"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 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?

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.