“If you do not want a political statement you should not be giving honorary degrees to controversial politicians,”

Valedictorian takes swipe at Toews’ degree

Monday, October 18, 2010

Protesters hold signs outside the  University of Winnipeg graduation ceremony on Sunday.Protesters hold signs outside the University of Winnipeg graduation ceremony on Sunday. (James Turner/CBC)
A valedictory address that criticized the University of Winnipeg for bestowing an honorary degree on Manitoba Conservative MP Vic Toews has caused ripples in the community.


Valedictorian Erin Larson used her speech at the fall convocation on Sunday to say the choice compromised the university’s integrity, although she didn’t name Toews directly. Continue reading

Iranians still facing death by stoning despite ‘reprieve’

Fifteen could still die in horrific sentence after being allegedly convicted of adultery

Saeed Kamali Dehghan and Ian Black

Thursday 8 July 2010

An Iranian woman at a protest in Brussels highlights the barbarity of death by stoning, in which women are buried up to their necks in front of a crowd of volunteers and killed in a hail of rocks. Photograph: Thierry Roge/Reuters

Twelve Iranian women and three men are on death row awaiting execution by stoning despite an apparent last-minute reprieve for a mother of two who had been facing the horrific sentence after being convicted of adultery.

Human rights groups and activists welcomed a wave of international publicity and protests over the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, 43, who was awaiting execution in the western Iranian town of Tabriz after what her lawyer called an unjust trial and a sham conviction.

The Iranian embassy in London said in a statement that “according to information from the relevant judicial authorities” the stoning would not go ahead. If confirmed it would be an victory for a brief but intense campaign that was first highlighted by the Guardian last week.

However, there are still concerns over her plight. In a previous case a prisoner who was to be stoned was instead executed by hanging.

Speaking to this paper Mohammadi Ashtiani’s son Sajad, said his mother – whom he had spoken to by telephone – believed the pressure on her behalf might succeed, although he had not heard of any reprieve. “The campaign for her release is going very well,” he said. “They gave me permission to talk to her and she was very thankful to the people of the world for supporting her. I’m very happy that so many have joined me in protesting this injustice. It was the first time in years I heard any hope in my mother’s voice.”

Without a reprieve, Mohammadi Ashtiani would have been buried up to her neck before being pelted with stones large enough to cause pain but not so large as to kill her immediately. Iran routinely censors information about executions, but all the 12 other women on death row have been convicted on adultery charges, as has one of the three men.

Azar Bagheri, 19, was arrested when she was 15 after her husband accused her of seeing another man. She has been subjected to mock stonings along with partial burial in the ground.

Ashraf Kalhori, 40, also sentenced to death by stoning, was forced to confess to a relationship with her husband’s murderer, and has been in Tehran’s Evin prison for seven years, according to her lawyer.

In one especially gruesome case, Maryam Ayubi, another alleged adulteress, fainted while being ritually washed before her execution in 2001 and was stoned to death while strapped to a stretcher. Outrage over that led to the marking of 11 July as the annual international day against stoning – which will see demonstrations at the Iran embassy in London.

Iranian activists say the tragedy is that the families of those sentenced to death often ignore them. “It doesn’t matter to them whether the charge of adultery is true or not because the honour of the family is tainted so they forget the poor creature awaiting death,” said Soheila Vahdati, who is now based in California.

“It’s not possible to talk about these prisoners in public because their families don’t want their names mentioned or their pictures published. Their families don’t want to defend them neither. Mohammadi Ashtiani’s case is amazing because her children are campaigning for her courageously and said that their mother is innocent.”

Shammameh Ghorbani, who is awaiting stoning, begged not to be freed from prison because she feared being killed by her family.

Shadi Sadr, an acclaimed Iranian lawyer, said it was hard to know exactly how many people were still facing stoning. Last year the Iranian parliament passed a law banning it, but the powerful Guardian Council has been silent on the issue.

“Many women are kept in prison because the government is very scared of the public attention,” Sadr said. “One of my clients has been there for eight years and her family have abandoned her.”

Publicity helps. “The only reason the Iranian government has not carried out stoning sentences on all these people is that it is afraid of Iranian public reaction and international attention,” said Sadr.

The embassy said in its statement: “This kind of punishment has rarely been implemented in Iran” and condemned media reports about the case as unreliable.

The 12 women on death row also include Mariam Ghorbanzadeh, 25, Iran Iskandari, 31, Kheyrieh Valania, 42, Sarimeh Sajadi, 30, Kobra Babaei, and Afsaneh R.

Mohammadi Ashtiani was convicted of having “illicit relationships” with two men. But her lawyer, Mohammad Mostafaie, insisted there was no evidence to justify an adultery conviction. As a member of Iran’s Azerbaijani minority, her inability to understand the language of the court also prevented a fair trial, he said.

William Hague, the foreign secretary, added his voice to the outrage today, condemning a “medieval punishment that has no place in the modern world”. He added: “The continued use of such a punishment in Iran demonstrates a blatant disregard for international human rights commitments … as well as the interests of its people. I call on Iran to put an immediate stay to the execution of Ms Mohammadi Ashtiani on the charge of adultery and review the process by which she was tried, and her sentence.

“She has already faced the disgraceful punishment of 99 lashes for adultery; her execution would disgust and appal the watching world.”

Actors Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Juliette Binoche and playwright Sir David Hare have backed the appeal to halt the stoning. John Bercow, the Commons speaker, made a rare statement condemning a “horrific” matter and a “grotesque abuse” of human rights.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party, requires states that have not yet abolished the death penalty to restrict its use to the “most serious crimes”. The United Nations general assembly has called on all states to introduce a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

Scandal Stirs Legal Questions in Anti-Gay Cases

 The New York Times 

George A. Rekers, who has crusaded against homosexuality, with the male escort, right, he says he hired to carry his luggage.



For years, George A. Rekers has held himself out as an expert witness in court on homosexuality, arguing in cases concerning same-sex marriage and gay adoption that gay men and lesbians lead parlous lives and raise troubled children.  

Now Dr. Rekers himself is under fire, raising new legal questions about his courtroom role.  

The Miami New Times, an alternative newspaper, revealed this month that Dr. Rekers took a 10-day trip to Europe with a male prostitute whom he apparently had met through a Web site, rentboy.com.  

News coverage has focused largely on his seeming hypocrisy, given that Dr. Rekers, a clinical psychologist and ordained Baptist minister, has written that “leaders of the homosexual revolt” use “manipulative techniques of classic revolutionary strategies” to keep homosexuals from trying to change their orientation.  

But legal experts say the scandal may affect more than Dr. Rekers’s reputation. They say it places obligations on those who have relied on Dr. Rekers to inform the court in at least one continuing case to modify or withdraw their arguments.  

“Each lawyer must tell the court if he comes to know that one of his witnesses has given ‘false’ testimony,” said Stephen Gillers, an expert in legal ethics at New York University. That could come into play if the expert is discredited, he added.  

Dr. Rekers has responded to the storm of coverage with a mix of withdrawal and defiance. He resigned from the board of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, a group that argues that sexual orientation can be altered through therapy. On the group’s Web site, he denounced the “false reports,” stating: “I have not engaged in any homosexual behavior whatsoever. I am not gay and never have been.”  

On his own Web site, a note states that he “did not even find out about his travel assistant’s Internet advertisements offering prostitution activity until after the trip was in progress.” Both men have denied having sex, though the escort, Jo-vanni Roman, told CNN that he gave Dr. Rekers daily “sexual” massages on the trip.  

A representative of Dr. Rekers responded to a request for an interview with an e-mail message stating, “Because this has become a legal matter concerning defamation, Professor Rekers has been advised not to grant interviews.”  

Regardless of what occurred in Europe, the trip could affect cases in the United States. Dr. Rekers’ involvement, for example, has been critical in a suit challenging a Florida law banning adoption by gay parents. His testimony was a major part of Attorney General Bill McCollum’s defense of the statute, for which the state paid Dr. Rekers $120,000.  

Mr. McCollum has distanced himself from Dr. Rekers. “It is safe to say that if this case moves beyond this stage, Mr. Rekers will have no further involvement in the case,” said Ryan Wiggins, a spokeswoman for Mr. McCollum. “We will certainly not be recommending him in the future.”  

In the November 2008 decision declaring the Florida gay adoption law unconstitutional, Judge Cindy Lederman of Miami-Dade Circuit Court wrote that Dr. Rekers was “motivated by his strong ideological and theological convictions that are not consistent with the science,” and not “credible.” Mr. McCollum, a Republican who is running for governor, has appealed that decision. In papers filed well before the scandal broke, he denounced the court’s “wholesale disregard” of testimony by Dr. Rekers and another expert, calling the decision “arbitrary,” stressing Dr. Rekers’ qualifications and stating that “the trial court entirely discredited him based on his religion.”  

To Professor Gillers, Mr. McCollum is now obligated both as a lawyer and as a public official to alert the appellate court. “It is not enough for the attorney general simply to refrain from relying on the testimony in his brief and argument,” he said. “He has an affirmative duty to speak up.”  

Ms. Wiggins, the spokeswoman for Mr. McCollum, said she could not comment further on pending litigation.  

Dr. Rekers has a less direct link to another high-profile gay rights case: the federal court challenge to a California law banning same-sex marriage, which was passed in 2008 by a voter initiative.  

Dr. Rekers did not testify in that case, but his views, in the form of a declaration filed in a previous case, were cited in the documents prepared for trial by two men initially identified as expert witnesses. (Only one, David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values, testified.)  

The question of whether sexual orientation could be altered through therapy was also discussed extensively in court.  

Charles J. Cooper, the Washington lawyer who is defending the California law, said in an e-mail that “Dr. Rekers has had no involvement in the Proposition 8 case,” having not served as an expert for either party. A decision is pending.  

Dr. Rekers, 61, has been a part of cases that are no longer in the judicial pipeline, most notably a 2004 suit over an Arkansas law that restricted gay foster care in Arkansas. Judge Timothy Fox of Pulaski County Circuit Court overturned the state law, and wrote that he found Dr. Rekers’ testimony “extremely suspect” and that Dr. Rekers “was there primarily to promote his own personal ideology.” That decision was unanimously affirmed by the state Supreme Court in 2006.  

The practical effect of the Rekers scandal on the legal movement to restrict gay rights is unclear. He is not the only expert espousing such views. Another Arkansas case concerning restrictions on gay adoption is under way, for example, and Dr. Rekers is not part of that case.  

The universe of such experts, however, may not be large. In describing Dr. Rekers’s selection in the Florida case, Mr. McCollum told reporters last week, “There were only two willing to step forward and testify, and we searched a long time.”  

James Esseks, the director of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and AIDS Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the scandal was ultimately beside the point. “Is he gay or not? Did he hire the rent boy or not hire the rent boy?” he said. “I have no idea what’s true or not in that realm, and it doesn’t make any difference.”  

Largely because of the Florida and Arkansas cases, he said, “Dr. Rekers has been discredited already, and completely independently of any of that.”  

Ted Haggard, former pastor of the New Life megachurch in Colorado Springs whose ties to a male prostitute led to scandal, said his situation was different from that of Dr. Rekers.  

“He made statements that his personal religious beliefs should be inculcated into civil law,” Mr. Haggard said in an interview. “I never said anything about that.”  

“He said same-sex couples were unable to raise healthy kids,” he added. “I would never say anything like that.”  

John Leland contributed reporting.  

Malawi gay couple found guilty of unnatural acts

Globe and Mail

Trial has drawn worldwide condemnation of country’s laws on homosexuality

Blantyre, Malawi — The Associated Press

A gay couple in Malawi was found guilty Tuesday of unnatural acts and gross indecency after a trial that drew worldwide condemnation of this southern African country’s colonial-era laws on homosexuality.

The judge was expected to announce a sentence soon after his verdict Tuesday. The couple could be imprisoned for up to 14 years.

Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, had been jailed since their arrest Dec. 27, the day they celebrated their engagement with a party that drew crowds of curious, jeering onlookers.

Hearings in the trial also have drawn Malawians who have ridiculed the couple, an indications of views on homosexuality in this traditional society – and elsewhere in Africa.

Homosexuality is illegal in at least 37 countries on the continent. In Uganda, lawmakers are considering a bill that would sentence homosexuals to life in prison and include capital punishment for “repeat offenders.” Even in South Africa, the only African country that recognizes gay rights, gangs have carried out so-called “corrective” rapes on lesbians.

Michaela Clayton of the South Africa-based AIDS & Rights Alliance for Southern Africa said not only were human rights being violated, but the fight against AIDS was being hurt. Gay people forced underground were unlikely to seek counseling and treatment for AIDS, she and other activists said.

Ms. Clayton said gays and other minorities in Africa had in recent years become more assertive about their sexual orientation and about claiming their rights, which could have led to the backlash.

“We have to keep on being strategic about the way we push this agenda forward,” she said.

Priti Patel of the Southern African Litigation Centre, an independent rights group, said Mr. Monjeza and Mr. Chimbalanga could appeal on the grounds that the laws under which they were prosecuted violate the country’s 1994 constitution. But an earlier attempt by their lawyer to have the case thrown out on those grounds was rejected.

Stephen Harper government won’t fund Toronto gay pride festival

Decision to nix Pride funding a ‘slap in the face’

Paul Moloney
Vanessa LuStaff Reporters

Ottawa’s decision not to fund Toronto’s Pride festival this year is “very disappointing,” say organizers, who blame the political furor that resulted from last year’s grant.

“We are very surprised. We qualified last year and we expected to get at least something,” said executive director Tracey Sandilands of the festival’s request for $600,000.

In 2009, the Pride festival received a $400,000 grant under the Marquee Tourism Eventsprogram, a special two-year $100 million stimulus fund to draw tourists and their dollars to communities across Canada.

“It was all the fuss and bother last year. It’s difficult to believe it isn’t a political agenda,” said Sandilands, referring to the uproar resulting from a photo opportunity last year when then-tourism minister Diane Ablonczy was photographed with drag queens at the Gladstone Hotel.

Shortly after that event, the file was turned over to Industry Minister Tony Clement.

In an interview Saturday, Clement dismissed any suggestion of bias, saying the program was reworked this year to ensure more events qualified, by limiting funding to two events in big cities because much of last year’s grants were concentrated in Toronto and Montreal.

This year, Toronto’s Luminato festival will be getting $2.5 million and the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair will get $1.9 million.

“There were a lot of events that were meritorious that unfortunately were not able to be funded,” Clement told the Star, adding Luminato is still new, seeking a national and international audience, and the Royal has rebounded after some difficult years.

Sandilands said the Pride festival, scheduled from June 25 to July 4, will go ahead, but there is not enough time to make up the funding shortfall. As a result, plans for additional headline artists and marketing efforts will be cut, although a free concert with Cyndi Lauper is still on.

Her group estimates last year’s $400,000 investment translated into an additional $6 million in economic activity.

“We believe this sends the message that queer events are not worthy investing in,” said Sandilands, noting Pride was the only queer event to receive support over two years.

Clement responded: “That’s reading too much into it.” He emphasized that the Pride festival, now in its 30th year, is a successful event with lots of attention and sponsorship, and “quite frankly they are doing fine.”

Councillor Kyle Rae said he was not surprised by the decision. “Reading the political tea leaves from last year, and Diane Ablonczy being shoved aside, I think all of us saw that this was going to happen,” said Rae.

“The federal government is discriminating against an organization that fills all the hotels in the city. And they aren’t going to fund it. What more do you need to know about this discriminatory, Neanderthal government?”

Mayoral candidate Rocco Rossi called urged all candidates to speak up against the federal government’s decision.

“I call on all the mayoral candidates to stand united,” Rossi said. “This is a blow to tourism and diversity in Toronto and it’s not acceptable.”

Mayoral candidate George Smitherman, who’s gay, said the federal grant program is to support marquee events, and Pride is considered one of the top marquee events in the country.

“I think it’s shocking that they’ve pulled the rug out from under Pride, one of the country’s marquee tourism events so close to the time of the festival,” Smitherman said. “It’s regrettable and irresponsible and it comes as a slap in the face to the community.”

Mayoral candidate Rob Ford said events like Pride should be supported by private sector sponsors, not taxpayers.

“I’ve always said the public sector shouldn’t be funding parades, no matter what parade it is,” Ford said. “The private sector should be sponsoring these parades.”

But mayoral candidate Joe Pantalone said that during times of austerity, governments usually cut back but don’t cancel grants outright.

“If the idea is to address budget issues, usually there’s a reduction. Elimination is a drastic action, a statement which speaks volumes. It’s not fair and it’s not right.”

Stephen Harper government won’t fund Toronto gay pride festival

Joan BrydenThe Canadian Press

OTTAWA—The Harper government is being labelled homophobic for refusing to fund Toronto’s gay pride festival this year.

The festival received $400,000 last year from the marquee tourism events program but it won’t get a nickel this year.

Industry Minister Tony Clement insisted Friday the decision has nothing to do with anti-gay sentiment among some members of the ruling Conservative caucus.

Rather, he said the government decided to fund fewer events in major cities this year so it can spread the money around more equitably to smaller centres.

But festival organizers and opposition critics maintained homophobia was behind the decision. And they claimed exclusion of the pride festival is part of a pattern that suggests hard-right, social conservatives are now in charge of the government.

The decision not to fund the festival comes on the heels of recent funding cuts to women’s groups and the government’s refusal to fund abortion as part of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s G8 maternal health initiative.

“This is again another example, in my opinion, of a reckless, ideological cut from a Conservative government which actually has a history of attacking gay rights,” said Liberal tourism critic Navdeep Bains.

Pride Toronto executive director Tracey Sandilands pointed out some Conservative MPs were aghast last year when Diane Ablonczy, then tourism minister, gave the festival $400,000.

Shortly afterward, responsibility for the marquee program was shifted from Ablonczy to Clement. Tory MP Brad Trost told an anti-abortion website that Ablonczy was being punished for making a funding decision that was not supported by “a large majority of MPs.”

Trost’s interpretation of events was denied by the government but Sandilands said the flap was a clear sign “there was definitely homophobia at work then.”

This year, she said the qualifying criteria for funding has not changed and other events, including the Calgary Stampede, have received funding for the second year in a row.

“That indicates to me that something has changed between last year and this year and it’s not our eligibility,” Sandilands said.

“So the only thing it can be is some kind of homophobia. I mean, it makes sense.”

But Clement said in an interview it’s inaccurate to say the pride festival’s funding has been “cut off.” He said there was “a whole new application process” this year and no event was guaranteed to get money just because they got some last year.

Last year, Clement said the lion’s share of the marquee program’s funding went to large urban centres, particularly Toronto and Montreal. This year, the major cities were limited to two successful applications, allowing the government to spread the largesse around to smaller centres across the country.

The two Toronto events that will get funding are the Luminato arts festival and the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. Clement said both are making new attempts to reach international audiences.

By contrast, he said the pride festival is “a very successful event, it’s obviously able to stand on its own two feet.”

[VIDEO] BILL HICKS: The Tupac Shakur of Comedy

William Melvin “Bill” Hicks (December 16, 1961 – February 26, 1994) was an American stand-up comedian and satirist. His humor challenged mainstream beliefs, aiming to “enlighten people to think for themselves.”[1] Hicks used a ribald approach to express his material, describing himself as “Chomsky with dick jokes.”[1] His jokes included general discussions about society, religion, politics, philosophy and personal issues. Hicks’ material was often deliberately controversial and steeped in dark comedy. In both his stand-up performances, and during interviews, he often criticized consumerism, superficiality, mediocrity and banality within the media and popular culture, describing them as oppressive tools of the ruling class, meant to “keep people stupid and apathetic.”[2]

Hicks died of pancreatic cancer, which had spread to his liver, in 1994 at the age of 32. In the years after his death, his work and legacy achieved significant admiration and acclaim, of numerous comedians, writers, actors and musicians alike. He was listed as the 19th greatest stand-up comedian of all time by Comedy Central in 2004, and 6th greatest in 2007 and 4th greatest in 2010 by Channel 4.

Born in Valdosta, Georgia, Bill Hicks was the son of Jim and Mary (Reese) Hicks, and had two elder siblings, Steve and Lynn. The family lived in Florida, Alabama and New Jersey, before settling in Houston, Texas, when Hicks was seven. He was raised in the Southern Baptist faith, where he first began performing as a comedian to other children at Sunday School.[3]

He was drawn to comedy at an early age, emulating Woody Allen and Richard Pryor, and writing routines with his friend Dwight Slade. Worried about his behavior, his parents took him to a psychoanalyst at age 17 but, according to Hicks, after one session the psychoanalyst informed him that “…it’s them, not you.”[3]

In 1978, Hicks, along with friends Slade, Ben Dunn, John S. and Kevin Booth, began performing at the Comedy Workshop in Houston. At first, Hicks was unable to drive to venues independently and was so young that he needed a special work permit to perform. By the autumn of 1978 he had worked his way up to performing once every Tuesday night, while still attending Stratford High School. He was well-received and started developing his improvisational skills, although his act at the time was limited.

In 1986, Hicks found himself broke, but his career received another upturn as he appeared on Rodney Dangerfield’s Young Comedians Special, in 1987. The same year, he moved to New York City, and for the next five years he did about 300 performances a year. On the album Relentless, he jokes that he quit using drugs because “once you’ve been taken aboard a UFO, it’s kind of hard to top that”, although in his performances, he continued to extol the virtues of LSD, marijuana, and psychedelic mushrooms.[4] He fell back to chain-smoking,[5] a theme that would figure heavily in his performances from then on.

In 1988 Hicks signed on with his first professional business manager, Jack Mondrus. Throughout 1989, Mondrus worked to convince many clubs to book Hicks, promising that the wild drug- and alcohol-induced behavior was behind him. Among the club managers hiring the newly sober Hicks was Colleen McGarr, who would become his girlfriend and fiancée in later years.

In 1989 he released his first video, Sane Man.[6] It was reissued in 2006.

In 1990, Hicks released his first album, Dangerous, performed on the HBO special One Night Stand, and performed at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival.[7] He was also part of a group of American stand-up comedians performing in London’s West End in November (or December[8]). Hicks was a huge hit in the UK and Ireland and continued touring there throughout 1991. That year, he returned to the Just for Laughs festival and recorded his second album, Relentless.

Hicks made a brief detour into musical recording with the Marble Head Johnson album in 1992. In November (or December[8]), he toured the UK, where he recorded the Revelations video for Channel 4. He closed the show with “It’s Just a Ride”, one of his most famous and life-affirming philosophies. Also in that tour he recorded the stand-up performance released in its entirety on a double CD titled Salvation. Hicks was voted “Hot Standup Comic” by Rolling Stone magazine. He moved to Los Angeles in early 1993.

Censorship and aftermath

Hicks was constantly facing problems with censorship. In 1984, Hicks was invited to appear on Late Night with David Letterman for the first time. He had a joke that he used frequently in comedy clubs about how he accidentally caused a fellow class-mate to become wheelchair bound. NBC had a policy that no handicapped jokes could be aired on the show, making his stand-up routine difficult to perform without mentioning words such as “wheelchair”. Hicks was disappointed that the TV audience didn’t get to experience the uncensored Bill Hicks that people saw in clubs.[9]

On October 1, 1993, about five months before his death, Hicks was scheduled to appear on Late Show with David Letterman, his twelfth appearance on a Letterman late night show but his entire performance was removed from the broadcast — then the only occasion where a comedian’s entire routine was cut after taping. Hicks’ stand-up routine was removed from the show allegedly because Letterman and his producer were nervous about Hicks’ religious jokes. Hicks said he believed it was due to a pro-life commercial aired during a commercial break.[10] Both the show’s producers and CBS denied responsibility. Hicks expressed his feelings of betrayal in a letter to John Lahr of The New Yorker.[11][12] Although Letterman later expressed regret at the way Hicks had been handled, Hicks did not appear on the show again. The full account of this incident was featured in a New Yorker profile by Lahr[11], which was later published as a chapter in Lahr’s book, Light Fantastic.[13]

Hicks’ mother, Mary, appeared on the January 30, 2009, episode of Late Show. Letterman played Hicks’ routine in its entirety. Letterman took full responsibility for the original censorship and apologized to Mrs. Hicks. Letterman also declared he did not know what he was thinking when he pulled the routine from the original show in 1993. Letterman said, “It says more about me as a guy than it says about Bill because there was absolutely nothing wrong with it.”

Cancer diagnosis and death

In April 1993, while touring in Australia, Hicks started complaining of pains in his side, and on June 16 of that year, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver.[16] He started receiving weekly chemotherapy, while still touring and also recording his album, Arizona Bay, with Kevin Booth. He was also working with comedian Fallon Woodland on a pilot episode of a new talk show, titled Counts of the Netherworld for Channel 4 at the time of his death. The budget and concept had been approved, and a pilot was filmed. The Counts of the Netherworld pilot was shown at the various Tenth Anniversary Tribute Night events around the world on February 26, 2004.

After being diagnosed with cancer, Hicks would often joke openly at performances exclaiming it would be his last. Hicks performed the actual final show of his career at Caroline’s in New York on January 6, 1994. He moved back to his parents’ house in Little Rock, Arkansas, shortly thereafter. He called his friends to say goodbye, before he stopped speaking on February 14[citation needed], and re-read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.[17] He spent time with his parents, playing them the music he loved and showing them documentaries about his interests. He died of cancer in the presence of his parents at 11:20 p.m. on February 26, 1994. He was 32 years old.[18] Hicks was buried in the family plot in Leakesville, Mississippi.

On February 7, 1994, after his diagnosis with cancer, Hicks authored a short statement on his perspective, wishes and thanks of his of life, to be released after his death as his “last word”,[16] ending with the words:

“I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.”

Comic style

Hicks’s style was a play on his audience’s emotions. He expressed anger, disgust and apathy while addressing the audience in a casual and personal manner, which he likened to merely conversing with his friends, often making eye contact with individual audience members in smaller venues.

Hicks’s material was less focused on the everyday banalities of life and placed greater emphasis on philosophical themes of existence. He would invite his audiences to challenge authority and the existential nature of “accepted truth.” One such message, which he often used in his shows, was delivered in the style of a news report:

Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration — that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There is no such thing as death; life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves… Here’s Tom with the weather! [19]

Another of Hicks’s most famous quotes was delivered during a gig in Chicago in 1989 (later released as the bootleg I’m Sorry, Folks). After a heckler repeatedly shouted “Free Bird”, Hicks screamed that “Hitler had the right idea, he was just an underachiever!” Hicks followed this remark with a misanthropic tirade calling for unbiased genocide against the whole of humanity.[20]

Much of Hicks’s routine involved direct attacks on mainstream society, religion, politics, and consumerism. Asked in a BBC interview why he cannot do a routine that appeals “to everyone”, he said that such an act was impossible. He responded by repeating a comment an audience member once made to him, “We don’t come to comedy to think!”, to which he replied, “Gee! Where do you go to think? I’ll meet you there!” In the same interview, he also said: “My way is half-way between: this is a night-club, and these are adults.” [21]

Hicks often discussed conspiracy theories in his performances, most notably the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He mocked the Warren Report and the official version of Lee Harvey Oswald as a “lone nut assassin.” He also questioned the guilt of David Koresh and the Branch Davidian compound during the Waco Siege.

Hicks would end some of his shows — and especially those being recorded in front of larger audiences as albums — with a mock “assassination” of himself on stage, making gunshot sound effects into the microphone and falling to the ground.


Arizona Bay and Rant in E-Minor were released posthumously in 1997 on the Voices imprint of the Rykodisc label. Dangerous and Relentless were also re-released by Rykodisc on the same date.

In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian’s Comedian, fellow comedians and comedy insiders voted Hicks #13 on their list of “The Top 20 Greatest Comedy Acts Ever”. Likewise, in “Comedy Central Presents: 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time” (2004), Hicks was ranked at #19. In March 2007, Channel 4 ran a poll, “The Top 100 Stand-Up Comedians of All Time,” in which Hicks was voted #6. Channel 4 renewed this list in April 2010, which saw Hicks move up 2 places to #4.[36]

Devotees of Hicks have incorporated his words, image, and attitude into their own creations. Because of audio sampling, fragments of Hicks’ rants, diatribes, social criticisms, and philosophies have found their way into many musical works, such as the live version of Super Furry Animals’ “Man Don’t Give A Fuck”. His influence on Tool is well documented; he “appears” on the Fila Brazillia album Maim That Tune (1996) and on SPA’s self titled album SPA (1997), which are both dedicated to Hicks; the British band Radiohead’s second album The Bends (1995) is also dedicated to his memory. Singer/songwriter Tom Waits listed Rant in E Minor as one of his 20 most cherished albums of all time.[37] The UK band Shack released an album in August 2003 quoting a Bill Hicks routine in the title: Here’s Tom With the Weather. The album also included other Bill Hicks quotes in the liner notes. English breakbeat artist Adam Freeland sampled Revelations for his track “We Want Your Soul.” Welsh punk rock band Mclusky reference a Hicks routine in the lyrics to their song “To Hell With Good Intentions”. Punk cabaret musician Amanda Palmer says, “I have my new Bill Hicks CD” in the song “Another Year” on her 2008 album Who Killed Amanda Palmer. The Swedish indie pop singer/songwriter Jens Lekman has written a song called “People who Hate People Come Together” after the same Hicks quote. The last track of The Kleptones album Yoshimi Battles the Hip-Hop Robots, Last Words (A Tribute), includes his “It’s just a ride” in its entirety.[citation needed]

Hamell on Trial’s 1999 album Choochtown includes the song “Bill Hicks,” featuring the lyric “I wish Billl Hicks was alive/I wish Bill Hicks had survived,” as well at the instrumental tribute “Bill Hicks (Ascension).”

Rappers Adil Omar and Vinnie Paz have also cited Hicks as an influence to their work; contemporary comedians David Cross and Russell Brand have stated that they were inspired by Hicks.[38][39] Irish Independent columnist Ian O’Doherty is also a great admirer of Hicks.

On their 2009 album There Is No Enemy, Built To Spill released the song “Planting Seeds” with the lyrics “I’ve heard that they’ll sell anything and I think they might…I think Bill Hicks was right…about what they should do.” referring to his stand up routine which asks marketers to kill themselves. The song title refers to a bit in the same routine when Bill explains, “Just planting seeds here, folks.”.

The British film Human Traffic referred to him as the “late prophet Bill Hicks,” and portrays the main character, Jip, watching Hicks’ stand-up before going out to “remind me not to take life too seriously”. Hicks even appears in the comic book Preacher, in which he is an important influence on the protagonist, Rev. Jesse Custer. His opening voice-over to the 1991 Revelations live show is also quoted in Preacher‘s last issue.[citation needed]

The British actor Chas Early portrayed Hicks in the one-man stage show Bill Hicks: Slight Return, which premiered in 2005.

On February 25, 2004, British MP Stephen Pound tabled an early day motion titled “Anniversary of the Death of Bill Hicks” (EDM 678 of the 2003-04 session), the text of which was as follows:

That this House notes with sadness the 10th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks, on 26th February 1994, at the age of 32; recalls his assertion that his words would be a bullet in the heart of consumerism, capitalism and the American Dream; and mourns the passing of one of the few people who may be mentioned as being worth [sic] of inclusion with Lenny Bruce and George Carlin in any list of unflinching and painfully honest political philosophers.[40]

Film and documentary

A film about Hicks’ life and career, rumored to be directed by Ron Howard, is said to be in pre-production. Russell Crowe has been mentioned as one of the producers and may portray Hicks as well.[41]

A documentary entitled American: The Bill Hicks Story, based on interviews with his family and friends, premiered on March 12, 2010, at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.[42] The film has gone on to screen at multiple festivals including SxSW, London Film Festival and Sheffield Doc/Fest.

‘Lights, Camera, Action. Marxism, Semiotics, Narratology. Film studies isn’t what it used to be, one father discovers.’


Written By David Weddle, Special to The Los Angeles Times

July 13, 2003

“How did you do on your final exam?” I asked my daughter.

Her shoulders slumped. “I got a C.”

Alexis was a film studies major completing her last undergraduate year at UC Santa Barbara. I had paid more than $73,000 for her college education, and the most she could muster on her film theory class final was a C?

“It’s not my fault,” she protested. “You should have seen the questions. I couldn’t understand them, and nobody else in the class could either. All of the kids around me got Cs and Ds.”

She insisted that she had studied hard, then offered: “Here, read the test  yourself and tell me if it makes any sense.”

I took it from her, confidently. After all, I had graduated 25 years ago from USC with a bachelor’s degree in cinema. I’d written a biography of movie director Sam Peckinpah, articles for Variety, Film Comment, Sight & Sound, and written and produced episodic television.

On the exam, I found the following, from an essay by film theorist Kristin Thompson:

“Neoformalism posits that viewers are active that they perform operations.  Contrary to psychoanalytic criticism, I assume that film viewing is composed mostly of nonconscious, preconscious, and conscious activities. Indeed, we may define the viewer as a hypothetical entity who responds actively to cues within the film on the basis of automatic perceptual processes and on the basis of experience. Since historical contexts make the protocols of these responses inter-subjective, we may analyze films without resorting to subjectivity . . . According to Bordwell, ‘The organism constructs a perceptual judgment on the basis of nonconscious inferences.’ “

Then came the question itself:

“What kind of pressure would Metz’s description of ‘the imaginary signifier’  or Baudry’s account of the subject in the apparatus put on the ontology and epistemology of film implicit in the above two statements?”

I looked up at my daughter. She smiled triumphantly. “Welcome to film theory,” she chirped.

Alexis then plopped down two thick study guides. One was for the theory  class, the other for her course in advanced film analysis. “Tell me where I  went wrong,” she said.

The prose was denser than a Kevlar flak jacket, full of such words as  “diegetic,” “heterogeneity,” “narratology,” “narrativity,” “symptomology,”  “scopophilia,” “signifier,” “syntagmatic,” “synecdoche,” “temporality.” I picked out two of them “fabula” and “syuzhet” and asked Alexis if she knew what they meant. “They’re the Russian Formalist terms for ‘story’ and  ‘plot,’ ” she replied.

“Well then, why don’t they use ‘story’ and ‘plot?’ “

“We’re not allowed to. If we do, they take points off our paper. We have to  use ‘fabula’ and ‘syuzhet.’ “

Forget for a moment that if Alexis were to use these terms on a Hollywood  set, she’d be laughed off the lot. Alexis wants a career in film. She chose UC Santa Barbara because we couldn’t afford USC and her grades weren’t  lustrous enough for UCLA. Film programs at those schools have hard-core  theoreticians on their faculty, as do many other universities. Yet no other  undergraduate film program in the country emphasizes film theory as much as UCSB, and the influence of those theoreticians is growing. We knew that much before Alexis enrolled. In hindsight, we had no idea what that truly meant for students.

I flipped through more pages and landed on this paragraph by Edward  Branigan, the premier film theorist at UCSB: “Film theory deals with basic  principles of film, not specific films. Thus it has a somewhat ‘abstract,’  intangible quality to it. It is like looking at a chair in a classroom and  thinking about chairs in general: undoubtedly, there are many types and

shapes of ‘chairs’ made out of many kinds and colors of materials resulting  in different sizes of chairs. What must a ‘chair’ be in order to be a ‘chair’? (Can it be anything? a pencil? a car? a sandwich? a nostalgic feeling? a ledge of a building that someone sits on? the ground one sits on and also walks on? Can a ‘chair’ be whatever you want, whatever you say it is?) Here’s another question: what must a chair be in order to be ‘comfortable’ (i.e., what is the ‘aesthetics’ of chairs?)?”

My daughter was required to take 14 units of film analysis and theory before she could graduate with her bachelor’s degree in film studies. That’s the equivalent of going to school full time for one quarter, which made it  relatively easy to crunch the numbers. Including tuition, books, school  supplies, food and rent, it cost about $6,100 for Alexis to learn how to distinguish between a chair and a nostalgic feeling. I don’t like to complain, but that just didn’t seem like a fair return on my investment.

Is there a hidden method to these film theorists’ apparent madness? Or is  film theory, as movie critic Roger Ebert said as I interviewed him weeks  later, “a cruel hoax for students, essentially the academic equivalent of a  New Age cult, in which a new language has been invented that only the adept can communicate in”?

At USC cinema school a quarter-century ago, one of the most popular teachers was Drew Casper, a young, untenured professor with an unbridled love for movies. Casper didn’t lecture, he performed: jumping on a chair to sing a song from the musical he was teaching, covering his blackboard with frenetic scrawls as he unleashed a torrent of background material on the filmmaker’s life, the studio that produced the movie, and the social forces that influenced it.

Casper, and most other film studies professors at USC, approached film from a humanist perspective. He taught students to focus on the characters in the movies, the people who made the films, and the stories the movies told and what they revealed about the human condition, our society and the moment in history they dramatized.

Yes, students read theoretical essays and books. But they were about the nuts and bolts of moviemaking. Aristotle’s “Poetics” laid out the basic  principles of dramatic writing. Sergei Eisenstein explained the intricate mechanics of montage editing, which used quick cutting to provoke visceral emotions from audiences. And André Bazin described how directors Orson Welles and William Wyler used a “long-take” method of filming scenes that was the opposite of montage, the camera and actors moving poetically around one another in intricately choreographed shots.

Students also studied the first French cinematic doctrine to reach American shores, the auteur theory. It held that directors were the primary creators of films and that they, like novelists, created bodies of work with recurrent themes and consistent world views. At the time, the auteur theory  seemed revolutionary, and in Hollywood‹particularly among members of the Writers Guild it remains controversial because many argue that movies are created not by a single auteur but by a complex collaboration of hundreds of craftspeople, beginning with the screenwriter.

Whatever its merits, the auteur theory remained solidly within the humanist  tradition Casper once taught. Perhaps he knows what happened to film theory in recent decades.

He does. “Unfortunately, film studies has moved away from humanist  concerns,” says Casper, who now holds the prestigious Hitchcock Chair at  USC’s School of Cinema-Television.   The change began in France in the late 1960s, he says, offering explanations echoed by other film and English professors interviewed for this article. French theorists of the New Left pushed their own liberal social agendas. They discredited the auteur theory as sentimental bourgeois claptrap. Auteurists, they believed, had constructed a pantheon of great directors, almost all them white males, whom they worshiped as demigods. Moviegoers passively allowed the genius to spoon-feed them his interpretation of their socio/political system, and they never dared question the validity of those perceptions.

New Left theorists decided film viewers should liberate themselves, bringing their own thoughts, interpretations and responses into the process. Moviegoers should look at films not as the product of a unique creative spirit, but as cultural “artifacts.” Films could be analyzed as a series of  Rorschach inkblots, providing insights about the collective unconscious of  the society that produced them. Thus it was no longer the artists’ views of  the world that counted. They were merely channeling the zeitgeist. Theorists became the new high priests of culture, and they followed their own  concrete, left-wing social agenda.

By the ’70s, film theory was spreading to the United States, and moving beyond simple politics. A kind of metaphysical inquiry into the nature of  cinema was underway. Discussions about movie characters, plots and the human beings who created them were on the way to being replaced by theories such as semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, psychoanalytics  and neoformalism.

Film metaphysics, to use an Edward Branigan-style analogy, is like looking at a statue of a man and instead of asking what it expresses about the human psyche, wondering what it reveals about the nature of marble. Or studying a painting to find what it says about the meaning of the color red.

Hershel Parker, respected author of a two-volume biography of writer Herman Melville, says the transformation of film studies mirrored that in many  college English departments. “There’s no room for anyone in English departments who wants to talk about author intention,” says Parker, who goes into Old Testament rage at the mention of the subject. When the New Left  theories invaded American English departments, Parker believes it all but  wiped out serious scholarship. “I was a freak for wanting to go into the library manuscript collections.”

Since authors no longer matter, Parker says, many researchers believe they  no longer need to go back and read the author’s correspondence and working  manuscripts, or study the events that shaped his or her sensibility. “It’s  naïve New Criticism, where all you do is submit yourself to the text,” says  Parker. “These people have no clue about going to do research. They don’t  know you can find out about a person’s life or work. They have not, and  their teachers have not done real research.”

Annette Insdorf, director of Undergraduate Film Studies at Columbia  University, recruits film theorists for her faculty because she believes her  students should be exposed to a discipline that has had a major impact on cinema scholarship. But she remains ambivalent.

Film theory caught on in the 1970s and 1980s, she points out, a time when many cinema professors were struggling to win the respect of their  colleagues. “Don’t forget that film studies always labored under the  handicap of being perceived as too easy and fun within many universities,”  Insdorf says. “I sometimes suspected that professors were trying to ensure  their own job security by utilizing an increasingly obfuscating language.  The less understandable film theory became to faculty from other  departments, the more respectable it seemed.”

As curriculum shifted, students moved further from the practical  considerations that have always driven filmmaking‹and continue to drive  Hollywood today. “You get people who are graduating with master’s degrees  who know nothing about the history of movies,” Casper says. “They have never  even heard of Ernst Lubitsch, have never even seen Hitchcock movies. They  know the different film theories, they know their    Marx, their Freud, their  Althusser, Derrida.”

Constance Penley is a thin, plainly dressed woman in her late 50s, her short  white hair combed forward in the manner of Gertrude Stein. She speaks in a soft Southern accent, her slender ivory hands shaking ever so slightly as they gesture to illustrate a point.

Penley is director of the UCSB Center for Film, Television and New Media.  She also is one of the founders of Camera Obscura, a highly influential   feminist film journal, and is one of the primary architects of film theory  in the United States. As author or editor of nine books on film and media  theory, she is constantly on the move, whisking off to speak in Rome,  London, Warsaw, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and at UCLA, USC, UC Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Princeton and Harvard.

Like many theorists, she exudes an almost religious fervor for film theory  and its power to transform. Penley vividly remembers the moment of her  conversion. She arrived at the University of Florida in 1966 with the  intention of becoming a high school or community college teacher. But the  campus’ burgeoning counterculture quickly radicalized her. She marched in peace demonstrations, got tear-gassed, worked on the underground newspaper,  attended feminist consciousness-raising groups and came to realize that  becoming a mere teacher would be to surrender to the pressures of a  patriarchal power structure.

One night she went to a screening of “Pierrot le Fou,” a labyrinthine,  perplexing, yet mesmerizing film by the premier French New Wave director,  Jean-Luc Godard. The plot was impossible to follow, but the spontaneity of  the acting, the unconventional staging and elliptical editing seemed to  Penley to burst beyond the screen. “I walked out into the steamy Florida  night and I was baffled. I set out to try and figure out: ‘How is this a film?’ “

She went to see more European movies, hallucinatory concoctions by Luis Buñuel and Federico Fellini that catapulted beyond all traditional notions of genre or narrative. Her excitement and questions multiplied, even if she still didn’t know how to define what she was seeing.

Then she took a film class from W. R. Robinson, who had edited a book titled “Man and the Movies.” “He was one of these crazy English professors who loved movies and wanted to legitimize them so he could show them in class,”  Penley says.

At the time, only a handful of universities had film programs, most  prominently USC, UCLA and New York University. At most colleges, the notion  of seriously studying cinema was mocked or ignored. But gradually,  instructors on some campuses persuaded the English, philosophy, or even the  rhetoric departments to allow them to teach a film class or two.

At the University of Florida, Robinson taught a number of courses, including “Narrative Analysis.” One of the textbooks was “Structuralism,” by Jacques Ehrman. “It was one of the very, very first things on structuralism translated in this country,” Penley says. Derived from the work of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, structuralism is an investigation of the “deep structures” found in a society’s myths, artwork, literature and films‹structures through which the society defines itself.

In it, at last, Penley had a tool for picking apart works of literature and these new foreign films, a tool for bringing order to the chaos,  understanding to her confusion.

After earning a master’s in English education in 1971, Penley wanted to go  to the “the most radical place, the farthest away I could get” from Florida.  “That was Berkeley.” There she found a fantastic Day-Glo wonderland, a  frothing kettle of New Left politics. She joined a Marxist study group,  attended classes at the East Bay Socialist School, screenings at the Pacific  Film Archive and film theory classes and seminars taught by professors in Berkeley’s French and rhetoric departments.

She abandoned the idea of getting a PhD in English. “I thought: If I go into  English, I’ll have to be like everybody else. I’ll have to find one Shakespeare sonnet that hasn’t been done to death and spend the rest of my  life doing it to death. Film seemed so wide open.”   She decided to get a doctorate in rhetoric and write her dissertation on  film theory.

Then the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself. Bertrand Augst, a French professor who taught courses in semiotics and structuralism at  Berkeley, started the Paris Film Program. American college students could  study in France with the great film theorists, including Christian  Metz whose name I encountered on Alexis’ final exam.

Metz founded the theory of cinema semiotics. He presided over a think tank in Paris where scholars did not make movies or interview filmmakers or do archival research. Instead, they pondered the metaphysics of film, the manifold neoplastic mysteries that semiotics revealed.

Semiotics is the study of the myriad “signs,” verbal and nonverbal, that  human beings use to communicate: body language, images, icons, social  rituals, and, of course, written language and movies. A semiotician sees an  ordinary advertising billboard as a complex “hierarchy” of signs: the  slogan, the image of the product, the people consuming the product, the  clothes they are wearing, the colors used in the graphics and so on. By  closely analyzing each sign, or visual element, and their relationships to each other, the semiotician can glean a treasure trove of insights about the social system that both created and now consumes this pattern of images.

First developed at the end of the 19th century by American philosopher  Charles Sanders Peirce, semiotics was later picked up by French theorists  such as Lévi-Strauss, who applied it to anthropology; Jacques Lacan, who  applied it to Freudian analysis; and Metz, who turned its prism upon the  cinema. “In his books ‘Film Language,’ and ‘ Language and Cinema,’ Metz was  trying to look at the way film is structured like a language and if we could  study its elements with the same precision with which structural linguists were studying language,” Penley says.

She spent two years in Paris with about 40 other scholars. “Metz was a  beautiful, beautiful, gentle man in his 50s, trained in linguistics,” Penley  says, with the I-can-hardly-believe-I-actually-got-to-hang-with-him glow of  a teenager who’s met a rock ‘n’ roll idol. She also attended seminars and  lectures by some of the great French researchers in the pantheon of semiotics: Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, Raymond Bellour.

Penley returned from Paris after two years with the academic cachet to  establish herself as one of the leading film theorists in North America. She  earned her PhD at Berkeley and, in 1991, was hired at UCSB, where the film program was being methodically constructed by professor Charles Wolfe, who holds a doctorate in film studies from Columbia University.

“I wanted to build a strong core curriculum stressing film history, theory  and analysis‹the way I was trained,” Wolfe says. The practical side of  filmmaking‹how to write dramatically sound screenplays, elicit performances from actors, light a set, place a camera and edit film became secondary.   “Students who had strong interests in production could take classes” in  addition to core curriculum.

Penley joined Branigan, who had been on the faculty since 1984 after earning a doctorate from a leading film theory school, the University of Wisconsin,  Madison. Wolfe now had two major film theorists and the momentum to turn the film program into a full-fledged department in 1996.

Any way you slice it, UCSB’s small band of radical theorists has pulled off  a remarkable feat. They now hobnob with the Hollywood elite and are building a complex that will put their film studies department on par with UCLA, USC and NYU. They have overthrown the old school humanists and broken free of  the fascist thought control designs of the artistic genius auteurs.

How did they do it? “We were right, that’s how!” department chair Janet  Walker says with a triumphant laugh.

The department has 11 full-time and three tenured part-time faculty members and 456 undergraduates, twice that of a decade ago. Wolfe has in many ways  created a strong department. It offers courses in screenwriting, 16mm film production and animation, and a number of Hollywood professionals have come  to teach classes, including director John Carpenter, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and the late Paul Lazarus, a production executive who worked at  Columbia, Universal and Warner Brothers. Guest lecturers have included  Jeffrey Katzenberg, Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas, Jodie Foster and screenwriter John Lee Hancock.

The cinema history classes are demanding. Students cannot get away with  regurgitating passages from encyclopedias; they are required to pull  original production files on movies from such archives as the Motion Picture  Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library. But film theory remains at the core.  Students are required to take 14 units of film theory and analysis, and just  one four-unit production course that deals with the actual writing, shooting  and editing of a film or video project.

Wolfe argues that the rigorous intellectual regimen produces better  filmmakers, noting that for three consecutive years (1999-2001), UCSB  alumnae were nominated for Academy Awards. The most prominent is Scott  Frank, nominated for his screenplay for the thriller “Out of Sight” in 1999.  Frank has since written the script for “The Minority Report.”

It’s worth noting that Frank graduated in 1982, before Branigan and Penley  and the greater emphasis on theory. He credits Lazarus with helping him to hone his craft and says he learned a great deal from Wolfe’s film history classes.

Frank co-chairs the advisory board for UCSB’s Center for Film, Television  and New Media. The board is peppered with other Hollywood heavyweights,  including Danny DeVito, Michael Douglas, “Ghostbusters” director Ivan  Reitman, TV producer Dick Wolf and Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman.  The center is scheduled to break ground in 2005 and will include an editing  room, production space and a theater.

When I show Frank examples of the film theory that mystified my daughter, he is bewildered. “This is the first I’ve ever heard of these terms.  ‘Narratology?’ ‘Symptomatic interpretation?’ ‘Syuzhet, fabula, analepses,  prolepses’, my goodness! I’m really shocked that they even teach anything like this.”

Other Hollywood professionals and film experts offered harsher reactions.  Some criticized the curriculum or the political agendas at work. Some simply  couldn’t get beyond the turgid academic language.

I read from my daughter’s study guide to Gary A. Randall, who has served as  president of Orion Television, Spelling Television, and as the executive  producer of the TV series “Any Day Now.” “That’s what your daughter’s being  taught?” he says. “That’s just elitist psychobabble. It sounds like it was written by a professor of malapropism. That has absolutely no bearing on the  real world. It sounds like an awfully myopic perspective of what film is  really supposed to be about: touching hearts and minds and providing  provocative thoughts.”

From movie critic Ebert: “Film theory has nothing to do with film. Students  presumably hope to find out something about film, and all they will find out  is an occult and arcane language designed only for the purpose of excluding  those who have not mastered it and giving academic rewards to those who  have. No one with any literacy, taste or intelligence would want to teach  these courses, so the bona fide definition of people teaching them are  people who are incapable of teaching anything else.”

From Kevin Brownlow, the world’s leading silent movie historian, author of  “The Parade’s Gone By . . .,” and co-producer, with David Gill, of acclaimed documentaries: “You would think, from this closed-circuit attitude to teaching, that such academics would be politically right wing. For it is a  kind of fascism to force people practicing one discipline to learn the  language of another, simply for the convenience of an intellectual elite.  It’s like expecting Slavs to learn German in order to comprehend their own  inferiority. But they are not right wing. They are, regrettably, usually left wing, quite aggressively Marxist, which makes the whole situation even  more alarming.”

UCSB’s film studies faculty is upfront about its political agenda. The  professors are, as in most other film programs, almost uniformly on the left  end of the political spectrum. Penley’s generation forged their political  beliefs in the 1960s counterculture, and they show a strong preference for  hiring younger professors who share their liberal beliefs.

Lisa Parks, 35, joined the faculty in 1998 as a specialist in global media  and broadcast history. While an undergraduate at the University of Montana  in 1991, Parks and other students lay down on the basketball court at the start of a nationally televised game to protest the Gulf War. She  passionately opposed the war in Iraq, and believes that film and media theory can win the hearts and minds of her students back from the mass media  conglomerates that Parks says are controlled largely by conservatives.

“Many of our faculty are really concerned about the relationship between  media images and social power outside of the screen,” Parks says. “Even  though in our classes we’re often watching stuff and trying to segment,  analyze and discuss it, we hope that by the time our students graduate, if  they do go into the industry, it affects the way that they actually produce.”

In some respects, it’s not fair to single out UC Santa Barbara’s film theory  and analysis curriculum simply because my daughter went there. On the other  hand, UCSB does consider its film theory program to be its signature.

Faculty members are aware that many students are reluctant if not outright  hostile to being force-fed so much theory, but they maintain that the  curriculum is valuable even for production-oriented students. “We want them  to be able to understand other ways of thinking and looking at these works  of art that perhaps exceed their own reactions,” Wolfe says. “That may be  people from different time periods, cultures, genders or social orientations.”

When I share the criticisms of film theory with UCSB staff, they look truly wounded, then quickly mount a vigorous defense.

“Film theory is philosophy, and people have made the same criticisms of  philosophy for years,” Branigan says. “They say, ‘What relevance does  philosophy have to the real world? It’s merely idle thought, personal  feeling, pointless speculation.’ If we listened to them, we would do away  with teaching and studying the works of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant,  Wittgenstein and Sartre. Do we really want to do that? I think not.”

Anna Everett, an associate professor who specializes in new media, says,  “It’s galling for me to hear those kinds of charges when we expect our  students to be able to grapple with complex ideas in math and science and a lot of them won’t go on to use them. Math and science are part of our  everyday lives. So why is it then illegitimate for us to ask students to be  just as rigorous with something that has a much greater impact on an  everyday basis?

“Art, film and video games really do help to shape their ideas and  experiences and their relationships. I think the critics are unfair. It’s a  way of thinking that doesn’t really take into account what the university is  about. We’re not a trade school. We’re trying to develop minds, to create a better world.”

Is it working? The voices of two students:

“I love film theory,” says Chris Scotten. “When I graduate, I want to write, direct and produce. I’m shooting for the moon. The great thing about UCSB  is, I could have gone to USC and sat around holding a microphone boom pole, but then I wouldn’t understand the theory behind filmmaking, to understand  how film exists in relation to our lives. We learn how film psychologically  manipulates us, and the power inherent in the language of cinema. It can be  two things, a useful propaganda tool in a communist revolution, or part of  the capitalist superstructure, a way of lulling the working class into a  haze to subdue them and give them an escape from the pressures of reality.  The old communists writing about film theory in Russia and Germany really  had something to say, and it’s still relevant today. You’ve got about six companies that own the biggest, most awesome propaganda machine in the  history of the whole wretched world. What are the consequences of that?”

Yoshi Enoki Jr., who graduated in 1995, believes he has succeeded despite the film theory classes, not because of them. He has built a thriving career  as a location scout and manager for such films as “American Beauty,”  “Terminator 3” and the Coen brothers’ forthcoming remake of “The  Ladykillers.”

Some of his fellow students were not so lucky, Enoki says. They took to  heart the portrayals of Hollywood as the embodiment of corporate evil that  inevitably corrupts authentic artists and crushes their spirit. “That world

view has given them a rationalization for failure,” he says. “So they don’t  even try to break into the industry. These kids, I call them kids because they behave that way, have developed this cynicism, so much so that it eats them alive. Everything becomes negative. They don’t want to connect with people. One of my best friends said to me, ‘When I’m in Hollywood, I can’t  be myself.’ But they don’t even know what Hollywood’s all about because  they’ve never really been a part of it.”

During my interview with Janet Walker, she glances at the clock and gets a  sudden inspiration. Branigan, the  department’s premier cognitive film  theorist, is teaching a class this very moment. “You’ve got to see Edward lecture,” she says, leading me to a lecture hall. “It’s a theatrical experience.”

Walker ushers me into a 147-seat theater that is about three-quarters full.  Branigan stands before a blackboard covered with rectangles and hexagons  heavily notated with abbreviations. They appear to be the complex equations  of an astrophysicist, but are in fact illustrations of semiotic theories of  “narratology.” Branigan has tangled brown-gray hair, a shaggy beard, large  glasses coated with flecks of dandruff and fingerprints, and wears an  oversized gray sweater and corduroy pants. As he speaks, his hands grasp at  the air, shaping it as he shapes his thoughts. He punches certain words out  with an odd, inflectionless emphasis. “The nature of the photography:  Benjamin says the camera strips people who are in front of the camera lens‹like actors and alienaaaates them from their labor! Alienaaaation!  False coooonsciousness!”

Branigan’s oratory mesmerizes many of the students. They lean back, deep into the seats’ red upholstery, eyes staring blankly into space. Some give up and close them altogether. A brunet with a Huck Finn cap pulled over the  bridge of her nose shifts about for a more comfortable position and drifts   off again. A fellow traces the stubble on his cheek and squints, trying to  follow as he takes notes. A tall young man in a backward baseball cap  doodles a series of spirals, and at the back of the hall another reads a paper. Two girls in the back whisper to each other.

Branigan takes no notice. He leaves them far behind as he ascends faster and  faster along a spiral of rhetoric into the pure white ether of theory.  “Benjamin says the camera does not show the equipment that’s used to make  the film. It obscures or hides or masks THE MEANS OF PRODUCTION! Now in  Marxism if you hide the process of production, you are obscuring and further  alienating the labor that goes into that, the BOOODILY labor that yoooou are  contributing to that manufacture. OK? Which is a bad, bad fact. . . .”

David Weddle last wrote for the magazine about comedy.

There’s a difference between being insulted and discriminated against because one is, say, gay, and being called gay while being insulted.

Tabatha Southey

Canadian ruling on ‘offensive’ comedy is a gag
– but it’s no joke

Illustration by Anthony Jenkins

Illustration by Anthony Jenkins The Globe and Mail

Tabatha Southey

Friday, Apr. 02, 2010

It’s widely understood that the service offered to hecklers in a comedy club is to be insulted. So much so that had stand-up comic Guy Earle not insulted Lorna Pardy when she disrupted his act – had he, while noticing that she appeared to be lesbian, said, “My good lady, you’re correct: I suck, and will now leave the stage in shame” – he might arguably have been denying her a service based upon her sexual orientation.

As it is, when Ms. Pardy disrupted his act, Mr. Earle used some unpopular words to describe her and she instigated a case against him at the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, alleging that “she and her same-sex partner were subjected to a tirade of homophobic and sexist comments.”

There’s no suggestion that Ms. Pardy was denied food or drinks in the restaurant, but she argues that Mr. Earle and restaurant owner Salam Ismail “discriminated against her in the provision of a service … on the basis of her sex and her sexual orientation.” Mr. Ismail, faced with hefty legal fees, might be forgiven for thinking, “Next time, karaoke.” Just another way this suit will irreparably damage one of our legendary cultural industries.

No question, what occurred between those two on that night in 2007 isn’t an exquisite vignette of human behaviour that I’d want to show the gods. Ms. Pardy, who claims to suffer from post-traumatic stress from the incident, has admitted that she twice threw water at Mr. Earle “in order to snap him out of whatever rage he was in.”

Because we all know how well that works. Especially the second time. I don’t know about you, but when someone starts yelling at me, my first thought isn’t, “I should throw water at him. That’ll calm him down.”

Perhaps Ms. Pardy’s life up until that moment had been lived in a film-noir movie or something. Conceivably to this day, she is convinced that had there been a jug of water or a garden hose at her disposal, she would’ve been able to induce a Zen-like calm in Mr. Earle. Or else this was a comedy show that got out of hand. Which is no more a human-rights violation than throwing a drink is assault.

The words Mr. Earle allegedly used to describe Ms. Pardy are specific to women and/or lesbians and they’re considered derogatory. But I’ve also heard them used to great comedic effect by women, some of whom were lesbians, and, yes, by men.

I can’t say whether Mr. Earle was funny that night. That shouldn’t have any bearing on this case. I’ll just quote author Philip Pullman’s answer this week to a question about offensive content in his latest book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ: “No one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to live their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it and if they open it and read it, they don’t have to like it, and if you read it and dislike it, you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me to complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published or sold. Or bought or read.”

There’s a difference between being insulted and discriminated against because one is, say, gay, and being called gay while being insulted. One is criminal. The other’s rude. We can’t legislate decorum, criminalize offending or allow a frumpy fussiness over language to prevail – because free speech (famously defended by comics) will suffer.

The warnings to Ann Coulter last week followed on the heels of the attempt to change the lyrics to our national anthem lest anyone feel excluded, and this case makes us look ridiculous. I suggest that, for one week, Canada rehabilitate itself by changing the lyrics of O Canada to one long lesbian joke.