Monday, October 10, 2011

Movie Sunday: The Player

The Player is Robert Altman's satirical gem that confirms everything we never wanted to believe about Hollywood, and by extension ourselves, since we are all fascinated with Hollywood, and if you love movies you should consider it your responsibility to see it, like Elephant Man, or Schindler's List. Personally, I haven't seen it in years, but I'm sure it's still excellent, and I couldn't exactly write a "Movie Sunday" about a short-lived television series, could I? Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.

You may have noticed a paucity of posts from me lately. If I'm not blogging regularly, it usually means that I'm either writing a paper or writing software, which are my other creative outlets, and enjoy the advantage that I get paid (though not particularly well) to do them. You can usually tell when it's a paper because the silence will be preceded by a frenzy of posts signifying my desire to do anything but get to the task at hand. Procrastination is not required for software writing, as it's one of my very favorite activities.

Oh dear, it seems we've gotten badly off track. The point is that I haven't had a lot of time to watch movies lately. What television time I have had has been split between HBO (DVD) and BBC (streaming) television series. A few weeks ago we watched The Comeback, a 2005 HBO series co-created and starred in by Lisa Kudrow.  While The Comeback isn't exactly a movie, it only lasted one season, and the thirteen half-hour episodes hang together nicely as a story. Taken together, they are probably not any longer than the last two Harry Potter movies, and almost as intense.

I would submit that The Comeback is the rightful heir to The Player for at least two reasons. First, it will make you slightly ashamed for being a consumer of 90% of the shallow, derivative, intentionally non-creative crap that our entertainment industry churns out every year. Second, the satire is so biting and unblinking that it's initially hard to watch.

The concept of the show is that Lisa Kudrow's character was the star of a moderately successful sitcom twenty years ago, and The Comeback is a reality show about her trying to build a new career. She seems like such a waste of skin that you initially just want her to go away. I suspect this is why the series only lasted a single season. By the end of the second episode, I was not sure we would even want to watch the second DVD.  Everyone on the show except the housekeeper was whiny, self-absorbed, hypocritical, uninteresting, and unlikable.

Somewhere around Episode Five I started to get it. I think part of it is that the show got better. People found their characters, the writers found their story, and it all flowed a little better. But more importantly, we started to see the humanity in these people, and we begin to care about them in spite of themselves. By the end of the series we find ourselves pulling hard for Kudrow's character to succeed.

If you watch reality television, I charge you to watch The Comeback. Like most learning experiences, it  may not be easy at first, but it might be worth it.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Did you get a little shiver when you saw the title of this post? I'm sitting in a room with 28 sweating college students right now, proctoring a computer science midterm exam as a favor for a colleague, and all I can think is that I'm glad I'm at the front of the room. I spend a lot of time around college students, and they are never this quiet and intense simultaneously. In fact, I'm not sure anything in civilian adult life produces the same sort of crisis of concentration as a hard, important exam, unless it's impending nuclear meltdown, or maybe blue lights in the rear view.

It's a little disconcerting to think about all the ways that education is disconnected from the skills we need in life today. It probably worked well enough when the idea was to produce good factory workers. Sit down, shut up, line up straight and don't share with your neighbor helped prepare people for a life of mentally unengaged drone work.*

Using these same techniques to produce creative information workers may be less effective. When I talk to business owners and managers, I hear repeatedly how they need people who can collaborate effectively, communicate, and think outside the box. That's about the time the buzzwords really start to fly and my attention starts to drift.

There is a growing movement among the academic elites to bring art, music, and drama back into the fold of serious learning, partially because people with these degrees are succeeding in all sorts of technical areas, flying in the face of everything their parents tried to tell them. At the same time, the unemployment lines are saying hello to engineers and MBA's for the first time in a very long time. This is all happening while schools and communities continue to cut funding for arts and humanities, so that they can focus on teaching kids to pass a written test.

I don't really have a point. I was just looking for something to keep me from watching these kids suffer for an hour and a half. Also, did you know that computer science students almost all have really nice mechanical pencils? Except for the ones who take exams in ink. They are the ones who scare me.

*This is in no way meant to disparage manual labor or industrial work. I have done enough of it in my life to have great respect for what I still think of as "working people." But this sort of thing does tend to be repetitive, and there is usually plenty of mental space for daydreaming. Just like in school.