Despite being dead for almost 33 years, Alfred Hitchcock still managed to have a fairly interesting year in 2012. In addition to Vertigo’s toppling of Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time in Sight & Sound’s decennial critics poll, the Master of Suspense also turned up on-screen as the subject of not one, but two films about his later life. I’ve personally been a fan since seeing To Catch a Thief on television at age 9, but I put off watching both of these movies until recently, mainly because I feared their unsavory portrayals of the acclaimed director might dampen my appreciation for his work. You see, both Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock and the HBO/BBC co-production, The Girl, shine light on what author Donald Spoto refers to as “the dark side of genius,” or in plainer language, Hitchcock’s tendencies toward voyeurism, sadism, and misogyny.
Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins, chronicles Hitch’s obsession with making Psycho, at the cost of alienating his wife and everyone else in the film industry. The Girl, darker still, follows Tippi Hedren’s account of how Hitchcock, played this time by Toby Jones, routinely subjected her to mental and physical torture on the set of The Birds and beyond (the shooting of Marnie is also featured in The Girl, though from its promotional campaigns, you would hardly know it).
Since watching both movies, I’ve become fascinated by the idea of Hitchcock being cast as his own controlling boyfriend/husband characters from Vertigo and Marnie, respectively. And the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the personas of Scottie Ferguson and Mark Rutland underlie the characterization of Hitchcock in last year’s biopics.
In Hitchcock, actress Vera Miles, played by Jessica Biel, compares the Master of Suspense to Scottie Ferguson: “You know that poor, tortured soul Jimmy Stewart played in Vertigo?” she asks Scarlett Johansson’s Janet Leigh. “Well, that’s Hitch.” Save for a comment about its underperformance at the box office, this is the only explicit mention of Vertigo in the film; however, it’s certainly not the only allusion. Throughout the movie, Hitchcock is depicted as a lovesick voyeur who ogles headshots of the starlets in his famous menagerie of blondes (most notably Grace Kelly). Like the forlorn Scottie, who attempts to transform a lookalike shopgirl into his lost love, he makes up his new leading ladies to suit his fantasies, but does so with a touch of earnest charm that leaves him seeming more like a slightly mad puppy dog than an out-and-out predator.
Even when Hitch is a peeping Tom — he stares at Miles through a carefully crafted hole in the wall — his actions still remind us more of an infatuated Scottie watching the seemingly entranced Madeleine Elster than they do of the more sinister Norman Bates. Like Scottie, Hitchcock’s Hitch also suffers from bizarre nightmares, and throughout it all, he relies on his long-suffering, bespectacled wife Alma Reville — a bright and talented woman who is continually ignored by her preoccupied husband, not unlike Vertigo’s Midge. In the end, Hitchcock aligns its leading man with Vertigo’s Scottie simply by portraying a lovable but slightly deranged man desperate to recapture a spark from his past, regardless of the consequences.
The Girl paints a more savage portrait of Hitchcock. This time there’s nothing endearing about the sleaze; there’s only a man driven by the need for power and control. He harrasses newcomer Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) to no end, forcing her to endure such horrors as being pecked at for days by live birds. In the final quarter of the film, a direct comparison is drawn between Hitchcock’s treatment of Hedren and Marnie’s notorious marital rape sequence, in which the titular Marnie, frozen with fear, succumbs to Mark Rutland’s burning lust. Like Mark, Hitchcock is shown to be a wealthy and powerful man with nearly the whole world at his feet; yet he covets the one thing that appears to be out of his reach: the girl. In the same way that Mark pursues Marnie despite her clearly-stated desire to be left alone, Hitchcock stalks Hedren both on and off the set.
Hitchcock once said “actors should be treated like cattle,” and just as Mark views Marnie as an animal he can manipulate and tame, The Girl’s Hitchcock wants nothing more than for Hedren to be his pet. Of course, neither Mark nor Hitch see themselves as villains; both believe their actions are what’s best for their “girls.” Mark thinks it’s his calling to cure Marnie of her neuroses, while Hitchcock believes his only desire is to transform Hedren into a major celebrity.
At the premiere of The Birds, Hitchcock tells Hedren: “So you see, it was worth it; all the fear and the pain and the loneliness. I know I’ve put you through some hard times, but look at you now . . . [you’re a] movie star.” Whether it’s Mark playing doctor or Hitch playing director, the deluded justification for psychological cruelty is ever-present.
There have been several backlashes against the movies (more so The Girl) in which other Hitchcock collaborators have decried what they see as hatchet jobs. Vertigo’s own Kim Novak went on record saying she never saw Hitchcock harass anybody, and she found it sad that he wasn’t around to defend himself from the slander. But while Hitchcock may not have really been a Scottie Ferguson or a Mark Rutland, a pervert or a stalker, by casting him as such, the filmmakers have given us something better than truth. They have given us a Hitchcockian drama.
There is a special place in my heart for horror films that start quietly. No zombies roaming the land in hordes, fought by terrified civilians with flamethrowers; no BANG! moments that I manage to both anticipate and fear. My favorite horror films don’t feel like horror when they begin. They begin with minuscule details, almost unconsciously apprehended, but undeniably felt. They are able to unobtrusively intensify, as dread slowly pools up from those underground lakes in your psyche, until (if you’re in the presence of a true master) you understand what is going to happen just moments before it actually does, and that awful realization falls upon you with an emotional force. Those are the stories that linger, the scenes that are hard to shake even when you walk out of the movie theater into a bright summer’s day.
Thomas Tryon’s disquieting novel The Other is one of a small number of books that have made me feel this way — it has an undeniably Hitchcockian feel. Published in 1971 and set in a 1930s Connecticut country town, its main characters are adolescent twin brothers, Niles and Holland Perry, who are quite different in personality and temperament but completely inseparable. They live on a farm with a wonderfully varied cast of characters: their mother Alexandra, a woman who hides from the world in an upstairs room, reading and drinking the days away; their grandmother Ada, a loving if somewhat mysterious woman who grew up in Russia and has an air of latent mysticism about her; their older sister Torrie and her husband Rider, soon to be parents themselves; and some other extended family members and household hands who play roles large and small over the course of the novel. Dark events soon begin to occur, with the brothers at the center of the maelstrom.
Tryon does a fantastic job of sustaining an air of isolation, which maintains the sense of creeping dread that pervades every page. Since most of the book is focused on Niles and Holland’s thoughts and actions, any typical small-town interactions among the few, poor residents feels weighty by virtue of their rarity. These interactions, eddies in the ocean of Niles and Holland’s interior world, move the story along, but they also provide an outside perspective on the twins and the Perry family as a whole. The typical gossip around the general store counter proves to be a veil for important details of the story. After a certain point, I found myself poring over every clipped exchange, every halted sentence, in an attempt to excavate any hidden, portentous elements I might have missed.
As it turns out, The Other was actually adapted for the screen shortly after the book was published. I find myself both wanting to see how it fares on the big screen (it’s always nice when an author gets to write the screenplay for his or her own novel) and not wanting to have the film supplant my initial reading experience. While some scenes would undoubtedly gain a visceral jolt from being filmed, I think that much of what makes the novel so effective would be hard to translate to a visual medium. Tryon constantly uses his characters’ innermost thoughts to effectively force you to inhabit their minds, their points of view, and I think that that’s really the true dreadful power of The Other. Watching these characters on screen would probably be troubling. But realizing I’d started to think like them by the end of the novel? I hadn’t been that disturbed in quite some time.
Beginning composition students need to understand the distinction between form and content. Understanding how each aspect works in relationship to the other is crucial, as it allows for exciting new insights into writing as well as reading. Except students aren’t usually that excited.
I used to illustrate this concept by drawing a big jug on the board and explaining that the shape of the jug was the form, and whatever liquid was poured inside was the content. And though it worked well enough, I’m always looking for new ways to show students how form and content are cooperating in things that are relevant to them, hoping they will come to see not only the relevance of the concept, but also how it might be applied more broadly to the things they encounter in their daily lives.
There are many internet memes that could potentially do the trick. There’s the Dos Equis man’s simple, content-demanding formula: I don’t always _____, but when I do, I _____. Then there are the “what I really do” photo collages, in which six photos humorously contrast the different ways one job is perceived by various groups. A distinct form — one that can easily be copied and filled with a variety of content — seems to be one of the defining characteristics of these memes and a big part of what enables them to spread so widely and rapidly. They’re beautiful little pre-made containers for people to dump their ideas into, usually with minimal effort.
Most of these memes (there are too many to name) seem to be designed, primarily, to convey a specific emotion (pride, disgust, anger, embarrassment, surprise) rather than something more. But the meme of the moment, the Harlem Shake, is different (and apparently more attention-worthy). It allows people to showcase their awareness of the meme’s form in a way that others don’t. The form itself is a big part of the message, and this hyperawareness leads to an interesting variety of content possibilities.
The form itself comprises two sections (sorry, formal narrative structure), centered around a sudden instant of outburst and contrast. The jump cut makes the contrast so sudden that it’s almost as if both scenarios have been happening simultaneously all along. We see the movement of the individual, who is often masked or disguised in some way, become the movement of an entire group — the ordered becomes disordered, and taboos become permissible.
Maybe so many people are eager to take this form and fill it with their own unique content because the form itself compels a recognition of the need to break free from the forms that constrain us. Many of these videos are set in workplaces or other tightly controlled environments — most recently and notably, an airplane (don’t worry, the FAA is investigating). We need (and flock to) forms that resonate with our experience, that facilitate the communication of our most relevant, pressing ideas and concerns.
So perhaps the Harlem Shake represents a recognition of the split lives we lead, a realization of how tightly controlled we are and how hungry we are to break free. The need to see ourselves reflected in others is being celebrated, and it’s this kind of thinking might allow us to reconnect, to develop a stronger collective presence and begin to recognize all the ways in which we have been stripped of autonomy and power.
Or perhaps our desire to create these videos is simply another product of our celebrity culture. Isolated, devalued, and squeezed for every drop of productivity, we desperately and thoughtlessly seize any shot at semi-notoriety. But unmotivated and disinterested in creating new things, we instead choose to co-opt existing forms, to recite rather than to communicate.
Either way, the Harlem Shake will soon drop away. We will grow out of it, or grow tired of it, and like hermit crabs, we will search for some new shell from which to safely express ourselves. Nevertheless, the more aware we become of the ways in which form influences content, the more we can learn about what our memes say about us. And the more effectively we can use them to say what we need to say.
When Katie Couric grilled Manti Te’o on her afternoon talk show a few weeks ago, she seemed determined to get to the bottom of things. She was going to ask the tough questions, and get the straight answers. She maintained a hard-nosed skepticism, responding sharply to Manti’s mild-mannered protestations: “That just doesn’t make sense to me!” and “Didn’t you actually say things that weren’t true, and isn’t that in essence lying?”
Couric had clearly been sent on a mission to untangle the web of deception and then to pin the spinning of it on this golden-hearted football star’s selfish desire for success and fame. But by halfway through the interview, she could hardly maintain her tough critical distance. Flummoxed as she was by sweet Manti’s honestly broken heart, she finally cracked her steely veneer and threw up her hands in dismay: “Either you are the most naïve person on the planet, or this is the saddest story, I think, ever written.”
Manti Te’o might very well be more naïve than most people, but his story is nonetheless sad. If you believe what Te’o says, which I do, then despite the fact that Lennay Kekua turned out to be an amalgamation and not an identity attached to a physical body or a lived life, Te’o nonetheless experienced the death of a loved one, and all of the attendant emotions.
As a sympathetic observer, there is nothing that seems strange to me about the way Te’o behaved. There are plenty of reasons why someone might want to love someone physically absent, why they might accept the near impossibility of actually seeing that person, and why they might be willing to believe the most outrageous stories in order to keep the abstract possibility of a promised future love alive.
In the specific case of Te’o, anthropologist Ilana Gershon has written a detailed explanation in The Atlantic of how the traditions of Te’o’s Samoan Mormon community make sense of a number of aspects of this story. And in his interview with Couric, Te’o described how a shared Christian, Samoan background was an important part of what drew him to Kekua:
“This Lennay person. There were so many similarities… She was Samoan, I’m Samoan. She loved her faith… I’m Mormon, and she knew a lot about that. I found a lot of peace and comfort in being able to talk to somebody.”
But even for those of us not a part of a close-knit Samoan community, is it actually so hard to understand why someone would seek out the soothing sympathy of one who understands them, and why they would not want to let the semblance of that understanding presence disappear?
Interrogating Te’o on why he didn’t come forward with the news that Lennay had contacted him after her supposed death, Couric suggested that if she had been in his shoes, she would have taken the honest route, and explained it all to everyone right away, “I think on December 6th I would have gone to my coaches and said… I have been the victim of a cruel prank. This is not right, we have got to get to the bottom of this now.”
But Te’o didn’t want to get to the bottom of it. He wanted to believe in Lennay, and he was understandably embarrassed and confused. If Katie Couric had fallen in love with a simulacrum of a human, she would probably also not be immediately ready to admit it when the illusion could no longer hold.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, one of the founding scholars of queer theory, critiqued the tendency towards what she termed “paranoid reading” in contemporary academia, writing, “…whether or not to undertake this highly compelling tracing-and-exposure project represents a strategic and local decision, not necessarily a categorical imperative.”
Such a position of fact-finding and plot-revealing is as much a part of contemporary media culture as academic culture, and Sedgwick makes the important, if contentious, argument that we shouldn’t take the need to get to the bottom of things as a given. When Katie Couric asked Te’o, “Can you see why people would view this at worst as a complete lie and at best as incredibly misleading?” she assumed the very act of lying, no matter the circumstances, to be unquestionably avoided.
But do any of us live in a world that simple? Sedgwick writes, “How television-starved would someone have to be to find it shocking that ideologies contradict themselves, that simulacra don’t have originals, or that gender representations are artificial…” or in other words, that the truth is often very complicated.
Maybe we could take a more forgiving stance towards stories like Te’o’s. And maybe we don’t have to choose moral bankruptcy or idiocy as the only possible explanations for how a seemingly impossible story could be believed and a few lies told.
There aren’t many lists of the coming year’s comics releases (though Robot 6′s and io9′s are worthy ones), but after seeing some of the exciting lists for books, I wanted to attempt my own for comics. This list largely ignores monthly comics, with the exception of Multiversity and Sandman, which are big enough to prompt a visit to the comic shop.
Here are 10 comics and graphic novels I’m looking forward to in 2013:
Very Casual by Michael DeForge
Publisher: Koyama Press
Release Date: May
DeForge is a major new alternative comics talent who applies his rapidly developing skills to a range of short stories, many of which skew towards the unnerving or horrific, all of which are rendered in a signature avant-garde style. Much of DeForge’s work has appeared as webcomics and anthology contributions. Very Casual collects the best of those stories and is sure to be a highlight for fans of experimental, unusual, and beautiful comics.
The Strange Tale of Panorama Island by Suehiro Maruo
Publisher: Last Gasp
Release Date: July
Delayed long past its initial spring 2010 publication date, Panorama Island should finally arrive this year. In Panorama Island Suehrio Maruo adapts Japanese mystery/horror titan Edogawa Rampo’s novella about all of life’s best things: grave robbing, identity theft, wife stealing, and an island turned into “a playground of hedonistic excess.” Maruo is among the most adept and challenging comics creators working today, but his material is so transgressive, sometimes so repulsive, that only two of his full-length works have been published in English; neither is in print. If your stomach and conscience can stand it, new work by Maruo is cause to celebrate.
The End of the Fucking World by Charles Forsman
Release Date: August
Besides being the force behind Oily Comics, Forsman is an accomplished cartoonist. This book collects his minicomics series, which chronicles the mundane, alienated, violent, and tender moments of James, a budding sociopath, and Alyssa, his girlfriend. While there’s certainly violence and horror here, Forsman handles the subject as a character study, not a lurid glorification, making James sympathetic and his deeds all the more monstrous.
Battling Boy, vol. 1 by Paul Pope
Publisher: First Second
Release Date: October
Pope is one of American comics’ great stylists and is known for his quirky approach to genre (generally character-driven science fiction), pop design sense, and kinetic compositions. Much of his work is self-published and currently out of print, though First Second plans to release some of that material after Battling Boy. Here, Earth’s cosmic defender has died, opening a void for a new hero — a boy whose father is the god of war. Expect to see more of this: Paramount Pictures and Brad Pitt’s production company are already at work on a movie.
Multiversity by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
Publisher: DC Comics
Release Date: Late 2013
I’m not terribly interested in superheroes, but Morrison and Quitely (We3, All-Star Superman, New X-Men) merit attention. Morrison is obsessed with meta-fiction, often inserting himself or proxies into stories, and the reality of fictional worlds, laying bare — even to the characters — that they are inside a story (his fourth-wall breaking Animal Man #19, in which the main character becomes aware of the reader beyond the page, is particularly arresting). Multiversity tackles DC’s various alternate universes over an 8-issue miniseries. Details are scarce, but this is Morrison’s wheelhouse and Quitely is a dazzlingly talented artist — and one of Morrison’s best collaborators — so details are largely irrelevant.
His Face All Red and Other Stories by Emily Carroll
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Release Date: Unknown
This short story collection compiles webcomics wunderkind (she drew her first comic in 2010 and had a publishing contract barely 18 months later) Carroll’s engrossing comics. Read the knockout chiller title story and you’ll know why this is on the list. “His Face All Red” is a terrific gothic-tinged story of fratricide, guilt in which the dead (or are they?) come back changed. Not much information has been released yet, but presumably the book will include some other stories from Carroll’s website plus new material. This is easily the book I’m looking forward to most from this list.
The Legend of Luther Strode by Justin Jordan and Tradd Moore
Publisher: Image Comics
Release Date: Unknown
The Legend of Luther Strode is the sequel to Jordan and Moore’s The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, an unexpected hit of 2011/2012. In that book, the put-upon, geeky high-schooler Luther sends away for one of the “become a real man” training courses that comics used to advertise. When the course delivers on its promise, he’s transformed into a superhuman. Nothing is free, though, and a shadowy figure tracks him down, itching for a fight. Luther Strode is a fun riff on classic tropes wrapped in buckets of ultra-violent splatter and adding up to an energizing debut. Legend promises to be just as good.
The Conclusion of Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Release date: Unknown
In addition to writing acclaimed horror novels, Joe Hill (nee King; Stephen’s son) has also been writing this horror epic. Spread across four books (and a few floppy comics), Locke& Key concerns the Keyhouse, the Locke family’s ancestral home, which contains a multitude of doors to unusual places, and some dark forces. The characters seek the keys needed to open locked doors and unravel the mysteries of the house. The final miniseries, Clockworks, is being published monthly now. Expect the collected edition to hit shelves in late 2013.
Untitled Sandman Prequel by Neil Gaiman and JH Williams III
Release Date: Unknown
Gaiman returns to the series that made him famous with a prequel to the Sandman series published from 1989-1996 with this list’s biggest mainstream title and the one guaranteed the most attention outside comics. The prequel promises to detail what Dream was doing prior to Sandman #1 that allowed him to be captured by humans. The monthly comics will be out in 2013, meaning the collection isn’t likely to reach stores until 2014. Still, this one may require a trip the comic shop.
Readers, any graphic novels or comics you’re especially anticipating this year?
In a recent column for the New York Times, media reporter David Carr asked, “Should data have a conscience?” The context for his query was the recent decision by the Journal News, in the wake of the Newtown school massacre, to publish an interactive map displaying the names and addresses of gun permit applicants throughout two New York counties. The act was met with confusion and consternation, especially by gun-rights advocates but even by some less inclined to support the individual interpretation of the Second Amendment. The newspaper eventually scrapped the project.
Such controversies are inevitable, and will only grow in frequency and stakes. The era of Big Data is well upon us, replete with mesmerizing catalogues of information that continue to snake their way into the public domain.
This data deluge has prompted a collective hand-wringing by privacy advocates, who quite understandably fret about the long-term implications of massive data availability. But what is often forgotten in the rush to comprehend this new data landscape is that much of what is considered newly public has actually long been so, often for years or decades. The debate has thus shifted to unfamiliar ground, and the consequence is a panoply of mostly unsatisfying solutions.
Gun permit applications are a prime example of this newfound conception of public data. As Jack Shafer noted, “By its very definition, the public record is not private. Under New York state law, the information the Journal News obtained from Westchester and Rockland county authorities can be obtained by anybody who asks for it.” The only remarkable aspect of the map was that the newspaper organized the available gun permit applications database into an easily navigable online feature. The Journal News thereby bridged the gap between the public data and the public.
This is an important distinction. In a way, the uproar over the Journal News’ online map represents the emergence of adolescence for the Big Data epoch. Early on in the online data era, most of the clamor on both sides concerned the explosion of large digital datasets, and what this development meant for privacy and the overall user experience. It was, in other words, a debate over data presence: the very existence of these databases was seen as cause for concern.
But we have now moved into a sophomore phase, in which presence has ceded the spotlight to accessibility. We have already accepted, with either youthful exuberance (millennials) or grudging resignation (baby boomers), the rapid proliferation of data and, especially, its migration en masse to the Internet. And yet, our apathy does not always extend to the enterprising minds who cull the contents of these large, unwieldy databases to discover innovative and sometimes terrifying uses for them. The expanding accessibility of data now frightens us in much the same way its mere presence once did.
Our reaction, however, quite predictably depends upon whose data is being publicized.
When online commons advocate Aaron Swartz took his own life on January 11, many lamented his passing and demanded the firing of Carmen Ortiz, the aggressive prosecutor who some felt was responsible for pushing the online pioneer over the brink. Swartz — and, to a lesser extent, polarizing groups such as Anonymous and WikiLeaks — has been widely celebrated as a paragon of data transparency and openness.
While hardly universal, the general sentiment expressed by the oft-repeated refrain “Information wants to be free” has been embraced by much of the online public. Seen in this light, the Journal News’ efforts run along similar lines. Indeed, the public nature of the gun permit records arguably tilts the ethical balance in favor of the newspaper, not Swartz.
Of course, the implications of the two scenarios were different. For one, although the JSTOR articles are technically private, many of their authors shared Swartz’ desire to make them public. No personally identifiable information was involuntarily compromised as a result. And perhaps most importantly, no highly divisive cultural wound was reopened as a consequence of the articles’ mass distribution.
But the real lesson may be that virtually no one applies open data standards to himself. “Information wants to be free — except for mine” is anything but catchy. But it is also a far more accurate depiction of the prevailing consensus. Last year, Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship, proposed a “right to be forgotten,” by which any citizen of the European Union “shall have the right — and not only the ‘possibility’ — to withdraw their consent to the processing of the personal data they have given out themselves.”
Differences certainly exist between European and American sensitivities to data accessibility. Nevertheless, Reding’s proposal is starkly at odds with the nearly universal ethos of a generation that freely shares its most intimate moments on social networks, blogs, and other online platforms in exchange (unwittingly or otherwise) for a smorgasbord of free content. For all of the whining that accompanies Facebook’s every revision of its privacy policies, we dutifully fall in line soon enough, mounting only impotent protests, whose invariable expression via Facebook has long since passed from intentional irony to inadvertent self-parody.
Reding’s proposal, then, is premised on the dubious assumption that we are still firmly ensconced in the first phase of the Big Data evolution. But we are not: data presence — proliferation, even — is irreversible. The equilibrium of data accessibility, however, may yet be up for grabs.
Any thoughtful resolution to the debate over data accessibility will be necessarily arbitrary. A prohibition on organizing public data into handy features fails to pass the laugh test, but simply ignoring the dangers altogether is just as naïve. (Indeed, in very short order, Journal News reporters soon found their own home addresses exposed online as retaliation for their efforts.)
Some of the proposed solutions are unworkable. As Jeffrey Rosen warns, “The right to be forgotten could make Facebook and Google, for example, liable for up to two percent of their global income if they fail to remove photos that people post about themselves and later regret, even if the photos have been widely distributed already.”
What does this mean for data accessibility in the future? The evidence is mixed. The muted uproar over Facebook’s policy changes suggest that simple crowd displeasure may not be enough to alter the current trajectory. But recent public behavior suggests the possible existence of a minimum privacy threshold, as mass disapproval of the privacy policies of Facebook’s new corporate acquisition, Instagram, spawned a hasty retreat to a more palatable settlement.
The inherent tension between open data and privacy concerns must not become a deterrent to finding an amenable compromise. The past several years have seen virtually no meaningful debate over the rapidly growing presence of Big Data. And unless we act quickly, the brief window of opportunity to shape the contours of data accessibility may close as well.
“Voice” is the most difficult aspect of writing to learn. This worksheet will help educators effectively teach “voice.” Give it to your students for homework or a fun classroom activity
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Effective “voice” is tricky to master. It would be dangerous to employ “voice” in your writing before learning the appropriate techniques. The following will teach you all you need to know about writing with “voice.”
1. Impersonal Words
Avoid any impersonal words. Rather than he, she, or it, use specific names or terms to illustrate your point. Readers will have more investment in your “voice” if they do not have to discern which he is the he to which you are referring. The same can be said for she and it. Rather than saying “He took her to it,” say “Claudio took Maria to the tennis court.” The difference is clear: the second sentence has significantly more “voice” than the first.
2. Know Your English
English is a fascinating language precisely because of all of the words. English words range from the small to the large, the abstract to the concrete, the vibrant to the dull. Pick any sentence from this worksheet and you will find that it is in English.
If you are invested in writing, you know about verbs and nouns. But do you know about adverbs and adjectives? If verbs and nouns are the kings and queens of English, adverbs and adjectives are certainly its clergy and small business owners. Don’t allow your writing to fall to purgatory or poverty: use adverbs and adjectives to enliven your sentences. For example, rather than saying “the factors that caused the refiguring of the present system are still debated over today,” try “the controversial factors that caused the drastic refiguring of the present system are still ferociously debated today.” Already the sentence has more “voice” and is thus a more effective and affecting English sentence.
Care about what you are writing. A reader can always tell whether or not a writer cares about his or her topic. The easiest way to make your care apparent is to stay on topic. Follow your thoughts only as far as they are thoughts about the writing topic. The moment the reader notices a writer getting off topic is the moment the reader decides that the writer does not care about the topic about which the writer is writing. At this point, the reader is bound to become frustrated, confused, or bored. A frustrated, confused, or bored reader means a writer has failed to appropriately discipline himself or herself in “voice.” Do not be one of these writers.
It is often asked: Is “voice” the same thing as “personal voice?” The answer is: “Sometimes — it depends upon the assignment.” If you have to write about yourself, try to be more rather than less personal. If you have to write about a book — let’s say Contrarians and the Confusion of the Classroom by J. Harrington Myles — try to be less rather than more personal. If you have to write about history, avoid “voice” altogether.
Let us try to use “voice” for ourselves.
Grade the sentences below from 1-10. 1 uses the least amount of “voice,” while 10 uses the most amount of “voice.” Then, modify each sentence, giving it the most “voice” possible.
- The result of each case suggested a thorough tampering of the jury.
- Complete and unadulterated was her desire to overcome the obstacle at hand
- Sam’s peculiar likeness to Gary surprised every friend except for Clyde.
- Recreational activity supports an active and creative mind.
You are now close to mastering “voice.” Create your own sentences on a separate sheet of paper. Then trade sentences with a partner. Grade and modify the sentences using the same method you used on the sentences above.
The opening of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love sets the tone for the whole beguiling film. It opens onto a stylish Japanese restaurant/bar scene, with groups of young chatterers murmuring in the background. Then a voice begins to speak — a little nervously, but with some determination. It’s not a voice-over, but there is no figure in our vision to pin the sound to. Kiarostami keeps this position for several long minutes.
When Kiarostami finally turns the camera for us to realize who has been speaking, we see a young woman sitting where the camera would have been, anchored anxiously on one end of the table. Across from her sits an elderly man. In a bit, it’s confirmed that she’s misleading a suspicious boyfriend by claiming she’s studying for an exam, when in fact she’s preparing to be sent out as a call girl. She resists the order at first, but the man giving her instructions eventually overpowers her. At one moment she screams that she won’t go. But the camera once again ignores her, focusing instead on the murmuring crowd in front of her. Her action is ignored, both by her company and the camera. When we do see her again, she looks so surprised, it’s hard to believe she actually screamed.
This is the confusion of Kiarostami’s set-up: everything is ambiguous. For each thing he seems to be “telling” us, we question whether he actually means it, if it means anything at all. He never gives us the whole picture.
Kiarostami challenges his audience, but not with “twists.” Instead, it’s like the metaphor of the temperature rising slowly in a tank with a frog in it, the frog slowly finds himself immersed in boiling water, and the audience finds themselves surrounded by complete doubt.
Kirostami’s brilliant 2011 film, Copie Confirme (Certified Copy) uses a similar disturbance of narrative. In the movie, an antiquities expert (a gorgeous performance by Juliette Binoche) appears to meet a British academic for the first time, but as the film goes on, it becomes clear that they have been married for years. Are they spouses engaging in a ruse? Or is this a detailing of the long progression of a relationship, told through creative chronological tricks? Copie Confirme was supposedly Kirostami’s return to narrative filmmaking (after blending documentary and fiction film — most notably in 1990′s Close Up). To Kirostami, actors are not just sheep. In an interview with Iranian film critic Nima Hassani-Nasab, Kirostami said: “The actor is not only one of the creators of a film, but he is its most important author.”
Trading in ambiguity in film is tricky. A commercial film is meant to create a complete world on screen — one without gaps or loopholes. There is something appealing about the sensation of seeing a perfectly created world. But that’s not what Kiarostami is after . . . He leaves big gaps — perplexing, brow-furrowing gaps. Not heavy-handed, did the top stop spinning at the end of Inception, twists, but enveloping, movie-long ambiguity.
It would be unfair to describe more of Like Someone in Love — or even the plot really. It’s like poetry, worth sifting through by yourself. There is no right way to be sorting through this work and piecing it together. What the movie does have are beautiful moments, impeccably captured. It’s a slow movie — with only six real scenes for its 109 minutes, but each of these chapters stands alone with understated — and yet somehow provocative — solemnity.
Kiarostami was honored earlier this February with a retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Like Someone in Love is now playing in theaters and On Demand.
Animation, so the cliché goes, allows you to do anything. Animation can birth a man, order him to remove his head, fly him to Jupiter and then back to Earth where he grows a thousand miles tall so that he can straddle two continents with his legs. He can shrink again, morph into a flea, a baby, or a British prime minister, sing a Bob Dylan song, wrestle an alligator and then make love to a beautiful woman. He can die and then be reborn in two seconds of screen time. And yet the history of animation provides many examples of artists inventing their own limitations, therefore endowing each of their cartoons with a particular internal logic. For all the chaos of their bodies, the Coyote and Road Runner obey Chuck Jones’s physics. The Coyote lives in a world where he can run off a cliff and then fall once he realizes there is no ground beneath him. He does not live in a world where he can fly like Superman. His life is simple. Unburdened by character development, he relies on his technological intelligence and his id. He inhabits seven-minute shorts that always follow the story structure of a gag reel. Chuck Jones could do anything, but he was smart enough not to.
The five short animated films nominated for this year’s Academy Awards are all remarkably conservative in their approach to the animation form. They’re all smart enough not to do everything but to find that one thing that they can do and to do it well. Timothy Reckart and Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly’s “Head over Heels” imagines a married couple who endure two separate gravitational pulls. The husband walks on the floor of their house, while the wife walks on the ceiling. Other than that, their bodies still mimic the movements of our own in the non-animated world. The same could be said for the characters in John Kahrs’s magic realist “Paperman” and Minkyu Lee’s “Adam and Dog.” David Silverman’s “Maggie Simpson in ‘The Longest Daycare’” follows the gag-reel structure, but as in The Simpsons television show, Maggie Simpson’s movements obey the same regular exaggerated tics. PES’s clever stop-motion “Fresh Guacamole” employs the older animated tropes of morphology and visual puns.
“Head over Heels” and “Paperman” are conservative in another way as well. They’re romantic comedies. “Head over Heels” makes literal an ancient joke. The man’s feet are planted south. The woman’s feet are planted north. They are from two different worlds. How can they ever communicate? In the end of course, they do, finding a compromise that makes their marriage work. In “Paperman,” a man’s attempts to get the girl he wants are aided by a group of anthropomorphized paper airplanes. The shorts are sweet and sentimental.
Like the 10-minute life-of-a-marriage montage in Up, “Head over Heels” and “Paperman” are silent films. They find a means of communication based on both the subtleties and exaggerations of the face, the tremors of the lip, the slight widening of an eye. Compared to this, Tom Cruise tearfully declaring to Renée Zellweger “You complete me” is fodder for parody.
“The screens of the entire world are now starting to project the first international language, the language of gestures and facial expressions,” the Hungarian film theorist Béla Balázs wrote in 1924. These five nominees don’t represent any major innovations. They operate within extremely narrow confines of narrative structure, of space and time. None of them match the ecstatic assault of images of 2008’s winner “Les Maisons en Petits Cubes” or 2010’s “The Lost Thing,” both of which resist doing everything but still manage to do many more things than this year’s batch.
High School Bands are as integral to the cultural makeup of America as professional sports or finance. For many Americans, forming or participating in a High School Band — or, in some cases, simply listening to one — marks their first engagement with culture on their own terms. However, as of this moment, no one has undertaken the monumental task of recording the exploits and the output of America’s High School Bands. In fact, few of us consider them at all and, when we do, the exercise is unfortunately often dismissed as simple nostalgia tourism. But their importance is more than nostalgic. Their value transcends narcissism. More than a series of transitional moments in the lives of individual kids, High School Bands tell the story of what it means to be young in the USA.
Alex Shephard and Scott Beauchamp are currently writing the definitive history of High School Bands in America. Every other week we will be publishing excerpts from the first volume of their forthcoming work, tentatively titled Dictionary of Saints: High School Bands in America 1998-2005.
BASEMENT CRAM JAM
Roswell High School, Roswell, Georgia
April 16, 1999
Brian Guinness — Guitar
Derek Pool — Guitar
Alex Harbind — Bass
Chris Treadwell — Drums
Fueled by ditch weed and senioritis, four young musicians met in a crowded basement full of packed boxes and performed one of the best jam sessions in the history of high school rock. After spending between 12 and 15 minutes tuning — accounts vary — the band jumped into a shoddy rendition of “The Weight.” Though the musicians initially seemed uncomfortable with one another, by the second verse they were playing a sly, knowing rendition of the The Band’s most iconic single. Individually, they were 16-year-old virgins with one half of a mustache between them. But together, they were weathered, drunken 57-year-olds, eschewing a cleaner, tighter version, for a loose and rambling take that would occasionally get caught in a groove based on the chorus. One such groove lasted nearly twenty minutes.
After the fourth verse, the song’s conventional structure broke down — mostly due to boredom — and took a psychedelic turn without losing any of its edge. This section can best be described as something akin to the Allman Brothers being covered by Uncle Tupelo. Brian Guinness was in his prime, vocalizing dirty, heady lines on his guitar that he would never be able to replicate. Chris Treadwell’s drumming started off efficient, even minimalist — it wouldn’t be out of place on a record by The Ventures or Dick Dale. Somewhere near the end of “The Weight,” due to either his gelling with the other players, or the weed, or both, he actually expressed himself on his instrument. It was the first time he’d ever played exactly how he felt, rolling melodic fills off of his toms that pulled the other players back together, keeping them from flinging themselves out of orbit. As he packed up his drums after the jam concluded he was physically exhausted but — though he kept it to himself at the time — happy.
It was the last time all four boys would see each other, much less play together. Alex Harbind stopped playing bass during college, becoming involved instead with mainstream Democratic politics. Derek Pool transitioned to folk music, using his arrangement of Neil Young’s “Winterlong” to convince his future wife, Stacey, to spend that first night with him. Pool is currently a mechanical engineer. Chris Treadwell continued to play drums, appearing in a few Atlanta-area bands before developing a substance abuse problem. He is now a born-again Christian and a member of his church band as an auxiliary percussionist, specializing in congas. Brian Guinness moved to New York City after high school, where he became involved in chillwave production. He was killed in a car accident in 2006.
This flyer, made by Brian Guinness during Mrs. Smithheimer’s 7th period math class, was the catalyst for the now famous basement cram jam.
WISH YOU WERE QUEER!
Palo Alto South High School, Palo Alto, California
March 1998–February 2000
Guitar/Vocals — Janice Feldman
Guitar/Vocals — Charlie Horsht
Bass — Jules Kempt (March 1998–July 1999)
Bass — Gordon Horsht (August 1999–February 2000)
Drums — Levi “Fishmonger” Hauptman
“We’re all about subverting norms. We’re about destroying patriarchy,” Janice Feldman, founder of Wish You Were Queer! told her school paper in the fall of 2009. In late 1997, Janice and her best friend, Jules Klempt, took a sudden, earnest interest in their mothers’ campus involvement in second wave feminism. Soon after, they started a bell hooks discussion group but, after a lengthy discussion about how they need to “stop talking and actually do something,” the two began a regular jam session in March of the following year. At that time, playing punk meant something akin to Goldfinger, but WYWQ! harkened back to an earlier period. They sounded raw and they played as if they were trying to sound like The Slits without ever having actually heard their music.
Their first show was at their friend Levi’s poetry readings. “Honestly, I thought they were going to play folk songs or something,” Levi told us. “Two girls, you know. But they dragged in these tiny amps [ed. note: they were 15 watt Crate amplifiers that Janice and Jules acquired from a garage sale] and pretty soon our coffee cups were rattling and they were screaming about all sex being rape and like, aliens coming down to earth and only killing people who can’t menstruate. I loved it, it was really wild. And since I played the drums I asked them if I could play with them some.” Levi went on to not only play with the girls “some,” but to give their music the organization that it severely lacked as a performance art duo. Pretty soon WYWQ! were playing all-ages hardcore shows across Palo Alto.
Charlie Horsht, who knew Janice from before she quit Jazz Band, eventually joined WYWQ! as a second guitarist, allowing Janice to concentrate more on her vocal delivery, which became quite popular among a certain crowd at Palo Alto South. “Janice could do this thing where she would like, make a noise like a cow in heat or something. I can’t describe it, it was really strange. It made everyone really really uncomfortable. But when she did it into a microphone it was like, even worse. Whenever we played shows for people who were, like, not already converted, people would literally throw things at her. It was so upsetting. But, you know, that’s what Janice wanted. That’s what she was trying to do — provoke. So while she did that I would noodle around on some pretty shitty blues scales or just hammer some staccato power chords,” said Horsht years later. The band played a handful of live shows but never recorded a demo.
Jules, a year older than her bandmates, left for UC Santa Cruz in the Fall of 2000, effectively breaking up the band. A few more shows were played using Charlie’ s brother, Gordon Horsht, as a stand-in, but things were never the same. It was the chemistry between Janice and Jules that had given the music its edgy power. Janice and Jules no longer speak, though they both are currently teaching in NYU’s Cultural Studies program.
All images courtesy of noted High School Band archivist Kelly Schmader.