The Dinglehopper

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Transcending in the Poetry of e.e. cummings

i carryHow excited I was when I saw that the most recent Nerdwriter video was going to examine one of my favorite poets and one that I teach in class each year: e.e. cummings. Cummings is a tricky but beloved poet because he is inventively flexible with language. Sometimes his poems seem nonsensical until looked at from the right angle. He plays with spacing, capitalization, and punctuation to force his reader into a new perspective to take in his words. He uses wordplay and pun, layering meanings to amplify ambiguities.

Evan Puschak looks specifically at cummings’ love poem “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in” which is one of his most accessible and universal poems. Puschak examines the universal concrete images of the poem, the two spaces of inside and outside the parantheses, as well as the transcendental philosophy cummings presented throughout his poetry.

I will excitedly show this video to my students. Puschak has once again taken a complex piece of art and clearly shown how it creates its meaning. If you have any love for or interest in poetry, check this one out.


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The Prestige as MetaCinema

I have mixed feelings about Christopher Nolan, who lost me after The Dark Knight Rises. But his earlier work still wows me. Recently I got to thinking about The Prestige for use in my film class, and then, like magic, Evan Puschak (Nerdwriter) made an insightful video about.

In the video Puschak explores the way that the film hides its big secret in plain sight, using our desire to be tricked against us until Nolan wants us to see the truth. It’s a clever film, well-acted, and fully engaging. Puschak examines the imagery, narrative order, and editing to create an analogy to the power of cinema. This isn’t a new breakthrough exactly, Nolan has often dealt with cinema as his metaphorical subject in other films, like Inception.  Here, though, it holds extra charm, since the film works as a magic trick too, following the same design that Michael Caine’s character lays out in the opening, the three parts of the magic trick.

If you’re a fan of The Prestige or of Nolan in general, I highly recommend taking in the 7 minutes of Puschak’s analysis.


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Exploring Emotional Theory in Inside Out with the Nerdwriter

Evan Puschak, aka the Nerdwriter, has been busy, pumping out a deep look at culture, art, and society every Wednesday. About a week ago, he dropped an examination of Inside Out. He looks at the scientific emotional theory which inspired the film, its accuracies and inaccuracies, and other competing contemporary emotional theories.

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The video is loaded with great information, but one of the most striking insights he offers is the way Riley’s mind also reflects our world. Her memory storage looks like a data center, and the scariest place in her brain isn’t the subconscious jail with her greatest fear inside but the void where memories are lost. This mirrors the anxieties of our world where one of the biggest concerns is data loss.

And in the end, he reaffirms what all us parents have loved about Inside Out since it premiered: it teaches solid emotional intelligence through archetypal characters.


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Nerdwriter Reveals New Insights in “Children of Men: Don’t Ignore the Background”

I’m a big fan of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. The film rewards re-watching and analysis as it is full of literary and artistic references to deliver its ever-more prescient view of the world’s near future. See my series here on its use of Wasteland/Fisher King Mythology.

When I found out that Nerdwriter–he whom I’ve been loving on lots lately–had done a video essay on the use of background in Children of Men, I was excited to see what he would say. I wasn’t exactly expecting to be surprised, but in fact, he did teach me a few new things. (I love learning new things!)

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Evan Puschak’s video looks somewhat behind the main narrative of Kee and Theo to examine the backgrounds that frequently steal the camera’s attention. He delves into the imagery to elucidate not only the social narrative Cuaron has constructed but also the artistic allusions used to deepen the setting. From The Birth of Venus to Guernica to Pink Floyd’s Animals, Children of Men masterfully folds in cultural references to build the historical progression to the dystopia Theo lives in.

If you’re even a mild fan of this film, Nerdwriter’s video essay on its backgrounds is not to be missed.


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Postmodernism 101 with the Nerdwriter

One of our favorite video essayists, Evan Puschak, the Nerdwriter, has been examining some key postmodern theories with the new videos of the last couple weeks. The first of these looks at the idea that the medium is the message. The second takes a look at the lack of truth in representation.Margritti this is not a pipe

The concern behind the statement “the medium is the message” is that consumers of any medium of expression may be unwittingly affected by the invisible aspects of the medium, that the “program” being presented is incidental. Consider television, whose medium brought to the forefront advertisements. As far as television is concerned, the watching of the ads is the most important aspect. It is the moneymaking part of the venture. What an audience watches to bring them to the advertisements is of very little concern. Puschak also discusses the aspects of the online video that are unique in its medium, how it is different from watching television. As far as postmodernism is concerned, television changed everything through its medium, not its programming. The internet even more so. Engaging with these mediums affects how we think, behave, communicate, and thus how we interpret our world.

In Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, representation itself–a likeness in art or referent in language–is undermined and then dismantled. As one of the most famous of postmodern art pieces, the painting highlights a radical postmodern notion: that we cannot authentically differentiate reality from simulation. Our brains, so used to representation in imagery and language, so dependent on signs to create the meaning in our lives, are duped by the system of semiotics into assumptions that are false.


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Expert Explication: Understanding Art on “Leda and the Swan”

Nerdwriter, you’ve sent my body into nerd tingles.

wbyeatsI am something of an authority on explicating poetry since close reading is the cornerstone of the College Board AP English Literature curriculum, and that’s been my jam for the last 13 years. When it’s done really expertly, like in the “Understanding Art|POETRY|Leda and the Swan” video essay by Evan Puschak, Nerdwriter, a juicy, insightful explication can make an ol’ square sonnet suddenly seem like the heavens opening and enlightenment being conferred upon you by the hand of God herself.

At least, that’s how it makes me feel. And this response is truly rare. Because doing an expert-level explication is HARD, though Puschak makes it look effortless. I’ll be showing this video to my students and breaking down the levels of interpretation, analysis, and synthesis he’s doing as a model for how they might achieve their own mastery in close reading.

The poem itself is seemingly a retelling of a moldy, old myth–Zeus’s “seduction” of Leda while in the form of a swan–but as Puschak makes clear, this poem is full of blood and urgency, even to a modern audience. It is a poem that speaks not only to the personal pain of sexual assault but also the epic machinations of whole societies rising and falling. In only 14 lines. Wow.

Bonus: “Leda and the Swan” is by one of my favorite poets, the myth-obsessed Irish nationalist William Butler Yeats, and Puschak includes an explanation of Yeats’ historical gyres theory as well, tying “Leda” to “The Second Coming.”


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Comedians as Moral Detectives

detective louisAlthough humor is frequently dismissed as low entertainment, engaging laughter, seen as the shallowest of emotional responses, comedy actually functions in important ways for a society. Whether in the form of fools, clowns, or tricksters, comedians have played a role of defining moral boundaries since ancient times. In Pueblo society, clowns are often the only ones who can touch delicate issues within the community. For example, at a ceremonial dance, a clown might pull to the center of the crowd a married man of standing and the mistress that he is having an affair with, put a bike tire innertube around the couple, and perform a mock marriage ceremony to publicly shame the two.

Now Nerdwriter, Evan Puschak, has created a video examining this phenomenon. In it he astutely unpacks a joke Louis C.K. opened SNL with concerning pedophilia, looking at multiple responses to performance and establishing it as part of a tradition in which society gives slack to comedians to talk about delicate subjects in the interest of testing the moral walls of that society. The joke itself may initially seem in poor taste, but it ultimately reframes a conversation about a repulsive drive in some people that most people don’t want to think about much less examine.


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Understanding Art: ‘In the Mood for Love’

inthemoodforloveEvan Puschak, aka The Nerdwriter, has been developing a video series on YouTube called Understanding Art where he interprets and examines the artistic elements of works of art, both traditional and cinematic. I’ve linked to his stuff before–I’m especially a fan of his examination of Snowpiercer.

Puschak just released a video looking at In the Mood for Love, a revered world cinema masterpiece by Wong Kar-wai. This is a blindspot in my film watching, and I’ve meant to catch up with it for a few years now. Puschak’s insightful look at it explains why it’s worthy of any cinephile’s time–the style, structure, and character development.

Whether you’ve seen the film before or not, this examination of it will deepen your appreciation and understanding or whet your appetite to experience the whole film.

And for however long it stays up, you can also watch all of In the Mood for Love with English subtitles on YouTube for free.

 


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The Cinema of Excess in Understanding Art House: The Wolf of Wall Street

You all know I love a great video essay, and it just so happens I’m also a fan of Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Nerdwriter, aka Evan Puschak, has put together another one of his fantastic Understanding Art House videos, this time addressing the frequently misunderstood Wolf.

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What I appreciate most about this video is the comparison to films addressing similar concerns coming out of the 1980’s, specifically Wall Street and Goodfellas. Each of them attack a life of greedy excess, and while they show this lifestyle, they also label it as bad. The difference, Puschak puts forth, inspired by an essay by Izzy Black, is that Wolf (and other recent films like Spring Breakers) shows the excess (excessively, in fact) but leaves room for a significant amount of interpretation on how bad it is. Though the audience would be hard pressed to miss the dangers Jordan Belfort puts himself and those close to him in, he also ends up more or less unpunished, at least by government and society, in the film. We are left looking back at ourselves for judgement on this man, and the truth is many of us would chose at least the option to have his lifestyle.

If you found yourself liking, hating, or still deciding on The Wolf of Wall Street, definitely check this out. But be warned, NSFW.


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Analysis of Snowpiercer Part I: The Ending

This is the post with all the spoilers. If you want to take a look at my spoiler-free review, go here. Otherwise, know this is for people who have seen the film. If you haven’t, it’s currently streaming on Netflix Instant, so go watch it already.

It’s difficult to know what to start with. The film linearly progresses from the tail-section to the engine, but information is doled out in almost a reverse order so that each piece reverberates back onto earlier parts of the film. This is just one of the ways Bong Joon-ho suggests that this linearity is a false, limiting construct.

The Ending

Classic Hollywood action movie ending with heroes victorious, eating schwarma.

Classic Hollywood action movie ending with heroes victorious, eating schwarma.

I was so struck by the film-making in Snowpiercer, it initially didn’t occur to me that others might not be so arrested with it. But this is not a film made for an audience expecting a classic Hollywood narrative. The biggest divergence is that the ending is ambiguous–Curtis’s revolution fails. In a classic Hollywood film, that wouldn’t be the case. Even if we kept the reveal Wilford gives that he and Gilliam had orchestrated this rebellion, and the revolts that came before it, Curtis would still kill Wilford, take the mantle as the new leader, and somehow reinvent the train’s class system. But how would the train keep going without children hidden in its innards working as the now unobtainable part? And perhaps that’s the question that keeps Curtis from attempting such an endeavor–in the end, the train is the train, and there are things he can’t change about it. Gilliam taught him that exploiting children (practically babies, after all) wasn’t acceptable to maintain the lives of adults, that it’s all just feeding on the weak to make the strong fatter. Curtis has taken this lesson to heart, and holds it as his touchstone even after he finds out Gilliam wasn’t the man he thought he was.

“The writers, I do believe, who get the best and most lasting response from readers are the writers who offer a happy ending through moral development. By a happy ending, I do not mean mere fortunate events–a marriage or a last-minute rescue from death–but some kind of spiritual reassessment or moral reconciliation, even with the self, even at death.” (Fay Weldon, writer and literary critic)

So Snowpiercer’s ending doesn’t offer a traditional happy ending, but it does offer a moral reassessment and reconciliation and a smidge of hope. Curtis finds out that his revolution is all part of the system of inequality, but he makes a choice to literally become a wrench preventing the proper movement of the system by sticking his arm in the works to save Timmy, thus living up to his ideals. It is a personal victory, and a statement of faith in humanity by Bong Joon-ho, though it doesn’t save anyone but Timmy and Kona. He finally gives up his arm, as he had wanted to after meeting Gilliam and becoming cannibalistic because of the horrible conditions the survivors in the tail suffered before Wilford gave them the protein bars.

In many ways, the ending’s level of satisfaction is all about Curtis making the “right” decision. I emphasize “right” here because Bong Joon-ho makes deliberate camera placement choices to keep the tail-section to the left side of the screen and the engine to the right. Tony Zhou’s video essay explains this better than I ever could.

But Curtis’s decision to destroy the train rests on an entirely different set of symbols and information. He’s been so trapped in the tail/engine dichotomy, he has failed to truly notice what else there is. The middle of the train and the outside. The former literally offers a window to the latter–and ultimately a path. Evan Puschak, aka Nerdwriter, offers another outstanding Understanding Art House video essay on Snowpiercer that explains the sight, color, and lighting aspects that emphasize this path to the outside.

Namgoong, the gate-maker, has been a middle-section dweller during his time on the train. He’s had access to the windows, was taught by an Inuit woman the many types of snow and ice, and now sees signs that the snow is melting. As Curtis’s group moves through the middle-section cars, he teaches his daughter a new truth: what dirt is, that the airplane is more visible, that life is returning to Earth.

snowpiercer2His final plea to Curtis is that he look beyond the gates–the doors that maintain the social hierarchy–to the one gate that matters, the gate to the outside. He tells Curtis what he’s seen but does not include one last detail, a detail so grand and improbable that Curtis would likely think Namgoong’s whole theory was induced by his drug addiction. But in light of what Curtis learns about the requirements of keeping the train running, Namgoong’s faith that the outside can sustain human life (a faith he trusts his daughter’s life to) is enough for Curtis to put his support behind. The two of them shield Yona and Timmy from the explosion blast, sacrificing themselves and society for a chance to start anew without the class/car barriers.

yona timmyWhen Yona and Timmy set off outside from the burning wreckage of the train, we finally see what Namgoong likely saw–a polar bear. The sighting of the polar bear means that life is already on Earth again in an advanced form. As an apex hunter, the polar bear indicates that all of the animal and plant species required for its survival are also around: seals, fish, fauna, algae. While Yona and Timmy’s survival isn’t assured in the ending, all indications point to a hopeful remaking of humanity. His daughter is clairvoyant, a foreknowledge which might trump her lack of experience in the outside world. Timmy is fast-thinking and fleet-footed. Although we don’t see other train survivors, they have to exist if two people who were closest to the blast survived. And while many parts of the train plummeted into ravines, there are still resources of shelter, fire, and food on the train to get them going. No guarantees, but the inequity of survival on Snowpiercer wasn’t fixable within that closed system, nor was it worth surviving for. Humans would be better off opening the door to the outside and starting again.

Coming Up! What’s up with the fish? Plus the brilliance of casting Chris Evans as Curtis.