A while back Brandon Polite interviewed me about the aesthetic importance of ruins. His series, “Polite Conversations” (get it, his name is Professor Polite?), has really taken off! I urge you to watch all of his videos. He has lovingly closed-captioned all of them. In this interview, I talk about what makes ruins aesthetically interesting. I was also experiencing vertigo at the time of the interview so I was really hesitant to accept his kind offer to be interviewed. But it turned out ok – so here it is!
It’s that time of the year! Favorite documentaries Easter Egg edition. Three people found my Easter Egg and told me about their favorite documentaries. After their entries for favorite docs, I’ll list some of mine.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) is a documentary based on the grandest film that has never existed and will never exist. This documentary explores what would have been a roughly thirteen-hour film rendition of Frank Herbert’s culture-shifting book, Dune. This work would have featured Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali as the evil Harkonnen antagonists, unique art direction by Jean Giraud and H.R. Giger, and soundtracks orchestrated by Pink Floyd. Each time I finish watching this documentary, I feel the need to pick up a pencil and begin writing a new story or design a new piece of art. I am imbued with the same sense of unlimited creative potential that Alejandro Jodorowsky sought to explore in the greatest film never made, and very rarely am I that moved by a piece of art. In an alternate timeline, if this film came to fruition, it is possible that Star Wars would have never existed, and Jodorowsky would be regarded with the same reverence as George Lucas is today. -Kris
My favorite documentary, which is technically a docuseries, is Don’t F*ck with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer (2019). It’s a Netflix documentary about a set of viral videos of a man torturing and killing cats that lead to the formation of a Facebook group not only uncovering his identity, but also leading to more of his suspicious behavior. It’s my favorite documentary because it had so many twists and turns and was constantly taking me by surprise. It was something that I couldn’t stop watching and had to rewatch multiple times because I still couldn’t believe it was real and not some horror movie. Never did I think when I was watching a docuseries about what I thought was about cats and viral videos, that I would end up watching this crime series uncovering a murder. I personally love being taken by surprise like that. The actual shooting and editing of the documentary was equally amazing, and did a fantastic job at hiding and teasing the right amount of information to keep the suspense going with the story. -Sloan
My favorite documentary is titled “FYRE” after the Fyre music festival scandal set up by Billy McFarland in 2017. At surface level, the documentary reveals the collaboration between founders, venture capitalists, and celebrities to promote a music festival that never lived up to the promotional video that went viral on the internet, The festival’s demise is particularly interesting because the founder gradually admits that selling the idea and image of a festival is more important than making the actual festival. Through this mirage, he gathers $24 million in funding, which would eventually lead to his 6-year prison sentence for fraud. -Kamila
And here is a list of documentaries I love:
Documentaries about important social issues:
I am not your negro (about James Baldwin) (2016)
Queen of Versalles (2012)
Black Power Mix Tape (2012)
Into the Abyss (2012)
Born into Brothels (2005)
Paris is Burning (1990)
Harlan County, USA (1976)
The Thin Blue LIne (1988)
Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
(The whole) UP series (1964-2012)
How to Survive a Plague (2012)
Summer of Soul (2021)
The Velvet Underground (2021)
20000 Days on Earth (Nick Cave) (2014)
Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
Gimme Shelter (1970)
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Famous people docs:
Rita Moreno (2021)
Mucho Mucho Amor *Walter Mercado (2020)
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamar Story (2018)
I am not your negro (about James Baldwin) (2016)
What happened Miss Simone (2015)
Tab Hunter Confidential (2015)
I Am Divine (2014)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2021)
Won’t you be my neighbor (2018)
My Octopus Teacher (2020)
Spaceship Earth (2020)
Fantastic Fungi (2019)
Chasing Coral (2017)
Blackfish (about Seaworld) (2013)
Grizzly Man (2005)
The Cove (2009)
Camera person (2016) (about Kubric’s camera person very good)
Finding Vivian Maier (2014)
20 Feet from Stardom (2014)
Exit Through the Gift Shop (2011)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)
The Rape of Europa (also a war documentary)
Bill Cunningham New York (2011)
Beyond the Visible: Hilma Af Klint (2020)
Art of the Steal (2009)
The Salt of the Earth (2014)
Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014)
They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
The Act of Killing (2012)
The Fog of War (2003) ‘
Waltz with Bashir (2008)
Night and Fog (1956)
Hoop Dreams (1994)
Documentaries that defy categorization
Faces Places (Varda) (2018)
I’m Still Here (2012)
Man on Wire (2019)
Grey Gardens (1975)
Dick Johnson is Dead (2020)
It’s my favorite time of the year – Halloween! I try to schedule my unit on horror movies around this time (in my aesthetic class), and my unit on eating animals (in my ethics class – also pretty gruesome). This year FIU asked me to write a very short article on cultural appropriation and Halloween costumes. You can read it here. I’ll also post the text below. But for someone who’d like to dig in a bit more to this topic, Aesthetics for Birds had a great roundtable on the topic I’d highly recommend. Also, I made a very spooky playlist last year for my students. Enjoy!
Professor discusses why many popular costumes are examples of cultural appropriation:
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year – Halloween! Hopefully, by now, you’ve planned your costume and a COVID-safe way to celebrate. But if not, I’m here to discuss the issue of cultural appropriation and Halloween costumes. You’ve probably heard people say, “it’s a culture, not a costume” – but what does that mean? What is cultural appropriation and why should I care?
The term cultural appropriation covers a range of conduct – from stealing tangible cultural property (for example, the buying of looted artifacts) to stealing ideas (for example, passing off another culture’s ideas as your own), or using another culture’s voice or style as your own. Philosopher Erich Hatala Matthes refers to these three types of cultural appropriation as theft, misuse, and misrepresentation. When discussing Halloween costumes, we’re discussing the last of these three – misrepresentation.
Examples of culturally appropriative Halloween costumes are – unfortunately – everywhere. Just look at your local Halloween stores (like Spirit) which advertise pre-packaged sets with names like “pow wow princess” or “tequila shooter guy” or “geisha lady.” These costumes trade on a feature of cultural appropriation – outsiders of a particular culture use the resources (e.g., traditional clothing or perceived traditional clothing) of a culture that is not their own. But this alone doesn’t get us all the way to cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is also about power. Notice that the Halloween costumes I mentioned earlier depict minoritized groups – this isn’t accidental. Problematic cultural appropriation is a result of power imbalances. And in the United States, these imbalances often fall on racial lines. A White American dressing up as “pow wow princess” can be interpreted only within the context of settler colonialism. But (mis)appropriation is not always about race or ethnicity. There is a growing movement against wearing costumes that depict prison inmates, houseless folks, and people with mental illness as these costumes also trade on an imbalance of power. As Matthes (cited earlier) states “fix the power problem, fix the appropriation problem.”
The University of Denver’s “We’re a culture, not a costume” campaign posted flyers across campus that depicted a White woman wearing a headdress and carrying a tomahawk. The poster read, “You think it’s harmless, but you’re not the target.” The harm here is in stereotyping a culture (misrepresentation). Wearing this type of costume displays morally culpable ignorance about indigenous peoples and their practices. In our ignorance, we might also be wearing religious iconography in a flippant or disrespectful way (sacrilegious appropriation). We also run the risk of not just essentializing their culture but representing a living culture as a “something out of the past.”
Additionally, many of these costumes hypersexualize identities. This reaffirms pernicious stereotypes with tangible consequences. Shannon Speed, the director of American Indian Studies at UCLA (and a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma) says, “If there were any consciousness in this country of the huge problem of violence against Native women and the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women in this country, they’d have to stop and think about what putting on a sexy Indian costume might mean.”
Ghouls just wanna have fun so I’ll be creepin’ it real this Halloween dressing up in a spooktacular costume. If you stop to think of the most creative Halloween costume you’ve ever encountered, I doubt you’ll think of the ones discussed in this article. Culturally appropriative costumes are at best lazy, and at worst racist. So give ’em something to talk about with a creative, non-appropriative costume. Don’t be a jerk-o-lantern this Halloween and let’s get this party startled!”
One of my favorite units in my Global Aesthetics class is “Can food be art?” Philosophers are paying more attention to the aesthetics of taste and the ethics of food production.
For my unit on food, I ask students to read the Telfer, “Can Food Be Art?” – and in 2020 I won (hooray!) an instructional video contest through Humanities Edge! It was my first attempt at a video for class (done at the beginning of COVID) – I’m not as good as most of my students, but it was fun to do. I won in the category “how to disagree with experts.”
But my attempt at a video cannot compare to the videos submitted by my students! For the class, I asked students to make an instructional video on how to make a “dish” important to their identity (e.g., as a Cuban-American, as a college student, as a Miamian, etc.).
Here are just a few of the amazing videos submitted. I learn more than a few cooking tips and I learned some really interesting things about my students.
Well done all!
We’re over a year into COVID, which led loads of people to watch more movies. I wish I could say I got to see more films too but for half the year I was experiencing vertigo, which prevented me from watching as many movies as I’d like.
The strongest Oscar-contenders this year, I believe, are in the best feature-length documentary category. I think documentaries deserve their own list, and I loved so many of them this year (including Crip Camp, My Octopus Teacher, and Time – all nominated- but so many that deserved a nom and didn’t get one).
For this brief post, I’ll tell you the three categories I’m looking forward to while watching the Oscars, and then list some movies I really enjoyed this year.
Cinematography: Joshua James Richards, Nomadland
I think Zhao’s The Rider is a far superior movie (see my letterboxd review), but I do think the cinematography in both Nomadland and The Rider is drop dead gorgeous. And both were thanks to Joshua James Richards.
Writing (Original Screenplay): Aaron Sorkin, The Trial of the Chicago 7
You either love Sorkin or hate him – and I love him. I think it’s a weakness. I just love the dialogue and hope he wins for this movie. President Bartlet forever.
Directing: Another Round, Thomas Vinterberg
*I* *haven’t* *seen**Minari**yet* – so I know I’m not a competent judge. But I do love Vinterberg for his moody interiors and strained relationships. I’m a Dogme95 fan (The Celebration)– and he seems to work well with Mads (he’s excellent in Vinterberg’s The Hunt). I was charmed by the movie – drunk it in.
(Although I think it would be awesome for an Asian woman to win the best director…it’s just hard for me to give Zhao it for this one. I hope that now she’s getting the attention she deserves she doesn’t cave to corporate control. Amazon got off way too easy in Nomadland.)
Here are some great movies from this past year that got ZERO Oscar recognition:
Family Romance LLC
This technically might be 2019 (?) but wasn’t available to me until 2020. Directed by Werner Herzog, it reads like a documentary, although it is a fiction film. I won’t give too much away but it is about a Japanese man who runs a business “renting out” actors to perform important social roles (think rent a father for a wedding, or rent a girlfriend for a family dinner). It so easily could be morally flatfooted, but isn’t.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
I don’t quite understand how this got nominated for nothing. It’s on a bunch of critics ‘best of’ lists – and is on mine. The teenage actors were great – and the titular scene was heartbreaking and beautiful.
I’m No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)
Beautifully shot! Director of a fav tv show of mine, “Los Espookys.” This movie follows teenagers who are obsessed with the cumbia music and dancing scene. I found the movie mesmerizing.
Controversial likes from this past year: Cuties/Mignonnes, Bacurau, Deerskin, Tommaso
Favorite horror from 2020: Gretel & Hansel, She Dies Tomorrow
*I haven’t seen Possessor yet (but like both Cronenberg the elder and younger)
Every semester I put “Easter Eggs” in my syllabus. These are extra credit opportunities one can find ONLY when reading through the syllabus carefully. This semester I asked students to answer the following question: “What was a movie that made a big emotional impact on you?” This easter egg was embedded in a unit on the Paradox of Fiction. Two students took up my challenge and provided two very different answers. You can find their submissions below:
“I avoided watching Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining for years as a promise to a friend, who insisted I watched it for the first time with him. However, last semester I took a film class that required me to watch it. I knew nothing about the plot, and in fact, only knew about the abuse Shelley Duvall was put through on set at the hands of Stanley Kubrick. I knew various scenes containing Duvall were essentially not made up of acting but of real fear. When I finally had to watch it, my blood ran hot the entire time, I couldn’t believe how angry I actually was. Throughout my viewing, I was deeply put off by the fact that I could not distinguish which scenes were made up of acting and which were made up of documented abuse. I wasn’t angry at the fiction, but the reality behind it.” -Pau
“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a film that tackles responsibility as the main character, Gilbert, asserts little agency of his own as he battles between responsibility to his mentally disabled little brother, his failing local grocery store, his morbidly obese mother, his married lover, and a new girl which seems to understand and care for him. He bears it all with a strong character but they all collectively overwhelm him, he hits his little brother in a fit of anger after he ruins a cake, he is seen by his boss at the competing mega store buying a new cake, essentially betraying him, runs away scaring her mother by reminding her of his father, his lover that he no longer wants to be with sees him with a younger girl, and the new girl can leave as anytime as soon as her mother’s car is repaired. It’s tragic because Gilbert doesn’t ask or bring on any of these conditions, he reminds me a lot of my own obligations to my family, friends, girlfriend, school, future career, and the decisions that I have made and will most likely have to make that jeopardizes one over the other. But in the way Gilbert does what feels he must do, trying his best to not hurt the ones around him and do what he feels that he must do, he expresses a kind of freedom, the freedom of your choice feeling like a duty, as there is no other way to move through your life but this. And in this freedom, he recovers what he can from his life and shares it with those around him through his love. The emotional pain along the way is unavoidable but also helps us with the decisions we have to make. This film teaches that in a way that is honest and asks for our deeper emotional reflection on the nature of responsibility through identification with Gilbert.” – Jonathan
For many years I have scheduled a charity exercise in my Introduction to Ethics class. I modify the “Giving Game” (instructions for which you can find here). I first ask the students to keep track of their expenses for 48 hours. After which I ask them to highlight the expenses Peter Singer (a famous Utilitarian ethicist) would say are not “morally significant.” For example, I might highlight going to get drinks with friends. While friendship might be morally significant, I need not spend $80 at a club to maintain friendships (especially when I could, according to Singer, donate that money to prevent starvation, lack of medical care, and/or houselessness). We then total up the “extra” money for the entire class. While at FIU, the “extra” spending for a class of 32 students over the course of 48 hours is usually around $2,000-$6,000 (this, for the record, is much higher than the other Universities I’ve taught at).
I ask my students to make passion pleas for their favorite charity the aim of which is to get their fellow students to vote for their presentation. The winning presentation gets a real-life donation from me. I know many professors who do such an exercise in their classes. I think it works extremely well and this semester I’ve been especially thrilled with the results. Since we’re doing our classes virtual due to COVID, many of these pleas were in the form of short videos. I wanted to share with you two of the videos. Two great videos and two really great charities below:
(Song had to be changed for copyright – the original song for this video was Andra Day – Rise Up)
It isn’t a surprise that both of these charities focus on issues outside the United States. Part of Effective Altruism is thinking about the maximum impact a dollar could have. Our dollar goes a lot further in countries with less purchasing power.
Before the winter holidays I was asked by several students for reading recommendations. I tried to think about recent books that (a) I enjoyed and (b) I would have especially enjoyed when I was in college. I can’t say these are my favorite novels of all time, but they’re pretty good (for the time being). I’m going to add another list of book that are end of the world / pandemic related. These books should be more of an escape from our current circumstances. So here are some novels to feed your soul while you study:
“A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”
A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING: When I asked folks for their advice for this list, I was so thrilled to learn I wasn’t the only one who loved this book. I’ve enjoyed Ozeki’s other books as well (especially My Year of Meats), but this one has a special place in my heart. The plot device of the book is pretty silly – I’ll admit – but it works. The tale follows two ‘time beings’ (people) – separated by a continent and time. One is a teenage girl in Japan, and another in a middle-aged writer in British Columbia. The writer stumbles upon a literal time capsule that washed up on her beach (thus the silly plot device); the capsule includes the teen’s diary. What follows is the story of three women: the writer, the teen girl, and the girl’s Zen Buddhist Grandmother (who the teen turns to for guidance). <Warning: discussions of suicide>
this is not about feeling something or about speaking words
this is about being
GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER: I’m not alone in loving this book. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2019 (which is a pretty big deal). The book follows twelve different people (girls, women, and others) focusing on the Black British experience. I was invested in some of their stories more than others (Amma!) but I read this in almost one sitting. Each person’s story is told in different prose. It is not a difficult book, but raises difficult themes. <Warning: some sexual violence>
“It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown I back, throat to the stars, “more like deer than human being.” To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal!“
THE SECRET HISTORY: Another professor reminded me of this book – how fantastic it would have been to read as a college student! Donna Tartt is best known for The Goldfinch (don’t judge a book by its movie – The Goldfinch was such a terrible movie). The Goldfinch (the book) was good – but The Secret History is better. When I searched for an (albeit bad) image of this book the search tag that appeared was “dark academia books.” It’s dark. It’s a mystery. It’s about Classics students who love their professor a little too much – and take it a bit too far. So fun – I think you’ll enjoy! <Warning: violence>
“When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.”
CIRCE: You don’t have to know anything about Greek myths, or have read (or liked) Homer’s Odyssey to love this book. To be reductive, the book is a retelling of Odysseus’ time spent with Circe (daughter of a god) on a remote island on his way back from the Trojan War. Many of us who remember our mythology know how the story will turn out, but have never heard it from Circe’s perspective. Like most good books, this one speaks to universal themes- loneliness, power, loss, romance and betrayal. Men – if you can’t live with them, might as well turn them all into swine.
I’m happy to give you more personalized recommendations – you only have to ask! And if you do end up reading any of these recommendations, please let me know what you thought! (escarbro at fiu.edu)
Monuments have been in the news and on my mind for some time. I recently wrote a guest post on Aesthetics for Birds on tearing down racist monuments. I also have an article forthcoming in The Philosopher’s Magazine on putting these monuments in a monument graveyard.
This Friday I am excited to host a panel discussion at the American Society for Aesthetics called “Monuments.” This panel was inspired by an interview I heard with Dr. Michele Moody-Adams (Professor of Political Philosophy and Legal Theory at Columbia University) on the UNMUTE podcast.
Our panel will features two artists and two philosophers. Artist, writer, and museum professional Shaun Slifer will be presenting his work on historical markers. Artist Sandow Birk will also present some of his work on imaginary monuments. Dr. Moody-Adams talk is entitled, “Why Monuments Still Matter,” and we will have a presentation from Dr. Gary Shapiro, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Richmond. His talk is titled, “Report from Richmond: Public Art, National Trauma, Being with the Dead.”
I can’t wait for this panel – it was organized well before protestors around the world this summer toppled monuments so it feels more relevant than ever. Information about the conference can be found here.
If this is a topic you are interested in, might I suggest two additional resources:
First I want to say that the name of this post is a reference (homage?) to an underrated Chris Rock movie, Top 5.
But today I wanted to talk about “Top 5” lists. Recently I wrote two Top 5 lists for Aesthetics For Birds: my top five movies of the past ten years and top five novels of the past ten years. Aesthetics For Birds did a series of top five lists for movies, writing, art, TV shows, games, music, and a really fun top ten anything list.
Well, my movie list (with brief justificatory summary) was overwhelmingly non-English speaking and male. On the foreign language heavy focus of my list: I’m with Bong Joon Ho whose Golden Globe speech implored folks to get beyond the “1-inch tall barrier of subtitles.” Your world literally opens up if you watch world cinema. However, I do feel uncomfortable with the maleness of the list I presented.
When I think of some of my favorite documentaries of the past ten years, my list is overwhelmingly English-language but not that more gender-balanced. So I urge you to read everyone’s lists over at Aesthetics for Birds, and I’d like to add a list of five favorite documentaries of the past ten years below (in no particular order):
- Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog, 2010)
- I am not your negro (Peck, 2016)
- Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy? 2010)
- Faces Places (Varda and J.R., 2017)
- Shirkers (Tan, 2018)
I’m not including The Act of Killing on this list, since it made my overall best of the last ten year list (but The Act of Killing is a favorite documentary of mine). And I’m not even sure if these are the documentaries I think are *the best* but they are the ones I’ve enjoyed watching the most.
Some honorable mentions: Finding Vivian Maier, Leviathan, Kedi, and The Black Power Mixtape.