highered

Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent, Part I: Grad School Babies

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On July 19-21 I attended the biennial conference, Console-ing Passions: A Conference on Television, Audio, Video, New Media, and Feminism, hosted by Suffolk University (on a side note, if you write about or study anything related to these themes, I strongly encourage you to apply to Console-ing Passions in 2o14. You won’t regret it). In addition to presenting a paper on Teen Mom (don’t you judge me), I also chaired a workshop entitled “Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent.” During this workshop, Eleanor Patterson, Jason Mittell, and Melissa Click, three media studies scholars at different points in their academic careers, candidly discussed the challenges and rewards, both personal and professional, related to being a parent in academia.

The reason I’m sharing what transpired during this workshop here is twofold. First, as anyone who has ever attended an academic conference knows, the turn out at individual panels and workshops is precarious. You could have 50 people in your audience or 5 (we had more than 5, less than 50). I thought the stories and advice that circulated during our 90-minute workshop would be useful reading for other parents who live and work in the Ivory Tower as well as those who are pondering whether or not to become parents. Second, for my part of the workshop I explored definitions of the “child friendly department” — and what academics with children have a right to expect (or not expect) from their employers, colleagues, and students — and conducted a survey to see how other folks in the academy defined this term. I am grateful that 180 busy parents agreed to participate in my survey. Since many of them told me they were curious about its findings, I wanted share the results here.

I will cover the workshop in two parts to make reading and sharing more manageable. In Part I I will be discussing the challenges and rewards of having a child while still in graduate school and in Part II I will address the challenges and rewards of post-doc life with children.

“Navigating Motherhood as a Media Studies Graduate Student”

During our workshop Eleanor Patterson, a doctoral student in the Media & Cultural Studies program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, discussed her experiences being a parent while still in graduate school. I asked Eleanor if she would participate in this workshop after reading her smart, funny, and insightful post, “So You Want to be a Grad Student Mama.”  Here are some (but not all) of the key points Eleanor addressed during our workshop, with additional commentary by me (because I just can’t help sharing my own war stories):

Parenting is a feminist issue

Eleanor began her presentation with this statement: “being a parent in academia is a site where power is literally exercised over the body, in how we reproduce and parent. As a grad student, our labor has less political and social power within academic institutions.” It is difficult to be a new parent in any context but when you become a new parent as a graduate student, the low man/woman on the academic totem pole, navigating the field becomes even more difficult. New parents often find themselves in situations where they must request “special considerations” (flexible scheduling, missing meetings to care for sick children, etc.) and asking for these considerations is daunting when you feel like you have no power or that the very act of asking could somehow tarnish your reputation as a “serious” scholar. You become paranoid, constantly wondering how your choice to have a child will impact how others see you. You become extra determined to not let being a parent impact the way you function professionally (which is impossible, by the way).

As the authors of “Making Space for Graduate Student Parents: Practice and Politics” point out, being a parent and being an academic are similar in many ways: “The intensity and reverence with which academics and parents undertake their respective ‘labors of love’ is undoubtedly similar. And certainly both vocations can be marked by constant self scrutiny and a nagging sense of incompletion and imperfection.” It’s true. Nevertheless…

Being a parent and a graduate student are two roles that frequently appear to be at odds

TEEN MOM’s Maci can tell you how difficult it is to study with a young child in the house

During our workshop, Eleanor rightly pointed out that unlike faculty parents, grad students must adjust to “the new demands of academia while simultaneously adjusting to the new life of parent.” Although very little research has been done on graduate student parents, what is known is that there is a lower attrition rate for graduate student moms. After citing this fact, Eleanor was quick to add “I don’t mean to suggest that grad students shouldn’t be moms, but I bring this up to say that being a grad parent is complicated and there are concrete, material incongruences with how academia is structured and being a grad parent.” To name just one example, graduate students often struggle financially as they are sandwiched between student loans stemming from college and a highly uncertain economic future. And new babies? Well, they cost a lot of money. They need clothing and diapers and constant visits to the doctor and toys that are made with lead-free paint. How can a grad student, who can barely pay her rent, support the life of another human being?

It should not be surprising then that the majority of graduate students decide to wait until after they finish their degrees, or later, to have children. According to Mary Ann Mason’s 2009 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education “Exact figures are elusive, but a study we did of doctoral students at the University of California indicated that about 13 percent become parents by the time they graduate.” This is a problem for female academics in particular since the median age for women to complete a doctoral degree is 33 and for most women, fertility begins to drop starting at age 30. In her aforementioned blog post on parenting as a grad student, Eleanor explains “I also believe that the general discourse that encourages women who want children to wait until they’ve completed their Ph.D. is part of a greater patriarchal discourse that disciplines our bodies. I  think it is similar in many ways to the advice female faculty often receive to have their children over the summer. As if taming our biological reproduction to match the academic school calendar would make academia more amenable to parenting or mothering.”

Graph courtesy of babycentre.com

After my husband and I got together in my early twenties, we began to have earnest conversations about when we could start having children. I was emotionally ready for kids, but I was terrified about how it would impact my academic career. How would I finish my degree with a child in the house? Would I ever get a job if I had a kid first? I asked some of the professors and older graduate students in my department for advice and received lots of conflicting opinions. One popular answer was to wait to start my family until I was awarded tenure. Allow me to explain why this is problematic logic: I started my Masters degree in the Fall of 1999 and finished my PhD in the summer of 2007. Other than taking one year off after my MA to work for AmeriCorps  so that I didn’t start drawing symbols and formulas all over the windows of my Pittsburgh apartment, Beautiful Mind-style (a story for another time, perhaps),  I moved relatively quickly through my degrees. Then I won the academic lottery by snagging a tenure track job for the fall of 2007. If all goes well and I am awarded tenure in the spring of 2013 (fingers crossed), I will be 36 years old.

Me, several months before completing my MA

If I had waited to have children until tenure, I would be trying for my first at age 36. I know many women who were able to get pregnant with healthy babies at age 36 and beyond. But I also know a lot of women my age and older who are suffering through the stress and financial burden (not to mention the heartache) of infertility. Simply put, it is more difficult (and expensive) to get pregnant in your mid-30s. So, for many female academics who want to start a family, having a child while still in graduate school is probably the only way to do both. As Mason points out “[Many women] can see their biological clocks running out before they achieve the golden ring of tenure.”

Grad students are urged to “hide” their pregnancies and/or babies when they go on the job market

Imagine this scenario, but in a tiny bathroom and with lots of nervous sweat

Eleanor explains that “Graduate student mothers are not only confronted with logistical difficulties, limited support, and potentially constrained career paths; they must also contend with conflicting and powerful ideologies that surround academia and motherhood. I know this is an issue, because every professionalization workshop on job talks, and being on the job market, have emphasized that you should not discuss your position as a parent, or your partner, at all, unless once you have an offer, you might angle for a spousal hire.” I was given the same advice when I went on the academic job market in the winter of 2006. At the time, I was still breastfeeding my 7 month-old daughter, so keeping my status as a parent under wraps was challenging. Breast feeding mothers who are away from their babies need to pump every few hours or else they risk diminishing or losing their milk supply.

During my campus interviews I had to ask for a bathroom break every few hours so I could hide in a stall and pump, praying that no one would inquire about the weird “whoosh whoosh” sound of my battery-powered pump.  I would emerge from the bathroom 20 minutes later, with a wrinkled suit and sweaty brow, pretending like nothing unusual had just occurred.  When I finally gave up this exhausting ruse and told one of my future colleagues what I was up to (this was my third campus interview in the space of 2 weeks and I was just fed up with lying), he breathed a sigh of relief and said “Oh great, I’m glad you told me you have a kid. Now I can tell you about child friendly our department is!” How silly I felt for keeping it a secret. I’m not saying that all of you parents should out yourself during your job interviews this fall but a good question to ask yourself is this: do you want to spend the next 40 years working in a department that sees your children as a liability?

Grad students are inadvertently penalized for having kids

“Don’t worry Mama! If you don’t finish your dissertation, you can just hang out with me ALL OF THE TIME!”

Part of being a graduate student is immersing yourself in your field. In addition to taking classes, teaching classes and writing, graduate students benefit from attending talks given by guest speakers, participating in colloquia, and (if you are a film studies scholar like myself), going to (or renting) movies with your fellow students. But when you are a parent, your time becomes limited. Once you have shelled out money to cover daycare while you go to class, teach and write, you are unlikely to have additional funds for a sitter so you can go to a talk, much less a movie. While your friends are having cocktails with Dr. Famous Scholar after her amazing, intellectually stimulating talk, you’re at home stacking blocks with your baby. Yes, your baby is wonderful, but you are definitely missing out on some key grad student experiences.

During her presentation Eleanor cited a study by the American Sociological Association that found that many crucial resources — including help with publishing, mentoring, effective teaching training, and fellowships — were less available to graduate student parents, particularly mothers, than to other students (Spalter-Roth & Kennelly, 2004). Graduate mothers are also less likely to be enrolled in higher ranking departments (Kennelly & Spalter-Roth, 2006). Furthermore, having a child in graduate school often comes with little to no support. Mason found that “Only 13 percent of institutions in the Association of American Universities (the 62 top-tanked research universities) offer paid maternity leave to doctoral students, and only 5 percent provide dependent health care for a child.”

What to do if you want to have a child while in graduate school:

“Hey Girl, let’s make some grad school babies. I won’t tell Wanda.”

Unless you have had a Doogie Howser-like educational trajectory and thus finished your Ph.D. in your mid-twenties, having a child while still in grad school may be the only option for women (and men) who want both an academic career and a family. Eleanor offered up some great questions to ask yourself before you make the decision to have a child while finishing up your graduate degree:

*How much university/departmental support is available for graduate students with children?

*Will you get paid parental leave and/or continuation of health insurance when you take parental leave?

*Will your health insurance cover dependents?

*Will your department “stop the clock” on your funding while you take parental leave?

*Is there an on-campus daycare (or any daycare) that you can afford?

*Are professors in your department willing to give you some leeway (in terms of paper extensions, missed classes, etc) after your child is born?

*How far along are you in your degree? The final years of dissertation work are often the most conducive to parenting since you no longer need to be on campus daily for classes.

Saranna Thornton outlines similar ways to make parenting more amenable to graduate students here.

It’s still hard

“Hey Mama, your dissertation is great…for me to puke on.”

Finishing a Ph.D. is hard. Raising a child is hard. Putting those two jobs together? Very, very hard. Eleanor offers some of the highlights “To get things turned in on time, I have to plan my weeks out in advance, and no longer have the luxury of waiting for my muse to hit before I begin writing. I regularly have to write during my ‘free’ time between class/teaching to get stuff finished.” She also describes typing papers with a sleeping child on her lap. I have clear memories of breastfeeding my newborn daughter while simultaneously typing up my job application letters. I’m not sure that I would ever want to relive the year in which I had my first baby, completed my dissertation, taught two classes, and applied to 40 jobs. But what kept me going that year (and what continues to keep me going) is the realization that the pay off for all of that stress, the many sleepless nights, and endless hustle to write during the isolated gaps of my day (being a parent teaches you how to write any time), is a job that makes me happy when I am away from my children and a personal life that makes me happy when I am away from my job.

Of course, I should add that I had an ideal situation for having a baby during graduate school. My husband worked from home and made a good salary so that we could afford to hire a nanny for 25 hours each week. This gave me just enough time to finish my dissertation and apply to jobs (even though I still did a lot of this work while holding a baby in my lap). But even if you don’t have a partner with a great job, here are some reasons why having a child during graduate school can be a great choice:

* your schedule is far more flexible as a graduate student (especially an ABD) than it is as a full-time faculty member (remember a TT job involves research, teaching, service, and meetingsmeetingsmeetings)

* when things get crazy in the first years of the job, your child will be older and less likely to be keeping you up all night with his/her blood-curdling screams

*since most of your graduate student cohorts don’t have (and don’t plan to have) kids, you will have a built-in community of eager aunties and uncles who will genuinely enjoy taking a break from “the life of the mind” to play with your kid for a few hours while you work on dissertation revisions (or at least, this was my experience)

*the push to publish a book (or two) once you are on the tenure track often scares faculty away from having kids. I know several academics who fully intended to have children before landing their first job and who now say “Who has the time?”

I hope this section doesn’t come off as “this worked for me so it must work for everyone” advice. My point is that graduate students are often under the impression that they must put having children on hold until they finish their degrees or get tenure. I don’t think this is necessarily the best advice.

Embrace your choice

As Eleanor concluded her presentation she offered up a great piece of advice to graduate student parents: “perform legitimacy.” In other words, don’t apologize for your decision to have a child or hide this fact. The more visible student parents are, the better the environment will be for all graduate student parents. She also emphasized the importance of good mentors, both at the graduate student and at the faculty level.

I mentioned earlier in this piece that as a graduate student I was advised by many to wait until tenure to have children. However, I had one faculty mentor who gave me very different advice. She was one of the few professors in my department who brought her child to receptions and events and discussed the fact that she was a mother openly. As a graduate student I watched her do this and I mentally noted: “This is possible. This is okay.” One day I asked her to meet me for coffee and she told me about her experiences having a child in graduate school and why it was a great decision for her. I view this conversation as one of the most pivotal in my entire academic career and I will forever be grateful to this mentor. I hope to do the same for someone else some day.

*****

This post, as well as Eleanor’s workshop presentation, are based almost entirely on personal experiences. I would love for readers to share their experiences below. What kind of advice (if any) did you receive about having children in graduate school? If you ended up having kids as a student, what was the biggest challenge and the biggest benefit of this decision? What advice would you give to graduate students who are contemplating having kids right now? Although this post focused more on the experiences of female graduate student parents, it would be great to hear from all of the men out there who had children while in graduate school (we know it’s hard for you guys too). How did your experiences differ from those outlined in this post?

Works Cited (& further reading)

Collett, Jessica. “Navigating Graduate School as a (Single) Parent.” scatterplot 5 Apr 2010. <http://scatter.wordpress.com/2010/04/05/navigating-graduate-school-as-a-single-parent/&gt;.

Kennelly, Ivy and Roberta M. Spalter-Roth. “Parents on the Job Market: Resources and Strategies that Help Sociologists Attain Tenure-Track Jobs.” The American Sociologist 37.4 (2006): 29-49.

Mason, Mary Ann. “Why So Few Doctoral-Student Parents?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 21 Oct 2009. <http://chronicle.com/article/Why-So-Few-Doctoral-Student/48872/&gt;.

Patterson, Eleanor. “So You Want to be a Grad Student Mama.” Antenna 2 Aug 2011. <http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2011/08/02/grad-student-mama/&gt;.

Springer, Kristen W., Brenda K. Parker and Catherine Leviten-Reid.  “Making Space for Graduate Student Parents: Practice and Politics.” Journal of Family Issues 30.4 (2009): 435-457.

Thornton, Saranna. “Faculty Forum: Making Graduate School More Parent Friendly.” Academe Online Nov 2005. <http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2005/ND/Col/ff.htm&gt;.

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So, What’s Your Book About Anyway? (aka, Blatant Self Promotion)

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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:

The Precious

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.

“Thank you everyone, thank you! Hey, why is there a bucket…”

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?

Currently, vampire films are a thriving cycle (also appearing on television and in book form)

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?

The torture porn cycle tapped into audience desires to work through our own fascination with and anxiety about the use of torture. Also, people are gross.

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.

Remember when all of those white suburban kids started trying to pop and lock? You can blame this movie.

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.

Climate change, nuclear holocaust, oil spills… WE WERE WARNED!

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).

Huh?

50s teenpics helped to define the contours of the teenage subculture.

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).

Jeans = fast girl

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.

Come on, let’s talk about EPIC MOVIE, friends.

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.

 

Works Cited

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.

Me and My Twitter: Our Untold Love Story

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This week I taught the film Wall*E (2008, Andrew Stanton ) in my Film Theory and Criticism course. I selected the film to complement the week’s topic on digital cinema. However, my students were far more interested in discussing the film’s post-apocalyptic vision of an Earth so overrun with consumer waste that it must be abandoned for a clean, automated, and digitized existence on the Axiom, a spaceship that caters to humankind’s every need.  Robots take care of human locomotion (which is why these humans are no longer able to walk), food (lunch in a cup!), grooming (robot manicurists!) , and even decision-making:

My students were critical of these human characters: for their sloth, their apathy, and most importantly, because of their inability to form real human connections. “They only communicate with each other through screens!” they lamented. I then pointed out that the behaviors of the  humans on the Axiom are not too different from the behaviors of the humans on our college campus. As I walk to and from my office I see students, heads bent, eyes averted, typing away on their smart phones. Those who aren’t typing on their phones are talking on their cell phones or listening to their I Pods. Eyes plugged, ears plugged, the students I see each day rarely commune with the real world around them. Like the humans on the Axiom, we are surrounded by screens and by virtual relationships. This realization seemed to depress my students.

Actual photo taken on the ECU campus

But I’m not all that saddened by this vision of the future. No, I don’t want to become a rotund, infant-like drone, sucking my lunch out of a cup, but I am quite fond of the connectivity fostered by the internet and the proliferation of increasingly more affordable smart phones. In particular, I love Twitter. Man, do I love Twitter.

When I first joined Twitter in March 2009, I found it to be a lonely place. Gone were the hundreds of friendships I had accumulated on Facebook. Gone were those cute pictures of people’s babies and dogs (no really, I like seeing those). Gone was the instant validation I received when friends commented on my witty and hilarious status updates with their witty and hilarious rebuttals. Instead, I was faced with a long lists of 140 character statements, typed up by strangers, and  addressed to no one in particular.

My very first Tweet

But over time I grew to understand the role of Twitter in my life. As many people have pointed out, Facebook is for connecting with the people I already know. Twitter, however, is for connecting with the people I would like to know. Sound creepy? Sure it does. But really it makes a lot of sense.

In my profession (higher education), networking with colleagues is key. In the past, such networking took place mostly at academic conferences. For example, imagine you are the editor of a film studies journal and you hear someone deliver a paper that sounds perfect for your next issue. You might approach the speaker at the end of the panel and ask her if she’d consider submitting her conference paper for publication in your journal. Or imagine you’re a graduate student and you need to find a scholar outside of your university to serve as a reader of your dissertation. You can approach one of your academic heroes at the bar later that evening, introduce yourself, and pop the question.

Yes, that’s all fine and good for the extroverts among us. But me, I’m an introvert. Or rather, I am the worst kind of introvert — an extroverted introvert. In other words, I love to socialize and meet new people, but I hate being the one who initiates the socializing and I hate introducing myself to new people. I don’t make a great first impression, but I make an excellent third impression. So up until the advent of Twitter, I was not able to meet many new people or forge important professional connections when I attended conferences. Instead, I mostly hung out with my (admittedly awesome) friends from graduate school, getting very drunk in the hotel bar.

Me at my very first academic conference, circa 2002. Mmmm, pancakes!

But all of this has changed because of Twitter. Not only has it allowed me to meet with loads of new and interesting film and media scholars at conferences, it has also allowed me to develop professional relationships with people I have yet to meet.  Many of the people I follow on Twitter also teach film and media studies courses and, even though we have not personally met, are more than willing to offer advice.  For example, I am currently developing a syllabus for a new course, American and International Film History (1945 to the Present) and was having a hard time selecting a film for my week on New Hollywood Cinema. What to choose? So, I posed to the question to the Twitterverse:

And here are some of the responses I received:

This kind of conversation is especially important for someone like me, who teaches at a university in which there are only a few film studies scholars (there are three of us to be exact). Twitter provides me with an opportunity to brainstorm syllabus ideas, to get  research suggestions for upcoming projects, and even to receive feedback on works in progress (via this blog) with an unlimited, virtual community of colleagues. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it.

Another thing that I love about Twitter is that it assembles an ever-present virtual community who is willing to listen, or at least bear witness to, my daily grievances. Here’s a post from a few weeks ago:

There is nothing profound about this tweet. In fact, it’s the kind of banal statement that most people would cite as evidence of Twitter’s utter pointlessness. But when I wrote this, I was having a bad day.  And the shoes that I had to wear during my long walk home in the rain were destroyed. So it felt good to send my annoyance out there into the Twitterverse. Even if no one read it, the Tweet exists, and that’s enough for me.

Twitter is also great for someone in my profession because much of my work is completed in solitude. Yes, I teach in front of large groups of students and yes I have to attend committee and department meetings, but by and large I work alone. Therefore, Twitter affords me the opportunity to drop in and out of ongoing conversations, to comment on someone else’s tweet, to read a recommended article, or to watch a clip of someone crying about a “double rainbow,” when the mood strikes.A few minutes here, a few minutes there. It’s just the break I need in order to remain productive and, oddly enough, focused on the task at hand. Twitter is like a virtual coffee house filled with hundreds of interesting, funny, and bizarre individuals, who can be tuned in or tuned out throughout the course of the day.

It’s true, Twitter has caused me to share more banal details about my life than Facebook ever did:

And no one really needed to know that my cat doesn’t clean his ass after he uses the litter box:

Nevertheless, Twitter has added real value to my life. When I got my very own smart phone almost two months ago, I joined the other screen-entranced zombies who shamble across the ECU campus. But it’s not so much that I’m tuning the real world out. I like to think that I’m bringing more of the world in.

If you’re interested in reading more about the impact of being “plugged in,” you may be interested in the much-discussed (at least in the Twitterverse) article by Virginia Heffernen, “The Attention-Span Myth,” as well as Michael Newman’s thoughts on her piece. Both were written with more time and care than this blog post. But that’s because I’m too busy tweeting, ya’ll.

BADLANDS: The Film I Always Find a Way to Teach

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The doomed lovers of BADLANDS dance to “Love is Strange”

Whenever I meet new people and they discover that I teach film for a living, they invariably ask me: “So what’s your favorite movie?” I realize that this is polite, small talk kind of question. It’s the kind of question people think that they are supposed to ask me. But to someone who has devoted their livelihood to researching, analyzing, and teaching about moving images, the question is agonizing. Asking me what my favorite movie is is like asking me: “Which of your children do you love the most?” There is simply no way for me to answer this question in a satisfying, honest way. So I usually tap dance around the answer, trying all the while to not sound like a pretentious academic douchebag (which is what I am). “Oh it’s so hard for me to choose!” I say. When the asker looks sufficiently annoyed, I usually submit and say something expected like “Casablanca. Casablanca is my favorite movie” Then they leave me alone.

But the real answer to the question “What is your favorite movie?” is very complex for me. I love different movies for different reasons. I love Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder) for its whipsmart, sexy dialogue. I love The Crowd (1928, King Vidor) for its winsome, bittersweet ending. I love Magnolia (1999, Paul Thomas Anderson) because it was the only movie to figure out the exact kind of role that Tom Cruise should play. I love The Breakfast Club (1985, John Hughes) because I watched it pretty much every Saturday afternoon on TBS when I was 12 and didn’t realize that they weren’t smoking cigarettes during that one scene in the library. I love American Movie for so many reasons but especially because of this scene:

And I love Terence Malick’s debut film (his DEBUT!), Badlands (1973), because it is, for lack of a better word, a perfect movie. Badlands is a movie that I never tire of watching. I get giddy about the opportunity to introduce it to new people. For that reason, I try to put Badlands on my syllabus whenever possible. In fact, this week I screened Badlands for my Film Theory and Criticism students for our unit on film sound. I love teaching this film because, as I mentioned, it’s perfect, and most students have not heard of it. Therefore, after the screening students generally exit the classroom with the same dazed, but happy, expression I had after I watched it for the first time.

Holly imagines herself as a character in her own fairytale

So what makes Badlands a “perfect” movie?

Terence Malick’s Script

In the very first scene of the movie we see Holly, a 15-year-old girl (Spacek was 24 when she played the role) with red hair, freckles, and knobby knees. She is playing with her dog on her bed. It is a scene of innocence, of total girlhood joy. But this happy, carefree image contrasts with Holly’s vacant, flat, voice over, which informs us “My mother died of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My father kept their wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years. After the funeral he gave it to the yard man. He tried to act cheerful but he could never be consoled by the little stranger he found in his house.” In four brief lines Holly aptly summarizes her childhood: she was an only child; her father was once a real romantic (he kept his wedding cake in the freezer for 10 years after all) but the untimely death of his wife deadened his heart (he gave the cake to the yard man after his wife’s funeral); Holly and her father are unable to connect emotionally (Holly knows that her father sees her as a “stranger”). Such is the mastery of Malick’s tight script — not a word is wasted.

Malick’s script is also admirable in that he was able to capture the rhythm and the texture of a teenage girl’s stream of consciousness. Holly doesn’t speak like an adult and she doesn’t speak like a child. After Kit kills Holly’s father he instructs her to grab her schoolbooks from her locker so that she won’t fall behind in her studies. Holly’s voice over then tells us “I could of snuck out the back or hid in the boiler room, I suppose, but I sensed that my destiny now lay with Kit, for better or for worse, and it was better to spend a week with one who loved me for what I was than years of loneliness.” If these words were in Holly’s diary they would probably be adorned with hearts over the i’s and little flowers scribbled in the margins.

Holly’s Voice Over/The Stereopticon Scene

There are so many scenes I could point to that illustrate the genius of Sissy Spacek’s line readings in this film, but my favorite is the much-lauded stereopticon scene. After killing Holly’s father the couple flees to the woods and build themselves a Swiss Family Robinson-style tree house (though it is likely that the grandure of this house has been imagined by Holly). In the middle of this segment, Holly sits down to look at some “vistas” in her father’s stereopticon. This is the first time that Holly has mentioned her father  since his murder and yet she still does not mention if his death bothers her. As Holly looks at travelogue images of Egypt and sepia-toned lovers, she waxes philosophical, in the self-involved way that only a 15-year-old girl can. As she looks at an image of a soldier kissing a morose young woman she wonders “What’s the man I’ll marry look like? What’s he doin’ right this minute? Is he thinking about me now by some coincidence, even though he doesn’t know me?” As the camera slowly zooms in on this particular image Holly asks, the excitement barely rising in her quiet voice “Does it show in his face?”” The non-diegetic music becomes more intense as the scene progresses. Holly is coming to an epiphany. She is just some girl, born in Texas, “with only so many years to live.” She is aware that her life is structured by a series of accidents (her mother’s death), and yet, that life is also fated (“What’s the man I’ll marry look like?”). This voice over indicates that Holly is able to see her role in the larger web of humanity, and yet, this same girl watches as her boyfriend shoots her father and random unfortunates who happen to cross their path. It is infuriating and chilling. In fact, every time I watch this scene I get chills.

Kit/ Martin Sheen

 

“You know who that son of a bitch looks like? I’ll kiss your ass if he don’t look just like james Dean!”

I can’t say that I know much about Martin Sheen’s body of work, other than his roles in Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola) and Wall Street (1987, Oliver Stone). I do know, however, that Martin Sheen frequently mentioned that Badlands was his best work. And I’ll take his word for it. Sheen is amazing in this role. He plays Kit as a man in limbo, a study in contradictions. He lectures Holly about the dangers of littering (“Everybody did that, the whole town’d be a mess”) but shoots her father without comment.  He fancies himself a man of ideas, but when given the opportunity to speak, he has nothing to say. Kit wants to be a rebel, like his idol James Dean, but he speaks in platitudes.

Kit is constantly wavering between two poles. Sheen could have therefore played Kit as a bipolar monster — a man who shifts from one personality to the next. But instead, he makes Kit’s duality into an integrated whole. He plays Kit as a man who does not know who he is or what he should do; he only knows that he must fully commit himself to whatever choice he makes. For example, after Kit has been arrested he is allowed to speak with Holly briefly. Kit boasts “I’ll say this though, that guy with the deaf maid? He’s just lucky he’s not dead, too.” Then, in the same breath he tells Holly “Course, uh, too bad about your dad…We’re gonna have to sit down and talk about that sometime.” These moments are almost comical. Indeed, my students often laughed at Kit’s antics, even when he was shooting people.

The Music

I am incapable of talking about film music in a useful way. I can only ever use vague words like “haunting” or “tense” to describe a score. But there is something … haunting … about the non-diegetic tracks used in Badlands, such as the angelic, choral music that plays as Holly’s childhood home is consumed by fire:

So I suppose the next time someone asks me what my favorite movie is, I should just say “Badlands.” It wouldn’t be true, of course. As I mentioned, I could never pick just one. But it’s a movie that represents everything I love about movies: beautiful cinematography, impeccable acting, a tight script. And those chills.

Tweeting at you Live from Console-ing Passions!: The Politics of the Backchannel

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Note: all tweets quoted in this post are mine, unless otherwise indicated.

I just returned from 4 days in Eugene, Oregon for Console-ing Passions 2010, a conference on television, audio, video, new media and feminism. Console-ing Passions (aka, CP) is consistently one of my favorite conferences and dfter 3 ½ months of maternity leave it was invigorating to have some personal and professional time (not to mention 3 great nights of sleep). The panels I attended—from discussions of “post-racial” television to vomiting in Mad Men—were smart and thought provoking. Also smart and thought provoking? The “backchannel” of tweets that documented, augmented and critiqued the various papers over the conference’s three days.

There was much grumbling (at least on Twitter) about SCMS’s lack of Wi-Fi this year and the consequent inability of attendees to tweet at the conference. So there was much rejoicing when CP’s gracious host, the University of Oregon, made sure that all conference participants were given access to the university’s Wi-Fi. The CP home page also provided a hashtag for the conference–#cpuo—which enabled the backchannel to open up as early as Wednesday, the day before the conference started. Various twitterati announced their arrival times and chronicled their (positive and negative) travel experiences.

My luggage arrived 5 hours later.

I live-tweeted through most of the panels I attended—first on my laptop and then, when that battery died, I moved to typing one handed on my old school I-Touch (hence, my many typos, and poor use of punctuation).

I meant “Joan” not “moan”

Through the first day of tweeting I was delighted to see so many folks who weren’t at CP joining in on in the online conversation. Despite this atmosphere of intellectual exchange, I discovered, over the course of the conference, that many folks at the conference were uncomfortable, and even annoyed, with the Twitter backchannel. Indeed, I believe that the presence of this back channel—and the various responses it provoked in conference attendees—is one of the most interesting discussions to come out of this year’s Console-ing Passions. Here is what people were saying—both for and against—this year’s very rich (and very controversial) backchannel:

The Uses of the Backchannel

1. For those who cannot attend

I was unable to attend this year’s SCMS in Los Angeles but was grateful for the few tweets that were broadcasted over the course of the 5-day conference (I was also an avid reader of Antenna Blog‘s informative daily recaps). I was pleased to see regular film/tv/media tweeters like  d_kompare and fymaxwell engaging in the discussions on the backchannel. Sometimes their comments were merely appreciative while others raised useful questions:

2. It enriches the dialogue by multiplying voices

In an ideal world, the comments from absent twitterers, such as the one displayed above, would then be posed to panelists by during the Q & A session. In this way, scholars who are unable to attend the conference can still be a part of the conference dialogue. In fact, some tweeters at CP were able to “virtually” attend more than one panel at a time–by reading the tweets being broadcasted from the various rooms.

One tweeter lamented not being able to be at two panels at once.

3. Extend and invigorate Q & A

Panel Q & A sessions are always rushed, even when panelists keep their papers within the proscribed time limits. What I enjoyed most about the CP backchannel was that the audience was able to have an on-going discussion of the papers, before, during and after the Q & A session.

I asked another tweeter a question about a point raised in a panel, during the panel…
…and she replied.

I also felt that in several instances the tweets helped the twitter community to formulate better questions for panelists. For example, during Thursday’s Mad Men panel there was a lot of talk on the back channel about the papers were not satisfactorially addressing depictions of race and class depictions on the show. These sentiments were bandied about by tweeters and this culminated in one person standing up to ask that very question during the Q & A. This question—and the intelligent responses it provoked from the panelists—ended  up being the most interesting (at least for me) part of the Q & A.

4. Digital Archive

Finally, the backchannel offers a flawed/funny/smart/critical archive of the entire conference—from the arrival of panelists in Eugene to the (tipsy) tweets coming out of Friday night’s reception.

My tweet about Friday’s tweet up

Think of it as the most detailed conference recap you can find.

The Misuses of the Backchannel

1. The Complex is Simplified

As all academics know, the less space you are given to make your point (as in a conference proposal), the more simplified your argument becomes. The 140 character limit of Twitter has the potential to transform a subtle, elegant argument into something that is too simple, too binary.

My simplified tweet about Marsha Cassidy’s smart, nuanced paper “Betty Vomits: Mad Men, History, and the 1950s Body.” I am sure that this is NOT what she meant.

And without the context of the rest of the paper, simplified, isolated tweets can lead to the complete misrepresentation of a speaker’s argument. For example, Tara McPherson’s plenary paper “Remaking the Scholarly Imagination” was subject to a series of engaged and enthusiastic tweets (I am disappointed that I missed this plenary). However, one of McPherson’s statements, made during the Q & A, was retweeted by numerous people:


Some tweeters championed this bold statement while others were troubled. Regardless, McPherson felt that her comment was taken out of context and that she was being somewhat misrepresented on Twitter:

McPherson responds.

This conversation culminated in a blog post by TV scholar Jason Mittell (who was not able to attend this year’s conference) in defense of  Lost studies. McPherson also commented on Mittell’s post, which lead to an interesting conversation about what happens when statements become part of the public discourse. You can read their very interesting exchange in the comments section of Mittell’s blog.

2. Negativity

Being misrepresented on Twitter is one thing—indeed, it is par for the course in academia. But being trashed is quite another. I have yet to read the entire #cpuo backchannel, but so far I have not encountered much negativity towards the various panels or panelists. I did encounter moments when a twitterer disagreed with a panelist or had some big questions to ask but I think this kind of tweeting is both healthy and necessary. It only becomes problematic when those disagreements and questions remain in the realm of the virtual, rather than the actual. Be critical and raise questions on the backchannel, but if you do, make sure you raise your hand when the Q & A begins. Otherwise, these comments can become the equivalent of the anonymous Amazon.com book review—difficult to trust because there is nothing at stake in the criticism.

Given how much people enjoy the twitter backchannel (myself included) I believe that it’s presence at conferences is only going to become stronger. Having said that, I do think the twitterverse and the academic community need to work together to come up with a series of protocols governing the use of the backchannel at conferences. Perhaps panelists can request that their work not be tweeted or maybe twitterers should identify themselves at the beginning of a panel so that speakers know when and if their work is being discussed online. But the issue must be addressed to ensure that everyone who presents their work at a conference feels comfortable with the arrangement.

But now I’d like to hear your thoughts. Please comment below.

Screening Tommy Wiseau’s THE ROOM

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As discussed in previous posts, I am teaching “Topics in Film Aesthetics” this semester, with a focus on what is known as “trash cinema.” For those unfamiliar with this term, trash cinema refers to films thathave been relegated to the borders of the mainstream because of their small budgets, inept style, offensive subject matter, and/or shocking political perspectives. All semester long my students have watched  marginalized films like The Sex Perils of Paulette (1965, Doris Wishman) and Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965, Mike Kuchar), interrogating and debating their style, subject matter, and ideology. Why are these films considered to be “bad” movies and what do we have to gain by studying them?

Kuchar’s solution to the problems of post dubbing in Sins of the Fleshapoids

We also spent much of the semester discussing how and why certain films (The Rocky Horror Picture Show [1975, Jim Sharman], El Topo [1970, Alejandro Jodorowsky]) were able to achieve cult status as midnight movies and what drives audiences to perform elaborate rituals at film screenings. In keeping with these discussions, the class project was to host, promote and run a screening of a contemporary cult film, the notoriously awful The Room (2003, Tommy Wiseau). Since my students had read so much about midnight movies and the great lengths that theater exhibitors would go to draw in potential ticket buyers (known as “ballyhoo”), my hope was that the class would put some of those lessons into practice.

Ballyhoo for The Prince of Peace

Early in the semester the class broke themselves up into working groups: promotions, advertising, booking the venue, etc. The advertising group was responsible for designing flyers, posters and ad copy for the promotions group to implement. Although money is tight in my department, my chair was kind enough to allow us limitless copies for our flyers and $50 for two large posters (I limited my role in this project to obtaining funds for the $100 screening license and for adveritising materials):

One of my students, who is president of the Student Activities Board, was able to get us this prime advertising location in the student union
Another student designed poster

Once posters and flyers were created, it was time for the promotions group to start spreading the word. In addition to putting flyers up around campus and doing a word of mouth campaign, they started up a Facebook group for the event and convinced a writer for the campus newspaper, The East Carolinian, to mention the screening in an article about campus happenings.

Nevertheless, as the night of the screening approached I was a little nervous: I had not seen many flyers up around campus and I was beginning to doubt the class’ enthusiasm for the project. To make matters worse, the screening was held on a rainy night (ECU students are relcutant to do anything unless it’s 70 degrees outside and precipitation free) when District 9 (2009, Neill Blomkamp) was playing for free in the same building as part of the Student Activities Board’s fall film series. Finally, our event was booked in a difficult to locate area of the student union. It therefore made sense when barely 50 seats were taken 10 minutes before the start of the event.

At the last minute students put homemade signs up around the student union…
…to direct audience members to the screening.

I could tell that my students were also starting to get nervous — part of their grade would be based on how many people they could entice into the theater (after all, a theater exhibitor who couldn’t fill seats would lose his/her business). With a few minutes to spare, audience members began to appear in droves, wet from the rain but ready for a good time. By the time we started the film, we had at least 200 attendees:

The projector in our screening room needed to be replaced 30 minutes before the event began, hence the media cart parked in the middle of the aisle. Still better than a blurry image though…

Most of the people entering the theater took a bag of props to throw at the screen including: plastic spoons (whenever a framed picture of a spoon appears in the mise en scene), chocolates (during a supposed-to-be-erotic scene involving a box of chocolates), and footballs (several scenes feature the male characters tossing around a football, presumably because this is what Wiseau assumes American men do to bond with each other):

Handing out props
These footballs were leftovers from another student event and were perfect for our screening. Because they were free.

I told the students that in addition to gathering a large crowd they needed to foster a participatory screening environment. A silent audience was simply not acceptable. To encourage participation, audience members were handed a photocopied list of rituals selected by the class:

SPOON!” – Nearly all the artwork in the film features spoons.  When they appear in the shot, yell “Spoon!” and fling yours at the screen.

DENNY!” – Used to herald the arrival/departure of the tragic kidult.  “Hi & Bye” is encouraged.

SHOOT HER!” – Yelled during Lisa’s couch conversation with her mother.  The throbbing neck is the cue.  Also acceptable, “QUAID, GET TO THE REACTOR!

BECAUSE YOU’RE A WOMAN!” – Useful after any comment made in regards to a female character.  Considered a dig at the film’s casual misogyny.

FOCUS! UNFOCUS!” – Frequent shots slip in and out of focus and it is customary to yell “FOCUS” when it gets blurry.  Feel free to yell “UNFOCUS!” during the gratuitous sex scenes.

FIANCE/FIANCEE” – This term is never uttered, instead Johnny or Lisa refer to one another as their future wife/husband.  That is the cue to scream “Fiancé & Fiancée”

ALCATRAZ” – Yell this during scenes framed with bars & during establishing shots of the famous island prison.  Also encouraged, “WELCOME TO THE ROCK!” (Connery-esque only)

GO! GO! GO! GO!” – Used to cheer on tracking shots of the bridge.  Celebrate when it makes it all the way across, voice your disappointment when it doesn’t.

EVERYWHERE YOU LOOK” (Full House theme) – Sung during establishing shot of the San Francisco homes that look eerily similar.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE THEME” – Hummed during the phone tapping scene.

WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU!” – Yelled when characters appear on screen that are out of place or unknown.  (Happens more than you think)

YOU’RE TEARING ME APART, LISA!” – Johnny channels his inner James Dean near the conclusion of the film.  Yell along, louder the better.

While this is only a small list of ways to get involved, feel free to interject your own thoughts throughout the screening or join in with audience members who aren’t seeing the film for the first time.  All we ask is for you to be safe and respect those around you.  Enjoy!

The evening also opened with a brief introduction  to the film and its colorful production history. Our Master of Ceremonies encouraged the audience to participate and demonstrated a few of the rituals for the audience.

The Master of Ceremonies gets the crowd excited…

These tactics seemed to work because almost as soon as the film began, with its useless, extended establishing shots of San Francisco, the crowd was yelling at the screen. They followed the suggested rituals (with “Because you’re a woman!” and “Denny!” being two crowd favorites) but also lots of ad-libbing.

Note: Not from our screening.

When, for example, Lisa (Juliette Danielle) mixes Johnny (Tommy Wiseau) a cocktail of what appears to be 1/2 scotch and 1/2 vodka, someone behind me declared “I call it…scotchka!” [note: I just discovered that this particular line is already a Room ritual]. And whenever a character commented on how “beautiful” Lisa was, several audience members would yell “LIAR!” In fact, the room was rarely silent; people booed, groaned, clapped and heckled throughout the screening.

Note: Not from our screening.

I was hoping that the students would have come up with some more inventive advertising tactics, especially given the time we spent discussing how classical exploitation films like Mom and Dad (1945, William Beaudine) were advertised and promoted. Ultimately though, the class screening of The Room lived up to my expectations. The crowd was rowdy and interactive and everyone seemed to have a great time. Most importantly, I think my students had a great opportunity to experience firsthand what they had only been able to read about.

The Filthiest People Alive!: Teaching PINK FLAMINGOS

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“If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation.”

-John Waters

A few weeks ago I taught Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963) as part of a lesson on the advent of extreme gore in American cinema. In addition to providing context for why the film was made — Lewis only turned to gore because his stock in trade “nudie cuties” were now becoming standard fare in mainstream Hollywood films — I also went over the conventions of the gore film and the slasher film (Blood Feast is both) and screened clips from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper) and The Evil Dead (1981, Sam Raimi). Given my blood-soaked lecture I suppose that my students were primed for an evening of non-stop blood and terror when they attended the Blood Feast screening.

But as the first example of gore, Blood Feast is far more restrained than its generic descendents. Therefore, during our class discussion of the film one disappointed student raised his hand and complained, “You wrote a check that film couldn’t cash.” His classmates nodded in agreement. This reaction surprised me a bit: Blood Feast may be tame, but it still contains scenes in which a woman’s tongue is ripped out and a leg is severed. I left the classroom shaking my head and wondering about the state of today’s youth.

blood-feast
The students found this scene to be only mildly disturbing

 

 

 

 

 

bloodfeast
Theatrical poster for Blood Feast 

But as it turns out, it is possible to shock Generation Y. All it takes is a little poop eating.

For our week on camp and its relationship with trash cinema, we discussed some of the basic characteristics of the camp aesthetic described by Susan Sontag in her famous essay, “Notes on Camp” (1964), such as artifice, exaggerated sexuality and theatricality. We then related these characteristics to the work of John Waters, especially as they applied to his star and muse, the incomparable Divine. I also described Waters’ interest in the abject and bodily fluids (saliva, vomit, shit) and warned them that the film contained (unstaged) acts of felatio and coprophagia. But truly, is there any way to prepare students for a screening of Pink Flamingos?

 

polyester-divine-(2)
Waters once said of Divine “She was my Elizabeth Taylor.”

Approximately 10 to 15 minutes into the film, not too long after Divine steals a piece of meat from a grocery store by shoving it under her tight lamé dress (all to the tune of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent”), the same student who had complained about Blood Feast turned to me and said, “Okay, you didn’t oversell this one.” “Just you wait,” I replied, “There’s a lot more to come.”

There is a voyeur character in Pink Flamingos named Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce) who pleads with her beloved, Crackers (Danny Mills), to engage in ever kinkier sex for her viewing pleasure. “I’ve gotta see more than what I’ve already seen!” she whines. Crackers complies by incorporating two live chickens into his next “love making” session.

Pink_Flamingos3
Crackers forces Cookie (Cookie Mueller) into chicken sex.

The viewing audience for Pink Flamingos is a lot like Cotton in that we too expect Waters to present ever more shocking images as the film goes on — every scene ups the ante. This goal is achieved by having the film’s narrative center on a group of scheming middle class poseurs, Connie and Raymond Marble (Mink Stole and David Lochary), attempting to wrest the title of “filthiest people alive” from Divine and her family. This leads to the breaking of all kinds of long-standing cultural taboos, including the big three: murder, cannibalism and incest. Of course, Divine does not engage in these acts to compete with the Marbles — she does these things because they are in her nature to do them. She is, indeed, the filthiest person alive.

pinkflamingos_sexscene
Divine prepares to perform felatio on her son.

The movie concludes with a kangaroo court trial of Connie and Raymond Marble, who are convicted of “assholism.” Divine tars and feathers the convicts, executes them in front of a crowd of gossip reporters, and then flees to Boise, Idaho with Crackers and Cotton.

Pink_Flamingos1
Divine holds a press conference before executing the Marbles

At this point in the film my students were pretty shell shocked. They had watched an extended scene of passionate toe-sucking. They witnessed a singing asshole (literally)  and a pre-operative transsexual flash her penis at the camera. But then came the film’s famous denoument. My students knew it was coming and yet, they were not prepared.

As the scene unfolded my students howled with disgust. But I was in the back of the room laughing so hard that tears were rolling down my face. “You’re enjoying this?” one incredulous student remarked, “What is wrong with you?” But this scene is funny. When Divine smiles at the camera with shit-covered teeth, the image is gag-inducing but it is also hilarious in its sheer defiance. It is the ultimate in juvenile high jinks. This image appeals to the 9-year-old in me.

The credits rolled and my students slowly filed out of the classroom, shaking their heads and muttering under their breath. Watching them go  I realized that it is still possible to shock today’s youth. My hat goes off to you, Mr. Waters.