keys trying to talk Kanye down from his bitterness after failing to win a Grammy. Elsewhere he offers some generic boasting. Elsewhere a non-sequitur about a stripper and her overweight pal. Lyrically rather goofy, but, again, that's not the point. It's all about the awesome sample, which barely edges out "Gold Digger" as Kanye's coolest track.

7. Missy Elliot--"Lose Control"
Missy Elliot has created a bizarre, accessible, left-field, and poppy run of singles in the past five years or so. And "Lose Control" sounds every bit as slamming as "Work It" or "Get Ur Freak On." Fast, fun, funky. What's not to love here?

6. New Pornographers--Twin Cinema
The New Pornographers don’t really do anything new musically. They take a little 60s power pop, toss in a little 70s power pop, and integrate singer Neko Case’s brand of alt-country and 21st century indie rock. The result is a sound that keeps listeners interested, as each song brings in a different style, a different genre, a different influence. This album is FULL of catchy melodies, a very good CD for your commute home from work. Music to unwind by. Music to make you tap the steering wheel and forget about the jerk at the next desk. The fast, upbeat songs work best: "Sing Me Spanish Techno," "The Bleeding Heart Show," and the title track are three standouts.

5. Hard Lessons--Gasoline
This Detroit three-piece references timeless soul and '60s r&b, foregrounding a Hammond organ and a co-ed pair of lead singers who belt out punked-up love songs. They'd go over big at (what I imagine based on "Animal House" to be the atmosphere of) an early '60s frat party. "Feedback Loop" echoes the riff of The Stooges' "1969," and serves as a kind-of Bo Diddley-sound-a-like centerpiece for the album. And that anthem's flanked by garage rock anthems like "Feel Alright" and bluegrass-y ballads like "All Over This Town." How come they're not touring the country (or at least Metro Detroit) with the Detroit Cobras?

4. Coldplay--"Talk"
Alright, it's easy to rag on Coldplay. Too easy. Yes, they're way too earnest. Yes, they crib Unforgettable Fire-era U2 with their pseudo-Christian, arena-friendly, politically moderate optimism. But they also write good songs, and this is the standout of their X&Y record from this past year. I love the image of a conversation as an artifact: "I'm so scared about the future and I want to talk to you/I wanna talk to you/You can take a picture of something you see/In the future, where will I be?" Human interaction becomes a kind-of technology. No wonder the song samples "Computer Love" by Kraftwerk, a band whose entire aesthetic broke down the human-machine duality.

3. Bloc Party
Hyperactive art rock from a gang of four multi-culti British kids. Politically charged dance music with lyrics about poverty, empire-building, and the price of gasoline. The first four tracks ("Like Eating Glass," "Helicopter," "Positive Tension," and "Banquet") are outstanding. Talk about a strong debut.

2. M.I.A.--"Galang"
Electronic meets hip hop meets girl power meets grime meets dub meets reggae meets world music meets pop. This is in part a late-90s collage of sorts: Missy Elliot's debut/Spice Girls/Elastica, all filtered through a very 21st century, very cool radical Sri Lankan named "MIA." Pretty damn groovy, no? This got lots of (well-earned) internet buzz last Spring and, while I never heard the whole record, I enjoyed this upbeat single very much. One of the catchiest songs of the year. A kind of companion--in terms of politics, internet buzz, and genre co-opting--to the Bloc Party record.

1. Dirtbombs--If You Don't Already Have a Look
Hands down, best record of the year. This two-record compilation has something for everyone. Like the eclectic New Pornographers record, it's an LP for the I-Pod age. Speed-metal rockers. Ballads. Dance tracks. A Yoko Ono cover. It's become cliche, but I'll repeat the sentiment that listening to the Dirtbombs is like thumbing through a good record collection. Eclecticism at its finest. Each Dirtbombs studio album adopts a different genre--garage rock, soul, pop--but this compilation, since it spans the last eight years or so, is messier, jumping all over the musical map. I like the version of Lou Rawls' "Natural Man" and the straight-ahead-rock originals "Stuck Under My Shoe" and "The Sharpest Claws." Peruse the whopping 52 songs (this makes Sandanista look like an EP) yourself and find your own favorites.

***a few selections that didn't make the cut, with commentary***

White Stripes--Get Behind Me Satan
It's an enjoyable piece of work, but sort of uneven compared to their other records. A little too much marimba and xylophone. "My Doorbell" has that friendly White Stripes hook and "Blue Orchid" repeats the LedZep-ish "Seven Nation Army" vibe, and it's musically an interesting progression from their mega-popular mid-period, but this just isn't up there with De Stijl and White Blood Cells.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Talking Heads for the new milennium. Or at least Arcade Fire for 2005. This almost made the top ten. I like the twee whimsy, the tracks that include calliope and run the vocals through what sounds like an echo chamber. Like Belle&Sebastian, CYHSY sometimes makes you feel like a little kid whistling along to a folk song. At times the lyrics get bogged down in over-the-top abstraction, but this surely is one of the most interesting releases of the year.

Annie--"Chewing Gum," and Sleater-Kinney, "Entertain"
Two more great singles well worth downloading. Like so much of this year's best music, Annie is fun and never pretentious. If you're going to make a bubblegum-pop song, why not call it "Chewing Gum." Sleater-Kinney keep it simple (wailing guitar, and vocals too match), and pound out a track that would have felt at home on their Call the Doctor record.


Detroit memoir

Paul Clemens came to campus today to talk about his book Made in Detroit: A South of 8-Mile Memoir. Clemens writes about growing up as a white, working-class, ethnic, Catholic on Detroit's east side. The book starts out with a story in which the 16-year-old Clemens is awakened by his mother so that he can chase after his father, who is chasing after the guys who just shot out the windows of the family car. I've only read the first chapter (just picked up the book yesterday), so I'll say more about the text when I finish, but let me relate some early impressions.

Today Clemens suggested the worst thing a writer can do is try to make himself look good. He cited quips from both Orwell and Eliot that said the best autobiographical writing gives you the sense that the writer's a bit of a dirtball. (I'm paraphrasing here.)

Aristotelian notions of ethos run directly counter to this suggestion. Clemens argued for a counter-intuitive, self-deprecating version of ethos, a dirtball ethos even, one where cred comes from crud. Clemens establishes ethos via *identity markers* moreso than knowledge, diction and other linguistic features, or even experience. For Clemens, being Catholic and being white both give him a kind of insight into Detroit. Clemens wears his Catholicism as a marker certifying his non-wasp essence. He spoke about going off to university elsewhere in the state and feeling less connection to white protestants there than he did to his African-American neighbors. His sense of humor, his values and attitues, his counter-intuitive sense of self.

Similarly, he calls his first chapter "Right to Go Left," a reference to the "Michigan left turn," that classic feature of Detroit streets which requires drivers who reach busy intersections who wish to head to the left to make a right-hand turn followed by a U-Turn on the intersecting road. Right to go left. Running to stand still. That counter-intuition, for Clemens, represents Detroit (driving the streets making Michigan lefts), Catholicism (kneeling, going to St. Jude's--the patron of lost causes), his humor (non-pc), his ethos (flaws, warts, etc.). Even his whiteness, ironically, marks his Detroit identity and Detroit ethos, as a minority within city limits where he grew up.

More later, when I finish the book. Incidentally, the other book I'm in the middle of is another Detroit memoir, Erma Henderson's Down through the Years, by a prominent former member of the Detroit City Council. A Comp. 106 student profiled Henderson in an early paper this term and then lent me the book after our discussion of her paper. More on E.H.'s very different version of Detroit working-class ethos later, too.