My parents believed that children who got straight As and attended Ivy league schools had only two possible future professions: doctor or lawyer. That’s what they owed society. So when my parents saw 10 graduate school applications neatly laid out on the diningroom table during the fall of my senior year of college, they can be forgiven for asking, in hopeful tones “When do you plan to take the LSAT?” It took my parents years to get over this. You can imagine how excited I was when my mother developed an interest in the cinema, the focus on my PhD.
Her cinephilia started not too long after an independent theater, The Midtown Cinema, opened up in her city (which also coincided with her retirement from politics). There she could go and see “art” films like Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch) in their initial release. She also got into the habit of calling me after going to see one of those art films — because if I wasn’t going to be a doctor (meaning, the “real” kind), then at least I could help her understand what the hell was going on in Adaptation (2002, Spike Jonze). That was a fun conversation.
I am always impressed that my mother wants to discuss the films that challenge her. For example, after going to see Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan), she left the following message on my voicemail: “Honey, your father and I just saw Inception. We have A LOT of questions.”
Perhaps the best thing about my mother’s cinephilia is her pithy, honest responses to them. Her critiques generally match up with what the professional critics have to say. And she sees enough of the new releases to have a solid understanding of the contemporary cinematic landscape. She can tell when a film is being manipulative (like War Horse [2011, Steven Speilberg]) and when it is being subtle. Her one blind spot is experimentation. My mother doesn’t like films that are “too weird” or that steer too far away from conventional cinematic language. For example, she really enjoyed The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius), which, with its lack of sound, can certainly be labeled as “experimental.” But she hated Tree of Life (2011, Terence Malick). We have discussed her hate for this film on several occasions. I think she is actually mad at Terence Malick for making this film and for luring her into the theater to see it.
For the last few years my mother has also made a point of trying to see all of the films nominated for awards. In fact, there are many Oscar seasons when she has a far more informed opinion of the year in film than I do. Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to have my mother, amateur film buff, give you some of her 2012 Oscar picks. I sent her a list of questions via e-mail, and then I called her and we discussed them.
Before we get to the interview, allow me to tell you a little bit about my mother, in order to contextualize some parts of our conversation. She is 69-years-old, born and raised in Pennsylvania. She received her BA as well as her MA in education from Shippensburg University. When she first moved to Harrisburg as a young, single woman, she taught public school, but quit teaching when I was born. Then, when I was about 8 years-old she ran for Register of Wills in Dauphin County, a position she held for 4 years. After that she was a Dauphin County Comissioner for 12 years. My father, who she was married to for 43 years, passed away over the holidays, so she is also a recent widow. My mom wanted me to add that she has “two wonderful children” and “four beautiful grandchildren.” So there you go.
Below is a transcript of our conversation, with my questions appearing in bold-face. The portions of the text appearing in brackets are my later additions/corrections to the interview.
Which of the films nominated for Best Picture Oscars have you seen so far?
I’ve seen every nominee except for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011, Stephen Daldry), Hugo (2011, Martin Scorsese), and Moneyball (2011, Bennett Miller).
Out of the Best Picture nominees, which films were your favorite? And can you tell me why these films were your favorite?
The film that I thought was the best was The Artist. It was just incredibly watchable even though it was a silent film. It was very unique in the way it was done, with a little bit of sound but mostly silent. It was just fascinating to watch. I loved it.
Did you think going to see a silent film would not be enjoyable?
I don’t think I would have gone to see it at all if I hadn’t read the reviews. It didn’t sound appealing. Although I do prefer subtitles because of my hearing problem.
You mean intertitles? Yeah, it’s probably better for you if you can read the dialogue.
A lot of my friends weren’t interested in seeing [The Artist] at all. So I’m glad it was playing in Greenville when I was visiting you.
And why weren’t they interested? Because it was silent?
Yeah they just thought it was too weird to go in and watch a movie like that.
Now you also told me about how much you liked The Descendants (2011, Alexander Payne).
Yes. But as far as Best Picture, The Artist was special. It will definitely win the Best Picture award. [she pauses] But I’ve been wrong before.
Out of the Best Picture nominees, which films were your least favorite? Can you explain why?
My least favorite was Midnight in Paris (2011, Woody Allen).
I didn’t like it at all. Do you want to know my second least favorite is?
First I want to know why you didn’t like Midnight in Paris.
It was very disjointed. It went back and forth in time so much that it lost me. I thought the acting was terrible.
Who did you think was terrible?
The guy. Whatever his name was. I didn’t like him.
[she is referring to Owen Wilson]
It was almost a tie for me with Tree of Life. I just didn’t care for [Tree of Life] at all.
[we both start laughing]
Did you ever see it?
Yes, I saw it last weekend.
What did you think?
I liked it.
I didn’t like it. I think the film made me very uncomfortable.
It was such a depressing film because of the character played by Brad Pitt. I was constantly feeling sorry for the children and the wife. And that whole surreal scene on the beach? Where they were all going wherever they went? That was strange.
What about the first 15 minutes of the film? Where the director shows the evolution of life on Earth? What did you think of that?
Totally lost me. Went over my head. Wasn’t for me. That is never going to get Best Picture. Ever.
When I was watching the beginning of Tree of Life, I knew to expect that kind of opening because I had read about it. As somebody who went in to see that movie, and wasn’t expecting 15 minutes of almost abstract images and no plot or characters, what was that like for you?
I wasn’t expecting it. I just didn’t get it. It was just uncomfortable. I didn’t care for it. It was a film without any light moments. I really firmly believe that a director has to have a little bit of brightness in a movie. It can’t be all depressing and weird.
Even The Descendants — with that serious topic — there were several really funny, light moments that made the viewer relax a little bit. I don’t think a film should be all of one type…I don’t know how else to express it.
Which actors, in your opinion, gave the best performances?
Definitely George Clooney. I love the way — and I’m not a fan of his — but I loved the way it was such a real performance as far as a father dealing with two young daughters, and what they were feeling with their mother in a coma. And then his wife, who was in a tragic accident, dealing with that. And dealing with his business. It was extremely believable. And then his reaction when he found out his wife was having an affair.
And he did provide the sadness, and the very deep part of the whole film — making the decision to let this poor soul pass away [she is referring to the character who is on life support]. And at the same time he finds a relationship with his girls.
Did you find that you related to George Clooney’s character, given that you were faced with with an eerily similar situation back in December? Did you find any parallels?
No. Not really. I didn’t shed a tear like you did.
[correction: I cried for the duration of the film]
Watching this film and watching how another family dealt with the same situation… It was sort of comforting in a way, in the way the doctor told him [that his wife would never wake up]. They didn’t hesitate. They had to do it.
Did that make you feel better?
Yeah. In a way. Now what about best actress?
Who is your pick?
Absolutely Meryl Streep. If she doesn’t win, I give up. That’s ridiculous. I mean she was just…did you see it?
No. I haven’t seen it.
Well, she is the Iron Lady. You know, there was a lot of criticism about portraying this woman in her later years, when she had dementia, not when she was in top form.
But I thought it was very difficult to play the role as [Meryl Streep] did. Because the times she was in the public eye, she had to act normal and then she’d go home and be sitting on the couch talking to her husband, who wasn’t there.
Did you relate this character in any way? Since you were also a woman who held public office?
No, because I don’t have Alzheimer’s.
One of my favorite parts was a flashback where she was interviewed and wearing this hat. After it was over her consultants told her she had to get rid of the hat. And she was “Why should I?”
[note: here my mother attempts to imitate Merly Streep imitating Margaret Thatcher but she sounds more like Meryl Streep imitating Julia Child. Yes, it is awesome]
I can remember those kinds of meetings. Like remember when I went to one of your softball games while wearing a suit and heels?
I don’t remember that.
Afterwards there was this was a poll in the newspaper. And some woman said I was “uppity” because I wore a suit and heels to my daughter’s softball game.
But I was talking to Dr. Garcia [my friend’s father] at that game and he was wearing a tie and jacket.
Oh my Gawd!
Is there anyone who was not nominated for best actor/actress or best supporting actor/actress who you feel was snubbed? I know you said you were angry that Leonardo DiCaprio was snubbed for his performance in J. Edgar (2011, Clint Eastwood).
Well after all the years of watching him and being such a fan of his incredible acting…I think his problem is — and this is just my opinion — I think he’s just too good-looking.
Well then what about George Clooney and Brad Pitt?
Right. I don’t get it. There have been actors in [Leonardo DiCaprio’s] situation. For example, Paul Newman never won an Academy Award. Fabulous actor. Great stuff. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958, Richard Brooks).
[correction: Newman won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1987 for The Color of Money (Martin Scorsese)]
And the other one was, what’s his name? He does the Sundance stuff?
Robert Redford? Has he never won an Oscar?
He’s never won. Neither of them.
[Note: she is correct about Robert Redford, who has never won an Oscar for his acting]
I don’t know what’s going on with Leonardo. Frankly, when you look at Titanic (1997, James Cameron), what’s-her-name won Best Actress for that film. I think he was nominated and didn’t win, which is absolutely insane. I mean he was that film.
[correction: Kate Winslet was nominated and didn’t win. Leonrado DiCaprio was not nominated for Titanic. But I don’t think this invalidates my mother’s point. Kate was recognized, Leo wasn’t.]
Well, you also have a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio.
Yeah, I do.
And then in J. Edgar, I’m hoping you get to rent it, because he was magnificent in that film.
What made his performance great?
Because first of all, he became J. Edgar Hoover as you watched it. Number two, he showed this incredibly strange side that he had — this very manic thing he had with the law. But then, the film didn’t really come out and say that he was gay…
But it was implied…
There was this scene, where [J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson] are together and J. Edgar says “I think I have to get married.” And the other guy, I forget his name [Tolson], just goes beserk. They had this fight and start rolling on the floor, and then they kiss. And J. Edgar is absolutely furious about the whole thing. But that’s the way it was in those days. Whether he consummated an affair with that guy, nobody knows for sure.
The problem with the film, and I was very disappointed with Clint Eastwood because he is such a superb director, but I was disappointed with how [Leonardo DiCaprio] was young, then old, then young, then old…I didn’t like it.
Well, thanks for talking to me about movies, Mom.
I’ll get to read this?
So what do you think of my mom’s picks? Will The Artist win? Was Tree of Life simply “too weird”? Does anyone else’s mom have a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio?
This is real, dear readers. Kate Gosselin, former star of Jon & Kate Plus 8, and more recent star of the “Celebrity Plastic Surgery Gone Wrong” section of your favorite tabloid, is partnering with Royal Caribbean to give vacationers the cruise experience of a lifetime! The cheapest cabin on this cruise is $3,000 and the priciest is $5,500. That doesn’t include the roundtrip airfare to the port of embarkation, 7 days worth of booze, and mandatory tips for the various staff who will be shoving complimentary ice cream sundaes in your face 24-hours a day. And you’ll need someone to watch your cat while you’re gone. That’s gonna cost you too. Especially when your cat finds out why you’ve abandoned her for 7 days and 7 nights (hint: pee in shoes).
It’s not that I doubt that there are people out there who would like to meet Kate Gosselin, or at least see her in person. If Kate Gosselin was coming to the Greenville Olive Garden, I would most definitely drive across town to see her. I’m a gawker by nature. I might even wait in a line to see her. Especially if there was the promise of endless breadsticks and salad afterwards.
What I doubt is that there are enough people to fill a cruise ship who have 1. the desire to meet Kate Gosselin and 2. several thousand dollars of disposable income. But clearly some vacant-eyed minion in Kate Gosselin’s employ must have gotten on the blower, done some canvassing, and found out that YES! there are in fact at least 3,000 people willing spend a lot of money to “learn a new craft” with Kate Gosselin somewhere in the Caribbean. Kate makes amazing crafts.
Who might these people be? I imagine these are people who have worked very hard to create a nice nest egg for themselves, one that they’ve been squirreling away for a big splurge. They are willing to spend this money on a worthwhile venture — something the whole family can enjoy. I imagine a mother of three young children, a woman who still believes that Kate Gosselin is her former self, a domestic super hero who manages to “do it all.” She does not see Kate Gosselin’s current self: a strung out fame addict making due with celebrity cruise ship gigs (which, if you didn’t already know, are the methadone of fame fixes, followed only by state fair appearances). I believe this target consumer is a generous, good-hearted woman. She thinks that Kate Gosselin got an unfair shake when her marriage to fell apart in front of the reality TV cameras and what was poor Kate to do but scramble for more TV gigs in order to make ends meet while her lazy, good-for-nothing ex-husband shopped for Ed Hardy T-shirts and had sex with young women who should know better? Lancaster county private schools don’t pay for themselves. And neither do unlimited sessions at The Sunshine Factory.
Yes, the ideal passenger on the Kate Gosselin cruise is a woman who doesn’t like to gossip, but enjoys reading gossip rags. When the cover of US Weekly proclaims “Angie is Pregnant!” she believes them and wishes the best for Angie. She owns several products featuring the “As Seen on TV” sticker. They have to work. Why would Ron Popeil lie?
This woman sees the Kate Gosselin cruise as a chance to play “fun family games with Kate and staff,” no doubt envisioning being tethered to Kate in the 3-legged race or possibly depositing an egg, ever-so-gingerly, onto Kate’s awaiting spoon. I imagine this mother has twins, just like Kate, or possibly triplets or quadruplets (but definitely not sextuplets because then this woman would also have her own show), and that’s why she identifies with Kate in the first place. She understands why Kate was so frazzled — why she barked at her children and needled her husband. She’s done that too. Having multiples is tough.
This woman might be a stay at home mom (but only temporarily, just until the twins are old enough for school) and the days are long. Some days she wonders why she keeps wiping crumbs off of the counter top after breakfast, knowing that they’ll reappear again, like magic, after lunch. She wonders why she bothers changing her clothes before loading the triplets into the minivan and heading to the grocery store. After all, she’ll be wearing her winter coat — no one will see the dribbles of coffee on her chest or the dried rice cereal clinging to the cuffs of her sleeves. But there’s always the chance. She brushes her hair, too, and puts on a little lipstick even when she knows she’ll be at home all day, just her and the quadruplets. Grooming’s important. Because you just never know who might show up at the door while you’re sitting there, not wearing any lipstick. She and Kate understand this.
She’s sympathetic to Kate and her Botox and her hair extensions and her tummy tucks. She wouldn’t mind getting a tummy tuck herself. Who wouldn’t? She plans to tell Kate all of this at that “private BBQ on deck with Kate and a fabulous band.” She’s thinking that “private” sounds nice. Maybe she and Kate will share their birth stories. Hers is a real doozy — 40 hours, no epidural. Not even a valium. She practiced her visualization and guided imagery ahead of time, thinking of her uterus as a flower slowly opening, just as her Bradley method teacher instructed. Not many women can do that. Maybe they’ll stand together at the railing, this target consumer and Kate, looking out at the ocean, quoting Titanic (“I’m king of the world!”). “Yes,” she thinks, “this could be the family’s summer vacation. Pricey, yes. But we can swing it.” And won’t it be nice to get a “A commemorative personalized gift from Kate” (one per family)? The gift will be personal because Kate understands her, just as she understands Kate.
I understand this woman, too, because part of her is me. And I think this woman deserves better. She deserves to use that $5,000 nest egg on something real and tangible — not a staged photograph with a curt former reality TV star. But she enters her credit card information. She understands the ticket is non-refundable. She’s going to meet Kate Gosselin. It’s worth it.
Recently I was asked by a colleague who runs East Carolina University’s Ethnic Studies Film Series to provide an introduction to the January 31st screening of The Help (2011, Tate Taylor). I agreed because, having just read the book and watched the film, I wanted to try to come to terms with what it is that rubbed me the wrong way about these two texts. I loved Kathryn Stockett’s writing style in the novel and I loved the actresses’ performances in the film, but after completing both I felt a profound sense of discomfort with them, as did so many people who read the book and watched the film.
I thought this introduction would be of interest to my readers, so I am publishing it here. There’s nothing particular earth-shattering about my arguments, and in fact, most of what I have to say about these issues comes from an article in The Daily Beast, originally posted by Dr. Kristen Warner, who consistently links to thought-provoking articles on her Facebook timeline (and you thought Facebook was useless!). In fact, if Kristen lived closer, I would have brought her in to do The Help introduction herself; even without having seen the film herself, Kristen’s insights on these issues are better articulated in a series of tweets or casual Facebook comments than I can do in an entire blog post.
The reason I wanted to do tonight’s introduction for The Help is that I recently read the book and watched the film, and I found myself struggling with both texts and my own reactions to them.
On the one hand, both texts are beautifully crafted. Kathryn Stockett weaves together the stories of almost a dozen fascinating, complicated women. And the adaptation of Stockett’s novel, directed by Tate Taylor, has enlisted a talented cast of actresses to portray these strong characters, including Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, and Bryce Dallas Howard. Other than Bridesmaids, also released in 2011, how many Hollywood films can boast a cast that is almost entirely composed of women? Women talking to other women about women?
In addition to its spectacular cast, The Help is worthwhile because it is a mainstream Hollywood picture that grapples with America’s racist past, damning the segregationist policies in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. The film is set in 1963, just one year before Congress passes the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. The world of The Help is a world in which white people were incapable of examining their own culpability in the racist power structure of the time. The characters believe themselves to be moral and most certainly not racist, and yet, they are very very racist. Those who have read the book will find that there are several major changes to the plot, involving Constantine (Cicely Tyson) and her daughter, revelations about Charlotte Phelan’s (Allison Janney) health, and Skeeter Phelan’s hair (Emma Stone is a little too well-groomed to play the role of Skeeter, in my opinion, but I digress…)
Despite these alterations to the novel, I think you will enjoy the film. But the purpose of the Ethnic Studies film series is to examine how the cinema grapples with issues of race and ethnicity. So for the next few minutes I’d like to address some other issues to think about as you watch The Help.
I’ll begin with a positive review of the film from The Los Angeles Times. The reviewer writes: “Since we generally prefer not to be reminded of the darker chapters of our history, it’s a risky business taking us back — even with a fictional tale — to Jackson, Miss., at a time when African Americans were still very much the serving class.” This review tells us that The Help brings audiences back to a time when African Americans were “still very much the serving class.” This line, because it uses the past tense “were,” implies that the racism we see in The Help is in the past. Viewers are encouraged to rage against the cruel villainy of Miss Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and cheer for Miss Skeeter’s anachronistic color blindness. We are told that in the 1960s, domestic servants and service workers were treated like second-class citizens (but not today). In the 1960s white people lived in wealthy part of town near the “good” grocery stores like the Jitney Jungle, while the African Americans lived in cramped homes and shopped at the inferior Piggly Wiggly (but not today). In the 1960s there were terrible consequences for the disenfranchised who attempt to tell the truth (but not today). But of course that isn’t true, is it?
We cannot allow the tears and laughter that The Help generates in equal measure to distract us from the fact that the racism tearing apart 1960s Mississippi is the same racism that is tearing apart the United States in 2012. Contemporary racism is less overt, of course, and somewhat less pervasive. But it remains just below the surface of American society, which in many ways is a more dangerous racism, because it is one that we, as a society, can easily deny. When racism is bold and in your face, like when Miss Hilly begins her Home Help Sanitation Initiative, it is easy to recognize and declare as immoral. But when racism is quiet and subtle, it’s much harder to uproot. To acknowledge the racism that lurks behind the veil of inclusionary discourse in popular culture is to acknowledge that many Americans, liberals and conservatives alike, have not moved past the racial dichotomies of 1960s Mississippi. We may all be using the same bathrooms, but the belief systems underpinning Jim Crow laws remain.
To offer up just one small example, since it is directly related to The Help and its cast, I want to discuss a short clip from a roundtable of Oscar-nominated actors that was hosted by Newsweek last week. In the following clip, Viola Davis, who received a Best Actress nomination for performance as Aibileen, the depressed, emotionally-battered maid, is asked why a talented actress such as herself has only scored her first starring role at age 46. As Davis tries to explain, she is interrupted by Charlize Theron (and I still cannot figure out why Charlize Theron was there, since she has not been nomtinated for an Oscar this year.):
[Note: you can watch the video by clicking on the link below.]
Allison Samuels of The Daily Beast wrote a great article, “What Charlize Theron Doesn’t Get About Black Hollywood,” analyzing this outburst in the context of Hollywood’s racist beauty standards. Here’s what I saw happening. Charlize Theron believes that Viola Davis is saying “I’m not getting roles because I’m not pretty enough.” Charlize Theron is familiar with this lament because most white actresses will be told they are too fat or too plain or even, too pretty for a role. This burden, the burden of being judged on your looks first and your talent second, is shared by all women, regardless of race. No wonder Charlize jumped into the conversation! This is a burden she can relate to (even if it is the burden of being too damn pretty)!
But that is not the burden Viola Davis is referencing here. When Viola Davis counters, “There’s just not a lot of lead roles for women who look like me” she is not lamenting that she doesn’t look like Halle Berry. 99% of the women in the world don’t look like Halle Berry.
Davis is lamenting that there aren’t many any leading roles for African American women in mainstream Hollywood films. Why? Because Hollywood will not make these movies. Why? Because Hollywood believes that white audiences will not pay to see movies about black women (am I referring to Hollywood as if it is a person? Yes. I imagine a white, middle-aged male person smoking a cigar and furiously crunching numbers. But I digress). Why does Hollywood make movies for white audiences? Much of Hollywood—its studio heads and producers–are under the (erroneous) belief that white audiences are the ones who are paying to see movies. But this is no more true than the belief that women don’t go to see movies. The success of Tyler Perry’s films among African American audiences and Bridesmaids among female audiences is proof that Hollywood is clinging to an outdated understanding of audience demographics. Or they’re willfully ignoring audience demographics. In short, the problem is not that Viola Davis does not look like Halle Berry. The problem is racism.
So what does Charlize Theron’s off-hand comment have to do with The Help? Both are well-meaning and empathetic. Both want African American women to know that they are “hot as shit,” that they are equal to white women and that everything is going to be okay. Both tell us that racism is about individuals rather than institutions. Both would like us to rage against a racism of the past, one which we have presumably “solved,” and empowers us to feel good about our comparative enlightenment today.
But this type of filmmaking is dishonest at best and insidious at worst. As you watch The Help tonight, I encourage you to think about how the film presents racism. Where does it come from, how does it manifest itself, why is it unethical, and how do characters address it? Does the film encourage you to examine your own role in America’s discriminatory practices or does it congratulate you for living in 2012? Don’t get me wrong, any film that forces us to think about racism in America is positive. But acknowledging America’s problems with race, only to dismiss them (much as dear Charlize has done) as something that is over and done with, provides whites with a false sense of security. That our work here is done. But it’s not.
I know that I am not alone in these views. Simply Google “The Help” and a long string of critiques appear. So I guess what I’d like to hear from readers is: what value, if any, does The Help (as a book and a film) hold? Is there value there? And if so, what is it?
The other day I was reading an article a friend of mine (Melisser, this is ALL your fault) shared on Facebook. The article, “The 50 Greatest Internet Memes of 2011,” is, as you might imagine, a deep wormhole. Not only is the article long (it covers, in detail, 50 different internet memes), but it includes links to various iterations of these popular memes. It took me almost an hour to get through the first five. Afterwards I cursed myself for wasting precious grading time. When you pay other people to take care of your children so that you can work, wasting an hour on nonsense is unacceptable.
The real question here is not why did I spend a precious hour of my work day reviewing the top internet memes of 2011. Clearly, Hipster Cop and Paula Deen riding things are awesome. But why are they awesome?
Given the rampant popularity of internet memes, it should not be surprising that there is a growing body of work on the subject. Memes are not simply photoshopped images shared on social media and on Internet clip shows for the amusement of those of us who spend long periods of time sitting in front of a computer each day. They form our social and cultural networks. The term “meme” (short for “mimeme”) dates back to Richard Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene (1976). He refers to memes as “units of cultural transmission.” For example, if I read an article detailing a new approach to say, the critical analysis of widgets, I might mention it to my colleague, an analytical widget specialist. She might then write about it in a paper that she plans to deliver at the National Association for the Critical Analysis of Widgets (aka, NACAW). In turn, people sitting in the NACAW audience, listening to my colleague deliver her paper, will hear that idea, putting it to other purposes, in a variety contexts. The idea spreads as it multiplies. In this way, Dawkins argues, memes are like viruses:
When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. (192)
This sounds a little bit like the zombie apocalypse but you won’t need to worry about that for at least 3 more years. Let’s move on, shall we?
Like zombies, we shouldn’t think of memes simply as the innocuous debris of popular culture. As Karl Hodge explains in a article for The Guardian, written all the way back in 2000:
[Memes] are much more than just whispers being passed down a line. Religion and ritual are memes, as are fashions, political ideas and moral codes.
They are copied from one person to the next, planting fundamental beliefs and values that gain more authority with each new host. Memes are the very building blocks of culture. Not every meme is a big idea, but any meme with the right stuff can go global once it hits the internet.
In “‘ALL YOUR CHOCOLATE RAIN ARE BELONG TO US’?: Viral Video, YouTube and the Dynamics of Participatory Culture,” Jean Burgess argues that internet memes are “a medium of social connection.” The value of any particular meme is based on its ability to generate more content, that is, on its “spreadability.” Burgess explains:
…in order to endow the metaphors implied by terms like “memes,” “viruses,” and “spreadability‘ with any explanatory power, it is necessary to see videos as mediators of ideas that are taken up in practice within social networks, not as discrete texts that are produced in one place and then are later consumed somewhere else by isolated individuals or unwitting masses. These ideas are propagated by being taken up and used in new works, in new ways, and therefore are transformed on each iteration – a “copy the instructions,” rather than “copy the product” model of replication and variation.
Indeed, the Paula Deen Riding Things meme offers potential meme participants an actual template to use, promising “anyone can do it”:
For me, at least, community is a major part of the appeal of most internet memes. When I see Paula Deen riding the balloon from the “balloon boy” hoax of 2009, I am delighted because 1) the image itself is funny and 2) because I know that the author of that content also found that image to be funny. The creator and I are linked by our shared laugh over the image of a tipsy Paula Deen riding a tinfoil balloon. Or how about the person who dressed up as Paula Deen Riding Things for Halloween and then herself became an example of Paula Deen Riding Things? When I look at this image I am delighted to think that there are other people who laughed as hard at this image as I did. Just like film genres, internet memes create a sense of community.
But the point of this blog post is not to explain what memes are or how they work, since there are many superior scholars handling those questions (see Works Cited for a few). What I am interested in is why internet memes make me laugh. Dissecting humor is no fun but I am consistently amazed by how funny certain memes become for me and by their ability to make me laugh out loud when I’m sitting alone at my computer. That’s a weird feeling. The memes that make me laugh the most have a few recurring traits:
The majority of memes rely on the recognizability of the image or video that is transmitted from user to user. If you cannot instantly see the resemblance between the meme and its source text (whether that source is something “in real life” or another meme), then the humor won’t work. For example, the humor of the amazing Pepper Spray Cop meme was based primarily on the recognizability of its source: the horrific police brutality that took place at a peaceful UC Davis student protest. This story was all over the news — particularly online — and the various YouTube videos documenting the protest have racked of millions and millions of views.
This meme is particularly interesting because its source text is incredibly disturbing, revealing the casual way in which someone in power is able to use a weapon of suppression on a peaceful citizen. But the meme’s power relies precisely on the viewer’s ability to register all of this tragedy, to recognize the new environment into which Pepper Spray Cop has been inserted, and to find humor in the very incongruity of their meeting. For this reason, I think the best examples of this meme are those which have PSC spraying symbols of innocence or peace:
As the old saying goes: comedy = tragedy + time
For all four years of college, I worked for the campus humor magazine. Often, in order to meet publisher deadlines, the staff would literally work all night: scanning images, laying out pages, and writing content. The last-minute content was almost always the product of delirium and repetition. What was not funny at 9 pm was very, very funny by 3 am. It’s all about the repetition: if say something unfunny often enough, eventually it will be funny. Even Henri Bergson knows that repetition is awesome, or so he says in his essay “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic.” He offers this example:
The same by-play occurs in the Malade Imaginaire. Through the mouth of Monsieur Purgon the outraged medical profession pours out its vials of wrath upon Argan, threatening him with every disease that flesh is heir to. And every time Argan rises from his seat, as though to silence Purgon, the latter disappears for a moment, being, as it were, thrust back into the wings; then, as though Impelled by a spring, he rebounds on to the stage with a fresh curse on his lips. The self-same exclamation: “Monsieur Purgon!” recurs at regular beats, and, as it were, marks the TEMPO of this little scene.
Let us scrutinise more closely the image of the spring which is bent, released, and bent again. Let us disentangle its central element, and we shall hit upon one of the usual processes of classic comedy–REPETITION.
I think, had Bergson has the opportunity to see the Nyan cat video, he would be using that as an example, rather than Moliere. Watch the following videos and I think you’ll agree. First, take a look at the original Nyan cat. You only need to watch it for about 30 seconds to get the point:
Then, there are Nyan cat videos which play with Nyan’s presumed ethnicity. This variation on the meme adds stereotypical signifiers of an identity — such as a turban and Bollywood music — to the source text:
There are versions of the Nyan cat meme that simply play with its addictive, seizure-inducing score:
Then there are the many Nyan cat videos that play with the Nyan cat’s presumed joie de vivre:
This one comes with an important warning “Eats Souls.” Please proceed with caution.
I had to stop watching this one around the 20 second mark:
And finally, Nyan IRL:
With every video I laugh harder until there are literally tears coming down my cheeks as I watch the still image of a cat with a pop tart tied to its back and a plastic rainbow placed next to its ass.
It is difficult to deny that part of the humor of many internet memes lies in mocking the source text. And it is always a relief to laugh at someone else since it means, for the time being, no one is laughing at you:
I don’t feel all that bad for celebrities who become memes or even “civilians” like Rebecca Black. I think if you put a video on YouTube in the hopes that it will make you famous, then you have to accept the consequences of “fame,” whatever form that fame might take. But I do feel bad for those unfortunate souls who did not intend to be on the internet but caught the snarky eye of a someone with access to Photoshop and WiFi (i.e., everyone):
This meme, Angry Vancouver Fan/Angry Asian Rioter, is particularly mean-spirited. I agree that rioting after a hockey game is stupid. Who watches hockey? But clearly the appeal of this image is who is doing the stupid rioting. Asians as well as Canadians are stereotyped as being mild-tempered pacifists (which is actually a stereotype worth embracing), and so this image appears especially outrageous. “How can this Asian Canadian young man have so much rage?” the internet wonders, “Let’s torture him for it!” Images like the one above remind me of a John Hughes movie: Angry Asian Rioter is Duckie and all of us on the internet are James Spader.
Sometimes the source text being mocked is the person sitting in front of the computer. For example, the “first world problems” or “white whines” meme that was so popular throughout 2011 mocks the idea that anyone living in a first world country and/or anyone who is white would have a legitimate reason to complain about their life:
In particular, this meme mocks individuals who use social media like Twitter or Facebook to lament the small inconveniences in their otherwise cushy lives, like finding pickles on your sandwich after you said “no pickles.” On the one hand, this mockery is deserved — with so much suffering in the world, is it legitimate to curse your cable provider for creating a DVR incapable of consistently recording the TV shows you program it to record? Sure. But next to famine and oil spills, not so much. The snark is well-deserved and as someone guilty of complaining about many first world problems, I recognize myself in this meme. I especially enjoy cursing my cable provider (you know who are. YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE). This kind of meme serves a valuable social purpose — it forces many of us (or pretty much anyone who regularly consumes and distributes memes) to recognize our own privilege. The best humor holds up a mirror to society.
But let me add a brief sidenote to this “self loathing” aspect of memes. Consider the reaction to the consumer debacle that was Black Friday 2011. The image of people using pepper spray (pepper spray is having the best year EVER!) and guns in order to save a few dollars on their Christmas purchases, is disdainful. And memes like this one appeared:
And a non-comical one:
Both images paint the Black Friday shoppers as greedy, mindless consumers. And yet, should we really be shaming all of those people who stood in lines at midnight, hoping to snag a good deal? In America’s current, desperate economic climate, can we really mock those individuals who plot, plan and scheme to save money during what is the most expensive time of year? Sure, scrambling for a Barbie doll when little children (and adults and teenagers) in Africa are starving feels unreal. But for the unemployed and underemployed worried about putting a present under the tree, waiting on line for a cheap Barbie doesn’t seem so greedy or mindless.
But still, I mean, first world problems, people, first world problems.
Or Just Read this Flow Chart
Cracked.com also did an amazing job of explaining the humor of memes with this elaborate flow chart. I suppose you could have just clicked on this link and skipped my entire post. Yeah, sorry about that.
So, what are some of your favorite memes and why do they make you laugh? I think you know what mine is, at least for this week:
Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1911. http://www.authorama.com/laughter-1.html
Burgess, Jean. “‘ALL YOUR CHOCOLATE RAIN ARE BELONG TO US’?: Viral Video, YouTube and the Dynamics of Participatory Culture.” Video Vortex Reader: Responses to YouTube. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures. 101-109.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Late last month a small cardboard box arrived at my office at work. In it were ten shrink-wrapped copies of my very first book, American Film Cycles: Reframing Genres, Screening Social Problems, & Defining Subcultures. Long title, eh? (more on that later). I was so delighted by the arrival of this long-awaited package that I posted a picture to my Facebook account:
Throughout the long process of writing my book proposal, revising and cutting down a 400 + page dissertation to a 200 page book, compiling my own index (DON’T DO IT!), and checking my proofs, I would often post book-related status updates on Facebook. Therefore, when I posted the above image, most of my Facebook friends understood that this was the culmination of many years of hard work (seven years, if you count the years it took to write the dissertation). I received hearty congratulations and words of support. It felt wonderful, like being the Prom Queen. Or at least that’s how I imagine being the Prom Queen would feel.
However, it is an odd thing publishing an academic book. On the one hand, my colleagues at East Carolina University, my graduate school professors and friends, and the other academics I have met along the way have a very clear idea about how difficult it is to obtain a book contract with a university press, how this will be a boon to my tenure case (fingers crossed), and finally, how specialized the audience is for a book like this. In other words, although my mother has purchased copies of this book for each of my aunts and uncles, I am fairly certain that my aunts and uncles are going to stop reading my book around page 2. That is, if they even crack it open at all.
My aunts and uncles will stop reading not because my book is difficult to understand or filled with field-specific jargon. Quite the contrary, I try to write as I speak: simply and directly (minus the occasional curse words). I think my relatives will not read my book because academic books are peculiar creatures. Generally, academic books are a dissection of a very specific idea or question in a very specific field of study. And unless you are somewhat interested in that idea/question, you probably won’t enjoy reading an academic book. It has nothing to do with the intelligence of the reader or the accessibility of the book — if you aren’t interested in the subject, academic books can be … monotonous.
If my wonderful editor over at the University of Texas Press is reading this post right now, I am betting smoke is coming out of his ears “Why are you discouraging people from buying your book?!?” I guess my fear is that my dear friends and family, who only bought American Film Cycles because I wrote it (as opposed to an interest in the topic), will open it up and realize that they spent $55 on a pretty blue paperweight. Can you tell that I have a guilt complex?
In order to both combat this guilt and promote my book at the same time, I’ve decided to write a blog outlining the subject and purpose of American Film Cycles. Then, if you buy it and you’re bored it’s your fault, isn’t it? So below I offer some FAQs about my book (and by “Frequently Asked Questions” I mean, “the questions I just made up right now”):
FAQs about American Film Cycles
Why did you write this book?
The point of my book is to offer the first comprehensive discussion of the American film cycle.
What is a film cycle?
Film cycles are a series of films associated with each other due to shared images, characters, plots, or themes. Film cycles usually form based on the success of a single, originary film. The images, characters, plots, or themes of that successful film are replicated over and over until the audience is no longer paying to see these films. Then the studio producing these films has to either alter the original formula or abandon it all together.
That sounds a lot like a film genre. Say, what are you trying to pull here, lady?
I know, they do sound a lot alike. But they’re different. Trust me. Film genres and film cycles generally form for the same reasons: a particular combination of image and theme resonates with a particular audience. However, cycles differ from genres when it comes to a few things, which I’ll briefly discuss below:
1. topicality: A film cycle needs to repeat the same images and plots over and over within a relatively short period of time (most cycles only “live” for 5-10 years). A cycle must capitalize on the contemporary audience’s interest in a subject before it moves on to something else (for example, the torture porn cycle that was extremely popular just a few years ago). While individual films within a genre may be quite topical (see, for example, how the gangster genre has altered the ethnicity and race of its hero over the decades to fit America’s changing view on who or what is “the public enemy”), film cycles are defined by their topicality.
2. longevity: One major difference between film cycles and film genres is that genres can better withstand interludes of audience apathy, exhaustion, or annoyance. Westerns, to name one prominent example, enjoy periods of intense audience interest as well as more fallow periods when audience interest wanes. Why are they able to do this? Simply put, film genres are founded on a large corpus of films that have been existence for decades at a time. The basic syntax or themes of the most established genres address a profound psychological problem affecting their audiences, such as the way gangster films address the legacy and impossibility of the American Dream. Film cycles generally address something far more topical and time-bound.
3. stability: It’s best to quote the master of genre studies, Rick Altman, here:
“The Hollywood genres that have proven most durable are precisely those that have established the most coherent syntax (the Western, the musical); those that disappear the quickest depend on recurring semantic elements, never developing a stable syntax (reporter, catastrophe, and big-caper films to name a few” (39).
Cycles generally lack a stable syntax, or set of themes. They are too new and fleeting to remain stable. Therefore, while film genres are defined by the repetition of key images (their semantics) and themes (their syntax), film cycles are primarily defined by how they are used (their pragmatics).
In other words, what separates cycles from genres is their intensely intimate relationship with their audiences and how audiences use them. The metaphor I use in my book is this: “If the relationship between audiences and genre films can be described as a long-term commitment with a protracted history and a deep sense of familiarity, then the audiences’ relationship with the film cycle is analogous to ‘love at first sight'” (11).
For example, in the 1950s, just as teenagers were starting to view themselves as “teenagers,” film studios tapped into this market by releasing a slew of films that exploited the newly emerging concepts of the teenager, juvenile delinquency, and rock n’ roll. But this relationship wasn’t one-sided. As much as studios exploited the teen subculture for profit, the teen subculture needed these films. Studios were integral to the definition and formation of this youth subculture, with their economic motivations acting as a catalyst, rather than a deterrent, for the growth of the subculture.
Why is your title so long?
I love short academic book titles.I think my all-time favorite title is by Richard Dyer: White: Essays on Race and Culture (the book itself is pretty damn amazing too). I wanted something similarly short and pithy for my book as well, because as we know, academic book titles and article titles can get out of control. However, after numerous back-and-forth e-mails with my infinitely patient editor, he convinced me that the more keywords that appear in my title, the easier it will be for interested readers to find my book. I think he’s right.
Okay, I understand. But so what?
In my book I argue that cycle studies offers an important compliment to traditional genre studies by questioning how generic structures have been researched, defined, and understood. Cycle studies’ focus on cinema’s use value—the way that filmmakers, audiences, film reviewers, advertisements, and cultural discourses interact with and impact the film text—offers a more pragmatic, localized approach to genre history in particular and film history in general. Cycle studies argue that films are significant not so much because of what they are, but because of why they were made, why studios believed that they were a smart investment, why audiences went to see them, and why they eventually stopped being produced. Any film or film cycle, no matter its budget or subject matter, has the potential to reveal a wealth of information about the studio that made it and the audience who went to see it. In my book I liken film cycles to fossils. Pressed on all sides by history/popular culture/audience desires/studio’s economic motivations/trends in fashion/trends in music/ etc. , film cycles serve as documents forever preserving a particular moment. In other words, if we examine film cycles (and film studies has, for the most part, entirely ignored this important production strategy), we can learn a lot about how audiences interact with films and how films interact with audiences.
On a practical level, cycle studies can answer a question I am so often asked by students and friends “Ugh, why do they keep making movies about [insert annoying film cycle subject here]?” Well, friends, after seven long years of research, writing, and revision, I think I can answer that.
So there you have it, folks. If you have read all of this and are still interested in my (AMAZING! GROUNDBREAKING! LIFE CHANGING!) book, you can purchase it here or here (it’s cheaper through the press). Or, you can order one for your university’s library. Or you can order 10 copies, sew them together, and make yourself a nice book coat. It’s cold out there — knowledge is warm.
Altman, Rick. “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre.” Film Genre Reader III. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007. 27-41.
Klein, Amanda Ann. American Film Cycles:Reframing Genres, Screening Social Problems, & Defining Subcultures. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011.
Although I had heard about Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camps’s stop-motion video, “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” over a year ago, it was only after the sequel, “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, Two,” premiered on YouTube that I finally decided to watch it. Then I watched it again. Then I played it for my kids. Then I sent the video to friends. Then I began to quote it obsessively to myself. Of the two videos, the sequel is the superior text (due to it’s exploration of shell hardship), but both should be watched.
The first thing that grabbed me about this video series is its format. Much like popular single-camera television comedies such as Arrested Development, The Office, Parks & Recreation, and Modern Family, “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” is filmed as if Marcel is the subject of a documentary. Marcel addresses the camera directly, answering questions and pointing out items that appear in his home, such as a pet made out of lint. And like the subjects of The Office and Parks & Recreation, Marcel’s world is profoundly mundane. Nevertheless, Marcel immediately ingratiates himself with the audience because 1. he is an adorable shell wearing tiny adorable shoes and a single googly-eye and 2. Marcel has a nasaly, childlike (or should I say shell-like?) voice, courtesy of Jenny Slate. The fragility of Marcel’s shell body and single eye, combined with Slate’s spot-on voice work, make Marcel into an ideal subject for the smallness of the new comedy verité” genre. Like Parks & Recreation‘s Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), Marcel is both aware of his inconsequentiality and yet, is still proud of who he is and how he lives his life. He is an eternal optimist.
Most of the humor of the series is based on Marcel’s smallness and the way that smallness impacts his ability to function in a world built for large, resilient humans, not tiny shells. He often asks his off-screen interviewer questions that resemble the kind of jokes one five year old tells to another: “Guess what I use for a beanbag chair? A raisin” and “Guess what I do for adventure? I hang glide on a Dorito.” These jokes, silly as they are, paint a picture of Marcel’s tiny world. Furthermore, Marcel is usually filmed in such a way that we see the world from his small perspective. The camera films him at eye-level when he stands on a laptop or book and sits on the floor when Marcel scurries under the leg of chair to avoid his new puppy. This cinematography gives us a sense of how large the world must look to a small shell like Marcel.
However, Marcel seems gleeful, not discouraged, by the limitations of his smallness. His size forces him to be inventive, to tinker with the objects he finds around him and put them to new uses. For example, my favorite bit in the entire series revolves around Marcel’s primary mode of transportation — a bug:
“If you do drive a bug you have to be pretty easy-going because you’re only going to get to go where the bug wants to go. One week there was a maple sugar syrup spill in the kitchen and every time I would ride the bug, no matter where I wanted to go, I would just end up back in the kitchen.”
This anecdote reminds me of a Shel Silverstein poem I read often as a child:
One Inch Tall
If you were only one inch tall, you’d ride a worm to school.
The teardrop of a crying ant would be your swimming pool.
A crumb of cake would be a feast
And last you seven days at least,
A flea would be a frightening beast
If you were one inch tall.
If you were only one inch tall, you’d walk beneath the door,
And it would take about a month to get down to the store.
A bit of fluff would be your bed,
You’d swing upon a spider’s thread,
And wear a thimble on your head
If you were one inch tall.
You’d surf across the kitchen sink upon a stick of gum.
You couldn’t hug your mama, you’d just have to hug her thumb.
You’d run from people’s feet in fright,
To move a pen would take all night,
(This poem took fourteen years to write–
‘Cause I’m just one inch tall).
As I child I loved Shel Silverstein’s poetry because he managed to capture, in equal parts, the profound joy and the profound terror of being child. Silverstein understood that the child’s imagination is a gift and a burden. Imagination allows children to transport themselves to places that are exciting and wonderful and yet, because of the boundlessness of the imagination, these places can easily become scary. Sure, if you were one inch tall you could surf on a stick of chewing gum. But you would also find full-sized feet terrifying. As a child I always despaired over the line “You couldn’t hug your mama, you’d just have to hug her thumb.” One wonders if Marcel possesses the ability to hug: he has no arms and he’s a shell.
Marcel offers the same mixture of joy, terror, and sadness as any good Silverstein poem. For example, after the aforementioned bug anecdote, Marcel concludes “Really, what you just have to want to do is take a ride.” Here Marcel takes a situation that should be infuriating — a mode of locomotion that cannot be controlled — and makes it into something liberating. Riding a bug is about a willingness to have an adventure — not about reaching a predetermined destination. Likewise, Part Two concludes with the following exchange:
“Guess why I smile a lot?”
“Uh, ’cause it’s worth it.”
This statement would sound hokey in a different context (though I think Leslie Knope could also pull it off). But it is preceded by a shot of Marcel standing on a white countertop, looking offscreen towards a window, as chimes tinkle softly. He takes a deep breath and sighs, then turns to face the camera with this insight. Afterwards, he turns back to face the window, enjoying existence, mundane as it is.
Of course, life for a small shell isn’t all fun and games — it is also plagued with hazards. In Part One Marcel explains how he longs for a dog. In Part Two he gets his wish, though clearly even a small dog is too much for Marcel. In one scene Marcel runs off camera, screaming, after the dog jumps us to bark at the door. And in Part Two, Marcel explains that he once had a sister named Marissa. “What happened to her?” the interviewer asks. “Someone asked her to hold a balloon.” Marcel doesn’t elaborate on what happened after his sister took the balloon. Instead the camera cuts to a new scene in which Marcel discusses his dog’s proclivities (“Look at him: treats and snoozin’, snoozin’ and treats. That’s it”). The subject of Marissa comes up again later in the video, thus making it clear that her loss was not trivial: “It was pretty hard at the time but now I just think ‘Ohhh, you know, she’s travelling.'” Marcel is still mourning the loss of his sister. But he also understands that life is filled with difficulties and tragedies, especially when one is a shell, so it’s best to focus on the small things that bring us happiness. Like wearing lentil hats and having friends over for salad.
Life is hard for a shell. It’s easy to get carried away by a helium balloon, trampled by your own pet dog, or worst of all, ignored. But Marcel enjoys living his life — sleeping “eight to the muffin” in a fancy hotel and reading receipts for pleasure — despite it’s obvious complications. After I showed this video to my daughter this morning I asked her:
“Did you like it?”
“Was it funny?”
“Yes. But it was also sad.”
“Why was it sad?”
“It just was. But it was funny.”
I think this is why I am so captivated by “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.” It’s difficult to make humor sad and sadness humorous. But Marcel walks that line perfectly. While wearing perfectly tiny pink shoes.
My husband and I have been together for over 11 years. And except for one year back in 2001, when we thought we’d “experiment” with not having cable (a terrible, failed experiment, by the way), we have also been watching television together for 10 years. Generally, if a couple is compatible with each other — sharing similar views on politics, childrearing, home decor, and food — then their tastes in television will also be compatible. Let’s call this our “TV relationship.” Our TV relationship has remained healthy and thriving for the last decade since we share key viewing preferences: we will watch any HBO “original series” at least once and will likely keep watching it, even after we determine that it is awful (John from Cincinatti, I’m talking to you); we will watch every single season of Survivor, ratings be damned; we will watch any series featuring characters who regularly get shot, beheaded, scalped, or mauled (but not eaten); we will watch any MTV reality show that makes us feel better about who we are and the life decisions we have made (i.e., every MTV reality show); we will not watch any comedies containing laugh tracks (bye bye, Whitney). I should also point out that TV watching takes place during a specific time-frame in my house: a. after the children are asleep and b. when all other work has been completed. So we generally watch TV between 9 pm and 11 pm. Likewise, there is just one DVR in our house, so if TV is being watched in my house, my husband and I are probably watching it together.
A few years ago, there was a definitive rift in our TV relationship, precipitated by the premiere of a new “cycle” (not season, Tyra doesn’t like seasons) of America’s Next Top Model. My husband and I love gamedocs (Survivor, Top Chef, So You Think You Can Dance), and this one delivered the works: competition, delusional bulimics, and most importantly, Tyra Banks. “Top Model comes on tonight!” I called from the den. These sort of TV-based announcements are like foreplay in my house. In fact, my husband and I send each other links to reviews/publicity about new TV shows in the same way that other couples might send each other sexually suggestive e-mails. The subject line is “Oh baby” but the e-mail itself reads “We should watch this, right?” But when I announced the new cycle of America’s Next Top Model, my husband was not very excited:
Him: I think I’m done.
Me: What do you mean?
Him: I think I’m done watching America’s Next Top Model.
Me: [incredulous] You mean you’re just … not going to watch it anymore?
Him: You can watch it without me.
So I did watch America’s Next Top Model without him. Alone. But it just wasn’t the same. Every time Tyra told some ingenue to “smile with your eyes” (later becoming the portmanteau, “smize”), there was no one on the couch next to me with whom I could commiserate over the stupidity of asking someone to smile with a part of the body that cannot smile. And every time a contestant explained “I’m not here to make friends!” there was no one on the couch next to me with whom I could say “That’s the 10th time someone has said that this season!” I made it through that cycle of America’s Next Top Model, but it was to be my last. The show just wasn’t as much fun to watch without my husband around.
After that first blow to our TV relationship, it became easier for one of us to drop out of a show. When this happens, it is customary for desperate campaigning to ensue, with one partner attempting to convince the other that a terrible mistake has been made. The dropped show is the “BEST SHOW ON TV!” or the dropped show has finally “hit its stride!” “Don’t you want to come back and start watching it again?” For example, when I gave up on the 90210 reboot after just three episodes (I missed the original cast too much), my husband, an ardent fan of all teen melodrama, would make casual comments like “It’s a shame you stopped watching 90210 because this is the best season yet.” Or I’ll tell my husband, “There was a scene in Parenthood last week that was an exact replica of the conversation we’re having right now. Isn’t that funny?” And my husband, aware of what I’m doing, will reply, “Yeah, I’m not going to watch that show again.”
Of course there are certain shows that I watch, knowing full well that my husband will never watch them with me (Project Runway) and there are shows my husband watches that he knows I will never ever watch with him (Walking Dead). There is no attempt to convince the other person of the merits of these programs. I will not watch a show containing zombies and my husband will not watch a show in which people discuss asymmetrical hems and “taste levels.” These are “deal breakers.”
Yes, differences in TV preferences are a part of any couple’s life. They cannot be avoided. But there are ways to keep your TV relationship as stable and functional as possible. This is important because, as the old saying goes, the family that gazes together, stay-zes together. To that end, here are some tips for promoting the longterm health of your TV relationship:
1. Don’t Box Him/Her Out
I enjoy HBO’s How to Make it in America. It’s not my favorite show, but I like it’s focus on fashion and hipsters, as well as it’s wicked awesome opening credit sequence, which is worthy of it’s own blog post. But my husband is lukewarm about the series; he only watches it because I do. Just after Season 2 premiered a few weeks ago my husband went out of town. 2 episodes of How to Make it in America sat on the DVR, beckoning, “Watch me, Amanda. Your husband doesn’t even like this show. He won’t care….” And so I did. The next week, I watched another episode without him, noticing that we had acquired 3 in our DVR queue (I hate an unwieldy DVR queue). When I encouraged my husband to catch up on the series, he was dismayed. “You’re boxing me out,” he whined. It was true. What motivation did he have for watching a series he only mildly liked on his own? Conclusion: if one partner is lukewarm on a series, make sure you watch it together. Otherwise, you will be watching it alone forever and always.
2. Give it a Chance
Sometimes when I get those not-sexy-unless-you-love-TV e-mails from my husband, in which he attempts to seduce me into watching a new series, I think “Ugh, this looks terrible.” I feel like the authority on these matters since it is I who has the PhD in visual media. What does the software programmer know? I’m the expert here! But there is something to be said for allowing your significant other to select some programming, even if you are sure that the show is going to be horrible. Case in point: my husband decided to put Whitney in our DVR queue (Whitney for crying out loud!!!). I was resistant, but ultimately agreed to watch the series premiere. The show was not nearly as awful as I thought it would be, but it had a laugh track, and that is a deal breaker. So even though I am no longer watching Whitney with my husband, I did try it. And that’s all you can expect in your TV relationship. Conclusion: take your partner’s preferences into account and give all new programs a chance.
3. Watch it Anyway
Another key to harmony in your TV relationship is something you are probably already doing, and that is “compromise.” Longterm relationships are all about compromises. Especially when those relationships involve the watching of TV. Earlier in this post I mentioned that my husband and I always watch Survivor — in fact, my husband and I have watched every single season of Survivor together, except for seasons 1 and 2 (which predate our moving into together in 2001). So in a way, Survivor is most representative of our TV relationship. But the thing is, I have lost some of my love for Survivor over the last few years. I still believe that it is the greatest game show of all time, but I started watching it at a time when reality TV was far more compelling than scripted television. But right now TV is just so good that I would prefer to spend the limited amount of time I have for TV viewing on something else. But I don’t.Why? Because Survivor is what my husband and I watch together. Some couples have a vacation spot or a restaurant or a song that symbolizes their relationship. My husband and I are united by Jeff Probst and “The tribe has spoken.” So I will continue to watch Survivor even though I’d rather be watching Parenthood, because only one of those shows includes my husband on the couch. And that makes TV viewing 65% more enjoyable (these are hard scientific numbers).
But now I’m curious about your own experiences with watching TV with your partner (current or former). For those of you in long term relationships, what hardships have you faced in your TV relationships? Are there shows your partner loves and that you despise? Do you have more than one DVR in your house?
I’m also curious about TV relationships between non-romantic couples. For instance, do you regularly watch TV with a roommate, sibling, or parent? If so, how do you keep that relationship stable?
Please share below…
As I sat down to watch the premiere of the sixth and final season of The Hills, MTV’s faux reality battle-ax, I was mentally preparing my snarky blog post. The Hills has always existed at one move away from reality, becoming more and more detached with each season. As I argued in my recap of the season 5 finale, at this point only Audrina still thinks the show is “real.” But about 5 minutes into the season 6 premiere I realized that my snark meter–which usually provides a continuous stream of snarky comments as I watch programs like The Hills and The City–was totally silent. I found that I was watching The Hills, really watching it, and that I was completely engaged by the narrative and the characters.
But why? Why has a show that has always been the simulacrum of reality suddenly become real again (notice that I didn’t put the word real in quotation marks)? Who do we have to thank? Two words, my friends: Heidi’s boobs.
The episode opens with Lo and Stephanie, fresh out of her second (yes second!) stint in rehab, meeting at one of those outdoor lunch spots that seem to have been built solely for the purposes of these staged conversations. But this conversation (dare I say it?), feels…almost…real. Stephanie tells Lo that she has just finished up an AA meeting and then sighs, “I can’t believe I’m doing this all over again.” She looks genuinely frustrated with herself. “I’m only 23 and I’ve been to jail twice? I mean, that’s not normal.” This exchange marks one of the first moments when the world outside The Hills–the world of the paparazzi and Lauren’s clothing line and Heidi’s musical career, the world that the show’s cameras like to pretend does not exist–is entering back into The Hills narrative.
After Lo invites Stephanie to Miami with the rest of the Scooby gang to watch the Super Bowl (a great vacation idea for a recovering alcoholic, no?), Stephanie mentions that she hasn’t seen Spencer or Heidi in months. Lo then tells Stephanie “There’s been some…talk about Heidi. And…a new face.” Lo then lists all of Heidi’s surgeries (which have been exhaustively detailed in the tabs as well as the mainstream press these last few months), ending on “butt job.” “Butt job?” Stephanie asks, clearly puzzled, “Like liposuction?” “No,” replies Lo, making squeezing gestures with her hands “Like a bigger…like a bigger butt. Like a little junk in the trunk.” Stephanie still looks baffled: “But how do you, how do you add?” “I don’t know,” Lo responds, shaking her hand. And then we cut to credits.
I can’t describe how this cold open made me feel–not only was the show directly acknowledging the media spectacle that it truly is, but the show’s cast actually seemed to be having fun with it. This does not happen in the world of The Hills. I waited for the TV screen to collapse into itself. But it didn’t.
But this scene was nothing compared to the scenes featuring Heidi. When we first see Heidi, she is being filmed from behind, as she packs her suitcase to prepare for a trip home to see her family in Colorado. Spencer is talking to her from the livingroom, begging her not to go in her fragile post-surgery condition. What is great about this scene–even clever–is how the camera will not give us a view of Heidi’s much-discussed Frankenstein face or even her comically large breasts. We only see her wrists and legs. It is a tantalizing omission.
When Heidi arrives at her home in Crested Butte, CO, the camera continues to play coy. However, we are offered a series of close ups of framed family photos from around her mother’s house: Heidi as a young girl, Heidi with her siblings, etc. Looking at these photographs we are reminded of the Heidi from earlier seasons–a beautiful, fresh-faced girl. Seeing these photos now provokes…I can’t even believe I’m about to write this…nostalgia.
Then Heidi sits down on the couch with her mother, Darlene, and we get our first look at Heidi’s face–tight, swollen and chiseled all at the same time. The best term I can use to describe it is “uncanny”–something which is simultaneously familiar and foreign. A not-Heidi. Her mother nails it on head when she tells her daughter, moments before she breaks down in tears, “It’s very weird, it’s very awkward, I’m sorry…” Darlene recovers a bit and asks Heidi what exactly she had done. Heidi describes her browlift and Darlene asks “Is that permanent? They’re not going to come down a little bit?’ Darlene looks dejected when Heidi informs her that the look is permanent.
Darlene then switches her tone, becoming indignant, even angry, with her daughter: “I just feel like when you left home [for L.A.] you had more confidence and more self-esteem than anyone person I’d ever met.” Heidi begins to talk about how she always felt self-conscious about her chest size but Darlene isn’t buying it:
Darlene “It sounds to me like you want to look like Barbie”
Heidi: [brightening]: “I do wanna look like Barbie.”
Darlene: “Why would you want to look like Barbie? To everybody else that saw you, you were Heidi. No one in the world could have looked like Heidi Montag.”
Heidi “Are you telling me I don’t look good?”
Heidi then breaks down and begins crying real tears (at least she can still do that).
My snark meter was tempted to make some joke–like “Right, no HUMAN could have looked like Heidi Montag”–but I quickly told that snark meter to shut up because I got what Darlene was saying.Her mother’s words–that no one could have looked like Heidi, the Heidi we were just looking at in those family photos–are heart breaking. Heidi sacrificed her individuality–her Heidiness–for some twisted ideal of beauty that only plastic surgery addicts seem to understand.
Later in the episode Heidi goes out to dinner with her family. Her sister, Holly, asks “Don’t you think it’s so weird though? That you were always so outgoing and confident? I was envious of the confidence you had. I don’t know what happened.” When Heidi explains that she started to feel insecure, the following conversation takes place:
Darlene: “I would like to see the choice made to deal with the insecurity on a psychological level.”
Heidi: “And that’s great for you. And you live in the mountains–you don’t live where I live.”
Darlene: “Does that make a difference?”
Heidi: “Of course it does.”
Darlene: “So should you not live in that area?”
Heidi: “I don’t want to get into this.”
This may be the most compelling, the most real conversation I’ve heard yet on The Hills. This young girl, once beautiful and confident, learned to hate herself and her body, after only a few years of living in Los Angeles. Heidi, as she exists now, is almost monstrous. She has become a Heidi-monster. But it’s too late to go back. Heidi begins to weep at the table as she attempts to chew her dinner with a swollen jaw. Her family watches the Heidi-monster in amazement.
This is amazing melodrama, people. Amazing.
Further adding to the emotional complexity of the scene is the fact that the family ia surrounded by The Hills cameras–the very cameras that have followed Heidi around for the last 4 years, scrutinizing her face and body, pointing out her (non-existent) flaws. These cameras are responsible for the Heidi-monster that weeps on the couch and at the dinner table and now they continue to watch her, passively recording the spectacle of her demise. They created her and now they mock her. It’s all so cruel. If I were Darlene I would stand up, grab a wine glass from the dinner table, and smash the camera lens. After all, these cameras stole her daughter. She should be livid.
I have never before been moved by The Hills. I’ve always viewed it as a piece of pop culture fluff, as a way to discuss how reality television has ceased to record reality. But this particular episode, with its pathos and its melodrama, reminded me about what good reality TV–and good melodrama–can do. Dare I say it, friends? The Hills, at least for one episode, is real.
When my first pet human was born, back in the summer of 2006, I was still a grad student and had no maternity leave. After two months I went back to teaching/dissertating/job searching and it was pretty tough to do it all, let alone do it all well. My daughter was only with a caretaker part-time, but I felt like I was “working” all the time: stealing a spare hour here, a few minutes there, typing up job letters while I nursed her.
Therefore, when I realized that my second child would arrive in mid-January of this year, giving me an entire semester of maternity leave, plus the summer, I was overjoyed. My daughter goes to a Montessori preschool in the mornings and then on to an afternoon daycare, so I decided to pull her out of the latter. I knew that I might never again have such a lengthy period of time to spend with my children, and visions of afternoons in the park and elaborate crafts projects danced before my eyes. And when both children napped (because of course they would do this in tandem), I would work on my book revisions and even write blog posts. Yes, I was going to be an awesome (and intellectually productive) stay at home Mom.
But when pet human # 2 arrived on January 13th of this year, these illusions were immediately shattered. As it turns out, #2 is not a great sleeper. And after a morning consumed with diaper changes, feedings, laundry folding and food preparation, #1 would arrive home demanding “Where’s my lunch!” and “What are we doing today?” So how bad am I at this stay at home Mom thing? One month into it my daughter asked me “Mommy, why don’t I go to daycare anymore?” and I replied “Because Mommy isn’t working right now and wants to spend more time with you. Isn’t it fun to be home with Mommy?” Her reply, after mulling it over was characteristically honest. “No” she told me. I explained to her that she would return to afternoon daycare in “the fall” and since then she has asked, multiple times, “When will it be The Fall?” Ouch.
This entitre experience has made me reevaluate my ideas about what my children need from me and what I need from them. Is being home with an overtired, constantly breastfeeding mother necessarily better for my daughter than being with kids her own age, who don’t mind when she picks her nose or wants to play the same game over and over an over? Is this “quality time” really quality for her?
Why am I sharing this personal story on a blog devoted to film, television and media studies? Because in the midst of my stay at home Mom crisis, NBC premiered Parenthood, a loose adaptation of the 1989 Ron Howard film of the same name, which chronicles the lives of the Braverman family. I will admit that after watching the pilot I was initially left feeling unimpressed. First, Dax Shepard, who plays “free spirit,” Crosby, is miscast in my opinion (and I still can’t get over the fact that he is engaged to Kristen Bell. Really, Kristen Bell? REALLY?).
Second, I find it highly implausible that the Braverman clan — busy as they with careers and children — are able to get together for breakfast, brunch, dinner, late night BBQs, little league games, preschool concerts, and school fundraising events on what seems like a daily basis. My God people, you’ve lived in Berkeley your entire lives, haven’t you made any other friends besides your siblings and parents? Finally, the conclusion to the pilot, in which little, autistic Max Braverman (Max Burkholder), decides that yes! he WILL play in his little league game after all, prompting the entire family to rush out to the field, cheering and full of pep, to watch, was the ultimate in cornball.
But the show has been winning me over with its storyline involving Julia Braverman-Graham (Erika Christensen), her husband, Joel (Sam Jaeger), and young daughter, Sydney (Savannah Paige Rae). Some bloggers I know, find Julia’s story to be both dated and somewhat unbelievable. Myles McNutt wrote:
“I don’t quite understand why Julia is just now realizing that her daughter is starting to drift away, and Christensen’s performance (while good) seems to be making the character more stubborn and bullish than sympathetic.”
I don’t think it’s that Julia is just discovering that her relationship with her daughter is less than ideal; in the pilot Julia remarks, in an only slightly joking tone, that perhaps she needs to lower her expectations for her relationship with Syndey, “She will be like…a relative of mine!” Though Julia’s statement is an exaggeration — her daughter seems to really love her — it is clear that the child prefers her father. And is that really so awful? If it were the other way around would it even warrant a storyline on the show? No, I don’t think Julia feels all that guilty for loving her job and being proud of her work — and she shouldn’t. Her husband is a wonderful, engaged, stay at home Dad so Sydney is not lacking in parental attention.
Instead, I think these first few episodes have brought to light Julia’s realization that other parents might disapprove of her choice to work — such as “wonder mom” Raquel (Erinn Hayes)– and that perhaps her husband might (though the show has not made this entirely clear yet) prefer a wife who bakes cookies, takes their daughter to swim lessons, and has a tacky tattoo over her rear end (something I’ve always referred to as a “tramp stamp,” but I digress). It is clear that Raquel does indeed judge Julia, albeit in a passive aggressive fashion, but I like that the writers have depict Julia as being judgmental of Raquel as well. This was perfectly encapsulated at Sydney’s school fundraiser’s auction, when Julia and Raquel engage in a bidding war over a parking space. The war culminates with Julia exclaiming (while still on microphone) “She doesn’t even work!” It was a funny, squirm-worthy moment.
I appreciate Parenthood‘s depiction of these much-maligned “Mommy Wars” primarily because so many women want argue that the division between working mothers and stay at home mothers doesn’t exist. But it does. It shouldn’t, but it does. Depicting both sides of this “war” — how judging a mother for the choices she makes is counterproductive and painful for all involved, is an important task for this series since it is a reality of modern mothering.
As a working mother who is trying her hand (albeit temporarily) at being a stay at home Mom, I’ve learned two important lessons: 1. It is just as difficult, exhausting and stressful to stay home with your children as it is to work full-time, and 2. Some women serve their families best by staying home with their kids while others serve their families better by working. I think Parenthood is handling this very touchy issue well. The viewer wants to sympathize with Julia over the too-perfect Raquel (after all, she is taller, bustier and is definitely hitting on Joel),but then we get a scene in which the camera lingers on Raquel’s face, the day after Julia publicly ridicules her for not working, to reveal her feelings of hurt. These moments speak to the unreasonable expectations that mothers place on themselves, and worse, on each other, to be everything to everyone — their partners, children, employers, friends — at all times.
So maybe Parenthood isn’t that great of a show — there are weaknesses (Who is Joel as a character? Does Kristina [Monica Potter] have a personality? Dax Shepard, REALLY?) and maybe the reason I’m enjoying it so much is because it came to me at a pivotal moment in my life, when I’ve begun to reexamine my role as a mother and as worker. But isn’t that the role of good, serialized television, after all? To settle itself into your bones and make you think about your own life, about what it is and what it isn’t, from week to week? While it might be a little too precious when the image of Adam (Peter Krause) gazing lovingly at his sleeping son is intercut with an image of Crosby watching the sleeping Jabbar (Tyree Brown), we nevertheless get the feeling that Crosby is slowly learning the small pleasures of parenthood. Indeed, during that very scene I couldn’t help but look down at my own newborn son, who was sleeping on my lap, and feel the same surge of pleasure these fictional characters were feeling.
This week in Introduction to Film was musical week — my favorite week. I adore musicals because they are designed to be loved. As Jane Feuer has argued, musicals, particularly the backstage musicals released by MGM’s Freed Unit, function to affirm the necessity of the musical genre in the lives of its audience (458). Forever striving to recreate the sense of liveness lost when the musical left the Broadway stage and became a mass-produced product, classical Hollywood musicals wish to break down the barriers between the performer on screen and the audience sitting in the theater. These films want to merge the dream world of song and dance with the mundane real world where we trip over our feet. Musicals achieve this goal by making song and dance appear natural, effortless and integrated into every day life.
My Intro to Film students are generally put off by musicals, finding their song and dance numbers to be “awkward” or “cheesy” (their words, not mine). And so I usually devote lecture time to explaining how many musicals attempt to integrate song and dance naturally into the diegesis — to ease this transition for the viewer. We look, for example, at one of my all time favorite musical numbers, “Someone At Last” from A Star is Born (1954).
Aside from the crude ethnic stereotyping, I find this number to be completely enchanting every time I watch it. I point out Garland’s skillful use of bricolage, that is the way she “happens” to find certain props around her living room — a smoking cigarette, a tiger skin rug, a table resembling a harp — at just the moment that she needs them. The “mundane world” of the living room becomes, through the joy of performance, a Hollywood set (which, in reality, it is). Bricolage creates a feeling of spontaneity, which is central to the appeal of the musical. As Feuer argues “The musical, technically the most complex type of film produced in Hollywood, paradoxically has always been the genre that attempts to give the greatest illusion of spontaneity and effortlessness” (463). The more natural a performance appears, the more we enjoy it. As we watch this routine we momentarily forget that Vicki Lester/Judy Garland is the most famous female musical star and (both within and outside A Star is Born) and is instead a devoted wife who loves to sing and dance for her husband (James Mason) and for us.
When I show this scene I usually have to put on quite a show myself, explaining to my students exactly why this performance is so satisfying, so joyous. But this week when I showed this clip I heard my students giggling (appropriately) at Judy’s jokes and expressing amusement at her clever use of props. They were enjoying it. The same thing happened when I showed them another one of my favorites, the iconic title number from Singin’ in the Rain (1952). In this scene, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) has just shared a kiss with Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), and is consequently filled with joie de vivre. It is pouring rain outside but he dismisses the car that waits to drive him home. Don wants to walk and luxuriate in this moment of romantic bliss. Then, he just can’t help himself. His steps down the sidewalk turn almost involuntarily into dance and his dreamy, romantic thoughts become song. Here dancing and singing truly emerge out of a “joyous and responsive attitude toward life” (459).
As this scene played on the big screen I turned to look at my 100 students and was delighted to see the enchanted looks on their faces. They were enthralled, as I am every time I watch this number. They were enjoying themselves. At last!
But why? Why now? The answer is Glee. When I began my lecture on the musical earlier this week I told my students that by the end of the week I was hoping to have some musical converts in the class. “If you are watching the show Glee right now” I said, “the convention of breaking into song and dance shouldn’t be that foreign to you.” A large portion of the class nodded their heads in reponse to this. As it turned out, more than half of the students in my class are watching the show. And I think this has made all the difference.
Though I have not always been happy with the politics of Glee, I have always been satisfied with their adoption of the conventions of the backstage musical. Characters sing when they are in love (“I Could Have Danced All Night”) or lust (“Sweet Caroline”) and they sing when their hearts are breaking (“Bust The Windows”). And the most successful (i.e., the most passionate) group performances in the series arise, as they do in the classical Hollywood musical, when the show’s characters are working together and cooperating (“Don’t Stop Believin’,”Keep Holding On”). Resolution in the narrative equals resolution on the stage. The classical Hollywood musical incarnate.
So while Glee may not be breaking any new ground in its use and depiction of homosexual characters or ethnic minorities, it has, to my delight, given my students license to love the musical and to revel in its joy. And that’s something to be gleeful about.
Feuer, Jane. “The Self Reflexive Musical and the Myth of Entertainment.” Film Genre Reader III. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. 457-471.