Friday, February 27, 2015

Movies Part I: Lessons From A Blue Dress

From Wired--original dress image in middle, two different color corrections applied on right and left. Read the article in the link below to find out why.

And no, not Monica Lewinsky’s dress-the dress that took the internet by storm recently. The dress that, in the same week Congress was failing to fund Home Security and Jihad John was identified, everyone was talking about.

Proving once and for all that there is little relationship between what people “talk about” and what really matters.

Anyway, the dress of ambiguous color is, according to this article, which I found on Wired, clearly blue. I see the original as white and gold. If you see blue and black, you earn the gold star, or possibly the teal one.

Apparently it’s a perception problem—the issue of how our brain compensates for what it perceives as the prevailing light condition. Years before Photo Shop, the human brain was evolving to color correct our world so that we could see the ripe fruit or the hiding tiger.

What does this dress have to do with movies? Movies, as a medium, are a lot like books. They both require subscription or sales revenue, rather than depending, like most media, on advertising. They are both narrative in form—in fact, there is a close relationship in content between movies and books, although as a reader, I hasten to add that never does the movie recreate the book. The fact that both are narrative media does not mean that they use the same narrative conventions or tools—and a book can almost always tap into more subtleties and interior meanings of things.

The great impact of movies comes from their dreamlike power. Although some are very artistic and complex and make you think, most operate at a cognitively less complex level then books. Books train our minds and enrich our vocabulary. They are like the best lectures in the university of our lives (hang on, students, that’s a metaphor). Movies are the quad, with its nice rose garden, fountain and naked angles in the 19th century statuary (the university of our lives has a nicer quad than MMU).

We still need the quad. We need the sunshine and the flowers and the angels. I’m not dismissing movies nor saying they are secondary in some cultural way to books. I’m merely observing that they touch us in a different way. And maybe I should have called the movies the art gallery, because they change more and involve more thought than the quad, but now we have to usher our metaphor off stage as it’s getting selfish and occupying too much real estate.

Back to movies. They are the dream medium. Granted, books invite you to enter into a dream world, but it requires more mental work on your part, and the dream world in a book is one that you construct just as much as the author does. My book Harry Potter is not the same as yours or even J.K. Rowling’s, but we both see Daniel Radcliffe as the movie HP.

But, even if movies more clearly communicate the writers’, actors’ and perhaps most of all, the directors’ dreams, even this medium that delivers more intact fantasy passes through our personal powers of perception. We both can watch “Pearl Harbor,” but if I know more about the actual World War II than you do, I’ll probably cringe more.

Anyway, perception is a funny beast. Earlier in this semester, a student in my media class noted that she enjoyed the movie “The Interview” due to its comedy. I found the movie primitive, scatological, irritatingly irrational and just not very funny.

She’s not wrong., she is perceiving the movie from her point of view, and I am from mine. Sometimes the dress looks blue, sometimes white.

The “right” answer in the dress case is blue. The right answer in the movie case partly depends on what you mean.

This week as we discuss movies, we may spend a little time talking about what we like or don’t, and I’ll probably write a second blog post to self-disclose a bit about my taste in movies. But movie reviews aren’t really the point of the week.

Understanding what movies can do, what they are capable of, what they mean to us and our culture, and what the future of movies might be might be--those, I hope, are what we’ll spend our time on, whether the dress is white or blue.

So, blogosphere, chime in. Not about the dress, about perception and movies and how movies compare to other media. Do movies move you? Why ore why not? And which ones, and why?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Sam Hits a Nerve And Sami “Isn’t A Blogger”

Screen shot of Sam's anti-biker rant.

Blogging is an interesting media activity, one that a blogger I know called “emotional nudity.” It’s another genre of writing that students who aspire to any communication career should be comfortable with and understand.

Blogs, of course, have a mixed reputation. When a recent Coe graduate was arrested for an attempted terror attack in Canada, part of the way this lost and lonely young women found fellow dark and lonely people to plot with was through social media, including a blog.

But, that doesn’t make blogging all that different from any medium. After all, Hitler’s rise to power was partly fueled by his book “Mein Kampf.” Newspapers, magazines, books, movies, TV shows—all have and are used to spread terrible ideas and violence. But, as a proponent of the Marketplace of Ideas, I would observe that all of those media also can be used to educate, inform and positively persuade.

The internet is a bit different only in that facilitates unusual connections.

She doesn't have to hate not being good at blogging because she is. Good at blogging.

Anyway, 10 new blog voices have joined the internet babble, courtesy of a class writing assignment. One student, Sam, wrote a rant against bikers. One of my other blogs is called “CR Biker,” so you pretty much know how I felt about that. Was he yanking my chain? Perhaps, but that’s what a blog is for.

She is a blogger.
Samantha, aka Sami, is a bit profane on her personal blog—but I don’t think she does anything beyond what you would expect in this rather personal, emotionally nude medium. Hers is a blog worth reading. And she claims on her id that she is not a blogger. All I can say is au contraire.

And Madison also has a very visually stunning start to her blog.

One student, Meghan, is in the “mommy blog” school. Another student, also a mom, has a son who is planning his wedding, and Billie blogs about her experiences as a grown up in a young-adult world.

Each of the students is seeking to develop an online voice that is worth listening to, and to display themselves as writers. Take a glance and see what you think. Don’t troll them, please—but blog writers are partly rewarded by getting feedback on what they say:


See her winter photos.

And, for the record, my two other blogs:

CR Gardenjoe

See what you think. And if you comment here, maybe you can suggest what you think are interesting blogs that Communication, Journalism, Multimedia or PR students should follow. Or just answer this question: What are your favorite blogs, and why?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Sudden Appearance of Newspapers for Students

Two papers to read in my house this weekend--I subscribe to The Gazette and receive The Corridor Business Journal because I do a  monthly column for them. Students, did you read a story in The Gazette today?

I’m requiring a group of university students in a media class to read at least one story from the front page of the local newspaper each day for three consecutive days.
The internet doesn’t count, so don’t try to smart-phone it in, students. Hold the dead tree in your hands.
The class has a mix of different kinds of students, but most are majoring in some communication field. And yet few, if any, are in the “newspaper habit.”
We are studying newspapers this week, one week after discussing books. At the end of the book week, we talked a bit about what literacy means, and whether it’s even possible to think “big” thoughts if you don’t experience such thoughts or stories about them in book-length form.
I posed the question to the class: Why do so many college students, who are aspiring to become educated adults, eschew reading, doing the minimum for classes and possibly less if they can get away with it? Of course, being busy is part of the answer, but while that's true, it reflects what you value in your life. I'm not less busy than most students, but I skim a newspaper and read a part of at least one book every day--it's not that hard.
One student’s answer was “peer pressure.” And, sadly, I think she has a point. Reading, while promoted in a vague sense as a “good” in our culture, is also not something that is widely seen as worthwhile in terms of what many adults do. And it’s not something, in too many cases, that the cool kids do. It’s a sign of a socially awkward nerdness, or perhaps a juvenile activity, something you did when you were 10 that is passé by the time you’re 19.

And yet, reading is so data rich, so cognitively engrossing, that I don’t think any narrative medium can truly recreate the “book experience.”

In a similar way, I’ll try to argue next week that the “newspaper experience,” even if economics and big media forces make it rarer in the future, represents something important.

What are the advantages of newspapers over google news on your smart phones?
  • The newspaper is not always “on.” You skim it in the morning over breakfast, and have been “briefed” for the day. You don’t feel the need to be instantly informed. While I favor being in the “know,” and repeatedly make the point to students that the world will consider them much more employable in any field if they become more world aware--on both the local and global levels--yet, I also think it’s healthy to get away from 24/7 “bulletin” news, which is too often pointless.
  • The newspaper contains longer narrative forms of writing. That’s a bit dicey to state in an era when page size and story length are both much, much shorter than in the past, but compared to the quick paragraph of text on the radio or TV, a newspaper story still has more time and space for reflection and context.
  • The newspaper fits into a habit of literacy. We’re talking all semester long about media literacy, and such literacy means more meaningful understanding of all media when consuming them--but, I think, the deepest media literacy, indeed the deepest experience of human life, is only possible with a dose of literal literacy. The ability to read and reflect on reading is foundational to all knowledge.

College educated adults, in every field, are to some extent professional writers. But you can’t write well if you don’t read. Sadly, too many college-age young adults are getting into post-literate habits, convinced that their electronic tribe on Facebook will post the information that they need.

Hey, that's me! My column on inside page of CBJ.
But, as class discussion starkly illustrates, if you ask many college groups basic news questions, such as: What country is Vladimir Putin president of? or Who is John Roberts? most will not know. My wife reports that recently, in a senior-level nursing capstone class, virtually none of the students could talk intelligently about ISIS--they didn’t know what it was or what it had to do with them, even in the same week when President Obama asked Congress for authority to use the U.S. military against ISIS.

The ISIS crisis illustrates a larger problem. Neil Postman worried we were amusing ourselves to death. We seem to be almost there. As the phones in our pockets have grown smarter, I don’t think it’s good that we have grown less smart.

So, students--am I full of it? Do newspapers really matter? If not--how do you accomplish your daily news briefing without a newspaper? If they do matter, why? And if so, when should you start your own personal newspaper habit?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Is Scout Worth A Second, First Visit?

Next week in my media class, students will be reading and talking about the first mass medium: Books.

The news in the book world this week, of course, is about an intensely private woman who for most of her adult life maintained that she said all she wanted to say, and she wasn't going to publicly say any more.

Now, she will “speak” on the pages again. Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” has a second book coming out.

Actually a first book, apparently. According to news stories, Lee had penned “Go Set a Watchman” first. It’s a story written and set in the 1950s, when a 29-year-old woman from New York returns home to Alabama to visit her aging father. His name is Atticus Finch. You know her as Scout.

Cover of recent paperback edition.
Or at least I hope you know her. You should read “To Kill a Mockingbird” when you’re young, maybe 10 or so, not so far removed from the fresh life view of its 6-year-old narrator.

I don’t know what a 29-year-old Scout will be like, and maybe Harper was right to think she had said it all in “Mockingbird.” The story goes that she showed her first novel, “Watchman,” to some editors way back when. They liked it, but even more they liked some flashback scenes which were set in the Depression era South. Those became “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Will I read a second Harper Lee book? Oh, sure. I loved the first one. It’s one of those books that is worth rereading—encounter it when you’re young, and read it again as an adult.

I would be interested in whatever else Ms. Lee had written. But there are some questions—she clearly had refused to submit this other book for publication for most of her life, and it only surfaced after the death of her sister, apparently a lifelong ally in Ms. Lee’s quest to be left alone. Coming out now when she is old, frail and without her sister’s protection raises some questions: Mostly, why now?

Then again, Ms. Lee has followed her own drummer for many years. Maybe she just decided it’s time. I hope so.

Anyway, while it’s controversial to some, with its themes of race, sex and rape, I put “To Kill a Mockingbird” among the you-really-should-read-it list of books for any American youth. And it makes me think of what other books I consider key in my own young journey to some level of literacy. What else made Young Joe want to read and to write?

  • “Half Magic” by Edward Eager. And the rest of his light, whimsical books, including “Magic by the Lake” and “The Well Wishers.” I think I would call “Half Magic” the better book now, but I would say “The Well Wishers” was by far the most enchanting Edward Eager book to 11-year-old Joe. I don’t know if there’s a tie there for a white Midwestern boy, but “The Well Wishers,” like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” has a racial undertone.

  • “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White. The main character saves someone’s life through creativity and writing, and then herself dies in a heart-wrenching chapter, that, honestly, makes me choke up a bit even today just typing this sentence. Well, at least Charlotte’s daughters hang around. If you read “Charlotte’s Web” and didn’t love it, I don’t want to talk to you.

  • “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis. It was important to me, because around the age of 9 or so it was the very first “chapter book” that I struggled through on my own. Of the Narnia books, I actually eventually grew more fond of “The Horse and His Boy,” but LW and W still has a special place in my heart.

  • “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien. Not as full of boring elf hotels as “The Lord of the Rings,” the story of Bilbo’s quest to find a dragon without any clear notion of what he was going to do with the dragon when it was found was just too much fun. My father read it aloud to us as children, but I was still fairly green when I read it for myself.

  • “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert A. Heinlein. I read it when I was young, and didn't pick up its rather dour libertarian political overtones, which I strenuously disagree with today. But it was still a good book to read as a youth just to open my eyes to lots of different ways to view the political world. And I didn't notice, at the time of my youthful reading of the book, that the narrator was black, so this is again a book with racial overtones, although I didn't find that out until I was well into adulthood. Like “Charlotte’s Web,” I think the fact that it grapples with death is part of its appeal, too. Bog, is a computer one of your creatures?

Granddaughter "reading." She will learn to turn the book over.
I don’t mean to suggest that these are the best or only books for youth to read. Certainly my own kids loved Harry Potter, which didn't make this list only because I had kids by the time those books were published. Lemony Snicket is a wickedly subversive children’s writer, and at least mildly supervise, in my opinion, is a good thing for youth books to be. They don’t corrupt the young so much as mentally knock them off guard just a bit, which is something a good book ought to do to anybody anyway.

Well, students, we’ll see what our text author says about books in general. For you personally, what are books that have meant something to you, particularly books that you were not forced to read but rather chose to read in your younger days? And, blog universe in general, same question, but also how do you feel about Harper Lee’s new book?

Me, I’ll probably be in line the first day it’s available.

I can’t help myself. Atticus was a nice guy, but frankly I didn't really fall that hard for him. A saint is difficult to love. Jean Louise, on the other hand—baby, Scout, where have you been?

Monday, February 2, 2015

Did The Super Bowl Jump the Shark?

New York Times photo of Katy Perry at Superbowl, by Chang W. Lee.
Well, not really, at least not yet, although it may at some point—and neither did Katy Perry, in my opinion. She was OK for the halftime show—several wardrobe changes and no malfunctions. As one of my students put it today: “Halftime is for the girls. The game is for the boys.” And jumping, or at least dancing, sharks are for Katy, I suppose.

The student was wrong, by the way. Some boys like halftime. As a boy, I’d much rather watch Katy Perry than football players any day, and I've never quite figured out my fellow heterosexual males who don’t share that point of view, but that’s another story. As my children would confirm, I’m well known to have a “thing” for female pop stars, although I’ll take P!nk or Sheryl Crow, or—dare I confess a guilty pleasure, Taylor Swift—over Katy Perry most days. But Katy is OK.

And Katy sang “that” song although she didn't launch rockets from her mammal bits like she did in the video, even if there were plenty of explosions behind her.

Not everyone liked Ms. Perry. A professor at Simpson kept up a running, grumpy string of posts that I saw on Facebook about Ms. Perry, mostly because he thinks, I suppose, she lacks talent. I can’t say that he’s wrong. She’s not exactly a great artist and doesn't write her own music. But my expectations of Super Bowl halftime performers aren't that high to be begin with, so Katy Perry on a shooting star easily cleared what I admit would be a rather low bar. And the New York Times seems to agree with me, so there.

But on to the important stuff: The commercials, of course!

Here are three we’re looking at in class:
  1. An ad by Budweiser that features a lost puppy. Sure, it’s a heart-warming, powerful ad in a sort of Hallmark sentimental way, but what, exactly, does this have to do with beer? Then again, what exactly does Budweiser have to do with beer? (Sorry—Brian can be all old-man grumpy about the state of pop music if he wants to be. I reserve my ire for more important topics, like the unfathomable mystery of why any sentient creature would drink Budweiser when the last bottle of Fat Tire or Killian’s Irish Red or Third Shift or Guinness has not yet disappeared from the planet …)
  2. An ad for glue. Most of the students readily recalled this one, and were mixed about it. They at least remembered that it was a glue ad, but didn't recall the product name. Still, I would say this has more to do with what it is trying to sell, which is a nice change.
  3. The sad ad that says children are mortal. Say what? Right in the midst of this riot of football and California Girls, comes this downer of an ad that says “I died” and implied it was your fault because you weren't safety conscious enough. Students were aghast. I’m not sure I’m aghast—or at least not for the same reasons. I’m old enough that references to mortality don’t shock me. I’m more uncertain about the implication that Someone Is To Blame every time a child dies from an accident. But, I’m on board with an insurance company trying to reduce accidents, risk management and saving lives and all that.
Note that I have resisted the Fiat Viagra ad. There is something deeply Freudian about that ad, and you’ll just have to look at it yourself.

So, blog universe or CO 140 students, what did you notice about Super Bowl ads? What worked or didn’t, and why? What elements of cultural assumptions and stereotypes did you see? And yes or no—are dancing sharks a good idea?

Post a link to your favorite or most hated ad and comment on it.