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.