Notes on a Riot

Police presence in Ferguson on August 11th 2014 image source: PBS news hour

Police presence in Ferguson on August 11th 2014
image source: PBS news hour

Like many professors, I live on the same campus where I work. As a result, I’ve watched drunk East Carolina University students urinate and puke on my lawn and toss empty red solo cups into the shrubbery around my home. But one evening I had a more troubling run-in with a college student. It began when I woke to the sound of my dog barking. It took me a minute to orient myself and understand that my dog was barking because someone was knocking on the front door. It was 2 am and my husband was out of town, but I opened the front door anyway. On the stoop was a college-aged woman dressed in a Halloween costume that consisted of a halter top, small tight shorts, and sky-high heels. The woman was sobbing and  shivering in the late October air and her thick eye make up was running down her face. She was incoherent and hysterical– I could smell the tequila on her breath — so it took me a while to figure out what she wanted .

She told me that she was visiting a friend for the night and that she had lost her friend…and her cell phone. She had no idea where she was or where to go. I think she came to my door because my porch light has motion detectors and she must have thought it was a sign. As she rambled on and on I could hear my baby crying upstairs. I told the woman to wait on my stoop, that I had to go get my baby and my phone, and that I would call the police to see if they could drive her somewhere. “Nooooooo,” she wailed, “don’t call the police!” I urged her to wait a minute so I could go get my baby and soothe him, but when I returned a few minutes later with my cell phone in hand, she was gone.

Renisha McBride image source:  http://www.nydailynews.com/

Renisha McBride
image source: http://www.nydailynews.com/

I felt many emotions that night: annoyance at being woken up, panic over how to best get help for the young woman, and later, guilt over my inability to help her. But one emotion that I did not feel that night was fear. I was never threatened by this young woman’s presence on my stoop and I never felt the need to “protect” my property. Why would I? She was a young woman, no more than 19 or 20, and though she was drunk and hysterical, she needed my help. I was reminded of this incident when I heard that Renisha McBride, a young woman of no more than 19 or 20, was shot dead last fall after knocking on Theodore Wafer’s door in the middle of the night while drunk and in need of help. Wafer was recently convicted of second-degree murder and manslaughter (which is a miracle), but that didn’t stop the Associated Press from describing the Wafer verdict thusly:

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McBride, the victim, a young girl needlessly shot down by a paranoid homeowner, is described as a nameless drunk, even a court ruling establishing her victimhood beyond a shadow of a doubt. Now, just a few days later in Ferguson, Missouri, citizens are actively protesting the death/murder of Michael Brown, another unarmed African American youth shot down for seemingly no reason. If you haven’t heard of Brown yet, here are the basic facts:

1. On Saturday evening Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, was fatally shot by a police officer on a sidewalk in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri.

2. There are 2 very different accounts of why and how Brown was shot. The police claim that Brown got into their police car and attempted to take an officer’s gun, leading to the chain of events that resulted in Brown fleeing the vehicle and being shot. By contract, witnesses on the scene claim that Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, were walking in the middle of the street when the police car pulled up, told the boys to “Get the f*** on the sidewalk” and then hit them with their car door. This then led to a physical altercation that sent both boys running down the sidewalk with the police shooting after them.

3. As a result of Brown’s death/murder the citizens of Ferguson took to the streets, demanding answers, investigations, and the name of the officer who pulled the trigger. Most of these citizens engaged in peaceful protests while others have engaged in “looting” (setting fires, stealing from local businesses, and damaging property).

image source: http://blogs.riverfronttimes.com/

Michael Brown at 16 image source:
http://blogs.riverfronttimes.com/

Now America is trying to make sense of the riots/uprisings that have taken hold of Ferguson the last two days and whether the town’s reaction is or is not “justified.” Was Brown a thug who foolishly tried to grab an officer’s gun? Or, was he yet another case of an African American shot because his skin color made him into a threat? 

I suppose both theories are plausible, but given how many unarmed, brown-skinned Americans have been killed in *just* the last 2 years — Trayvon Martin (2012), Ramarley Graham (2012), Renisha McBride (2013), Jonathan Ferrell (2013), John Crawford (2014), Eric Garner (2014), Ezell Ford (2 days ago) — my God, I’m not even scratching the surface, there are too many to list  — I’m willing to bet that Michael Brown didn’t do anything to *deserve* his death. He was a teenage boy out for a walk with his friend on a Saturday night and his skin color made him into a police target. He was a threat merely by existing.

Given the amount of bodies that are piling up — young, innocent, unarmed bodies — it shouldn’t be surprising that people in Ferguson have taken to the streets demanding justice. And yes, in addition to the peaceful protests and fliers with clearly delineated demands, there has been destruction to property and looting. But there is always destruction in a war zone. War makes people act in uncharacteristic ways. And make no mistake: Ferguson is now a war zone. The media has been blocked from entering the city, the FAA has declared the air space over Ferguson a “no fly zone” for a week “to provide a safe environment for law enforcement activities,” and the police are shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at civilians.

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But no matter. The images of masses of brown faces in the streets of Ferguson can and will be brushed aside as “looters” and “f*cking animals.” Michael Brown’s death is already another statistic, another body on the pile of Americans who had the audacity to believe that they would be safe walking down the street or knocking on a door for help.

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What is especially soul-crushing is knowing that these events happen over and over and over again in America — the Red Summer of 1919, Watts in 1964, Los Angeles in 1992 — and again and again we look away. We laud the protests of the Arab Spring, awed by the fortitude and bravery of people who risk bodily harm and even death in their demands for a just government, but we have trouble seeing our own protests that way. Justice is a right, not a privilege. Justice is something we are all supposed to be entitled to in this county.

***

When the uprisings in Los Angeles were televised in 1992 I was a freshman in high school. All I knew about Los Angeles is what I had learned from movies like Pretty Woman  and Boyz N the Hood –there were rich white people, poor black people with guns, and Julia Roberts pretending to be a prostitute.  On my television these “rioters and looters” looked positively crazy, out of control. And when I saw army tanks moving through the streets of Compton I felt a sense of relief. 

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That’s because a lifetime of American media consumption — mostly in the form of film, television, and nightly newscasts — had conditioned my eyes and my brain to read images of angry African Americans, not as allies in the struggle for a just country, but as threats to my country’s safety. I could pull any number of examples of how and why my brain and eyes were conditioned in this way. I could cite, for example, how every hero and romantic lead in everything I watched was almost always played by a white actor. I could cite how every criminal, rapist, and threat to my white womanhood was almost always played by a black actor. And those army tanks driving through the outskirts of Los Angeles didn’t look like an infringement on freedom to me at the time (and as they do now). They looked like safety because I came of age during the Gulf War, when images of tanks moving through wartorn streets in regions of the world where people who don’t look like me live come to stand for “justice” and “peacemaking.” Images get twisted and flipped and distorted.

image source: bossip.com

image source:
bossip.com

The #IfTheyShotMe hashtag, started by Tyler Atkins, illuminates how easily images  — particular the cache of selfies uploaded to a Facebook page or Instagram account — can be molded to support whatever narrative you want to spin about someone. The hashtag features two images which could tell two very different stories about an unarmed man after he is shot — a troublemaker or a scholar? a womanizer or a war vet? The hashtag illuminates how those who wish to believe that Michael Brown’s death was simply a tragic consequence of not following rules and provoking the police can easily find images of him flashing “gang signs” or looking tough in a photo, and thus “deserving” his fate. Those who believe he was wrongfully shot down because he, like most African American male teens, looks “suspicious,” can proffer images of Brown in his graduation robes.

Of course, as so many smart folks have already pointed out, it doesn’t really matter that Brown was supposed to go off to college this week, just as it doesn’t matter what a woman was wearing when she was raped. It doesn’t matter whether an unarmed man is a thug or a scholar when he is shot down in the street like a dog. But I like this hashtag because at the very least it is forcing us all to think about the way we’re all (mis)reading the images around us, to our peril.

The original images used in Tyler Atkins' #IfTheyShotMe hashtag

The original images used in Tyler Atkins’ #IfTheyShotMe hashtag

The same day that the people of Ferguson took to the streets to stand up for Michael Brown and for every other unarmed person killed for being black, comedian and actor Robin Williams died. I was sad to hear this news and even sadder to hear that Williams took his own life, so I went to social media to engage in some good, old fashioned public mourning, the Twitter wake. In addition to the usual sharing of memorable quotes and clips from the actor’s past, people in my feed were also sharing suicide prevention hotline numbers and urging friends to “stay here,” reminding them that they are loved and needed by their friends and families. People asked for greater understanding of mental illness and depression. And some people simply asked that we all try to be kind to each other, that we remember that we’re all human, that we all hurt, and that we are all, ultimately, the same. Folks, now it’s time to send some of that kind energy to the people of Ferguson and to the family and friends of Michael Brown. They’re hurting and they need it.

The Postfeminist Gift of Gwen Stacy, or Gwen Stacy is SOME PIG!

When my 4-year-old son asked me if I would take him to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb) on Memorial Day, I’ll admit that I wasn’t even aware the sequel (to the reboot) had been released. I was also unaware that X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer) or Captain America: Winter Soldier (Joe Russo) were playing in the same theater. I guess I’ve lost my taste for super hero films. I used to love them. In fact, when I was 13-years-old I became obsessed with Batman (1989, Tim Burton). I had posters and collected trading cards and listened obsessively to the soundtrack:

My interest in films like Tim Burton’s Batman and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) was due less to their super hero antics (the amazing weapons, the acrobatic fight scenes, the spectacle of urban destruction) and far more to do with the idea of normal people who feel an obligation to act on the behalf of others. Because I loved these dark, brooding, almost-noirish heroes, I forgave these films for their lifeless female characters. Or rather, I never thought much about them. I never once identified with Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) or Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). I didn’t want to be rescued by Batman (Michael Keaton) or Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire), I wanted to be Batman and Spider-Man and rescue folks myself. Now, it’s no secret that super hero movies have a major gender (and race and ethnicity and sexuality problem). Almost all of the major stars of the super hero franchises are white, heterosexual, cis men. And after a while, the white male fantasies of control and power over a chaotic and inherently evil world were no longer interesting to me. I stopped going to see super hero movies.

Though I did not see the first film in the franchise reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), I wasn’t expecting to see anything other than 142 (!!!) minutes of CGI fight scenes, smashed cars, franchise-building, and pretty girls who need rescuing — and that’s exactly what I got. Now I don’t want to shit on Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). She’s adorable. Her outfits are amazing (amazing!).  She’s the valedictorian of her graduating class. Her hair curls in all the right places. She snagged a sweet job (internship?) at Oscorp Industries immediately upon graduating. She wrinkles her little nose when she laughs. She even got into Oxford to study sciency stuff. She also uses her knowledge of high school science to help Spider-Man magnetize his web shooters, a key trick allowing Spider-Man to wrangle with Electro (Jamie Foxx).

All of these character traits and plot points appear, on the surface, to elevate Gwen above the usual superhero girlfriend role. Indeed, when Gwen finally decides to leave New York for England (Oxford! Science stuff!) Spider-Man cribs a move from Charlotte’s Web, by writing the words “I Love You” in giant web-letters. He then tells Gwen that he will follow her to Oxford. He will follow Gwen anywhere. He will be her trailing, Spidey-spouse, doing fixed term work across the Pond. OMG, swoonsville, right ladies?

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Image source: http://i.dailymail.co.uk/

Gwen Stacy is SOME PIG.     Image source:
http://i.dailymail.co.uk/

But even as someone who knows nothing about the Spider-Man I  know that shit is not going to happen. Spider-Man cannot give up his gift, his “great responsibility,” for the love of a woman. He can’t be secondary because he’s primary. He’s the protagonist. And Electro is totally sucking up all of New York City’s power so Spidey basically says “Now I’m gonna tie your ass this police car with some of my webs. Bye.”

This enrages Gwen, who is all “Fuck off, Spider-Man,” because she is a modern postfeminist woman (with GIRL POWER!) and she makes her own choices, and no one, not even fucking Spider-Man, is going to tell her what to do. She yells something to this effect and it is adorable but pointless because as we all know, this is not Gwen’s movie. Still, Gwen pulls out some scissors or a Swiss Army knife or something and hacks away at those sticky webs and then shows up at the big show down between her boyfriend and Electro at some magical place in New York City where all the electricity is kept. Gwen uses her vast knowledge of New York City’s power grid (what?), to help Spider-Man destroy Electro and save New York City from a black out, which is a super dire situation because then planes crash.

Despite Gwen’s key contribution to this epic CGI-battle, the whole scene felt a lot like the scene at the very end of the film (SPOILER ALERT!) when a little boy, dressed up in a Spider-Man costume, attempts to face off against an Oscorp-generated villain, Rhino (Paul Giamatti). It’s admirable and it’s adorable (his costume is too big for him!), but ultimately, we take a deep sigh of relief when Spider-Man finally appears on the scene, thanks the little boy for his bravery, pats him on the head, then delivers him into the arms of his weeping mama. Gwen is like that little boy: we admire her, she’s adorable and brave, but ultimately, she needs to move aside so the real heroes can do their work. Superheroing is a (white) man’s game. It is not for women and children. It’s not for poor, lonely, invisible Electro either.

This became most apparent in the final battle of the film between Spider-Man and the newly villainized Harry/Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan, looking like a cracked out, lost member of One Direction). Because although Gwen reminded Spidey about how magnets work and knew how to access New York City’s power grid (again, I must ask, how does an 18-year-old who jut started working at Oscorp know this?), she is, at the end of the day, just a woman. And a woman’s main value in cinema, especially a summer blockbuster reboot of a successful comic book franchise, is in her to-be-looked-at-ness. That is, Gwen’s purpose is to be an object of the Gaze: Spidey’s gaze, Green Goblin’s gaze, and the audience’s gaze. Her greatest value and power in the film lies in what she means to Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Gwen’s photograph appears all over Peter’s bedroom. She is an image to be adored. She is Peter’s everything. She is his crime-fighting muse. After they break up, Spider-Man sits atop New York City buildings, stalking watching Gwen going about her day. We watch her too. Her outfits are amazing.

Gwen exists to be looked at and she exists as an object of exchange. Harry/Green Goblin values her only because Peter values her. That is, Gwen’s worth is determined by the men around her. As Gayle Rubin argues in her seminal essay, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex” (1975):

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If Harry possesses Gwen, he can exchange her for something he values, in this case, the blood of Spider-Man (which Harry believes will save his life). Gwen gains nothing in this exchange of her body (other than, she hopes, the opportunity to remain alive) because she is the object, the gift, that the powerful white men toss back and forth like a beautiful little rag doll. In the film’s (almost) final battle scene, Harry, now in full Green Goblin mode, scoops up little Miss Gwen and carries her off to a Dangerous Place. Spider-Man, predictably, chases after his love, intent on both saving her life and stopping Green Goblin.

And so, near the end of Spider-Man 2 we find ourselves in a familiar situation: our beautiful damsel, our muse, the gift/ransom exchanged between two men (one selfless, the other selfish), is literally dangling by a string. Here Gwen becomes more valuable than ever because she is now the audience’s gift. Because we identify with Spider-Man, the protagonist, Gwen’s peril is intended to fill us with the worst kind of dread. If she dies, how will Spider-Man feel? I mean, it’s gonna really fuck him up, right? Gwen’s life is the film’s climax.

And when that thin cord of webbing snaps and Gwen begins her freefall through one of the many dangerous old warehouses that seem to lurk around every corner in super hero movies, we are meant to feel the weight of her loss. She is falling away from Peter Parker, our proxy, and his loss is our loss. We see the terror in Gwen’s eyes (good acting, Emma Stone, seriously) and we know those eyes will haunt poor Spider-Man for months or even years. So much good brooding is head! And when Spider-Man cradles Gwen’s lifeless body in his arms, seconds after it hit the ground with a sickening crunch, we can only wonder about the impact of this death on our hero.
Here the film offers us a series of flashbacks of Peter’s time with Gwen, happy times when they were eating frozen yogurt and standing atop bridges and going to interviews at Oxford in very, very tiny skirts. Each of these flashbacks are shown from Peter’s point of view. We see Gwen through his eyes: as he watches her or goes in for an embrace. Because even in her death montage, Gwen has no subjectivity. Her loss can only be registered as Peter’s loss. She is forever the object of his longing gazes. We see Peter go to the graveyard season after season, all to the detriment of his important super hero duties. Here again, Gwen’s value is only in relation to how she impacts Spider-Man’s ability to be Spider-Man.

Look, I get it. The movie’s title is The Amazing Spider-Man 2, not Gwen Remembers How Magnets Work or Gwen Goes to Oxford. Of course every supporting character’s role is there to do just that — to support the story of the Amazing Spider-Man. But I suppose it’s Gwen’s postfeminist accoutrement that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I almost wish Gwen were more helpless and passive, stupider and more frightened. But it’s the fact that Gwen is so damn capable: she’s pretty and smart and plucky and brave and has the love of a good man. She is living the postfeminist dream (until she dies, that is!) and for that, she gives the film an appearance of some kind of gender equality. “Look, she helps Spidey! Look, she’s pursuing a career!” At the end of the day, these stories belong to the same white men they’ve always belonged to.

This is how summer blockbusters work. They are not for me. They are for white, heterosexual teenage boys. The rest of us are just there for the ride. We, like poor Gwen, are hanging by that slender thread of webbing, hoping Spider-Man can hold on to us just a few minutes longer before we’re dropped to the ground.

 

My Mom’s 2014 Oscar Picks

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Most bloggers publish their Oscar picks hours, or at the latest, days, after the nominations are announced. Because that’s when most people are interested in hearing about Oscar picks — before the Oscars. But Nana and I aren’t “most bloggers.” Sure, we’ll give you our Oscar picks, but we’re going to publish them just hours before the actual ceremony. That’s because Nana and I like to throw caution to the wind. We’re free-thinkers. We’re iconoclasts. We’re rebels. But mostly? We’ve both been really, really busy the last few months and didn’t have the time to sit down and discuss our Oscar picks today, the day of the big O.

Amanda: Okay, Nana, so we don’t have a lot of time because we sort of waited until the last minute — we were both trying to see as many of the 2013 films as we could. So before we begin our conversation, in the interest of full disclosure, I think we need to tell our readers what movies we haven’t seen. I’ll start with mine: The Wolf of Wallstreet (Martin Scorsese), Nebraska (Alexander Payne), Philomena (Stephen Frears), Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass). So there are quite a few holes in my ballot, I’m afraid. What about you?

Nana: Wow. Well, you’re going to have to see those.

I know, Nana, I know.

The movie Her (Spike Jonze) is the one Best Picture nominee that I have not seen.

That’s the only one?

Yep.

Wow. Good job, Nana. 

Thanks.

What are your picks for best actress in a leading role?

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Frankly, all five of them were very, very good. I enjoyed all of their performances. But, by far — and it will be an absolute crime if she does not win — the best performance was by Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen). Her role was so interesting: it was a woman who had experienced great wealth and then lost it suddenly, and it really affected her mentally. To watch her try to cope with life from one extreme to another was fascinating. She’s just absolutely gorgeous and she’s  such a wonderful actress. At the end you almost just had to cry with her.

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Almost! Well my pick is definitely Sandra Bullock in Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron). Now I did enjoy Amy Adams in American Hustle (David O. Russell) and it was a hard role because she was playing alongside Jennifer Lawrence, who clearly had the showier role. But I think she made her character matter in that film, and she made me care about her. But still, I have to stick with Sandra here because it’s very difficult to carry a performance by yourself, when you have no humans to interact with, to play off of. Her costars were the films’ special effects. I thought she pulled off the complexity of emotion you need in a controlled role like that. She made me care about the human element in a film which is otherwise about how insignificant humanity is.

Oh I enjoyed that movie, though I did find it almost silly in areas.

What do you mean?

I mean the whole thought of a person being alone in space and what she was going through. A quarter of the way through I almost turned it off.

Wow.

I also watched it on OnDemand at home, so that may have something to do with it.

Ha, yes. What are your picks for best actor in a leading role?

Again, all five were superb (except for Christian Bale, I disliked American Hustle tremendously, I thought it was a stupid movie). As you know, I am such a fan of Leonardo, and I was pulling for him to win up until last night, when I finally watched Dallas Buyer’s Club (Jean-Marc Vallee). But now I think, without question, Matthew McConaughey* must win. He was phenomenal.

TORONTO

Because he lost a ton of weight?

Oh goodness, no. It was the role: this pathetic man who tried desperately to secure a life for himself and had nothing but his weekly paycheck, which always went towards gambling and women. And then the one thing he prided himself on was his sex drive, and how frequently he has sex with women, and then it turns out he has HIV.  And then, of course, his friends turn against him. Then, he tries to desperately to bring these drugs into the country, which have been banned by the FDA. Just a fascinating story.

*Note: Nana keeps calling him “Matthew McConnelly”

Chiwetel-Ejiofor--12-Years-a-Slave

Well, Nana, as you know, my pick has been, and remains, Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen). In some ways, it’s a similar role to the one played by McConaughey in Dallas Buyer’s Club: a man who finds himself in a horrible situation, a life or death situation, and how does he negotiate that, how does he keep himself alive? For me, I thought it was a very subtle performance — Michael Fassbender had the showy role in this movie — but this actor was expressive and restrained at the same time.

For example, there’s one scene, about halfway through the movie, where Solomon attends the funeral of an older man who has died from heat exhaustion or malnutrition — the result of his status as an enslaved worker. At first, Solomon remains silent as the other slaves sing a funeral dirge. His mouth is tight and his eyes are distant. The director uses a long take here that focuses on Solomon’s face and these subtle degrees of change — the camera stays with him through the entire song, it never cuts, never looks away. But over the course of the song his face makes these micro adjustments. He begins to sing along, half heartedly. Then he begins to sing in earnest. For me, this was the moment when Solomon decided he was going to continue to commune with his own humanity. He was going to mourn this man’s death and recognize that  death matters, even though he is in a seemingly hopeless situation. He could have gone two ways — go numb or continue to feel. He chooses to continue to feel here, which is arguably the tougher choice. To convey that with no dialogue? That’s an Oscar, Nana.

Oh, I agree, he did a great job.

What are your picks for best supporting actress in a leading role?

June Squibb, in Nebrasksa, was one of my favorites. At eighty-four years old, she’s just incredible. But she won’t win. My pick — and I don’t know if she’ll win because she’s so hot right now — and that’s Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle. The only saving grace in that film is Jennifer Lawrence.

Oh I agree with you on that point…

I don’t really think she should have won last year (for Silver Linings Playbook). But for this role? If she doesn’t win, I think it’s because she’s so pretty. People don’t want to like her.

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This is a tough one. I can’t pick between Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o. The reason why I’m on the fence is because I think these roles — in a lot of ways — are serving the same function. There are a lot of parallels between Rosalyn and Patsy: they’re both women who have little to no control over their own lives. Their actions and their livelihoods are controlled by men. And the outcomes of their lives are both very much tied to their bodies. Rosalyn’s only power is in her sexuality — in her sloppy up do, her ample cleavage, and her nails that smell like flowers and garbage — and she uses that to get what she wants. But for Patsy, her sexuality is a liability. It’s the reason she is repeatedly raped and why she becomes a target for the jealous wife of her rapist. I think that illustrates, ironically, the way white privilege functions in the cinema: female sexuality  is empowering for powerless white woman and destructive for the powerless black woman.

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What are your picks for best supporting actor in a leading role?

Ohhh. Absolutely Jared Leto. The way he talked, the way he walked. There was such love in him. And everybody loved him, except his family. Not only was he very sick with AIDS but he was so addicted to cocaine and heroine and whatever else he was taking…And then the scene where he had to put on a men’s suit to meet with his father?

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Yes, that was one of the more poignant scenes in the film. When we see him that suit — with no make up, no color — he just looks so despondent, like it’s killing him to be dressed that way. 

When you see the relationship between Rayon and his father you can see why he turned to drugs — his family didn’t accept him. And then when he knows he’s about to die and he’s looking in the mirror and he says “When I go to heaven, I want to be pretty.” Oh God.

Yeah, I think he’s my pick, too, Nana. So let’s wrap it up: what is your pick for best picture?

I am still in favor of The Wolf of Wall Street.

WHAAAAAAT?

Yes.

You’re blinded by your boyfriend [Leonard DiCaprio].

[Here Nana precedes to trash other Best Picture nominees and we argue a lot]

The Wolf of Wall Street had everything: it had incredible acting, it had — if they want the sex thing and naked bodies — it had that, it had humor, it had a fascinating story. It was just extremely well done. I’m going with The Wolf of Wall Street. 

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Okay, so you know I haven’t all of the Best Picture nominees, but I am going to stick with my original pick in this category, 12 Years a Slave. My reason for that — and we’ve discussed this before — is that my criteria for Best Picture is that the whole be greater than the sum of its parts. So a Best Picture winner has to have great performances, beautiful cinematography, a strong script, etc. But then, the picture itself has to be more than that. For me, this movie has been long overdue. I know there have been movies about slavery made in the past, but no other film, in my experience, has delved into the subtle and ongoing damage that the institution of slavery has created in this country like this film has. We see how slavery impacts the relationships between African American men and women — how they are both suffering but in such very different ways (for example, getting rape versus watching helplessly as someone gets raped, those are two very different kinds of horrors). We also see how it impacted the relationships between the male and female slaveowners — how the white mistress was powerless, except when it came to the slaves, the one arena in which she could flex her muscles and exert power. We see that in the scene where Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) throws a crystal vase at Patsy’s head. I found those scenes to be so much more devastating than the more overtly violent moments. I think America desperately needed this movie to be made.
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Okay, so my final question for you is this: are there any movies or performances that weren’t nominated that you feel should have been nominated?

Hmmm, you know the one film I was surprised didn’t get anything is The Butler (Lee Daniels). I was surprised it didn’t get more. Did Oprah get anything for this?

Nope.

Oh wow. Well the lead, Forest Whitaker, was superb. The role he played — from when he was a little boy and his father was shot in the fields and his mother was raped — and he goes on to get a job in the White House. I really thought that film was wonderful, Not sure why it was snubbed. Also, All is Lost  (J.C. Chandor). Poor Robert Redford.

uptown-the-butler-poster

For me this year’s big snub was Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine). Spring Breakers failed to find it’s audience because on the surface it looked like a fun teenpic about “good girls gone bad” on Spring Break — this misconception about the film was encourage by the foregrounding of its Disney princess stars — Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens — and the images of neon-bikini clad revelers that accompanied advertisements for the film. The folks who were drawn in by the ad campaign got a very different picture: a borderline-experimental meditation on capitalism, whiteness, femininity, and the affectless violence and sexuality of contemporary visual culture. So, in other words, not a light film in the least. In fact, I just taught this film in my course, Women and Identity in American Cinema, and one thing my students mentioned is that they didn’t believe that the film’s young stars — particularly Selena Gomez — were even aware of the kind of film they were starring in. Instead, the women acted as they always do — as the beneficiaries of white privilege, immune to critique, physical harm (except for a single gunshot wound), or laws. One of my students explained it this way on our class blog: 

While the girls do little, they are rewarded nonetheless, whether their efforts were good or bad. This allows the “white privilege” of the girls to be seen more like armor because they act as though nothing can touch them, they are invincible– immortal. They’ve been taught and proven right many times (robbing a restaurant, etc.) that there are no consequences for them…That is the role whiteness plays in this film, the illusion of immortality and security.

Beyond it’s cunning commentary on race, Spring Breakers offers up one of the best performances of the year with James Franco’s turn as Alien, a cornrow-and-diamond-grill-wearing drug dealer/wannabe-rapper. My students all agreed that Franco definitely knew what kind of movie he was acting in (one student noted “I mean, he has a PhD”). Yeah, that’s the kind of movie this is — the kind of movie that may require one of its actors to have a PhD in order to fully understand the meaning of his own character.

As Jeffrey Sconce notes, Alien is a tragic figure in this movie. While the pretty white girls he brings under his wing are just “playing” at being gangstas and “bad bitches,” this world is his life. When he delivers his “Look at my shit!” speech he means it. He loves his shit and he believes his shit makes him important. But it was the acquisition of so much shit (specifically, the deadly duo of Candy and Britt) that leads to his ultimate demise.

Spring_Breakers_Franco_Hudgens_Selena_Gomez.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-large

Other snubs? I loved Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach), and really, I feel that film deserved more recognition overall. Also, Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), which was a visceral counterpoint to the more philosophically-inclined Her on the subject of online intimacy. 

Mickey Sumner and Greta Gerwig in Franes Ha

Well, Nana, thanks for talking with me again. Your fans thank you.

Me, Nana, and my daughter celebrating Nana's birthday in NYC last month.

Me, Nana, and my daughter celebrating Nana’s birthday in NYC last month.

Race, Feminism and Intersectionality

Baby, you know I love you. I do. I think about you all the time, even when I’m too busy to spend time with you.

But, baby, sometimes Mama likes to write for other blogs. Now that doesn’t mean that I don’t love you anymore — I will always love you best. It’s just that sometimes Mama needs to do some talking with other people on the internet, people who may not follow this blog.

But I don’t want you, my small but wonderful readership, to feel left out, so I’m posting that piece here. It’s a conversation that I had with Dr. Kristen Warner about the intersections of race and feminism in light of many recent examples of the disconnect between white women and the black bodies they appropriate for their art. Kristen’s suggested title was “Intersectional Solidarity or Knowing when to Tell Folks to Take a Seat” but alas, The Blot changed it. Can’t win ‘em all, baby.

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 2.10.44 PM

You can read that one here.

And please, baby, go on over there and comment and get this conversation started. Don’t be mad at Mama, now. She loves you.

GHOSTBUSTERS as Neoliberal AltAc Fantasy

Normally, I’m not a big fan of rewatching films I’ve already seen. I have to do so much rewatching for my classes and for my research that in my free time my goal is to see new stuff. Nevertheless, over the last few months I’ve been rewatching some favorite films from my childhood, like Home Alone (1990 Chris Columbus), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993, Chris Columbus), Teen Wolf (1985, Rod Daniel), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986, John Hughes), Karate Kid (1994, John G. Alvidsen), and Footloose (1984, Herbert Ross), with my own children and I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve (mis)remembered those films. When I rewatched Mrs. Doubtfire, for example, I was shocked by how my memories of that film were so conditioned by its theatrical trailer. The scenes that I found myself remembering before they happened — Robin Williams asking Harvey Fierstein to make him a woman, Robin Williams throwing a piece of fruit at Pierce Brosnan’s head, Robin Williams’ rubber breasts on fire — were the scenes that were featured in the film’s trailer:

As a child of the 1980s, I grew up with commercials, with flow, and I watched these commercials over and over, even when I didn’t actively watch them (because I was fighting with my brother or gabbing on my sweet cordless phone). These scenes travelled through my brain repeatedly, wearing a groove, making themselves at home. Robin Williams’ burning rubber breasts are a permanent part of my memories.

But it wasn’t just frequent exposure to trailers that shaped my memories of these films — my memories have also been shaped by the way I watched movies as a child, that is, by my child-self’s attention span. A few weeks ago we decided to screen Footloose for our kids, reasoning that its numerous dance scenes would make up for its snoozer of a plot about an uptight preacher (John Lithgow) who won’t just let those kids dance! But my husband and I misremembered the film — there aren’t that many dance scenes in the film. And when those kids aren’t dancing? Well, the film is pretty boring. Our kids (and our neighbor’s kid) were antsy throughout, only pepping up when a dance number came on. Then they would leap off the couch and dance furiously until the narrative started up again. So perhaps they, too, will misremember the film when they’re old like me, filing away the “good stuff,” the dancing and the Kevin Bacon, and forgetting the boring stuff.

What I’d like to talk about in this blog post, though, is my experience of rewatching a beloved film from my childhood and realizing that the film my child’s brain watched is very different from the one I watched as an adult. I’m talking about Ghostbusters (1984, Ivan Reitman). I remember being 8-years-old and actively anticipating the release of Ghostbusters, a movie which was most certainly a must-see for the elementary school set. Like most kids my age, I was obsessed: I watched the sequel and the Saturday morning cartoon, ate my Slimer candy, and of course I drank my fair share of Ecto Cooler .

item_ghostpaste

This past Saturday we rented Ghostbusters, made some popcorn, and invited another couple and their son to watch it with us (at this point my child-free readers might be asking themselves: is this what Saturday night looks like when you have young children? Yes it does, child-free friends, so please, practice safe sex). As we all sat down to watch the movie, the first thing I remembered about the film, or rather what I had forgotten about the film, is that before they become “Ghostbusters,” saviors of New York City (and by extension, the entire world), Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Raymond Stantz (Dan Ackroyd) and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) are actually professors at Columbia University, studying the paranormal.

Pointless brain research. Image source: ghostbusters.wikia.com

Pointless research.
Image source:
ghostbusters.wikia.com

I had completely forgotten this but the moment the film cuts from a frightened librarian to the interior of a Columbia lab where Bill Murray flirts with a student participanting in his ESP tests, I turned to my children and declared “The heroes of this movie are professors, kids, just like Mommy!” The friends who were over are also professors, in Biology and Geology, so they were also excited for their son to see professors doing cool shit in a movie (this rarely happens, as you all know). After we watched the scene in which the professors are informed that their grant has been terminated, my daughter was confused “What just happened?” she asked. I explained, “It would be like if Beth’s boss took away her corn fields or if Eric’s boss took away his rocks.” Then my husband piped in “Or if someone said Mommy couldn’t watch movies.” Rocks and corn are not ghost busting, but they’re more tangible than the study of film. Nevertheless, this answer satisfied my daughter.

As I watched Venkman, Stantz, and Spengler pack up their offices and their life’s work and leave Columbia’s grand campus, I thought about the current state of academia and then, I began to watch Ghostbusters in a different way. Instead of watching the fun, comedy-horror-blockbuster of my youth, I found I was watching a vision of the future of academia, a fantasy of the Alternative-Academic career, one based wholly on the market value of the university professor’s research, rather than the broader, and somewhat less market-driven value of the professor’s ability to instruct students in that research and to engage the public in those findings.

Hello Professors! Image source: www.clearancebinreview.com/

Hello Professors!
Image source:
http://www.clearancebinreview.com/

When the professors leave academia they are not ghost busters. They’re just unemployed PhDs, which, as we all know, are a dime a dozen. What transforms these useless, unemployed academics into Ghostbusters? An ancient Sumerian god named Gozer the Gozerian, who wants to destroy New York City! These professors are literally the only people in the city who can do this job. They actually have ghost busting equipment: proton packs (for wrangling ghosts), ghost traps, and an Ecto containment unit on hand. I mean if there’s something strange in your neighborhood who are you gonna call? I don’t need the 1984 Ray Parker Jr. hit to answer that question, because the answer is, naturally: GHOSTBUSTERS! The university may not value these men, but the good people of New York certainly do. Their research will save the world! Does your research save the world? Mine sure doesn’t!

So you see, these professors have a real value. As soon as their first commercial airs, glimpsed (fortuitously) by beautiful Dana Stevens (Sigourney Weaver) just before she finds a demon in her fridge, the phone at Ghostbusters central never stops ringing. In fact, the Ghostbusters have so much business, they must hire a fourth ghost buster, Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson). My childhood memories of this film have Hudson’s character, aka the “black Ghostbuster,” playing a much larger role, perhaps because he gets more screen time in the sequel? But during this viewing at least, I was surprised by how little screen time he gets. His character truly feels like an afterthought, like a producer said “You better get a black guy in there somewhere” and so they threw him in at the last minute. But I digress. All of this is just to say that business is booming at Ghostbusters and the men are finally getting the chance to prove the value — the real, incontrovertible value — of their life’s work. The market says so.

In this neoliberal (a term I use here to reference the broader trends toward the privatization of higher education) fantasy of higher education, academia within the walls of the academy is stifled and limited. But once professors are freed from the constraints of the Ivory Tower, with its navel-gazing and its pretentiousness, and are placed at the mercy of the market (aka, “the real world”), they can demonstrate the true value of their research and their pedagogy. Professors should be training our college graduates for real jobs in the real world. After all, isn’t the whole point of a university education to create future workers, future entrepreneurs, future moneymakers? Sure it is.

But what happens next? What interrupts our fairytale of flourishing academics? It’s the goddamn Environmental Protection Agency, that’s who! Walter Peck (William Atherton), the EPA representative, is the film’s heavy. I remember hating this character when I was a kid. “Why won’t he just let the Ghostbusters do their jobs? Doesn’t he realize the fate of the city is at stake? Regulation is the worst!” Peck wants to investigate the environmental impact of the Ecto containment unit, which, I have to admit, looks super shady. I wouldn’t want to live downstream from the Ecto containment unit, but if I had to choose between living with Gozer and living with Ecto in my water? Bring on the Ecto cooler! Screw the EPA! Regulation, boo, hiss!

In the final scene of Ghostbusters, all four men (yes, even Winston), are cheered by New York City residents who are grateful that they’ve been saved from the wrath of Gozer. I told my kids “Look, they’re cheering for the professors!” And then the four adults in the room laughed for a long time.

My kids laughed too. They were delighted by the film, just as I had been as a kid. But this time around, Ghostbusters gave me pause. The narrative hit a little too close to home because I am acutely aware of the market value of my degree and my profession. My Governor tells me my work is useless and elitist. So I’m waiting for the day when this dystopian future is upon us, when the key master finds the gate keeper, and we’re all packing up our offices,  just waiting for a chance to prove our true worth.

I Sat Through all of the 1D Documentary and All I Got was this Lousy Blog Post

Image credit: Zap2it

Image credit: Zap2it

7-year-olds are cultural omnivores, taking in everything around them. It’s only later that they sort through what they’ve accumulated to figure out what they like and don’t like. Right now, my 7-year-old has been soaking up a lot of music, trying to figure out what she likes and what she doesn’t. She wavers between two basic categories of pop music — what we call “love songs” and “heartbreak songs.”

So, for example, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”? That’s a love song, of course:

And Adele’s “Someone Like You”?:

So much heartbreak.

I explained to my daughter that sometimes the distinction between “love song” and “heartbreak song” is difficult to discern. The other day I introduced her to one of my all-time favorite “heartbreak songs,” the Bob Dylan classic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” But before I played her the original, I played her this cover (which I love):

After a few bars she looked confused, “This doesn’t sound like a heartbreak song,” she told me. “I know,” I said, “but you have to listen to the words.” So I played her Joan Baez’s cover and we both closed our eyes (really, we did) and listened:

“So long honey, baby
Where I’m bound, I can’t tell
Goodbye’s too good a word, babe
So I’ll just say fare thee well

I ain’t saying you treated me unkind
You coulda done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right.”

We talked about the meaning of that last line — “But don’t think twice, it’s all right” — and whether the singer really meant it or not. Was it really “all right?” My 7-year-old thought not. She asked to hear the original:

“That was so much sadder,” she told me, and then added “I like this one the best.”

My daughter’s into love songs and heartbreak songs but she also inherited her mother’s love for kitsch. So it follows that the 7-year-old is really into Toto. We have a boom box/I-Pod combo in our kitchen and on most days my daughter can be found scrolling through song titles, searching out her favorites, and singing along. She’s been singing “Rosanna” so often lately, in fact, that she’s taught it to her best friend during their shared 20 minute commute to school. I feel a little bad about this — like I’m passing my kitsch-love on to my child who is then passing it on to her friends. But Toto has taught my daughter a valuable lesson and it is this: don’t judge a book by it’s cover, or “Oh My God, is this what Toto looks like?”

Like this:

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and this:

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and this:

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Isn’t that a great lesson? But then I told her: though you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover,  a pretty face doesn’t hurt things either. That brings us to the main topic of today’s blog post: One Direction.

You were getting worried, weren’t you, that I pulled a bait-and-switch and that this blog post was actually a think piece about listening to love songs and heartbreak songs with my kid and not a review of the new 3-D hit, One Direction: This is Us ?

Relax. I got this.

My daughter has been marginally interested in One Direction for about a year now. We first discovered “What Makes You Beautiful” in the summer of 2012 and the song soon made it’s way onto the holy I-Pod. From there it was a slippery slope to kitchen floor dance parties during which we loudly sang the chorus:

“Baby you light up my world like nobody else,
The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed,
But when you smile at the ground it ain’t hard to tell,
You don’t know,
Oh, oh,
You don’t know you’re beautiful”

We all sang along and we loved it. We had no choice: completely ignoring “What Makes You Beautiful”‘s lyrics, which validate the persistent popularity of “Who me? Pretty?” female characters like Twilight‘s Bella Swan, the feeling of the song is infectious. I mean, as a love song it’s pretty fantastic. But that’s not why I took my daughter to see One Direction: This is Us on Labor Day. The decision was made, rather impulsively, last week, when One Direction went on the America’s Got Talent results show in order to promote the film and perform the single “Best Song Ever”:

When the One Direction boys — Harry, Niall, Liam, Louis, and Zayn — walked on stage my daughter was immediately enchanted even though I was sure that she had never heard “Best Song Ever,” the song they performed (which incidentally, is not the best song ever — it’s merely “okay”). She’s not a 1D fan (and neither am I) but she was mesmerized. We both were. We were entertained.

As soon as the performance ended there was SO. MUCH. SCREAMING and then a trailer for the 1D movie. I turned to my 7-year-old daughter, because, really, we had no choice in the matter. There is no reordering of events that would conclude with us not seeing One Direction: This is Us. “We’ll go Monday,” I say.

***

New Direction, pictured with Simon Cowell on The X Factor Image credit: zimbio.com

New Direction, pictured with Simon Cowell on The X Factor
Image credit: zimbio.com

One Direction: This is Us is not, technically speaking, very good. We hear the boilerplate narrative — a story of five ordinary boys who tried out for The X-Factor, lost, then found themselves with a recording contract and 10 million records sold. We learn that the boys “can’t believe!” they’re famous. They lean over balconies to control the volume of their swooning fans’ screams like orchestra conductors. This happens multiple times and it’s meant to show us that One Direction is REALLY FAMOUS. In many countries. Can you believe it? The boys — who genuinely seem to like each other — even have an earnest chat around a campfire about their fame and what life will be like when the fame is gone. It’s like having a chat with One Direction’s publicist. And no, I wasn’t expecting more than that. Because why would One Direction want to derail this train? I’m onboard — toot! toot!

There are a few moments, of course, that disrupted this master narrative, and I’d like to think that Morgan Spurlock (he of the brilliant, important Supersize Me) temporarily awoke from the lobotomy that must be responsible for the rest of the movie and decided to do something interesting. For example, in many scenes we see the boys playing the role of merry pranksters (and how we all do love the antics of young white males!): running away from body guards who then have to chase them (because it’s their job) and toss them over their shoulders, and plant them back in safe territory. The bodyguards tell the camera that boys will be boys, and that this is life on tour, but I detected weariness in their eyes. Those eyes are saying “Enough already.”

http://giphy.com/gifs/W0AuVJgtxfz44

And in at least one scene I’m pretty sure Harry Styles is very drunk — which is the only whiff of alcohol in the film. These boys sleep, call their mums, get mobbed by fans, and fret over who they can trust to really like them for who they are and not because they’re celebrities. But they don’t drink and they don’t have girlfriends (only exes). Fiances certainly never appear. There’s also a touching scene in which the boys’ mothers look over the merchandise on sale at a concert venue. One of the mothers purchases a cardboard cut-out of her son, Liam (I think? It’s so hard for me to keep the names straight), because she explains (with tears brimming in her eyes!), she never gets to see him in person. Later in the film, Liam (or maybe Louis?) goes home for a visit and is surprised to find himself already there. I enjoyed these moments, because they felt real to me, and I need that realness in a documentary.

Image credit: EW.com

Image credit: EW.com

There was also this scene in which Simon Cowell is explaining how One Direction’s popularity was due in part to British girls and social media. We then see footage of different excited fans bragging about how many tweets they wrote about the band. They are so very excited and earnest about their role in 1D’s success. They’re certain of it. And, for a moment, I feel their power. In the next shot Cowell says he can’t explain the band’s appeal among girls because: “I’m not a neuroscientist.” Spurlock then cuts to a white-coated doctor holding a model of the human brain. The nueroscientist points out how certain kinds of music cause the brain to release dopamine. “They’re not crazy,” he says, “just happy.” In other words, One Direction: This is Us is validating this particular kind of fan love — a love that is so often invalidated.

Dina Gachman chronicles her experience watching the film over at The Hairpin and describes the fans this way:

“I should stop being so judgmental.

Their fans are insane.

These fans really love them.

Pre-teen girl lust is the most powerful force in the universe.

I hope they’re saving their money.”

Yes, they are powerful. In One Direction: This is Us we meet a girl who says “They sing our feelings.” It was around this time that I started to think maybe all this movie needed for me to enjoy it was to remember that word: happy. It was also around this time that my daughter leaned in to me and whispered “I don’t really see how this is a movie.”

What I think she meant is, One Direction: This is Us has no real story, and what it does tell us, we already knew. But that doesn’t matter. When, towards the end of the film, Harry finished singing a love song (does it matter which one?) and looked out at his audience of screaming fans and also at me and my daughter, and he told us all: “I want to kiss every one of you!”  I believed him. Not because I want to actually kiss a child who is, seriously, young enough to be my son. No, not that. What I mean is: I believed the dream of the love song and the heartbreak song and of someone singing your feelings.

“To Dance Again!”: Affect, Genre, and the HARRY POTTER Franchise

Cast of the A VERY POTTER MUSICAL and A VERY POTTER SEQUEL

Cast of the A VERY POTTER MUSICAL and A VERY POTTER SEQUEL

This week I attended the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago. I decided to share the paper I presented there as part of the panel, “Affect in the Age of Transmedia Storytelling” on this blog in an effort to make research that was presented to just 20-25 people (not a bad turn out for one of the first panels of the 5 day conference!), available for a wider audience. My paper was originally titled “‘Falling in Love with Hermione Granger': Affect, Genre, and the Harry Potter Franchise” but I ultimately did not have time to discuss the song, “Granger Danger” in this brief paper (a note that drew at at least one “Booooo!” from the audience when announced), so I changed the title for this post to reflect that omission.

To watch “Granger Danger” start at the 2 minute mark

Other than the title change and some added clips (yay internet!), the  paper below  is what I presented last Wednesday. I welcome any feedback.

A screen shot of my panel from the SCMS 2014 conference program.

A screen shot of my panel from the SCMS 2014 conference program.

********

“To Dance Again!”: Affect, Genre, and the Harry Potter Franchise

I want to begin this discussion of affect in the transmedia franchise by discussing a scene from A Very Potter Musical, a full length stage musical written, directed and performed by a group of University of Michigan performing arts students and recorded and broadcast online via YouTube in 2009. The show has 14 original numbers and over 9 million page views. The scene you are about to watch is a recreation of a significant moment from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire –when Lord Voldemort finally reclaims a human body after more than 11 years of painful disembodiment. What is the first item on Voldemort’s evil agenda? Why, to dance of course!

Begin watching “To Dance Again!” at the 3 minute mark:

In this number Voldemort usefully describes how music can compel the body to dance, even when the brain rejects the idea:

“The other boys would laugh and jeer

But I’d catch em tappin their toes.

‘Cause when Id start to sway

they’d get carried away.

And oh, how the feeling grows…”

These lines—and the whole number for that matter, highlight the relationship between affect and music—how the compulsion to sing or dance is frequently pre-cognitive.

Joe Walker as Lord Voldemort

Joe Walker as Lord Voldemort

In “Serial Bodies,” Shane Denson defines affect as “the privileged but fleeting moments, when narrative continuity breaks down and the images on the screen resonate materially, unthinkingly, or pre-reflectively with the viewer’s autoaffective sensations.” Denson then goes on to cite Linda Williams’ famous essay on body genres,  “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” in which she argues that when watching horror films, pornography or melodramas, “the body of the spectator is caught up in an almost involuntary mimicry of the emotion or sensation of the body onscreen” (144). Though Williams makes a passing reference to musicals in her list of potential body genres, the musical is rarely discussed in terms of its relationship to affect. However, the instinct to sing or dance to a catchy tune is frequently takes place just before our conscious mind reminds us that such an impulse could lead to public humiliation.

I am also using affect in this talk to reference the very real emotional connections between fans and the texts they love. In fact, the syntax of the musical favors emotion in that the genre’s most valued characters are those who sing and dance because they love it so much–because the pure bliss of performance cannot be resisted. Those characters who sing and dance purely for money or who overthink their art are usually proven to be villains, or at the very least, in need of reformation.

For example, in The Bandwagon (1953), Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) is only able to create a successful show when he stops aiming for “high brow” status and just makes a show filled with music and dance:

So what does a singing and dancing Lord Voldemort have to do with transmedia franchises and affect, the subject of today’s panel? By translating key plot events from the Harry Potter franchise into musical numbers, I am arguing that A Very Potter Musical transforms the fantasy franchise’s key opposition between good and evil to the musical’s own preoccupation with joie de vivre over monetary gain. In her study of Roswell fandom and genre in fan discourse, Louisa Stein argues that fans “use generic codes as points of identification with story and character, making fictional narratives and characters personally meaningful or resonant through processes of genre personalization” (2.4). Likewise for fans of the musical, A Very Potter Musical offers an affective entry point into the vast narratological universe of Harry Potter, making the franchise more personally meaningful. This is not to say that Potter films and books don’t generate affect in their audiences, but rather that the structures of the musical create new opportunities for affect among Potter fans (and of course, for Potter fans who dislike musicals, AVPM will not provide any form of engagement because they won’t seek it out).

Screen Shot 2013-03-10 at 9.12.01 PM

As a transmedia franchise that includes 7 novels, 8 blockbuster films, a Disney theme park, toys, videogames and countless other product tie-ins, Harry Potter fandom is necessarily broad, heterogeneous, and expressed through a range of media platforms: thousands of fan-created websites, newsletters, slash, conventions, a thriving genre of Harry Potter­-themed rock music known as “wrock,” and even an activist group known as the Harry Potter Alliance. A Very Potter Musical, which seems to straddle the spaces between fan fiction, wrock, and possibly even filk, disguises its budget limitations with winking musical performances, self reflexivity, and the unabashed passion of its actors. Fan love fills in production gaps and adorns the visible seams of this otherwise amateur production. The lengths that fans will go to express their adoration for a beloved text have been well-documented by fan studies scholars like Henry Jenkins, who describes fan fiction as “a celebration of intense emotional commitments and the religious fervor that links fandom to its roots in fanaticism” (251). Thus for scholars of fan studies, AVPM is nothing new. However, for a scholar of film genres like myself, the show is quite useful for understanding the role that genre—specifically the musical–plays in the relationship between fandom, transmedia franchises and affect.

Watch Darren Criss (Harry Potter) and Joey Richter (Ron Weasley) perform “Goin Back to Hogwarts” with some fans. Note the moment when the fans chime in at the 55 second mark and Darren Criss’ reaction:

One way that AVPM creates an intimate relationship between fan and text is by transforming the multibillion dollar Harry Potter transmedia franchise—the ultimate form of mass culture–back into folk culture. Whereas folk art is an expression of the community who is also its audience, mass art is disseminated to its audience already made, articulating its values for them. However, as so many fan studies scholars have noted, fan fiction allows fans to convert mass culture back into folk culture. I would add that by explicitly relying on the syntax and semantics of the musical, AVPM is even more adept at creating the sense that mass art is folk art. Jane Feuer argues that: “In basing its value system on community, the producing and consuming functions served by the passage of musical entertainment from folk to popular to mass status are rejoined through the genre’s rhetoric” (3).

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For example, film musicals often offer up images of the diegetic audience to compensate for the “lost liveness” of the stage, serving as a serving as a stand in for the film audience’s subjectivity (27). Many Hollywood musicals include a diegetic audience that cues the non-digetic audience in about how to feel about a performance—if they clap and cheer, the performance was successful. If they sit silently in their seats, the performance was a bust. A similar effect is created when watching the streaming video of the live stage performance of AVPM. As you heard in the “To Dance Again!” number, the laughter, applause, and hoots of appreciation stemming from the live, diegetic audience solidifies the non-diegetic audience’s understanding that these low budget performances are, in fact, successful — even when it is difficult to hear some of the actors’ lines and jokes are lost. This is especially important for something broadcast over the internet, since most viewers of AVPM are likely watching on their computer screens, alone. The diegetic audience thus serves as a viewing companion, reassuring us about when to laugh or applaud.

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Likewise, Feuer argues that many musicals include characters who are not supposed to be professional singers and dancers but who instead sing and dance for the love of it. This use of “amateurs” gives us the feeling that stars are singing and dancing on screen because they love to, not because they are being paid to do so. By masking this professionalism, the musical’s performers are closer to us, the amateurs in the audience. AVPM offers a similar experience, only the performers we are watching really are amateurs in that the show itself is a labor of love rather than a profit-generating venture.

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This feeling is bolstered by the show’s shoddy production values. For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the evil Lord Voldemort attempts to revive his body by attaching what little remains of his soul to the simpering Professor Quirrell. In the book, and even more so in the film adaptation, this melding of two men—skull to skull–is a horrifying spectacle. However, in AVPM the inability to create a CGI monster and the need to improvise becomes one of the show’s best gags.

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We marvel, not at Rowling’s fantastical prose nor at the wonders of CGI, but at the cleverness of the students who have put on this show.

Watch the big reveal here:

When watching AVPM the amateurish costumes and sets, the imperfect sound and image quality, and the occasional mistakes, lets us know we know we are watching Harry Potter fans who are just like us—rather than seasoned professionals. Such moments work, to quote Feuer again, to “pierce through the barrier of the screen” (1). So while AVPM is not spontaneous (clearly it was rehearsed and well though-out), its imperfections create the feeling of spontaneity, which is so central to the task of making mass art appear as folk art. Furthermore, Glen Creeber argues that the rawness of online video and the solitary viewing conditions it generates creates a sense of intimacy and authenticity not found in cinema or television. He argues that the “homemade” aesthetic of webcam images creates the “profound intimacy of the image” (598).

Watch Harry Potter face off with a Hungarian Horntail at the 1 minute mark:

In addition to creating intimacy between fan and text, A Very Potter Musical—due to the genre’s focus on the joys of song–creates an affective relationship between viewer and text. For example, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter’s participation in the Triwizard Tournament leads him to engage in battle with a Hungarian Horntail, a fierce breed of dragon. Harry ultimately defeats the Horntail with his exceptional broom-flying skills. And in the film adaptation, we get to see this fantastical scene come to life through the magic of CGI. However, in AVPM, Harry defeats the dragon by summoning his guitar, not his broom, and then by performing an emo ballad about the futility of hand-to-hand combat entitled “Hey Dragon”.

Watch the number here:

The song concludes with the lyrics:

“I can’t defeat thee

So please don’t eat me

All I can do

Is sing a song for you.”

The dragon is eventually lulled to sleep by Harry’s song. Harry thus relies on the power of music—rather than magic—to win a seemingly insurmountable challenge. So while this musical number is a practical way to disguise the absence of state of the art special effects, it also highlights the way that music can impact the body, turning a fierce dragon into a purring kitten. The consumption of spectacle is a pleasure central to the Potter franchise but in AVPM these are replaced with the pleasures of musical performance.

 Like most examples of fan fiction, AVPM also highlights aspects of the Potterverse that may not be apparent in the novels, films and officially licensed paratexts, but which fans desire. For example, in the books, secondary character Ginny Weasley is defined almost entirely in relation to her older brother, Ron, and her love interest, Harry. Likewise, Ginny’s romantic relationship with Harry is primarily understood through Harry’s point of view. For example, in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Rowling describes Harry’s budding feelings for Ginny in this way:

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Likewise, the films cue us in to Harry’s desires via longing close ups or by frequently putting Ginny in a position to be rescued by Harry. This is such a prevalent plot twist, in fact, that wrock band Harry and the Potters wrote a song about it:

The fan knows little of Ginny’s interiority, other than through bits of dialogue or the occasional longing glance at Harry:

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In AVPM, however, Ginny performs the torch song “Harry,” which puts a literal and metaphoric spotlight on what it feels like to be in love with the Boy Who Lived.


Watch “Harry” here, performed by Ginny Weasley (Jaime Lyn Beatty)

Ginny’s moving performance, in which she dances awkwardly with Harry’s guitar—a proxy for her absent love object—provides a renewed emotional connection with this secondary character. And Ginny’s performance—which is passionate but imperfect as she struggles to hit her big notes—creates an affective relationship with this character that may not have been possible when watching the Potter films. The goosebumps that appear on my arms as Ginny sings, are a testament to the way that music generates an affective viewing experience.

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Here again we can see how the choice of genre—the musical—allows Potter fans an entry point into the transmedia franchise that is personal and intimate. Indeed, there are numerous covers of “Harry” on YouTube, a testament to the way that AVPM allows Potter fans a different, more embodied way, to express their fandom.

Watch my favorite fan covers of “Harry” here:

One thing all of these performances share is a nervous, almost giddy, sense of joy—we can trace the joy expressed in the original AVPM performance as it is then translated and transmuted through each fan video—a domino effect of pure love. Likewise, the comments on each video are generally supportive, with the Potter fan community coming together to support each new iteration of the original fan text.

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In this way, AVPM fandom appears to mimic that of the wrock community. Suzanne Scott argues that wrock, unlike filk, “mimics a conventional performer/audience dialectic rather than a collective creative enterprise when performed.”

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Although there is a separation between performer and audience here, I believe that the significance of AVPM lies in the affective relationships it facilitates between fan and text, even if the text’s various performers are performing online with one another, as opposed to face to face in a filk song circle.

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 In conclusion, A Very Potter Musical translates the fan’s love of the Harry Potter storyworld and its characters into a series of musical numbers that fans can then sing themselves. By depicting bodies that must express themselves through song and dance, A Very Potter Musical is an ideal venue for understanding the importance of affect in fan fiction. AVPM demonstrates the way that mass culture can be transmuted back into folk culture, thereby offering fans of the transmedia franchise a personalized, emotional engagement.

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Works Consulted

Creeber, Glen. “It’s Not TV, it’s Online Drama: The Return of the Intimate Screen.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 14.6: (2011): 591-606

Denson, Shane. “Serial Bodies: Corporeal Engagement in Long-Form Serial Television.” Media Initiative 22 Feb 2013 http://medieninitiative.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/serial-bodies/

Feuer, Jane. The Hollywood Musical, 2nd Ed. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1993.

Jenkins, Henry. 2012. “‘Cultural Acupuncture': Fan Activism and the Harry Potter Alliance.” In “Transformative Works and Fan Activism,” edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0305.

——-. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

———. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2005.

Scott, Suzanne. “Revenge of the Fan Boy: Convergence Culture and the Politics of Incorporation.” Diss. University of Southern California, 2011. Online.

Stein, Louisa Ellen. 2008. “Emotions-Only” versus “Special People”: Genre in fan discourse. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/43.

Tatum, Melissa L. 2009. “Identity and authenticity in the filk community.” Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2009.0139.

Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess.” The Film Genre Reader III. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. 141-159.

The Most Objective “Best of 2012″ List Ever, Part I: Television

Thank you, http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/the-playlists-top-10-tv-shows-of-the-2011-2012-season-20120613

Thttp://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/the-playlists-top-10-tv-shows-of-the-2011-2012-season-20120613

Around this time of year, every newspaper, magazine, and blog offers up some form of the  “Best Of” list, chronicling the best films, television series (or episodes), music, books, Broadway shows, trends, etc. of the previous year. Obviously, ranking the year’s best of anything is subjective and also impossible (after all, only an individual who was watched every television episode that aired in 2012 could state, definitively, which were in the top 5). And yet, such lists are so alluring. As a working mom, who reads, watches and listens to only a fraction of what I would like to read, watch and listen to, these “Best Of”  lists take an unwieldy set of pop culture possibilities and whittles it down to a manageable chunk. These lists tell me “These are the only films from 2012 that you need to watch.” Then I take a deep breath and load up my Netflix queue.

You might thinking to yourself “Why would I read a ‘Best Of’ list compiled by a woman who has just admitted that she relies on other people’s ‘Best Of’ lists to tell her what pop culture was worthwhile from the previous year?” Excellent question. Why are you reading this? Don’t you have something better to do? No? Well then settle in, friend. I have some completely subjective selections for you based on an unrepresentative sampling of the year’s popular culture. I think you’ve made the right choice.

So without further ado, I present Part I of my “Best of 2012″ list:

Best Television Series

FX's WILFRED

FX’s WILFRED

2012 was an excellent year for television. I loved watching Walter White (Bryan Cranston) lose the final pieces of his soul on Breaking Bad. The last shot of the Girls season finalein which Hannah (Lena Dunham) finds herself on Coney Island (after passing out in the subway and getting her purse stolen) and slowly stuffs her face with cake, was the perfect end to a first season filled with uncomfortable, body-focused stories and imagery. The look on Don Draper’s (John Hamm) face when he sees his daughter wearing fishnets and go-go boots or the scene in which Henry (Christopher Stanley) feeds his newly-plump wife (aka, “Fat Betty”) some steak at the kitchen table in the middle of the night were two highlights of the Mad Men season. I also loved watching all or most of the 2012 seasons of Louie, Boardwalk Empire, Happy Endings, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Don’t Trust the B in Apt 23, Parenthood, Teen Mom, and Game of Thrones. No, I don’t watch Homeland, The Good Wife, or Justified. I’m sure I would like all three, but right now I don’t have room for them in my TV diet. Like I said, “best of” lists are subjective. Let’s move on.

Dog smoking cigarette = win

While I loved all of the aforementioned programs and could make a “Best” case for many of them, my choice for “best” television series of 2012 goes to the FX series, Wilfred, because it is, simply put, the most bizarre show I have ever watched, with the exception of (of course) Twin Peaks. 

“Can you hear it?”  “No, ma’am, I cannot.”

The pilot episode of Wilfred opens with Ryan (Elijah Woods) trying and failing to commit suicide. We eventually find out that Ryan used to be a successful lawyer, working in his father’s firm, but when we meet him he is unemployed and estranged from his father (the reasons for this are only explained in the second season). Ryan’s attempts to end his life are finally interrupted by his neighbor, Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), who wants him to watch her dog, Wilfred.  Ryan is surprised to discover that Wilfred appears to him as a large, vulgar, Australian pothead  (Jason Gann) wearing a very unconvincing dog costume. And the kicker is: Ryan is the only one who sees Wilfred in this way. This may seem like a gimmicky basis for a show, but it is also the source of some of the show’s greatest gags: one minute Wilfred is lecturing Ryan on ethics and the next he is chasing and maiming pelicans on the beach (“It’s a pelican !!! IT’S A  PELICAN!!!..It was a pelican!!!”):

In a lukewarm review of pilot, Todd VanDerWerff explains “the show gets a surprising amount of mileage out of having Gann running around in a dog costume and saying things a dog might say if it could speak.” But Wilfred isn’t just shots of Jason Gann humping or chatting up his life partner, Bear, who is a large stuffed bear. The reason I love the show is because it so deftly shifts from bleakness to laugh-out-loud comedy.  I often read about how shows like  Louie  and Girls are changing the rules of the sitcom by offering up tragic moments (like when Louie’s love interest dies in front of him on Christmas Day) in between low-brow body humor and Seinnfeld-ian levels of navel-gazing. But Wilfred takes those devices to another level. In Wilfred, despair and laughter are produced by the same cue — what is light quickly becomes dark, and vice versa.This is because the series is structured around the tension between two realities: either Ryan is a lonely, depressed, schizophrenic who uses an imaginary friend to work through his life’s problems or he is a lonely, depressed but otherwise sane man who happens to  see his neighbor’s dog in human form because that is something that happens in this world. Therefore almost every scene on the series can be read in two ways.

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Bear!

Each episode is named after a particular lesson or virtue that Ryan needs to learn, such as “Letting Go,” “Avoidance,” and “Honesty.” Wilfred teaches these lessons to an unwilling Ryan , usually embroiling him in interpersonal conflicts that force the passive man to say or do things he normally wouldn’t. Although Ryan’s suicide attempt from the pilot is barely acknowledged, the series is clearly about teaching Ryan how to “live” (and live) in the world again. Of course,  every “lesson” Wilfred teaches Ryan serves Wilfred’s interests in some way. We feel good when Ryan learns to stand up for himself or to reconnect with his institutionalized mother (played by an excellently loopy Mary Steenburgen), but we are always left wondering: is Wilfred helping Ryan to live or is he destroying Ryan’s life, piece by piece? And if Ryan is simply imagining Wilfred, then is Ryan using this dog-shaped delusion as an excuse to destroy his own life? Is he committing suicide, just at an incredibly slow rate?

Bruce, aka, Ryan's sanity

Bruce, aka, Ryan’s sanity

Wilfred dances in between these many possibilities. Its genius lies in convincing the viewer to believe one scenario and then upending that belief with a single line or image. For example, after Ryan finally gives up on the possibility of romance with Jenna,  he begins dating a co-worker named Amanda (Allison Mack). Amanda seems perfect — she’s funny, quirky, and clearly besotted with Ryan. It seems that perhaps Ryan will finally be able to have a loving intimate relationship after past traumas had made this kind of human connection difficult for him. But in “Truth,”  Wilfred tries to convince Ryan that he should not move in with Amanda because he is still too mentally unstable. Ryan believes that Wilfred, as usual, is just looking out for his own self interests — if Amanda moves in, Wilfred will lose his best friend. Who will take him for walks or smoke pot with him? As they have this argument, an earthquake traps Ryan and Wilfred in the basement (of course).  Bruce (Dwight Yoakam), the only other human who can see Wilfred (and thus the only plot point in the series that lends credence to the theory that Ryan might not crazy), appears to rescue the duo, promising to reveal the “truth” about Amanda that is concealed in a suitcase. This truth will prove why Wilfred is right.

Ryan's hopes for true love are dashed in Season 2 of WILFRED

Ryan’s hopes for true love are dashed in Season 2 of WILFRED

But first, Ryan and Bruce must engage in a game of “Calvinball,” which involves pillow fights and “truth or dare.” The game is deliriously surreal, like so much in the series. When Ryan finally “wins ” the game and is granted access to the magical suitcase, he doesn’t discover anything about Amanda. Instead he finds a timer that tells him that he has spent 12 hours in his basement playing a bizarre game orchestrated by his neighbor’s dog. In other words, Wilfred was right — Ryan should not move in with Amanda.

Ryan is such a likable character (he is kind, empathetic and selfless to a fault) and we want him to be happy. But when we see the timer, the audience realizes — at the same moment that Ryan does — that he is crazy … but wait, is he? Or is this just what Wilfred wants Ryan to think in order to maintain the status quo? Isn’t it suspicious that everything that ends up “being for the best” also happens to serve Wilfred’s interests? These uncertainties are what drive the series and which make this show more than a collection of pooping on the lawn jokes (though I am 100% for a show that is nothing more than pooping on the lawn jokes).

Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), Wilfred's owner and Ryan's love interest.

Jenna, Wilfred’s owner and Ryan’s love interest.

And if that doesn’t interest you, Wilfred is worth watching for its “couch scenes” alone. Incidentally, as I was writing this post I found out that these short scenes, appearing at the end of show (after the main story has been resolved), are called “tags,” or “codas” (thank you Twitter):

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Learning is fun!

The tags in Wilfred almost always take place on the couch in Ryan’s basement and feature Ryan and Wilfred engaged in a banal task, like playing a board game or having an inane conversation. They’re always fabulous:

And if that doesn’t interest you? Well, there are loads of other shows to watch. I hear The Good Wife is awesome, so maybe you should watch that instead?

I will be posting my  “Best Meme,” “Best Film,” “Best Single,” and “Best of Social Media” picks over the course of the next few weeks. Stay tuned! If you dare!

Screening THE ROOM: 2012

The famous THE ROOM billboard in Los Angeles.

Note: I have been given permission by the students of ENGL4980 to use their images in this post.

Hey there, you. Yes, I’m talking to you, my dear reader. I know it’s been three months since my last post. That doesn’t mean that I forgot about you. In fact, there has been a blog-sized hole in my heart these last few months that I have been aching to fill with my gob-smacking insights into film and television. But now I’m back. And I’ve brought you chocolates and roses. Or rather, I’m bringing you a post about chocolates and roses and rain-slicked windows and “sexy” red dresses and lots and lots ham-fisted performances and green screens and unexplained establishing shots and tiny doggies and alley football. In other words, I’m bringing you a post about screening The Room...[insert dramatic music]…2012!

Students from ENGL4980 screaming “YOU’RE TEARING ME APART, LISA!” before the start of the screening.

I came up with the idea of having my student run their own cult film screening when I first taught ENGL4980 “Topics in Film Aesthetics: Trash Cinema” in the Fall of 2009. The course objective was to examine the aesthetics of films which were notorious, not for their excellence, but for their terribleness. In “Esper, the Renunciator: Teaching ‘Bad’ Movies to Good Students,” Jeffrey Sconce argues: “beach blanket films, Elvis pictures, 1950s monster-movies — any film where history and technique remove students from the ‘effects’ of representation and plunge them headlong into the quagmire of signification itself” can be fruitful classroom texts (31).  The polished Hollywood stalwarts that populate the syllabi of so many film studies courses — Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz), Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles), Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock) – are so seamlessly crafted and carry the weight of so much critical praise that it is often difficult for students to find a way to analyze their “invisible” style. Of course, I do teach these films in other classes (one film I will always teach in Intro to Film is Casablanca –always and forever). But I think it’s useful for film studies students to also look at films with a highly visible style — ideally one in which all of the seams are showing. Further, understanding how and why we classify popular culture as being in “good” or “bad” taste tells us a lot about how unnatural and constructed such categories can be. These are topics that can often be easily ignored when we only watched Ingrid Bergman framed in a beautifully lit close up.

Todd Haynes’ SUPERSTAR tells the story of Karen Carpenter’s rise to fame and her consequent death due to anorexia and bulimia. With Barbie dolls.

Throughout the semester my students and I have been studying American films that have been marginalized due to a variety of interrelated factors: their small budgets and chintzy set designs (Sins of the Fleshapoids [1965, Mike Kuchar]), their completely inept style (Glen or Glenda? [1953, Ed Wood, Jr]), their offensive subject matter (Pink Flamingos [1972, John Waters] and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story [1987, Todd Haynes]), their violent or sexual imagery  (2000 Maniacs [1964, Herschell Gordon Lewis] and Bad Girls Go to Hell [1965, Doris Wishman]) and their desire to place marginalized faces at the center of the screen (Freaks [1932, Tod Browning] and  Blacula [1972, William Crain]). In addition to understanding  why these films have historically been viewed as “trash” (we relied heavily on Pierre Bordieu’s pithy line “Taste classifies and classifies the classifier” to answer this question) we also sought to understand why moviegoers persist in watching these movies. This second question is, admittedly, harder to answer. Why did my students enjoy watching the blurry, overdubbed images of Todd Haynes’ Superstar or delight in the conclusion of Sins of the Fleshapoids when (SPOILER ALERT!) a female “fleshapoid” gives birth to her own baby toy robot?

Watch a fleshapoid give birth to the fruit of her forbidden robot love.

Enter The Room.  I will admit now that the idea for this assignment was partially selfish:  I had read about The Room  and wanted to experience a live screening myself. Right here in my own town! Of course, beyond my desire to scream the holy words “YOU’RE TEARING ME APART, LISA!” with a crowd of rambunctious moviegoers, I also felt that this assignment would be an inventive way of having my students learn by doing. The fancy word for that is “praxis.” You’re impressed now, aren’t you?

I had a few goals with this class project:

1. To teach students about the importance of “ballyhoo” 

Eric Schaefer defines ballyhoo as “that noisy, vulgar spiel that drew audiences to circuses and sideshows…a hyperbolic excess of words and images that sparked the imagination” (103). Ballyhoo promises audiences something—an image, an experience or a reaction (“This movie will make you puke!”)—that it does not always fulfill. This unfulfilled promise is a convention of exploitation advertising. I encouraged my students to think of their advertising in this way — as an exaggeration or complete misrepresentation of the experience of attending The Room. Say whatever you need to say to fill the theater seats.

Proof that student-generated ballyhoo was working: on the event’s Facebook page a student writes “I have no idea what this is but I’m going lol.”

I told the students that their grade  for this project would be partially determined by the amount of people in the audience and the level of enthusiasm emanating from the audience during the screening. Just as exploiteers like Kroger Babb and David Friedman endeavored to fill as many theater seats as possible because their livelihoods depended on it, my students had to fill the theater or risk a low grade. The students were given the duration of the semester to design and distribute posters, create a buzz in various forms of media, and prepare the venue for the night of the screening —  just as their exploiteer ancestors did.

They made a variety of posters and flyers:

I collected the various posters and flyers designed by the students outside of my office.

They created a Facebook event page and posted regular reminders extolling the virtues of The Room:

They created a series of “Golden Tickets” which they planted around campus. Students who located the tickets and attended the screening received a “special” prize which I believe was just a ring pop. But you see: that’s exploitation!

The students also convinced the school paper, The East Carolinian, to write an article about our event and called the campus radio station to plug the screening after the Presidential election. Overall, I found their ballyhoo to be creative and persistent, which is key to the successful exploitation of a film. Indeed, about 15 minutes before the start of the screening, when it appeared as if they would not fill the theater, several of my students ran outside the venue to harass students as they walked by: “Don’t you want to come and watch The Room? It’s the greatest movie ever! We’ll give you spoons!” That’s exploitation too! Lesson learned, students. Lesson learned.

2. To teach students about how cult film audiences are created and nurtured

This was the trickiest aspect of the class project because a cult audience is defined by its almost spontaneous nature. A cult is created by the audience, not by a group of students hoping to score an A in the film studies class that they’re taking to fulfill their Writing Intensive requirement for graduation. We watched The Room during our first full week of class and the campus-wide screening did not take place until the 13th week of class, so by the night of the screening I think my students were legitimate enthusiasts. But what of the audience members who had been lured into the theater on a Monday night, through false promises that the event would be the screening event of a lifetime or because their friends in the class had begged them to or because they were promised special prizes?

Prizes!!!

Could a group of students (the majority of whom had never seen The Room prior to enrolling in my course) create a cult film audience out of sheer force of will? I think they did.

If someone shows up to your screening dressed as Tommy Wiseau, then you’ve done something right. Well done students.

It was the students’ responsibility to prepare the audience for the evening’s events through their promotional efforts and also by presenting a brief introduction to the film. Ostensibly motivated by the desire to educate, exploiteers would often bring in “experts” (or actors dressed as doctors and nurses) to speak to audiences who came to watch their sex hygiene or drug films. But of course, this was titillation in the guise of education, further adding to the experience of watching the film (which started the moment an audience member saw the first advertisement in the local paper). We attempted to replicate this environment by having one of the students serve as an emcee. She provided the audience with insight into the cult of The Room and a demonstration of key rituals. Our emcee cracked jokes and interacted with the audience throughout her introduction, which prepped the audience for the film to come.

Grace served as our (very animated) emcee while Jenna (dressed as Johnny) ran the Power Point presentation.

The students were also tasked with assembling prop bags for the audience and deciding on what rituals they wanted the audience to perform (again, a seemingly antithetical concept in the world of interactive screenings). They repeated some of the most basic rituals of The Room — the throwing of spoons, the shouting of “Because you’re a woman!” every time Lisa offered up an excuse for her duplicitous behavior, and the calling out of “Hi Denny! Bye Denny!” — but they also added a few new rituals. First, during each of the film’s lengthy and grotesque lovemaking scenes, my students wandered through the audience with bunches of fake red roses (because the film’s protagonist, Johnny, and his fiance, Lisa, make love on a pile of roses). They would tap an audience member on the shoulder and whisper “Welcome to the sex scene. Please accept this rose.” It’s already uncomfortable watching Johnny make love to Lisa’s belly button but to have someone offer you a rose during such an awkward scene heightens those feelings. The second ritual they added was to release several garbage bags worth of balloons during the film’s climactic (and lengthy) party scene. Once the balloons were released, the audience began to bat them around (they would pop after hitting the ceiling), thus bringing the on-screen party into the audience:

On a side note, I should add that the students also purchased a small pack of glowing, LED-filled balloons, which they thought would be a fun addition to this ritual. However, upon reading the instructions the students discovered that these balloons were potentially dangerous when popped and had to be safely “detonated” after use. This added a little, personalized thrill to the screening for me as every time I heard a popping noise I wondered if I might lose my job because a student had just been blinded. That’s exploitation too! Way to go, students!

3. To teach students about the joys (and frustrations) of a class project

The students assembled 200 prop bags containing plastic spoons, chocolates and rose petals for audience members to throw at the screen.

In the classes I teach there is rarely a good reason to assign a class project. However, this screening assignment afforded me a truly useful reason to force my students to work together — to create an environment in which it is safe for me to hurl curses at a screen for 100 glorious minutes. As I mentioned, part of the students’ grades for this project was going to be determined by the amount of people they could convince to attend the screening as well as the enthusiasm of the audience (after all, a cult film audience who sits silently is no kind of cult film audience at all). This meant that if the event was a bust, the grades were a bust too. In the weeks leading up to the screening, I witnessed more and more cohesion among my 14 students. They conferred before and after class, collecting in corners of the classroom to share flyers and advertising ideas. Indeed, on the night of the event I noticed a change in the dynamic of the group. I stood back and watched as they arranged prop bags, fiddled with their power point, psyched up the event’s emcee, and of course, fretted over whether or not the evening would be a success. True, I felt a little like the judge, jury and executioner throughout all of this — in the hour leading up to the screening I caught students eyeing me nervously — but I also felt very proud of them. Moments before the event started we gathered for a class huddle and shouted “YOU’RE TEARING ME APART LISA!”

Nervous about filling the auditorium, the students began cheering every time a new audience member turned the corner.

In short, I was delighted with the results of this student project. I think students learned — first hand — what it would be like to be an exploiteer whose livelihood depended on generating enough ballyhoo to fill a theater. I think they also learned about the joys and rewards of cult viewership even if the viewership they created was highly constructed and mediated through the lens of a class project.

Below I would love to hear about any successes (or failures) you’ve had in attempting to implement class projects into the film or media studies classroom. Were these projects simply “busywork” or do you think they helped your students to gain a greater understanding of the course material?

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Schaefer, Eric. “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!”: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

Sconce, Jeffrey. “Esper, the Renunciator: Teaching ‘Bad’ Movies to Good Students.” Defining Cult Films: The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Taste. Eds. Mark Jancovich, Antonio Lazaro Reboll, Julian Stringer, and Andy Willis. Manchester: Machester University Press, 2003. 14-34.

BRAVE: A Mother and her Daughter Weigh In


Movies and television shows for and about women usually find themselves subject to more scrutiny than other pop culture products. Last summer the critical and commercial success of Bridesmaids (2011, Paul Feig) had reviewers declaring that yes, women are funny, as if no women had ever been funny on film before. Oh Mae West, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, Catherine O’Hara, Whoopi Goldberg, Roseanne Barr (etc.) it’s like you never even existed. And more recently, Lena Dunham’s new HBO series Girls was criticized both for not being funny enough (even though the show was never billed as a sitcom) and because Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, is too fat and frumpy to be a credible (i.e., beautiful) leading woman. Place a woman before the camera and eventually, she will be labeled as either not measuring up or as measuring “over.” She will be almost perfect, but not quite. She will be:

too fat

Lena Dunham

also too fat

Gabourey Sidibe

also too fat

Jessica Simpson

too skinny

Keira Knightley

also too skinny

Thandie Newton

once too skinny…

Mischa Barton

but now too fat

Still Mischa Barton

too twee

Zooey Deschanel

too old

Joan Rivers

too young

3-year-old Paisley Dickey, profiled on TODDLERS & TIARAS, imitates an actual hooker

too trashy

Kim Kardashian’s ass

too stuck up

Gwyneth Paltrow

too sexy

Sofia Vergara

too black

The Real Housewives of Atlanta

too ambitious

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

too simple

Rebecca Black

too complex

Fiona Apple, with octopus

Didn’t complain enough about being physically assaulted by her boyfriend

Rihanna and Chris Brown

Complained too much about being physically assaulted by her husband

Robin Givens

Is this getting tiresome yet? Good. I find it tiresome too. It’s difficult to locate a female celebrity/film character/TV character who hasn’t been characterized as being too something in some way. There are many reasons for this — the 24 hour news cycle, gender inequality, the tendency to judge women based on their appearances, and the hyppersexualization of women in the media. Most germane to this blog post, however, is the fact that there just are not many films and TV shows created by women and/or addressing the lives of women. For example, with so few TV shows written by and focused on women, it should not be surprising that the new female-focused television programs that premiered in the 2011-2012 season (Girls, 2 Broke Girls, and The New Girl) were subject to so much backlash (in which, I will admit, I also participated). We have so many hopes and expectations for women-centered texts that when they finally do appear, we want them to be everything and to represent everyone. They should also be funny. But realistic. And also provide great role models. But realistic role models. Aw hell, here we go again…

So it should not be surprising that Brave, the first Pixar film to ever feature a female protagonist and the first to be co-directed and co-written by a woman (until she was fired and replaced by a man) has been the subject of high expectations and mixed reviews. As Slate‘s Dana Stevens writes “In order to satisfy expectations at this point, Brave would have to not only revolutionize the depiction of girls and women onscreen, but make its audience laugh as hard as we did in Toy Story and cry as hard as we did in Up. Oh, and could it also reinvent computer animation and rake in three times its budget on opening weekend?” Amen.

Eat your heart out, Katniss!

Below is a summary of Brave‘s strengths and weaknesses, for those keeping score:

The Positive

*SO PRETTY!

Pixar films are gorgeous. Enough said.

* The female characters, Princess Merida and Queen Elinor, are complex and realistic:

Slate‘s Dana Stevens writes: “Elinor is never an evil-queen villain, but nor is she an idealized self-sacrificing mother. Rather, she’s a particular, individual person, devoted but flawed”

*Brave isn’t a movie about women trying to prove that they are as good as men, it’s a movie about one woman asserting her right to choose her path:

New York Magazine‘s David Edelstein writes: “In addition to being fast, funny, and unpretentious, Brave is a happy antidote to all the recent films in which women triumph by besting men at their own macho games, as if the history of male dominance is one of patriarchs suppressing females’ essential warlike nature. Merida wants nothing more than to control her own fate, her rage provoked by the refusal of her mother—for whom duty and subservience are paramount—to see the world through her eyes.”

*There is no love interest for Merida. I repeat: THERE IS NO LOVE INTEREST FOR MERIDA!

The Village Voice’s Melissa Anderson writes: “Where fellow bow-and-arrow expert Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and the titular princess of Snow White and the Huntsman are each one point in love triangles, Merida, resolutely asexual, is nonetheless entangled in the most complicated, all-consuming love- and hate-filled dyad of all: that between a teenage daughter and her mother.”

*Yes, Brave is the rare Disney film in which a mother is both alive and not an evil cannibal:

Time‘s Richard Corliss writes “Disney princesses have a rough time with the women who run their lives. The female authority figure is usually a stepmother — in Disney animated features, the inevitable phrase would be “wicked stepmother” —  who offers Snow White a poisoned apple, forces scullery work on Cinderella and, in Tangled, locks Rapunzel in a high tower for her entire childhood and most of her adolescence. The millions of actual stepmoms, among all the postnuclear families in the world, must think of these portrayals as libel. They should bring a class-action suit against the Walt Disney Company and picket its Burbank headquarters.

Enough with the talky-talky, when are you going to KICK SOME ASS?

The Negative 

*Brave isn’t as good as Toy Story or other Pixar films:

Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan says: “Shown on its own, without any logo attached, “Brave” simply doesn’t feel as much like the Pixar movies we’ve come to expect.”

Chicago Tribune‘s Micael Phillips writes: “At this point in Pixar’s history, the studio contends with nearly impossible expectations itself. This is what happens when you turn out some bona fide masterworks. “Brave” isn’t that; it’s simply a bona fide eyeful.”

Boston Globe‘s Ty Burr writes: “Uh-oh: “Brave” is the first Pixar movie that doesn’t feel like a Pixar movie.”

*Too much teen angst, not enough action:

Boston Globe‘s Ty Burr writes: “The first half-hour bumps along with humor and a striking lack of direction.”

Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan says: “Making things worse is that the spell’s results initially make Merida even more self-centered, more insistent on being blameless and in the right, than she’s been before. This is one young person who’s allowed to be too bratty for too long to make anyone happy.”

*We’ve seen these characters and plots before:

A.V. Club’s Tasha Robinson writes: “These kinds of lapses don’t seriously harm the movie, but they do enhance the feeling that it’s skating along a series of broad stereotypes—martinet mom, browbeaten but resistant dad, rebellious teenager, bratty kids—without finding the depth in them that, say, The Incredibles did.”

Slant Magazine’s Richard Larson says: “But ultimately the film offers nothing more than a caricature of a well-worn conceit (a princess doesn’t fit into her shiny box, so she just breaks all the rules and does what she wants), neatly repackaged for another generation of young moviegoers who haven’t met Princess Jasmine from Aladdin and don’t realize that they’re eating yesterday’s leftovers.”

Whew.

I agree with the above praise and the criticism of Brave. But, I can’t help thinking that the criticism is a little too … critical. If you take Brave for what it is (a film about the complicated relationship between a teenage girl and her mother) rather than what it’s trailers and merchandise make it out to be (a film about a Scottish princess who can KICK! ASS!), then the movie is quite satisfying, even moving.

Here is where I cried

For example, about halfway through the film we get a flashback to Merida’s childhood: she is frightened by a thunderstorm and leaps into her mother’s arms. As Merida snuggles into her embrace her mother assures her that she will always be there for her. This flashback so strongly contrasts with the damaged relationship between the two women in the present story that, I will admit, I cried a little bit. As someone who frequently fought with my own mother over my life choices and who now, with a daughter of my own, understands why mothers often act like tyrants, Brave resonated with me. It’s like My So Called Life  with bears and kilts. Angela Chase would have killed for some of the sweet plaid outfits being worn in this film.

Angela Chase (Claire Danes) wearing a kilt.

But, more important than what I took away from this film is what my 6-year-old daughter thought of it. After all, as another entry in the canon of Disney princess movies, isn’t Brave really for her? I wanted to understand why she enjoyed the movie and if she understood some of its more nuanced points about compulsory heterosexuality and gender roles, or at least as much as a 6-year-old can understand about those things. So I asked my daughter, who is a Disney princess expert (she has watched and memorized most of the canon), if I could talk to her about the film and then share her thoughts on my blog. She agreed even though I don’t think she quite understands what a blog is. What she does understand is that having mommy videotape her is fun!

My daughter’s former favorite princesses, just chillin.

Below is a transcript of our conversation (and yes there are SPOILERS below. Proceed with caution):
So we went to see Brave yesterday. Did you like it?
Yes
Why did you like it?
Because it was like, kind of spooky and scary and there was, like, this really brave princess and that’s why now she’s my favorite princess.
What made Merida “brave”? What did she do?
She actually, ummm, defeated that ummm, Mor’du I think his name is?
The bear?
Yeah, the bad bear.
And that was a brave thing to do?
Uh huh. Because he, like, ruled for a long, long time and he was, like, the most strongest person…
…bear?
Bear. He used to be a person.
Can you tell me the story of the movie? What happened in the movie?
Well there was this princess named Merida and she loved archery so one day her mom said she had to get married and she didn’t want to…
Why didn’t Merida want to get married?
Because she wanted to be free and play archery.
So if Merida got married she couldn’t do archery anymore?
Well she wanted to do archery.
[note: the 6 year old has evaded my question about compulsory heterosexuality]
So then she asked this witch to do something, to change her fate, so she could still not marry. But then her mother actually turned into a bear instead.
So Merida thought she was getting a spell to change her fate but the spell turned her mother into a bear?
Yeah. Just like Mor’du.
So why did you like this movie so much better than the other princess movies? Why is Merida your favorite princess?
Because she’s much braver.
So was Ariel [from The Little Mermaid] not brave?
[she shakes her head]
What about Cinderella? Was she brave?
[she shakes her head]
What about Belle [from Beauty and the Beast]?
[getting excited] She was brave but not as brave as Merida! Cause Merida defeated Mor’du.
And that’s why she’s your favorite? Because she’s so brave?
Yeah that’s how brave she was.

My daughter pauses to consider her answers.

Can you tell me why Merida’s mother wanted her to get married?
So she could be a princess.
And Merida didn’t like that?
UH UH!
What was Merida’s mommy like?
She was a queen and, umm ,she wanted her to do everything that she wanted her to do.
Do I ever do that to you? Make you do things that I think you should do that you don’t want to do?
Nope. [pause] Sometimes.
Like what?
Clean up my toys. Ummm, put me to bed…Oh wait, I don’t want to go to bed! Tell me I can’t watch TV…when I want to.
Do you think I would make you get married?
No. You don’t make me get married unless I want to.
Do girls have to get married?
No. [pause] Well they have to get married at some point.
Why?
[fidgets for a long time] Umm, they just do.
Who told you that?
Ummm, one of the kids at Creative Arts [her after school program].
Do you think that’s true?
Not really.

Making fish faces into the camera.

What happens if you don’t get married?
Ummm. You don’t have anybody to help take care of your kids.
What if you just don’t have any kids?
Oh yeah, you can’t have kids if you don’t have a husband!
Sure you can!
No you can’t. You need the … other chromosome.
Oh, I see what you’re saying. But is it okay not to have any babies?
Only if you get that, that thing [she is referring to a vasectomy].

My daughter is confounded by heteronormativity

[Here the conversation devolves a bit as my daughter has a hard time conceptualizing how anyone might be able to have babies out of wedlock, etc., so I change the subject.]
Tell me what Merida’s daddy was like.
Well he was the one who started her with the bow and arrow. At the beginning he had the bow and arrow and then he gave her her own.
Is it okay for girls to shoot a bow and arrow?
Yes, Silver [her friend] has one.
So it’s not a boy thing?
It’s a boy-girl thing. Nothing is a boy thing or a girl thing! A girl can like Spiderman, a boy can like dollhouses.
 [Here I get very excited]
Do you think Brave is a movie for boys and girls?
Yes. Jude [her 2-year-old brother] went! Brian [our friend] went!
Well thanks for talking to me about the movie. Do you want to tell me what your favorite part was?
When she got her mommy back.
Awww. I was sad. I was worried she wasn’t going to get her mommy back.
Me too.
Do you think the movie was saying that you should always listen to your mommy? Or what?
I think it was saying: be brave.

So what should we take away from this conversation, other than the fact that my 6-year-old knows what a vasectomy is? First,  it is significant that she likes Merida better than her previous favorite princesses (Belle, Aurora, and Tiana) because Merida is “brave.” Clearly my daughter has been conditioned to understand the film through its ubiquitous marketing campaign (“Merida is BRAVE!”). But still, I think it is significant that a 6-year-old moviegoer recognizes the value of a young woman defeating a large, scary bear. It is important that a 6-year-old girl understands the value of a woman who is brave. Second, it is significant that my daughter does not view Merida’s bravery as a male character trait being co-opted by a female character, like it’s unnatural. The film is so female-centered (yes, we have the slapstick moments with the four clans, but that is comic relief, not the film’s heart) that female bravery makes sense. Of course Merida stood up to that scary bear — who else was going to save her mother?

So while much of the critique of this film focuses on its bait-and-switch tactics — trailers and posters promise a film about a brave young girl fighting battles but delivers a mother-daughter melodrama, the film promises Pixar but delivers a Lifetime-style tearjerker — I don’t see it as a bait-and-switch. Rebelling against your parents’ repressive visions of your future and being willing to sacrifice your life in order to rectify your mistakes is brave behavior indeed. So while Brave is not a perfect film and Merida is not a perfect character, both are good enough. And I think we can all agree that good enough is sometimes good enough.

So did you take your children to see Brave? Did they like it? Why or why not?