High Noon, 1952 – ★★★★★ [Movie Log]

At the time of its release, HIGH NOON was reviled both by chauvinist nationalists who thought it (rightly) to be allegory against McCarthyism and the blacklisting of Hollywood leftists, a story of a lone lawman sticking to his guns despite the rejection of his peers, as well as by actual Soviet communists who saw the film as a celebration of the individual over community. The film was decried by critics, filmmakers, and John Wayne himself as antithetical to the American ideals of classical westerns, yet nonetheless won numerous awards and set the template for the cynical post-Westerns that would follow. In the decades that followed, it was a favorite of politicians as ostensibly diverse as Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton, the movie most often screened in the White House, an outline of stoic morality, of staunch heroism in the face of overwhelming odds, of personal sacrifice and social obligation, but devoid enough of any explicit principle that the film could be appropriated by diverse ideologies across the political spectrum—even today, Cooper might just as easily stand in for Robert Mueller as he could Donald Trump, depending on how insane of an ideologue you might be.

In a deeply uncanny way, then, HIGH NOON is both of its time and utterly timeless. It is a clear allegory for the political paranoia and cowardice of its era, a reflection of and on the dominant genre(s) of classical Hollywood—shot like a noir, set as a Western—straddling the star system of silent films (Cooper) and the new icons to come (Kelly). Yet there is nonetheless something that remains modern about the film, its diverse heroines far better suited to today than to the 1950s, its moral standpoint as true for Athens (which the movie makes explicit) as it is for America, set at the start of the Civil War, at the intersection of America’s temporal disjuncture, speaking to a divide between neighbor and self at the crux of our national soul. This is all without even mentioning the ingenious temporal mechanic of the film, a tense and daring constraint that few films have tried to repeat, and none with as much skill.

Crafted in the starkest black and white, its score pulsating and cool, its climax practically a callback to Cooper’s silent origins, the movie is engaging and challenging in equal measure. And at heart, HIGH NOON is less a western than it is a formalist morality play, less about standing up to oppression than standing up for what one believes in, because standing up is what it means to be (a bipedal) human. Even Kelly’s Quaker pacifist, who takes her own turn behind the barrel of a gun, makes this point clear, not because she abandons her convictions, but because she keeps her vow, her promise to stand by the other, which is precisely what Cooper does and the cowardly townfolk fail to do. This is hardly a Western about machismo—Bridges’ character is resolutely rejected on that front, and the women characters are stronger than almost any man—nor about the moral purity of the American soul, Cooper family tossing his badge to the ground at the film’s conclusion, the rejected rejecting those he protected, wondering if it was worth it in the end; nor does this slip so easily in to simple cynicism, painting the hero instead in the most Kantian of colors of non-pathological and self-sacrificing duty.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

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The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, 1984 – ★★★½ [Movie Log]

Listen here, Buckaroo: In one sense, it is a film profoundly (and to its own detriment) ahead of its time, a PoMo sci-fi satire and comic book comedy with the screwball wit of something like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY or a Verhoeven film but without half the budget. The humor is as surreal as the imagery, broad slapstick mixed with early nerd in-jokes, an everything-goes absurdism fit for the directionless void of space. The aliens anticipate the body-horror body-snatchers of Carpenter’s THEY LIVE, the naturalistic and nonlinear spaceships evoke the bioships of FARSCAPE, the creative universe seemingly as expansive (if ultimately undeveloped) as the MCU. With the popped collars and wide lapels and massive shoulders, Buckaroo and his crew may look utterly of the 80s, but its an 80s of our future, the retro-80s as we imagine it in so man nostalgic properties made today.

Yet in another sense, the movie calls back to the golden era adventure stories of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, in the vein and hot off the heels of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. As his name suggests, Buckaroo is a classic swashbuckling hero ripped straight from funny page serials; and like those comic strips, the audience gets dropped into the universe in medias res, the existence of its labyrinthine mythology both clearly evident while remaining entirely unclear. Buckaroo answers the question: What would a Renaissance Man look like in the modern postindustrial era? Replace da Vinci’s realist painting with Buckaroo’s sincere, post-ironic crooning; make him a rocket engineer rather than the speculative inventor of the helicopter; toss in the spectacle of Hollywood celebrity, make him a secret agent, a doctor, a 14-year-old boys dream—what else is any Uomo Universale except that?

Imagining forward in time while looking to the past for its inspiration, the problem with the movie is in the final analysis how it fails to capture the present. Oh, certainly the body snatching motif—an echo of director Richter’s screenplay for the ’78 remake of that film—speaks to something of the public’s anti-Russian paranoia (the bad guys are “red” aliens, after all), but by and large the film seems uninterested in anything Earthly and human and here and now. That includes, fwiw, the film’s inability to remain coherent for longer than ten minutes at a time, tilt-and-whirling from one incredible vignette to the next, none of it tying very well together. The film wants to take you through a host of brilliant ideas and places without spending enough time to develop one, let alone to let its characters live and breathe and grow. At best, you have to sit back and enjoy the ride, accepting that wherever the movie takes you and wherever you go, there you are.

Just so long as it leaves me in the end with those incredible closing credits, which will leave the best of tastes in your mouth.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

Impromptu, 1991 – ★★★½ [Movie Log]

An impromptu, Chopin—aptly played by a young Hugh Grant, holding his own in the overpowering presence of the Judy Davis as the scandalous but fierce George Sand—should conceal its careful clockwork artistry so as to appear utterly spontaneous, unpredictable, and lively. It’s a shame, then, that IMPROMPTU feels so often so forced, so rarely alive with the genius the film is filled with, more like a meticulous and thoughtful exercise for nimble fingers than a performance stoked by a spark of genius. The elements and personages are here for something much more passionate and moving, truly great painters (Delacroix) and writers (Sand/Alfred du Musset) and composers (Chopin/Liszt) populating every scene, but the film too easily uses their talent to dress up its love story rather than dwelling on their art, their creativity, their aesthetic struggle in any significant way. The movie is rather explicit that only Chopin’s work matters here, even as the frail pianist himself is secondary to Sand, her own novels quickly cast aside and her renegade habiliments and habits neutered. So while this is a story that belongs to Sand—a life likely more interesting than any of the rest of her circle—it is Chopin who, by virtue of his immortal genius, becomes the star: A strange sort of cinematic fugue that unfortunately runs counter to the simplicity and clarity of Chopin’s actual musicality.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

Immortal Beloved, 1994 – ★★★ [Movie Log]

In the way that Beethoven himself bridged the classical and romantic periods, the film wants to be a mixture of CITIZEN KANE and AMADEUS, retelling a monumental life through melancholic flashbacks and the mystery of an empty signifier. The idea is a worthwhile one, if much too conventional for its utterly original and avant-garde subject matter—something the movie sorely misunderstands, giving little weight to the specificity of the composer’s genius, tone-deafly treating him merely like a lightening rod for romantic passion—but the execution here is as flat as a second-rate soprano, lacking in the verve or audacity of its models, substituting pathos for authentic artistry. Anton Schindler (played by Jeroen Krabbé), the film’s framing narrator, is too blank to serve as a Salieri, and Beethoven’s string of mistresses too sycophantic to provide the complexity of Kane’s memorializers—the result, ironically enough, is rather monotone and cold.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

A Teaching Philosophy Draft

This is an initial draft of my teaching philosophy statement, which will be part of my applications when I go on the job market in just a few weeks. The aim here is lay out, without jargon or jokes—my typical approach—the beliefs, values, and practices that underlie my pedagogy. Because today was my first time returning to the front of a class in a few years, I figured that it was as good a time as any to take a moment and reflect on what teaching means to me.

When I was an undergraduate there, St. Edward’s University had a slogan that the school used in its marketing materials at the time, promising that in their classrooms, students would “learn to think.” This motto, simple though it may be, ingrained itself in my mind at the time, and continues to impact how I understand the role of higher education today and shapes how I approach teaching rhetoric, writing, and theory at large. As opposed to believing education to be a practice of knowledge transfer, imagining students as empty heads that need filling with novel jargon and scrupulous facts—forgotten as quickly as they were learned, a hollow mind being a rather porous thing, after all—my pedagogy aims instead to teach students not what to think but what it means to think. What matters to me as a teacher and theoretician of rhetoric is to stoke an enthusiasm for critical thinking skills and a celebration of cerebration, encouraging students to look anew at their everyday symbolic practices and communicative environments, learning to better articulate, and in due course reevaluate, their unique assumptions, beliefs, and convictions.

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This process necessarily entails understanding students to be so much more than vacant vessels eagerly awaiting their teachers to impart new knowledge; rather, my pedagogy is grounded on the recognition that the names on my roster are people first and students second, coming to the classroom with their own personal histories, singular sets of experiences and expectations, individual dreams and desires. First generation students without familial support either emotionally or financially, legacy students who come unawares from places of profound privilege, foreign exchange students struggling to get the hang of American norms and standard English: Even in my short time teaching so far, I have encountered students from a wide variety of backgrounds, challenging me to constantly adapt my own pedagogical practices and aspirations to meet these students where they academically already are, and not where a predesigned lesson plan or codified syllabus assumed they were. When I discovered one semester that not a single student in my first-year writing and argumentation course could (or felt confident enough in their own schooling to) name the three branches of American government, I immediately tabled whatever lesson plan I had devised for the day to address the needs of the class in that moment, letting their questions and uncertainties dictate the direction of our discussion.

At all turns, my pedagogy is driven by an ethic of listening and a belief that students are often much brighter, genuinely more creative, and more receptive than they are given credit for by traditional top-down didactic methods centered on a teacher’s expertise. Rather than end up limiting the curiosity of my students by confining classroom conversation to a strict script or by assigning them rubrics where they only would need to mirror back a set of tasks for a passing grade, it is frequently my goal as the instructor of record to sit back and let the students lead, to follow their diverse interests and concerns. In this sort of classroom free association, I conceive my job not as attempting to curb their enthusiasm or keep their inquisitiveness in check, but to assume the responsibility of tying the threads of their digression back to wider rhetorical themes while fostering their speaking and writing freely and openly. Hence when giving writing homework, I will urge students to approach the prompt creatively, to try and surprise me in a way that will set their work apart from their peers, often by using digital tools we have explored in class. Embracing this all too rare freedom, some students in the past have used animated reaction GIFs to provide peer review feedback, while others have used Twitter for discussion threads instead of platforms like Canvas or Blackboard.

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In asking students to take ownership of their educational experience by reconsidering the course as an opportunity for creativity, for thinking differently, for finding ways to make the shared material matter to their personal interests, one further pedagogical goal that I am trying to achieve is to break students from the habit of unconsciously presuming that learning is reserved for a formal classroom environment. Like much of what I have already said above, this is a lesson I have learned in large part from research in psychoanalysis, which I believe has profound yet untapped insights into the processes by which minds (which is to say, psyches) are molded and changed, whether in the classroom or in the clinic. All too often, and rarely aware of it, students have been conditioned to assume that the work of critical deliberation and symbolic imagination occur only in the rarefied space and time of the class—which is tantamount to thinking thinking likewise only takes place when dealing with official academic business, while doing homework or while in class, but not at the bar over the weekend.

Against this attitude, my pedagogy works to help students realize that critical thought and rhetoric writ large are practices vital to both public and private life, that the time for deliberation happens not only when sequestered in a classroom, but that the wider world around them is ripe for rethinking, too. This posture is reflected in some of the assignments I give, which regularly prompt students to investigate their own ambient rhetorical situations, such as when my students must put together a scrupulous rhetorical analysis of their own social media presence based on the personalized advertisements in their digital feeds. The point here is that rhetoric, thinking, and learning can happen anywhere, at anytime, but above all, learning comes about when we least expect it or when we stop paying attention—just as, when trying to remember a word on the tip of the tongue, if we give up the effort of memory, the word often seems to magically appear—that is to say, when the defensive assumptions of the ego lay dormant and the symbolic imagination of the psyche is vulnerable.

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Essential to the pedagogical comportment outlined above is the practice of composition, in all its diverse forms across different technologies and genres, which I attempt to make into an everyday exercise for students otherwise accustomed to seeing writing as stiflingly scholastic and reserved for official classroom activities. Whether my students are composing traditional argumentative essays, multimodal digital texts, or more plastic works of creative artistry like sound or visual collages—all assignments I have given to my classes at one point or another, to illustrate this point or that—my teaching positions the process of writing as part and parcel with the act of thinking. What I am trying to suggest in my pedagogy is that when we take up a habit of writing as something simultaneously commonplace and strange, when writing becomes not rarefied and resisted but rather routine, writing can become revolutionary for students, opening up themselves and the world to novel ways of knowing. By thinking through composition, by understanding writing as a process of invention and imagination rather than a polished or procedural product, by encouraging students to treat the blank page as a space for critical experimentation, play, and blameless failure, I always hope to help students cultivate their own idiosyncratic structures of thought and new rhetorical worlds.

First Reformed, 2017 – ★★★★½ [Movie Log]

Revolving around many of the themes that have characterized his career—subjective desolation, ontological isolation, mental dissolution, masculine despair and impotency—Schrader’s film is an austere, bleak, harrowing confrontation with the God(lessness) of the Anthropocene. Like the restrained existentialist works of the mid-century European art house that Schrader is so clearly indebted to here, the film is less about a clear interpersonal narrative arc than it is a series of piercing questions and intellectual challenges. Is there a place for divinity when we have razed Her creation, pillaged Her earth and polluted Her heavens and plundered Her seas, to make room for human bloat? What is the status of God in a geological epoch when humanity, our machines and machinations, now has the power to cause—though not the power to stop—mass extinction and global catastrophe? Will God forgive us for how we have spoiled the gift of life, or should God forgive us at all—if we have made this Eden into Hell, do we not deserve it?

For all the explicit ways that this is a study of spiritual waning and the degradation of divinity in these modern times, it is also a film about mankind’s new god, a god even older and more violent than that of the Old Testament: Mammon, who Marx called Kapital. Standing in the wreckage of a once beautiful harbor right after dusk—or is it just before dawn?—where earlier he helped scatter the remains of an environmental activist who, in his hopelessness, had committed himself to Dante’s dark wood of the suicides, Hawke’s Rev. Toller practically whispers: “Every act of preservation is an act of creation. Everything preserved renews creation. It’s how we participate in creation.”

Faced with these lines, which reverse Picasso’s famous dictum that “every act of creation is first an act of destruction,” I cannot help but remember a scene from another film I recently watched, Zizek’s guide to ideology. In that film, the Slovene philosopher stands in a massive airplane graveyard in the middle of the African desert, our original Eden now laid waste to, and speaks of the incredible amount of waste produced by Capitalism, and how we must learn to live with (and not abandon or ignore or repress) that detritus, the inevitable rejected residue of perpetual invention for the sake of its own survival, not ours. “Everything preserved renews creation”—we must learn to live WITH our refuse, not refuse it; we must learn how to recycle it and reuse it, how to love creation even in its inhuman excess, how to find hope in the face of our own destruction (the destruction we cause, the destruction we experience), hope when the face of God has turned away from us.

It is a unforgiving film about desolate times, which takes an unflinching look at the heart of human heartlessness and devastation and misery—and yet (those beautiful words of hope itself) there is something undeniably beautiful about this starkness. The cinematography, shot in an unnerving aspect ratio that simultaneously calls back to an older era of filmmaking and contemporary Instagram photography, is slow and sublime. The screenplay is unsurprisingly musical and poetic, the score simple yet agonizing, the direction somehow delicate even when handling these hefty themes. But it is Hawke’s performance, muted but affective, that elevates the film and keeps us listening to the words, listening for the voice of God, a listening that is a type of praying in itself.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

Double Indemnity, 1944 – ★★★★★ [Movie Log]

Jesum crow, what wild words this movie is made of, their wit and speed, their poetry and clarity, their uncanny invention of imagined colloquialism, where phrases spit by seemingly familiar yet unbearably strange at pause. Words to match the off-putting expressionist lighting, which doesn’t just illuminate the set, but cuts these characters into pieces, as they and their plan fall to pieces, like the slow inexorable revelation of truth. Lighting to match the story itself—or at least it’s telling—always only half exposed in its narration, shifting your attention to look in one (mis)direction while the real crime is happening just off screen, in the darkness, where you are not looking.

Forget, for a moment, if you can, the film’s historical importance and influence as the first (or, at least, the prototype) film noir, step past its cinematic originality and impudence, important as that is—all reasons this is one of the greatest films ever made—and look at just what happens on the screen or in the script. This is a movie of detailed but subtle characterization (Stanwyck’s trashy wig) and complex but earnest motivation (MacMurray’s ideal ego), with unexpected turns that never pander to or underestimate the intelligence of either its audience or its characters. Yet for a movie about such darkness as what lies in the depths of the human condition, a movie that looks seedy and caused something of a scandal, for all about it that is hard on the soul it nonetheless is easy on the eyes and ears, profoundly enjoyable to watch even when the iniquity of these characters makes you, at times, want to look away.

In that sense, despite the narration by MacMurray which puts you in his shoes—and so makes you miss the story as its really happening, blinded by his ego while the real subject of the crime being Stanwyck—the viewer is ultimately in the position of the gumshoe-esque claims adjuster. Surrounded by brilliant performances, Robinson is the true criminal here, stealing every scene he’s in, and in him is the whole spirit of the movie: Cantankerous, wordy, energetic, intelligent, skeptical, pessimistic. In fact, part of me suspects—and here we return to the filming and not just the film, to what happened off screen and not just what happens on—that Robinson is a stand-in, in a way, for Wilder, the force who keeps the action moving through his relentlessness, who is a step ahead even when he’s playing catchup.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan