Archives for the month of: February, 2013

I have a longer article in draft about Albert Brooks as a version of Richard Nixon. A version of the question Garry Wills asks of Nixon in Nixon Agonistes, how do you feel hard done by when you’re the Leader of the Free World?, also applies to Albert Brooks characters. Why is it that Brooks’ solidly middle class characters are so miserable? Because they feel like failures. Such is the price of benefitting from the economic order.

I admit that the proposal reads perhaps excessively crabby.

“Albert Brooks Is Failure Studies, by Christian B. Long, unemployed PhD”

If there is a place to begin failure studies in Hollywood cinema, it is Albert Brooks. In Hollywood films, few characters believe in success more than those written, directed, and played by Albert Brooks. Fewer still fail as much. Every film Brooks has written and directed locates its happy ending in financial success undercut by romantic, professional, and psychological “failure.” On the one hand, his comfortably upper middle class characters take their financial success as proof of the wisdom of the system. On the other hand, the system’s inability to provide for romantic, professional, and psychological success strikes his characters as infuriating and unjust.

While it’s not surprising that Brooks’ films, with such non-happy endings, would find box office success hard to come by, it is somewhat surprising that Brooks’ films have been relatively neglected in academic film studies. Highbrow critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Stuart Klawans have written more about Brooks than academic critics. An MLA keyword search “Woody Allen” generates 284 hits and 234 entries. An MLA keyword search for “the West Coast Woody Allen” Albert Brooks generates 1 hit, an interview about screenwriting.

Brooks’ characters must accept failure because their sole success comes from the top entry in American narrative of success: money. “Albert Brooks” finds the ending for his film, but through mental breakdown and arson (Real Life). David Howard “eat[s] shit” and returns to a job he hates (Lost in America). John Henderson overcomes his writer’s block via the most trite of psychological breakthroughs (Mother). Daniel Miller leads the life he ought to have led, but only after he dies in (Defending Your Life). “Albert Brooks” helps the US Government, but no one can ever know and he also sort of starts a war (Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World). I argue that one significant reason Brooks’ films receive so little attention is their tendency to accept an accumulation of affective indignities and failures as a condition of financial success, a message that hits a little too close to home for most academics.

For this panel, after getting over how infuriated I was by the use of passive voice – “how is contingent labor defined” – I thought of a pair of small problems I face when I send articles to journals: using my sometimes-unavailable university account and describing myself in the author bio.

“Christian Long is unsure of how to write his author bio”

An under-appreciated part of academic publishing for adjuncts is the author bio. Even a cursory overview of a journal or book back cover reveals the near-universal deployment of institutional affiliation in author bios. My presentation will investigate the question of the contingent faculty member who finds time and energy to publish. Exactly how do you describe yourself to the academic community – with its interest in institutional affiliation – when your very condition is one of non- or tenuous affiliation? While terms like “Visiting Assistant Professor” and “Instructor” are useful tools, they are not (to mix the metaphor) blunt enough instruments to make clear to our audience that “this is written by an adjunct.” I will argue that for adjuncts, author bio conventions at their best reflect the collegiality of particular departments, but at their worst paper over the many sins of the institutionalized contingent academic labor racket.

The call seemed to imply that it was more a “talk about a theorist and then a text” panel rather than a “talk about a text with a theorist in mind”, which led to a little bit of a pasted-together feel. But I think the sense that action movie heroes, in their evasive maneuvers, treat the lines on maps as facts that are changeable or open to negotiation, is fun enough.

The Bourne Geography

Michel de Certeau “is interested in the relationships of place as a fixed position and space as a realm of practices – counterposing the fixity of the map to the practice of travelling” (Crang 137-8). Jason Bourne, who almost always has a map at hand in the Bourne series, conceives of mapped space in just this way. The CIA, with instant access to every surveillance camera and satellite in operation, as well as global police information-sharing networks, cares only about fixing position. Because of their inability to conceive of the fluidity of space, Bourne eludes them from the Mediterranean to Midtown Manhattan.

For example, in the Figure 1 below, from The Bourne Identity, the CIA want to place Bourne and Marie. They put a yellow pin on the paper map; it’s their best guess of where to find they because “They were in Paris at 2 am. They can’t fly. The train’s too dangerous.” In other words, the CIA did the very same thing the police did in Figure 2, from M, a film released more than seventy years previous to fix a point and an area on the map.

In Figure 3, Bourne tears an emergency exit route placard from the wall, not for the route to escape fire, but for the routes throughout the building. The map places stairwells, fire extinguishers, and fire escapes, but it also reveals paths to travel – both for Bourne and his pursuers. While his pursuers seek out one point on the map – Bourne’s exact position, as relayed through their communication system – Bourne seeks any open path.

In other words, the police wish to affix Bourne to a place, and arrest his travels, whereas Bourne wishes to continue travelling, by whatever means, through the same space. Bourne prevails because he is able quickly to turn the fixity of the map into a practice of travelling. A window is as good as a door; a sheer face is as good as a stairwell. Or, to use a later chase scene example, on the map stairs connect parallel roads, and while it’s not the normal use, but a motorbike can travel on the stairs. The more the fixed information on the map can be used for travel, both within and beyond its planned use, the greater Bourne’s – or anyone’s, really – potential for freedom.

Crang, Mike. “Relics, Places and Unwritten Geographies in the Work of Michel de Certeau (1925-86).” Thinking Space. Mike Crang and Nigel Thrift ed. London: Routledge, 2000. 136-53.

Bourne Identity Marie in France 3

M map 1

Bourne Identity route finding 1

I sent in five proposals for MLA Chicago 2014. On the one hand, even though I’m resigned to having no legit academic career, I go through phases in which I at least try to do the things that adjuncts are supposed to do to keep open the possibility of maybe some day winning the lottery and getting a permanent position. Otherwise, why would I be eager to fly from my new home in Brisbane, average low of damn near 21 celsius in January, to Chicago and its average January temperature of 1 to 10 degrees below zero celsius? In fact, since I moved away from Illinois in 2001, I have yet to return during the summer – it’s been Christmas and January visits every time.

This is my abstract/promise to The American Association of Australasian Literary Studies’ call:

“Sam Neill’s The Cinema of Unease, The Christchurch That Was Then, and the Christchurch That Was Now”

In the first ten minutes or so of Sam Neill’s 1996 documentary about New Zealand cinema, The Cinema of Unease: A Personal Journey By Sam Neill, Sam travels around Christchurch. Lyttelton, Summit Road, “virtually comatose” Cashmere, Riccarton Road, and Cathedral Square with its cinemas that connected New Zealand to the world – the Avon, the Regent, the Tivoli, and the Crystal Palace. Sam recalls Christchurch’s repressed, repressive past in terms of his cinema-going – “unofficially, of all things the Army was brought in, truckloads of conscripts were quietly trucked in here one Friday night with orders to beat the shit out of anyone who didn’t look exactly Four Square. Which they did. Cathedral Square was safe again and New Zealand a duller place for it.” The Avon shut in 1989. The Regent burned down in 1979. The Tivoli closed in 1995. The Crystal Plaza was demolished in 1986. On 22 February 2011, Cathedral Square proved not to be safe and the Army returned to Christchurch after the worst of a series of earthquakes that killed more than 175 people.

Sam Neill’s film performs a new historical function now. The near-total destruction of Christchurch’s central business district colours the edge of the frame, generating a new unease in The Cinema of Unease. Christchurch is not a heavily filmed city for non-New Zealand eyes – American audiences would have seen Heavenly Creatures (Cashmere) and The Frighteners (Lyttelton). As Sam remembers the nation that was and looks at the nation that has emerged since the 1950s, the brief glimpses of the new old Christchurch peek out, not dressed up to look like the 1950s Sam critiques, as in Heavenly Creatures, but as the lived-in city Sam walked in 1996. Sam Neill was more prophetic than he knew when he rooted his argument about New Zealand unease in the cinemas of Christchurch’s Cathedral Square. With photos of the locations Sam visited in the Christchurch of 2013, I will confront the way in which a particularly Christchurch New Zealand identity has grown more distinct, and more uneasy.

Cinema of Unease 2

Cinema of Unease 3

I wasn’t terribly confident that Post45 would be interested in my Burt Reynolds article, since it’s a bit more larkish than what they normally put out. But their promise of fast turnaround meant that I wouldn’t lose much if they turned me down. JD Connor got things moving by telling me to send what I had – he’d have comments and a decision in short order. He wasn’t kidding: in two weeks they came to their accepted-with-revisions verdict.

Now to generate publication-quality maps.

In the five years I’ve been at University of Canterbury, the gender breakdown of the classes I’ve taught in the College of Arts has moved toward a near 75% female 25% male split (the College of Engineering is the opposite). In my last semester of tutoring Shakespeare, forty-three of my forty-seven students were female. This trend is pretty much worldwide, and it’s not just the Arts. This trend appears in US universities quite clearly, in UK universities such that even if every dude were accepted there would be more women, in Australian universities, and in New Zealand’s two major universities women make up 56% of the students. All of which makes the “good news” of women holding just over 22% of senior positions in NZ universities a bummer. But it’s good to see that University of Canterbury has started to pull away from the Old Boys world – a near-20% increase in the number of senior academic positions held by women.

I haven’t been able to locate any decent numbers for the percentage of female students at UC (in the College of Arts, in spite of my anecdotal sense that 75% of our students are female, the split in the top award for CoA, Arts Scholars, is 50-50), but when graduation season rolled around, the university’s front page offered some insight. The four grads represented (from left to right) Commerce, Arts, Education, and STEM (If you mouse over the picture, a little blurb appears, noting their degree). The news story has a shot of the researcher and the scholarship notice features a recognizable person (redded-up as per the university’s “visual branding”) as well.

Screen shot 2013-01-31 at 9.34.44 AM

It’s not just that the students are female, which is both representative and encouraging, it’s that you can see their faces. They’re people you might meet on campus – and the mouse-overs give you a sense of their story. By way of contrast, University of Auckland’s main page rotates three images, and there are no people:

Screen shot 2013-02-18 at 10.01.27 AMUniversity of Otago has an extensive catalog of images, perhaps two-thirds of which have recognizable human faces. But there are also shots like this one:

Screen shot 2013-02-18 at 10.01.40 AM

It’s good to see that UC, which needs to increase its student numbers in the face of the money challenges it has, is doing so in a quite human way that embraces the fact that we have so many women enrolled. That it’s doing so in a way that visually distinguishes it in terms of people is also encouraging. Auckland’s a great school, but its website makes it look like a consulting firm. Otago is a great school, but its website alternates between adventure tourism and academia. Neither is wrong, but give me UC’s approach. Except, I must admit, the truly terrible blurb for the “News” feature on that screengrab. The “research finds similarities and differences” reminds me of nothing so much as this: <iframe width=”420″ height=”315″ src=”; frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>