McLuhan’s Commonsensical Maxim Applied to Nonsensical Media

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This essay was originally written as my final paper for my Media Theory class, taught by Barry Salmon, in Fall 2013 at The New School.

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If the “medium is the message,” then what happens if the medium is the medium itself, or the anti-medium? The past few years have seen the rise of the “anti-talk show” in the alternative comedy scene, as typified by the podcast-turned-IFC series Comedy Bang! Bang!, local New York public-access cult sensation The Chris Gethard Show, the Funny or Die webseries Between Two Ferns, and Adult Swim’s The Eric André Show. These shows all consider the artifice and tropes of comedy talk shows and then ignore, analyze, trash, invert, and/or subvert them. Marshall McLuhan’s classic text is presented as a common sense formulation of how to consider any medium: “the personal and social consequences” are a result of the new “extension of ourselves” (129). So how then do we apply this commonsensical approach to a genre that is purposely nonsensical? McLuhan would surely be pleased by this trend of a genre that is strongly conscious of how the medium is the message, but an analysis of how these shows deconstruct their particular medium and genre is sure to melt your brain.

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Remediating Remediation (A.K.A. Mediating Mediation)

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This essay was originally written as my final paper for my Sociology of Media class, taught by Paolo Carpignano, in Spring 2014 at The New School.

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin published Remediation: Understanding New Media in 2000. While their contention that all mediation is remediation was well-supported by the evidence available at the turn of the century, 14 years is a long time when it comes to the advancement of new media. One of their main examples of remediation is the CD-ROM (42-44), now an essentially obsolete medium. If Bolter and Grusin’s ideas are to hold up, then the forms of mediation that have taken the place of the CD-ROM must also be clear examples of remediation. Indeed, they anticipated that this would be the future, claiming that digital media would “function in a constant dialectic with earlier media, precisely as each earlier medium functioned when it was introduced” (50). They also postulated, “all mediation is remediation” (55). With this essay, I am picking up where they left off to show how developments since they published their take on the matter has proven them even more correct. Not only has media become even more remediated; it has made the world so hypermediated that it is clear that life itself is remediation.

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Arrested Development Pilot Script Analysis

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This essay was originally written as my final paper for my Script Analysis and Audience Response class, taught by Helena Medina, in Spring 2014 at The New School.

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The patriarch of a dysfunctional family is arrested, and his only sane son is forced to save the family business.

The Bluth family consists of George, Sr. and his wife Lucille; their children George Oscar II, a.k.a. “Gob” (pronounced like the Biblical Job), twins Michael and Lindsay, and Byron “Buster”; Lindsay’s husband Tobias Fünke; Michael’s son George Michael, and Lindsay and Tobias’s daughter Mae, a.k.a. “Maeby”. George is the CEO of the family Bluth Company, located in Orange County, California. Michael, his second oldest son, has worked for the company for ten years and expects to be made partner on the occasion of his father’s retirement. But George appoints Lucille as the acting CEO, and it soon becomes clear why when he is arrested and the Securities and Exchange Commission freezes the company’s expense account, thus making it difficult for the Bluths to maintain their lavish lifestyles.

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The Super-Female Postmodern Thing

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This essay was originally written as my final paper for my Film Theory & Analysis class, taught by Royal Brown, in Spring 2014 at The New School.

“Trust’s a tough thing to come by these days.”
“Nobody trusts anybody now.”

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A common maxim of what makes the best horror movies effective is that they show relatively little, leaving the most terrifying parts to the imagination. What is unique about the John Carpenter-directed The Thing (1982) is how well it works despite, or because of (or despite AND because of) showing so much of its monster. A novice viewer would be forgiven for not realizing how much it actually does not show. Partly, the lack of showing is obvious: the famously ambiguous ending in which it is heavily implied that either Keith David’s Childs or Kurt Russell’s MacReady is now a Thing (or both are). But most of the rest of the film does not highlight how much is being hidden. It is, as Slavoj Žižek would put it, a product “with a distinctive mass appeal” (1). Its primary attractions are its tense action, creative makeup and special effects, and well-rounded performances. It is therefore qualified to be a postmodern work, and it fulfills that possibility with a premise and a villain that essentially guarantees open-endedness and speculative interpretation that goes beyond the narrative.

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Über-Film Studies Case #1: Zardoz

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This essay was originally written as my final paper for my Advanced Topics Media Theory class, taught by Eugene Thacker, in Spring 2015 at The New School.

The world now laughs, rent are the drapes of fright,
The wedding is at hand of dark and light—

-Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil, “From High Mountains: Aftersong”

“We’ve all been used!” “And re-used!” “And abused!” “And amused!”
-Friend (John Alderton)/Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy), Zardoz

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            If I discover an interpretation of a complicated work and then realize that this interpretation is a perfect explanation of this work, is this just a self-fulfilling prophecy? Perhaps the interpretation is well-founded, but my new reading will inevitably be colored by my knowledge of this theory. But maybe its rightness or wrongness is beside the point, at least in absolute terms. I do not have to agree exactly for my eyes to see anew. It could be the ramblings of a madman, but it may still be a message that is worthwhile. Discovering that Zardoz, a film I have cherished many years for its singular qualities, had been declared the epitome of a Nietzschean movie, I was irrevocably changed. “The Lord is risen!” “God is dead!” Zed is the Übermensch! So speak to me, Muse of Surprisingly Useful Amazon User Reviews, and keep me on a steady path in this endeavor.

~

            My first contact with Mr. Nietzsche was diffuse. He is one of those towering figures of philosophy that permeates academia and bleeds into the culture at large. He never came up in any comparative philosophy class I took, and without a philosophy background, any influence he had on me came secondhand. I was vaguely aware of his influence on any entertainment that established itself as nihilist, and the Übermensch concept was familiar enough to stand as a Big Idea of modern thought. From what I could gather, the Übermensch was some sort of German version of Superman. I sensed that this was not quite right, but I chalked whatever I was missing up to the nuances of translation and the subtlety of the actual literature.

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Miley Cyrus: A Flashpoint of the Social Discourse

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This essay was originally written as my final paper for my Discourse Analysis class, taught by Theresa Cowan, in Fall 2014 at The New School.

Despite the dichotomy typical of the Western worldview, there is more than one stereotypical positive feminine role allowed within a patriarchal system. Alas, there is not necessarily a whole lot of variation among these roles. I have already discussed the Cool Girl and the constrictions enforced by that stereotype, and how damaging it can be even when those limitations are followed. Now I will be considering a relative of the Cool Girl – the Good Girl – and what tenor the discourse takes on when that role is transgressed. Specifically, I will consider this topic in light of pop star Miley Cyrus’ performance of “We Can’t Stop” and “Blurred Lines” at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.

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Film Editing Appreciation/Analysis: The Room’s Surprise Birthday Party

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The Movie: The Room
The Scene: Birthday Party
The Editor: Eric Chase

This essay was originally written as by final paper for my Aesthetics of Editing class, taught by Rafael Parra, in Fall 2014 at The New School.

The Room is a masterwork of surrealism in film. This may not have been intentional; director Tommy Wiseau, is known for his inscrutability and has given confounding explanations for what he was trying to accomplish with this movie. But the purest form of surrealism is accidental, which is why it works as well as it does in this case. The Room’s strange editing strategies underscore this sense. In this vein, the birthday party scene features a particularly fascinating mix of continuity and discontinuity elements. The film is made competently, both narratively and technically, but there are certain odd aspects that call attention to themselves and create a surreal ethos.

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Film Editing Appreciation/Analysis: Hot Rod’s “Quiet Place”

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The Movie: Hot Rod
The Scene: “Quiet Place”
The Editor: Malcolm Campbell

About 15 minutes into Hot Rod, young daredevil Rod Kimble (Andy Samberg) discovers that his hard-ass stepfather (Ian McShane), whom he has vowed to beat in a fight, has a failing heart. This prompts Rod to declare, “I need to go to my quiet place!” The setting then cuts to a forest, where he is dancing out his troubles while smoking a cigarette and slopping drinking some liquor. His moves are set to the strains of “Never” by Moving Pictures, making it clear that this is an homage to the angry dancing scene in the warehouse in Footloose. Much of Samberg’s acrobatic routine takes its cues from Kevin Bacon, and the editing by Malcolm Campbell follows suit.

This scene is cut like a music video, which is appropriate, because it is focused not on moving the narrative forward but on capturing Rod’s emotional state. There is a mix of mostly wide and medium-wide shots composed of several trees and most or all of Rod. This is appropriate, as he is using his whole body to dance. The editing pace matches the rock music well, with a busy but steady pace in which the shots last about 2-5 seconds each.

The dancing portion goes into its conclusion when Rod jumps off a stump and performs a front flip in the air. Or, he performs at least ten front flips. Each shot of him flipping is cut in mid-air, so it is unclear if each subsequent flip is a new flip or the same flip from a different angle. His flipping style is slightly different each time, so there are likely multiple flips. The quicker editing at this point makes it seem like Rod is flipping several times in a row before landing, despite such a feat’s logical impossibility. This less-than-literal style is then brought back down to earth, as Rod trips against a stump and falls over a cliff, with the music suddenly cutting out.

Comedy has been called an editor’s medium, and it shows during Rod’s descent, which lasts nearly an entire minute. The cuts emphasize how unlikely and unexpected the duration of his fall is. Rod’s movement on any given shot generally moves from right to left on the frame, conveying a steady momentum. Until the end, the shot compositions do not give any indication of the end of the cliff, leaving the viewer on edge, uncertain about how long this will last. Thus, there is an atmosphere of surprise that is crucial to comedy. The coup de grâce is a switch to a series of three much wider shots, with Rod’s screams barely audible in the distance. In this sequence, Rod is off-screen for five seconds (as opposed to no more than a second before this point), building maximum tension right before he falls out of the sky and finally rolls into a flat patch of land, giving the audience a moment to breathe as they process this quick burst of surrealism.