Category Archives: film

“Gnawing my way back home”: Books Read in 2015


I’m currently halfway through Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void and not likely to finish it before 2015 is over. For the 7th year in a row, here’s my breakdown of books read over the past year:

Books read in 2015: 162
Comics and graphic novels included in reading total: 28
Books of poetry included in reading total: 3
Books reread included in reading total: 4
Academic & Education related books included in reading total: 45
YA and Junior Fiction books included in reading total: 13
Roleplaying Game-related books (rules, modules, settings – related to this research work): 22

A few thoughts (As usual, here are my posts on books read in 2014,  2013201220112010, and 2009):

Two different sci-fi novels – perhaps thematically related – were highlights of the fiction I read this year: Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora were robust with ideas, questions, and plot hooks that I continue to ponder nuances from them. I also really liked Station Eleveneven if I wasn’t in search of another post-apocalyptic yarn it was an unputdownable book.

It’s been a while, but volumes one and two of Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar were the enticing reads that returned me to the BSRAYDEKWTDWT genre.

Three different music related books I can recommend:The memoirs by Kim Gordon and by Carrie Brownstein were unflinching and feminist looks inside two tumultuous rock bands I’ve spent a lot of time listening to. And unrelated but Leon Neyfakh’s The Next Next Level was the music biography about a musician I didn’t know that I didn’t know I needed to read. (I would encourage curious readers to listen to the two podcast episodes of No Effects with Jesse Cohen where he talks with the author of the book and with the musician Juiceboxxx.)

In terms of non-fiction, there was no book more important or more affecting this year than Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. Enough has been written about this book that you don’t really have an excuse for not reading it at this point. Do it.

Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation is a book that I’ve been chewing on and thinking about over the past two months.

In terms of more popular non-fiction, Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed was the book that created some of the more entertaining conversations and arguments with friends. Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance was the book you give to a friend because it looks like another comedian’s memoir but ends up actually being a pretty impressive empirical, social science study.

In terms of other media consumption in 2015, there was no better live music experience this year than seeing Kamasi Washington with family and friends play a flawless and touching (and nearly three hour long) set. Epic indeed.

I listened to the Lady Lamb and the Beekeeper album a bunch (yes, that’s really her name and yeah, I know). The track “Billions of Eyes” lends a lyric as the title of this year’s post.

Other albums I listened to a lot were Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly, the Hamilton Broadway Cast Recording, Miguel’s Wildheart, and Chance the Rapper’s collaborative album with the jazz group the Social Experiment. (Check out Chance’s performance on SNL from earlier this month:)

When it comes to writing, I’ve been regularly listening to this Four Tet album, the titular Viet Cong record, and Jaime XX. (Did I mention, I published two books this year? It was an intense year for writing.)

What did you read and listen to in 2015? What are you looking forward to in the new year?

Four Emotions While Watching Pixar’s Inside Out: Body Shaming, #CharlestonShooting, and the Privileged Feels

Building off of the four key emotions portrayed in Inside Out, a quartet of reflections on Pixar’s latest.


It’s a fun Pixar film that gives you Pixar feels. Yay.

(Also, the fleeting nod to Steve Jobs’s “reality distortion field” was a nice gesture.)



As much as I wanted to love this movie, I kept wondering why the characters of “Anger” and “Sadness” had to be the heavyset characters. The former resorts to violence and the latter is so lazy she is dragged on the floor throughout a third of the movie. If I think about the diverse bodies we have, I can’t help but ponder what effect seeing one’s larger body type manifested as someone that is “angry” or “sad” will have on an impressionable audience. What does this movie say about who I am and my relationship to feelings of joy if I am considered “fat” by society’s definitions?



At the heart of this movie (and not really a spoiler) is a young girl struggling to adjust to life in a new city with her parents; there are delays from a moving truck, a fleeting moment of embarrassment in school, an argument at home. The entire social and emotional range that this character undergoes is rooted in the pretty comfortable life of being a white girl in an upper-middle-class family in an industrialized, wireless, and accepting society. As I watched the movie, I reflected on Jeff Duncan-Andrade’s scholarship on “critical hope,” the signs of PTSD that youth in spaces of poverty experience, and the ways youth of color’s feelings would be triggered by entirely different circumstances than those of the protagonist of the film. This is very much a film for and about white feelings. (My caveat here about reading Catcher in the Rye with my high school students applies to this concern. But. But the whiteness of the film’s emotional core is frustrating in light of where American discourse stands in 2015, which brings me to…)



Last night, nine people were murdered. It was fueled by hate and our country needs to do more than mourn. We need to have important discussion and action about race, our history of racism, and what “fear” means when it feels like it is open season on unarmed boys and girls of color in the U.S. I worry that the snow-globe like feelings of Inside Out and an underlying feeling of see-we’re-all-the-same does more harm than good when the very real differences in where we’re born and from whom can mean life or death.

Dangerous and the Revolution of Michael Jackson’s Panther Dance

I’m loving one of the recent 33 1/3 books (the 100th volume?!) focusing on Michael Jackson’s Dangerous. I distinctly remember buying the album just as I began flirting with my own sense of musical interest. My friend down the street would regularly play the record when we were hanging out, while a separate group would shortly engender me in the cult of grunge that was quickly snapping up the interests of many of us (the author, Susan Fast, points out, early on, that Nirvana’s Nevermind would eventually best Dangerous on the charts – probably a key moment in Western musical history). Because of the album’s centricity in my formative years in elementary and middle school, it is probably the Jackson album I’m most familiar with (despite the fact that most of Jackson’s biggest hits were years past in his repertoire by this point).

With 20 years of distance, I appreciate Fast’s emphasis on the album’s two biggest hits as transgressive moments in Jackson’s oeuvre. The saccharine “Heal the World,” being so much more than a feel-good yawn-fest and “Black or White” being a confrontational moment of racial politics.

 [Note: even this version of the video is edited; racist symbols/phrases were added to the windows as if they were what Jackson was smashing.]

Quoting from a couple of pages centered on the notorious (and later re-cut) video for “Black or White” including the famous “panther dance,” I appreciate Fast’s weaving of critical theory and cultural context here:

“But in the original version, of course, [the famous face-morphing scene] was followed by Jackson’s ‘panther dance’ and it was this that made all hell break loose for him and which also allowed us to see what he was really up to in the first part of the short film.

As Eric Lott has written, ‘something so extraordinary happened at this moment that the video’s initial audiences couldn’t take it in.’ The camera pulls back from the morphing scene to expose a film set an crew, the last (black) actress to appear in the morphing scene and the film’s director, John Landis, yelling ‘cut’ and saying to the actress ‘that was perfect; how do you do that?’ There’s no answer to this question: how could there be? For the question is only superficially about a feat of modern technology; a white man has just asked a black woman how she manages to adapt as a minority, in which she must move both as part of her own world and that of the dominant culture and be cheerful in the process (‘that was perfect [behavior]’, a world of double-consciousness.”

And later:

“Jackson begins his dance trepidatiously. After he emerges from the form of the panther he stands still for a moment, settling into his new skin, unsure how to move forward. He dons his fedora and is caught in a spotlight, invoking the idea of the panopticon, which Michel Foucault used as a metaphor for the pervasive surveillance and disciplining (normalizing) of bodies in contemporary society.

Racial Politics and the Amazing Race

Last night I went on a mini (by Twitter standards) rant about the Amazing Race. Here’s a Storify recap:

The thing is, I like this show. It’s been an early player in shaping many of today’s reality TV tropes. And frankly, aside from a year or two as an undergrad, I’ve probably seen nearly every season of this show. I get the transmedia heroism of Boston Rob as he ventured from Survivor to the Amazing Race and back to Survivor to claim the prize over there. I get how Fast Forwards and U-Turns have been added and the pacing of the show has become more savvy from season to season. But I also get how terrible the racial politics on major network TV get emphasized when we think about what we’re watching as “real” in comparison to more clearly scripted television programs. Couple this with the essentializing of culture as foods, dances, and dangerous taxi drivers in the show and you’ve got something of a critical nightmare.

Again, more to come with regards to this (as always).

Revisiting Divergent and Female Sexuality in YA

Did you watch Divergent this weekend? I’ll admit I think it was a stronger film adaptation than many other YA-related films lately.

In any case, I’d like to point you back to an excerpt from my book that focuses on Divergent and female sexuality originally posted here. The film adaptation readjusts this scene to be more about sexual violence than about the sexuality of a scared, uncertain girl. Being afraid of sexual assault is an entirely warranted fear for young people (particularly women) to feel. The ways this fear was different within the book, however, are more problematic. I am curious how the film version will cast aside past readings as this book becomes more entrenched in its film vision (when you think of Harry Potter do you conjure an image of a young Daniel Radcliffe or a non-Hollywood image of the-boy-who-lived?). Again, check out the excerpt from my book – I plan to share another one soon!

Related, I think the Maze Runner film adaptation looks strong, too. A shame that the two other books (and prequel) absolutely fall apart… (you should probably read my book’s chapter focused on the perils of serialization while you’re at it!).

Images and Sounds and Provoking Different Reactions

But if a film can provoke the audience’s participation–if the film gives a certain amount of information but requires the audience to complete the ideas, then it engages each member of the audience as a creative participant in the work How each moment gets completed depends on each individual person. So the film, although it’s materially the same series of images and sounds, should, ideally, provoke slightly different reactions from each person who sees it.

Even though it’s a mass medium, it’s those individual reactions that make each person feel the film is speaking to him or her. The fantastic thing about the process is that they actually see their own version on the screen. They would swear they saw it, but in fact it wasn’t there. Enough was there so that they completed it in their own way, but as it’s happening they don’t stop to think: That’s just me completing it. They really see something that appears as authentic to them as anything else that’s actually physically in the film

How does this happen? It can only be because the film is ambiguous in the right places and draws something out of you that comes from your own experience. And then you see it on screen and think: Only I know that, so the film must be made for me.

– Walter Murch, The Conversations

As part of summer reading catch-up, I’ve been meandering through the conversations between Michael Ondaatje and Walter Murch about film editing. As much of my time lately has been preparation for ethnographic research on tabletop role playing games, I am struck by Murch’s sense of empowerment for viewers. The agency of the audience within his films is one that is personalized. It negotiates the relationship between storyteller and story-receiver in such a way that both feel emboldened in nuanced interpretations.

A blog post will follow about the quasi-brilliant marginalia in this used copy of the book I have and the erratic bouncing ball of ’80s sing-a-longs that makes cameos by its previous owner.

Being “That Guy”: Race and Violence Ruining Wreck It Ralph

I think it’s getting worse. I used to hold my tongue and nod along with everyone else. The problem is I’m tired of not seeing folks of color in films. I’m tired of picking “good” YA texts for the classes I’m teaching and seeing white privilege reinforced on every page. I’m tired of not seeing the lives and experiences of my former South Central Los Angeles students represented in the books we read.*

I’m pretty sure my students might be getting tired of me: I’m a bit of a broken record when it comes to race and politics of representation when discussing literature, popular media, pedagogy, NCLB, relational aspects of connecting with students.

Sometimes (often), I fret about whether it might be best to let it slide. For one class, let the “race-thing” not be brought up. For one movie, don’t let the first thing you say when you walk out of the theater be, “Well, that’s gotta be the whitest movie ever made.”**


But I just can’t. It feels irresponsible not to.

Case in point: tonight I saw Wreck It Ralph. It was fun. The videogame references, the unexpected plot developments, the playful short film before the feature: it was better than its marketing campaign led me to believe. But then…

See, here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure every character is white (except for ancillary villains shown in a bad-guy support group at the beginning of the film… hmmm…). Ally pointed out that title character Ralph might possibly be something non-white. And that’s good, right? I mean he is the protagonist. Except that the attributes we learn about our hero is that he has halitosis, a penchant for making bad decisions, and oafish strength. Not exactly the apotheosis of a young person’s role model.

And then there was the police brutality. Without giving away anything in the plot, there is a part of the film where Ralph is detained. Though he’s already restrained in the sweetest possible way, the two cop-like figures take to physically accosting him. This is done for laughs. Like the part where Ralph can’t move so the cop tasers him in the face: funny, right?

I know. It’s just a movie. Let it go.


But I just can’t. I think about the ways these humorous scenes slowly reinforce lessons about social behavior and normality for the packed theater I sat in. Mix the giggles from this scene with the giggles about the use of the word duty/doody and it’s not quite clear where the line is drawn. And if Ally’s right and Ralph IS supposed to be non-white … well then, congratulations, Disney: you just got America to laugh at police beating up a person of color.

This turned into a frustrated rant. Sorry. I am actually genuinely interested in a pedagogical issue here: when is it our responsibility as teachers to “turn off” the critical lens? Ever? Does it ever interfere with our other content responsibilities?


*This week, my class is reading and discussing David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy. I really like this book. It also, however, makes me wonder about the politics of queer identity in YA. Who gets to be gay in YA texts? Is this also a marginalized white privilege? (Future blog post about this at some point.)

**Film in question, by the way, was the Perks of Being a Wallflower. Seriously though, EVERY character was white. Seriously.

Your Summer Syllabus: Three Recent Examples of Participatory Media that Teachers Should Know About (Beautiful Dark Twisted Pedagogy Ahead)

My browser is overcrowded with tabs of information I want to share here. Instead of focusing on a single example, I want to briefly reflect on three different aspects of the shifting nature of culture in participatory media: community, copyright, and civic engagement. By looking at all three of these, educators can get a quick & robust snapshot of what is on the horizon for pedagogical implications vis-à-vis all of this “new media stuff.”  The examples below speak to three different ways that media and culture are changing the ways young people are learning, interacting, and acting upon the world. For teachers, all three of these bring up significant ways that pedagogy needs to shift. (I’ve called this, previously, Beautiful Dark Twisted Pedagogy.)


How to Have the Number One Book on Amazon Without Actually Finishing It

When it comes to YA literature, John Green’s works are not only a personal favorite, but also a consistent hit with my students. During the final days of June, John Green went live on YouTube to his legion of fans and (over the course of nearly two hours) announced the title of his new book, answered questions being sent in real time, and read a chapter from the unreleased work. He also announced he was going to sign every copy of the first edition of the book. As a result, The Fault in Our Stars shot to number one on Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites & Green’s work was profiled in the Wall Street Journal, and media sites are pointing to the phenomenon of the sudden sales. What’s important to notice here is specifically how this happened. Green didn’t go online overnight and simply announce the book title (as mainstream media like WSJ signals). Instead, this has been a sustained relationship with readers that has developed trust and identity. John announced that the title came from someone within his online community. Fans have created tons of covers for the book. John’s hosting an online book club that’s reading the Great Gatsby. He has a series of video exchanges with his brother. He interacts with readers through twitter constantly. If anything, part of the fun of being a “fan” of John Green is being able to interact & engage with other readers, the author, and other artifacts in varying degrees of intensity. Spending some time meandering across his official site, his tumblr, his various twitter accounts, and fan pages is a great way for educators to think about ways to collaborate and share the learning experience with young people.

The Good, the Bad, and the Bloop of Fair Use & Copyright

Do you like Kind of Blue? How many times have you heard a soloist riff on those opening bars of “So What”? And while the music is constantly pointed to as a vanguard album in the history of jazz, a recent reinterpretation of the music finds itself a useful case study in when art appropriation exceeds “Fair Use.” I’m regularly talking about the importance of discussing fair use, copyright, and Creative Commons with young people; I’m convinced that this is a space that  students need to explicitly understand as we shift toward a cultural shift from merely consumption to production. This case study, “Kind of Screwed,” is a fantastic introduction into the challenges that are being faced across artistic mediums. Related to this, I regularly either include Free Culture or the film RIP: A Remix Manifesto in courses I teach to teachers about media and technology- both of these are great resources for further investigation on this topic.


The Fall of Eve – Commercial Interests & Citizen Dissent

Think of Eve Online as the geekier, way (way) more complex version of World of Warcraft. With political and corporate intrigue at the center of a game that takes place on ships and in fleets of aircrafts, Eve isn’t as widely played in the U.S. as other MMORPGs. However, that hasn’t stopped EVE’s distributor, CCP, from cashing in on game updates & expansions. In doing so, the company’s revealed a strategy that is more interested in a bottom line profit than in continued support of a long term player community. The result? Nearly 5,000 subscribed players walking away from the game and community. Digging through forum postings and news articles, a clear tension between creator and user emerges. And while teachers aren’t likely to utilize EVE Online in daily instruction (though the class that does has got to be an interesting one, no?), the way that these players are signaling dissent within the game, through canceled subscription and through collective organizing demonstrate how civic engagement is reshaped through participatory media. There are past examples of this kind of work described by researchers, particularly in America’s Army and the Sims, for those who want to look at other work in this area.


Summing Up

While all of the examples above have related precedents, they point to the fuzzy edges of socio-cultural interaction that most educators aren’t thinking about. They are all from within the past two weeks and are related to the kinds of practices our students are engaged in every day. When are we, as educators, going to formally sketch out a redefinition of pedagogy that addresses the paradigm shift that affects our classrooms?