Evan Rachel Wood Ain’t MY Vampire Queen

Like many True Blood fans I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of Sophie-Anne (Evan Rachel Wood), vampire queen of Louisiana, whose existence had been leaked through various entertainment news sources weeks ago. Last week I was tantalized by the sight of her lavish home and the image of a pale female foot, bathed in a stream of blood. And as a fan of Wood, whose portrayal of a teenage terror in Thirteen (2003, Catherine Hardwicke) blew me away, I was sure that the young actress was well-equipped to handle the role of an 1100-year-old vampire queen.

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But last night I found myself underwhelmed. I don’t blame Queen Sophie-Anne’s failure on the writers–who gave her choice lines like “I haven’t been interested in men since Eisenhower was President”–or the costume designers–who gave her beautiful white gowns and bathing suits to luxuriate in (plus a vintage copy of Vogue to read!). No, this character fell flat due to Wood’s lackluster performance (though EW’s Ken Tucker disagrees with me).

Queen Sophie-Anne is supposed to be more than 1,000 years old, but Wood plays her like a precocious child playing dress up. Such a role is certainly challenging–Wood needs to convey the sense that she is an old soul even as she lives in a teenager’s body, a state of endless arrested development. But it has been done before and done well. Here I can’t help but think of Kirsten Dunst’s turn as Claudia, a mature, blood-thristy vampire trapped in the body of a sweet, prepubescent girl for all of eternity, in Interview with a Vampire (1994, Neil Jordan).

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I believed Dunst’s performance–indeed, I found it to be highly disturbing. Dunst expressed her frustration with her small, child’s body and its incompatibility with her adult hungers. You could see her age in her eyes and in the way she carried her body. Queen Sophie-Anne is supposed to be elegant, regal and a commanding presence (she is the QUEEN after all) but as Wood plays her she is more like an annoying celebutante in the vein of a Paris Hilton or a Lydia Hearst. Blech.

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I am not giving up on Evan Rachel Wood (girlfriend did look hot), but for now I remain unimpressed.

P.S. Not enough Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) in last night’s episode. Just sayin’.

You Haven’t Seen WHAT? And Other Humiliations

It’s week 2 for my little blog and with classes having just started and a head cold ravaging my senses I was all out of blogspiration (if this is not already a word it should be). Besides, the first weeks of baby bloghood are so unsatisfying: why am I doing this? is anyone reading this? should I take a nap? But today I received an e-mail from a colleague in my department (hello Randall!) who said this regarding my inaugural post, “The Watercooler” :

Interesting comment during your water-cooler post. I’ve also noticed how little we talk about lit and film. I wonder if some of the lack of wc talk is due to a fear of showing ignorance, revealing that you have not seen a particular movie or read a particular book. I certainly don’t want Marianne [our department's Shakespeare expert] to know that I haven’t read most of Shakespeare’s plays and can’t remember much about those I have read.

I say we come up with a log in which every one lists their most embarrassing literary or cinematic oversights.

Upon reading this I thought “Eureka! I have something to post about this week!” So in the spirit of Randall’s e-mail I have assembled a list of the films I am most embarrassed to have not seen:

1. Rambo: First Blood (1982, Ted Kotcheff)
As a child of the 1980s, this is unacceptable.

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2. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean)
My friend, Ali, is devoting a substantial portion of her dissertation to the films of David Lean. When I admitted that I hadn’t seen Lawrence, she replied “It’s long.” That pretty much sums up why I’ve avoided it.

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3. L’avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni)
I have brought this film home from the library at least twice. And then I’ve opted to watch something like America’s Next Top Model instead. Oh the shame.

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4. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)
I have read numerous critical essays about this film and even sat though several conference presentations that address this classic WWII flick. Does that count?

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5. The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford)
I haven’t read the book either. Nail me to the cross.

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6. Shane (1953, George Stevens)
I am embarrassed about this one primarily because I always show a clip from it when I teach the Western to my Intro to Film students. Shhhh, don’t tell them.

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7. Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray)
My knowledge of Indian cinema is woefully thin.

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8. Rashômon (1950, Akira Kurosawa)
I know, I know, bad me.

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9. Way Down East (1920, DW Griffith)
As with #6, I always show a clip (the one on the ice floe) of Way Down East when teaching melodrama. I should watch this tomorrow.

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10. Thelma and Louise (1991, Ridley Scott)
I’m an American chick who was in my teens when this film was released. What the hell is wrong with me?

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That was oddly liberating.

Care to share your own list of embarrassing cinematic oversights? Yes, you may use an alias…

I’m Thinking More MEAT!: Some Thoughts on True Blood, Episode 10

True Blood seems to get better with every episode that airs. When it premiered last fall I was unimpressed and was close to giving it up. My new Southern friends here in North Carolina assured me that Sookie Stackhouse’s (Anna Paquin) accent was laughable (what did I know?) and the series’ vampire plot seemed like Buffy-lite. But slowly the show found its footing. And now I’m obsessed.

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I attribute much of the show’s allure to its mastery of the slow burn. What I mean is this: while many programs with rich, soapy plots (The O.C., Desperate Housewives, Gossip Girl)) rush through their storylines, anxious to bring them to a climax before audience interest wanes, True Blood is a true tease. Mysteries remain mysterious and flirtations go on and on and on (I am particulary taken by the brewing attraction between Sookie and Eric [Alexander Skarsgard]). Furthermore, we are always finding out something new about the show’s characters–they evolve and become more complex with each episode.

Maryann Forrester’s (Michelle Forbes) story arc is another great example of True Blood‘s deft storytelling technique and character development. Maryann first appeared at the scene of Tara’s car accident at the end of Season 1, cradling a pig and looking devious. The writers made us suspicious of her character then, but buried her secrets behind Maryann’s sweet, disarming demeanor. In this way we were much like Tara (Rutina Wesley); we know something isn’t right about Maryann, but what is it? That she smokes too much weed, buys too much delicious fruit, and parties too hard for a woman in her 40s?

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It is not until almost halfway through Season 2 that we find out that Maryann is an immortal supernatural being and somehow tied to the god, Bacchus. She thrives on unfettered human drives like hunger, lust and violence. The scene in last night’s episode (“New World in My View”), where Maryann crafts a pyre of meat and flowers while the sounds of buzzing flies fill the air was the apotheosis of the excess she had been slowly and cannily directing all season long. It was a satisfying moment.

The best scene of the evening, however, had to be when Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten) (who really deserves an Emmy for his work this season) and Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer) (who will always be Frank Sobotka to me) outwit Maryann’s angry mob by outfitting Jason as the “God who comes.” These two characters are consistently portrayed as the biggest morons in the town of Bon Temps, but they are able to (momentarily) save Sam Merlotte’s (Sam Trammell) life by using their wits. So there’s something else rattling around in Jason’s brain besides the drive to drink beer, screw and kick ass? Good to know.

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An honorable mention goes to Lafayette Reynolds (Nelson Ellis) (any scene with Lafayette is a great scene as far as I’m concerned), who banded together with his estranged aunt (Adina Porter) to yank Tara free from Maryann’s spell. At one point Lettie Mae prays for her daughter’s salvation but trails off in despair and, without missing a beat, Lafayette finishes her prayer. Lettie Mae turns, looking surprised. “Jesus and I agree to see other people. That doesn’t mean we don’t talk from time to time” he responds in his usual deadpan manner. So Lafayette has religion? Yet another nuance we can add to his already rich character.

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And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “the Queen” (Evan Rachel Wood), who Bill (Stephen Moyer) visits just before the episode ends. We see only her white leg, covered in a stream of blood, before the screen fades to black. As always, True Blood, like any good tease, leaves me wanting more.

The Citizen Kane of Bad Movies

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This fall I have the great privilege of teaching a course I have always wanted to teach, “Topics in Film Aesthetics: Trash Cinema and Taste.” Jeffrey Sconce has defined “trash cinema” as “less a distinct group of films than a particular reading protocol, a counter-aesthetic turned subcultural sensibility devoted to all manner of cultural detritus.” Would Sconce agree with the way I am defining trash cinema in my course? I’m not sure. Nevertheless, the term “trash” is a useful way to denote the broad and shifting category of “bad films” and as a method for getting students to discuss film aesthetics. We will watch films that have been maligned for their “bad” acting (Showgirls), “bad” taste (Pink Flamingos), “bad” subjects (Freaks), “bad” politics (El Topo) and just plain “badness” overall (Glen or Glenda?). We will discuss what qualities categorize a film alternately as “bad,” “low brow” or “cult” and how taste cultures and taste publics are established. Finally, we will discuss why certain films are believed to have “cultural capital” and why and how trash cinema rewrites the rules about which films are worth watching.

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Every week I will discuss one of these films on this blog, my students’ reactions to them, and whether or not these films offer a useful way for undergraduates to discuss film aesthetics as a political, cultural, economic and social construct. This is also a good excuse for me to talk about some of my favorite films.

The first film the students will watch (during the week of 8/31) is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003). The film has been dubbed “the Citizen Kane of bad films” and has gained an impressive cult following in Los Angeles, where folks line up for midnight screenings. Last year Entertainment Weekly did a wonderful story about it, which is when I first became obsessed with it. The Room even has its own Rocky Horror Picture Show-like rituals.

Which brings me to why I am posting about this now: if anyone out there (are you out there?) is familiar with any of The Room‘s rituals (I know about the spoon throwing and the yelling of “Denny!” whenever that character appears), could you please share them here? My students and I would be most grateful.

More on The Room to come…

The Water Cooler

When Silvio (Steve Van Zandt) shot poor, weeping Adriana (Drea de Matteo) in the middle of the woods on The Sopranos it was a “water cooler” moment. When Paula Abdul complimented American Idol Season 7 contestant, Jason Castro, on his singing performance, saying it was better than his first performance that evening—even though at that point in the program all of the contestants had only performed once—it was a “water cooler” moment. And when Omar (Michael K. Williams) was shot by a small time hopper while buying a pack of Newports in the final season of The Wire, it was certainly a “water cooler” moment.

The problem for me is, I don’t have a water cooler. Well, let me rephrase that. The faculty lounge at East Carolina University, where I work, does indeed have a water cooler. And I do have conversations with people when I’m standing there, filling my environmentally conscious stainless steel water bottle. But we rarely discuss television or movies or media. We are usually talking about our classes or our students or about the latest round of frightening budget cuts. In my profession, where people are in their offices only a few days a week and only then, for a selected range of hours, it’s difficult to depend on the water cooler as a location for discussing last night’s episode of True Blood or the newest theatrical releases.

And that, my dear readers (are there any of you out there yet?), is where you come in. Sure, there are a lot of wonderful, thought-provoking, innovative media studies blogs out there (see my blogroll for proof). So why did I need to start one myself? Because I need a water cooler. I need a place to discuss those “oh my God!” moments, those “John Locke is in a wheelchair?” moments, those water cooler moments.

But this blog won’t just be about current television shows or movies that are playing at the multiplex. I will also revisit older shows and films of interest, and will take occasional forays into the world of tabloid media (my other passion). I may even talk about my teaching. Once and if things really get cooking, I hope to invite guest bloggers to offer their opinions.

My hope is that you can read this blog with your morning coffee. I hope that what I have to say will enhance your experience of what you’re watching now or encourage you to go out and see something new.

More than anything though, I hope to have a conservation with those of you out there who love watching movies and television, who aren’t ashamed of the deep emotional connection you feel when sitting in front of the screen. What made you laugh out loud? What broke your heart? Am I too emotionally invested in the well-being of Nicolette Grant (Chloë Sevigny)?

I want my water cooler. Can you make that happen for me?