October 26, 2010
Alex Gibney is a virtual one-man industry turning out one documentary after another on the abuses of American capitalism, from its imperialist wars abroad (Taxi to the Dark Side) to corruption and white-collar crime at home (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room). Two of his most recent movies that fall into the second category are must viewing for anybody trying to get a handle on the terminally ill political/corporate system. Released earlier this year, Casino Jack and the United States of Money is now available from Netflix while Client 9: the Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer opens at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza theaters in New York on November 5th. They make for interesting companion pieces since they are both about powerful Jewish-Americans whose political careers serve as paradigms for a system in crisis.
I was introduced into the complexities of Elliot Spitzer in Charles Ferguson’s The Inside Job, in which Spitzer served as one of the talking heads making the case against Goldman-Sachs and the rest of the “banksters”. At one point, in the course of dealing with the cozy relationship between high-priced whorehouses and their investment banking clientele, Spitzer tells Ferguson with a sheepish grin that this was emblematic of the corruption of the times even though he is probably the last person in the world in a position to cast judgment.
Essentially, Client 9 is a full-length treatment of the rise and fall of Elliot Spitzer who started out as an attorney general dedicated to cleaning up Wall Street but who ended up in ignominy after being exposed as buying the services of $2000 per hour call girls. But as Gibney makes clear, his exposure was almost certainly the result of a vendetta by powerful Wall Street interests who resented his challenge to their criminal behavior.
Elliot Spitzer, unlike Barack Obama, came from a socially prominent and wealthy family. His father Bernard was a real estate tycoon worth $500 million in 2008. We learn that the family would sit around dinner table at night discussing current events, often heatedly. From early in life, Elliot Spitzer—to the manor born—aspired to the kind of reform politics that have virtually disappeared from the Democratic Party. As economist Doug Henwood astutely noted during the 2008 primaries, figures like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama from more modest backgrounds tend to be deferential to the ruling class while those who emerge from it, like FDR, are more willing to take it on. This has to be understood of course in terms of defending the system against those whose shortsighted behavior goes against its long-term interests. Such is the crisis of bourgeois politics today that no politician is willing to stick his or her neck out in defense of the very system that it rests on.
As Attorney General, Spitzer went after Wall Street abuses with great relish. As a typical former high school athlete and alpha male lawyer, he saw this combat as one conducted to the death—figuratively speaking. In one of his most high-profile cases, he tried to prevent Richard Grasso, the CEO of the NY Stock Exchange, from retiring with a package worth $140 million. Grasso had made lots of friends over the years with men just as powerful as himself, who joined the battle against Spitzer. Twi of them are interviewed throughout the movie and come across as total sleazebags, just as you would expect.
One was Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former CEO of AIG who had his own beef with Spitzer, after he had conducted an investigation of fraudulent business activities at AIG that led eventually to Greenberg’s resignation. Greenberg, now 85, comes across as a lizard-like gnome who is incapable of telling the truth, stating at one point that if he had remained head of AIG it never would have been bailed out.
Another of Spitzer’s nemeses is Kenneth Langone, co-founder of Home Depot and a former director of the NY Stock Exchange. He was responsible for putting together Grasso’s retirement package. He is even more repulsive than Greenberg, if that is imaginable.
After getting elected governor of NY, largely on the basis of his anti-corruption record, Spitzer was determined to clean up Albany. With his sharp elbows, he came into conflict immediately with Joseph Bruno, the Majority Leader of the NY State Senate who was an amateur boxer and widely viewed as corrupt. Interviewed as well throughout the film, Bruno comes across as the sort of character you would meet on “The Sopranos”. Just as Spitzer butted heads with Grasso and his supporters on Wall Street, he went after Bruno not long after taking office. In one phone conversation with Bruno, Spitzer described himself as a “fucking steamroller”. When Bruno was charged with using helicopters for private use, Spitzer was accused of Richard Nixon dirty tricks for supposedly using state troopers to follow Bruno around—hence the term Troopergate.
Eventually, Roger Stone enters the picture as someone determined to bring Spitzer down. Hired by Bruno, Stone, an amateur body-builder, is arguably one of the most grotesque figures ever to operate from the rightwing fringes of the Republican Party. Referring to himself as a “hitman”, Stone resigned from Robert Dole’s campaign staff in 1996 after it was found out that he and his wife advertised in “adult” magazines looking for other couples to “swing” with. Obviously, he was in a good position to sniff out Spitzer’s secret life. Stone had to stop working for Bruno after leaving a profanity-laced message on Bernard Spitzer’s phone about how he was going to bring his son down.
We also meet the proprietor of the Emperor’s Club that procured call girls for him, including Angelina whose trysts with Spitzer at the Mayflower Hotel became fodder for the tabloids, as well as the NY Times. In total disgrace, Spitzer resigned and went into seclusion until very recently. He has reemerged as a host of a CNN show that I have ignored up till now, but will probably tune in out of curiosity. I have seen Spitzer doing commentary on MSNBC making the same kinds of anti-Wall Street points as other hosts, but he has the distinction of making them during the time that Wall Street was booming.
I should add that nothing I wrote above should be interpreted as an after-the-fact endorsement of Spitzer. Ever since “peace candidate” LBJ escalated the war in Vietnam, I have never voted for a Democrat. In 2006, Marty Goodman, an old friend from my Trotskyist days who is involved with Transit Workers Union reform and adheres to “old school” Trotskyism, asked me to send an article he wrote taking exception to his union’s endorsement of Spitzer. Here is his introduction:
As a TWU Local 100 Executive Board member I cannot contain my rage and will not remain silent about my union’s humiliating endorsement of Democratic Party candidates in this November’s election, particularly the candidacy of Eliot Spitzer for governor. The endorsements were made in time for the Democratic Party primary this Tuesday. [Unlike others, my vote was not sought in an undemocratic Executive Board phone vote on endorsements.]
Like Roger Stone, Jack Abramoff was into pumping iron. Unlike him, however, he lived the puritanical life of an orthodox Jew, a faith he adopted as a high school after seeing “Fiddler on the Roof” and as a kind of rebellion against his secular parents.
Once he started college, Abramoff became an avid Republican this time as an act of rebellion against the left. In no time at all, he became head of the Young Republicans national organization and a major player in rightwing causes. One of his early partners in the Young Republicans was Grover Nordquist who would become a powerful opponent of an equitable tax system. He also got close to Ralph Reed, another emerging rightwing shit-bag.
These characters adopted the surface style of the New Left but for rightwing causes. They loved to burn leftist enemies of the U.S. effigy and stage publicity stunts of the sort that Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin pioneered. Not long after graduating college, Abramoff organized a kind of counter-revolutionary convention in Angola that had Jihadists from Afghanistan, Nicaraguan contras and Savimbi’s UNITA in attendance.
Growing up in Beverly Hills, Abramoff became a film buff. This would lead him to produce a movie called “Red Scorpion” in 1989 that was close in spirit to the sort of Reaganite junk being turned out by Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris. It stars Dolph Lundgren as a KGB operative who becomes converted to the anti-Communist guerrilla movement led by a Savimbi type figure. The NY Times’s Stephen Holden summed up the movie this way:
As directed by Joseph Zito, ”Red Scorpion” has the logic and pace of an adventure comic. The moment the going gets slow, a helicopter or a tank appears to blow everything in sight to smithereens, often to the musical accompaniment of Little Richard hits. The movie’s reflective moments belong to Mr. Lundgren’s sweaty chest.
Using connections made in the Young Republicans, Abramoff launched a career as a super-lobbyist with particularly close ties to the awful Tom DeLay. Work with two of his clients is examined in grizzly detail in Gibney’s first-rate film.
Abramoff was the “go to” man in Washington for the mostly Chinese sweatshop owners in Saipan, an island in the Northern Marianas, an American Commonwealth. East Asian workers were recruited for jobs that paid below the minimum wage while the commonwealth status allowed the label to say “Made in the USA”. Workers were charged exorbitant sums to get the jobs and often had to work for months without pay in order to meet their debts, a status close to slavery. Women who sought to get off the treadmill often took jobs as prostitutes just so they could get the money to return home. Abramoff took delegations of mostly Republican politicians to Saipan to give their stamp of approval while they stayed at a 5 star hotel and played golf.
In another filthy operation that would eventually land him in prison and lose Tom DeLay his cushy job in Washington, Abramoff became a lobbyist for Indian tribes with gambling casinos, hence the name of the movie. They got some favors from the politicians, but of negligible value to the Indians at the grass roots levels. All of their millions went to line the coffers of politicians like DeLay, to support the life-style of Abramoff and his partners in crime, and to various rightwing causes inimical to Indian interests. All the while Abramoff was writing email to his cohorts describing his clients as “morons” and “monkeys”.
Abramoff served 3 ½ years of a six-year sentence and is now living in a halfway house in Baltimore where he has a job paying $7.50 per hour at a kosher pizzeria. He is one of the most evil people that has been churned up in the 25 year period of reaction we are enduring and Alex Gibney’s documentary reveals every wart on the toad.
October 25, 2010
Now that I have had a chance to step back from the film class and do some of my own reading into the particular sub-discipline of “film theory” that Professor Jane Gaines operates in, the whole thing starts to come into focus. In a nutshell, her class is intended to indoctrinate students into her own perspective, which is a mixture of Marxism and post-structuralism of the kind that should be familiar to readers of Social Text, Rethinking Marxism and any other such journals read by the like-minded tenured left.
Before taking a close look at one of her articles, I want to recommend Lights, Camera, Action. Marxism, Semiotics, Narratology, a longish and interesting piece that appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine on July 13, 2003. Written by David Weddle, it describes his consternation with the UC Santa Barbara Film School where his daughter was enduring frustrations even greater than mine:
“How did you do on your final exam?” I asked my daughter.
Her shoulders slumped. “I got a C.”
Alexis was a film studies major completing her last undergraduate year at UC Santa Barbara. I had paid more than $73,000 for her college education, and the most she could muster on her film theory class final was a C?
“It’s not my fault,” she protested. “You should have seen the questions. I couldn’t understand them, and nobody else in the class could either. All of the kids around me got Cs and Ds.”
She insisted that she had studied hard, then offered: “Here, read the test yourself and tell me if it makes any sense.”
I took it from her, confidently. After all, I had graduated 25 years ago from USC with a bachelor’s degree in cinema. I’d written a biography of movie director Sam Peckinpah, articles for Variety, Film Comment, Sight & Sound, and written and produced episodic television.
On the exam, I found the following, from an essay by film theorist Kristin Thompson:
“Neoformalism posits that viewers are active–that they perform operations. Contrary to psychoanalytic criticism, I assume that film viewing is composed mostly of nonconscious, preconscious, and conscious activities. Indeed, we may define the viewer as a hypothetical entity who responds actively to cues within the film on the basis of automatic perceptual processes and on the basis of experience. Since historical contexts make the protocols of these responses inter-subjective, we may analyze films without resorting to subjectivity . . . According to Bordwell, ‘The organism constructs a perceptual judgment on the basis of nonconscious inferences.’ “
Then came the question itself:
“What kind of pressure would Metz’s description of ‘the imaginary signifier’ or Baudry’s account of the subject in the apparatus put on the ontology and epistemology of film implicit in the above two statements?”
I looked up at my daughter. She smiled triumphantly. “Welcome to film theory,” she chirped.
Alexis then plopped down two thick study guides. One was for the theory class, the other for her course in advanced film analysis. “Tell me where I went wrong,” she said.
The Bordwell alluded to above is David Bordwell, a “rock star” in film studies even more glamorous than Jane Gaines. As I mentioned in my previous post on the film class fiasco, he has no problem using the word “movies”, even though Gaines regards this akin to blowing your nose on your sleeve (something I do from time to time.) Despite being used as a resource by the Santa Barbara film professor, Bordwell—a Marxist of sorts—is on record as viewing film theory as a load of crap. In an article by Alissa Quart titled The Insider: David Bordwell Blows the Whistle on Film Studies that appeared in the now-defunct Lingua Franca (vol. 10, no. 2 (March 2000), we learn that Bordwell, despite his own tendency to over-theorize (my view, not Quart’s) is a bit fed up, especially with the kind of Lacanian nonsense that Zizek specializes in. In a 1996 book co-edited with Noel Carroll, he calls for a return to a “historical poetics” that would explain how movies “work and work upon us”, something I foolishly expected out of my class. It should be mentioned that Zizek answered Bordwell in a 2001 book titled The Fright of Real Tears. Bordwell’s response is here. Honestly, despite my sympathy for Bordwell’s approach, the debate strikes me as sterile as the ones I have seen over the falling rate of profit and many other arcane topics of Marxism in the academy.
I must say that I found Bordwell’s book on Asian film less than compelling since it pretty much ignored the social and political context that figures so prominently in my old friend Michael Hoover’s book City on Fire, co-written with Lisa Stokes, on Hong Kong cinema. Frankly, my interest in movies has always been mostly as an entry-point into history and politics. I do want to learn about tracking shots, lighting, etc. but only as a means to an end.
Turning now to Gaines’s chapter (Political Mimesis) in a book she co-edited with Michael Renov in 1999 titled Collecting Visible Evidence, you are struck by her obsession with leftist politics, an activity that she only knows from the opposite end of a telescope by all evidence. (You can find the article by doing a Google book search.)
The article opens with a broadside against a fellow named John Grierson who in Gaines’s world serves as a kind of archdemon equal to Michel Pablo in some Trotskyist sects. He is blamed for the atrociously paternalistic and middle-of-the-road quality of the typical PBS documentary. Grierson was a major figure in the 1920s who coined the term “documentary”. He was aligned with the Labour Party left and saw documentary film as a way to redress social ills. But since he worked for the government, this meant that his movies were basically “promotional pieces”. I have seen a number of Grierson’s films in class and would describe them as on the side of the angels, although not up to Jane Gaines’s fire-breathing Bolshevique standards. Here’s one titled Night Mail that you can judge for yourself:
As opposed to Grierson’s movies (there, I said it) that are “far from the front lines of political upheaval” (a place that I doubt Professor Gaines has any firsthand knowledge of herself), she prefers those that might inspire “cataclysmic change”.
Unlike Grierson’s Labourist pap, she prefers something like Ivens and Storck’s 1933 Borinage, about the plight of workers in Belgium, because it had the “requisite socialist credentials, a political badge that many other documentaries in the West cannot claim.” What are these? She is impressed by the fact that the filmmakers were inspired by a visit to the Soviet Union and “were engaged in a revolutionary struggle as part of the international Communist movement”. The USSR? 1933? One might hope that Ms. Gaines would find some time in her busy schedule one day to read Leon Trotsky. She would find it most enlightening I’m sure. Well, maybe not.
In searching her noggin for a movie that might have produced “cataclysmic change”, she can think of only one. At SUNY Buffalo in 1969, some SDS’ers screened some newsreels that resulted in a march against the ROTC building on campus where they smashed windows, tore up furniture and destroyed machines until the office was a total wreck. I would only hope that someday when Columbia University students are inspired to take similar action that Ms. Gaines can tear herself away from her scholarly pursuits and join them. After all, a tenured professor does not have to worry that much about losing her job although I doubt that she would ever face the kind of mailed fist that a Ward Churchill did. Like most “Marxists” at Columbia, her “revolutionary politics” are those best expressed in a small-circulation journal and not on the picket line.
Turning to the question of political mimesis, the sine qua non for “cataclysmic change”, we find ourselves moving away from broken office furniture and more into the rarefied realm of Foucauldianism, with its ever-present emphasis on the Body. Ms. Gaines has come to the conclusion that documentaries must employ the “sensationalized body” to be effective. She singles out Eisenstein’s 1924 Strike as a good example with its “sensual scenes of male workers bathing.” Silly me, I always thought it had more to do with the sense of solidarity among workers understanding their common class interests. But what do I know. I am only the Unrepentant Marxist. Judge for yourself:
October 24, 2010
Arcelor Mittal steel workers dressed in protective work suit demonstrate over pension reforms in Marseille October 12, 2010. (REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier)
What Happened to Change We Can Believe In?
No matter how much the White House talks about “tough” new financial regulatory reforms, the Obama administration seems not to have a prosecutorial gene. full
October 23, 2010
If you want to hear more from Dan K., whose two items on France were posted here, check out his new blog:
October 22, 2010
This is a pitch for Swans Magazine that is having its yearly fund-drive. Yesterday I told Gilles d’Aymery, the editor, that donations might be slow coming in since there is a widespread assumption that everything is free on the Internet.
That is simply not true. To maintain a website like Swans involves monthly payments to an ISP, yearly registration for a domain, and lots of other costs involved with infrastructure. Before Marxmail was made part of the U. of Utah economics department network, I was paying up to $200 per month so I know what I am talking about here.
This of course does not begin to address the hard work that Gilles puts into a very fine magazine. I don’t think that this fund-raising effort will amount to a yearly wage, since the goal is $2500 as opposed to Counterpunch’s $75,000 goal for its own fund drive taking place now.
I have been writing for Swans since 2003 and consider it the only place worth my time and effort. After seeing the capriciousness of both high-profile websites like Counterpunch and Znet, as well as academic leftist publishers, Swans continues to impress me as an essential vehicle for both political and cultural thought on the left. It is a place where you will find Michal Barker’s ongoing investigations of how Soros-style philanthropy undermines the left, while supposedly supporting it. It is also where you will find a new contributor Paul Buhle writing about comic book art, his latest passion in a life-long career writing about popular culture from a Marxist perspective. You simply could not find better writing in print or electronically no matter how hard you tried.
With a modest goal of $2500, it should not be hard to meet with relatively modest contributions. I am about to donate $25 through Paypal (http://www.swans.com/about/donate.html) and urge you to do so as well. $5 or $10 would hardly make a dent in your budget but it would certainly matter a lot to the Swans editors when received from a large number of people. Like many Americans, Gilles and his wife and co-editor Jan Baughman are going through some hard times now and every little bit will help.
Thanks for your consideration.
Last Monday night I decided to drop a film documentary class I had been taking at Columbia after getting my first assignment back from Jane Gaines, the professor. I had completely forgotten how bad a reaction I have to getting papers graded or critiqued.
The first assignment was to define “what is documentary” in a half-page, single-spaced, mine is below. My frustration with the class had a lot to do with this assignment. How do you answer something like that in what amounted to a quarter of a page? After she gave us the assignment, she grinned and said that it would be a real challenge to stay within that limit. I don’t know. I found that it undermined my thought process. But then again, I probably write 10,000 words a month so I am not typical.
Just three months short of my 66th birthday, the last thing I needed was to go through the humiliating experience of a professor giving me a C, or in this instance reading her criticisms all over my submission no matter how well-intended. I was flabbergasted by her insistence that I use the term “motion picture” instead of “movie”. I used that term deliberately for the same reason that Harvey Pekar once told me he preferred the term comic book to graphic novel. Who needs that kind of snobbery? After all, if David Bordwell, one of the top film scholars in the world, can title a book “The way Hollywood tells it: story and style in modern movies”, then why should Gaines object? Of course, professors are the final arbiters in such matters just as my project manager at work is the final arbiter of how I do my work. At least in that case, I am getting paid for my troubles.
It is not just classes that I have taken at Columbia that present such a problem. A few years ago, I finally resolved not to submit articles to leftist academic journals since I resented going through the process of peer review. My last experience with RRPE, the URPE journal, was particularly off-putting. I was told by one of the peer reviewers that an article about Max Frankel’s book on the Cuban missile crisis would be enhanced by the perspective found in a Socialist Workers Party book on Cuba. Who needs that shit, even if it came from a tenured professor at the U. of California?
I had mixed feelings about the class to begin with. I was far more interested in a workshop on making documentaries in the spring term, but Gaines’s class was a prerequisite. I decided that it was worth my time since at least I would be getting what I expected to be a survey on documentaries going back to the days of Auguste and Louis Lumière, who invented the genre. I also hoped that she would point out what “worked” in documentaries and what did not.
My interest in this was not academic. After retiring in a couple of years, I hope to do some of my own work on subjects that matter a lot to me, including a project that would involve interviewing ex-SWP’ers. About 5 years ago I collaborated with an old friend of mine from the SWP who was videotaping Trotskyists who had been active in the 30s and 40s. I opened doors for him to a group of Cochranites, whose viewpoint obviously meshes with my own.
It took me approximately three weeks to figure out where Gaines was going in this class and by the fourth week I was ready to drop it, even if I hadn’t been the unhappy recipient of her comments on my assignment. The assignment itself should have been a tip-off that we were on different tracks. For me, “What is a documentary?” is a question with very little interest. After having reviewed over 100 documentaries on Rotten Tomatoes over the past decade or so, it never entered my mind that this was worth considering. As it turns out, this is a major concern of academics doing what they call film theory.
Now, based on her course’s description on the Columbia website, you would think that we’d have a similar take on things:
Film MA/MFA: The Documentary Tradition
Jane Gaines, Professor
This core of this course is the radical tradition in documentary, with special emphasis on the U.S. 1930s in New York (The Film and Photo League, Nykino).
The historical approach begins by asking whether the Lumière actualité is or is not the precursor of what has become the PBS style documentary. Students think about the theory and practice of social change media, beginning with the 1920s Soviet Socialist tradition (Dziga Vertov), the British Empire Marketing Board (John Grierson), the French cinéma vérité (Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin) and the National Film Board of Canada, internationalized with focus on China and Iran, updated with the question of documentary footage on YouTube. A feature of the course is the challenge to the definition of “reality” posed by the contemporary faux doc or “mockumentary” as well as documentary work that is both fiction and not what we would call “fiction.”
If you google “Jane Gaines” and “Marxism”, you’ll get 1,750 hits. From a cursory glance, you’d think that you were dealing with a hard-core commie. But on closer examination, you begin to learn that her Marxism is the sort of thing you hear at academic conferences and read in journals read geared to other academics. For example, in an article titled Women and representation that she wrote for Jump Cut, a leftist film magazine, she sets down her agenda. The key sentence in this excerpt is italicized:
Camera movement, continuity editing, framing, narrative unity, spectator point of view, and the spectacle of woman are all analyzed in feminist counter-cinema. In theory this is a continuation of Godard’s project to combat ideological forms with film form. Counter-cinema also borrows from Brecht’s idea that annihilating pleasure and identification can effect critical distance and ultimately a change of consciousness in the theatrical audience. The final “test” of counter-cinema has to do with whether the film shows that what we are seeing is shaped by cinematic form and that beyond the experience of the film, there is no such thing as unmediated reality to know.
Leftist filmmaking will find drawbacks to this approach. First of all, this is a very difficult concept to grasp. Those of us who eat, sleep and breathe political theories of representation, who have made the politics of meaning our life’s work, are not always aware of the degree to which our own consciousness is shaped by words, images, or other signifying material. Are we asking too much of a film text if we expect it to effect change on its own, especially if it is seen out of the context of political organizing and education efforts? Second, why should a film which considers its own signification process necessarily have to require its audiences to know advanced film theory in order for them to enjoy, appreciate and, hopefully, reflect on what they see?
The tip-off is “political theories of representation”. This should let the reader know that we have crossed over into the rarefied territory of Saussure, Barthes, Derrida and Gayatri-Spivak. Professor Gaines is mainly interested in how film documentaries represent the world, not in the world itself.
Let me illustrate. In my post on the movie “Catfish”, I first articulated my disaffection with her approach. You’ll note that I describe her as a good professor. Momentarily, I will explain why I would revise that opinion:
In my class, there is a preoccupation with the question of what a documentary is meant to do. The professor, a very good one indeed, has selected readings and classroom screenings that stress the ambivalence of the filmed image. Two weeks ago we watched the Zapruder film, a paradigm of multiple interpretations. My guess is that this area of investigation dovetails neatly with the remaining influence of postmodernism in the academy, particularly strong at a place like Columbia.
It even extends to films that would appear to have little to do with something like Capturing the Friedmans. A recent class was focused on agitprop movies from the 1930s, including a remarkable Belgian film by Joris Ivens and Henri Storck called Misery in the Borinage that called attention to the miserable working and living conditions of the working class. In one scene that the professor highlighted, we see cops attacking a picket line in front of a factory. We learned from Bill Nichols’s Introduction to Documentary that Ivens and Storck had workers reenact the original incident using themselves in the role of cops. “Aha”, she said, “how real can the movie be when the workers are dressed up as cops?”
I found this question a lot less interesting than what kind of message Ivens and Storck were seeking to deliver and what their political affiliations were. But then again, I am the unrepentant Marxist.
With such doubts already present in my mind at the beginning of Monday’s class, I was ready to drop the class almost immediately after getting my assignment returned to me. But I decided to stick around for the rest of the class, as long as I was there.
Two things occurred that lowered my estimate of Gaines as a teacher. She tended to treat Columbia students in a belittling manner all along, a liberty she presumably enjoyed as a tenured faculty member. (My untenured wife is loath to tell a student to turn off his cell phone for fear that he would retaliate in a student evaluation.) But last Monday it really struck me how mean she can be. The class starts at 6pm and goes to 9:45, a function of the complete film screening that takes place in each session. So students obviously get hungry. Around 6:30 she spotted a student eating some granola and walked up to her during the lecture and said, “Our rule here is that if you bring something to eat in this class, you have to bring enough for everybody else.” That was typical behavior, but even worse would follow.
Gaines switches between Powerpoint and film excerpts throughout her lectures. Last Monday after she was illustrating some point about “representation” through an excerpt of a movie about a mentally ill woman made by her daughter, the teaching assistant did not switch back to the Powerpoint slides immediately. Gaines waited for a few seconds and then upbraided the TA in full view of the class using the tone of voice you associate with a woman complaining about her maid—good help is hard to find nowadays.
I have no idea what makes these high-falutin’ post-Marxist film theorists tick. Her behavior reminded me of how another celebrity leftist academic treated his students:
Zizek has developed an elaborate set of psychological tricks to manipulate his American students and enable him to have as little contact with them as possible. At the first meeting of each course, he announces that all students will get an A and should write a final paper only if they want to. “I terrorize them by creating a situation where they have no excuse for giving me a paper unless they think it is really good. This scares them so much, that out of forty students, I will get only a few papers,” he says. “And I get away with this because they attribute it to my ‘European eccentricity.’”
Zizek says that he deals with student inquiries in a similar spirit. “I understand I have to take questions during my lectures, since this is America and everybody is allowed to talk about everything. But when it comes to office hours, I have perfected a whole set of strategies for how to block this,” he says with a smirk. “The real trick, however, is to minimize their access to me and simultaneously appear to be even more democratic!” Initially, Zizek scheduled office hours immediately before class so that students could not run on indefinitely. Then he came up with the idea of requiring them to submit a written question in advance, on the assumption that most would be too lazy to do it (they were). Zizek reserves what he calls “the nasty strategy” for large lecture classes in which the students often don’t know one another. “I divide the time into six twenty-minute periods and then fill in the slots with invented names. That way the students think that all the hours are full and I can disappear,” he explains.
By Robert S. Boynton in the October 1998 Lingua Franca