Romans and Pirates and Dental Hell

It’s quite a challenge to teach some of the stuff I’ve been covering in my Popular Cultures course this semester.

AsterixWe just finished with “The Warrior Archetype” section of the course, and it was funny how aware of World War II my students were, and how much less they knew about The Great War, aka World War I. We had a look at the first scene in the pilot episode of Rome — because I had a copy of it — and discussed the romanticization of warrior types in modern depictions of antiquity and the older verse depictions they’re mostly influenced by. The problem is, only one student had read the Iliad, and only a few had seen Troy. I told them to go read one of the many Korean-translation editions of the wonderful Asterix & Obelix comics that are in our university’s library, just so that Rome and Roman soldiers (and those who resisted them) could be a reference point.

When we (Westerners) watch a movie like Flags of Our Fathers, all the references of war, glory, honor, of knighthood and ancient Greco-Roman warrior culture — even when they aren’t invoked directly — are there in our heads, part of the network of references. Whatever my students have, they don’t seem to have most of that network, or at least not to the depth that Westerners of equivalent literacy have from growing up steeped in it, and I do my best to build it up for them, but some of this stuff is really alien. It makes me wonder what Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings looks like from inside a Korean’s head — both were insanely popular here, but I suspect that Western fantasy tropes don’t really interlock with historical culture here the same way they do for those of us who understand out cultural lineage going back to Europe, to Crusades, to wars of religion and knights and so on. Where The Lord of the Rings looks like magic riffs of European history and culture to me, I have to wonder sometimes what unimagined (by me) resonances exist in these films for Koreans. Do images of famous Korean warriors I’ve never heard about, or manga tales of samurai, hum quietly in the back of their heads?

Today, the panel discussion in my class was on Fight Club and Catch Me If You Can, and the panelists and front-row students (the gauntlet of bright, good-at-English, and inquisitive types who fill the front row and bombard the panel with great questions every time) struggled their way to teasing apart Rebel and Outlaw archetypes.

Fight Club Nasty

A lot of neat stuff came up about male instincts for violence — which both male and female students agreed were real and important — and about the idea that the more timid a man is, the more likely he has a Tyler Durden deep down inside of him. (Said by one of the most shy, timid students I’ve ever had, which was verrrrrrrrry interesting.) We talked about Marla and whether she and the whole Fight Club story is just another fantasy in the head of our narrator, Jack — an image of what women would look like through the lens of the Tyler Durden mentality — or whether she’s a character who provoked the appearance of Durden by stimulating Jack’s anxieties about being a wimp, weakling, and unmanly.

The link with Catch Me If You Can was tenuous at points, but there seemed to be a link between anxieties, daddy issues, and the overlap between outlaw and rebel status.

Next week, we’re exploring why gangsters, pirates, and outlaws so fascinate audiences, especially in the now-popular form that they took first in American cinema. Apparently in the earliest American gangster flicks, the gangster’s downfall and death or

Depp the Pirate

punishment was an absolute must, and maybe it’s still that way — I’ve not reached Season 6 in the Sopranos, but I’ve heard interpretations of the final episode that say the tradition is carried out there — but it’s not a certain thing with outlaws in general. Cowboys and pirates, for example, can survive, retire happily, and come back.


Of course, I was stunned to find out that most of my class hasn’t seen Scarface. Hasn’t seen The Godfather. Hasn’t seen Mary Poppins. (I surveyed another class about that one, actually, and only one student had seen it. I have a student who hasn’t seen Snow White, too!)

Anyway, this can give rise to interesting differences in interpretation, sometimes. In another class, we compared the way hackers

Hacker Crackdown

, corporate bodies, the Secret Service, and computer security experts are portrayed in Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown with how they’re depicted in the 1995 junk film Hackers.

(By the way, despite the cheese and junk made to interest audiences who knew little about computers — or were, Hollywood probably imagined, downright scared of them — there was a lot that looked as if it was lifted straight from Sterling’s book, and simply Hollywoodized: the depiction of search & seizure operations like Operation Sundevil; the amateurishness of the Secret Service agents in the film as compared to the early efforts to combat computer crime described by Sterling; even the ridiculous “hacker bar” is in fact simply a replacement for the BBSes that Sterling discusses in great detail, and it serves exactly the same function — a place to gather, share hacking technique & tips, regurgitate information (ie. infodump), and debate about heroes and legends of the hacker world. Heck, even the perverse techno-lust that outweighs even lust for a boyfriend, when Angelina Jolie’s character abandons a make-out session to crow about her new badass hardware, fits with the addiction and obsession Sterling discusses. The long and the short of it is, I betcha someone who worked on the script definitely read The Hacker Crackdown. The parallels were just too pronounced to be there by chance, despite th, yes, objectionable silliness that became necessary when people realized that hacking computers on command lines is dreadfully boring, and nothing like a video game.)

Hackers image

One student’s interpretation was really interesting: he argued that the kids’ hacking activities were immoral, such as the traffic light stunt that caused some cars to crash into one another. He agreed that it was something they had to do to prevent being framed for a amjor ecological disaster, but he argued it was immoral just the same to tamper with the public peace. Interesting, and it opened a discussion of the grey area that lies between ethics, legality, and intelligent vs. stupid actions.

My Wife is a GangsterBut, going back to the discussion of gangsters — I asked students if my impression was true that the most popular gangster films are usually comedies. Certainly, most of the Korean gangster movies I’ve seen have been very silly, quite funny — funny enough that with my level of Korean, I can enjoy them without subtitles — and while they romanticize gangsters, they’re almost more like violent clowns, with much less of a dark undercurrent than we see in people like our old pal Corleone, or Tony Soprano. In the biggest Korean film about a serial killer — Memories of Murder, an excellent film based on a true, and unsolved, series of killings back in the 1980s — we never even see the serial killer’s face. Sure, the case was unsolved, but still, what a difference from the seductive, fascinating evil of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

Anyway, the differences are truly interesting, but it is a challenge sometimes to unpack things that I hadn’t imagined would be so alien to my students. They’re familiar with the most recent layer of things, but the fossils in the bedrock of our popular culture, sometimes that isn’t even on the radar. More work for me, I guess. It’s one reason I keep falling behind schedule!

Oh yeah, and… Dental Hell? Another thing happened in class the other day. I took a swig of cold, cold water, and got a shot of pain in one of my heavily-worked-over, gold-capped molars. The molar that’s been giving me trouble for ages. My dentist saw me an hour and a half later — cool, huh? — and adjusted the cap. He figures since there’s no pain, the sensitivity was due to the tooth taking too much pressure and not getting enough support from one of the teeth beside it… but he said, if it gets sensitive to heat, or starts to hurt, I’ll need a root canal. And he told me, with a sympathetic smile, “That is very much pain.”

And now it’s sensitive to heat. I’m going to give it a few days and see what happens before I go back for an X-ray. Worst comes to worst, I only teach 2.5 days next week, and I could probably get a good start on treatment then.

If I really have to.

But I hate “very much pain.”

Ah well.

18 thoughts on “Romans and Pirates and Dental Hell

  1. “I was stunned to find out that most of my class hasn’t seen Scarface. Hasn’t seen The Godfather. Hasn’t seen Mary Poppins. (I surveyed another class about that one, actually, and only one student had seen it. I have a student who hasn’t seen Snow White, too!)”

    Why is that so shocking? I’m assuming you teach ‘average’ Korean college students, right? How many ‘average’ Canadian college students do you think can even name 4 Korean movies, let alone can say that they’ve seen them?

  2. Some of my friends (half-jokingly) said that they felt the third ‘Lord of the Rings’ movie was pretty gay (that is, it had homosexual overtones. Lots of it. Seriously, why didn’t Sam and Frodo just kiss and get on with it?). But from what I remember of my childhood, I was raised much more on the likes of King Sejong and Jang-chun Woo and Chang Young-sil, studious and diligent inventors and scholars, rather than warriors types.

  3. Anonymous,

    Because Koreans watch a lot of foreign media, waaaay more than Westerners watch Korea media, and Koreans in the past also regarded Korean films as much lower-quality than Western ones, which implies they were watching Western films and comparing. Okay, Scarface might be more understandable, but The Godfather blows my miind. It’s kind of like how tons of people here saw the second Star Wars trilogy without having seen the first half of the story. The puzzled looks at the end of the third movie, where everyone wondered why the hero-child had become a scary villain, were quite something.

    I don’t expect Koreans to have seen The Bad Cop or Henry Fool, but The Godfather I and Snow White are both accessible and extremely well-known. I don’t expect Koreans to have felt the need to read The Iliad and The Odyssey but I do expect that they would be required to by the senior year of University in a program teaching them about Western culture and the English language, since, like the King James Bible, Homeric epics are foundational texts for Western culture, and their resonances echo wide and loud.


    Hmmm. Yeah, I didn’t sense that; actually, I find it quite ironic that 300 was so popular here, seeing as the Spartan warriors were encouraged to engage in sex with fellow warriors to build comradeship and love — something to fight for. I wonder if 300 would have been so popular if that had been made apparent in the film.

    See, it’s interesting, I would have imagined being raised with stories of studious, diligent inventor types might make certain kinds of SF really popular here, but in all my inquiries, I’ve never found a reference to a single Korean SF author. (That is, when you define SF as different from fantasy and horror, which are more well-represented here.) I’m sure there are SF comics, but the studious inventor-types come across more in novels than action-dependent comics, I think. Ah well… Interesting, and thank you. I’ll try raise this when we get to our section on SF, which is after Gangsters, Black Widows, Femme Fatale & The Girl Next Door, and other discussions of women in media.

    Man, only a few weeks left in semester!

  4. I’m not surprised, given the probable age of your students, that they haven’t seen The Godfather, and has nothing to do with cultural differences. Hell, I’m thirty four, and when I watch it, I enjoy it, but appreciate as an artifact, like Citizen Kane, not as a film that I’d want to see over and over again. I think for better or worse, the film is moving into the film geek, and not the must see category.

  5. As an aside, I think films about “hackers” are always going to be awkward excercises, because it’s hard to generate tension and conflict when someone is typing away at a keyboard. There is nothing visually exciting about the actual nuts and bolts of hacking. The closest anyone has come to making it look interesting is Stephen Spielberg in Minority Report, when Colm Fieore was working his techno wizadry thing on the holographic thingymabobby.

  6. Teeth – an assuagement:
    Don’t worry. I can say this because I had a root canal when I was 12 and I’ve also had all of my wisdom teeth removed. The wisdom teeth were far, far worse. Of course this was an incisor, not a molar, but don’t be afraid. Financially a root canal hurts more, but physically its nothing compared to impacted wisdom teeth. ( :

    On movies:
    I’m almost 30 and from the US and I’ve never seen Scarface, The Godfather, or The Sopranos. I guess because I don’t understand the romanticisation going on, and they sound boring. Heck, I saw most of Goodfellas on TV and it was ok but mostly pretty dull. Raging Bull same thing (except for the truly disgusting moments). Maybe its a female/male thing as much as a cultural thing? I don’t see a warrior or anyone to find interesting in mafia movies, just a bunch of macho thugs. I know enjoyed one bit of Pulp Fiction, but it was the part where Wolf cleaned up the inside of the car Jackson and Travolta’s doofy characters managed to cover with gore. And westerns? They bore me to tears, even if they’re unwittingly based on Icelandic sagas. Although if you give me something located in a place and time more different from what I live in now, and I enjoy it, like cheesey fantasy or martial arts flicks or weird concoctions like “Six String Samurai”. Men I think are more encouraged to romanticise violence, but unless you add a coating of the unfamilar over it, I just see violence. I don’t want to gender essentialize this, but the culture variable isn’t present for me, so maybe gender comes into the equation too. There have to be more variables, but I’m not sure what they are.

  7. Raging Bull is what inspired me to get into journalism when I was younger, and I wouldn’t be blogging today if I hadn’t seen it. Good memories:)

  8. I actually learned more Latin from the Classical Latin editions of Asterix & Obelix than I did from four years of Latin class in high school. I have that on reliable authority from the teacher of the class, who figured that out very quickly and gave me free rein to read them. :)

    (Somehow, they’re a LOT funnier in Latin. Not sure why.)

  9. Hmm. Maybe you guys are right, but it’s weird; up until moving to Korea, it was just kind of assumable that people had seen The Godfather, or parts of it, and knew enough about the series that you could refer to it and not lose them.

    It might be a gender thing, though, Val, which might help explain it more; most of my students are female, and the ones who had seen Scarface (two, I think) were both male. The Sopranos, though, surprised me more. I had thought that stuff being released on DVD in Korea meant it was popular, but apparently not so popular that you can expect more than one or two people in a room to have seen it.

    Also, I should add, it’s not as if young people would have to hunt these things out; they’re all available online, and most young Koreans could get them for free.

    I, too, am not so interested in cowboy movies, Icelandic sagas or no; they just never did much for me, and the last I saw, Wyatt Earp, put me to sleep in the middle of the afternoon.

    And, sheepish moment, but I never got through Raging Bull.

    As for movies about hackers — definitely! This was the point my students raised in class, and I was surprised to find myself agreeing that it was, on one level, about the best solution someone was likely to think of in 1995 for how boring a film about people doing command line hacking would actually be… in fact, I also pointed out when someone noted that the hacker bar was unrealistic that it was, but that it was a kind of funhouse simulacrum of a BBS the way Sterling described it. (I didn’t use the words “funhouse” or “simulacrum”, mind you.)

    As for teeth… yeah, this is a molar, but happily, since this is Korea, the pain will be more physical than financial. Dental work is relatively cheap here. I think I paid less than $20 for the guy to adjust my cap and for a scaling. But since having my one wisdom tooth out was a total snap here — one day later, I was eating solid food and I think it was only one or two days later I was off painkillers completely — maybe the wisdom tooth won’t be so bad.

    Though the whole, “four visits” thing scared me. I hate temporary fillings.

  10. Peckinpaugh is the master when it comes to Westerns, and, well, I can’t say enough good things about Mr. Clint Eastwood.

  11. Ps: Mark! Check out Charlie Stross’s newest book Halting State for a pretty credible depiction of a computer interface where hacking could possible be made into an interesting cinematic experience.

    And he’s on record as saying every technology in the book, save one or two, is already in production or at least prototype phase, and that the convergence does look reasonably possible in the timeframe.

    (No guarantees, but he was shooting for realistically feasible, not prophetic.)

    The Vernor Vinge book I recommended also has some pretty interesting “hacking” stuff going on, though you’re presented with the effects of the hacking much more than the actual process. Which I think is the key to making narratives about hackers work.

  12. I’ll check it out – Stross is now in the PDA, so he’s on the list of people to read.

    I think The Sopranos might be getting lost in translation. A good part of the appeal of the program, is the milieu, or “New Jersey” itself, and I would imagine that gets lost in translation. Cost wouldn’t even enter into the equation.

  13. Actually, speaking of visually interesting hacking, if you’ve missed out on Rudy Ruckers ware series you’ve missed a surprising amount, slightly less nuts than Philip K Dick but similarly full of sex, drugs, more drugs, and robots.
    (Software, Wetware, Freeware, and Realware).

    Oh and my bf, the comp sci Masters student LOVES Hackers; its a cult fave among the folks I know who have actual programming chops.

    I know what you mean about the bar and BBSes too…

  14. Cool. I should note that I haven’t read Halting State myself, not yet anyway, but I’ve read enough of the reviews and interviews to recommend it in this case. (I have too many other Stross books awaiting my attentions — The Glasshouse, Singularity Sky, Iron Sunrise, and more — to warrant buying Halting State right now.

    It occurs to me another book that might make “hacking” interesting is Cory Doctorow’s newest one, though it’s about teenaged nascent civil libertarians fighting Homeland Security, so the “hacking” is more of the civil disobedience, how to disable an RFID chip or figure out a way past the no fly lists type. The book is called Little Brother and you can download it here. Put it right in your PDA! :)

    As for The Sopranos getting lost in translation, doubtless, it’s a part of the issue. But then again, I’m also sure that tons of nuance gets lost in Jailbreak, which was a big hit here; certainly while most weren’t aware of the distortions of history in 300, they must have registered the pro-American element in it. I’d bet most Eminem fans here have little idea what he’s saying most of the time, or even register the oddness of him being way more popular than any black rapper in Korea. Hell, even The West Wing did well enough that, according to my students, the last president referred to President Bartlet at some point as an ideal he was seeking to live up to. And the opacity of their dialog, even with Korean subtitles, was quite a barrier. (Lime says she’s still figuring things out on third viewings of episodes, and her English is really good.)

    Still, maybe Sopranos is harder to get into if the New Jersey nuances aren’t coming across, though I think it has a lot of WTF factor in having a gangster who is seeing a psychiatrist, period That was what got me into Season 1, anyway. (Though maybe beyond that, it was the New Jersey stuff.)

    But again, it might be a gender thing… especially in Korea, I don’t think women tend to be into that kind of show. Lime saw the first episode or two of Season 1 and called it “cruel,” and I’ve noticed she tends not to like those sorts of movies. (Fight Club also elicited the same response among students, and I bet Silence of the Lambs does too.)

    (I wonder how much family TV viewing habits factor into it? All male households versus households of both sexes, where there’s one TV and viewing is communal. I stayed with a family once and it seemed that the TV viewing choices were being made by Mom, and it was melodrama all the way, till mom went to bed and the son switched the channel to some old Kung fu flick or Rambo or whatever.)

    Weirdly, and I think this does say something about Korean cinematic aesthetics, the two foreign films you can count on any Korean having seen are Ghost (though they don’t know it by that name: the Korean title is something more like “love after death” or “love from beyond the grave” or something) and Léon, that French film directed by Luc Besson that was released as The Professional in North America.

    I think there’s a certain combination of need to appeal to the Korean aesthetic (too positive will never fly, tragic and dark is more appealing and socially dystopian is a sure-fire winner — thus Jailbreak in depicting a wrongful jailing is a home run), a certain degree of mass appeal (not too “cruel,” not too sexual, not too controversial), and some dumb luck.

    The aesthetic’s probably the biggest issue of the lot, though. It’s worth noting that a fair number of the Korean films that are well-received overseas (at festivals and such) are huge flops here, especially when they’re outside of the area of melodramas. One of my favorite Korean films of recent years, that depicted the Japanese colonial era with more complexity than I’ve ever seen in any other Korean movie, flopped purely over the very politics of such a depiction.

  15. Val,

    Yeah, I loved the Rucker books. I read the first few in Canada, and finished the series here. Plan on rereading them again sometime. Utterly wacky stuff.

    Eager also to get into a few of his more recent novels. If only I didn’t have a million other things to do.

    Now, off to go work on this story I’m drafting…

  16. I think there’s a certain combination of need to appeal to the Korean aesthetic (too positive will never fly, tragic and dark is more appealing and socially dystopian is a sure-fire winner — thus Jailbreak in depicting a wrongful jailing is a home run), a certain degree of mass appeal (not too “cruel,” not too sexual, not too controversial), and some dumb luck.

    Heh. Minus the not too controversial, apparently I share the Korean aesthetic. That sound is me looking for a video store with more Korean movies.

    Good luck with story.

  17. Me too, though I struggle to imagine positive changes in the future, and I did enjoy The West Wing, where my Korean students mostly took idealism and hope as naivete or, heh, nationalist self-promotion and propaganda aimed at foreign countries! (In true Korean fashion, since the national-image-conscious media works that way here a lot of the time, for example not translating the more shocking or worrying news into English.)

    I don’t mean to suggest that Koreans are all pessimistic, but a lot of their movies are. The exceptions are few enough that they stick out in my memory… Marathon, for example, or Arahan, or Aheob Sal In-saeng (I can’t remember the title in English but it’s something like “A Nine-Year-Old Boy’s Life”). Koreans laugh about French movies being dark, but Korean film is very dark too!

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