Archives for the month of: April, 2012


As part of the canon geography section of the atlas, I’m using the bfi “100 X Films” series. In 100 Cult Films, the entry for Bad Taste (1987) is especially curious. Ernest Mathijs introduces the Bad Taste entry with reference to Aussie Philip Brophy’s idea of “horrality”, noting that “the best possible instance of ‘horrality’ originated just around the corner: New Zealand’s Bad Taste” (16). So far so good, at least when it comes to geography and a distinct cultural provenance. But after this point, the New Zealand-ness of Bad Taste disappears into a universalised American-ness.

First, a strange reluctance to address the New Zealand government’s role in the film’s production, which is, if nothing else, weridly fascinating:

Four years in the making, Bad Taste was for the longest time just an amateur hobby-job of a devoted horror geek (Jackson). After funding was received to complete the film, it entered a professional market, where it made quite an impact.  (16-17)

In a battle of attrition, Jackson finally secured completion/editing funding from the New Zealand Film Commission. As Good Taste Made Bad Taste (the doco included in the Anchor Bay two-disc release) notes, Bad Taste was, for a number of years, the most profitable film made with NZFC money.

I’m baffled by a second point tha Mathijs makes. In his discussion of the film’s politics – which he accurately pegs as “all over the place” – anything resembling New Zealand politics disappears. Bad Taste’s “all over the place” politics are certainly on view in its engagements with the agricultural sector and fast food chain incursions, but I’m not quite sure Mathijs gets it right. First, he notes that “the apology for torture raised more than one eyebrow (but then again the Reaganite 1980s had seen worse)” (16). I may be an immigrant with a limited knowledge of New Zealand history, but I can say with total confidence that the NZ80s were not “Reaganite”. The tail end of Muldoon yes. Rogernomics most certainly so. But Reagan just isn’t in the equation. In fact, Reagan represents the very opposite of the NZ 80s: Labour came into government in 1984 largely because of a nuclear-free zone policy difference within National. The Rainbow Warrior bombing was in 1985. When New Zealand refused entry to a US ship with the capacity to launch nukes, Reagan suspended US obligations to ANZUS. You don’t find anyone thinking of the 80s in terms of Reagan here (and Thatcher‘s shadow is based on UK immigration).

Finally, I’d just note that the aliens farming humans for a fast food chain seems to me to be less a brief against the agricultural sector and more a commentary on the increased presence of multinational fast food chains. Bear in mind, New Zealand’s econony was (and is) strongest in the agricultural and extractive sectors. Take, for example, James Belich’s account of the “protein bridge”. When England joined the common market in the 1970s, New Zealand’s economy suffered a great deal. For all the tension between (rich) farmers and the people in the city, lamb and dairy are the key New Zealand exports. On the other hand, it wasn’t until 1971 that an American fast food chain showed up in New Zealand – and it was, would you believe, Kentucky Fried Chicken (McDonald‘s arrived in 1976 and Burger King in 1982). Human-farming goes hand in hand with the notion of what an intergalactic/multinational fast food chain’s appearance on the scene means to a small country on the periphery.

In many ways these little quibbles illustrate the familiar-but-not-quite-the-same nature of New Zealand to the other English-speaking nations. New Zealand can play the US (The Frighteners (1996)) or Middle Earth (LOTR (2001-2003)) or even Japan, like in The Last Samurai (2003)) but, like Los Angeles, it sometimes plays itself. When that happens, even in a deliriously sloppy and fairly apolitical piece of transcendant schlock, it pays to consider the New Zealand-ness of a NZ film.

I shall include this post in my paperwork for citizenship in ten months.

In my almost twenty years of eligibility, I’ve been called for jury duty once in my entire life. I was a student at Illinois State University at the time, and I was registered to vote at my parents’ address 140 miles away, which meant I was excused. I have yet to be called for jury service in New Zealand, although my colleagues tell me that having a PhD does not make me likely to be tossed out as a juror. Once we get some municipal buildings in Christchurch, I’m sure I’ll get the call.

Peer review is academia’s version of jury duty, and as is so often the case, the humanities Ivory Tower Gang (Jimmy Breslin’s great unfinished novel) behaves sub-optimally. It’s nice to see Kevin Haggerty explain how to do your duty when it comes to peer review. I have two points about his piece that are fairly simple.

First, Haggerty appeals to a sense of duty to others:

A scholar’s career can hang on the fate of one significant publication, and if that piece stalls interminably at the review stage it can be a professional disaster. If you decline, inform the editor quickly, as it is unfair to expect an editor to wait weeks for a response, only to then have the invitation declined (or never answered at all). Editors always appreciate it when, if you decline a request, you recommend other reviewers.

I agree with everything here, but I’m amazed that this needs to be said. That academics find curious this notion of “responding quickly” and/or “meeting a deadline” is no accident. Continuing directly from the above, Haggerty writes,

After agreeing to do the review, you will be sent the manuscript or details about how to access it online. The papers are confidential, so do not reference the submission and absolutely do not draw upon its findings or data for your own work. You will also be given a date by which to complete your review—usually one to three months. Immediately mark that deadline on your calendar and make sure you finish on time. If your situation changes and you have to cancel or delay your review, let the editor know immediately in case a replacement must be found.

A couple of plot sequence points create the illusion of a buffer, but what’s happening in this section of the piece is that Haggerty must repeatedly tell grown ups “if you agree to do a job, you should do it on time.” The usual statements about what we expect of our students apply here.

A second point that Haggerty raises stirs up a mess of issues related to research faculty, peer review and research prestige, and the invisible (exploited) teaching staff. Once again appealing to a sense of duty, Haggerty suggests

Given that most (but not all) journals aim to secure three anonymous reviews, you should aim to review a minimum of three manuscripts for every article you publish. Unfortunately, intensifying professional demands means that editors spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to find willing, competent, and prompt peer reviewers.

I don’t doubt that this is true – but I can’t work up much sympathy. I always thought that the reason that universities need to exploit TAs and adjuncts was to provide plenty of time for research faculty to do their thing. Peer review is part of research.

I make no claims to glorious originality, but I’ll repeat a couple simple suggestions. Why not treat “peer reviewer” as a sort of (to use the NZ-PBRF terminology) a research output? That is to say, include the reader reports in a tenure and promotion file and take their academic value seriously. Sure, there’s some lip service to the importance of service now, but no one actually acts on it. Please do so. I imagine that a stodgy old mid-to-late career professor could get re-energised by immersing him/herself in the critical conversation by taking on a “full-time” peer review gig, likely split amongst the journals in his/her field, and return to research with new ideas about the exciting/decaying state of the field.

As per usual, my other suggestion looks to adjuncts. Why not trust adjuncts to do it? I can even make a proposal that blows smoke up tenure/permanent faculty asses, acting like they actually believe the anti-union “apprentice model” thinking. Adjuncts could function as the first reader, perhaps weeding out the worst, but a decision to publish would require a “real” faculty member supervisor.

All of this presumes that we agree that academia is a calling, rather than a job. Because the hegemonic position in academia, at least where I’ve studied and worked, is the calling, none of the peripheral stuff like peer review is codified. As Haggerty q-and-a’s it:

Why write a peer review of a manuscript? Because it is part of our scholarly responsibilities. You will not be paid and it will take time away from your own work. But academic publishing depends on peer reviewers volunteering their time. You have undoubtedly benefited, or will benefit in the future, from this arrangement.

I imagine university administrators are happy to keep it that way, because were we to start counting the hours required for the maintenance of the peer review system, madness would surely follow.

jury box image from Otter Tail County, MN Courts

The Fulbright applications aren’t due for a good long while, but I’m hacking together my materials for another go. I’m once again pursuing a teaching Fulbright, this time at University of Bergen. I’d teach in their American literature survey course, and offer two of my own courses – an upper-level offering on post-war suburban fiction, and a master’s-level class on the fictional lives of American presidents. While putting together money-seeking materials usually fills me with rage, today I pushed the rage aside to think of something positive that could improve the lot of we gypsy/junior/underemployed scholars.

My proposal to major granting institutions: In 2014 the following traits will disqualify you from winning: Ivy League PhD. Rank above lecturer/instructor. More than one published book. Previous grant/fellowship awards in excess of the average household income.

If it were to be for 2014 only, we could also treat it as a control group for no end of research as well.

The ending to Pretty In Pink (Howard Deutch 1986) stinks. How, exactly, does Andie picking Blaine over Duckie constitute a happy ending? While it might be easy to blame meddlesome Paramount Pictures for changing screenwriter John Hughes’s ending, producing a romantic couple who solves class differences is not at all foreign to Hughes’s films. In particular, Hughes’s Shermer sequence set in the affluent suburbs of Chicago – Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club and Weird Science (both 1985), and Ferris Buehler’s Day Off (1986) – reveals more than a passing interest in understanding class in America as teen romance. In Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, for example, Mrs. Buehler works as a real estate agent in wealthy Glencoe and Winnetka and worries over the hood (Charlie Sheen) her daughter meets at the police station.  Sixteen Candles takes place in a town so staid and upper-middle-class that it must import the gross racial caricature of a Chinese exchange student, Long Duk Dong, to introduce anything resembling a class difference that disappears after one night of passion. While high-school films such as Hughes’s consistently connect romance, education, and class mobility, they tend not to engage zoning (perhaps for obvious reasons). One film that does confront the importance of zoning is Tamara Jenkins’ 1998 film Slums of Beverly Hills.

Slums of Beverly Hills begins with the Abromowitz family moving out of their apartment in the middle of the night.  They spend the night driving around before moving into a dingy little one-bedroom unit similar to their previous home.  Vivian (Natasha Lyonne), the film’s voiceover narrator, introduces the apartment complex as “Casa Bella.  Another dingbat.  Dingbats, that’s what they’re called.  Two story apartment buildings featuring cheap rent and fancy names that promise the good life, but never deliver.”  While Vivian’s too-weary-for-a-teenager voice certainly implies the standard negative-judgment connotation for the word, her description also uses dingbat to refer to Casa Bell’s specific architectural form: “a type of small apartment building, popular throughout the Sun Belt, which sits on stilts over a parking lot – a direct outcome of the ubiquitous American on-site parking requirement.  The construction of a single dingbat on a street of row houses is all that is necessary to bring down the real estate value of the entire block” (Duany, Plater-Zyberk, Speck 175-6).  As a group, fourteen-year-olds tend not to use “dingbat” as a term of real estate art.  Vivian’s vocabulary, then, highlights the “Slums” portion of the title to signal the film’s interest in the ways in which setting rules for the built environment perpetuates and solidifies class distinctions. Her comment also points to the delicate work of rationalizing the unequal distribution of public services like education. In a word, Vivian tells us about zoning.

The Abromowitzes may move often, but they never leave the boundaries of the Beverly Hills School District because success in the classroom means much, much more there.  Murray (Alan Arkin) sells cars, but his second job is to keep tabs on affordable housing in Beverly Hills, whose schools offer college-prep curriculum that can turn the family’s class position – tenuously lower-middle-class – into a temporary stop on an upward trajectory. When Richie (Eli Marienthal), proposes moving outside of Beverly Hills, “somewhere cheaper….in Torrance [where] maybe we could afford other stuff like furniture,” his father dismisses the notion by explaining the one advantage to living in lousy, unfurnished Beverly Hills dingbats. “God damn it,” he yells, “we’re here for the school district.”  Though his slumped body language argues otherwise, Murray pedantically reminds his kids, “furniture is temporary.  Education is permanent.  Forget furniture.  Forget Torrance.”  The sense of education as going hand-in-hand with other long-term investments like real estate significantly motivates the continued growth of suburbia; finding “a good place to raise kids” tends to hinge on good schools. And good schools like those in Beverly Hills, predominantly funded through property taxes, tend to be found in affluent suburbs.  What’s a working-class or lower-middle-class family to do when the mechanism that makes “good schools” possible in suburbia – zoning – depends on drawing borders to minimize the number of potential beneficiaries of education-driven upward mobility? Slums of Beverly Hills and John Hughes films show that the grim secret to class mobility is an ability to work within the constraints local zoning codes put in place to find affordable housing in an otherwise high-dollar school district. But zoning is not an impartial referee; municipalities’ property-value protecting zoning restricts this sort of residential mobility to limited areas. Not-quite-middle-class teenagers like Slums’ Vivian Abromowitz, and Hughes’s Andie Walsh and Andrew Johnson locate the source of personal, familial, and social problems in suburbia not “at home,” but in a differently-zoned building.



[edited to fix word order problem]