Thursday, December 31, 2009

A question of snobbery

This itch to write is brought to you by the Internet Movie Database. I like to frequent their MessageBoards, particularly their Classic Film Board, which boasts, on occasion, some interesting discussions of movies much older than I am. The question of "film snobbery" came up in a recent thread, and I had to consider exactly what that term meant for me. What, exactly, makes a person a "film snob"?

I have very strange tastes in films. I like many of the things that presumed "film snobs" like: black and white films, silent films (particularly European ones, and ones that star Lon Chaney Sr.), and foreign films (I thought "Pan's Labyrinth" was by far the best film of 2006). Yet I cannot embrace many of the films most loved by high-toned critics, because I find their emotional coldness off-putting. I have never cared, and never will care, for what I call "Everyone's-a-Scumbag" films, movies in which not a single character boasts a working moral compass and not a single relationship is remotely healthy or constructive. I need a film to engage my emotions as well as my intellect, and in the eyes of many, by this I forfeit my right to be taken seriously as a film buff. So I suppose I'm part "film snob" and part "film slob" -- that is, if snobbery/slobbery is determined principally by what films one likes or dislikes.

But I don't think it is.
Film snobbery is really about how we respond to people whose cinematic tastes differ from ours. Where movies are concerned, we like what we like; sometimes we can articulate the reasons and sometimes we can't. But when we try to make other people feel bad about what they like, we cross the line into film snobbery.

Example: I love "The English Patient." (And I do NOT care for "Seinfeld," thank you very much.) When I first saw it at the theater it captivated me, and I still find it a lushly moving romantic film, even though I know many, many people disagree with me. My husband dislikes the film, and I respect his right to do so. I'm not about to attempt to "convert" him. When I watch my DVD of this film, I will watch it alone, and I'm fine with that. My hubby and I aren't always going to like the same things.
But he has never once attempted to make me feel as if there's something wrong with me because I love this film. Other people, however, have.

At the heart of snobbery lies the desire to crush the joy that others take in a given thing (a film, a book, a piece of music, a bottle of wine). Film snobs aren't content simply to dislike a film. They have to do their best to see that no one else takes pleasure in that film, and they do it by including the film's fans in their attacks. Book snobs do this as well. Sometimes I enjoy visiting and reading reviews of my favorite books. As I rifled through the countless reviews posted for Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, I noticed that 95% of the negative reviews included slams at the books' fans. ("Far be it from me to call down the wrath of a thousand virgins on my head, but these books suck!" "Avoid these books. Avoid the people who read these books." That's just a sample.) Even though I love LOTR, both the books and Peter Jackson's film trilogy, I can comprehend why others might not share my opinion. Yet casting aspersions on my sex life because I happen to enjoy a series of books is way out of line.

That's what snobs do. They're in the killjoy business.
Another tip of the hat to Eleanor Roosevelt's marvelous bit of wisdom: Nobody can make us feel inferior without our permission. Whether our favorite film is "Citizen Kane," "Casablanca," "The Godfather," or "The Hangover," let's not give film snobs that permission.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Brief Rant of the Day

Among the features of modern life I hate the most: trying to contact a business by phone.

If you have anything resembling a complicated question, the search for an answer may drive you past mad as you try to navigate a maze of machine voices. For this, press 1; for that, press 2. Option 1 sounds a little like what you need (though not exactly), so you press it, hoping the next voice you hear will be human. No such luck; instead you're presented with another round of options, or else an offer of help with tasks so simple that a machine can handle them. If your question doesn't quite fit within their option boxes, you're plain out of luck.

The wisest of businesses maintain a single, sanity-saving option, even if it is the last item listed in an interminable menu: "To speak to a representative, press 0." Thank God for each and every business that includes this option.

However, a good many businesses don't give their customers this choice. They need to realize that sometimes -- maybe even often -- their customers don't want to talk to machines. They don't trust machines to solve their problems. They want the comfort that comes with the sound of a knowledgeable human voice. I know, we all love technology; technology is a life-saver; technology has helped simplify our existence in countless ways; etc. etc. But on occasion, the human touch is still the best.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Rant of the Day: Inane Movie Dialogue

Today's example comes from the inexplicably popular "Love Story." Far from burying its most foolish line in an obscure, fleeting, and little-noticed scene, this waste of celluloid made it a tag line: "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

If the author of this line really means it, I find it hard to believe he's managed to sustain a serious relationship for more than a couple of weeks.

The truth is thevery opposite of that bit of absurdity. Love actually means being willing to say you're sorry. It means being big enough, in mind and in heart, to admit you're wrong -- occasionally, even when you're right.

I can sorta-kinda see the faulty reasoning behind the line, the naive assumption that if you love someone enough, you will never make a mistake bad or hurtful enough to necessitate an apology. Bunkum. Mistakes are inevitable, and arguments are a part of any long-term relationship, be it husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend, or parent/child. Emotions get heated, words are exchanged, and you'd better be open to the power of an apology, both giving and accepting.

So what's so great about saying you're sorry?
1. Apologies are a way of accepting responsibility. If heartfelt, they state plainly, "I did it; no one made me; it's my fault, and therefore I will do what I can to make it right." Assuming responsibility for one's action may not be popular in today's Culture of Excuses ("Hey, Tiger couldn't help himself! He just did what red-blooded males do!"), but it's essential when it comes to sustaining a relationship. Shoulders not strong enough to bear occasional blame will crumble altogether under the weight of love.

2. When we apologize, we acknowledge our birthright as humans: our fallibility. By the same token -- again, if the apology is sincere -- we express in it an intent to fix the problem, to learn from the mistake rather than repeat it. When we know we've hurt someone we genuinely care about, the last thing we want is to do it again. An apology tells the person we love, "Your feelings matter to me. YOU matter to me."

3. Apologies provide closure. They bring a quarrel to a definite end. When no apology is given, a dispute may hover in the air for days or even weeks, creating misery for everyone concerned. But a couple who can apologize show themselves ready to move forward to the next challenge, even if that means the next quarrel. Each challenge to which we rise fits us better to conquer the one that follows. Genuine apologies are progressive steps.

So if you're really in love, be prepared to say you're sorry. Moreover, be prepared to hear it and accept it. Forgiveness is the most precious and sustaining gift we give one another.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Rant of the Day, 12/22

The subject for today: Messy Public Bathrooms and the People Who Make Them

If there is any one group of people toward whom I have the greatest difficulty summing up Christmas good will, it's people who ruin public bathroom stalls. You know the ones: the ones who can't quite understand what that handle near the top of the commode is for (this is, of course, assuming toilets that are not expected to flush themselves); the ones who bring their little toddler boys into the ladies' restrooms and let them spray the toilet surface, and then fail to realize it might be courteous to wipe up that spray; the ones who choke the commode with far more toilet paper than is necessary -- and then leave, thinking it entirely natural that the mess they've created should become someone else's problem.

As a good libertarian, I'm reluctant to propose a Statist solution for anything, but these inconsiderate bathroom-stall defilers need to be pulled up short. Too long have they been allowed to create problems for others without ever being called to account. I don't want to get the government involved -- that tends to create new (and often worse) problems even as it's "solving" old ones -- but perhaps those businesses whose public bathroom stalls are being defiled should take a hand. After all, a clean public restroom is a huge part of customer satisfaction, and custodians can only do so much when we keep allowing the defilers to create new messes again and again.

I propose observation cameras be installed near the restroom doors, so that everyone who goes in and out of restrooms is recorded, complete with the times of day, and store employees should patrol the restroom exit areas. At least once every thirty minutes, the patrollers should check the restroom stalls to see that none of them has been defiled. If a defilement is found, the camera will have a record of who visited the bathroom at that particular time. The subject will then be identified.

Should the offender return to the store, she (I use the female pronoun because of course I'm talking about ladies' restrooms) will be given a stern warning: either start using proper bathroom etiquette or lose shopping privileges at that particular store. If the offender defiles the stall again, her shopping privileges will be revoked immediately. It keeps the matter out of the hands of the police, but it ensures that at least one habitual bathroom-stall defiler will no longer create havoc at this particular store.

It isn't hard to lift a handle and flush a commode. It isn't hard to wipe the surface of a toilet seat. And it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to do our part to keep public restrooms clean and ensure a satisfying shopping experience for all.

(This solution, of course, is bogus. But sometimes, contemplating potential solutions to problems like this one, however unworkable, can help us feel better.)

Friday, December 18, 2009


What is this spot for?

Well, it's a repository for commentary on the things I care about (and everyone else should, too). I may remark here on anything from politics to popular culture, depending on what tidbit of news or other reading in a given day activates my cacoethes scribendi (that's "itch to write"). Today I'm satisfying this craving just by getting started; more focused commentary will appear in the near future.

I'll start with a column I wrote several years ago, back when Harvard ex-president Larry Summers' faux pas was still in the news. This is the kind of thing that sets me thinking. My "itch to write" becomes too insistent to ignore.

What the Summers Flap Says About Me
By Kelley Swilley Ceccato

Harvard President Larry Summers is dining on filet of boot-sole: he has asserted that one of the reasons women do not advance as far and as often in science as men may be their “innate ability” – or lack thereof. His biggest mistake: he failed to read his audience. He should have known that the academics he was speaking to would translate his remarks very simply, as “Women are too stupid to be good scientists.”
Let me take a benefit-of-the-doubt, glass-is-half-full approach for just a minute. What Summers really said was not the crude translation above. Instead, he was simply pointing out what scientists have known and studied for some time: that differences exist in the ways that male and female students learn. We have spent a good deal of time and effort trying to ignore or erase these differences, or else to suggest that there’s only one way to learn a particular subject… and what do we have? Girls and women still lagging behind in the sciences, and an alarming decrease in the number of boys who deem it worth their while to attend college. It seems to me that acknowledging and continuing to study the differences in male and female learning styles may actually be the first step towards correcting the problems: if girls are taught math and science, and boys are taught linguistics and humanities, in ways more compatible with their learning styles, they might just be more likely to explore and excel in these areas. Perhaps Summers’ statement is really a strong argument in favor of single-gender education, and I am not one to turn up my nose at any strategy that helps girls and boys reach their full potential.
Yet I must admit that when I first read Summers’ remarks about women’s “innate ability” keeping them down in the sciences, my first reaction was to get angry, to take offense, to leave the room mentally (as many women walked out on Summers’ speech). Only after a time was I able to step back and consider the source of my anger. After all, just how much power does a man like Summers have over me or the way I teach my English classes? If I let his suggestions drive me to anger, am I not giving him and his remarks more credit than they deserve?
I have dealt with remarks far more offensive than Summers’. An acquaintance of mine once averred that 75 percent of women are incapable of rational thought, and he tried to salve my indignation by suggesting that I, an avid reader and literature scholar and aspiring writer, must be in the remaining 25 percent. I never did manage to get him to explain just where he had come up with these statistics or exactly how he defined “rational thought.”
Worse still, a retired faculty member at my former place of employment had a habit of telling his students that girls were bound to have a tough time in his English classes because girls were not smart enough to study literature. When one of his ex-students told me about this, I suggested the man had to be kidding; no, the student replied, he was deadly serious. Afterwards I could barely look at the man, let alone speak to him. I couldn’t help wondering what possible pleasure he could gain from interacting with a bunch of ditzes who lack the brainpower to read, remember, or analyze great books.
I still catch myself getting angry when I think about this ex-professor and his comments. But why should I? So, women are too stupid to study literature; that will come as news to the female literature professors who guided me through my graduate studies. I certainly did not earn my PhD in English by being too stupid to do the work. This misguided ex-professor’s students had only to look around them to see that women outnumbered men among the teachers in his own department. So why should his comments anger me? Why should I bother thinking about them at all?
I can only conclude, with a touch of sadness and shame, that a tiny part of me must fear he has a point, and must wonder if perhaps women aren’t bright enough to study literature (and then, of course, I feel like a traitor to my sex). Never mind those years I spent shaping my vast store of arguments into an acceptable dissertation; I must carry around in my mind this grain of doubt about my own abilities. I wonder how many women moved to fury by Summers’ remarks experience this same grain of self-doubt – as if, regardless of how much they have achieved, a few awkwardly chosen words by Summers can strip them of those achievements.
Perhaps this lack of faith in ourselves, our talents, and our strengths is the biggest “innate disability” that women like me suffer from. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, nobody can make us feel inferior without our permission. So why do we keep giving other people that permission?
With regard to Summers and his proposition of “innate ability,” he may have something there. I know I’m no scientist. Where academics are concerned, I’m as girly-girl as they come, with my focus solidly on the humanities. Stories fascinate me. Different ways of telling stories – novels, plays, poems, art, music, film – excite me. The uniqueness of each individual text, from a Yeats poem to a student essay, intrigues me. I always felt mathematics lacked that fascinating individuality, so I never excelled in it. Biology, the science of life, interested me to some degree, but in chemistry and physics I always came up against my dislike of math. I will say with some degree of pride that I did earn an A in my undergraduate physical science course, but nothing I learned in there has managed to stick.
My point? We learn what we want to learn. As students, as teachers, and as private citizens, we absorb the information we choose, and in this choice our “innate abilities” show themselves. How and why do we choose? Curiosity pushes us to learn more and leads us to develop skills and talents, which in turn make achievement possible. If we want to encourage girls to be more active in the sciences, then we need to find ways to spark their curiosity in those areas, to make them want to learn more, and we don’t do that by ignoring the differences in male and female learning styles and insisting that there’s only one hard, fixed approach to science.
The achievements we earn by following our curiosity belong to us, and no one – not Summers, not a retired English professor, not my old acquaintance with his dubious statistics – has the power to take them from us. We need to stop giving them that power. The student who told me about her teacher’s remarks that “women lack the brains to study literature” did not storm out of the room and drop the course; she stayed with it, and through determination and hard work, she earned an A. Her action proved him wrong.
In short, here’s our new watchword, ladies: Stop being offended and do something.

That's me in "serious mode." Other serious remarks may follow, but you're just as likely to find here such things as musing on the upcoming Academy Award nominations, the new seasons of "Chuck" and "Doctor Who," favorite cartoons (animation is a passion of mine), and the greatest female characters in literature.
Until later---