While recovering from watching an Academy Awards broadcast helmed by a blasé multiplatform performance artist or two, we got to thinking about Chicago’s own cinematic rex. Or rather, he got us thinking, with a simple Tweet stating the obvious: “Is James Franco the first PhD candidate to host the Oscars?”
Of course, we thought! This is probably the only time the Oscars have featured a host who may or may not be a regular at the Beineke Library. But in the middle of trying to read James Franco as a cipher for contemporary subjectivity—whose Method is this? Schneeman, not Strasberg, right?—we had forsaken simplicity. As ebertchicago had so aptly advanced in 140 characters or less:
Through his decades of Pulitzer Prize-winning film criticism, groundbreaking television work with Gene Siskel, acclaimed yearly film festival, and now his popular blog and Twitter feed, Ebert has assumed a place in American culture that has made him, as Forbes magazine declared, “the most powerful pundit in America.”
And in the world of Web 3.0, ebertchicago is no exception. If Franco’s weirdly hallucinogenic Jim Stark-as-Troy-in-Reality Bites performance weren’t entertaining enough in a night that jumped the generational shark, Ebert’s live-tweeting of it sure was:
I hope James Franco does better on the oral exam for his PhD.
They should go back to using writers for the opening remarks.
Be honest now. Did the show open[ing] remind you of a Chamber of Commerce youth achievement banquet?
If James Franco were announcing the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, he would add, “Whatever.”
Add Our Lonely Academic’s Critical Flameout to the Ebert oeuvre: one that ranges from The Third Man’s zither music and the Corleone family’s lost Americana to the reasons why Deuce Bigelow probably isn’t our European Gigolo par excellence. Or as the man himself said it best:
Urgent to producers: You’re not running long. You’re running slow.
Literary critic, esteemed professor, rhetorician, and scholar, Wayne C. Booth was born to Mormon parents in American Fork, Utah, on February 22, 1921. A young Booth served on a mission for the church before completing undergraduate work at Brigham Young University (1944) and graduate studies at the University of Chicago (1950).
Also ninety years ago this week, the word “robot” was ushered into the global idiom with the premiere of Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a play that debuted on the stages of Prague (1921) before launching a four-month run at Broadway’s Garrick Theater in the winter of 1922-23.
After an early teaching stint at the University of Chicago, Booth taught at Haverford and Earlham Colleges before returning to the University as the George M. Pullman Professor of English in 1962, a position he would hold for nearly three decades (though continuing to teach on occasion even in his 80s). Just prior to his appointment, Booth published The Rhetoric of Fiction, a work which considers the literary text in light of both author and audience, applying Aristotelian theory and concepts to advanced discussions of how we make sense of the fictional form. For generations of scholars, the terms Booth advanced in order to analyze complex orders of showing and telling—the “implied author,” for example, or the “postulated reader”—became commonplace components of the critical lexicon.
Čapek didn’t credit himself with coining the word that became “robot”—instead, in an article printed in Lidové noviny (first articulated in response to the Oxford English Dictionary’s etymology), he attributed the word’s origins to his brother Josef. Karel had initially wanted to use the Latin word for “labor,” rather than Josef’s suggestion of robota, which literally translates from the Czech as “serfdom” or “drudgery,” and connects to a traditional literature filled with Golem-like creatures.
Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction produced two editions, was translated into seven languages, and won awards from the Phi Beta Kappa Society and the National Council of Teachers of English, among other accolades. Booth continued to publish works of enormous influence on narrative theory and literary studies, including A Rhetoric of Irony, Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, The Vocation of a Teacher, The Knowledge Most Worth Having, and several editions of The Craft of Research. Booth also championed teaching and collegiality, serving as Dean of the College from 1964 to 1969, helping to moderate unrest during the Vietnam War period. He coedited Critical Inquiry for many years; delivered one of the University’s Ryerson lectures; was awarded Guggenheim, NEH, and Ford Faculty Fellowships; served for one year as the president of the Modern Language Association; and was recognized by the American Association for Higher Education as one of six professors who made “a difference in higher education.” To this day, the University hands out the Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in his honor.
Čapek countered the adaptation of Robota in his play’s title, and in a gesture toward those titular entities (which were not mechanical, as in our modern sense of the word, but instead biological beings early mistaken for humans), included the name Rossum, which alludes to the Czech word rozum, meaning—naturally—”wisdom” or “intellect.”
Booth’s legacy as a top-tier scholar, both in terms of technical skill and ethical perspective, and teacher is nearly without peer. We remember him today, in light of other benign anniversaries, on what would have been his ninetieth birthday, as one who helped us wrestle with what it meant to be the opposite of Čapek’s robot—a bit more fully human.
In the spirit of Presidents’ Day (in other birthday news: the cribbing of W. H. Auden lines —”One rational voice is dumb/Over his grave the household of Impulse mourns one dearly loved”), we’re celebrating the caricatured, the cartoonish, the garishly sketch, the “Generalíssimo Francisco Franco is still dead!” reverie of Fathers, Founding and Our American Presidents. With that in mind, here’s a list of commands our backlist has in reserve for our Commander(s)-in-Chief:
“Openly betray your sense of aesthetic abstraction in favor of imagery representative of the American 1970s: fill it with personal and political meaning that helps to bring about the renewal of the figure in painting and a witty, sardonic take on a political regime gone awry. Be good.”
“Consider a neck and shoulder massage. Relax. Watch and rewatch Fletch. During the October 1976 presidential debate, consider building a time machine and traveling to 1989, when the statement ‘Poland is no longer under communist domination’ will actually ring true.”
“Heed Abigail’s advice: ‘I love to amuse myself with my pen, and pour out some of the tender sentiments of a Heart over flowing with affection, not for the Eye of a cruel Enemy who no doubt would ridicule every Humane and Social Sentiment long ago grown Callous to the finer sensibilities—but for the sympathetick Heart that Beats in unison with.’ Careful also, sir, with those Boston Patriot letters to the editor.”
“Consider what is old and passing; throw the I Ching. Watch the low Neap tide under a Kennebunkport moon. Usher in your acceptance of the GOP presidential nomination with the promise of a lesson learned: No new tricycles, tragedies, tautologies; No new Tao… . No new teleology, temp agency, television mini-series… . No new Terms of Endearment, tipping point, toxoplasmosis… . No new… . Nothing new… . Nothing new under the sun, George. Read your Beckett.”
This past Friday, the University of Chicago community mourned the loss of one of its brightest stars, when Miriam Bratu Hansen lost her decade-long battle with cancer. The Ferdinand Schevill Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities; professor in the Departments of Cinema & Media Studies and English, and at the College; founder of the Film Studies Center; and a faculty board member of the University of Chicago Press (1991-96), Hansen shifted the confines of cinema studies to account for modernism’s more vernacular forms in line with the writings of Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and others from the Frankfurt school, as Hansen’s colleague Tom Gunning describes in his moving tribute:
Coming to the United States, she worked at the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale and taught at Rutgers University before coming to Chicago in 1990. Her research moved to the history of early American cinema and to the work of the Frankfurt school and its satellites on cinema. Both of these areas were evident in her book Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Cinema published in 1991, a work which gave shape to the research that had been emerging in the eighties on early American cinema, seeing it through the lens of Negt and Kluge’s concept of the public sphere, and providing a magisterial analysis of D. W. Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance through the criticism of Walter Benjamin, and new work on gender.
Hansen was able to work out an intersection between film history, film analysis and film theory few have ever matched. Her boundless curiosity marked her teaching and writing in the next decade, as she evolved the concept of the “vernacular modernism” through probing the influence of Hollywood on early Asian (especially Chinese) cinema, working with her student Zhen Zhang, and especially extending her research into the Frankfurt school and cinema, producing a series of crucial essays and finishing shortly before her death a large manuscript on cinema and the Frankfurt school.
February: lovesick and lambs-wooled. We call you fair of face, fleet of foot (only 28 days, after all), foxy, Phlox Lombardi’d, and inclined to repeatedly listen to Jonathan Richman and the airing of grievances. Black History Month ushers you in, while Gilbert Gottfried’s birthday Bears you Down. Amid all this, the bell tolls for thee: februum, after all, means “purification.” Chinese New Year goes ka-ka-ka-kat and our presidents are remembered for birth or pluck. What luck, February, grand dame of winter. We’ll take your lead and … turn to Southern California.
With all that in mind, let us proclaim February the month of a free ebook: Who Wrote the Book of Love?, Lee Siegel’s fictional ode to an erotic coming of age.
“Part of my plan,” Mark Twain wrote in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, “has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked.” With the same motive, Lee Siegel has written what Twain might have composed had he been Jewish, raised in Beverly Hills in the 1950s, and joyously obsessed with sex and love.
“We were young,” Augusten Burroughs began. “We were bored. And the old electroshock therapy machine was just under the stairs in a box next to the Hoover.”
No matter how you choose to remember your childhood, we can’t endorse Who Wrote the Book of Love? enough as perfect fodder for this month of purifying rituals, wilderness survival plans, and possible psychiatric measures.
In celebration of Black History Month: Sun Ra’s indefatigable 1971 Berkeley lectures, newly available in streaming format at UbuWeb, from Ra’s tenure as artist-in-residence teaching a course on “The Black Man in the Cosmos”