Archives for category: cinema studies

While I’m having trouble getting Tableau Public to do anything resembling co-operate, here’s a screen grab of the narrative locations of Disney’s live action films from 1960-1999.

Disney Live Actions 1960-1999

Compare that to the locations of the top 25 films set in the US during the same time period:

Top25 1960-2000

There’s much less of a focus on New York for Disney, and quite a bit of the SoCal locations are more or less speculative – it’s not quite clear where the films actually take place. For instance, a number of Disney live action films, like The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) take place in a fictional location – Medfield College. In cases like this, I combine shooting location and fictional location to say that the film takes place in Pomona. Disney featured a fair number of mountain west locations, in contrast to a relative lack top 25 films set there (although the next 25 have quite a few mountain west/southwest settings). In addition, the upper midwest features quite a bit more in Disney – again in speculative locations like “Hickory, Iowa” in Follow Me, Boys! (1966) (which was a film they showed to all of us at Hough Street School one year – a 16mm print that was in pretty good shape, seeing as how it never once broke or melted) and in real locations like the Dakota Territory ones in The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968).

Perhaps most interesting to me is the way in which the Disney live action films don’t linger anywhere. It’s a smaller set of locations, but no place appears more than two or three times, with the exception of the fantastic Medfield. To preview the argument in the book, it’s this set-all-over-ness (and this includes the rest of the world) , combined with a general avoidance of avowedly urban settings, that makes Disney films so powerful as hegemonic white suburban texts – they’re set where those kinds of people are – various anonymous suburbs and small towns all across the country. But more or less minus the south. The chapter after the Disney live action chapter will cover that – first in terms of Burt Reynolds as a necessary movie star and then in terms of prestige films after the Civil Rights Act.

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I just sent proofs back for my chapter, “New Zealand Lamb Is People: Bad Taste, Black Sheep and Farming.” There were two changes, one of which was a missing “g” in “includin”. But the other change was a non-change. The “offending” sentence reads like so:

But sheep remained important to New Zealand’s economic and cultural identity; their population may have peaked in the early 1980s, but sheep remain Kiwi as.

The book’s editor, Tom Hertweck, asked me about this when I sent him the first version of the chapter. I explained how “Kiwi as” and “Sweet as” and “WORD as” works. He saw that it fit in with the chapter’s larger argument: a chapter about sheep/lamb in the NZ cultural imaginary is a fair place to use NZ slang.  But the press’s editor wrote “If this is a NZ colloquialism, maybe delete?” Tom, to his credit, dusted off our previous correspondence to back up my desire to keep “Kiwi as.” He’s on the lifetime cool list for that.

Almost the entire point of using “Kiwi as” is to make a claim in the way that the people I’m talking about would make it. I mis-pronounce every placename in Brisbane that has either “wh” or “ng” in it because I completely internalised Te Reo Maori pronunciation so that I wasn’t That Kind of American. It’s not too much effort to “indulge” other English-speakers their language.

FoodonFilm3

The cover art is cute, and the book will be out for Christmas (not that you should buy it from amazon)

 

 

There’s a special issue of Modern Fiction Studies deadline coming up for an issue on infrastructuralism. Originally I had planned an article about Philip Reeves’ Mortal Engines series, something along the lines of “a city travels on its sewers.” But I changed my mind and went for zombies instead. It may or may not have had something to do with Bruce Robbins, one of the editors, writing about zombies.

This is the current version of the first paragraph (I’ve removed the footnotes):

In Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, Annalee Newitz connects zombie narratives to, among other things, slavery, colonialism, and race relations. Her contention that, “Zombies, vampires, and mummies bear in their half-alive bodies the signs of great social injustice whose effects cannot ever be entirely extinguished” (Newitz 91) is true, but not exhaustive. Recent articles on zombies have read them in terms of, among other things, affect, AIDS, appetite, biopolitical governmentality, dehumanization, imperialism, military occupation, postcolonial hybridity, and precarity. This incomplete list points to how the figure of the zombie can combine social critique with sales. While this is another essay about zombies, it is not about zombies and race or gender or sexuality or class or biopolitical governmentality. At least not explicitly. Rather, it is an essay about zombie novels and infrastructure. If there’s a practical undercurrent to zombie apocalypse novels, it’s to be found in their engagement with the role and form of the infrastructure and planning in everyday life after the apocalypse. Novels like Max Brooks’s World War Z,Mira Grant’s zombie trilogy Feed, Deadline, and Blackout, and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One,imagine not just fighting the zombie horde, but also rebuilding after the zombie apocalypse. For these novels, arriving at something like zombie détente is a matter of public works. In other words, zombie apocalypses in early 21st century American literature stage the danger the crumbling US infrastructure – and the way of life it supports – poses to the nation getting about its everyday business, an ambient danger that practically precludes the collective action necessary to confront social injustices.

(In the Land of the Dead image a highway overpass has been turned into a defensive structure, not a roadway. In the Warm Bodies image the city has turned back to an ancient/Medieval city form, the walled city.)

Comments like this from peer reviewers:

Overall, the article is very readable, but there are a number of sentences which are somewhat clumsily put together. These have been indicated using track changes. Also, the tone veers away from the academic to the more journalistic on a number of occasions.

I would guess that the moments this reader doesn’t like look like this: “Bienvenue is not a great film; instead, it’s a perfectly acceptable comedy that seems to have appealed to nearly everyone in France, selling more than 21 million tickets in a country of 66 million.” Evidently it’s best to avoid this kind of overstatement in an academic article.

A similar complaint arrives in response to my claim that,

Hollywood films set in Paris will, inevitably, begin with an establishing shot of the Eiffel Tower; see, for example, An American in Paris (1951, Vincente Minneli), Sabrina (1954, Billy Wilder), Anything Goes (1956, Robert Lewis), as well as later films like An American Werewolf in Paris (1997, Anthony Waller), The Bourne Identity (2002, Doug Liman), and The Devil Wears Prada (2006, David Frankel), among many others.

To my peer reviewer, this is a gross generalization. It is a gross generalization that is also true (I had a longer list – three films from the 50s-60s-70s-80s-90s-00s-10s – but cut it for space).

And a great one, that admits that I’m right, but for the wrong reasons: “Lyon, in fact, is only invisible in terms of the criteria chosen for mapping. Nonetheless, I think this is a valid point, that Lyon isn’t seen as a cinematic location in the way the other two major French cities are.” 

 

I was among the last players cut during tryouts for the Barrington basketball team for three straight years (middle school and high school, mind you). In 1990 I was told that my outlandish trash-talking after blocking a shot during a game on the last day of tryouts showed that I wasn’t a good team player. In my defence, I was all of 5’6″ and the guy shooting was 6’+. I earned that! I turned my back on basketball to return to my first love, soccer, where someone 5’6″ and 148 pounds (that’s either me or Lionel Messi, although I went all of 125 in 1993), with a tendency to flop and scream and cry (but score goals) can find a welcome embrace.

My more recent experience with getting cut is in academia. Last year I made it through the school, but was cut before the faculty sent their top candidates. I met with people in the university’s research committees and they admitted that the people getting chosen had senior-lecturer-level cvs. For a postdoc. I don’t know how someone like me – an adjunct lecturer without any institutional support (ever) – is supposed to come up with a senior lecturer’s cv. If academia as we know it is dying, I don’t think I’m too heartbroken about that. But before it goes, I’d like to get a little bit of recognition (that is to say, money) out of it in return for all the super-cheap teaching I’ve done on its behalf.

To that end, here’s Section F, the proposal description, for my latest and probably last postdoc application.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

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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.

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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:

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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):

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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.

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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.

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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

 

It’s kind of amusing that Tywin Lannister is always cutting up animals in Game of Thrones. There’s the deer-butchering:

and the fishing scene (cut) from season 3:

This is why we get those pedantic scenes of Maester Luwin quizzing Bran about what’s on whose sigil. When it comes to teaching, I hate and love such moments – they’re surface-level touches that, thankfully, reward careful reading of the literal contents of the mise en scene. I love literal engagements with the text – what else is mapping the narrative locations of films but an avowedly literal approach. But I don’t know what to do with these scenes beyond the surface-level. Yes yes there’s the metaphor of butchery and blood on hands and so on and so on – but that’s all on the surface level. It certainly fills in the fictional world, but I don’t know just how much deeper it makes it.

On the other hand, something like Ballad of a Soldier (1959, Grigory Chukhray) throws out images that have somewhat obvious surface-level readings that, on further inspection and contemplation, take us to more interesting places.

There’s a wonderful continuous shot of Alyosha getting chased by a tank that does a now-standard flip (Danny Boyle uses a similar shot at the end of Trainspotting when Renton leaves with the money).

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The obvious disorientation and unsettling of the world emerges from the imagery, but I’d also note the grand absurdity of the scene. A man, on foot, chased by a tank. The tracks that criss-cross the field add to the disorientation, but also act to pull our vision away, however briefly, and in the upside-down framing, this creates something like a fog of war. It’s hard to believe that there’s a tank chasing a soldier on foot – and it is that very incongruity that helps Alyosha to escape. Our difficulty in making sense of the situation and the imagery exists within the narrative world as well.

My favourite image in the film comes when Alyosha is trying to find a ride back to his home town, where he wants to help to fix the roof of the house his mother lives in. Here he is flagging down a ride:

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It may be that I’m more inclined to prefer Soviet cinema to US television, but this image equals the Game of Thrones bits above in its obviousness, but seems to signify much more. Alyosha echoes the power poles. Sure thing. Then again, Ballad of a Soldier takes place during WWII, The Great Patriotic War. That is to say, Alyosha as a member of the military, paired with rural electrification embodies things that are Great and Patriotic. The great works of physical infrastructure – one of the modernization plans – and the great works of human “infrastructure” (structures, I guess) are in concert, building, connecting, and preserving the Soviet Union.

I’m willing to be convinced otherwise – and maybe I’m stacking the deck in my favour by picking an historical example – but to my eyes, this obvious surface-level imagery generates a more complex and interesting reading of the film.

(The USSR’s modernization/industrialization projects weren’t too far behind the US’s: In the US the Rural Electrification Administration was a New Deal deal, established in 1935. It’s not that long ago: both my paternal grandparetns grew up on a non-electrified farms in north central Wisconsin. This post featured a lot of “buts”, I know.)

There’s a lot to love in The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu. After watching it, I don’t know if I’d want to be an autocratic ruler’s cameraman. It doesn’t look like much fun.

One home movie – in colour – features a moment that says quite a bit about Rulers for Life. Here are three stills of Ceaucescu spiking a volleyball in a backyard match, “subtly” pulling the net down as he jumps

Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu cheaty spike 1 Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu cheaty spike 2 Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu cheaty spike 3I admit to, in my younger years, practicing my dives for soccer. I don’t see too much of a problem with Luis Suarez or anyone else flopping. Even moving to left back didn’t cure me of my love of a good dive. But Ceaucescu is just plain cheating when he doesn’t have to. He’s the all-powerful strongman ruler of the country. The volleyball game that we see in the film is kind of hilariously half-assed. Except for Ceaucescu. He’s going all out, even on his net-dipping spikes. I don’t know if it shows something less than admirable about me, but I can quite easily find it in me to like someone who lives up to Jesse The Body Ventura’s “Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat” motto. Even when (and maybe especially because) everyone’s letting him win.

Were Autobiography a fictional film, I would really enjoy the wonderful cruelty of Ceaucescu’s shirt coming up over his pudgy little belly, exposing his softness as he cheats.

I’m whacking together a poster for the Australian Society for French Studies conference. It’s in Brisbane, which makes for an easy trip. I promised a poster with maps of my usual interests – box office hits and prestige/award winners – that would reveal…something….about French cinema between 1976, the first year of the Césars, and 2013.

Here’s the top 36 French films at the French box office (a list that has to go way way down the all-time top 100, not just because of American and British films, but also because of pre-1976 French films)

France box office 1976-2012 Then there’s the Cesar-winner for best film:

France Cesars 1976-2012A third category is the film the French send to the Oscars as the official French candidate for Best Foreign Language Film:

France Oscars 1976-2012The Oscars people don’t always pick a French film to include in the nominees. Here are the narrative locations of the French entries that weren’t, in the end, one of the final nominees:

France Oscars not nominatedFinally, a more or less continent-level look (excepting Australia-New Zealand and Antarctica, with no French films set there) at all the other narrative locations in French films from all four categories:

France Africa France Asia France N:SAmFor my money the most interesting phenomenon is in the huge empty space across France.

big emptyThe combined population of Bretagne, Pays de la Loire, Centre, Bourgogne, Alsace (that’s where I stuck 8 Femmes, which is “in the country”), Lorraine, Franche-Comté, Poitou-Charentes, and Corse is more than a quarter of France. One-third of the French regions – forty percent of the land – and a quarter of the population doesn’t appear in any film. And the only time Normandy appears in is a WWII movie, not for a contemporary-set film.

In addition, overseas regions don’t appear at all – no French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte, or Réunion – nor do any overseas collectives (French Polynesia, Saint Barthélemy, Saint Martin, Saint Pierre et Miquelon, Wallis and Fortuna).

To bring Hollywood in as a comparison – large chunks of the US certainly do not appear in films (the Dakotas, Vermont, and Rhode Island are especially rare) but the less-populated areas aren’t as rare as in French movies – thanks mostly to westerns, which include wagon trail films that cross the prairies. Hollywood has a similar empty-blind spot when it comes to Africa and South America.