23 July 2011

America Noir

Academic language is a subset of American English. I'm a Berkeley grad, and deciphering the argot of professors was de rigueur during my time there. I imagine most college students have had similar experiences with scholarly obfuscation. Check this out:
As the dominant strain of modernism increasingly assumed quasi-official status in the postwar period, artists working in popular forms, who were beneath the notice of serious intellectuals (except as they fell under the general heading of mass culture), found themselves freer to maintain a critical stance vis-à-vis the Cold War state. (p221)
I love it! It's from a book called America Noir: underground writers and filmmakers of the Postwar Era, by, you guessed it, a college professor. His name is David Cochran. I realize the above passage isn't too difficult, no big words and only one foreign phrase, but in tone and style it is wholly academic. You certainly couldn't say "popular American artists began to criticize American culture during the Cold War." That would lack the flair and polish the audience for such a book expects. I don't mean to pick on Prof. Cochran, after all, he's a noir-man like me. And it's a good book--the stories of the various artists (from Jim Thompson to Rod Serling) are interesting and enjoyable. And Cochran is capable of some real gems--here's his take on the brilliant Charles Willeford:
In a string of pulp paperbacks published in the fifties and sixties, Willeford created a world in which the predatory cannibalism of American capitalism provides the model for all human relations, in which the American success ethic mercilessly casts aside all who are unable or unwilling to compete, and in which the innate human appreciation of artistic beauty is cruelly distorted by the exigencies of mass culture. (p40)
I like that. Academic study of noir is a little dry for everyday reading, I know, but I've a passion for the subject. Nothing comes close to Eddie Muller's magnificent Dark City: the lost world of film noir, but that's an unfair comparison. Mr. Muller's book is strictly about movies, is for a popular audience, and is filled with vintage photos. And it is as intelligent as it is entertaining. But Prof. Cochran's book has its place on the shelf--I certainly learned a lot and was pointed in some new directions.

21 July 2011

Thirty years ago . . .

. . . I was finishing my senior year at the University of California. The space shuttle Columbia made its maiden voyage on April 12th and I was awarded my B.S. degree on June 13th. Columbia broke up over Texas during re-entry on January 16, 2003. That was its 28th flight. Sister ship Challenger, launched on April 4th, 1983, was lost at the start of only its 10th mission on January 28, 1986. Atlantis, first launched on October 3rd, 1985, touched down at Cape Canaveral early this morning, closing the door on the entire shuttle program. It was the 33rd trip for Atlantis. The newest member of the fleet, Endeavour, was first launched on May 7th, 1992, and completed its 25th and final voyage on June 1st, 2011. Workhorse Discovery made 39 flights between August 30th, 1984, and March 9th, 2011. I remember talk at the time of Columbia's debut was that each shuttle would be capable of 100 missions. Although NASA fell short of that optimistic prediction, thirty years of performance from such a complex machine subject to such demanding conditions is still an impressive accomplishment. If you want to do pure science, satellites, robots, and unmanned probes are much better than human-filled spaceships. If you want to explore, you need people. I hope NASA can continue to do both.