Archives for category: adventures in academic publishing

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. 

One of the joys of the adjunct life is paying for conferences out of your own pocket. I’ll be popping down to Canberra for ANU’s Global Cities conference, which looks like it’ll be plenty of fun. The trip won’t be super expensive, because ANU isn’t charging registration and the conference dinner is free (although the place has “vegetarian” options that have bacon in them, which does not fill me – or my stomach – with confidence). However, I’m paying for air fare and hotel and all that shit.

I’ve convinced one of my new colleagues to go to the WWE show at the Brisbane Enterntainment Centre, which shoud be two tons of fun. I’m much less fussed about paying $75 for the tickets, since I have yet to attend a bad wrestling show, regardless of promotion. Even the little indie show in a stinky hall in Dover, New Hampshire back in 2002 was enjoyable, no-shows and all.

My love of wrestling, I’m sorry to say, has managed to trump my love of opera (they’re mostly the same thing, but one has more baby oil). They’re running Einstein on the Beach in Melbourne at the end of July, and I’m gutted that I can’t head down there. I sincerely doubt that Einstein is the sort of thing they live simulcast in movie theatres. I take heart in the mere presence of a Wilson/Glass opera getting put on.


As the great Frank Ward, longtime Chicago Lyric Opera season ticket holder, used to say to me, “you can have my Glass tickets. I like to hear more than the same six notes for three hours.” If Frank were still alive, I would go to Melbourne, costs be damned, and glory in “Knee Play 3”.

And so, as I too often carp, it’s a matter of schmucks like me giving up the things that might bring a little joy on the off chance that by playing catch-up, we adjuncts might go from semipro to the big leagues.

A draft chunk out of my chapter in Film and the Presidency (coming out in 2014 on Routledge).

The box office and critical failure of Heaven’s Gate in 1980 may have wounded the western’s prospects, but by 1985 the genre was on its way to ten years of success. Comedy westerns Silverado (1985), Three Amigos! (1986), and Back to the Future Part III (1990) as well as westerns aimed at new audiences, such as the youth-market Young Guns (1988) and the kidpic An American Tail II: Fievel Goes West (1991) all turned a profit. The western as a genre for the exploration of American life and ideology showed no signs of going away, with both the revisionist Dances With Wolves (1990) and the anti-western Unforgiven (1992) winning Best Picture Oscars and critical esteem as well as popular acclaim. By the mid-1990s, indie directors Jim Jarmusch, Robert Rodriguez, Sam Raimi, and John Sayles had all made westerns in the major-minor corner of the studios.

Dave is part of this Hollywood return to the western.As Dave is a comedy-western with songs, Dave Kovic enters riding not a horse, but a pig, and soon after he’s singing about the open range. Although he is first enlisted as a stand-in for the President, becomes the real sheriff/President by accident. But pretending to be the President isn’t enough for Dave, and he takes seriously the sheriff’s/President’s charge to clean up the town/Washington DC, where Dave must protect the homesteaders/nation against the outlaw/Chief of Staff Bob Alexander, who wishes to run the town as his own fiefdom. While he’s not accepted at first, Dave works hard to win the trust of the town (and the romantic interest, Ellen Mitchell) and in short order The McLaughlin Group trumpets his comeback. Dave learns to wield his power by making tough cuts and saving good programs with the help of his unconventional deputies, like the suburban accountant Murray. The film’s final showdown takes place not on a western town’s dusty main street, but in the corridors of power; Dave kills/fires Bob Alexander, delivers a speech to Congress, and leaves so that Vice President Nance can assume legitimate power in the newly pacified Washington DC. Two images from Dave’s walk away from Washington DC powerfully signal Dave’s interest in linking an idealized but everyday President with western iconography. In the first, Dave uses a baseball cap to disguise his “real” identity of President. After Secret Service agent Duane affirms Dave’s success as President – “I’d have taken a bullet for you” – Dave exits the ambulance and, in a profile close-up, grabs the brim of the cap to pull it further over his eyes, an image common to every western. Dave western hat

After Dave pulls his hat down, he walks off, and a long shot shows Dave walking away from the camera, framed by the darkness of bushes and trees in an image that resembles, to pick one western, the doorway-framed Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1955, John Ford). As Dave’s silhouette exits the rear of the image, he heads off into the northern Virginia suburban frontier after making Washington DC a safer, more civilized place.

Dave Searchers shot in Dave Dave Searchers shot original

Dave uses two distinctly American forms – the western and the Presidency – to call for a more active, responsive, and humane government. Calling Dave a western not only has the virtue of being both amusing and true, but also resituates it within a genre studies framework, more specifically, the spatial approach Thomas Schatz develops in Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. (and from here I use “old” tools because they’re fun and still useful)

My piece on Burt Reynolds and American cinema history showed up today on Post45, here. Everyone I dealt with at Post45 was a joy: Merve Emre, JD Connor, Sean McCann, and an anonymous reader I think may have been Derek Nystrom were all terrifically helpful and their input made the article better.

Post45 screenshot

I take some comfort in the fact that the stuff I’ve had the most success in placing is the most recently-written stuff. The old crud from my dissertation has taken a ton of effort to get up to publication snuff. I think this means that I’ve improved.

Matt Jockers’ new book Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History is pretty fucking good. It balances number crunching explanations with a good sense of why they ought to matter. There’s also a consistent “step back from the edge” vibe that embraces the macro approach without losing sight of how important the micro/close reading approach.

One thing that Jockers mentions in passing a couple of times as he gets us up to speed is the importance of funding; in chapter 3, “Tradition” he notes that Canada’s system has put in the most money per capita to establish DH infrastructure. If I can be anecdotal about things, it’s a series of moments in the footnotes that reveal how much the “seek funding opportunities” approach functions as a key concern:

In 2008 I served on the inaugural panel reviewing applications for the jointly sponsored National Endowment for the Humanities and National Science Foundation “Digging into Data” grants. The expressed goals of the grant are to promote the development and deployment of innovative research techniques in large-scale data analysis (3).

In 2009 I was chair of the ADHO Bursary Awards committee. The prize is designed to encourage new scholars in the discipline (14).

From 2011 to 2012, I served as the project lead on “Phase Two” of the SEASR project. The work was generously funded by the Mellon Foundation (21).

During that time I was assisted by students enrolled in my Irish-American literature courses at Stanford and by graduate students employed as part of a grant I received from the Stanford Humanities Lab to fund the “Irish-American West” project (37).

The development and use of an adjective-based model for detecting sentiment alongside theme is a current idea of experimentation in a project of the Stanford Literary Lab that is funded by the Mellon Foundation (133).

In a work sponsored by the Mellon Foundation, this process was later formalized by Loretta Auvil and Boris Capitanu as a SEASR workflow (134).

Here comes the anecdotal part. If and when I read an academic piece of research, I tend to read the acknowledgments, the index, and the footnotes/notes more than the body. This makes me a kind of lazy reader, but if I want to make an anecdotal argument, it’s solid gold. While there’s always a mention or seven of funding in the acknowledgments, I can’t for the life of me recall seeing a mention, much less a half-dozen mentions of funding sources in the body of a book. It may well be that I’ve been reading Luddites who do things on the cheap and thus don’t need to bring up such things. But I’m intrigued by how (comparatively) frequently Jockers brings up where the funding comes from. The sense that DH is a surrender to the neoliberal project comes through most powerfully in these footnotes. Mind you, I’m not tarring Jockers with that; he is careful to note how important the usual arsenal of literary studies is as a companion to macroanalysis, and that macro cannot do the whole job. But it bears noting that there’s a consistent “gold in them thar hills” undercurrent to the footnotes – the place where messages to fellow academics tend to come through most clearly.

The poor quality of the video testifies to the major problem macroanalysis faces for schmucks like me: copyright issues on anything post-1923. Jockers’ final chapter is perhaps the best in the book in that it balances excitement for what macroanalysis offers with a sense of how many problems it faces from eternal copyright.

Because someone has to win one of the NEH Fellowships, and I didn’t see any NZ/Australia-based winners from the last few years, I put together an application. According to the NEH, applying for the fellowship has an eight percent chance of success. Seeing as how I have lived through a once-in-a-lifetime series of earthquakes and I’m moving to a place that has gone through once-every 100/50/etc floods, I will take comfrot in the gambler’s fallacy. The narrative section of my application:

“The World Atlas of American Cinema, 1927-2000” combines digital cartography with close readings of representative films to write a history of twentieth century American sound narrative cinema at the intersection of the geographies of narrative location, production, consumption and taste. The Atlas project will reorient and redraw the boundaries of film history both literally and figuratively by cataloguing films’ narrative locations on digital maps to examine where we mean when we say “American cinema.” Does American cinema mean a movie set in contemporary suburban Los Angeles, 1970s New York, a mid-century Midwestern small town, a Gilded Age Wild West town, a Civil War plantation, all of the above, or none of the above? Has American cinema meant the same narrative locations throughout its history? Where are the privileged – and invisible – narrative locations in American cinema? Film has from its beginnings been a major part of urban – and increasingly suburban – life, in theatres, nickelodeons, picture palaces, and multiplexes. As film exhibition has migrated, have film settings migrated as well? Do the films that make up the top twenty box office, year-end awards lists, and film studies syllabi describe the same country?

To answer these questions, the Atlas will first approach American narrative cinema as a massive data set. I will use the American Film Institute Catalog indices, and observation, to collect data on the major narrative locations for films found in the yearly top-twenty of domestic box office list, on prestige lists such as the Oscars, and in undergraduate film studies course syllabi. I will then superimpose this cinema-location data onto maps of contemporary demographic, economic, political and industrial data taken from, among other sources, US Census data and the National Association of Theater Owners’ yearly Encyclopedia of Exhibition. The Atlas will expand the work of digital humanities, one of the critical new areas for humanities research in the twenty-first century, by tracing the interactions of American cinema’s narrative locations and the historical-contextual maps of the American century will reveal previously invisible connections – and gaps – in the popular, critical, and academic geography of Hollywood film, will provide the impetus for more focused attention to the particular locations of American identity as reflected in the films that Americans watch, admire, and study.

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The Sumner Hollywood 3’s current lineup of films is a weird bunch, but one that says a load about cinema-going in our sleepy little beachbums-families-and-immigrant-professionals village. In some ways this set of films is a nice indication of what the local movie house turned into after the quakes shrank the number of cinemas in Christchurch considerably. You have your Film For Distinguished British Actors (Quartet), a couple of French art films (A Lady in Paris and Rust and Bone) a straight-ahead art flick (Samsara), a movie to bring the kids and families in (The Croods) and a couple of Hollywood flicks (Lincoln and Hyde Park on the Hudson).

Image I would be delinquent in my forthcoming-book-flogging if I did not notice that the only two live action Hollywood films are fictional films about US presidents. What, exactly, is the appeal of a film about FDR or Abe to a New Zealand audience, for the immigrants who outnumber Americans in Christchurch? What would bring a New Zealander into the auditorium? By way of comparison, The Queen did OK box office in the US, but it still finished behind such offerings as Scary Movie 4, The Santa Clause 3, Jackass Number Two, The Pink Panther, Saw III, Big Momma’s House 2, Fast and Furious Tokyo Drift, and Underworld Evolution – and that’s just a sampling of the sequels. I can’t imagine the usual crowd at Classic Cinemas Cinema 12 lining up to see a film about FDR’s contemporaries Michael Savage or Peter Fraser.

I have a hell of a time finding shoes that fit. I’m a US size 6 (men’s), which rivals the moa in terms of its rarity in New Zealand and the Sasquatch in the US. My feet quit growing more than twenty years ago, and my main solution to this problem has been Doc Martens, which are essentially unisex. When it comes to my soccer shoes, I once took a pair of adidas copas as hand-me-downs from a 12-year-old (I was 17 at the time). The pair of Puma King screw-ins that I bought with driveway shovelling and lawn-mowing money in 1991 lasted me until last year, when three of my teammates (and most of the strikers I marked) were younger than my boots. Those Pumas were old enough to have been made in Germany. My other solution has been to wear women’s shoes, including my current pair of pink-and-slime (not green) adidas predators and whatever running shoes I take as a hand-me-down from Jennifer (the joys of marriage).

As below so above: in intellectual pursuits like MLA panels I am also of an awkward size. Here are the responses from the five rejections I have received so far:

Thank you for your submission to the MLA panel on “Topic.” Many excellent abstracts came in. In the end, I could only accept three for the panel at the Chicago convention. I am sorry to say that I could not accept yours, despite its fine quality.

Thanks for your submission.  I received many good proposals for the MLA panel and I picked the ones that went together the best. Sorry, I did not select yours.  Best of luck to you in your endeavors.

I’m sorry to tell you that we didn’t choose your submission for the panel. We had around 30 submissions and could only select 4.  There were many excellent submissions we had to pass up (and we also had to think about “fit” here in making our selections: putting together a panel with some coherence).

I have reviewed all the proposals for the 2014 MLA session, “[Topic],” and read your abstract with interest.  Unfortunately, your paper was not selected for this panel.  We had a number of strong proposals and the decision was to some degree based on how well the papers would fit together as a group.

Thank you very much for submitting your abstract to the [Topic] panel proposed for MLA 2014. I received a very large number of submissions, so the choice was difficult. In the end I tried to put together a panel from abstracts that shared a narrower focus on [Topic] and subjectivity, and I’m afraid yours was not one of the final three included.

Four out of five were explicit about the importance of fit. Or, as I would describe it, doing the same thing with a different text. I don’t want to rage too hard against these five rejections,  they included very nice invitations to submit to upcoming special issues and edited collections, and the failure studies panel (perhaps predictably) was the flat-out nicest rejection notice I’ve ever received. But I find the academic mad lib of lots of good submissions/applicants, tough decision, and fit a little boring.

So far I’m 0-for-5. I’m fairly sure I’ll go a perfect 0-for-10 on my MLA proposals. My sincerest hope is that one of the rejections says, “we would have picked yours, but the coin landed on tails. Sorry.” I would buy that person a drink or three at the next MLA, provided I can get a paper accepted.

I was stoked to see this panel, and a special issue of Modern Fiction Studies sounds like something positive to emerge out of it. Since almost everything I have in my pile of current research is about film, I had to dive into the pleasure reading pile for ideas.

“The Critical Function of Infrastructure, Suitable for Young Adult Readers: Philip Reeve’s Predator Cities Quartet

In the popular steampunk young-adult novels that make up the Predator Cities Quartet (2001-2008), Traction Cities, tiered cities made mobile by massive treads, such as London roam the post-apocalyptic earth looking for smaller cities. This vision of urban life changes both the neoliberal economic order and its effect on the physical form of cities in late capitalism into an predator-prey relationship. Two concepts are key to the series: Municipal Darwinism and the importance of a city’s infrastructure to survival and success. The ideology at the centre of the novels’ conflicts, Municipal Darwinism, explains a world in which cities hunt and eat other, using the materials they salvage from the dead city as fuel and as capital, literalizing the ways in which some cities increase their wealth and power at the cost of other cities.

The strangeness of Predator Cities Quartet’s dystopian future rests on bringing the invisible underpinnings of contemporary life and civilization – infrastructure – into the foreground. The Predator Cities Quartet represents traction cities as intensely vertical cities, with the leader at the topmost level of the city, the technical professionals at the observation level, and the workers near the engine rooms and waste-handling facilities at the literal bottom of the pile. In addition to giving concrete expression to social hierarchy, the city’s physical form also expresses the series’ larger political message: that a livable city, be it a Traction City gobbling up other cities or a town rooted on the earth, can only go as far as its power generation, waste-handling, and transportation facilities can take it.

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.