"s&co" - a photo by Flickr user austinevan
Thoughts on media, culture, and the world-at-large bubbling up from the dusty corners of my cluttered mind
May 15, 2011
The Crew

Bridesmaids was marketed like a raunch-com centered on female friendship and the absurdities of weddings, but there's a whole lot more going on. The film's wide-ranging (and, to some, surprisingly cross-gender) appeal appeal is based on something far more universal.

Posted By Saralyn on/at 11/08/2010 11:42:00 PM

You may remember the assignment I completed for my visual research methods course with the fantastic Alex Juhasz.  Well, this Friday, November 12, I will be presenting it as part of the Vampire Love area of the 2010 Film & History Conference in Milwaukee, WI.  The theme for the conference this year is "Representations of Love in Film and Television" and the Keynote Speaker will be Laura Mulvey - so you can only imagine how excited I am to participate.  It's a great opportunity to present a unique piece of scholarship of which I am quite proud and will be the focus of future research I do, and I get to visit the "beer capital of the world".

For those who cannot be at the panel (happening November 12, 2:30-4p, Session 236B – Lakeshore C (1st Floor) for those who will be there), I've decided to post the brief presentation I will give before showing the video essay.  After thinking on it, I decided to contextualize the video essay - what drew me to the project, the Twilight debates, my approach in/to the video essay - rather than .  This is partly to avoid being repetitive, but also because .  Part of the reason I chose the medium of video essay to address its specific topic was that it allowed me to do so in a way a traditional paper could not.  Trying to translate the video essay into a traditional paper/presentation format would be very difficult and would destroy some of its impact and insight.  Needless to say, I am curious how my work will fit into the conference proceedings...

That said, my presentation lies behind the jump!  Enjoy and please, please let me know if you have any comments or suggestions.

Posted in

Posted By Saralyn on/at 10/19/2010 03:22:00 PM

I've added a new page to the blog called "Papers".  While it doesn't have much to it at the moment, I'll be updating it periodically with pieces I've written for courses, conferences and publications.  I'm interested in making them available to a larger audience/community, so that others might make use of them, give me suggestions and additional resources, and otherwise engage in greater dialogue about media.  To kick things off, I'd like to share an analysis of the use of audio exaggeration in Raising Arizona (1987), directed by the Coen Brothers, that I wrote for my film theory course this semester.  The downloadable link to the PDF of the essay can be found on the new Papers page.


Audibly Absurd: 
Audio Exaggeration and the American Dream in Raising Arizona
A fever swept over Hollywood in the mid-1980s – baby fever. As the nation took a conservative turn, the importance of the family came to the forefront and moviegoers could choose from an array of baby-related films (Gilmore 62). Molly Ringwold was a teen mother in For Keeps (1988), staunch career-woman Diane Keaton discovered the life-enriching joys of adopted motherhood in Baby Boom (1987), Kristie Alley's non-verbal offspring narrated life from an embryo and infant's point of view in Look Who's Talking (1989), and Leonard Nimoy even directed a film about three bachelors attempting to take care of an unexpected bundle of joy in Three Men and a Baby (1987). Nearly all of Hollywood's baby-centric films of the decade “mawkishly explor[ed] the longing for a family and the promise of happiness through reproduction” (Körte and Seesslen 68). As would become one of their hallmarks, in 1987 Joel and Ethan Coen remixed, deconstructed, and re-imagined the well-worn “baby picture” genre.
The second feature film directed, written, and produced by the Coen Brothers, Raising Arizona details a cop (Ed, played by Holly Hunter) and an (ex)con (H.I. McDunnough, played by Nicolas Cage) who meet, marry, discover they are incapable of having children, and kidnap a baby (Nathan Junior) from a local celebrity (the titular Nathan Arizona) whose wife has just given birth to quintuplets – and that's all in the first eleven minutes. It is an unusual premise for a slapstick comedy but the Coen Brothers inject heavy amounts of absurdity into every aspect of the film, creating a surreal parody and critique of the American dream and ideal American family in the late twentieth century. As the couple attempt to settle into a “respectable family life” with their stolen child, the situation is complicated by escaped convicts, economic woes, a high-speed chase over a pack of stolen Huggies, and the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse (whose name is, ironically, Leonard Smalls). If the sheer speed and absurdity of the plot were not enough to ensure the film's comic nature, many critics and scholars point to the ways in which the Coen Brothers manipulate mise-en-scene in exaggerated ways. As in many of their films, the Coen Brothers play with the color palette to match the mood of the film, here creating sharp, striking colors and contrasts. Many critics and scholars have noted how the distorting effects of the wide-angle camera lens used in Raising Arizona are “germane to the farcical and cartoonish nature of the film” (Bergan 103-4). However, few have really explored the ways in which the exaggerated audio track of the film illuminates and deepens the exaggerated emotions and behaviors of the characters. This is strange, as the audio track is every bit as striking as the visuals and contributes greatly to the film's parody of the American dream.
General Silliness
While much of the audio exaggeration in Raising Arizona relates directly to the film's parody of the American dream, some of it functions more basically to help create the absurd tone of the film that is essential to its humor. Many of the absurdly exaggerated sound effects fall into this category – everything seems to be three times as loud as it would be in reality. Carter Burwell's score is full of twangy, bluegrass influenced music, including Pete Seeger's “Goofing Off Suite” - “a fascinating medley of American folk music, motifs from high European classical models (Bach and Beethoven), Russian folk music, and even yodeling” (Gilmore 7-8). The music underscores “the unsophisticated nature of the characters and the folkloric, backwoods quality of the story,” providing aural accompaniment to the cartoon-like action on-screen (Levine 57).
This “backwoods quality” carries over into the accents of H.I., the Arizonas, the Snopes brothers (H.I.'s escaped convict friends), and many of the characters in the film. As in their Academy Award-winning film Fargo, the Coen Brothers make use of highly exaggerated Southern accents for the characters in Raising Arizona. The inspiration for the accents seems to have come less from the titular state in which the film was both set and filmed than from Holly Hunter's natural Deep South, Georgian drawl. The effect is to draw in common American stereotypes that a Southern accent indicates laziness, illiteracy, and lower socioecomic status (Hamilton 6-7). Much of the humor in Raising Arizona arises when the characters say or do things that betray their ignorance or are incongruous with their lower socioeconomic status and accents - such as when H.I. takes Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care as the “instructions” for their stolen child or when the Snopes brothers co-opt the prison psychiatrist's terminology to explain that they left prison because they believed it “no longer had anything to offer [them].” The exaggerated accents compliment the twangy, backwoods music that accompany the film, creating an environment that may at first seem to be reality but reveals itself as a tad off-kilter.
Extreme Emotionality
As noted above, in American society (and films), having a child is often seen as the most important and necessary part of one's life. It is taken to be the most fulfilling, emotional experience of one's life and the only way to truly live the American Dream. Raising Arizona directly attacks this notion, taking the themes of emotionality and emotional connections to children to an extreme. In the film's cartoon-like emotional landscape, every emotion the characters have seems to be amplified. Sequences with high emotional (and comedic) stakes seem to be populated with some of the most exaggerated sound effects in the film. Ed begins to berate H.I. about his responsibilities as a father during their first night at home, and H.I.'s budding anxiety is mirrored by ever louder whine of the camera flash warming up for the “family portrait” they are about to take. When the Snopes brothers learn that there is a reward out for Nathan Junior, H.I. and the larger brother (Gale, played by John Goodman) engage in a highly exaggerated battle within the McDunnough's small trailer. H.I. is fighting to keep his family together and every action and assault takes on great significance – and volume. “Gale uses H.I. as a wrecking ball, destroying the manufactured home by throwing H.I. through walls, doors, and fixtures,” (Doom 18) and every knuckle scrape, popped joint, shattered vase or window, and broken beam is rendered audible. The audience is even treated to a wind sound effect as Gale swings H.I. around in circles. 
In a similar highly charged and comedic sequence, H.I. becomes part of an extended chase sequence after attempting to steal diapers from a convenience store. As the sequence progresses, H.I. is chased through houses, suburban streets, and a grocery store by the police, a pack of dogs, shotgun wielding store clerks, and his own wife. Police and the clerks fire their weapons without caution and every shot sounds like it has been fired from anti-aircraft artillery. The tires of Ed's car screech as she careens through the neighborhood trying to keep up with the chase and cereal boxes explode from gunfire in supermarket aisles. The sound effects mirror the overboard visuals, as well as H.I. and Ed's ramped up emotions.
At times, the emotions bubbling up inside the characters are simply too much for their verbal skills to handle and they erupt into screams, sobs, or angry yells, “as if regressing into an infantile, primal language state” (Evans 49). In a brilliant and bizarre moment, Ed suddenly begins sobbing after H.I. gives her Nathan Junior for the first time because she just “loves him so much!” Her body shakes with the force of her tears and emotion in a clear parody of the sudden and overwhelming maternal love mothers supposedly feel for their children after giving birth, especially movies of the period. It doesn't matter that she and H.I. have just kidnapped the child. After months of trying naturally to have a child, discovering she was infertile, attempting to adopt, and being turned away, receiving the stolen baby is Ed's “birthing” moment and she reacts accordingly. Similarly, when the child's mother discovers him missing, her grief is so extreme that she lets out a scream that echoes out over the desert landscape.
The loss of the child instigates screams of anger and frustration from other characters within the film, as well. After H.I. loses his battle with the larger Snopes brother and is tied to a chair while the two fugitives make off with the child, he lets out an anguished scream. Alternately, when the Snopes brothers accidentally leave Nathan Junior behind in the middle of the road (twice), they let out with roars, cries, and screams as they race back to get it. These are some of the most humorous episodes in the film, as the brothers pound their fists into the roof and dashboard of the car and shake their heads about while screaming and careening down the road. They take every action and emotion to its ultimate exaggerated, cartoonish limit. They have only just made a connection with the child, and yet there is a sense that language simply cannot contain their emotions for it. It is a clear and biting parody of every film with a cute baby that every character immediately falls in love with and would do anything for, as well as the rhetoric with which American society discusses having children.
Sinister Sounds
When the importance of child-bearing and child-rearing are touted, a preoccupation with threats to children and family life are also present. Whether it be poisoned candy, pedophiles, single mothers, or a host of other sinister conditions, there is always something just waiting to tear about the perfect “family unit”. Raising Arizona lampoons this notion not only through its plot but through the use of overly dramatic music or exaggerated sound effects connected to threats to the McDunnough family.1 For example, the Snopes brothers's escape from prison (through a self-dug tunnel that accidentally hit a sewer line) is prefigured by ominous music and the sounds of a heavy thunderstorm. In another example of emotions exceeding language, the men who will soon kidnap Nathan Junior from H.I. emerge from the mud screaming. The aural landscape of the sequence is every bit absurd and laughable as the twangy banjo music throughout the film, but the effect is far different. The audience can laugh, but they also know that the pair will pose a threat to the new family.
The greatest threat to H.I., Ed, and Nathan Junior, however, comes in the form of a dirty, cruel, mysterious bounty hunter who may or may not have been conjured out of H.I.'s guilt-ridden dreams. The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse – incongruously named Leonard Smalls after Steinbeck's character in Of Mice and Men – sets out to find kidnapped Nathan Junior. However, his desire is only for the money finding the child would bring, first attempting to extort the boy's father and then stating that there are many people who'd pay good money for a child. Whether because he manifests some rebellious aspect of H.I.'s psyche or he is just the “warthog from Hell” Ed claims, Smalls is everything that could destroy American dreams and American families. As such, he is accompanied by an appropriately epic, evil, and exaggerated soundtrack of his own.
In contrast to the folksy, inviting quality of the music that follows Ed and H.I., composer Carter Burwell created a Spanish rock opera theme for the demonic biker that combines samples from opera singers and electric guitars (Levine 57). The theme also carried bits of a lullaby Ed sings to Nathan Junior (itself actually a traditional murder ballad titled “Down in the Willow Garden”) played on a synthesizer to “give it a mechanized, ominous air” (Robson 55). In addition to this ominous music, it seems that everything Smalls wears or does emits an exaggerated sound. His leather clothing creaks and his motorcycle belches fire and smoke. When flowers burst into flame as he passes them on his motorcycle, they audibly crackle and sizzle. Smalls is walking death, and it can be heard just as easily as seen.
One of the most meaningful noisy accessories is the pair of bronzed baby booties Smalls wears on his belt – although whether as a “memento or a trophy” the audience is unsure (Körte and Seesslen 83). In either case, they combine with his “Mama didn't love me” tattoo and off-handed comment to Mr. Arizona that he himself was stolen and sold as a child to further entrench him as the embodiment of all that threatens children. The pair of booties seem to tinkle as the camera takes them in, a sound that connects him directly to Nathan Junior later in the film. As Nathan Junior sits in his car seat in the middle of the road waiting for the Snopes brothers to return for him, he kicks his feet and they tinkle. This sound effect creates a direct relationship between the baby and the mysterious biker, which adds to the sense of danger the latter poses for the former. It is as though Smalls represents not only that which can destroy the family, but the terrible thing as sweet a child as Nathan Junior can become if not raised properly. It is an exaggerated potential outcome of the concerns over how best to raise a child replete in 1980s baby movies and American culture at large.
The Importance of Being Absurd
Everything the characters in Raising Arizona say and do is a little (or extremely) absurd and it often sounds as though they are in a live-action Looney Toons cartoon. It is a hilarious take on the heightened importance placed on babies and child-rearing in 1980s cinema. But it is not just a hollow, postmodern parody that allows the audience (and filmmakers) to look down upon its absurd characters, as critics such as Roger Ebert and Sheila Benson have suggested (Robson 56). To view Raising Arizona in this way is to ignore the role and effect of the comedy and exaggeration, of which the audio track is an essential part.
The absurdity and exaggerations functions as jokes, the purpose of which Ted Cohen describes in terms of “'relief from certain oppressions, and the attainment of a very special kind of intimacy'” between the teller and the hearer (Gilmore 15). Jokes require the hearer to fill in a bit of missing information or make a connection – the connection between Nathan Junior's twinkling shoes and Leonard Smalls's twinkling baby booties and “Mama didn't love me” tattoo, for instance – that results in the teller and hearer being “joined in feeling” (15). It gives us a moment to step back from the things like unrealistic or extreme pressures to have children or raise them in certain ways that weigh down on or oppress us and join with the joke teller to recognize and laugh at them. The joke does not obscure commonalities or truths or provide a vantage point from which the audience can judge the characters, but allows us to connect more intimately with them. As Richard Gilmore points out
[Ed and H.I.'s] marriage, ‘starter home,’ ‘salad days,’ infertility, despair, and kidnapping scheme are all a little ridiculous, and yet, even though they are presented as basically funny, there is a sort of underlying truth to all of it. America does have a fascination or love affair with the image of the outlaw, so choosing to be an outlaw is not really that crazy. And it is hard starting a family in this modern world, even if, or especially if, you are an outlaw by trade. And starter homes sometimes are little mobile homes in the desert. And sometimes, in spite of your best efforts, nature does not cooperate; infertility is a fact of life. (8)
Through laughter, we can feel a kind of tenderness towards these seemingly cartoonish characters and, Gilmore argues, even ourselves. Everything about the film is calculated to achieve this, and the very success of the film depends upon it. From the distorted effects of the wide angle lens to the delicious twang of the soundtrack and the excessive sound effects, the Coen brothers strive to poke a hole in the sacred fabric of the “baby film” and the American dream – and provide a space from which we can both laugh at and connect to the H.I. and Ed's around and within us.

Notes
1The threat the McDunnoughs pose the child and the Arizona family is never really considered in the film, as the audience knows H.I. and Ed and their motivations. They are the protagonists with whom we are to identify and know they will do the child no ill.


Works Cited
Bergan, Ronald. The Coen Brothers. London: Orion Media, 2000. Print.  
Doom, Ryan P. The Brothers Coen: Unique Characters of Violence. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, 2009. Print.  
Evans, Jeff. “Comic rhetoric in Raising Arizona.” Studies in American Humor ns3.3 (1996): 39-53. Retrieved from WilsonWeb. 11 Sept. 2010.  
Gilmore, Richard. “Raising Arizona as an American Comedy.” The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers. Ed. Mark T Conard. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009. Print.  
Hamilton, Karen C. “Y'all Think We're Stupid.” 2009. Web. 16 Sept. 2010.  
Körte, Peter and George Seesslen. Joel & Ethan Coen. 1st ed. New York: Limelight Editions, 2001. Print.  
Levine, Josh. The Coen Brothers: The Story of Two American Filmmakers. Toronto: ECW Press, 2000. Print.  
Raising Arizona. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment LLC, 2009. DVD.
Robson, Eddie. Coen Brothers. London: Virgin, 2003. Print.  

Posted By Saralyn on/at 9/12/2010 08:00:00 PM

Photo from deadline.com
  Earlier this week, it was announced that Stephen King's massive 7-book, metafictional Dark Tower series would be finally making its way onto the big and small screens.  In what is being hailed as an unprecedented move, Universal Pictures and NBC Universal Television Entertainment will turn the book series into three feature films, each spanned by a network television series.  Akiva Goldsman (Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind, and some of my favorite episodes of Fringe) will write the screenplay of at least the first film and television series, both of which Ron Howard has already agreed to direct.  Brian Grazer, Goldsman, and Stephen King will produce.  The television series will feature the same actors as the feature films and be headed by the same creative forces - a utilization of a media conglomerate's vertically integrated resources never before attempted.


I am a big enough fan of King's work and the Dark Tower series in particular to be both obnoxiously excited and ridiculously nervous about the upcoming film/television series.  I was a little disappointed when the Abrams-Cuse-Lindelof adaptation fizzled because of the trio's expressed affection for the King series and have always been somewhat skeptical of how well The Dark Tower will translate to the screen.  King's works are not known for working well as films, owing not in small part to the graphic nature of most of his stories and that there is a great deal of "action" that is internal to the characters.  While I have not read the Dark Tower graphic novels yet, there is something about the comic medium that seems to fit well for me with the story.  On top of all of this, you still have the issues of casting, production design, story arch choices, etc.  If all this isn't enough to make a fan nervous, I don't know what is.

 

And yet....I am hopeful for this upcoming adaptation, should everyone follow through with it.  I think it is ambitious to embark on this kind of project - especially with such a convoluted, meta-fictional, mixed genre series - but it is that ambitiousness that gives me hope.  Much of my hesitation about potential film/television adaptations of the Dark Tower series (in addition to the general ones about King's work noted about) is its scope.  The thing is MASSIVE - the mass market paperback that I own of the final book in the series clocks in at 1072 pages all by itself.  Add in the other six books, flashbacks, and side stories, and you have a series to rival those by Lewis and Tolkien (if in heft alone).  It could not fit into a traditional film (or trio of films) without devastating cuts.  In this way, it is more suited to television, where it could take time to unravel the story, spend an episode or two on the back stories of characters and so on.  However, the nature of the story almost requires the resources of a big-budget film (and studio).  It will require massive effects work, not to mention elaborate costuming and staging if certain portions of the story remain in place.  Using feature films to tell the "big parts" of the story and a television series to fill in the spaces between the films (presumably the "slower" or more drawn out portions) seems a creative way to use each medium as it can best tell the story.

It will be an exciting experiment in cross-platform storytelling.  Perhaps, years from now, we media scholars will look back on it as a shining example of transmedia and medium specificity.  For now, there are still many questions to answer.  Who will play Roland? How will they handle the metafictional elements (ie, King himself becoming a character late in the series, the connections to other King works, etc)?  Will there be online/print comics in the vein of Marvel's graphic novels to help further fill in character backstory (my opinion: it's almost necessary)?  Will audiences go for it - both in terms of the unpleasantness of the story and commitment to the franchise? Is Ron Howard really the right director?

Will it be any good?

Howard and his collaborators certainly have a difficult path ahead of them.  If the first film fails critically, financially, and/or with the King fans, the fate of the rest of the project will be uncertain.  However, I am curious to see how it all pans out.  Perhaps ka will be on our side...

Posted By Saralyn on/at 5/07/2010 12:43:00 AM

If you visit this little website, you'll find the "paper" I have written about Ze Frank and his fabulous digital storytelling projects "a childhood walk" and "from 52 to 48 | from 48 to 52 with love". It looks at the role of Ze as an "expert facilitator" for the people participating and the relationship between them. The project is my final course requirement for Visual Research Methods, the course for which I initially created this blog. Well, there is one more thing I have to do - a brief reflection on the semester and on academic blogging in particular.

This semester has been a very interesting one for me, particularly as regards this blog. I often find myself wanting to spend time updating and creating this for this blog when I ought to be doing other things. It has provided me a space to elaborate on topics touched on during class sessions but not fully explored (such as the Soja/Gangs of New York/Y Tu Mama post), as well address academically-related lines of thought that are unrelated to any courses I'm currently taking (like "Opportunities Missed"). This is exciting and freeing for me, as there is often not enough time to really dig into topics during class sessions - if what I'm currently academically obsessing over is related to class at all. It's also been a great way to share my initial forays into media creation with world, as I can provide context and explanations not necessarily supported as well on platforms like YouTube. I hope to continue exploring my role/potential as a media artist and feel that this blog will be central to those efforts.

What I have found extremely difficult is finding my voice for this new forum. I have been blogging since high school and use/have used Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Hi5, etc, so I am not unfamiliar with publishing my thoughts online for the world to see. What I am unfamiliar with, however, is expressing my professional/academic thoughts as such for public consumption. As other classmates of mine have noted, use of the "I-voice" and personal/subjective stances have been drummed out of my academic writing during my education, so bringing them back together again for an 'academic blog' has been difficult. I have been painfully aware throughout the process that my voice/style/tone here has been uneven, ranging from the detached attempt to the personal and more informal style of my recent post regarding my sister. This rambling post is just one more example of how I am constantly struggling with where the informal-formal, personal-detached lines exist in this new venue.

Additionally, despite having always been an honors student/overachiever, I am quite often extremely insecure about my academic products and grasp of theory, so a great deal of anxiety wells up within me whenever I hit that "publish" button. Publishing my academic thoughts for anyone to read has forced me to confront and try to work through this insecurity. What if I'm wrong!? What if someone else already pointed this out, and in a more eloquent and complex way?! Who do I think I am, anyway?! While I haven't come to a solution or ideal way of handling these anxieties, working on my blog has at least brought me into dialogue with them. (Also, it's nice to know that I can always just delete or edit a post if it turns out to be horrendously misguided...)

I fully intend to keep this blog running....for as long as I can (read: until I run out of ideas, time, or motivation). I hope you'll keep reading and commenting - maybe our discourse can help us all dig a little deeper into the often murky waters of culture and society.

---
To address my classmates from this semester for a moment: Thank you so very much. I have enjoyed learning from and engaging with all of you so very much. I sincerely hope you'll all keep up with your blogs or at least keep me posted on your research and ideas - I'll be reading. I value your thoughts and insights and truly hope that this is not the end for us.


...that sounded a little strange, like we're reluctantly breaking-up with each other. I guess that's what feels like a little. Does this mean I need to go eat a pint of ice cream and put on an emo record?

Posted By Saralyn on/at 4/30/2010 04:58:00 PM

I'm currently working on a paper about digital storytelling and selected projects on zefrank.com (including a telephone interview with the creator, about which I am absurdly nervous).  Then end product of that project will hopefully be a website incorporating pictures, links, and video into my academic text and (whether that works out or I end up doing a simple Issuu style format) will be linked to through this blog.  For now, however, I have a video to share with you from zefrank.com.  It is for all of you, but is dedicated especially to my classmates working on their own digital storytelling papers or projects:


View the video on the original website at www.zefrank.com/social_network (there isn't an embed option with the original video, so I had to sneak away to YouTube to be able to share it here...)

Posted By Saralyn on/at 4/15/2010 11:41:00 PM

On an only vaguely academic note, sometimes I get the best texts from my youngest sister.  Some backstory: 

She's 13 years old and I have taken it upon myself to supplement her media diet of Fred videos, Nicholas Sparks movies and Twilight with classic films and a critical approach to her media consumption.  Sometimes it's like pulling teeth - honestly, how many 13 year olds (aside from a younger me) would go for a black and white, non-musical version of "My Fair Lady" (no matter how fabulous it may be) when they could watch the technicolor extravaganza?
But sometimes it's surprising how much she ends up liking them - and how they stick with her!  Today, she essentially sent me a "Name that movie!" text - a clip from "Pygmalion" (1938) (not the one above, but similar in quality) with the text "What movie is this from?"  It's been months and months since we watched the film and I'm honestly surprised she even remembers!

<
I also forced her to watch the 1952 version of "The Importance of Being Earnest", which is hilarious and absurd in a very dated way.  Not the most accessible film for a (pre?)teen, but she ended up liking it quite a bit once she got into it.  About a month ago I got a text from her that said "But your name is Earnest..but suppose it wasn't? Lol."

My sister is awesome.

Posted in

Posted By Saralyn on/at 4/10/2010 06:58:00 PM

In the same course for which I made the Twilight video essay, we were tasked with either writing a paper about a documentary or ethnography or making one ourselves. I was going to do the former until a classmate of mine - Tim Posada (who has blogged a bit about the project, including two drafts of our screenplay) - proposed something far more interesting: a mockumentary about his roommates living in the wake of the zombie apocalypse. After three rounds of screenplay editing, wrestling with setting a date for filming, one broken ankle (and several additional injuries), and hours of video editing, I (along with Tim, Cristen Blanding, and Eric Paison) am proud to present "702":



Before moving on, I just want to take a moment to say how pleased I am with our film. Wrangling all the (non-)actors and zombies/extras and keeping them on track was a chore and group projects are not always easy for me, but things came together so well! I feel that we achieved most of what we were aiming for (a contrast between the "day in the life" orientation of the beginning and the more "zombie film" feel of the end, the implication of documentarians in the "stories" they film, "normal life" in extraordinary situations, etc), which is a very satisfying feeling. Tim talks a bit in his blog about the editing process and some of the issues we tried to tackle, so I'll focus a bit more on the process of creation/filming. This was my first experience producing an original film/video project and, as such, much of what I value about the project was in the process.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the film (and making it) is the blurred lines of reality and fiction. Tim and all the roommates in the film are actually roommates who live together in that house. All dialogue about their "past lives" is drawn from their actual ones, and we added no props - everything from the Chuck Norris calendar and Evil Dead's Ash statuettes to the machetes and weapons* were just lying about the house. When we filmed Elliott running on the treadmill in the garage, he hadn't realized we were doing so. He thought Bryan was actually asking him if he wanted lunch, so he responded in kind. This brought up an interesting array of issues, beginning with the interviews (which we filmed at the beginning of the day).

Each roommate had a scripted blurb about themselves we planned to use in the introduction, which we had them begin the interview with. I then prompted each of them with a question about their life before, what's changed, etc, just trying to get them in the mood for the rest of the shoot. I think it's fair to say that, at most, we thought they might come up with a couple of amusing things we could use later. However, once they began talking about being separated from families, missing loved ones, and so on, we were amazed by the amount of good (and surprisingly moving) stuff that came up! It got to the point where we almost felt uncomfortable - it felt as though we were intruding, despite knowing that we were dealing entirely in fiction. Cristen and I discussed how difficult and uncomfortable it would be to jump into situations with people who have survived (or are living in) horrific conditions and ask them to tell us all about it. I can't even imagine doing so.

While we're on the subject of the difficult/awkward/uncomfortable, I'll touch a bit on my role as "cinematographer". When we made the decision in the screenwriting stage to include the "documentarian" in the story (rather than just a silent camera taking it all in), Cristen immediately suggested I play the role.** I was extremely reticent to do so, partly because I've always hated listening to my own recorded voice and partly because I've never been particularly good at filming/photographing. My shaky hands make me self-conscious about taking film or video, but I agreed to do it anyway. We had planned out sequences and shots beforehand (to an extant), which reduced my anxiety a bit. I didn't anticipate how much I would enjoy having the camera in my hands, though! I always try to be attuned to little details about spaces, so it was fantastic to be able to direct the camera in such a visually rich environment (the house).  Shooting the last sequence was extremely hectic and nerve-wracking, as we only had one chance to get it.  The result was a bit mixed, in my opinion - I feel as though we captured the panic well, but sacrificed some of the visual information we wanted to convey (such as the dead zombie in the driveway and the fact that two of the zombies are female, neither of which you can tell).  As with so much of the project, even this is somewhat revealing about the process of documentary-making - you are often at the mercy of what happens to pass in front of your camera.  I hadn't intended this aspect of documentary-making to creep into our fictional film, but it made the process all the richer for me.

Finally, I want to thank all the fabulous people involved in the film. In addition to my peers mentioned earlier, we couldn't have done the film without Elliott, Roy, Bryan, Luke, and Justin being so cooperative and wonderful. And, while they didn't get a lot of "air time", our zombies (Nick, C.J. and Jessica) worked really hard to look and act the part. We also have to thank Dr. Alex Juhasz for allowing us to produce a mockumentary for our documentary/ethnography project. I highly recommend the volume on fake documentaries ("F is for Phony") for anyone interested in the topic.

Feel free to sound off about our film in the comments below (or comment/rate/share through YouTube). We came up with much more background information about the film and why the fictional organization(s) decided to create it and would love talking about it with anyone who's interested.

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*The guns were Airsoft and other fake firearms the guys had and painted black for the production. Otherwise, all items were there, in place, when we came to film - including the Captain America and Ash figures sitting side-by-side.
**I name names so my mother has someone to blame for my fictional death....

Posted By Saralyn on/at 4/01/2010 09:52:00 PM

I’ve recently run across the writings of Edward Soja, one of the foremost theorists in spacial studies. In the introduction to his book Postmodern Geographies, Soja argues for the necessity of engaging with and understanding the important confluence of time, space and social being in building what he terms “human geographies”. For Soja, it simply will not do to consider time without space or space without time - they are inextricably linked and social relations are formed in the confluences. The majority of the introduction traces the way an “unbudgeably hegemonic” historicism and preoccupation with time as the primary way to understand human existence that has negated the importance of space.* Soja identifies the way Western Marxism found space a troubling concept, as a grounding in specific localities could threaten a united global proletariat movement and revolution. He also points to the ways Foucault often denied the fact that he was working in/with space (and was in many ways a geographer), as there was no respect for spatiality and no real way to talk about it within the academy. It’s a fascinating read, especially for those who (like myself) were trained in fields that engage with space on a regular basis. I never realized the historical neglect of space as an aspect of social power and understand social relations, but can now see it in the discussions I’ve had with history students with whom I am doing coursework.

Soja was brought up with regard to understanding Scorcese’s Gangs of New York (2002), where time becomes messy and space takes precedence.  For those familiar with the film, I pose an intriguing question: what if the two eruptions of violence at the end of the film (the draft riot and the gang battle) are representative of battles concerned only with time/history (the draft riot, which is a reaction against a historical moment) and space (the gang battle, as Amsterdam Vallon actually states that the gangs at that moment had no mind for what was going on outside Five Points)?  The two cannot remain separate for long, and the temporal and spatial crash into each other as cannon fire and the militia invade Five Points.

My readings of Soja and the discussions of Gangs of New York continually brought to my mind another film, as well - Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También (2001).  Space, location and the way these are inextricably tied with social conditions are at the very heart of the film.  Many reviewers have discussed the way Mexico itself becomes a character in Cuarón’s film, with the unidentified narrator providing information on other stories and larger social conditions or concerns. Even more interesting is the way Cuarón’s camera often drifts away from the main characters and the temporal narrative being told in the film to linger on a place or social interaction that has little or nothing to do with the story. For example, at a social event early in the film, the camera follows a caterer out to where the staff and chauffeurs stand waiting for their employers to finish their reveling. Both the narrator and the wandering camera (which often coincide) serve to disrupt the (necessary?) privileging of time in the film. It is an interesting way to linger on and explore the importance of space in a medium that seems so tied to the temporal.

I had intended to explore specific sequences, accompanied by video clips, but I wasn’t able to find the ones I wanted. Hopefully I will be able to track them down and come back to it later. Until then, I leave you with the trailer for Y Tu Mamá También:

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*Soja was writing in 1989 and does not engage with the postcolonial theory that had already been present and engaging with space for many years. Apparently, he and other postmodernists would often be criticized for this omission.

Posted By Saralyn on/at 3/18/2010 07:26:00 PM

The subtitle for today should read “In which all the provided NOTES pages at the back of the program become filled”

After a nearly disastrous morning where my hosts caught me moments before I inadvertently set off their house alarm trying to leave without waking them, I caught the bus downtown for the first day of the conference. For some reason, I had expected the event to draw mostly undergrad and graduate students, so I was surprised to find myself one of the youngest people there. I would say the mix is probably 80/20 faculty/graduate students, which is both exciting and adds a little pressure to my presentation.

I attended several sessions today, with mixed results. Perhaps a brief recap of some of the more memorable/interesting bits is in order:

Session 1: Mediated Heroes - Real or Imagined? (Faculty from the Mass Comm department at CSU Pueblo)
This was easily my favorite panel of the day. The faculty who presented (Justin Bregar, Sam Ebersole, Sam Lovato, Richard Joyce, Jen Mullen, and Leticia Steffen) were engaging, interesting, and made for a varied but cohesive panel. The topics varied from A-list bloggers and Erma Bombeck to the odd interactions of the statuses of celebrity and hero in the media and why we don’t value journalism heroes like we do those of sports or military. I even learned that there is someone who makes social theory trading cards and Reclaim the Media makes Media Heroes ones (and Joyce gave each of us three of them)!


The question of whether there is (or should be) a line drawn between “heroes” and “celebrities” arose repeatedly in the presentations and discussion. I purposely chose not to engage with the issue in my own paper for the conference (for simplicity’s sake), although I think it is an interesting and important one in our day and age. The discussions always remind me of Joseph Campbell’s insistence in a difference between the two, and how important that is for societies. I do not have my copy of The Power of Myth with me at the moment, but I believe his important distinction between the two is that the hero does what s/he does for the good of the community while the celebrity has personal motives.

Session 2: Frontiers
I was initially quite excited about this panel, as I am finally channeling my own interest in the frontier, the cowboy, and so on into actual academic output this semester. While all the presentations were fascinating in their own way, the one that truly stuck out for me was Matthew R. Turner’s Black Sheriffs and Villains in White Hats: The Image of the Hero in Western Parodies. Focusing specifically on Blazing Saddles and Rustler’s Rhapsody, Turner delineated the ways in which parodic representations deconstruct and subvert the traditional Western hero - the black sheriff, the use of clothing & humor in Rustler’s Rhapsody to question the masculinity of the “singing cowboy” persona, who wins the shootout when both gunmen wear white hats?, etc. These representations rely on and remain in the tradition of the genre to an extent, though. Because of this, they are an evolution of the genre and in some ways presaged/paved the way for the more postmodern, deconstructed, or complicated/ambivalent Western heroes of recent years (Unforgiven, etc) - not the end of the genre, as some called Blazing Saddles. It was utterly fascinating, and I am excited to look up some of the theorists and authors mentioned in the presentation.


Session 3: Representations
This was one of a number of panels at the conference with a less-than-informative title, but the panels all focused on art at some level. I initially attended to hear Ziad R. AbiChakra’s presentation Carving Heroism in Stone: The Contested Space of Lebanon’s World War I Martyr’s Statues, which was extremely fascinated. One of the courses I am taking this semester is on memorializing trauma, and we spent the first several weeks of class discussing World War I monuments and memorials. Our focus was primarily on Europe, so I relished the opportunity to hear about Lebanon’s (especially since Lebanon was not an independent nation until after the war). AbiChakra detailed the erection, evolving meanings, and contestations of the two monuments in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square, and how the government’s recent recasting of the current monument to stand for all the martyrs of Lebanon’s past (instead of just the WWI-related martyrs it was originally intended) actually works to strip the monument of any real meaning for the people.

The surprise of this panel was Andrew J. Huebner’s presentation on memorials to non-Cubans in Havana, Cuba. Apparently, Havana is home to a number of monuments and memorials to individuals like John Lennon (as in the above photo), the Rosenbergs, Abraham Lincoln, the USS Maine.... memorials that, at first, seem out of place but are presented as fitting within anti-capitalist, anti-imperial, anti-racist, and anti-American discourses at the core of official Cuban rhetoric. While his presentation was largely preliminary work and thoughts on the topic, I found it one of the most intriguing of the entire conference.

Session 4: Re-Imagining Masculinity
I’m still not entirely certain how to unpack this panel, presented by three professors from the US Air Force Academy. The first spoke from a philosophical, rhetorical approach on the need for a more inclusive, less “definition-oriented” approach to masculinity, and the last on the need for empathy as an aspect of the warrior hero ethos (particularly as defined by the USAFA). Wedged between these was a professor who spoke on the use of Christian agape love as a model for masculinity, which, in theory, is not so bad. However, his argument (in both his presentation and the Q&A) devolved into a very heteronormative, heterosexist one founded on ideas like the biological difference between men and women that indicates women should not be in combat, that men are built to protect their nations, families and women, etc. It was intensely frustrating to listen to, as it seemed so proscriptive and limiting. There was no space for queer men (whose motivation may not stem from romantic love of women) or for women who are drawn to or more physically suited to what he described as appropriate “masculinity” (women who are physically strong, fast, or aggressive). The audience and the third panel member took him somewhat to task, but he remained stalwart in his (admittedly un-official and not indicative of the Air Force) opinion.

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As you may have noticed, it took me a while to get this recap up and running. Life caved back in on me when I returned - as it is wont to do - and I just couldn’t carve out the time to express all my thoughts on the presentations I attended. I will likely cover the rest of the conference in one post, picking out just a few presentations or panels that struck me. There might be other, unrelated posts before then, however...

Posted By Saralyn on/at 3/17/2010 07:07:00 AM

My undergraduate program didn’t place much (read: any, that I was aware of) emphasis on going to conferences. I wasn’t even aware that there were conferences for undergrads. Imagine my surprise to enter my first semester of graduate school and find my peers already accepted to and attending conferences! I feel a little as though I’m playing catch-up in that regard.

...All of which is a wordy lead-in to the fact that I am attending my first conference ever this week - the Society for the Interdisciplinary Study of the Image in Society’s conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This year’s theme is “The Image of the Hero in Literature, Media, and Society”, and I will be presenting a rebooted and streamlined paper from an undergraduate honors seminar titled “Of Cowboys and Ubermensch: Romantic Strains in German and American Heroes”. I’ll also be moderating a panel, which, I’ve been informed, will consist mainly of informing panelists of their time constraints. I’m hoping it will all be a low-key, smooth introductory experience that will boost my confidence to submit to larger, more prestigious gatherings.

While I usually reserve this site for “academic” meanderings, I thought I would mix it up with a daily blog during the conference. In addition to this being my first conference, it is also my first time couch surfing - bunking down with strangers who have kindly agreed to open their homes and their spare bedrooms for traveling souls. I made the decision based on my lack of funds for a hotel room and the desire to touch back in with some of the principles around simplicity & community I committed myself to while living in an intentional community. All in all, this week should be an interesting confluence of academic, social, and personal experiences.

That being said, follow the link to the full episode for a blow-by-blow of Day Zero - Leavin’ On a Jetplane (not everyday will be such a literal accounting of my time)

Posted By Saralyn on/at 2/26/2010 10:57:00 AM

After weeks and weeks of late nights, obsessing over minutiae, and searching frantically for "the right" music, I have completed my very first video essay.  The topic: Twilight's Edward Cullen.  The length: 5 1/2 minutes (6 with end credits).  The place: below. (You may notice some glitches with the sound, where the audio from the video clips seems like it comes in earlier/later/continues longer than it should. This is a glitch in exporting from iMovie that started appearing out of the blue a few days ago. I've been withholding publishing this post in hopes of fixing it, but can't quite figure out what's going on.)


Creative Commons License
Twilight - The Epitome of Romance? by Saralyn Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.


I'm fairly pleased with the video, considering it's my first attempt at anything like this and the first time in a number of years I've used iMovie (and the first time at this level of complexity).  Some of the transitions are a little quick and I would've liked to hold some of the text placards a bit longer for emphasis, but some things get rushed when working within length constraints.
If I were to do a follow-up to this project, I would like to jump off from the clip early on where the young lady talks about how comforting it is to know Bella has someone looking out for her.  Is that really the heart of Edward's appeal?  I'd love to look a little more deeply at this, investigating the cultural climate young women exist in today and the way "Twilight" and the Bella/Edward (or even Bella/Jacob) relationship fits in with it.

In closing, I'd like to leave you with another Twilight video, courtesy of Saturday Night Live.  I desperately wanted a way to fit it into the video essay, but just couldn't:

Posted in

Posted By Saralyn on/at 2/21/2010 06:42:00 PM

The last two weeks in my Visual Research Methods course, we've been exploring a variety of concepts and situations from the necessity of context in meaning construction and interpretation (through Geertz's seminal essay "Thick Description") and the possibility of a transgender gaze in film to the complexities of "looking" and pleasure in gay and lesbian media consumption and the body as performance. Each author, essay, and discussion reinforced the importance of understanding intertextuality and digging deeply when exploring visual culture.

Take, for example, an image I ran across while surfing the web earlier today:


I was incensed when I first looked at the ad, as I am wont to become with women/weight loss/body image issues. "Why is this women thinking about weight loss?! She doesn't look like she needs to lose any weight!" Then I realized that there are a number of other things going on in this image I could pull out or investigate if I were to take to heart Geertz's writings and the concept of intertextuality:
1. "Mirror, Mirror" - Snow White, situating the ad in the Western world and connecting it to Disney. It's interesting because it is the insecure, evil Queen who is actually tied to those words and the gazing in the mirror. In doing so, she is confronted with the perfection of Snow White that she is measured against (and, inevitably, doomed to be judged lacking). Certainly, there is no connection there with the unattainable images of perfection women are presented with in media....
2. Medifast, doctor recommendations, etc - Medicalization of weight loss and the rise of procedures and devices like the Lap Band, surgeries, and even the carefully, "scientifically" "designed" nutrition programs that abound
3. Quick fix - Medifast. Even the name of the company plays on the "quick fix" orientation of American society (and, some would say, modern, Western society in general)
4. Feminization of weight loss - This ties largely back in with my initial reaction, but I think it's still significant to point out. You don't see any men on the Jenny Craig television ads, do you? Most of the Slimfast, Weight Watchers, and NutriSystem spots and ads are also largely populated by women (and the ones that have men seem to have a different feel to them). So, not only does the ad raise the question of "Why does this woman need to lose weight?" but the question "...and why is it a woman?"

I'll leave you with another image. I couldn't find the right font on Seashore, but I just couldn't help myself:

Posted By Saralyn on/at 2/10/2010 05:21:00 PM

After over a year of protest and standing strong against my mother and sister's pleadings, I finally watched Twilight last night. The book and film series has held a bizarre fascination for me ever since an unfortunate episode at the 2008 Comic-Con International convention where a large group of fans nearly ran me over and gave me a migraine with their shrieking (they were trying to get into a line for a raffle where they might have the chance of meeting the actors). The hysteria...the deep attachment of the fans to the story...the way the audience demographic splits between teens and the "Twilight Moms"... I may not find the story interesting or of great value, but I definitely feel all the parts that make up the "phenomenon" are interesting. Thus, my decision to finally watch the first film. I have not yet watched New Moon, but plan to soon - for the sake of thoroughness.

I tried rather unsuccessfully to go in with a fairly open mind. Most of the film confirmed the picture painted for me by clips I'd seen, opinions of other viewers (both proponents and critics), and the little of the books I have read: the camera work was strange and sometimes just bad, the acting often provoked, and the screenplay seemed to do little to improve upon the weak writing of the novel. On a technical level, I've seen worse films, but rarely worse films with such a wide appeal and large box office take.

My biggest bias going into the film, though, was around the Bella/Edward relationship. I tried to clear my mind and approach it as my 13 year old sister might - as a tragic, romantic melodrama. However, when only 30 minutes into the film Edward tells Bella that she would stay away from him, I realized that I would not be able to. I can understand and appreciate the allure of the mysterious stranger - the man you just can't figure out. However, my understanding fails when that man tells you that he has to restrain himself from killing you whenever you're near (minute 53), that you can't trust him (minute 54), that he's sick and masochistic (minute 56), that he's the most dangerous predator in the world and everything about him is designed to pull you in (minute 53), explains your injuries to your family by saying you fell down two flights of stairs and through a window (minute 103), and that you are his "own personal brand of heroin" (minute 54). Ultimately, Edward himself expresses my concern during the film's first half-hour:


Edward: What if I'm not the hero? What if I'm the bad guy?
The most disturbing thing about all of this for me is that no one and nothing about the film challenges the idea that Edward and his relationship with Bella is ultimately good and romantic. The score of the film contains many discordant strains (particularly early on), but what it ultimately seems to communicate is Romance - there is a discordant, tragic theme in their relationship (she will grow old and die while he stays young, they must hide their love for much of the film), but their love is true and good. The soft focus Edward seems perpetually caught in and the way he shines or sparkles in the sun add to the image of Edward as a perfect romantic figure. And, of course, compared to the relatively "normal" and ridiculous boys Bella is surrounded with otherwise, he is. None of the characters in the film seem to have a problem with the relationship, aside from the werewolves. This seems to stem more from ancient tribal conflicts and Jacob's own romantic interest in Bella than any actual problems their relationship might pose.

I feel that there is something wrong here. Many people talk about Twilight as a Gothic romance, and that this explains away the problems in their relationship and its presentation to young women as something to which they should aspire. In my (rather limited, I admit) experiences, it seems that Gothic romances with their brooding, moody, often dangerous heroes usually present the heroes as just that - dangerous. It is not a good idea to get involved with them, and at least one character in the story makes this known. Catherine and Heathcliff's relationship in Wuthering Heights is presented as fundamentally flawed and twisted. Despite their intense attraction (love?) and attachment, it is clear to everyone that nothing good will come of it. In Jane Eyre, we have a brooding, often rude yet somehow charismatic hero, this time significantly older than his heroine - just as in Twilight. Jane does fall in love with this man, but when she finally learns of the danger to both her person (embodied in his mad, violent, and attic-confined secret wife) and her reputation, self-esteem, and values (by becoming his mistress) she decides that love is not enough and leaves. I will admit that this may have more to do with the mores of the age in which Bronte was writing, but I think it is significant that Jane evaluates the effect a liason with Rochester would have on her life. Also, her initial acceptance of her lover's proposal only comes when she can declare they are equals and she is not dependent on him (in the novel, she is able to do so through inheriting a sum of money). Jane does not revel in the power Rochester holds over her or find it romantic. While the Gothic romance shows the allure of the dark and dangerous protagonist, they do so in a way that still exposes the danger and (sometimes) borderline abusive nature of the relationship. Not so in Twilight.

This brings me to my ideas for fulfilling a requirement of my Visual Research Methods course - a video essay on/as visual culture. For my video essay, I want to explore this notion of the unhealthy or abusive nature of the Bella/Edward relationship. I want to shift the focus away from Bella, however. Many people (Twilight enthusiasts included) disparage Bella as whiny, weak, and undeserving of the (perfect, romantic, strong) men who love her. While I don't argue that there isn't validity in these arguments (I find it amusing that Bella gives advice to one of her friends about being a "strong, independent woman"), I think they mask the fact that those men send off a lot of red flags associated with abusive partners.

Thus, my thesis: While the narrative, score, and Twihards present Edward as romantic and the perfect boyfriend - something to aspire to - he much more closely resembles an abusive partner. I plan to explore this idea by opening with images of Edward fans that demonstrate the idea of Edward as romantic and the "perfect boyfriend" (a theme repeated over and over on the message boards I've visited). Ideally, I would follow this with a conversation with my mother about the abusive relationships in which she has seen her friends become involved (in the context of the National Domestic Violence Hotline's lists "Am I Being Abused?" and "Teen Dating Abuse") over scenes/images from Twilight that demonstrate the ways Edward syncs up with many descriptions of abusers. My hope is that removing Edward's actions and dialogue from the narrative and score-related constructs that construe them as "romantic" and juxtaposing them with dialogue about real-life abusive relationships will help give more light to the abusive undertones of the behavior of this "perfect" man/boyfriend. My audience for the essay would primarily be those students in my class, but I also hope it would appeal to young fans of Twilight like my sister who may not otherwise see the links between the film and patterns of abuse.

Obviously, that is a very rough sketch of the final project, but I would love to hear your thoughts!

Posted By Saralyn on/at 2/05/2010 11:51:00 PM

During a fit of compulsive link-clicking on Copyranter, which often has some very insightful and extremely funny insights on advertising, I noticed something about "Disney Princesses as Sin City characters".  Thinking it must be an exercise in humorous, critical juxtaposition, I found the following images:






All images retrieved from http://www.notafishinglure.com/SinCity.html and are property of the artist and site owner, Curt Rapala
On face value, I saw the images themselves as somewhat in line with my expectation.  In particular, the recasting of Jasmine (an Arabian character) as Miho (a Japanese character) struck me as interesting and amusing on a variety of levels - the interchangeability of people of "Oriental" descent in the Western mind (as evidenced by the seemingly frequent indifference of Hollywood to casting actors of the same nationality as the characters they are to be playing), the sexy-dangerous trope in portrayals of foreign, and particularly Middle Eastern and/or Asian, women, etc.  Pairing Belle with the "you just gone and done the dumbest thing of your life" tagline fits with the analyses of patterns of abusive relationships in Beauty and the Beast.  The portrayal of Snow White, one of Disney's most virginal, pure, and innocent Princesses EVER, as Sin City's violent madame Gail is definitely funny, but it also seems to point to some of the hypocrisy of the way Disney Princesses sell a certain brand of femininity and sexuality just as does a character as obviously sexualized as Gail.  If this is what the author had in mind, I think many kudos are in order (and I wish I'd thought of it first).

However.....the text that accompanies the images doesn't quite jibe with the notion of I had of the artist's intentions:
There's just something so incredibly awesome about the idea of juxtaposing something brutal, harsh, sexy & violent, like Sin City, with something wholesome, fun, and child-friendly, like Disney.
 ..."incredibly awesome"?  If with a critical eye, in a culture jamming sort of way that reveals something deeper about the continuities present between the creations of Miller and Disney, then I agree.  But it seems more like the "awesomeness" is supposed to stem from putting together two things that have nothing in common at all - it's just amusing.  That's fine.  I enjoy a frivolous mash-up - listening to the vocal of Iron Maiden's "The Trooper" over the music and backing vocals of The Monkees's "I'm a Believer" was the highlight of my yesterday.  The place where I start to scratch my head is the "wholesome, fun, and child-friendly, like Disney".  I admit that Disney films were a large part of my childhood and I still enjoy watching them, but any critical eye turned toward the company reveals that they are far from wholesome.  The racism, sexism, heterosexism, violent masculinity, etc etc promoted in and by the films is something that many critics and academics have addressed, but the fact that Disney is seen as something simply fun, fluffy or child-friendly is a large part of why those themes persist and go unquestioned in their products.  An exercise that could have been a cultural critique ends up simply reinforcing prevailing (and largely problematic) ideas.

Part of me is somewhat concerned about having misread/read too much into the artist's brief comments.

Then the other part of me takes another look at the header image on the site of a nearly nude woman with a hand print on her ass and a pinup girl/blow up doll expression on her face.

Posted By Saralyn on/at 2/03/2010 08:25:00 PM


Before I begin, I have a bit of a confession to make. I really enjoyed watching Avatar - far more than I should have, given my acute awareness of the extremely problematic noble savage-White savior-Fern Gully meets Pocahontas in space issues it raises and fails to question (not to mention the absurdly formulaic plot and the way it positions itself around gender and (dis)ability). As a film-going experience, though, I found it captivating and exciting. I still get excited when I watch the trailer and my eyes skip about the extremely rich visuals. And, while I may disagree with its presentation of the argument, I can understand Cameron's desire to draw parallels to environmental devastation and the havoc (both environmental and cultural) Western (and particularly American) society wreaks by going in with guns blazing and dollar signs in our eyes. He is very open about the fact that Avatar is a political film.

As with any film and filmmaker that claims a desire for moving people towards social change, I wonder how well Cameron achieves this. As the strengths and failings of Avatar's content are being widely discussed in classrooms, blogs, and message boards across the world, I'd like to take a little bit of a different approach. Specifically, does the hyper high definition technology work in favor of stirring up useful emotions for social change or does it actually work against it? To look at this question, I'd like to turn to every creator of avant-garde cinema or theatre's good friend (or the bane of their existence) - Bertolt Brecht.

(Image retrieved from http://faculty-staff.ou.edu/L/A-Robert.R.Lauer-1/Brecht.html)
Brecht was a fascinating and radical director and artist, believing that revolutionary theatre (and cinema) could be used to address social problems and create positive social change. I won't explicate his theories and practices too greatly here, as I'm only scratching the surface in my own reading and a quick Google search will bring up far more in-depth and eloquent summation than I can provide. Most relevant for this discussion is his firm belief that realism and all its concomitant formal and technical 'tricks' are insufficient where social change is concerned. Realistic acting, staging and costuming, an audience "lost" in the viewing experience, and (most) emotive manipulation fail to produce active, motivated audiences. The audience and their experience with the work remains tied to the theatre and does not translate to useful outrage and actions for change in the real world. Instead, Brecht favored techniques of distanciation - or distancing - whereby the audience was constantly reminded of the artifice of the work they were viewing and challenged to approach the politically-charged content on an intellectual level. "Heroes" that are difficult to sympathize with, direct addressing of the audience by the actors, songs, and textualization were just a few of the tools Brecht utilized in his efforts to politicize his audiences. While his methods have been criticized for being sometimes inaccessible to precisely the groups he wanted to reach, Brecht's approach continues to be a major influence on avant-garde cinema and theatre that seek to inspire audiences to "get up and do something" when they leave the theater.

The connection and potential conflict with Cameron's project is easily found. From Cameron's interviews, I believe it's a fair statement that the visual hyperrealism of Pandora and the Na'vi are supposed to make the horror of what the Big Bad Corporation/Western society/the American government or military strike home and raise our (the audience's) awareness/desire for change. The more beautiful and realistic the world, the more distressing it's destruction for the audience. If you connect with the characters, you are more outraged when they are burned. (Interestingly, this is implicit in the narrative of Avatar, as well. It is only by immersing himself physically that Sully can connect with the Na'vi emotionally and see the need to fight against the status quo.) It is a fairly traditional approach to filmmaking and attempting to affect the audience - and precisely what Brecht would attack about the film.

While I am drawn to Brecht's project on an intellectual level, it is difficult for me to deny the emotive power of films like Avatar (for better or worse). Perhaps it all comes down to the question of what we came out of the darkness of the movie theater thinking and feeling. Was it how atrocious the war in Iraq is? Did you come out disgusted about devastation of the rainforest and displacement of indigenous peoples? Did you write your senators, join Greenpeace, switch to fair trade-ecologically friendly products?

Or did you spend the first few minutes after the lights came back up sitting in awe while your heart stopped racing, turn to your buddy and babble about the visuals, then have a brief discussion about its racism/environmentalism/narrative predictability on the way home to continue going about your life like before?



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For anyone interested in the issues Avatar raises (or fails to), I highly recommend Film Studies for Free's recent entry on Avatar and allegory. At the end of a discussion/demystification of "allegory" is a great list of articles/reviews/resources on issues the film trudges up.

Also, it isn't scholarly in any way, but I found it rather amusing (although there is a smidge of language some might find "vulgar" or "offensive"):

Final Note: Do not be surprised if I return to this topic later. I find Brecht fascinating and full of wonderful insight and problems, and I feel this wasn't quite as eloquent and connected as I'd have liked.

Posted By Saralyn on/at 1/27/2010 12:52:00 AM

I wanted to jump back into the blogging world (and academic blogging arena) with something stunning, mind-boggling, awe-inspiring......but then my time and attention became absurdly absorbed by template and layout modifications. I had completely forgotten how much fun fiddling with HTML and CSS can be (and frustrating, as well)! It took me back to my early days on Livejournal and GreatestJournal.

In the coming weeks and months (and, if anyone reads it, perhaps even years), this blog will contain thoughts, articles, and snippets related to my research, reading, and experiences in academia. For the purposes of checking formatting and getting something out there, however, this post will feature a brief blurb I did for my intentional community's blog/newsletter last year. Please keep in mind it was written for people with no film knowledge and with little to no chance they would actually care or seek out the films...

Movies You Should See - Original Classics
We complain about remakes all the time - how there's no creativity left in Hollywood, etc etc. But how many of the original films have you actually taken the time to watch? Probably not that many, so I have some suggestions to remedy that.

1. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
The recent Keanu Reeves remake didn't get great reviews, so maybe you think the original isn't worth your time. Wrong! This 1951 film has an entirely different tone and approach to the issue of alien visitation. Coming after WWII, the bombings of innocent civilians in Japan, and the gearing up of the nuclear arms race, TDtESS presents a much calmer, more logical and humanistic request for the human race to get itself under control. Its special effects may not stand up against today's blockbusters, but there is a tight suspense that runs throughout the film the new one cannot match.

2. Little Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Did you know that "You've Got Mail" is a remake? It shares little in common with the original film than the basic premise - two people who despise each other upon meeting are unknowingly in love in their anonymous email/letter-writing - but the humor and sweetness of the Jimmy Stewart original is well-worth the watch. It's also a little darker than Norah Ephron's take (both in Stewart's sometimes crazed facial expressions and in plot), which adds an interesting dimension. If you like musicals and want to get the full remake treatment, check out Judy Garland's remake "In the Good Old Summertime" (1949).

3. La Jetee (1962) - Okay, this one might be hard to find, but it's definitely worth the effort. A short film upon which the Bruce Willis flick "Twelve Monkeys" was based, La Jetee is a great example of the French New Wave. Clocking in at only 28 minutes, it is composed almost entirely of still photography and tells the story of a post-apocalyptic group of Parisians experimenting with time travel to find a solution to their current situation. There's a love story, some suspense, and many things to puzzle - a great miniature jaunt into art films for a novice!

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Alright! Coming up next, Brecht and Cameron: BFFs or mortal enemies? Stay tuned to find out...