Practical Criticism

These posts from The Valve are all practical criticism. Most, but not all, concentrate on a single text (or film) and seek to analyze and describe some aspect(s) of the text. The entries are arranged in the order I posted them, from the oldest to the most recent.

This was part of The Valve’s discussion of Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees. In this post I trace the distribution of the /xanadu/ meme on the web and relate it to several “dispersal” events: 1) the publication of “Kubla Khan” early in the 19th century, 2) the premiere of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” in the mid-20th century, 3) Ted Nelson’s Project Xanadu in the late 1960s, and 4) the hit song and movie by Olivia Newton-John. Several commenters got in on the action.

A set of brief remarks on Miyazaki’s feature films aimed at briefly characterizing the nature of the imaginary worlds in each of them.

This is one in a series of posts about characters in literary works. Here I examine configurations of characters in three Shakespeare plays, Much Ado About Nothing (a comedy), Othello (a tragedy), and The Winter’s Tale (romance). Each play involves a man who believes a beloved woman has betrayed him. The point of the post is to call attention to how these three different plays deploy their characters in service to that plot motif and to suggest, thereby, that these fictional characters are but different facts of a single real human being. I’ve subjected these configurations to intense analysis in a formal article on Shakespeare, and also call upon in a recent post that starts out as an homage to Claude Lévi-Strauss.

I argue that Fantasia is akin to what Edward Mendelson called an encyclopedic narrative and what Franco Moretti called an epic. The film’s wide range of subjects, themes, motifs, and styles samples the world and thereby implies the whole universe, and does so in roughly two hours.

An analysis of how Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (aka Iz) reconstructs two songs, "What a Wonderful World" and "Over the Rainbow," to make them his own and, at the same time, claims them for his native Hawaiian culture.

Analyzes one episode from Fantasia, Dance of the Hours, and argues that its about the tension between the animal and the human. The animals in the episode – ostriches, hippopotami, elephants, and alligators – all drop out of the roles dictated by the ballet numbers they dance.

This is the film that was re-cut, augmented and edited to be released in the United States as Godzilla. The Japanese original is quite different in theme and tone. The story of the irradiated monster, Gojira, is interwoven with a love triangle between three young Japanese, two men and a woman. In her childhood it was arranged that the woman would marry one of the men, but she has grown to love the other. The man she’s rejected kills Gojira, albeit in a way that has the feel of a stately ritual. The other man lives. I suggest that Gojira functions as a figure for Japan’s dying traditions (such as arranged marriages) even as it is obviously a figure for the evils of atomic warfare.

This is a full-dress article about Spike Lee’s film, Mo’ Better Blues, that I never published formally. The penultimate paragraph: “In attempting to construct the image of jazz, and its musicians, in the stylizations of a black mythology, Spike Lee committed himself to working against the received conventions. By insisting on one simple truth about jazz, that it is disciplined stylization, Lee began to undermine those Hollywood conventions. But he was unable completely to free himself from the Romantic conventions which determine our vision of the artist and his place in society. Lee's displacements don't alter the fact that, at the core, his protagonist is a self-destructive descendent of the Romantic Artist.”

The Sopranos

The next four posts are about The Sopranos and address thematic and formal issues in a few episodes. I wrote these while working through the whole series on DVDs.

I consider a single episode from season one, “Boca,” and consider how it deals with the separation of work (for the mob, of course) and family. One plotline involves the coach of a girl’s soccer team. He has an affair with one of the team and only narrowly escapes being murdered by the mob. In the other episode, Tony’s uncle, Corrado, ends his relationship with a long-term mistress because she accidentally told her friends of his skill at oral sex. At the end of the piece I go meta: “. . . a critical approach that is content to explain the desires and motives of the characters will have little to say about just how Chase . . . has crafted his story and how that craft affects us. For those motives and desires are independent of how we encounter the action. . . . But the effects those actions have on the viewer, they are not independent of one another. They depend on what Chase reveals to us, and when he does so. He has interlinked them and so our responses to the two plot lines are necessarily interlinked.”

From the opening: David Bordwell had recently published an essay on “The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema,” which is about mid-level transitions in film. Not the high-level structure of acts (generally three or four), nor the low level structure of shots. However, feature films are complete; individual Sopranos episodes are not. This allows for the possibility that individual episodes can follow multiple plot lines that have little or no causal relationship between them. They may, however, have a strong thematic relationship. I examine such effects in episode seven from season two, “D-Girl.” In both cases we have a visual hook linking a scene in one plotline to a scene in another plotline.

Again, I’m interested in how plotlines are woven together. I look at three episodes, one from season one, “Boca” (with two plotlines), and two from season two, “Commendatori” (five plotlines), and “D-Girl” (two). The penultimate paragraph: “In arguing that each episode is composed of two streams of action, each of which may consist of one or more plotlines, I am simply asserting that there is a multi-level structure here. In talking about thematic linkage I’m arguing that we don’t have “raw” or “total” juxtapositions. Rather, we have juxtapositions with respect to some theme or issue. There is a logic to an episode’s structure of juxtapositions, but it is not the logical of causal relationships within a plot. It is something else.”

Five more or less unrelated matters: The Law as a Device, An Interesting Scene: Junior Sings (a communal event), What’s a Plot for? (or, where’s the end, it goes on and on), Another Interesting Scene: Adriana Betrayed (vomit ensues), The Big Question: Is this series really THAT GOOD?

A look at the racial politics of a 1951 movie about two jazz trumpeters. Young white trumpeter (Kirk Douglas), black mentor (Juano Hernandez). Good woman (Doris Day), bad woman (Lauren Bacall) – both for the young white trumpeter. Success, fame, booze, betrayal, solace. Music, lots of music (Harry James on the sound track). Funeral in a black church. While the film is sympathetic to the black trumpeter, it is also circumspect in how it positions him with his white disciple. The associate in musical settings, but not socially, except for one meeting in a bar. And that ends badly.

Astro Boy

The next two posts are about Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy stories and are based on my viewing of the 1980s anime series and my reading of half-dozen (out of some 20 plus) volumes of Astro Boy manga in English translation.

Many, perhaps most, of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy stories involve strained relations between humans and robots in which the robots are discriminated against. I argue that this is grounded in Tezuka’s experiences of being discriminated against during the post-war American occupation.

I extend my earlier piece to suggest that Astro Boy is a vehicle to work out a “new type” of humanity, a new way of being human.

Rider Haggard
H. Rider Haggard was one of the most popular novelists of his era, late 19th century through early 20th. The next two posts are about two of his most popular novels. The third post is by my friend and colleague, Tim Perper, and is about

Toward the end I say: “It would be too much to say that King Solomon’s Mines is an attempt to reconcile two forms of social organization, small-scale egalitarian fellowship and large-scale command-and-control hierarchies, for there is no reconciliation. There is only a juxtaposition and a statement of strong preference for one form of organization over the other. Does this then make King Solomon’s Mines into a critique, or a protest?” Adam Roberts nailed it in a comment: “. . . what’s significant about this is that it represents (I think) a radical revisioning of what Utopia means.”

The opening: “When flowers are not being flowers, they are sometimes put to use as symbols. I’m interested in one such usage, in Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, though I don’t think it’s quite symbolic. Or rather, yes, it is easy to read it as symbolic, but to say so would be to paper over the fact that I don’t really understand how this usage works. Regardless of exactly how the flower imagery works, it is being recruited to sexual service as suggested by the word “deflower,” but the potential victim is a 10-year old girl. While the girl escapes unharmed, Haggard has her in jeopardy for three chapters, three chapters where the reader doesn’t know what has happened or what might happen to her. Why does Haggard put the reader through this?”

By Tim Perper and Martha Cornog. Reviews plucky heroines from Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, 20th American cartoons, and contemporary Japanese manga and anime.

A stylistic analysis of a single sentence from one of David Patrick Columbia’s “diaries” about elite “society” in New York City. The object is to show how he manages to write as an insider’s outsider, viewing that society both ironically and comfortably.

After some introductory ceremonial I review Lévi-Strauss’s enigmatic method in The Raw and the Cooked, suggesting that he was looking for a mode of thought that was beyond his analytic concepts. I provide my own explication of that mode of thought by considering a number of closely related texts. First Richard Greene’s Pandosto and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which was closely based on Pandosto. Then two more Shakespeare plays, Much Ado About Nothing, and Othello. Like Winter’s, these plays feature a male protagonist who mistakenly believes that a beloved woman has betrayed him. Finally, Wuthering Heights, a novel whose plot spans two generations, as do the plots of Pandosto and Winter’s.

A fragment of intellectual autobiography in which I tell the story of how I started out examining “Kubla Khan” with tools from phenomenology and structuralism and had the whole shebang collapse on me. Yes, I managed to find remarkable structures in the poem, but my conceptual tools had nothing to do with that discovery. That’s when I decided to retool and looked to cognitive science for my tooling. The guts of that story is “in” images of three pages of working notes from different phases of the journey.

I examine sections of two texts, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and “Kubla Khan.” In Gawain I show that, at a crucial point in the story, the rhetorical structure of the text cuts across the boundary between one stanza and the next. In “Kubla Khan” I show that line grouping by rhyme frame and line grouping by sentence structure are working at cross purposes. I liken these two cases to a musical example where harmonic structure cuts across rhythmic structure. Are such structural games ubiquitous in the temporal arts?

Close analysis of a three-line John Hollander poem of which the third line is Chomsky’s famous example, “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”

Both The Nutcracker Suite [NS] and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice [SA]have ring forms. That is, the first and last segment mirror one another, the second and next to last mirror one another, etc. NS: A B C C’ B’ A’. The central episodes involved water, with C’ taking place under water (where those dancing fish look at you). SA: A B C B’ A’. Mickey’s dream sequence is in the middle.

I examine two Shakespeare plays, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Winter's Tale, and a novella by Robert Greene, Pandosto. The whole thing hangs on an argument based on ideas from evolutionary psychology (David Boehm and Alan Fiske), that we have innate behavioral systems for both hierarchical and egalitarian social relations. I demonstrate how Shakespeare deals with tension between these modes (which is different from Greene) and I suggest that that the tension between the two is a driving force in history.

In The Rite of Spring episode from Fantasia, Disney depicts the course of life on Earth from its origins up through the demise of the dinosaurs. This post focuses on the segment of this episode where Disney depicts evolution at work as a primitive amphibian evolves from a fish. The point of the analysis concerns the interaction of music and image. During this evolution sequence the movements of the fish/amphibian are faster than anything we hear in the music, which is slow and languid. In contrast, there are sequences before and after this where the obvious motion on screen tracks obvious pulsation in the music.

The semantic structure of Yeats' "The Cat and the Moon" is embodied through a syntactic and sound structure which also goes through phases, phases which complement that semantic structure. The first phase consists of two four line sentences, each weakly rhymed ABCB. The second phase continues the four-line rhyme groups, but the rhymes are strong. Syntactically, there is a strong alignment between rhyme groups and syntactic grouping in the first phase while there is no obvious alignment between sound and syntax in the second phase of the poem, which also contains two rhetorical questions. The poem's third phase synthesizes the stylistic features of the first two phases. It has the synchrony of rhyme and syntax which characterizes the first phase; but the rhymes are strong and the penultimate sentence of the poem is a rhetorical question—features of the second phase. The poem thus embodies, in both sound and sense, the cyclic interpenetration of opposites which is its meaning.

I use Shakespeare’s play as a lens through which to examine an event that happened recently among the social elite of New York City, the trial of Anthony Marshall for defrauding the estate of his mother, the late Brooke Astor. In this analysis Brooke Astor is the Lear figure while her son is the Cordelia figure.