Thursday, March 18, 2010

Liars still at the poker table

I'm reading for a paper semi-related to the current financial crisis, and the first book on my list is Michael Lewis's new release, "The Big Short." Here's a bit of the prologue, where M.L. talks about writing "Liar's Poker."

Up to that point, just about everything written about Wall Street had been about the stock market. The stock market had been, from the very beginning, where most of Wall Street lived. My book was mainly about the bond market, because Wall Street was now making even bigger money packaging and selling and shuffling around America's growing debts. This, too, I assumed was unsustainable.

I thought that I was writing a period piece about the 1980s in America, when a great nation lost its financial mind. I expected readers of the future would be appalled that, back in 1996, the CEO of Salomon Brothers, John Gutfreund, was paid $3.1
million as he ran the business into the ground. I expected them to gape in wonder at the story of Howie Rubin, the Salomon mortgage bond trader, who had moved to Merrill Lynch and promptly lost $250 million. I expected them to be shocked that, once upon a time on Wall Street, the CEOs had only the vaguest idea of the complicated risks their bond traders were running.

And that's pretty much how I imagined it; what I never imagined is that the future reader might look back on any of this, or on my own peculiar experience, and say, "How quaint." How
innocent.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

So not cool news flash: school cancels prom because lesbian wants to bring date

From USA Today, via Dan Savage (plus I saw this on mute during breakfast this morning):
A Mississippi county school board announced Wednesday it would cancel its upcoming prom after a gay student petitioned to bring a same-sex date to the event.
I hope this girl stays safe and the school reconsiders its decision. This is some messed up shit, Mississippi. Get your heads on straight.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The man has a point

From Dan Savage on The Stranger's blog, Slog:

"A Catholic school in Colorado is kicking out a preschooler because the child's parents are lesbians. The child also will not be allowed to re-enroll next year at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School. The Denver Archdiocese posted a statement Friday saying the parents are "living in open discord with Catholic teaching." The statement says students in Catholic schools are expected to have parents who abide by church and school policies. The archdiocese said students with gay parents in Catholic schools would become confused."

"No doubt the school has already kicked out all the kids whose straight parents are 'living in discord with Catholic teaching' by having divorced and remarried or who've used birth control or who haven't been to mass lately. Right? Hello?"

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Paper 2

This one was for Legal Ethics. We had to pick an outside source (preferably a non-legal one) and use it to comment on a topic we covered in class. I picked David Foster Wallace and exclusion from the legal profession. Not brilliant, but it works.

The Sweet and Sour of American Legal English: How Language and Convention Exclude Non-Lawyers from Legal Practice*

It’s a pretty uncontroversial idea that, in the United States, a person may represent himself in court. The space for laypeople to represent themselves in transactions and litigation is also accepted by the self-regulating legal profession. But formal permission to represent oneself isn’t the whole story: the legal profession uses a language, American Legal English, that informally, but routinely, excludes from practice the people who would exercise their right to self-representation. With David Foster Wallace’s essay “Authority and American Usage (or, ‘Politics and the English Language’ Is Redundant)” as a guide, I present several propositions. One: Some parts of legal practice are inherently complex, and using a shared language as precise as ALE reflects this complexity and so helps mitigate conflict. As an example, I consider complicated business transactions between sophisticated corporate parties. Two: Other parts of legal practice that are not inherently complex (such as simple commercial transactions between individuals) have dispensed with ALE and substituted a different, plainer English that functions well without the interference of lawyers or lawyerly complexity. Three: In a few distinct areas of legal practice, self-representation could be a useful fill for hiring a lawyer, but the litigant is required to forego self-representation because knowledge of ALE is still required by the system. In these situations, it’s unclear whether the cost of excluding some litigants from getting an effective hearing of their claims is outweighed by the benefits of precision that using the shared ALE language provide to the legal system. . . .

*Yes, I know law school papers don't have to follow this title convention. I wrote these very close in time (and for two professors who happen to be married to each other), and the titular mirroring is actually deliberate. The colon is now banished.

Paper 1

I wrote this for Law & Culture in American Film, using Birth of a Nation and Avatar as my film-sources. I liked how it came out in the end, but my next paper (this class requires 2) will be less about what people say about movies and more about what movies say about us. Stay tuned.

Story and Spectacle: How New Technology Subordinates Narrative in Film, and Why We Let It

In 1915, D. W. Griffith’s full-length film The Birth of a Nation stunned audiences and critics with the magnitude of its visual experience. It was “the first, the most stunning and durably audacious of all American film masterpieces, and the most wonderful movie ever made.” Critics praised the “splendor and magnificence of its spectacles” and recorded the cheers, tears, and simple awe The Birth of a Nation inspired in those who saw it. Now that the techniques and conventions Griffith pioneered have been imitated a thousand times over, modern audiences are more inclined to look beyond the spectacle of the film to reveal a simple, flawed story: a melodrama of two families divided by war; a “based on a true story” perversion of history; a racist polemic that reinvigorated the Ku Klux Klan. But film critics of Griffith’s day—even those sympathetic to the plight of African Americans in the racially tense early 20th century—set aside their reservations about the film’s subject matter and ideology to marvel at Griffith’s technology, techniques, and mastery of spectacle.

Almost 100 years later, with the release of Avatar, James Cameron can claim to have repeated Griffith’s great leap forward. Avatar is, “simply put, one of the most beautiful movies you’ll ever see.” Using new-and-improved 3-D and performance capture technology, Cameron has arguably reinvented cinema for a new century. Critics are in awe of the immersive experience that such clever and soft-handed use of technology can create for the audience, inserting us “so completely and seamlessly into it that we feel like we’ve actually been there, not watched it on a screen.” But Avatar, like The Birth of a Nation before it, rings a bit hollow beneath its spectacular shell: the clich├ęd “white man goes native” storyline, political commentary culled from the headlines, and clunky, derivative dialogue lead easily to the conclusion that we’ve heard this story before, even if we’ve never seen it quite like this. And, as they did in 1915, film critics are quite willing to forgive narrative flaws for the sake of a spectacular visual experience.

The Birth of a Nation and Avatar demonstrate a trend in filmmaking history: when technology takes a great leap forward, narrative takes a backseat—at least for a little while. This paper first aims to say why. I propose three considerations. Perhaps it’s unfair to ask directors who are talented at creating astounding new visual experiences to be equally skilled in telling new stories. Or maybe the problem is that moviemaking is expensive, especially when directors and producers develop technology and technique from scratch, and lowest-common-denominator narratives provide the best way to recoup a large investment. Last, it’s possible that filmmakers realize how overwhelming new visual experiences can be; maybe it’s simply too much to ask of an audience to grasp a new narrative about the human experience while simultaneously adjusting to depth of field or 3-D glasses.

A related trend is the complicity of reviewers in the subordination of the narrative experience to the visual spectacle in these pictures. Film critics—whether in 1915 or 2009—have been all too willing to forgive narrative flaws in films that push forward the visual experience of the audience. Some critics minimize such flaws almost unconsciously, dulling themselves to what they hear in deference to what they see.

Luckily for discerning audiences and the future of cinema, this dichotomy fades with time. Though in the beginning of a new technological era the narratives serve the visual experience, as the technology becomes more commonplace, narrative makes a comeback. New stories can be told with the not-as-new technology in a way that moves film forward—not just in the spectacle, but also in a new treatment of the human experience. After a period of adjustment, the relationship between spectacle and narrative restabilizes in its traditional form: instead of the story being a vehicle for a new technology, the technology of production takes its rightful place as a vehicle for a narrative experience. . . .

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Blog not dead

It's been a busy few weeks. I had a few papers due (lots of writing this term--updates ahead) and generally just lots of life in a way I hadn't been having for a while. Plus, I've been reading more, and whenever that happens I get exposed to so many choice quotes that I can't pick which ones to post. It's a tough life, I know.

Since we're on this freaky quarter system, I have finals (!) coming up in a couple of weeks. Then the winter quarter will be over and the spring one will start and I get to do it all over again, while studying for the bar exam and, you know, not going insane, generally. Good times ahead.

So, dear readers, don't abandon us yet! Things always pick up when I have tons of stuff to procrastinate on, and with exams and the MPRE coming up shortly, there's no lack of opportunity.