Archives for the month of: August, 2013

In back to back screenings for the Introduction to Film and Television Studies course I’m convening, the students have done something really strange and wondrous.

Last week, after four weeks of nonstop chattering during the screening, they were almost completely silent during The Informant!. Maybe it was the presence of a Movie Star in a film they hadn’t seen. At the end of the film, probably a dozen students applauded. In twelve years of university teaching I’ve never heard applause at the end of a screening.

This week, the first part of the screening was the first episode of The Wire (2002). They were really quiet again. Then, because we had another hour scheduled, I ran one segment from the post-Money in the Bank Raw.

At first, there was a wave of snickering and visible eye-rolling. But as the segment went on, they got quieter and quieter. When the segment ended, with Punk half-dead on the floor behind the announce table, with Lesnar and Heyman hemming him in to the centre-rear of the frame, I hit stop. A chorus of “awwws” from the crowd followed. They wanted to keep watching. That, dear reader, is a money promo in action.

First: a “they must be encouraged”. I have nothing but good things to say about Rex Butler, who was nice enough to give me the rundown on why my postdoc application was turned down. Our postdoc postmortem meeting was the first time we’d said more than hello to each other – not the best foot to get off on. But he clearly showed a great deal of consideration my feelings, to the point that I started to feel like I ought to give him a tissue. For that decency and humanity he has my admiration and respect. If more members of panels fronted up so well, I’d be less filled with rage.

I find it much more difficult to be philosophical about the culture of institutional bullshit Rex had to take the bullet for.

In the end, he admitted, it came down to two main problems: my project’s scope and my cv. The panel wondered if I could deliver on what I promised – a spatial history of Hollywood films from 1927 to 2000. I didn’t have to say anything, because Rex followed his description of the “this project is Too Big” concern with the admission, “then again, if you had proposed a smaller, more manageable project, they would have said that it was too limited.” We’re encouraged, damn near required, to Think Big, to go for Major Paradigm-Shifting Research. But that demand means it’s easy to manufacture a reason to say no to funding. I’m being asked to swallow that “a research monograph with maps” is too grand a project for a three-year postdoc. Perhaps the very clear narrowing of perspective – Top 20 Box Office, Oscar Winners – escaped their notice. Perhaps I was too optimistic that clearly stating that I will be taking a Distant Reading approach – identified by name in the project description and in the bibliography they asked for – would make it clear that I would not be doing close readings of every fucking movie since 1927.

Perhaps the panel’s lack of confidence emerged from the second concern. Rex, to his credit, admitted that “your cv isn’t something you can do much about in the next nine months.” I was up against, in Rex’s words, “senior lecturer-level cvs.” I’ve been a little busy doing the teaching that has enabled continuing academic staff to do their research to build up a senior lecturer-level cv. In fact, I taught more classes over five years at University of Canterbury than my senior lecturer wife – and that includes a year when I was blacklisted by the now-departed PVC-Arts. When “senior lecturer” is the new baseline for a postdoc, the system doesn’t need fuckers like me.

So after talking it over with my wife, I’m chucking it in after 2014. I would like to have a full-time job by the time I’m 40, and there ain’t one to be had in academia.

The difference between a shitty rejection and one you can live with boils down to some small amount of kindness. I hereby submit a rejection notice from Anna Sloan at Sussex as evidence of how to be a decent person in a rejection notice. I hope she doesn’t mind my quoting from her email to me:

I hope that you will consider submitting it to the conference committee as a stand-alone paper, and I very much hope that you will have success with it.

That’s all it takes. As far as I’m concerned, Anna Sloan goes to the front of the line.

This was my proposal, which, as per usual, is a pretty great idea that I feel like I don’t explain as well as I ought to:

The Geography of Prestige: Narrative Settings and The Oscars, 1929-1976 (the map of locations)

Where is an Oscar-winner? This presentation will consider the location of Oscar-nominated films to understand the where of prestige in Hollywood. Setting matters in terms of narrative, form, and ideology, and this presentation will locate the narrative, formal and ideological shifts in Hollywood cinema on the map with Hollywood’s autobiographical account of Quality Cinema – the Best Picture nomination – as its metric.

This presentation will begin with a map of the narrative locations of the films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar from 1929 through 1976. A second set of maps based on US Census demographic data will profile the film-going audience on a national, state, and regional scale, for example, the most populous, most affluent and most impoverished areas in relation to narrative locations. Placing these two sets of maps into conversation across three broad periods – 1929-1944, 1946-1960, and 1961-1976 – I will trace the history of the locations of prestige in relation to changing American demographics, and speculate, with close readings of representative films, on how and why their setting signals quality to the contemporary audience. By mapping the locations of Oscar nominees, I will consider the locations that classical Hollywood prestige pictures used to position a particular set of American landscapes to prominence, and the degree of change caused by the breakup of the old system.

The revisions the outside readers asked for in an old chunk of my dissertation were not the revisions I would have asked for (I would have asked for better sentences – there’s not a S-V-O sequence to be found). One of the stranger ones was the request to chop out sections because there was too much going on. Fine by me – I kill my darlings. I thought this reading of American Beauty was clever enough to stay in, but them’s the breaks. The advantage of chucking it up here – pictures.

“Here comes the neighborhood”: Gay men, gentrification, and class mobility in the suburbs

Finally, American Beauty indicts homophobia alongside racism and nativism in the maintenance of the imagination of normalcy in American suburbia as exclusively white and middle-class. In the final analysis, American Beauty represents suburban normalcy as primarily a product of not only sexuality, but also, most powerfully, economic behavior. Homosexuality is, for lack of a better word, tolerated in American Beauty’s suburbs. Reflecting larger trends highlighted in, to cite one book-length example, Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren-Tiagi’s The Two-Income Trap, the sole stable family in American Beauty does not take the form of the traditional wage-earner father stay-at-home mother (the Fittses) nor the working mother and “downsized” father (the Burnhams) but rather the two-income family with no children. The Two Jims occupy a privileged position in the film’s ideological universe. The Burnham and Fitts families are unhappy in distinct ways that nevertheless intersect in the figure of the successful gay couple. The Two Jims – tax attorney and anesthesiologist – verge on parody in their respectable, middle-class professional suburban happiness. They are the embodiment of the suburbs as seen by Carolyn (they can afford and keep a nice house), Lester (they have a stable relationship), and Colonel Fitts (they’re another part of the world going to hell). With his high and tight hair cut, all-business demeanor, and self-identification as retired Marine Corps Colonel, Fitts places himself in his new home in terms of the reasons Brooks lists for continued sprawl: order, control, education, achievement, success, and most of all, a manageable mortgage. William H. Whyte and C. Wright Mills would recognize their Organization Man and White Collar suburbanite in either Jim before they recognized it in the retired military man Fitts or the full-time realtor Carolyn. Were Jim and Jim not a married gay couple they would be the embodiment of the painfully ordinary suburbanites Jane and Rickey cannot wait to leave behind. 

amb1In this sense, the stiflingly uptight and white inner-ring suburb in American Beauty reaches its suburban – as in sub-urbane, banal, drab – zenith in the form of the Two Jims, who do exhibit none of the ennui Catherine Jurca, in White Diaspora, identifies as the default white middle-class position. Jim and Jim are ironic suburbanites – since gay men as a group have come to signal gentrification. Could the presence of Jim and Jim mean that more gay couples will move into American Beauty’s upper-middle-class suburb, leading to the gentrification of an already-affluent but slightly monochrome town? The Fitts’ family car trip that follows the Two Jims’ early-morning welcome visit writes the anxiety of sliding out of the middle class onto the suburban built environment.

At the breakfast table, Fitts voices the usual suburban concern of declining property values, barely looking up from the paper to tell Rickey that “This country is going straight to hell.” As if conjured by the statement, the Two Jims arrive with a welcome basket full of homegrown vegetables. During the drive to school, Fitts excoriates his new neighbors in pedantically homophobic terms: “How come those faggots always have to rub it in your face?  How can they be so shameless?” Ricky barely looks up from his drug-dealing accounting to defend the Jims, but Fitts cuts him off angrily. Ricky, sensing what his father wants to hear, looks directly at his father, saying with palpable irony that Fitts evidently misses, “those fags make me want to puke my fucking guts out.” If Carolyn’s sing along drive reveals a subjective landscape rooted in her sex life and Lester’s post-quitting drive shows the business world rolling off his back, Colonel Fitts’s drive with Ricky similarly deploys transit through the built environment to make concrete Fitts’s vision of suburbia. Throughout this scene, the Fitts take the very same route their neighbors the Burnhams followed in the opening sequence of the film, since both trips were home-to-school from the same starting point. However, rather than Lester’s point-of-view shots looking into a mostly empty gray sky, the street behind Fitts is a series of picket fences guarding brick houses. In every shot of Fitts during the trip, the visual shorthand of 1950s suburbia plays counterpoint to Fitts’s reactionary sense of the incursion into his suburban retirement – how, in this ideal Ozzie and Harriet setting, can people like the two Jims belong? amb2

Such a background reveals a distinctly nostalgic subjective landscape. The nondescript streets that rush behind shots of Ricky during the conversation indicate that for a military child who never made connections to his surroundings, the built environment is not worthy of sharp focus. Fitts’s violent reaction to gay men in his picket fence is without doubt based in homophobia, but there is an economic subtext to Fitts’s homophobia: his town is not slipping toward Burnfield-like stagnation, but rather may be creeping up the ladder, into not only something not white-heterosexual, but also, significantly, a price bracket he cannot afford on a military pension fixed income.