Monday, August 18, 2008

Day -05 "In the trenches" (Round II edition)

Here we go again: T-minus 5 days and counting 'til the start of the semester. Today was the mandatory report day, 1 week in advance of the beginning of classes. This week is heavy meetings (full faculty, musicology division, executive committee, etc); introducing new faculty member(s), both within and outside our own division; finalizing course materials--we write a lot of stuff in advance, but a good chunk of any new or revised course is most effectively handled week-by-week and class-by-class over the course of the semester, as you deliver the class and take stock of how materials and pace are going over.

The "In the trenches" series (Round II) aims to provide a day-by-day chronology of the actual content of my semester: 5 days a week for the 16 weeks of the semester, and the way that one musicology professor tries to balance the teaching/research & creative activity/service duties (usually weighted 60%, 40%, 20% in annual reviews) with all the other stuff I try to do: practice blues & Irish trad & old-time banjo, work on the two book projects, all the community service teaching & etc, householding, and a lot of loud- and foul-mouthed denunciation of the oligarchs, fascists, and war criminals in the Bush administration. It's not a perfect blend--in fact it's typically a pretty im-perfect collision--but it does intend a kind of public record, and maybe a template, for other people in the same boat, or getting ready to set sail on the same journey.

One particularly important element: welcoming a new hire within our division. When I came in 8 years ago, the particulars of the situation at the time left me pretty much to our own devices, in terms of on-campus logistics (keys, email access, parking, etc), off-campus infrastructure (housing, car, storage unit, grocery, blah blah blah), in-class course design and delivery. That all was OK for me--I'll sacrifice hand-holding for autonomy--but there's no denying that it was a lot of work and required a good deal of flying by the seat of my pants.

In contrast, as we've brought new people in, we've tried to provide as much of the above as we can, mostly just so they can concentrate on the stuff they have to do on their own--mostly course design and in-class delivery--and draw a little bit on what's come to be called "hive mind." Back in the dim and distant past before the Internet, we'd actually pool information and pass it around by hand; that's what I did with the Countercultural guide to Lubbock. It helped some: for instance, when we hired the African-American jazz saxophone teacher with the Japanese wife and were trying to persuade him they'd be able to survive the Buckle of the Bible Belt; or when we're trying to recruit grad students who can make more money (and be more neglected) elsewhere. Mostly, it conveys to the new people that neither they nor their families have to sit at home in a subdivision or rental place by themselves--that there's a group of people here who have learned that, in the "geographical oddity" that is five hours from everywhere, looking after each other is the best way to build a community and hold it together. So "In the trenches" is about that too.

Coming up: a recollection of the great Jerry Wexler. Right now, a quick film hit:

There’s an awful lot I don’t like about the movies of Michael Mann, chiefly the ways in which (a) he MTV’s violence (e.g., renders it sleek, neon-lit, and sexy) and (b) the degree to which he enables the absurd preening of Hollywood leading men (from Don Johnson and Colin Farrell to Will Smith and Al Pacino). But there are aspects of Last of the Mohicans that are incredibly compelling. It’s riddled with American essentialism (Brits are uptight, class-obsessed prigs; Indians are either savages or primeval children-of-nature; Americans are free-wheeling incipient democrats), bang-it-to-fit-and-paint-it-to-match historical absurdity, and bullshit romanticism—beginning with that infallible indicator of gauzy pseudo-historical character, mis-used uilleann bagpipes—but it has a couple of remarkable strengths: the beauty of the Smokey Mountains locations (standing in for the Catskills and Alleghenies) and the way the visual framing of the film makes them look worth fighting over; the extraordinary historical verisimilitude that the phenomenon of historical re-enactment makes possible (you can’t pay or costume 2000 extras with the precise and accurate clothing and armaments of the French & Indian War, but the 18th century historical re-enactors will show up, precise and dedicated, and—unlike the Tubby Bearded Guys and wannabe white supremacists who riddle the Civil War scene—see both sides), the extensive—and, for Hollywood, criminally rare—usage of you know, actual Native Americans, and, especially, the physical ferocity of the acting jobs by Daniel Day-Lewis, Wes Studi (a magnificent mixture of cold-hearted brutality and righteous rage), and the great Russell Means.

The closing scene, which mixes both historical absurdity (since when can you prime and load an 18th-century flintlock on the run?!?) and stunning fight choreography, is a case in point. I’m not mourning for the radical reworking of the narrative (Cooper was a terrible writer), and the closing does provide the right balance of villains-get-theirs payoff and but-the-good-guys-experience-tragedy legitimacy—and the editing and soundtrack in that closing sequence are virtually perfect.

But I’m a bigger fan of an earlier scene, one probably entirely unremarked by both the cinephiles and the history buffs, which comes when Hawkeye (Day-Lewis), Uncas (the little-seen but terrific Eric Schweig), and Chingachgook (Means) escort Madeleine Stowe’s and Jodhi May’s sisters into a besieged fort. There’s an overhead shot, of Highlanders surrounding the party as they sneak in through a postern gate, that’s simultaneously absurd (why, if they’re trying for concealment, are they carrying torches?!?) but powerfully evocative—because it was, of course, Britain’s own Highland savages who were most effective on the frontier, as George III would later find to his own chagrin when the same Hielandmen and their offspring turned against him in ’76. I’m always reminded at this point of the “town scruffs and ticket-of-leave men,” many of them Scots or Irish, who actually won and held the Empire, for the sake of rich men’s purses—a point made likewise in the Boston Massacre trial scenes of HBO’s great John Adams miniseries.

The other scene comes a bit later, when Hawkeye and Uncas try to clear a path for a runner leaving the fort. As with the closer, the editing and music are essential in making the scene work, as Day-Lewis and Schweig carefully prime and load their long rifles (descendents of Scottish hunting rifles brought to the Appalachians in the previous century) and take position at an embrasure, waiting for the enemy pickets who they know are stalking the distant runner as he tear-asses down the moonlit hillside.

I grew up in New England and I knew the hills of western Massachusetts and upstate New York (the “Old Frontier”) as a child. My ancestors, farmers, fighting men, and adventurers, often on the wrong sides, have been in these Americas since the 1640s at latest. And even though the film was shot in the Smokies, and virtually every single person depicted is about six times as beautiful as anybody in Colonial America could have been (Madeleine Stowe and Daniel Day-Lewis in the posters—the eye-candy for viewers of any persuasion was pretty much off the charts), those two scenes—the Highlanders at the postern and the half-breed marksmen at the embrasures—feel very very familiar.

I don’t say much about this—and won’t—but let’s just say they bring back very old memories.
Now playing: Spider John Koerner - Sail Away Ladies
via FoxyTunes

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