Spring [2014]

It’s ‘Before Sunrise’ meets ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’, and it brings everything you thought was cute about both those stories. Oh, there should totally be a game for parties where you pick out two cards which have titles of books or films or whatever on them, and then you have to act out what x meets y would like look. They could call it ‘Why Go Out to Watch Shit Improv Comedy When You can Stay In and Make your Own?’ There’d be a ban on selling it in Vancouver, though. Otherwise half the venues round here would be out of business in a week.

spring 2014

The ABCs of Death 2 [2014]

It may be easier for anthology sequels to be better than follow-ups of a more regular kind. It’s more possible to totally ditch anything (and anyone) that wasn’t working out, and there’s less baggage of trying to do something with a story that may well have reached its natural end in the previous film. Nonetheless, the achievement here is impressive, an even bigger leap in overall quality from ‘The ABCs of Death’ than ‘V/H/S 2’ was from ‘V/H/S’. I’m pretty sure there’s also a higher level of gore in this one, which is overall a good thing.

abcs of death 2 posterA strong start is reinforced by the presence of the lovely Andy Nyman and Julian Barratt playing a right couple of arseholes – in ‘A is for Amateur’ and ‘B is for Badger’, respectively – and the compellingly messed-up stop-motion animation ‘D is for Deloused’. ‘I is for Invincible’ has an enjoyable ‘Evil Dead’ feel to it as a family desperately try to kill off their elderly, but somewhat devilish, grandmother. Also notable are more serious shorts like ‘J is for…’ – never mind what it’s for, it’ll spoil the end – and the playfully bloody ‘M is for Masticate’, elevated by a very funny punchline.

m is not just for murderThere’s a scattering of more ordinary ones, but thankfully nothing I’d just dismiss as being outright shit. ‘T is for Torture Porn’ was a definite crowd-pleaser, not just because those behind it were in the cinema at the time, and was an unusual short film in that it felt it was cut back too soon, rather than being a more self-contained piece. Is that a negative or a positive? I don’t know, but what I am saying is, I think I speak for all of us when I say if it’s a choice between (a) more anal assault by demons, or (b) less, I’m so rarely in the mood for (b).

abcs of death 2 people‘W is for Wish’ was another funny but unsettling highlight, combining the aesthetics of 1980s’ toy adverts with the stuff of childhood nightmares. Actually, those things are pretty close together as it is, so maybe it’s not such a great achievement after all.

truth by adage

Possibly the best, and it felt much lengthier than the others, was ‘Z is for Zygote’, detailing a 13-year pregnancy and all the complications you can imagine going into that, and a fantastically splattery sequence truly deserving of a standing ovation.

Right up until the end of ‘U’, I thought it was going to be called ‘U is for Ugly Police’. But it wasn’t. It should have been. My title is better.

this is what happens, rivendell

I would happily watch ‘The ABCs of Death 3’.

The Well [2014]

Being someone with my shallow priorities, to say the best part of a film is the lead character’s hair is in no way a condemnation. Like a good disembowelment sequence, such a thing can save a movie from boredom. But, sadly, here it’s not quite enough. Let’s be clear, though: it is good hair.

action tropes

Also not necessarily a bad thing is if there’s questionable plotting, like how come if she needs to avoid detection from the comic book-level band of villains roaming about, does she always go out during the day in these wide-open plains? How come there’s any water left at all if there’s been no rain for so many years? And in what sense are these naughty people hogging all this water a ‘company’? I’m as politely dubious about the business world as the next communist, but labeling them in this way feels like the pushing of super-easy anti-capitalist buttons. Worse still, it strengthened the feeling I was watching ‘Tank Girl’ without the laughs.

The main problem with ‘The Well’ was it just wasn’t fun enough, which made its shortcomings of coherence stand out even more. Ramping up the ludicrousness and/or violence may have helped. Kendal’s final katana assault on the company’s compound showed some promising ideas and extreme prejudice terminations. But in the end it was all too routine, prompting emotional flashbacks to ’30 Days of Night’. But, you know, some people liked that, so maybe you should give ‘The Well’ a try. I’ll be busy watching ‘Tangled’ again.

mate, you've ruined it

mate, you’ve ruined it

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night [2014]

The summary I saw described this as being like an Iranian Jim Jarmusch vampire film. There’s no way I can improve on that, except to say that now he’s done ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’, we don’t even have to specify ‘vampire’.

It was funny and entertaining, in that clever, arthouse way that doesn’t require people falling over or accidentally drinking liquid poo.

Right, what’s next?just hanging out

Fish & Cat [2013]

Even if they fail in other areas, films which go for lengthy one-shot takes impress me just for their technical achievement. The ‘car’ and ‘uprising’ sequences in ‘Children of Men’ are so well put together they’re enough to make me cry through appreciation of blocking alone. Oh my god so emotional. The ‘priest’ scene in ‘Hunger’ is forever rewatchable, and then there’s films told entirely in one shot, like the spectacular ‘Russian Ark’, and the flawed-but-let’s-high-five-anyway ‘Timecode’, which shows four continuous and contemporaneous takes in split-screen. Perhaps above everything else, though, must be the video for ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’, in many ways the apex of Western art.

have you seen my fish

I have seen ‘Rope’, but it was a while ago, and I don’t remember much of it. I’m sure it was good, though.

So here’s ‘Fish & Cat’, filmed with no cuts, tracking round and round its dreary lake location, a suitably horror film setting, at an unhurried walking speed. There’s no one in any rush to get anywhere in this story, creating occasional echoes of ‘Elephant’, be that the Gus van Sant one or the Alan Clarke one. Fuck, at times, it’s even a bit like ‘Gerry’.

Such deliberate pacing is a risky move in terms of maintaining audience interest, as is any plotline which keeps returning back on itself to replay sequences multiple times, gradually layering on additional details. There’s also little in terms of story. For the most part, this all works, the success of each segment heavily influenced by which characters are involved. Babak and Saeed, a couple of unwholesomely shady characters carting around a stinking carrier bag full of mysterious meat, enliven all their scenes.

have you seen my catThe tempo may be uneven, and it often feels like an experiment you have to work with, but there’s enough to appreciate to make it worth the effort. And I liked the song at the end. TEACHING AS PHILOSOPHY – Induction – Arguing philosophically – Argument terminology

The other thing I remember about studying A-level English Literature back in school was how smoothly all the lessons went. Perhaps my recall is way too sepia, but I’m sure the outline of almost every lesson was

[1] You’re working in these groups, so go and sit together.

[2] In your groups, read out loud the next section of the text.

[3] Talk about the characters and themes in your groups, and take notes.

[4] Report back, class discussion, differentiated question & answer session, stretch & challenge, blah-di-blah.

[5] Fuck off, see you tomorrow. Unless today is Friday, in which case have an exciting weekend. Ha! Only kidding! You fuckers live in Essex, how’s that going to happen? Time to crack out Dungeons & Dragons again, is it?

essex social housing

essex social housing

According to my mind, the twenty of us just went ahead and did it. Yeah, there was tangential chat, amusing use of accents for Hamlet and his friends, and pauses while someone – not me – said something like ‘I don’t get it. What does ‘ocular’ mean?’ But if I tried to pull off the same format in any of my classes, I’d have to expect

[1] ‘What?’ ‘But I don’t want to work with him!’ ‘Does this mean we have to move?’ ‘Can’t I just stay here?’ ‘Why do you always put us into groups?’ ‘Did we need that book today?’ ‘Do we have to write anything?’ ‘Can I borrow a pen?’ ‘Sorry, I haven’t got my book. Or my folder. Or a pen. Or my bag.’ ‘What? What are we doing?’ ‘Who did you say I was working with?’ ‘Hi, sorry I’m late. We’re not in groups again, are we? I left my book on the train, by the way.’ ‘What?’

[2] ‘What?’ ‘I hate reading out loud.’ ‘What page was that?’ ‘Have I got the right book?’ ‘Can’t we just read it in our heads?’ ‘I still hate working with him.’ ‘What was the question again?’ ‘We’re just starting!’ ‘This is really hard. Oh my god, you wouldn’t believe who I saw yesterday.’ ‘I’ll just answer this text.’ ‘I think I’ve read the wrong page.’ ‘Sorrysorry, we’re just opening the book now.’ ‘I don’t think we’re going to finish this in time.’ ‘I don’t get any of this.’ ‘None of us have a book.’ ‘I hate group work.’ ‘I just can’t concentrate. It’s impossible.’ ‘I really have tried to understand this, but… well, no. I haven’t read it.’ ‘Stop hassling me! I’ve finished… Oh, do we have to do all those questions? I thought that was for tomorrow.’ ‘Do you enjoy teaching?’ ‘What?’

[3] Unlikely.

[4] Simplistic commentary on the first paragraph, barely concealed out-of-context reading directly from the page in response to any questions which don’t relate to the opening lines.

[5] Different county, same sentiment.

4thekidsI once called for a class to cease their non-activity during a groups-based task, and gave the following paraphrase:

‘Yes, sorry everyone, to stop you from not working. I’d like to draw your meta-attention to what my job involves. So I’m over here now next to w’s group, because I’m reminding them for the third time that it’s easier to read the book if they have it open in front of them. If you look, you’ll see their outraged expressions are somewhat justified, because a few of them are indeed holding it open. Yes, thank you. But I know that, again, as soon as I walk away, they’ll put it down again, because they’re just so fucking tired after having read for twenty seconds. Let’s just take a moment to share their tragedy, shall we? I’d love to stay looming over them to make sure they continue reading, because primary school teaching was what I really wanted to do with my life. But I have to leave them now, because on the other side of the room x’s group seem to be having a singing competition of terrible songs out of some fuck-awful musical that I don’t even want to know about, but it’s my professional duty to get them back ‘on task’. That’s a teaching term. Meanwhile, there’s y’s group, who are doing some reading, but I’ve just realized they’ve written nothing down at all, and it looks like they’re in a different chapter to the one that’s written on the board in massive letters. Because of the excitement over here and over here, I’ve been ignoring z’s group, but I just overheard one of them say, at this very late stage in the lesson, ‘What are we doing?’, which is great. Thank you, everyone. Do you ever worry I might feel too fulfilled? I look forward to your uniformed feedback in three minutes time. Fuck, I wish I was back at Sainsbury’s.’

Teacher feedback like this invariably gets the response ‘Why are you always in a mood with us?’ to which I may respond ‘Because of the kind of people you are and the things that you do’, or ‘Do you need a mirror?’

This approach to student encouragement gives an indication of why I don’t teach a younger age group. Not that there’s many Ofsted-delivered documents which recommend that kind of motivational speech for the 16-18 market, but there’s greater opportunity for quirkily alternative and individualized teaching methods within that sector. By which I mean verbal abuse. Once I said ‘Shut up’ to a visiting 14-year-old student, and their appalled face suggested that would have been a step too far in whatever school it was they’d come from.

NB – Dungeons & Dragons is often exciting. There was that one time back in ’96 we found ourselves on a boat and had to go off and fight some hill giants for some reason. I had a Staff of Striking and was a ninth level druid that looked like Rosanna Arquette in ‘Nobody’s Fool’,  a film seen by almost three people. There was a lot of hand-to-hand, and I was worryingly unarmoured against monsters with a decent THAC0, so I kept running away a lot to leave the ruckus to my better-armed companions, and try to work out when any of my elementally-based spells would ever come in useful. They never did. But how does arguing philosophically happen?

like this, but more druidy

like this, but more druidy

1.14This is definitely not homework. This needs to be done in class, and it takes as long as it takes. All my earlier warnings about the importance of precision of language in philosophy are about to be justified.

I love ‘iff’, with its hardening of the easy-going, fluffy, maybe-but-maybe-not vibe of ‘if’, so I’m pleased to have the opportunity to introduce it this early in the course.

1.15The tip given here (thanks, Avril) can seem restricting and arbitrary, but as we continue classes, it hopefully becomes clear why these subjects are off-limits for examples of giving uncontroversial, all-purpose statements as examples (in exams). I usually justify it at this point by declaring all these topics overcomplicate matters. As we’ll see, there’s enough problems with statements like ‘There is a chair in the room’, so let’s deal with stuff like that before we get on to issues like divinity and aesthetics.

For those of your already philosophy-familiar, my reasons for blocking these subjects are:

  • Religious statements: Firstly, positions like logical positivism claim any statement whose truth cannot be verified using our senses is meaningless, which includes statements like ‘God exists’. Now, logical positivism may well be a lot of shit, but in my quest at this stage to be as non-divisive as possible, I decided I have to consider their feelings. Secondly, we don’t study philosophy of religion on this course, and it’s a massive fucking subject. There’s no time to give religious matters the time they deserve, so I elect to not give them any time at all.
  • Moral judgments: Whether these can be true or false, meaningful or whatever, is covered in a good deal of depth in A2 Philosophy, when we look at meta-ethics. Like philosophy of religion, this is also a massive fucking subject, so let’s not touch it until the time for touching has truly arrived.
  • Aesthetic judgments: Same issue with morality. Sadly, meta-aesthetics is never explicitly raised in the course, but I often found some time to at least raise the problem during The Value of Art at the end of AS, and to highlight the links between the arguments made in meta-ethics and aesthetics e.g. the emotivist claim that moral judgments are simply an expression of emotions, and therefore lacking in truth or falsity, can be applied to aesthetic judgments in the same way.
  • Personal preferences and opinions: By definition, these are neither true nor false, so let’s stick to stuff that is. However, when we get to the end of meta-ethics, one of the implications uncovered is that maybe personal preferences and opinions are actually kind of true or false, in a way. Explaining why this might be takes several hours with a class which has already been through AS, so at this stage it’s just me saying, ‘You know these things? Don’t talk about them. NEVER MIND WHY’.
  • Colors: There’s disagreement among philosophical schools as to whether statements about color are true or false, or neither, or something else. As with many unpleasant-to-learn things, this is returned to in meta-ethics, so it’s another case of NEVER MIND WHY for now.

1.16I carefully run through the examples here with the class, then get groups to come up with their own, insisting everyone in each group words their points exactly the same. Group work means there’ll be fewer examples to discuss, and it can take a while for everyone to have written stuff that precisely fits the requirements of validity; invalidity is not so hard, as any disconnected load of shit you put down is good enough. Making each one a class discussion point as to whether it fits the criteria can help to clarify how much language matters here. The difference between a valid and invalid argument can often rest on a single word. Usually that word is ‘all’, ‘some’, or ‘every’.

I don’t bring it up in class at this time, but setting up the study of argument and knowledge claims in this way is certainly open to a criticism often placed against analytic philosophy, and sometimes epistemology as a whole (e.g. from some feminist critiques), that a focus on cases of understanding which can be put into words, most often using examples which relate to the sensory recognition of material objects by individual perceivers (e.g. ‘There is a chair in the room’), misrepresents the scope of human knowledge. Much of what we know does defy being laid out in the form of propositional statements, and is not primarily rooted in discrete sensory experiences. In other words, it is wrong to suggest that what we know is delineated by what can be put into words. And this ‘wrongness’ may well include a moral ‘wrong’, as it unjustifiably privileges some types of knowledge (e.g. propositional, sensory, scientific) over others (e.g. experiential, community, skill-based).

Above I was saying how I didn’t want to do stuff in class which wasn’t divisive and controversial. And yet I leave this bit out in the discussion. What kind of undeclared analytic masculinist scientism shit is this? Am I a teacher, or just some ideological arsehole whose token gestures towards inclusion pander to their own shitty prejudices? Or is that just defining what a teacher is? Pow! Take that, me! In your face!

1.17I’ll try and work in more dick jokes next time. Bye.

Full text of Introducing philosophy

1.1.2. TEACHING AS PHILOSOPHY – Induction – What is Philosophy?

If you want to do good in Philosophy, more is needed than just being some smart wanker. And the amount needed depends on, essentially, how literary your life has been before you got in the classroom. Michael Rosen did a lecture at Nottingham Trent University on English SATs testing for younger students. A key point he makes is the kinds of questions asked in such exams are significantly easier for children who’ve come from a house full of books. If you’ve grown up with a certain intellectual capital, your general knowledge of arts and culture enhanced thanks to all them reads you’ve done, the analysis of literature and poetry extracts in exams is going to be a more comfortable activity than for those who’ve come from different backgrounds.

Rosen argues such exams serve most of all to indicate the cultural background of those taking them, which is very strongly connected to their economic background. A childhood of plentiful texts is not something everyone experiences, and is mostly lived by the offspring of the affluent. Of course there’s exceptions, and I’m one of them. Oh yes, it was a simple and noble life, living in a trailer park for a time, a single bar turned on the electric heater, rent paid monthly in used tenners, thinking CD players were for fancy folk, shopping in Presto rather than Waitrose, but what I was never short of was books. This lived experience of a bookish life normalized it, and it was easier to think of my continually jaw-dropping essay success as being nothing more than a reflection of natural talents, rather than something that was more influenced by a privileged position.

twiley sparksBut, fuck! Today all the kids have got search engines on their handheld magic boxes, with unlimited words! They’re all going to be geniuses! We live in revolutionary times! No. What also has to be the case is bringing them up with the encouragement and expectation that the written resources they have will actually be read. Just as the existence of public libraries and free museums doesn’t automatically lead to everyone thinking those places are worth visiting or even ‘for them’, online availability is not enough.

This connects with the question of how to teach people to write essays. Students with a more literate background have fewer problems, while those who think reading is undesirable have enormous barriers in front of them. I found essay writing easy not so much because of what my teachers taught me, although many of them were very good, but more because of what I entered the school building with already. That’s why I got an A in English Literature. That’s why it’s legitimate to ask whether a teacher can even make that much of a difference

done it m8

apostrophe goes on the other side, son

I started with little idea of what to say about essays I was marking, as so many of the things I thought were obvious to consider weren’t so obvious to their writers. It’s mainly through having read enough bad writing, and through discussion recognizing what isn’t considered an automatic point to include, that over the years I’ve felt better able to give practical help on writing. Too often, those who aren’t keen on reading, and so write the less good essays, aren’t interested in or as responsive to what I suggest, because they aren’t keen on reading the comments put on their work, and the cycle continues. But what’s philosophy?

1.10It’s still the first lesson, and you’ve helpfully put off at least a couple of the new students with the amount of font size 10 paper you’ve put in front of them. And it’s not even in Comic Sans, so it’s the least comforting classroom they’ve ever known. What they need now is some homework.

1.11Say something like, ‘And here’s your homework for next Tuesday’, and start mentally ranking the horde into three groups:

  • Those that instinctively write down their homework in some kind of organizer, possibly a paper journal, but increasingly some kind of tablet bullshit. These people are possibly ok.
  • Those that do the same, but only after dead-eyedly realizing they should be making a note after they’ve seen the person next to them do it. These ones will need a couple of beatings at some point in the course.
  • Those that sigh and/or say ‘Do we write this?’, ‘Were we supposed to bring a pen?’, or ‘Homework? Already?’ These people are what shitlists are for. Put them on one.

1.12I include this task because despite open evenings, taster days, conversations with students, college promotional literature,  and the entire days-long enrollment process, there’d be a good number of people starting this course who didn’t really know what it was. Charitably, I’ll say it’s because there’s no explicit study of philosophy in earlier schooling years.

Where I taught took people from a large number of previous schools, each with differing ‘student expectations’ of homework. For some places, there would be no expectation at all. So, start as you mean to go on, innit? Kneejerk but often wholly accurate evaluations can be made when the work comes back in, just by looking to see how long what they’ve written is. Those that don’t turn the page to answer questions 3 and 4 are also to be put under heavy surveillance.

1.13Part I is written by me, so obviously it’s great. Part II is taken from Bryan Magee, who despite having history as a flagwaver for liberalism, and barely recognizing the point of moral philosophy, is easily one of the best explainers of the subject to an outside audience. His autobiography ‘Confessions of a Philosopher’ is definitely worth looking at. Part III comes via A C Grayling, who’s also shown some not-to-my-liking politics in recent years. My negative judgment of him is unaffected by that time back in 2000 when he laughed sarcastically during a wine and cheese buffet after I told him I’d done a degree in Media Arts, because that is entirely the correct response to give.

1.14Full text of Introducing philosophy