Author Archives: Laura Beebe

Human Automata

In the 1970’s universe of Network, the general populace is glued to their television screens. The executives behind the glass thrive off the market shares they can get, which turn into profit via advertisements.  Network was certainly prophetic in its depiction of new media – Sybil the Soothsayer, Miss Mata Hari, Jim Webbing, and the Vox Populi all have their place in the present.

But perhaps now television has been unseated as the junction between the masses and the marketplace.  As discussed in a recent report by The New York Times, Facebook has pulled in astonishing numbers in advertising dollars, and only displays more and more capacity to grow:

Your addiction is making Facebook astonishingly profitable. Put a little more kindly, your emotional and intellectual interactions on the social network are creating a great place for companies to advertise.

What this means in dollars and cents for Facebook can be seen in numbers contained in its first-quarter financial results, released on Wednesday. For the United States and Canada, Facebook pulled in $11.86 in advertising revenue per user in the first quarter. That’s what advertisers are willing to pay to catch your attention as you argue with your friends and relatives over Donald Trump or coo over baby pictures or both.

As the advertising potential of Facebook, or some other social media company, continues to grow, more content must be generated to continue to increase profit margins.  And as social media permeates our life in every way- on our computers, on our phones, by our side at all times- the threat to our humanity grows more and more insidious.  Are we becoming the human automata that Howard Beale predicted, addicted to checking our phones and our computers at every possible instant? And who will dictate the media visible to us, and what goes unseen?


Time Capsule: Revisiting the Paterno Scandal

As a high schooler in Pennsylvania, the news of the Sandusky scandal and Joe Paterno’s removal as head coach for Penn State reverberated in my town.  At the time, I actually didn’t know very much about Penn State, and I did not really suspect that I would eventually become a part of the Penn State community.  In fact, news of the scandal did more to dissuade me from considering Penn State than anything else.  (Of course, my views on this matter have significantly changed, and I am very happy as a student here).  But despite not having a previous connection to Penn State, the more I learned about Paterno, the more I was intrigued. Here was a man celebrated by his community, even deified, who was reduced to tarnish and ruin (almost literally) overnight.  It seemed almost Shakespearean.  Paterno was responsible for so much good at Penn State: a wonderful, brand new library, an athletic program that valued education above all else, and a culture of utmost moral integrity.  And yet, was Paterno not afflicted by some hubris surrounding his success? Here also was a living man who would allow a larger-than-life statue of himself to be erected in front of his stadium, while he was still coaching. But a huge, bronze statue does not a man make, and Paterno was not bronze- he was a human, capable of mistakes (even huge mistakes).

I wrote an article for my school newspaper about Paterno, which I have copied below.  It’s a little strange to look back on a recent time in my life when Penn State was much more of an abstract than solid reality. Now that Penn State has become a large part of my identity, the story has taken on much more meaning.

(December 2011)

One can hear the resounding cries as the team enters Beaver Stadium: Joe Pa! Joe Pa! Joe Pa! 

The Caesar of Happy Valley has a history of success and greatness: a narrative of triumph for a university raised from the furrows of rural isolation to the standing of a nationally recognized institution.

Hailing from the prestige of Brown University, Paterno lead Penn State to victory on the football field through his dedication and ambition, and he reaped the spoils of battle throughout a long and successful career: 409 victories, five undefeated teams, twenty four bowl wins, two national championships, and an induction into into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Paterno and his teams earned honors not simply for their knowledge and performance of the game, but for how well they performed academically, earning the title of highest player graduation rate among other top football programs.  For him, the measure of the man did not take place on the field but rather in the classroom– tackling studies always came before tackling players.

And as Joe Paterno built the empire that is Penn State football, the rest of the school rejoiced in the benefits it brought to the University as a whole: national and international interest.  Penn State was not just another state college in the middle of nowhere, but something far greater: a vibrant college town in a tight-knit community centered around a university ranked academically among the top fifteen public colleges in the nation.

The school’s love for Paterno was anything but subtle; a bronze statue in his likeness in front of Beaver Stadium, built in 2001, proves the allegiance and gratitude of the people.

But if Paterno was so celebrated a figure, how could his legacy have ended so abruptly? 

In 2001, Paterno allegedly was alerted to the inappropriate actions of Jerry Sandusky.  What exactly he knew is unclear, but what he knew he reported to the athletic director.   From all reports, his action stopped there.  Perhaps the crown of laurels he wore had made him deaf over the shouts of an adoring crowd, or perhaps incapable of understanding the magnitude of the accusations. 

Sandusky’s alleged deceit and manipulation may have revealed Paterno’s tragic flaw– in the coach’s own words– “I should have done more.” There are matters much greater than a championship, a stadium, a university library.

The institution Joe Paterno had worked so hard to create hastily called for his removal from the throne.

Riots that then broke out shortly after Paterno’s ousting were a testament to the confusion, the anger, and ultimately the tragedy.  Penn State burned with the conviction that Paterno was a man of integrity– one who could not possibly ignore such an egregious fault– and that their hero was not flawed, but rather under siege from a ruthless media.  The haste with which both sides jumped to action reflects the chaos of the situation– one embroiled in misinformation, assumption, and confusion. 

Perhaps Shakespeare in his tragedies reminds his readers of man’s mortality.  He is a mere mortal who struggles in the face of all odds: sometimes he may stumble, even at times when the world counts on him to stand tall in the face of adversity.

The tradition, the community, and the family of academics and athletes has benefitted immensely from Joe Paterno’s reign, but what will remain of Paterno’s legacy might best be stated in the words of Shakespeare’s Marc Antony: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” 


The Modern Epic Western

It’s no secret that Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad takes much of its inspiration from the Western genre, and specifically Clint Eastwood.  In an interview, Gilligan will readily tell you that Eastwood is his long-time industry hero. But Walter White, much like William Munny, is no classic hero of the west – he is a highly flawed character, a criminal who does not always draw the sympathies of the show’s audience.  In fact, Breaking Bad mirrors many of the traits of Unforgiven that make it a reimagining of the classic Western drama.

(Warning: mild Breaking Bad spoilers ahead!)

“I did it for the family.”


William Munny first rejects the Schofield Kid’s entreaty to kill, claiming that he has made a new life for himself as a farmer and a father.  But soon after, we see Munny wistfully itching for the dark glamour of his past.  Despite his spoken protests to the Kid, Munny is a failing hog farmer- his animals are dying and his home is dilapidated.  So he inevitably returns, haltingly at first, to his gun and his horse.

Walter White’s path to meth-making follows similar tropes.  Previously a brilliant chemist responsible for the rise of an incredibly successful company, he enters the series as a mediocre high school chemistry teacher mocked by his students.  He works two terrible jobs- he’s even forced to dry a student’s car while taking ridicule.  So ultimately, White’s rise as Heisenberg (a mythical identity similar to Munny’s) is not for the benefit of his family.  As he finally relates to his wife, Skylar: “I did it for me”.

“It don’t seem real…”

schofield jesse

The Schofield Kid and Jesse Pinkman: William Munny and Walter White’s respective boyish and naive partners-in-crime.  Both arrive boastfully to the drama, but when fronted with the moral crisis of taking a human life (or losing a loved one to the fray), both buckle.  After the Kid kills a man, he is reduced to tearfully drinking whiskey; when Munny discovers his best friend Ned has died, after having also endured the trauma of watching a man die, he is moved to action.  In Walter White, we also see some of the moral decrepitude alluded to in Munny’s past.  He is willing to let Jesse’s girlfriend die, and readily engineers multiple deaths without much open show of remorse.  By contrast, Jesse is often reduced to tears and spends much of his time drinking or doing drugs to rid himself of pain.

The final bloodbath


When viewing the final, gruesome scene of Unforgiven, I was immediately reminded of the final scene of Breaking Bad.  Both scenes mirror each other in their dark bloodiness, engineered brilliantly and vengefully by our anti-heroes.  Here one difference emerges: while William Munny rides off into the night after the damage has been done, Walter White stumbles bleeding into a chemistry lab.  He sees his reflection in the pristine, sterile equipment- a final self-reckoning- and he dies.


The Anti-Pundit

colbert(Image credit: The New York Times)

For someone so entrenched in politics, and more importantly, the media surrounding politics, it makes sense that Stephen Colbert’s favorite film is, in fact, Sidney Lumet’s Network.  (Read in his own words what he loves most about the film here).  At first glance, it could seem that his bombastic character from The Colbert Report might even be modeled from Howard Beale.  According to Colbert, this isn’t the case- as he remarks, “It’s not an influence for my show, because Beale is a hopeless character who ultimately does not succeed in what he wants to do, and is killed.”  But in satirizing modern television news and the pundits who inhabit the stations, Colbert’s past show takes after Network in its commentary and vision.

For other news commentators of our time, Howard Beale himself shines through in their programming.  In an interview, Glenn Beck actually said he personally identified with Howard Beale: of the “mad as hell” mantra, he said, “I think that’s the way people feel,” Mr. Beck said. “That’s the way I feel”.  His show includes segments such fiery segments as “Constitution under Attack” and “Economic Apocalypse,” and he “regularly bursts into tears”.  On whether he seems himself as a religious figure, akin to the holy church of Howard Beale, however, he declines.

When it was suggested in an interview that he sometimes sounds like a preacher, he responded, “No. You’ve never met a more flawed guy than me.” He added later: “I say on the air all time, ‘if you take what I say as gospel, you’re an idiot.’  (NY Times)

As we discussed in class, many of the segments on Howard Beale’s show feature themselves in the tropes of TV news today.  Stephen Colbert points out a few more: Vox Populi he sees most like CNN’s “iReport”, an opportunity for CNN viewers to be featured on the news by tagging “iReport” in their social media posts.  For Sybil the Soothsayer, he points to Bill O’Reilly’s “body language expert,” who supposedly analyzes the body language of important figures (often President Obama) to determine their secret internal and subconscious thoughts.

There is no doubt that Network accurately predicted many of the features of current television, especially in news programs.  Thankfully, we have the restoring order of such anti-pundits as Mr. Colbert to confront the mainstream.

Moderner Times

2001 is a non-verbal experience; out of two hours and 19 minutes of film, there are only less than 40 minutes of dialogue. I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the sub-consciousness with an emotional and philosophic content. To convolute McLuhan, in 2001 the message is the medium. I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does; to ‘explain’ a Beethoven symphony would be to emasculate it by erecting an artificial barrier between conception and appreciation. – Stanley Kubrick
Where else have we seen such an aversion to “verbalized pigeonholing,” a resolution to remain silent in a fast-talking, fast-moving world?
Far removed from the bustling, chaotic world of a newly industrialized society, the universe of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey presents an elegant, civilized, and overwhelmingly quiet vision of the future.  Indeed, we hardly see any humans at all: only a few passing strangers frequent the halls of the space station, and the spaceships flying to the moon and beyond transport no more than five people at a time.  The largest congregation of people we see is in the lunar conference room, where a group of civilized adults calmly cooperates with protocol.
 But despite the outward decorum, elements of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times manifest themselves as poignantly as ever.
For example, eating – a strong motif in Modern Times – echoes throughout 2001. Eating in space is a purely mechanical process. Throughout the film, we see many characters eat, but their diet is restricted to blocks of unidentifiable edible matter (except in the last scene, where Dave elaborately dines, and the first scene, where primates eat plants and animals.  I won’t expand on these observations here.)  The scene in which Frank and Dave are introduced particularly reminded me of a scene in Modern Times, in which the factory boss considers a pitch to acquire a mechanical eating machine for his workers.

food eating times

We see Frank and Dave silently eating their food, as a prerecorded BBC interview plays to introduce the astronauts, their situation, and Hal.  Why would Kubrick decide to add this silent secondary level of perspective?  Is it simply a convenient expository tool, or something else?

Chaplin used a similar gimmick in the feeding-machine scene.  Instead of having the accompanying salesmen pitch the machine to the boss, a prerecorded voice lists its attributes while the men silently gesture.  Perhaps in this style, Frank, Dave, and Hal lose some aspect of their humanity- instead, they become advanced tools in pursuit of a larger mission.  In some regard, what difference do they bear to their sleeping crew mates, who exist solely as a collection of pulsing lines on a screen?

life functions


I found many other aspects of 2001 which mimic (or sometimes distort) the silent film drama of Chaplin.  In Chaplin’s acting, facial expressions are critical to his universality, and offer some of the most compelling and emotional aspects of his art.  This would seem to directly contradict the stone-faced, sharp demeanor of the astronauts and dignitaries of 2001.

normal dave

But what we see at the end of the film is an unapologetic outpouring of intensity and emotion, told only through facial expressions.

scream dave

And ironically, the only character who cannot emote via facial movements (Hal) evokes a visceral response from the audience through primarily visual means.  The sinister red light that represents Hal is unsettling at best and horrifying at worst.  Despite offering no real reason for concern when we initially meet Hal (and indeed, he speaks in a perfectly friendly manner), there is a certain difficulty in trusting a voice embodied by a menacing, unblinking red eye.


Though Modern Times and 2001: A Space Odyssey came out over thirty years apart, the legacy and artistry of silent film continues to live on- even in a genre as modern and futuristic as science fiction.  It’s unclear if Chaplin ever saw 2001 (he died about ten years after the film came out), but we can be sure that his sentiments from the end of The Great Dictator still apply:

 We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. – Charlie Chaplin

2001 a space odysseys famous match-cut 'bone to spaceship' - Imgur

The Mystery of Marlon

Before viewing Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, my only experiences with Marlon Brando, like another poster on this blog, had been limited.  I only knew his roles in two Francis Ford Coppola films: Vito Corleone in The Godfather and Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.  From these three characters, we see a drastic range in Brando’s psyche through his “method” acting.  Don Vito Corleone is a heavily disguised version of Brando, caked in aging makeup and planted into the illustrious and powerful mafia boss role.  Kurtz is alien-like and mysterious – he only appears in the last part of the film, built up through a haunting narrative that eventually leads to his dark lair in the jungle.  So to the casual viewer, comparing the three characters, Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront might appear to be something like the “real” Marlon Brando: youthful, thoughtful and compassionate, ethically-driven.

But perhaps that is not totally the case.  In Listen to Me Marlon, a documentary about Marlon Brando comprised principally of audio tapes the actor recorded himself privately, a definitively Kurtzian vibe emerges. For me, one of the most compelling elements of Brando’s story is his own idea about acting- he regarded it as “phony nonsense,” while on the outside being continuously lauded for his skill and the profundity of his performances. The enigma is heightened by the decision of director, Stevan Riley, to have a bodiless, digitally-mapped recreation of Brando’s head read from the tapes:

The result is a disturbing Max Headroom-ish seance, like a sci-fi movie about a secret plan to keep Brando alive. I’m not sure this changes much about what we know about him – more is perhaps glimpsed in existing news footage of anguished public appearances after catastrophic events in his family life. But it reveals a lot about Brando’s poignant vulnerability and sadness. – Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

It becomes increasingly apparent that the real man behind Marlon Brando cannot be captured in any one of his many roles.  Maybe in some way he is a strange amalgamation of all of them.–listen-to-me-marlon-miko-rebecca-stevan-riley

John Steinbeck, Naturalist

On this day, the sun glowing on the morning beach made us feel good. It reminded us of Charles Darwin, who arrived late at night on the Beagle in the Bay of Valparaiso. In the morning he awakened and looked ashore and he felt so well that he wrote “When morning came everything appeared delightful. After Tierra del Fuego, the climate felt quite delicious, the atmosphere so dry and the heavens so clear and blue with the sun shining brightly, that all nature seemed sparkling with life.” Darwin was not saying how it was with Valparaiso but how it was with him … we can feel how he stretched his muscles in the morning air and perhaps took off his hat – we hope a bowler – and tossed it and caught it.                           – John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

Perhaps one of the most striking qualities of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is its realism: the novel, and later the film, depicted migrant workers and the trials they endured with empirical honesty.

“If you were making money, you didn’t like [Steinbeck]. If you were coming up through the classes you were a fan of him. But even those that disliked him respected his writing. He just wrote things as they really were. I remember everything exactly as the way he wrote it.” – Dorothy Wallace, neighbor to the Steinbeck family

Underlying the complex human emotions of The Grapes of Wrath are a clear set of facts about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.  We know the macroeconomic principles (failed laissez faire economics, a choked cycle of supply and demand) and the environmental failures  of agriculture in the midwest (a combination of drought and topsoil erosion) that shaped the reality of the Joads and the many migrant workers they represented.  What follows is a clear and untampered-with narrative– in some respects, a scientific appraisal of the situation, a simple elucidation of effects.  And much like science does, The Grapes of Wrath in both film and book form illuminated a universe previously unknown, calling for a new empathy for “Okies” and “Arkies” and the tumult they brought to California.

Steinbeck is of course no scientist in the traditional sense, as he deals more with feeling than fact.  But therein lies the realest truth.  As he writes in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, a record of a collecting expedition taken with a marine biologist, the number of dorsal spines on the Mexican sierra is “the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself”.  On the other hand…

“if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colour pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational external reality has come into being.”

The Grapes of Washington (Mr. Smith Goes to California)

Many interesting comparisons can be drawn from a side-by-side viewing of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath and Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Although both are populist films extolling the virtues of the “everyman” in place of the cruel sensibilities of the corrupt powers-at-be, there are stark contrasts immediately identifiable within the two works.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is populated almost exclusively with moral archetypes: its namesake, Jefferson Smith, is an honorable boy scout in Abe Lincoln’s body, whereas his nemesis, Jim Taylor, stands fattened by greed and willing to do anything in pursuit of self-interest (including sending minions to slap children). In comparison, the characters of The Grapes of Wrath seem much more nuanced.  As the hero, Tom Joad, enters the film, the audience immediately learns he has killed a man without apparent remorse; later, he will kill another.

Yet the situations of Jefferson Smith and the Joads are not entirely unlike each other, and I was reminded of a few key moments within Mr. Smith while watching The Grapes of Wrath.  Here, two examples from the beginning and end of both films:

Resistance, then Realization

Early in both films,  a strikingly similar scene unfolds.  Met by the callous reality of “business as usual,” the protagonists revolt– only to be educated in the futility of their actions by those opposing them.  This happens as Jefferson Smith realizes he has been duped by the press and launches into a vengeful rampage.  Barreling into a bar filled with reporters, he sits down to an unpleasant exchange:

                         What do *you* know about laws--and 
                         making laws--and what the people 

                              (tormentedly blurting)
                         I--I don't *pretend* to know!

                         Then what are you doing in the Senate?

A similar situation happens to Muley, who introduces the narrative in The Grapes of Wrath. As his home is about to be destroyed by the “cat”, he brandishes a gun and shouts heated threats, only to be silenced.

                         Have it your own way, son, but just 
                         as sure as you touch my house with 
                         that cat I'm gonna blow you plumb to 
                         kingdom come.

                         You ain't gonna blow nobody nowhere. 
                         First place, you'd get hung and you 
                         know it. For another, it wouldn't be 
                         two days before they'd have another 
                         guy here to take my place.

Both men– Jefferson Smith and Muley– emerge defeated and downtrodden.  But as Jefferson regains his unique energy to write a bill and take on the senate, Muley stays down: a haunting reminder of the brutal, unfeeling  and faceless oppression that colors the film.

Trust the System 


But another – perhaps more cheerful – similarity emerges toward the end of both films.  Both the Joads and Jefferson Smith are physically and emotionally exhausted, plodding towards a goal becoming steadily more unrecognizable in a barrage of adversity.  But in the midst of the chaos, Ford and Capra give the audience a symbol to latch onto: the federal government.  Within Mr. Smith, this is seen in the Vice President, whose knowing looks and nods provide tacit support to Jefferson Smith. His chair represents the order of the senate, and the fundamental laws ordering senate conduct are what propel Smith’s cause to its eventual victory – despite the attempts of other senators to derail them in their own favor.  

For the Joads, salvation comes in the form of a Department of Agriculture camp: a representation of the government in its best form, championed by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Indeed, the camp is government by the people, for the people.  It offers a lasting light of optimism for both the Joads and for the audience.