Archives for the month of: February, 2012

I often tell my students that I don’t cotton to psychoanalytic criticism because I am too personally shallow; witness my literal-minded approach to film. Recently I wanted to compare Burt Reynolds’ shots of the Atlanta skyline to other skylines, mostly to provide a chance for a “name that skyline” moment of audience-participation. I discovered I have every establishing shot from the Bourne movies – even the entirely-black screen that says “Moscow, Russia” from The Bourne Ultimatum.

Long story short, I love establishing shots. It seems obvious that someone interested in the geography of cinema narratives would like establishing shots, but it’s something I wasn’t aware of consciously until I started breezing through my collection of screen grabs to find a skyline. It’s quite clear why I would have have some establishing shots for teaching and research purposes, but until a little while ago I didn’t realize how extensive my collection of establishing shots is. As an office-seeking politician would say, let me offer some context:

I have plenty of teaching and research reasons: I have dozens of establishing shots from Absolute Power, Dave, Murder at 1600, National Treasure 2, Shadow Conspiracy and Wag the Dog for a piece on White House secret passages. I have more than twenty establishing shots from Dirty Harry because I used it as a contrast for Police, Adjective. There’s a whole ton of German Expressionist imagery in long/establishing shot. City of God, Constant Gardener, and District 9 all helped out in a lecture on the geologic basis for slums. As a brief aside, I live in Sumner and it’s a bit of a curiosity: it’s far more common to find the dis-advantaged not the dirtbaggy upper-middle-class on crumbly hilly land on the edge of the city. Last Resort and Lost in Translation were a matched pair in CINE 102. All the clumsy preacher-and-cross framing can’t outweigh the great establishing shots of Mecca and Venice Beach, CA and the NorCal cemetery in Wild Angels. Finally, Y Tu Mama Tambien’s establishing shots – and long shots – are essential to its engagement with class in Mexico.

Some images are more personal: I have shots from Che (parts I and II) because I wonder about how extensive the Puerto Rico-for-Cuba and elsewhere shooting is. Same for Carlos the Jackal. I have a mess of establishing shots from Fargo and A Serious Man because they’re so Midwestern (I’ll have a future post on how half the Coen Brothers output makes me incredibly homesick). To get even more self-indulgent, something about a car driving through a corn field conjures up a memory of when my U16 soccer team played the Hampshire (then a Podunk town on the edge of rural nowhere) U19 team. It seemed like a long drive from Carpentersville into nothing but corn – I remember their right back was wretched, and I scored six goals in the first half. This likely explains my love for the cornfield shots from the beginning of The Informant!.

The main job of an establishing shot is to establish for the audience the larger context in which the action takes place. To me, the charm of an establishing shot is its reminder that the larger world surrounds the film. I still dream about the version of Die Hard 2 that deals with the people who cleaned up the mess in the car park at Nakatomi Plaza. And for that postmodern desire, I can in part blame my love of establishing shots.

The Bourne Ultimatum

Carlos the Jackal

On a smaller scale, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure

Larry Gopnik’s neighbourhood in A Serious Man.

Right after shitting all over academic publishing – a shit that needs taking – I’m happy to eat a bit of crow, if I may mix my metaphor.

I hereby extend membership in the Cool Club to the editor of AUMLA, Peter Goodall, who works in deadly and poisonous Southern Queensland. I sent in a submission and within twenty-four hours he sent me a reply:

Many thanks for your submission – it looks fascinating. I’ll arrange for it to be refereed, and I hope to have a verdict for you in about three months. Articles accepted are normally published within eighteen months.

One thing. It is on the long side for us. We normally seek articles between 4000-9000 words. I am prepared to interpret this with some latitude, but I may need to ask you to shorten it if it is accepted. I’ll wait until I receive reports.

If good Mr Goodall thinks (rightly) that the 9300 word behemoth he’s sending out to some unlucky Flinders AmLit lecturer is too long (it may well be both too long and too short) I can only explain myself by saying “that thing began its life as an eighteen-thousand word introduction and parts of two similarly-too-long chapters.”

In the end, I’ll cut what they ask me to cut. So long as they ask nice.


Dear Xan Brooks, who for the purposes of this post will represent all people who get agitated over Oscar nominations and winners,

Xan, do you know who Dr John Penno is? What do you mean you don’t know who Dr John Penno is!? He’s only Federated Farmers Agribusiness Person of the Year for 2009. Why should I give a toss about that, you ask? In the first place, because no Bruce Villanch stage patter can dream of matching

This award recognises John’s demonstrated leadership and the innovative business model Synlait has adopted as a cow to customer producer, his challenging of the status quo and contributing toward New Zealand’s growth.

But more to my pedantic point, because getting all red in the face about the Oscars is the same as worrying over which cow to consumer executive is going to get the best table at Federated Farmers yearly do.

They’re industry awards. Accent on industry.

Yours truly, Christian Long

PS Bret McKenzie better win best song.

Jefferson Cowie’s Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor has a great cover by Two Dogs Design. The Cowie cover (more specifically, the map, by Cowie) also appears – without the path!? – on page 3 in the introduction, and tells the story that Cowie delves into with (I can’t believe I’m saying this in earnest) beautiful simplicity. The quest for cheap labor took them from Camden NJ to Bloomington IN to, very briefly, Memphis TN, and then finally to Ciudad Juarez Mexico.

What would a map of Hollywood runaway productions look like? It would have multiple routes out of town. Moving north: Hollywood North British Columbia and Eastern City stand-in Toronto. Moving way way east: Spain had a good run as a location from the 50s through, to an extent, nearly the 70s. Moving south: New Zealand, thanks to the generosity of John Key with our tax money, offers plenty of cheap-via-exchange-rate opportunities, with the special added bonus of union busting thrown in because that’s what the hobbits would have wanted. Within the USA, tax incentives in Louisiana, North Carolina, and Georgia draw their fair share of runaways.

Some quick examples: Rumble in the Bronx is perhaps the most glorious example of Vancouver shooting – the Bronx with mountains in the background. Blues Brothers 2000 is one of many films in which Toronto plays Chicago (My Big Fat Greek Wedding is another).

But I’m not interested in those movies, mostly because there’s been some attention to runaway production. What I really want to know is where the movies from the same time period that weren’t runaway productions are set. Do runaway productions necessitate a different geographical imagination? What forms does it take?

If there are benefits in being the trailing unemployed partner of a “real” academic who makes a good wage, one is that I needn’t abide by the rules of good behaviour. I’m not part of the game, it looks like I’ll never have a continuing position, I don’t see how the academic world’s mores can apply to me. Case in point: to say that Fairly Well-Regarded Journal in American Literature is slow would be to correct only in relation to the glaciers that made my native Illinois prairie region so fertile.

I sent them my submission 1 September 2011. In late November I sent them an email that said “I’m losing my position, and email access, at University of Canterbury, could you please send all correspondence to the UC account and my gmail.” I waited. I sent them an email at the end of January, assuming that at some point in the five months they had my submission someone might have read it. But still I waited. Another email – for Valentine’s Day – drew no response. So I sent the piece off to a southern hemisphere journal, for though I may double submit I spread out the peer-to-review pool geographically. I wouldn’t want someone to put off reading the same article twice. As if by magic, FWRJiAL sent me an email this morning, so saturated with po-faced understatement that I wonder if its best translation is simply “fuck you”:

Please accept my apologies for sending you this very late confirmation.  This email confirms that your article submission for the Spring 2012 [FWRJiAL] has been received.  All article submissions for this the Spring 2012 issue are still being reviewed.  Notifications from editor are expected to be sent out in June 2012.  At this time, we are behind in our publishing schedule.  Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience this may cause you.

I take this to mean that it is quite possible that no one has read my submission yet. In five-plus months. With a northern hemisphere winter break in there. I appreciate that peer reviewers do it voluntarily, but if you’re not going to do it in less than six months, then make room for someone who will at least do it within four.

All this pissiness makes me wonder: How might I become a peer reviewer for a journal? I’m not particularly busy and I promise that I can read at least one article during the industry-standard six month review period. I won’t promise any more, because I’d hate to show up anyone. I don’t have any dog in the fight – I will simply perform the duty of peer reviewer: is this article good? is it worthy of publication? what would it take for it to be publication-worthy? If anyone’s interested, I’m an Americanist, mostly post-WWII film and lit. No poetry.

Note – this complaint does not apply to American Literary History. Gordon Hutner was a prince about my submission – he sent me excellent feedback twice. When I didn’t get the unanimous vote that is apparently necessary to get published, he wrote me to explain the decision and was in all ways excellent.

EDIT: amended after the red mist dissipated.

It’s a brute tool, but a good enough place to start. Here’s a hacked-together map of the narrative locations of the films in the Top 20 box office returns from 1970-1981. This little bit is a zoom on the South, especially the “New South” region. Burt Reynolds films are, like the legend says, colour-indicated. The next step (to come one of these days) is to provide dates/periods for the other New South-set films. Here’s the preview: most of the other films in the region take place between 10 and 30 years in the past. I could stretch the map’s time frame into the mid-80s without any significant change to the map. The contemporary New South was a strange sight on American (hit) movie screens.

Sheet 1

When I first landed in Christchurch, I heard people talk of its days as “The Peoples’ Republic of Christchurch.” Sure, all the local electorate MPs were Labour and there was a tradition of state housing and such. But I never felt like Christchurch was the sort of town you’d give such a name. It has a certain stuffiness and insularity that makes the PRoC thing make less sense to this immigrant. And, if JG Bartholomew’s A Literary & Historical Atlas of Africa and Australasia (1913) is to be believed, the same things were true before the Great War as are true today, with one date change: (click to embiggen)

Swap out 2010/2011 on the quake date and it’s the same description you’d see today.

I have no plans to fly to Boston for MLA next year, but don’t tell. I still have a proposal or three to send out to the panels that seem interesting. On the top of the list is “Mapping Real-and-Imagined Places” because it lets me indulge in my love of British genre lit and spatial engagement with literature.

Draft version of my argument: While Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels never tire of telling us that he’s a spy, the geographical imagination presents something different. At the same time, while Eric Ambler novels never tire of telling us that their protagonists are not spies, their geographical imagination renders such claims deeply – in every sense of the word – ironic. If we look at The Dark Frontier, we see that Ambler describes Zovgorod, Ixania as, quite literally, a shit hole:

The smell of Zovgorod has, however, always been the main impression of the city carried away by the few eccentric tourists who have had the curiosity to visit it. Nature, so provident in the matter of Zovgorod’s prevailing winds, made no ready provision for sewage disposal….Even if Nature had provisioned Zovgorod with a complete sewage system and disposal plant, it is doubtful if the inhabitants would have bothered to use them (Dark Frontier 77-8).

This description arrives at the beginning of a chapter – as do so many stage-settings in both Ambler and Fleming and spy novels in general. It would be a simple matter of generic convention – and boy howdy does Ambler lay on the local colour (it tends to be shit brown) – were it not for the secret Carruthers discovers in the next chapter:

“[Carruthers’] objective was the electricity distribution station at Zovgorod. He quickly found iton the map. It was on the outskirts of the city on the north-east side. He sat back and thought. Zovgorod, like most other towns, would be fed with electricity distributed from the central station by means of several subsidiary mains each carrying the supply for a different quarter of the city. Each subsidiary would carry its own system of fuses and ‘breakers’ to deal with short circuits or overloads of current. It was thus obvious that an overload such as might well result from anyone utilizing the process referred to by Professor Barstow in the Encyclopaedia, would, if applied anywhere inside the city, cause an electricity breakdown only in the quarter served by the subsidiary main in question. Now the Opera House and the Hotel Europa were set far apart on the map. With the evidence of the newspaper, which reported a failure throughout the city, plus that of the Swiss waiter at the hotel, he concluded that Zovgorod’s electricity failures were not confined to any particular quarter. (Dark 91-92)

It’s the city’s infrastructure that reveals the truth of things. This is a nice way to position the sort of espionage Ambler loves to detail: industrial espionage, which is another way of saying, the same kind of espionage that James Bond novels detail. Because, as Barstow/Carruthers and Marlow (in Cause for Alarm) and Vadassy (in Epitaph for a Spy) all learn, parochial industrial concerns are in fact concerns of nation states.

Fleming, for his part, links industrial business concerns to the Empire’s maintenance:

The bush grew more or less at the junction of three African states. It was French Guinea but only about ten miles north of the northernmost tip of Liberia and five miles east of the frontier of Sierra Leone. Across the frontier are the great diamond mines around Sefadu. These are the property of Sierra International, which is part of the powerful mining empire of Afric International, which in turn is a rich capital asset of the British Commonwealth. (Diamonds Are Forever 002-003) [yes, Penguin paginates it 001-099]

But a look at the first chapter of Dr No finds a different representation of the city of Kingston, Jamaica shows that there’s a tourist point of view from an omniscient narrator and the novel’s characters. First, a number of descriptions of the posh part of town:

Punctually at six o’clock the sun set with a last yellow flash behind the Blue Mountains, a wave of violet shadow poured down Richmond Road, and the crickets and tree frogs in the fine gardens began to zing and tinkle. (Dr. No 001)

The wealthy owners of the big, withdrawn houses – the bank managers, company directors, and top civil servants – had been home since five o’clock….but now this very superior half mile of ‘Rich Road’, as it was known to the tradesmen of Kingston, held nothing by the suspense of an empty stage. (Dr. No 001)

Richmond Road is the ‘best’ road in all Jamaica. It is Jamaica’s Park Avenue, its Kensington Palace Gardens, its Avenue D’Iléna. The ‘best’ people live in its big old-fashioned houses. (Dr. No 001)

The long, straight road is cool and quiet and withdrawn from the hot, vulgar sprawl of Kingston where its residents earn their money, and, on the other side of the T-intersection at its top, lie the grounds of King’s House, where the Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Jamaica lives with his family. In Jamaica, no road could have a finer ending. (Dr. No 001-002)

This mansion is the social Mecca of Kingston. It is Queen’s Club… (Dr. No 002)

Then, when someone acts in this representation of Kingston, what is the first thing that Fleming does? Tourism.

[Strangways] got into his car and drove for ten minutes up into the foothills of the Blue Mountains to his neat bungalow with the fabulous view over Kingston harbour. (Dr. No 005)

In the end, the things that are hidden in Ian Fleming’s work are hidden out of generic convention and narrative convenience; Fleming’s geographical imagination rests on the surface of things. Ambler’s novels, on the other hand, represent a world in which the clandestine is not just asserted, but represented in the novels’ geographical imagination. I hope that provides me about fourteen minutes of skype time.

At my birthday, I set my Reading Project for the year. This year I’m tackling Walter Benjamin.

I’ve read David Shipler’s The Working Poor: Invisible in America. To clarify: I’ve read each chapter, but that’s taken me more than three years, one chapter at a time, with quite long breaks in between. Something similar, a bit less heartbreaking, happens when I try to read Stuart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster. I’m a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God cat. The people with whom I grew up in Carpentersville are mostly still in C’Ville, still scraping paycheck to paycheck. Shipler’s stories, and O’Nan’s, might as well be my alternate biography – and they are the biographies of some of my friends, and their families, back in C’Ville.

Michael Berube speaks to some of that pain and institutional malpractice in his recap of an acronym festival in Washington DC. I’m one of the lucky ones in academia – I have a partner who takes home a damn fine wage and enjoys fairly decent job security. That, in turn, makes me a wedge against the people who don’t enjoy that pleasure. The administration knows that there’s a streak of kindness and generosity in your average adjunct-contract-precario a mile wide and just as deep — and they prey on that. Berube points out that it’s not the overproduction of PhDs that drives this:

according to the 2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, 65.2 percent of non-tenure-track faculty members hold the M.A. as their highest degree — 57.3 percent in four-year institutions, 76.2 percent in two-year institutions. There are many factors affecting the working conditions of adjuncts, but the production of Ph.D.s isn’t one of the major ones.

These numbers have implications that go far beyond the usual debates about the size of doctoral programs, because they illustrate how inadequate it is to say simply that all non-tenure-track faculty lines should be converted to the tenure track. Precisely because adjuncts are so invisible, it is not widely understood that many of them have held their jobs — at one institution or at many, on a year-by-year basis or on multiyear contracts — for 10, 15 or 20 years and more. I keep running into people who speak of adjuncts as bright, energetic 30-year-olds who enliven their departments and disciplines, working in the trenches for a few years before getting their first tenure-track job. There is no shortage of bright and energetic adjuncts, but not all of them are 30 years old; the average age at the NFM summit seemed to be considerably higher

I tell my students, usually in a discussion of Marx, “I would do this job for free. I won’t. But I would.” To me, that sums up the “calling” flavour of professional choice in academia. I’m now well north of 30, and for all the energy I bring to my teaching – I call it the Powell Pedagogy Doctrine – I ain’t getting any younger, and if I were in any way “career-focussed”, I might be getting antsy about my standing. Because I’m not, the University has a love-hate relationship with me. They love me, but only because I’m a reserve labourer. UC’s policy is that the department’s current postgrads get preferential consideration for tutor positions. That’s because as a PhD I am paid 20.9999/hr while, if my memory of the pay sheet serves, MAs are pais 18.9999 and BAs 17.9999. It saves a total of a couple hundred dollars a semester — about as much as the catering at one SMT meeting, I would guess.