The Limits of Disempowerment
For years, I didn’t know what to do with Anna Anthropy’s Realistic Female First-Person Shooter (2012).
It is, shall we say, a “minor Anthropy.” It’s not one of the games that she includes on her itch.io storefront. If you want to play it, you have to head over here. (It is, unfortunately, Windows-only, although Mac users should feel free to look at this video of the game in action on YouTube).
But despite its somewhat tossed-off status, it is a game I was serious considering including in my article on fumblecore games. There was just one problem: it seemed completely incompatible with my argument. So I swept it under the rug, but kept it in my memory, blinking in the back of my brain, challenging me, keeping me honest.
I think I’ve finally figured out what I want to say about it now, and it’s mostly thanks to the students in my “Frames, Claims, and Videogames” class. I didn’t even teach Realistic Female First-Person Shooter in that class. Instead, my thoughts began crystalizing as students reacted of Alyson Macdonald’s Twine game Female Experience Simulator (2013), one of the most contentious games we played in the course.
Postmortem: Comedy and the Moving Image
Grades for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Fall 2016 semester were due today, and I wanted to take the occasion to do a quick postmortem on “Comedy and the Moving Image,” which I consider to be the most successful course I taught this term—as well as one of my most fun and productive courses ever taught. I’ve posted several lesson plans from this course already throughout the past couple of months. Links to those will be provided below, as I sketch out a skeletal version of the course’s themes, and some of its most interesting surprises.
I put this visual presentation together for our final class meeting. You should feel free to follow along with it … although I admit that, as you can see from the above image, it gets increasingly messy as you click through.
Five Ways to Look Smart while Teaching PlayTime
So, this isn’t a proper lesson plan. It’s just a quick cheat sheet. When teaching PlayTime, I pair it with Kristin Thompson’s chapter “Play Time: Comedy n the Edge of Perception” in her book Breaking the Glass Armor. (I consider myself incredibly lucky that I can pair one of my favorite films with a piece of writing that I consider to be one of the more astute and persuasive pieces of academic film criticism ever written.) My lesson, therefore, largely revolves around the conclusions of Thompsons’ analysis: that “the comic and the non-comic become indistinguishable” in PlayTime, and that the way the film “forces us into new viewing procedures” holds the potential to “successfully transform our perception in general.”[i] To view PlayTime, in other words, is to encounter a new way of seeing the world, one that might persist beyond the theater.
How do you successfully persuade students that PlayTime requires specific viewing procedures from its audience, ones unlike those we use when viewing a more traditional narrative film? My tactic is pretty simple: I pull student attention to moments that reward close viewing. Thompson herself lists a bunch of these in her chapter. I like to point to additional, different ones, so that I can show students new, unexpected visual rewards—therefore making both me and Tati seem smarter than we otherwise would! Please feel free to steal these.
Lesson Plan: Sadism, Identification, Comedy, Videogames
One of my primary reasons for designing my course “Comedy and the Moving Image” for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s first-year seminar sequence was to give myself an opportunity to expand my knowledge base on comedy beyond the research I had done for my article on comedic videogames. The class gave me an opportunity to teach a whole bunch of readings, films, video art pieces, and television episodes I had never taught before. By the twelfth week, though, the time had come to turn back to my particular hobbyhorse.
In the lead-up to this class, I had screened a few stunts from the Jackass franchise. This included “Paper Cuts” from Jackass: The Movie (Jeff Tremaine, 2002) and “Tee Ball” from Jackass 3D (Jeff Tremaine, 2010). The first half of class was organized around discussions of violence and sadism in physical humor, propped up not only by Jackass but also by Muriel Andrin’s chapter “Back to the ‘Slap’: Slapstick’s Hyberbolic Gesture and the Rhetoric of Violence” and Scott Richmond’s article “‘Dude, That’s Just Wrong‘: Mimesis, Identification, Jackass.” In the second half of the course, things segued into small group work as students played and discussed a group of comedic videogames.
You can follow along with the visual presentation for this lesson here.
Lesson Plan: The Politics of Punching in American Comedy
Since November 9th, I’ve been coasting on lesson plan blog posts that I already had previously finished and scheduled. Now, here we are, with my first real “live” post since the 2016 election.
In the coming months, many peoples’ lives will be disrupted more than mine, and it is on me to make sure I contribute as much as possible to make those people feel welcome in this country, and to oppose the policies, appointment, and general behavior of our new president elect. I acknowledge that the disruption I will be facing is much lesser than the disruption many others will be facing. Nevertheless, my own life has been disrupted in its own small ways—as I’m sure many peoples’ has in this nation, even those who are not undocumented, or Latinx, or Muslim, or women, or disabled, or LGBTQIA, or, well, children (who, after all, will bare the brunt of Trump’s bullish climate denial). For me, the most immediate effects (as small as they may be, in the long run), were grappling with the syllabus I had created for my course “Comedy and the Moving Image” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Lesson Plan: Animation Week
It is a shame to only teach one week on animation in an Intro to Film class, but I bowed to departmental tradition when I taught Intro to Film in spring 2015 and devoted only my final week of class to it. My screening for this week included Hummingbird Wars (Janie Geiser, 2014), Adventure Time S1E6, “The Jiggler” (Larry Leichliter, 2010), and The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014).
This lesson preceded that screening, and pursued the following learning objectives: 1) I wanted students to understand that animators can work with individual frames of cinema, which can lead to the illusion of movement, but doesn’t have to. This would prep them for the flicker effects and broken motion of Geiser’s Hummingbird Wars. 2) I wanted to direct student attention to the salient aspects of Eisenstein’s theory of the “plasmatic” potential of animation, which finds expression in the Adventure Time episode. 3) I wanted students to be able to express some key aesthetic differences between hand-drawn and computer generated animation—specifically, that while hand-drawn animation excels at fulfilling Eisenstein’s “plasmatic” potential, CG animation excels at accurately simulating the physics of our everyday world.
Lesson Plan: Buster Keaton’s The General
This is another lesson plan from my “Comedy and the Moving Image” course. It’s from the week immediately following the previously-posted week on Bergson’s Laughter, and it follows up several of those ideas, merging with Bergson with the theories of Keaton’s humor forwarded by Noël Carroll in his book Comedy Incarnate: Buster Keaton, Physical Humor and Bodily Coping.
Lesson Plan: Henri Bergson’s Theory of Humor
The following is a lesson plan for a day spent discussing Henri Bergson’s theory of humor in my course “Comedy and the Moving Image.”[i] It’s admittedly unusual, but I found it to be wonderfully productive.
The first third or so of this course was spent discussing some major philosophical theories of humor (Hobbes, Kant, Bergson) and watching silent slapstick comedy shorts. Knowing that devoting a solid block of class to silent cinema came with the danger of alienating students, I also spiced things up by showing a lot of contemporary YouTube videos in class, which kept them engaged. (The “fail video” genre makes a terrific pairing with Hobbes’ theory of humor!) You’ll see some of that back-and-forth in this lesson.
Breaking the Glass: Engaging With Space in Playtime
Jacques Tati often liked to say that the only real star of his film Playtime (1967) was the set itself. With his brilliant manipulation of its mise en scène, those words hold to be quite true. The minimally dialogued, loosely plot-based film is mainly structured around the changing of settings. As the movie goes on, an apparent pattern emerges among the scenery—it almost entirely consists of grey, pristine buildings, from the steely Orly Airport to the shiny new Royal Garden restaurant. Tati establishes this foundation in order to build up and play with the dichotomy of public and private space. Throughout the film, he juxtaposes these two ideas and questions the boundary that divides them.
The only moment of private space we see in Playtime is when Monsieur Hulot’s acquaintance from the army invites him into his recently bought apartment. However, Tati takes this scene and challenges the extent to which the space could be deemed personal. First off, the design of the apartment complex remains consistent with the public buildings that we have previously seen—grid-like, silver, and clean-cut. In the below collage of the six main scenes in the movie, the apartment (middle picture of the top row) blends right in with the other buildings of this ultra-modern world. By making the aesthetics of families’ homes parallel that of public locations, the distinction between them becomes slightly blurred, for our expectations of how the two different spaces should look are challenged. Tati creates a disturbance in what we think we know—if we are not certain of how a private space should appear, do we even know how they function?