Archives for category: cinema studies

I’m not quite sure that the chapter will turn out as focussed as this description makes it sound – it seems like I’ll need to bring in a host of other NZ horror films to make a strong case – but I proposed this for a book looking for something on cannibalism:

New Zealand Lamb is People: Bad Taste, Black Sheep, and Farming

It seems that everyone knows that there are more sheep in New Zealand than people. The historian James Bellich, in his Paradise Reforged: A History of the New Zealanders calls the movement of lamb “the protein bridge” between the South Seas and England. Peter Jackson’s mock-documentary Forgotten Silver (1996) bases much of its humour on the incongruity of a peripheral nation at the centre of cinema history; when it comes to the circulation of meat, his 1987 splatter-horror-comedy Bad Taste is firmly rooted in the truth: New Zealand resides much closer to the centre.

Bad Taste cannibalism 1 Bad Taste cannibalism 2

Bad Taste pits a slapstick defense force against invading aliens, concentrating just as much on what the characters put in themselves as what comes out of them. In the film’s most memorable scene, Frank eats a bowl of alien vomit and finds it quite tasty. Jackson shot the film on weekends, close to home, in places like Porirua, where the first McDonalds in New Zealand opened in 1976. Perhaps the location’s history informed Jackson’s decision to make the vomit-eating alien invaders the vanguard of an intergalactic fast food chain intent on factory-farming Earth. Black Sheep (2006) picks up where Bad Taste leaves off, pairing “danger” and “sheep” with trends in GM farming practices spurred by global (or intergalactic) demand for what New Zealand has to offer.

Black Sheep Horror Sheep 10 Black Sheep Horror Sheep 18

The true figure of horror in New Zealand cinema, it seems, is not a zombie (Dead Alive), a fascist government (Sleeping Dogs) or a gunman (Out of the Blue). It is sheep. New Zealand horror films like Bad Taste and Black Sheep reveal that the danger that the alien invasion of American-style factory farming and fast food chains represents to New Zealand would make New Zealanders cannibals: Unless they fight against factory and GM farming, kiwis will become lambs.

Black Sheep NZ taffic jam

The next time I have success getting some funding for my research will be the first. It’s not that I haven’t been part of successful grant applications – I helped the UNH fencing club get money for a new scoring machine thing back in 2001 and I met more than my share of grant-writers when I worked at University of Canterbury’s Learning Skills Centre. In other words, I’m one of the people the Deakin University is thinking of in their crowdfunding initiative.

But there’s something that really and truly bugs the everloving shit out of me. It’s point number three in their “Five crowdfunding tips“:

Be comfortable mixing the personal and the professional. Successful crowdfunding means engaging with the people who have the biggest investment in seeing you succeed. And nine times out of ten this will be your friends and family, or even your colleagues down the corridor.

I’m supposed to ask my mother, who lives on Social Security disability payments in a trailer because she has Stage IV lung cancer, to send some money my way. I’m supposed to ask my father, who lost his job as a welder and now works on the delivery dock of a grocery store, for money. I’m supposed to ask my sisters for money – because waitresses, social workers, and students are a ready source of buckets of money. After all, they don’t have bills. I do not doubt the good will of my family or my colleagues, but it is not their fucking job to fund my research. I’m lucky to have moved to NZ, where my health problems, which would have cost ten or twelve grand in the States, were covered under national health. Your average humanities PhD in the US carries non-dischargeable undergrad student loan debts and, in all likelihood, a fair amount of credit card debt from emergency dental care and/or medical problems during grad school. I fail to see how asking my paycheck-to-paycheck junior faculty pal for some scratch to fund my research is going to accomplish much.

How, exactly, will crowdfunding help me get a decent gig? It would seem to make me the cheap option, the option that would require nothing of the university other than a hot desk and an email address. I’m already a contract lecturer who gets no research support from the university. The last thing the suits need is some Mitt Romney pep talk from the people who are allegedly on my side.

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.

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. 

At University of Canterbury, the CINE teaching of a tiny department needed to cover a fair bit of ground: 1) film form 2) the lecturer’s usual critical take on things 3) film history and 4) cinema outside the English-speaking world. That made putting together lectures, for me, a fun game. Having Alice in Videoland around was a plus.

Now that I’m at University of Queensland, the new game is to bring television into the lectures. We stopped cable after the 2004 election, and I pretty much quit watching television, even when it was available online. Except, of course, for football: Telemundo was on throughout the 2006 World Cup. Once we moved to New Zealand, the only TV I watched was during visits to Mark Maguire’s place during the 2010 World Cup (and the ill-fated Ireland-Russia Euro qualifier that preceded our flat tyre on the way to the airport).

I’m sure I’ll get into the swing of television as part of the lecture after the first couple weeks – my simple plan is to ask all the tutors for their ideas, which I will steal – but my immediate instinct was to use a non-English language film, rather than TV, when I needed a short clip for the general first-meeting lecture. Thus, Banlieue 13: Ultimatum’s completely bonkers fight sequence choreographed around a weaponized 200 million-Euro Van Gogh painting gives me a chance to talk about “French-ness” in a pretty clear way. I cannot conceive of a Hollywood film doing the same thing; the fight is only possible in a French movie.

Screen shot 2013-07-17 at 2.21.57 PM

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.

The first R-rated movie I saw without sneaking in was Midnight Run (1988). A slight clarification: The first R-rated movie I saw in a movie theatre, alone, was Midnight Run. I saw it at the Catlow. I often tell people that my mother is a lot like Robert DeNiro’s Jack Walsh – gloriously profane language, I will fucking cut you glare, and essential gentle awesomeness.

Midnight Run DeNiro face

Jonathan Rosembaum’s various ways of looking at Midnight Run (his site is often uncooperative, forgive the vague link) certainly differ from mine, but less concerned with his assessment of the film (I have a soft spot for it, it colours my perception of it) than with his assessment of Burt Reynolds. In review #1 (of four) he begins by writing:

My first instinct regarding Midnight Run was to assign everything I liked in the film to Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin, and to discredit everything and everyone else. The overall impression I had was of two gifted actors dutifully (if creatively) working their way through the kind of mindless sludge that Burt Reynolds participates in for the drive-in crowds, where every character, plot detail, and line of dialogue is guaranteed authenticity by having been encountered dozens of times before, and where the bad guys and the good guys are as easy to tell apart as cowboys and Indians.

He’s not wrong here. Burt Reynolds made some truly shit flicks in the late 80s: City Heat, Stick, Heat, Maloneand Rent-a-Cop to name a few. I don’t know if Rosenbaum’s odd word choice of “participates in for the drive-in crowds” is a way of finessing something in the neighbourhood of compliment into the criticism, but it grates.

I make the claim in a soon-to-arrive Post45 piece that it seems impossible to believe that Burt Reynolds films might be anything other than mindless. Any virtue belongs to the movie, or the director, and certainly not to Burt. Robin Wood does this for The Longest Yard. Lots of people do it for Deliverance.

Accordingly, let me praise Gator – on quite specific grounds (because it’s mostly terrible). Burt, playing the lead in an action flick set in the US South, not only doesn’t “get the girl”, but she tells him she’d rather have a career than him – and he’s cool with it. She drives away and he’s left alone – and that’s the happy ending. That’s the film Burt Reynolds made as his directorial debut. That’s someone with a bit of self-awareness that isn’t quite recognized.

Gator two sets of books

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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