Month: January 2011

My Popular Culture New Year’s Resolutions

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I realize that New Year’s Resolutions are pretty pointless. They are the reason why I have to wait in line to use my favorite elliptical machine at the gym for the entire month of January. They are the reason why people stock up on healthy crap, like quinoa and farro, and then never ever cook it. Resolutions give people false hope that it is possible to change their change terrible lifestyle habits and grating personality ticks. I’d like to think that I’ll be a better mother/wife/daughter/sister/friend/colleague in 2011. But I will likely go on being my inadequate self, no matter how many resolutions I make.

However, resolutions that do not require me to diet, exercise more, act nicer to people I don’t like, act nicer to people I do like, or stop kicking puppies are far easier to keep. In the spirit of not making myself a better person in 2011, below I have listed my popular culture resolutions. Please to enjoy:

1. Rather than watching them in fits and starts, in 2011 I resolve to finish watching all available episodes of Dexter, Breaking Bad, and Friday Night Lights.

I tend to watch TV on DVD in the summertime, when most good television is on hiatus, or during the “slow” times, like the winter holidays. That means I tend to feast on back-t0-back episodes of a series, watching two episodes an evening for several weeks. But then, like a fickle lover, I abandon the series as soon as one of my favorite network or cable shows premieres. I have completed seasons 1 and 2 of Breaking Bad and seasons 1, 2 and 3 of Dexter. But Friday Night Lights? Poor, sweet, Friday Night Lights. We have watched you in such a piecemeal fashion that I can’t recall where we left off. Is Julie (Aimee Teegarden) dating Matt (Zach Gilford) again? Is Landry (Jess Plemons) still trying to cover up that accidental murder? Is Tyra’s (Adrianne Palicki) hair straight or curly? I am so sorry Friday Night Lights. I have neglected you and you deserve better.

2. I will make more of an effort to see movies while they are still in the theaters.

Before I had children, I went out to the movies all the time. ALL THE TIME. After the birth of my first child in 2006, I didn’t go nearly as much. And after the birth of #2 in January 2010, movie-going stopped almost entirely. I needed to be around to put the baby to bed around 7:00 pm (he is/was breastfed) which meant I could only go to movies that started at 7:30 pm or later. And due to the chronic sleep deprivation inflicted upon me by my darling baby boy, I couldn’t go to any movies that finished later than 10:00 or 10:30 pm. Indeed, I am ashamed to admit that I recently fell asleep (briefly) during a 9:20 pm showing of True Grit (2010, Ethan and Joel Coen). This means that any movie I wanted to see had to start no earlier than 7:30 pm and no later than 8:00 pm. Not much wiggle room. Not much fun for those who tried to make movie plans with me. However, in 2011 I plan to wean the baby (soon soon soon) AND teach him how to sleep through the night. Easy right? Greenville movie theater that smells like pee, here I come!

3. I will watch Firefly.

A few years ago my husband and I borrowed Season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD from a friend. We loved it and proceeded to watch the next 6 seasons within one year (hey, we only had the one kid then). So when Firefly, Joss Whedon’s much-lauded follow-up project became available on Netflix Instant earlier this year, my husband suggested that we watch it. At the time we were still knee-deep in Breaking Bad episodes (see Resolution # 1), and our DVR queue was filled with shows. I simply couldn’t commit. So my husband watched it without me. Then, last semester I decided to observe my colleague’s class, a team-taught  course on frontier mythology. The day I visited they were discussing Firefly. By the end of the class I realized that I had made a terrible mistake. Why didn’t I watch it with my husband? Oh the regret! You see, 90% of my TV and DVD watching is done with my husband at my side; this is our “quality time” together. So if I ever want to watch something that he does not want to watch, it is very difficult to find the time for it. But in 2011 I will make time for Firefly. Even if it means putting the kids back into their safety cages. Don’t be concerned. They like their cages.

4. I will watch more movies that are a. not new releases and b. not assigned for my classes.

There was a blissful time in my life, not too long ago, when I would sit on my  couch, pen and notebook in hand, watching film after film. These were the dissertation years, when watching films all day was part of my “homework.” Sure, some of the films I had to watch were real stinkers, like  Cutthroat Alley (2003, Timothy Wayne Folsome) and Teenagers from Outerspace (1959, Tom Graeff). But it was fun even watching the stinkers. However, once I started my position at ECU, I found that I stopped watching older films unless I planned to teach them in my classes. I stopped working on that list of films that all film scholars have in their heads: “The List” of films that I want to see and that I know that I need to see. So in 2011, I resolve to watch at least some of the following (Yes, I realize that there are some films on this list that I should have watched a looooong time ago. And yes, some of these are stinkers):

Eyes without a Face (1960, Georges Franju)

Thelma and Louise (1991, Ridley Scott)

Rashomon (1950, Akira Kurosawa)

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985, George P. Cosmatos)

Red Dawn (1984, John Milius)

Summer Stock (1950, Charles Walters)

Panther Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray)

Play Time (1967, Jacques Tati)

There are so many more films on “The List” but I want my New Year’s resolutions to be reasonable. And I am hoping that blogging about my resolutions will ensure that I stick to at least some of them. I also plan to blog about some of the films in Resolution #4 as I watch them.

5. I will stop wasting precious “screen time” on Reality TV shows with little nutritional value.

Most reality programming is the TV equivalent of McDonald’s. It’s great when you’re consuming it, but you know that at best you’ve filled your body with worthless calories, and at worst you’re gearing up for a heart attack. Don’t get me wrong: MTV’s reality shows  have served me well. I have devoted many a blog post and article to The Hills, The City, The Real World and Teen Mom. And my next book project will focus on these programs and their teenage audiences. But, in 2011 I vow to cut out all “unnecessary” TV junkfood from my diet. I will not watch the revamped American Idol. I will not watch any dance competition shows. I will not watch anything in which people try to lose weight, compete for plastic surgery, or interact with a Kardashian. This is not a moral choice. There is nothing “wrong” with these shows. But if I want to keep Resolutions #1-4, then I need to trim some fat. My kids won’t stay in their cages forever.

6. Finally, and most importantly, in 2011 I will play more Angry Birds.

Because those stupid pigs won’t kill themselves.

So, what are your popular culture resolutions for the year? Remember, it is so much easier to watch a movie than exercise! Won’t you join me on the couch in 2011?

The Films that Fill Me with Dread

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For me, winter break is a time to catch up on all the movies that I didn’t get to see in the theaters during the year. I had a second baby at the beginning of 2010 so “all the movies that I didn’t get to see in the theaters during the year” = “all of the movies released this year.” But don’t pity me, friends. My Netflix queue is pretty kick ass these days and I’ve really enjoyed playing catch up over the last few weeks.


Earlier this week my husband and I decided to watch a film that we had both been wanting to see for months, The Road (2009, John Hillcoat). We were at his parent’s house and had their TV all to ourselves, which is a rarity in a house where 8 people are staying. We were about 40 minutes in to the film when my husband’s sister and her boyfriend returned from a friend’s house. We chatted with them for about 15 minutes and when they headed upstairs I said to my husband “Okay, let’s finish the movie.” He replied, somewhat despondently,”Do we have to?”

Even Omar didn't want to finish watching THE ROAD.

You see, The Road is a real downer. It focuses on two characters, the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) — they are never given proper names — who spend the majority of the film wandering through a frigid, grey-toned, postapocalyptic wasteland. They are dirty, tired, and hungry. All plant and animal life has died, so food is almost non-existent. Things have gotten so bad that people have started to eat each other; in one scene the Man and the Boy happen upon a basement full of naked, emaciated human beings that are being held captive in a makeshift slaughterhouse. Good times.

The Man and the Boy do have a mission. They are heading “South” because the Man hopes that things will be “better” there. But this seems unlikely — the world is dying, after all. So their arduous, seemingly unending journey feels pointless. Yes, the Man tells his son that they must keep going because they have a “fire” inside of them, and they cannot let that fire go out. But why? Why subject your child to this living Hell? To what end? And why subject the viewer to this Hell? The Woman (the Boy’s mother, played by Charlize Theron) had the right idea when she offed herself.

Not fun.

Despite the crushing depression we were experiencing, we did finish watching The Road. But it was difficult. My husband and I even resorted to using coping mechanisms — like heckling the film at moments of high drama — as a way to detach ourselves from the agony. For example, at one point in the film the Man has a breakdown and begins to sob. He is exhausted. His life and the life of his child are continually being threatened. He is dying of some unidentified lung ailment. The world is coming to an end for crying out loud! Right when the emotion of this scene became too much to bear — the Man is beginning to realize that soon he will be leaving his boy alone in this awful world — my husband yelled “Oh wahhhh! Poor me!” Normally I would be annoyed that someone had broken the spell of the film, but now I welcomed it. I needed to be detached from the pain and the agony on-screen. In fact, I was so unsettled by The Road (despite its optimisitic ending), that it took me several hours to fall asleep afterwards and I was plagued with dark and troubling dreams throughout the night.

The next morning I awoke exhausted and angry with myself: why did I decide to watch this movie? After all, a few years ago I made a vow to myself that I would no longer force myself to watch movies that are mentally traumatizing. I came to this decision after watching the English-language remake of Funny Games (2007, Michael Haneke).  For those who don’t know, Funny Games tells the story of a wealthy white family who heads out to their beautiful, idyllic lake house for a family vacation. They are soon taken hostage by two smiling sociopaths, Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbett), who mentally torture them before [SPOILER ALERT] killing all three of them. I knew that these deaths were going to happen from the moment I spied Paul’s smiling face and yet I continued to watch. I watched as they tied up the couple’s young son and then killed him with a shotgun. I watched as the mother (Naomi Watts) wailed over the dead body of her only child.  I should have turned the film off then. But I didn’t. I kept watching because I like to finish what I start. I kept telling myself “It’s just a movie.” And then I didn’t sleep all night.

I like you so much better in BOARDWALK EMPIRE.

In the case of both The Road and Funny Games my sleeplessness and nightmares were not caused by fear. I wasn’t worried that a bomb would destroy the world as I slept nor did I fear that two smiling young men would break into the house and hold me and my family hostage. What kept me awake and haunted my dreams was the dread each film stirred inside of me. Both films tapped into my deepest fear — the thing that I dread more than anything else — which is a world in which I will be unable to protect my children from harm. These films exploit these feelings of dread, offering parent protagonists who try and fail to keep their children safe under extreme circumstances.

Every parent's nightmare.

When I watch a drama, I try to sympathize with its protagonists and see the world from their point of view. If I don’t do that, then I don’t feel like I am truly experiencing the story. The directors of Italian Neorealist films like The Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica) depended on this sympathy — without it their films would fail as calls to action. And in melodramas like Imitation of Life (1959, Douglas Sirk) sympathy, and the tears that flow when we realize that Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) will never be able to tell her mother that she loves her, are central to the genre’s pleasures.

However, this sympathy becomes a liability when watching a film like The Road. For example, every morning the Man wakes up, gasps in terror, and places a frantic, searching hand on the Boy’s chest. He is making sure that the Boy is still there. This little detail filled me with dread. How does the Man even sleep? How could he lie down and rest, knowing that his boy could be stolen away by a band of cannibals? Contemplating such a life, even entertaining the possibility of such an existence, is mentally overwhelming to me. And this pervasive feeling of dread lingers for days, sometimes weeks, after the film is over. For this reason I think I need to stop watching any movie in which children are put in danger or are killed. I’ve already stopped watching zombie movies for similar reasons (they give me terrible nightmares).

But banning certain movies from my life makes me sad. I’ve devoted my life to the study of film so the idea of limiting what I watch doesn’t seem right. Now I know that Kelli Marshall refuses to watch movies with animals in them. And last spring Amanda Lotz wrote a piece for Antenna about how being a mother affected her reaction to a scene from Lost. So I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. Who we are affects how we watch and what we watch. But sometimes I wish that it didn’t.

For you, Kelli.

In conclusion, my experience with The Road has led me to wonder: has parenthood limited my ability to watch certain films? Can personal experiences — like my early (and traumatic) exposure to zombie movies — profoundly alter our ability to watch certain types of films? Or do I just need to suck it up?

And what about you: what films fill you with dread and why? Has this kept you from watching them? Or do you enjoy this feeling of dread? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.