Friday, November 16, 2012

The Smartest Man in America Tells Us Who is the Smartest Man in America

Grading the Graders....

One of the pleasures of being around a campus all the time is that I do get to meet smart, interesting people, and of course I do mean on both sides of the podium. That much is natural, and might happen in a public library or even a bank. But in showing content to students, I also get to meet smart people just through the interweb.

One of my heroes is the art and literary critic Lawrence Weschler, shown here on the left in discussion with Matthew Coolidge, founder and director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation.

They were meeting at a lecture by photographer Michael Light. While all three gents have tremendous IQs and quick wits, Weschler himself is often introduced as "the smartest man in America."

He himself though would say, no, it's not him, it is the man most of us best known as the editor behind Apocalypse Now, Walter Murch.

Here is Weschler via a blog relating to the Chicago Humanities Festival:

Every spring, at some point in the semester as I am teaching my graduate Fiction of Nonfiction writing and reading class to the usual collection of journalism and poetry graduate students at NYU (my mission, to help foster a new generation of lyrical reporters and investigative poets), there comes a point in the proceedings where I have occasion to offer up my opinion (which given the rules of graduate education has the momentary force of law) that Walter Murch is the smartest person in America.

“Walter Murch is the smartest person in America,” I’m likely summarily to declare, “and that will be on the test.  The question will be, ‘Who is the smartest person in America?’ and the expected answer is ‘Walter Murch.’  Ten points.”

The link to that, which probably won't be click-able inside the blog, is this:

So there we go. High praise indeed, and if you want to explore an extended meditation on Murch and Apocalypse Now (and if you are an AVC student), go into the "Library" part of the AVC website (log in first, go to Academics, then find "library") and use EBSCO Discovery Services to take you to Weschler's article in Harper's Magazine, "Valkyries Over Iraq: The Trouble with War Movies." Via the subscriptions AVC has, you can read the content but not see the pictures, which are though included in Weschler's book, Uncanny Valley, and inside the Harper's site itself.

Basically, Weschler's piece tries to navigate the problem that (as shown in the book and movie, Jarhead) parts of an anti-war movie like Apocalypse Now can have scenes of such heart-bestirring romantic glory that they can be used to be turn an audience pro-war. In short, who wouldn't want to swoop around in a helicopter, playing the record player too loud and annoying the neighbors? Rather than condemn the Air Cavalry commander Col. Kilgore (note the name, a three-way blend of World War Two's comic character "Kilroy," the verb "kill," and the verb and noun "gore") --- rather than condemn the character as Coppola intends for us to do, in experiencing that scene as viewers, instead, we identify with him. The colonel loves the smell of napalm in the morning (it smells like victory), but we love fast machines and a good soundtrack, and if there are guns and naked chicks (both of which Apoc Now has, and especially Apoc Now Redux), so much the better.

That's a fine insight and I like this article a lot, even the parts (especially the parts) I disagree with. What has been fun has been seeing where following him has taken me. In looking at the book and then the original article, I ended up spending time on the Harper's website.

This turns out to be trivia-city, in ways that nearly verge on (but quite enter) the profound.

For example, according to Harper's

--- researchers have found that the five-second rule (ok to eat food that has only touched the floor for a few seconds) is biologically false;

--- Police in Britain apologized for tasering a blind middle-aged man after mistaking his walking stick for a samurai sword;

--- an Orlando man who started having sex with his date on a restaurant table in view of young children, and who then refused to pay the bill, was arrested on a charge of defrauding an innkeeper;

---  Ulaanbaatar took down its last remaining statue of Vladimir Lenin, which it will auction at a starting bid of $280 (though I suspect the shipping charges will be 10 or 20x that);

--- a Danish pornography website announced a contest that would award an iPhone to the entrant with the smallest penis. “It’s a competition which is at the core of manhood,” said site owner Morten Fabricius;

--- a Seattle man was arrested for the 1976 murder of an elderly woman after an undercover policeman obtained DNA from him by pretending to conduct a chewing-gum survey;

and lastly (for now),

--- French president Fran├žois Hollande announced a plan to ban homework, which he said favors the wealthy. I am sure my own students would appeal to my sense of us all being part of the 99% and would agree with Mr. Hollande.

Go, Harper's! Certainly this is fun stuff. It made me re-visit some of the past AVC blogs to see how we hold up. It's a mixed report card.

One piece of art that I took a skeptical view of at LACMA, the new big rock, remains a crowd-pleaser. Of course, this blog never said it wouldn't be popular, just that as a sculptural presence, it didn't merit the awe and hype being generated. Just go for a hike around Stoney Point in Chatsworth if you want to see bigger rocks, and in their case, since that site has a cultural history ranging from the start of modern rock climbing to the horror of Charles Manson, it has large-as-houses-stones PLUS a human layer of narrative.

But that rock remains deeply popular, so I am glad LACMA put it in. Visitor numbers upticked very strongly, and the current (and fabulous) show on cinema's Stanley Kubrick will keep those numbers high I suspect. Indeed, on a recent Saturday, there was not even anyplace to park, it was so crowded. Here is an art world newsletter reviewing the piece's impact:

Another topic the blog took on was beauty and impossible standards, and it spent a small amount of time with an ad for skylights. AVC wins one again, since apparently that ad was striking to a number of judges, too, and it won awards. Here is the ad, surrounded by some cropped text from Photo District News that explained the ad's appeal.

It is nice to be right, sort of like when I have seen a movie and then gone on Rotten Tomatoes to find out all the film critics who agree with me. (The ones who disagree clearly are drunken fools.) The bed and skylight shot itself was very tricky to do, hence the article about it inside a photography professional journal. It is also just flat out striking, and I feel mildly vindicated that others agree with me. (I still also think it promotes absurdity and criminal levels of consumerism, but whatcha gonna do? The world is what it is.)

I close with something from Weschler, one of the favorite things he has said that I have come across this week. This is from his remarks about Murch from the same site mentioned above. Here he is:

Smartest?  Well, okay, maybe [ Walter Murch is ] not the smartest (I suppose there must be some Nobel Prize winning biophysicist/concert pianist somewhere with an equally plausible claim to that title.)  But surely among the most various and polymath and confoundingly protean.  One recent afternoon, for example, he sat down to puzzle out the answer to a question he’d posed himself: on a per-watt basis, which emits the most energy for its size, the sun or a brain?  (His answer: on a per-cubic centimeter basis, the brain emits 56,000 times more energy than the sun.)  

That seems like great stuff, but what about the rest of us, whose solar factories often feel as if they are in semi-permanent eclipse? Well, for us, luckily, there are videos of dogs giving rides to cats and the results of that Danish contest to see who will win the smallest tallywhacker iPhone.

The Antelope Valley College blog is curated by Charles Hood, Language Arts, who can be reached at These blogs do not represent the opinions of the District nor of the Board of Trustees, nor Harper's magazine or Larry Weschler or anybody else living or dead, past or future, in a time machine or in locked in Tuperware, who might be offended by anything here. Also, this blog is not endorsed by Tuperware, a registered trademark. Thank you for visiting.

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