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.

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The manuscript for Film and the American Presidency ran into a due date, and as has been the case throughout the project, Jeff Menne is the source of good things happened. He’s the headliner of our editor pair.

Amongst my chapter responsibilities was Diane Rubenstein, who wrote a chapter on President Obama’s avatars not as presidents on films, but a film-industrial turn to questions of chattel slavery. For me, the highlight comes during her set-up, when she does an extended reading of a skit from the old Richard Pryor Show in which President Pryor holds a press conference. 

My reasons for enjoying her analysis begin with the analysis itself, but then my biography takes over. When I was seven years old, I found some of my dad’s less-frequently-played albums, most notably the George Carlin and Richard Pryor records. It is no stretch to say the most important texts to my current life are (in something like rank order) Class Clown, Occupation: Foole, An Evening With Wally Londo Featuring Bill Slaszo and FM & AM.

The more forbidden pleasure was Richard Pryor’s That Nigger’s CrazyI remember the first time I listened to “Wino & Junkie” I didn’t understand what a junkie was, but I could register the bleakness of the humour.

I would try every one of the Carlin routines out not only on my primary school classmates (the seven words routine killed at both Sunnyhill and Hough Street) but also on the women who ran Saint Monica’s CCD (and even the priests). (I also love that St Monica’s has “cville” in their url. Glorious.)  Carlin was reachable – I parroted his material. At some point one of the CCD people must have told my parents that I was doing Carlin’s material because my dad told me one day, watching a Packer game (while we listened to Max and Jim on WTMJ), that it was fine if I wanted to tell George Carlin jokes, but I was never to repeat any of the Richard Pryor routines. Ever.

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.

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.

As I noted here, I’m calling it a day on academia. In my one-last-try at finding a job, I decided to ask one hundred or so department chairs for input on my CV and my research agenda/proposal. My thinking was that a chair is on every job search, so they’d have the best non-specialist, in all likelihood, insight on what looks good in a proposal in general terms. So I picked schools where I could imagine a schlub like me could, in fact, get lucky in a job search. Hence, no Harvard or Yale or any of the hoity toity places. I sent out a blind-submission email to the English department chairs of a mess of solid Directional University and Perfectly Fine Liberal Arts College type places. And a couple of American Studies or Film programs, depending on how they do their naming and organization. I’ve only sent out the first set – I’ll be sending out a second set when I get through the suggested changes from the first batch of responses. But, as I often do, I need to encourage good behaviour.

At the top of my cool list is John Ernest, the chair at Delaware. He was at UNH when I was an MA student, but there’s no reason he’d remember my name twelve years later. His reply was gracious and wonderfully detailed in its suggestions. Paul Gutjahr at Indiana University had a couple simple suggestions that certainly led to improvements. Wes Chapman at Illinois Wesleyan (where I was a college radio DJ, even though I didn’t go to school there) sent a great state-of-liberal-arts in terms of my questions email. Kathryn Temple at Georgetown had a couple good ideas for my proposal and sent it on to a specialist. That sounds like a medical diagnosis. Mark Lussier at Arizona State replied very quickly and very kindly – he had a couple of quick points that were easy to put into action. Finally, Deborah Kaplan at George Mason offered a new way to organize my research proposal that looks promising.

I will let the chairs who responded with, “we have enough adjuncts in our adjunct pool” remain nameless.

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.

On SlideShare there’s a presentation from Melanie Thompson, “Musings of an Online Academic.” One slide in particular horrifies me.

Screen shot 2013-10-13 at 1.56.15 PMSpending ten to twenty hours a week tailoring funding pitches, sending out door prizes, and other crowdsourced funding management related activities sounds not unlike a part-time job that lets you do your job.

That would add up to almost one thousand hours over a year. My teaching contract pays me two hours of prep time as part of my one hour of lecturing time (“1 hour delivery with 2 hours associated work time”). One thousand hours of pay means three hundred and thirty-three contact hours. That time investment is the equivalent to single-handedly delivering 25 semester-long classes, with a little time left over for guest lectures. That’s a lot of teaching prep time pissed away. That’s a lot of research time pissed away.