Archives for the month of: December, 2011

A few questions about settings:
In what small city does Since You Went Away (1944) take place?
In The Jolson Story (1946), what US bases does he play? When he retires to the country, where is that?
When Mr Belvedere Goes to College (1949), what school does he attend? It was filmed at Nevada-Reno, but where is it set?
Do they ever name a town in Pinky (1949), or is it just “The South?”

There are two moments in Judith Halberstam’s pretty tremendous new book The Queer Art of Failure that don’t really matter much in her larger argument but nevertheless stuck in my throat.

One is a trite, even trifling concern on film genre. Entre les murs (Laurent Cantet 2008) is not “the extraordinary French documentary about a year in the life of a high school in the suburbs of Paris” that Halberstam identifies it as. It’s a piece of fiction. In most ways, this doesn’t matter. But having taught that film last semester, there is something to the film’s formal approach that does matter. In that spirit, I want to turn Halberstam’s mistake around a la Borges: what if Dude Where’s My Car? were a documentary? I don’t know if anything in her argument would be substantially altered.

In 2007 or so, Judith Halberstam was the graduate-student-chosen Rheney Speaker at Vanderbilt, and her talk had the best goddamn q-and-a I’ve been a part of. At one point Halberstam, in the span of about three minutes, put forward the argument of the first four chapters of The Queer Art of Failure to illustrate a series of other points. From that, I stole the “Pixar = Communism” idea that took up a quarter of last semester’s CINE 202. She also went into immensely funny detail about Dude Where’s My Car?, becoming the Academic I Want To Be When I Grow Up to most of us. One thing she did not do during that spiel was take easy shots, which brings me to my second point (a minor one, I grant): the ease with which “Jerry Lewis” acts as a synonym for “bad.”

On page 57, she writes, “Stupidity in men is represented as, well, disarming (Adam Sandler), charming (Jerry Lewis), comforting (George W. Bush), or innocent (Will Farrel in Elf, Tom Hanks in everything).” But not even a page later she returns to Jerry Lewis: “in the end [Sideways] is no different from any other buddy movie, recalling the dumb cute guy and smart ugly guy couples of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Butch Cassidy and Sundance, even the much more appealing Jesse and Chester in Dude, Where’s My Car?” (58).

I could reconcile these by noting that on the one hand, Martin and Lewis were described as “a handsome man and a monkey” (in that order), while on the other, Jerry as a solo act traded on the charmingly stupid persona. It’s certainly the case in The Nutty Professor, which gives us the handsome but dumb Buddy Love and the smart but ugly Julius. The Bellboy might be the best example of such a view, so long as we ignore the Real Jerry’s appearance. This approach, however, doesn’t stand up against Cinderfella, which concludes not with Jerry’s charming stupidity winning out but rather his immense frustration at everyone’s assumption that he’s stupid. Much the same sentiment appears in The Errand Boy and, in the end, in The Family Jewels. Then there’s The Patsy, in which Jerry is both the handsome dumb guy and the ugly dumb guy. Shit, in The Patsy he’s also the ugly smart guy who, in falling out the window at the end, brings the Real Jerry – a fairly handsome and smart cat – in to finish the film.

In the end, I’m mostly arguing over the how-to-get-there portion of Halberstam’s argument. I would wager that digging into Jerry, stupidity, and failure would fit nicely into Halberstam’s larger argument as the history Jesse and Chester build on. But if there’s one thing that brings me down it’s when an otherwise superb book takes a hackneyed road to a fine conclusion.

In which I beat my old dissertation supervisor with a soft stick.

I spotted Fifty Key American Fillms (Routledge, 2009) at one of the few Christchurch City Library branches that remained open – the one on Colombo in Beckenham. I have a planned “The Geography of American Cinema in Academia” chapter in the Atlas, so I picked it up. Scanning the contents, I noted that Paul Young wrote two entries: Applause (1929) and Star Wars (1977). Applause makes sense, PDY’s an early cinema dude. Although the term has lost most of its meaning, PDY is also a dork of the old school: comics and scifi especially.

PDY confesses his film studies PhD origin story:

but at last I see that I’ve been repressing the true answer. After mumbling responses about post-war French cinema and Hollywood film noir and Gloria Grahame and Luis Buñuel for years, I’ve finally come to terms with my professional primal scene: My epiphany [about film criticism as a “calling”] happened in 1977 when I was 9 years old, watching a summer blockbuster that my small-town single-screen theater screened one season late because it had held over Smokey and the Bandit for 20 weeks. That blockbuster was Star Wars, and it is my favourite film of all time (178).

My heart began to sing, because it’s not so often that one can Kill The Academic Father with a bit of current research. I was already drafting a good natured email to Paul in my head when I came across a second, even better bit of PDY bio:

[Star Wars] would gross more than one hundred million American dollars (1977 dollars, mind you) by the end of the summer – before the Burt-Reynolds-drunk Majestic Theater in Centerville, Iowa, had even bothered to bring the movie to my attention ( 180).

Two mentions of Smokey and the Bandit inside a Star Wars piece seem to get Paul a lot of rube-cred: Iowa was behind the rest of the country, but he caught up and passed us. That’s a nice story, but I am here to historicise for you: Burt Reynolds was a gigantic fucking movie star in the seventies. It wasn’t weird that the Majestic would hold Smokey and the Bandit over for long. Burt sold tickets, and I’d go so far as to say he is the most important movie star from the seventies.

Between 1970 and 1980, the non-Burt-Reynolds, set-in-the-South films in the top-20 box office were: Sounder, Walking Tall, Let’s Do It Again, Ode To Billy Joe, Walking Tall 2, Deep Throat, Song of the South, Coal Miner’s Daughter (when my parents went to see this, I was bit in the face by my babysitter’s poodle, ruining my parents’ night out). One of those films takes place in the contemporary “New South” – Let’s Do It Again. Deep Throat certainly takes place in Miami, but I don’t think I’m cheating to leave it off to the side of my argument

During that same time period, look at all the legit major hits Burt Reynolds had: Deliverance, The Longest Yard, Smokey and the Bandit, Semi-Tough, Hooper, Smokey and the Bandit II, and Sharky’s Machine as well as another bunch of did-OK films like Gator, WW and the Dixie Dancekings, and White Lightning. All of those are set in the New South of the 1970s.

For 1970s Hollywood, the American South takes two forms: the past, and Burt Reynolds’ playground. Burt Reynolds, all on his own, brought the New South to the rest of the country’s movie screens. Take heart, Paul. Iowa wasn’t a cultural backwater; it was exactly in tune with the rest of the country’s

In your average science class at your average university, one common assignment is to edit, update or otherwise make better a wikipedia entry. For all the incredible attention to plot points in many online resources, one facet that escapes mention is that of specific setting. Can I ask that any readers who teach cinema ask their students to edit wikipedia entries with setting information?

For instance: in September, I found a pile of books about Hollywood studios, inclduing John Douglas Eames’s The Paramount Story: The Complete History of the Studio and Its 2,805 Films (London: Octopus Books, 1985). I read through it and noted that not every plot summary mentioned where the film was set. When a narrative setting was present, sometimes it was general – “the suburbs” – and sometimes it was specific – “Nashville.” As a comparison, I checked a couple of lowest common denominator sites, imdb and Wikipedia, fairly certain that there’d be a greater percentage of specific narrative settings in the entries. I was wrong. There’s more on the Gary Cherone era of Van Halen than there is on the setting of many films.

Here’s how it broke down: for the 13 film Paramount films released in 1975. In the book, 8 films had a specific location given. Wikipedia listed a specific location for 8 films. Imdb listed a specific location for 5 films.

Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York (book: suburbs, Manhattan, Wiki: New York City, imdb: Harrisburg PA, New York City)
Posse (book: Texas, Wiki: nothing, imdb: nothing)
Mandingo (book: Falconhurst old South, Wiki: plantation, imdb: New Orleans)
Once is not Enough (book: Hollywood, Wiki: Hollywood, Beverly Hills, imdb: nothing)
The Day of the Locust (book: Hollywood, Wiki: Hollywood, imdb: Hollywood)
Nashville (book: Nashville, Wiki: Nashville, imdb: Nashville)
Hustle (book: Los Angeles, Wiki: isolated beach, LAPD, imdb: nothing in two summaries)
Three Days of the Condor (book: New York, Wiki: New York City, Maryland, imdb: nothing)
Bug (book, capsule: town, Wiki: nothing, imdb: small town)
Dog Pound Shuffle (book, capsule: nothing, Wiki: no entry, imdb: nothing)
The Dove (book, capsule: sailing around the world, Wiki: Fiji, Australia, South Africa, Panama, Galapagos Islands, Los Angeles, imdb: “around the world to many beautiful locales”)
Framed (book, capsule: nothing, Wiki: nothing, imdb: small village)
Mahogany (book, capsule: nothing, Wiki: Rome, Chicago, imdb: Chicago, Rome)

(Wiki and imdb originally checked on 26 September 2011, sort of rechecked as I posted this)

When I started teaching at university level, at the University of New Hampshire, I cursed to get one version of cred from my students – many of whom I was younger than – only purposely to upset that cred by rattling off poststructuralism at a silly pace. That was my whole Brechtian pedagogical game: jab with fuck and shit and hit them with an uppercut full of glorious jargon at the right moment.

When I started teaching at Vanderbilt, I knew I’d have to reel the cussing in, and I tried very, very hard to do so. Teaching literary theory made it harder and easier. Vandy’s hyper-professional environment, while it certainly accomodated the younger Christian who refused to wear sleeves in Benson Hall in a year-long protest without batting an eye, also a great place to see that gags and cussing weren’t the only way to bring the students on board with Althusser. To be frank, my improved handle on the material sure helped in cleaning up my language.

In my three years at Canterbury, I now parcel out my f-bombs. For all that I find 1.5 per lecture to be a low number, I still get one or two “curses too much” comments per semester. However, I find that in CINE 102: World Cinema in the 21st Century, I can use cursing to my advantage, since I have yet to read an anti-cursing comment in three years (three hundred students, more or less). It’s quite simple really: If the film’s in Spanish, or French, or Italian, I can use my the one facet of my Romance language skills – the salty stuff – to show one of the easy-to-grasp ways in which subtitles don’t render dialog “verbatim” or “exactly.” Since one of the aims of CINE 102 is to expose students to a wider range of cinema than they’d normally seek out on their own – and judging from this year’s class reactions to Police, Adjective Romanian cinema will have a tough time finding a friendly crowd in Christchurch – it’s an easy entry into a culture to see how their cursing works. Even the difference between American and New Zealand cursing – or better yet sport trash-talking – is fairly plain and illuminating.

That said, this article is the sort of title I wish we’d see more of in academic publishing. Sometimes the apt word is fuck. That’s just how things is. I salute you, McKenzie Wark, you magnificent bastard.

If there’s any justice in the world, the split screen will make a comeback one of these days. Sure, it’s good for the odd cheeky 60s reference, as in Down With Love, but the ability to show simultanaeity across multiple spaces without going to newly-tired shit like CCTV has its uses.

Case in point: In Airport Dean Martin leers like nobody’s business while Jacqueline Bisset changes. This shot sneaks into “more comic than creepy” territory precisely because it’s in split screen. When you have Dino’s undeniable charisma on the one side and Bisset’s sex appeal on the other, we can forget how damn old he is (almost 27 years older than her). In fact, Dino and Bisset are way more believable as a couple in split screen; the tangible chemistry between them is in this split screen and almost nowhere else in the movie.

Airport, for all its deadly earnestness, gets in a few bizarre – and compelling – split screens. There’s Mel calling home to talk to his daughters, who occupy little squares while his wife occupies a large one – creating a weird, dysfunctional Brady Bunch wall by the time everyone’s on the line together. In another set of shots, the air traffic controller pops up inside the plane’s cockpit in a superimposed oval between the pilots, where the plane’s non-dashboard controls are visible. The all-hands call to the airport police slices the screen up along diagonals and covers almost the entirety of the concourse in an expected, but slightly off-kilter representation. In all of these, nothing particularly radical is going on, but there’s just enough of a wiggle in the film’s visual style to make me wonder when this sort of Ross Hunter film gets its shot at critical re-appraisal.