Archives for the month of: March, 2014

I’ve decided now that I’ve left academia, my research exists to amuse me. Thus, I’m prepping articles on workplace safety in Arthur Hailey novels, urban design in Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt books, Disney’s 1960s output, and infrastructure in Philip Reeve YA novels. I’m wrapping up the Hailey piece, and it’s close to looking decent enough to send out for rejection notices that will, I hope, have good reader reports.

Here’s the last chunk of the introduction:

Gordon Hutner claims in What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960 that soon-forgotten best seller novels are key to the project of literary criticism. Such books constitute “the merely ordinary, that is, the fiction against which academic tastemakers later needed to contradistinguish the best” (1). Arthur Hailey novels are not widely read in 2014, replaced by the newest iteration of popular fiction from Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, Jodi Picoult. While Hailey’s novels certainly have an ordinary style, they also offer access to another species of ordinary: their status quo, make-no-waves hegemonic political thinking undergirded their contemporary mass appeal. In this manner, Airport represents a key document in the history of literature, culture, and labor politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Airport concentrates not on blue-collar workers who face physical dangers at work as a matter of routine, but on white collar managers and air traffic controllers finding their jobs’ psychological stresses exacerbated by an emergency. The middle-class airport-fiction-reading audience for best sellers like Airport could get behind Hailey’s workplace safety agenda precisely because it’s about them and their psychological well-being at the safe remove of disaster management rather than in the everyday dangers of manual labor. But in making the case for workplace safety that addresses managers’ and professionals’ stresses, Hailey implicitly accepts the importance of workplace expertise and safety for blue-collar laborers as well. In his attention to the stresses of the air traffic controller workplace, Hailey advocates for structures that demand that management operate with worker safety as their guide – first for white collar workers, but with the potential for blue-collar workers as well. In other words, Arthur Hailey is the Richard Nixon of novelists. Airport prepares Hailey’s readers to accept the Occupational Safety Act of 1970 as not just legitimate but necessary, even though it has little interest in the working-class people most likely to benefit from the Act.

Plus, jokes about Zizek’s fondness for toilets,  The Sarge in Airplane II: The Sequel, and plenty of Nixon-scorn.

Advertisements

If there’s one thing that makes The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler) really interesting, it’s the way it shows the logic behind post-war suburbanization without getting 100% behind it. I’d say the film’s more like 75% pro-suburbanization. Of the three main male characters, the younger two return to live with their parents. This return home bespeaks not just the relative youth of the military, but also the mid-century housing shortage. Suburbanization addressed the very real problem of where to put the demobbed, but it wasn’t the only or inevitable solution. The Best Years of Our Lives shows that at the end of the war, suburbia had its appeal, but it wasn’t the only potential route to coming back to the American Way of Life.

When the three returning servicemen share a cab home, they go to Homer’s (Howard Russell) place first. They’re crowded into the rear view mirror, with what we’d recognize as inner-ring suburban houses offering a spacious, homey counterpoint to crowding and enclosure.

Image

Homer, who lost both his arms in the war, returns to a family that, while it’s not always aware of how to help Homer, really wants to help him. The utopian potential for suburbia shows up in establishing shots that put a shine on Homer’s street, giving it a sense of happiness and hope.

Image

At the other end of the spectrum we find Fred’s place, in a slum in the shadow of highway overpasses. It’s dark, dingy, and crowded – and Fred doesn’t think much of it when he returns:

Image

Fred struggles to re-integrate into Boone City (Cincinatti, Ohio) society, finding the shift from war hero to order-taking soda fountain worker jarring. In the end, Fred discovers purpose in work building the new suburbs that will spread out from Boone City like the airplanes lined up for recycling (the first image resembles a street of houses, the second a well-establish suburb’s tree canopy):

Image

Image

In this way, The Best Years of Our Lives is pretty straightforward in its embrace of suburbanization. But the Sergeant, Al Stephenson, represents the appeal and acceptance of urban living. Al returns to his family home in a large, quite nice, apartment building. It’s not Central Park West, but for a middle-American provincial city, it’s plenty good.

Image

Al should be an asshole – he’s a banker, he lives in a swanky apartment – but he’s a good guy. He’s married to Nora Charles! The Stephenson family place has lots of room, looks expensively appointed, and has enough frippery to let us know that Al is on the high end of the pyramid.

Image

Image

In the first image, the children who flank the image, directing our gaze to the warm reunion, are key. The Stephensons raised kids in an apartment in the city. When it comes to domestic life, Al has a rough road to getting his shit together, but the kids are pretty alright (if anything, Al is a bit of a jerk about how his kids lead their lives, although he does see reason in the end) and his wife is supportive and perceptive without sinking into sainted suffering. When Al is at work, he approves a loan for a tomato farm on the edge of town for a returning veteran who doesn’t have any collateral (the scene is the humane version of Buck Swope’s humiliation in Boogie Nights (1997, PT Anderson)). That is to say, Al’s third of the story shows that while there’s something exciting and appealing about the suburbs, there is also a lot to recommend the city (even if it puts your kids into contact with possibly unsavoury sorts) and even the country/farm life.

Whether you’re talking about Cleopatra Jones (1973, Jack Starrett ) or Un Flic (1972, Jean-Pierre Melville), a cop movie is likely to have maps of the city (thanks to M (1931, Fritz Lang) more than anything else, I’d guess).

Cleopatra Jones map 1 Un Flic maps in police office 1 M map 6One of the interesting aspects to Cleopatra Jones is that it includes some other visual aids. For instance, one of the cops has a bar graph on his wall:

Cleopatra Jones bar graphYou don’t see a wall-size bar graph too often in cop movies. Maybe they’re tracking arrests – a spike at the end of February and again in late April and early May. Mommy (Shelly Winters), the film’s villain, uses a map in Cleopatra Jones as well.

Cleopatra Jones map 2It’s important to maintain a sense of your drug-dealing territory.

But head and shoulders above all the maps we find Reuben’s (Bernie Casey) visual aid for his community organization.

Cleopatra Jones visual aidsThere’s so much to like in this composition – the way in which the 1970s colour palette throws the primary-coloured pills into relief, the empty seat at the front of the table that clears the way for our view of the image, and the hand-drawn nature of the image itself. We know Reuben is completely above-board because of that flip-chart image.

All of these visual aids make it possible for an exploitation picture like Cleopatra Jones to get to the stuff it wants to do quicker. There’s no need to have long tedious exposition theatre scenes when you can have something else in the image carry the weight. Rather than having one stupid vocal tic that throws in a laugh line every dang scene, the current way of doing things, the stuff that sits still in the mise en scene gives us a sense of who these people are and what they do. Cops + maps (+ graphs) = collecting evidence. Villain + map + shouting = under pressure. Secondary lead + hand-drawn graphic representation of drugs to avoid = legit.

Now let’s get to the chase through the Los Angeles River.Cleopatra Jones LA River chase