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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.

We 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.

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

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

, 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.)

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.

But, 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.

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