This is Great

Fantastic English TV listing from the Sunday Herald.

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Interesting Lists

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The following are interesting lists that I’ve found on the internet over the last few weeks. Part of the reason for the post is to make it easier to find this stuff later.

Paste Magazine gave a list of the 44 best political tv shows of all time. What’s surprising for something so specialized is that most of it is quite good. It also provides some interesting leads like the BBC mini-series State of Play, German Cold War espionage drama Deutschland 83, in addition to more reason to watch shows I’ve heard great things about like Parks and Recreation, Show Me A Hero, and The Thick of It.

Complex.com ranked the 25 best movie critics of all time, which provided a good lead for anyone looking for intelligent writing on film.

New York Magazine had a list of the 33 best movies over 3 hours long.

This was a companion to a list of the 53 best movies under 90 minutes long.

Scott Adams made a case for Donald Trump’s “talent stack,” suggesting he won the presidency not by being the best in the world at anything, but by being good enough at many things.

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Vox ranked various meats in terms of versatility, taste and texture. This does provide inspiration to come some new dishes. I’m now more interested in cooking rabbit and duck. Poor Bugs and Daffy.

Because I obviously have too much free time, the Atlantic provided a Top 50 podcasts of 2016 list. Thinkprogress’s Best Culture Writing of 2016 is another likely timesuck.

In terms of stuff I liked in Middle School, Comicbook.com had the top ten issues of Savage Dragon. They also had a bottom five Dragon Ball sagas. And a top five.

The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association has provided a list of the top ten actresses of all time. There are two odd choices: Isabella Huppert, and Viola Davis, neither of whom have the body of film work of Audrey Hepburn, Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, Penelope Cruz or even Judy Garland (perhaps the group was wary of being stereotyped) ; five actresses who weren’t included. Both are getting Oscar buzz this year, and both add a form of diversity (Viola Davis  prevents it from being a list of white actresses; Huppert is the only actress whose primary work isn’t in English) so there may be other facets there.

Rolling Stone has a Top 50 Horror Movies for the 21st Century.

 

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Trudeau VS Trump

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is justly criticized for his fawning eulogy for Fidel Castro.

It is with deep sorrow that I learned today of the death of Cuba’s longest serving President.

Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.

While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for “el Comandante”.

I know my father was very proud to call him a friend and I had the opportunity to meet Fidel when my father passed away. It was also a real honour to meet his three sons and his brother President Raúl Castro during my recent visit to Cuba.

On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I offer our deepest condolences to the family, friends and many, many supporters of Mr. Castro. We join the people of Cuba today in mourning the loss of this remarkable leader.

I much prefer Trump’s statement. I know it’s probably written by a staffer, but at least he approved it.

Today, the world marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades. Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.

While Cuba remains a totalitarian island, it is my hope that today marks a move away from the horrors endured for too long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly deserve.

Though the tragedies, deaths and pain caused by Fidel Castro cannot be erased, our administration will do all it can to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty.

Being happy with Trump is a relatively rare development for me.

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Carl Barks’ Favorite Duck Story

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Years ago,was given as a birthday present, The A-List: The National Society of Film Critics’ 100 Essential Films, a collection of essays on 100 great films. It doubled as intelligent writing on various aspects of film, as well as a collection of leads (Ashes and Diamonds,  Les Vampires, Winchester ’73.) I’ve always thought something like that would be great for comics.

Yesterday, I was trying to google lists of the best Carl Barks comics, to see which of the many stories he wrote and illustrated were the best-regarded. That led me to a review of “Lost in the Andes,” the famed square egg saga. It seems like the type of thing that would be in an A-list style collection of essays on great comic books.

Lost in the Andes (1949) is widely regarded as Carl Barks’ finest story, was his personal favorite, and the one he felt was his most technically perfect. Visually, it is an astonishing piece, taking us from cramped ship’s quarters to the open sky above the mountains, through fog and bright sunlight, each panel masterfully rendered for maximum effect. As a story it is equally remarkable, personifying what critic Michael Barrier said of the auteur: “Barks was a writer first and an artist second, and his drawings have life because they are in the service of characters and ideas.” This writing shines in “Lost in the Andes,” taking us from a stuffy museum in Burbank, over a turbulent ocean to South America, up mountains, across plains, down valleys, and into a fog-shrouded land with strange people who speak like Southern Gentlemen from Alabama, with a heroic and curious Donald and brave and intelligent nephews who end up saving themselves from a life sentence in prison. For once, Donald is not motivated by greed or heroics, but curiosity and a taste for adventure. It is a morality play about happiness and a neat character study of the Ducks. Critics such as Thomas Andrae have examined “Lost in the Andes” and argued, quite effectively, that it possesses acidic criticisms of the capitalist system, that it deftly skewers the “myth of the explorer” and colonialism, while also managing to hold a mirror up to the closemindedness of preindustrial cultures, albeit ones that have been essentially colonialized. Like any masterpiece, “Lost in the Andes” means many things to many critics, each one finding something new with every reading.

But it is also a story about eggs.

Carl Barks was once an egg farmer, and this profession appears to have influenced more of his stories than any of his other failed efforts. Here, as in “The Magic Hourglass” (and a story not mentioned here, “Omelet,” worth seeking out), eggs get things rolling. Even though these eggs don’t roll.

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The Review That Got Me To Check Out “Only Angels Have Wings”

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)  Directed by Howard Hawks Shown seated: Jean Arthur, Standing from left: Sig Ruman, Allyn Joslyn, Noah Beery Jr., Cary Grant

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Directed by Howard Hawks
Shown seated: Jean Arthur, Standing from left: Sig Ruman, Allyn Joslyn, Noah Beery Jr.,
Cary Grant

Barnes & Noble currently has a 50% off sale on Criterion collection Blu-Rays and DVDs. One of the Criterion collections I picked up was Howard Hawk’s 1939 film Only Angels Have Wings, largely due to a review by Mike D’Angelo in the AV Club who asked if it’s the best Hollywood movie ever made.

That this glorious amalgam of romance, adventure, melodrama, and musical doesn’t have a loftier reputation is to some degree understandable—even more than most of Hawks’ films, it’s an ode to pragmatism and professionalism, dismissing almost any powerful display of emotion as a distraction from the task at hand and/or an admission of weakness. That sensibility only appeals to a very particular mindset… but for those viewers, Only Angels Have Wings achieves a seismic force that conventionally open-hearted movies can’t hope to match. With any luck, its forthcoming release as part of the Criterion collection will yield new converts.

I watched it yesterday for the first time, and it was a perfectly fine movie, that I’ll likely watch again at some point, even if it might not be the year’s best supporting performance for Thomas Mitchell (he won an Oscar in the same year for Stagecoach), one of the top five films from the year (competition includes Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, The Rules of the Game, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, Intermezzo and Young Mr. Lincoln) or one of the two best Hawks/ Grant collaborations (they also had Bringing Up Baby, and His Girl Friday.) Narratively, it seems quite modern, focusing on the many people involved in a South American outpost, with Jean Arthur’s female lead disappearing for large stretches, and Cary Grant’s male lead appearing after the introductions of two other suitors for Arthur’s character. There are conflicts, fights and amazing set pieces, as well as a clear goal for the pilots, but no real villains. The main story engine is the danger of the profession.

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If Hillary Hadn’t Run

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In a recent episode of Vox’s “In the Weeds” podcast, the hosts mentioned their belief that Hillary Clinton would have done more for the Democratic party if she had opted not to run for President, and instead supported someone like Kristen Gillibrand. This built on an earlier article about a universe where Gillibrand was the nominee.

This has added relevance with Democratic panics over two events. The first was Hillary’s health scare, which was defused by strong performances in the debate. The most recent was the news that the FBI had new reason to investigate her, a development that has coincided with stronger polling problems for Trump. However, this still doesn’t mean that Democrats would be better off with someone else.

Part of the problem with this view is the assumption that Hillary should have realized she would face a weak Republican nominee, meaning the most important thing is to be a non-objectionable alternative. But when Hillary Clinton started running, Donald Trump wasn’t seen as a likely candidate, much less a nominee. At that point, likely opponents included Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and maybe Mitt Romney. Trump ended the race with a relatively late June entrance.

It’s also a comparison of a candidate who has had years in the media spotlight versus others who haven’t dealt with that level of scrutiny. There’s the assumption in a lot of these counterfactuals that a politician we know to be good (because they’re strong enough to win a presidential nomination) is less effective than someone whose abilities are more of a question mark. Politicians who don’t run for President often don’t reveal their weaknesses. We don’t know if Gilibrand has what it would take. There could be skeletons in her closet, as has been the case for other promising political figures.

There’s also the possibility that a Democratic primary without a serious frontrunner could have led to worse results from the party. Maybe with more opposition, Sanders would have been like Trump, gaining a majority of the delegates with 43 percent of the vote. You could imagine rising stars like Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar and Kristen Gilibrand, and veterans like Joe Biden and Tim Kaine splitting the establishment vote. A field without Hillary might have made Trump less effective, as he wouldn’t have as much to run against, which might help his opponents in the Republican party.

It could be that there’s a world where Gilibrand leads Trump 57 to 40 percent.

It could also be that there’s a world where Rubio’s beating her by ten points, as she faces an environment that most Democrats wouldn’t win, that will destroy her reputation afterwards and lead the party to blame her for the loss.

It could also be that without Hillary, a weaker Democratic candidate wins. It could be Sanders. It could be Elizabeth Warren (who underperformed Obama in 2012.)

It could be that the scrutiny of a campaign will destroy her, or she just won’t be ready for the national spotlight.

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Homer Phobia: Should Children Read The First Great Writer?

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This was a piece I wrote for a class on the philosophical foundations of education on the question of whether students should read the work of dead white males like Homer, or more contemporary material.

In The Literary 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Novelists, Playwrights and Poets of All Time, Daniel S. Burt rates Homer as the third greatest writer, behind Shakespeare and Dante. This is exclusively on the strength of The Iliad, and The Odyssey, the two works of his that survive nearly three thousand years later. The other writers in the top ten, including Tolstoy, Chaucer, Dickens, Joyce, Milton, Virgil and Goethe have larger bodies of work. Homer is the first writer chronologically on the list, predating his nearest competitors Greek playwrights Sophocles and Euripides by several centuries (the list excludes philosophers and essayists like Plato, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Montague). Burt believes that Homer’s influence is difficult to overstate, writing that “Merely to assert that Homer is the first literary artist and arguably the greatest does not do justice to his remarkable achievement. In a fundamental sense, literature originates with Homer (p.9).” The question put forward to us as educators is the following: Should students be familiar with this author’s work?

Students learned about the poetry of Homer in the earliest days of what we consider to be organized education. Burt notes that Homer’s poems were influential in the very beginning. “What is incontestable is the considerable value the Greeks placed on the Homeric poems from their inception. Aristotle considered Homer’s work to represent the ideal of heroic poetry, and knowledge of Homer’s verses was part of every Greek’s education (10).” Something that was so influential would be referenced in other great works of literature, which means it’s likely to be studied, a process that continues to the present day. There are other reasons the work endures that aren’t necessarily related to quality. The length of the material─appropriate for a month or so of classes per text─makes it ideal for high school, and the subject matter─war and revenge─is relatively exciting.

In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom considers the influence Homer had on subsequent writers. “All of Plato, as the critic Longinus saw, is the philosopher’s incessant conflict with Homer, who is exiled from The Republic, but in vain, since Homer and not Plato remained the schoolbook of the Greeks (7).” Bloom elaborates on the disagreement in Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, “Plato accurately argues that most citizens never grow up, and therefore need to be fed benign fictions rather than the Homeric epics, where the gods are selfish, nasty spectators (p.38).” These are some of the oldest questions. Why is there injustice? Is it better to give benign lies than uncomfortable truths? The texts of Homer have helped students address these topics for millennia.

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The continued implementation of poems from centuries before the birth of Christ exemplifies the Great Books question: Should students be exposed to the classics, or to contemporary writings that speak specifically to modern needs? Homer’s work literally has more staying power than anything else, with the exception of parts of the Old Testament (although that gets to a different debate.) There’s a feedback loop logic to this; because the work is famous, it’s going to be referenced in the future, which is a justification for teaching it now. Much of the material that references Homer can also be used in a classroom in different ways. There’s a greater chance that students will one day help their children with homework from The Iliad or The Odyssey than with almost any other text. It can also be useful as a frame of reference, especially for children from immigrant and poor communities who will be at a disadvantage when going out into the wider world.

One of the arguments for teaching classical literature is that it provides eternal role models for students. Bloom believes the view that these works are often meant to be understood uncritically is a misunderstanding of the wisdom of the ancients, who meant for the characters to have flaws, “The silliest way to defend the Western Canon is to insist that it incarnates all of the seven deadly moral virtues that make up out supposed range of normative values and democratic principles. This is palpably untrue. The Iliad teaches the surpassing glory of armed victory, while Dante rejoices in the eternal torments he visits upon his personal enemies (p.29).”

Homer’s work does have some flaws from a curriculum perspective. There are redundant lines as a result of methods that make the book easier to recite, something that was necessary with the oral tradition, but not required now. Many of the historical details are lost to time (the location and even the existence of Troy are subject to debate) and it’s possible that students will have their view of the world informed by various inaccuracies in Homer’s work. Bloom may say “Though much is lost in translation, much abides (p.67)” but this is work that’s filtered through the lens of modern writers, and the major translations have been written by wealthy white men.

We do live in a very different society than the one in Homer’s stories, and it is worth asking whether we should devote weeks of an English classroom (to say nothing of the impact in an interdisciplinary unit) to texts where women play so small a role. While a specialist in the Humanities would benefit from familiarity with the historical roots of literature, it can be argued that this is not a priority for the average student. The claim that these are cultural touchstones is diminished by the way some of the most famous events of the Trojan War don’t occur in any of these books. The Iliad is a story of Achilles that doesn’t end with his death.

On the Great Books argument, I’m on the side of the classics. I would prefer to teach the work of Homer to that of most other writers, partly because there’s a lot of material available to supplement lesson plans, but mainly because it is much better written than most of the alternatives.

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