Film – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Force Re-Awakens: Star Wars, Repetition, and Nostalgia, Part 2 Wed, 06 Jan 2016 19:21:59 +0000 Samurai

In my previous post, I pointed to numerous “new” things in The Force Awakens that should challenge a slipshod reading of the film as “mere” repetition or nostalgic pastiche and homage. Now, though, let’s look at the very terms and assumptions mobilized in the attack — pastiche, repetition, originality, and nostalgia.

First, it might be worth noting the significant irony that some people are only now concerned about a Star Wars film being full of pastiche. A princess must return to her people who are staging a rebellion against an imperial force; she is helped by an odd duo who seem there mostly for comic effect, and by a venerable old knight who must face off against his former second-in-command who went bad and now leads the imperial forces. Sound familiar? That’s the plot of Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Kurosawa influences abound in A New Hope and its progeny (those Jedi do seem remarkably samurai-like, as does Vader’s helmet, no?). Yet of course Kurosawa was himself deeply beholden to John Ford and other westerns, another genre that is plastered all over A New Hope. Add some Flash Gordon. And some King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. And so much more. A New Hope was always a poster child for postmodern pastiche of pastiche of pastiche – and proof that movies could still be enjoyable and amazing while looking deep into a hall of pastiche-y mirrors.


Hidden Fortress & A New Hope‘s beginnings: bickering, funny lowly figures walk through sparsely populated landscape, telling us about the world as they do so. They disagree over which way to go, and split up. Each is picked up by slave traders, thereby reuniting them.

Indeed, and second, we could benefit from unpacking this ludicrous notion that any work of art must be “original” to be good, since absolutely nothing is (or could be) original. Everything learns from, and comes in the wake of, other texts. Sometimes this is direct (even the beloved Shakespeare struggled to create an individual plot of his own), sometimes it’s “just” scenes or characters or character types. But nothing is original. Rather, the value in anything comes from how it repeats and/or reworks. When we marvel at how fresh or original something is, we’ve usually realized a genre to which it belongs (through multiple other similarities and through repetition), and are excited to see a lone element or two of that genre reworked.

Vladimir Propp and some of his formalist colleagues would tell us, in fact, that the kind of exercise I conducted in my previous post – of walking through how a plot repeats another – can be done with all literature, all stories. At a certain level of abstraction, there really are a very limited number of tales to be told. And this idea is especially central to discussions of myth. Read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces … and if you do, incidentally, you’re reading something that was a key influence on George Lucas, and hence on the very foundations of the original Star Wars trilogy. Repetition is key to myth, and, c’mon, it’s clear when A New Hope situates us in a world in which good guys wear white and bad guys wear black that it’s aiming to be mythic. So let’s not be surprised when we see heroes needing to storm the castle again. Or when we see the young upstart experience a moment of becoming on the battlefield again. When a great hero is struck down publicly again. Give me another 2000 words and I could use them simply to list moments when these events happen across filmic and television genres, Greek epics and tragedies, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, etc.


Recently, the wise Nancy Baym told me that when we say two things are opposite, we’re actually saying that they’re entirely alike in all ways but one (otherwise, for instance, night and pencils might more appropriately count as opposites, not night and day). That’s worth thinking about here, since it suggests that fundamental difference is regularly structured upon and within fundamental similarity. In storytelling terms, therefore, that which is most amazingly “different”/“original” may be only a slight reworking of something else. We’re often doing things wrong as analysts if we’re looking for true, stark difference (the pencils instead of daytime), as instead there may be just as much value to be found in seeing how night and day are related yet still different. So, yes, Obi-Wan and Han both get struck down … but how are the integers of those scenes different in ways that evoke different reactions, from us, from the characters, by the story itself? In my previous post, I suggested that this “similarity” is far from it, since the emotional weight is different, the intent (of the victim, and of the killer) is different, the place it has in the narrative is different. Originality comes when an expectation is violated, but expectations are set up through similarity.



Changing tacks, I’d also want to question what is being demanded of sequels and franchises in general here. It’s deeply perplexing to hear people angered and disappointed by a sequel doing things that the original did. Isn’t this par for course? When James Bond orders a vodka martini, gets a fast car with buttons that activate weapons on it, has a knock-down, drawn-out chase scene, or beds yet another woman, do we roll our eyes at how the film is just “fan service”? When we return to Godfather II and find out that it’s still a gangster film (yawn) obsessed with family members (oh, how original) who sometimes lie to each other and operate behind each other’s backs (never heard that before), while jockeying for power with other families or contenders (ripoff!), is this “fan fiction”? When Harry Potter has another Quidditch game that involves an amazing come-from-behind victory, when Katniss Everdeen must work her way through another set of competitors, when Bella Swan is still working out who she loves, is this all just pathetic repetition? Sequels repeat. That is what they promise to do. They are all “fan fiction,” if fan fiction is the act of taking many of the same characters or elements and reworking them with some new elements added. And unless a sequel radically violates the terms of the original world, narrative, or characters, it’s also always “fan service.” Using those terms to criticize a sequel, therefore, is too often indicative of the speaker’s derogatory elitist ignorance about fandom (aw, how cute that some people think all fanfic is “My Big Day at Hogwarts,” and don’t know about all the fucking and cuddling that Harry and Draco get up to in fanfic), but also betrays a very odd lack of awareness of the very point of sequels, like complaining that a eulogy just wouldn’t shut up about the dead person and their life.

Yawn. How Fan Service. Such No Originality

Wow. How Fan Service. Such No Originality. So Repetition.

I wonder, though, whether The Force Awakens was misread by some viewers as a reboot not “just” a sequel. Certainly, sequels more usually follow fast on the heels of their originals, whereas The Force Awakens is many years “late,” as is more common with reboots. And whereas increasingly franchises lack a constant auteur figure, Star Wars was associated with George Lucas (and Twentieth Century Fox) for so long in a way that may have led some to see J. J. Abrams and Disney as necessarily “rebooting” the franchise, especially since Abrams recently (sort of) rebooted Star Trek. Reboots are all the rage, and carry with them a different set of expectations, namely that a fresh start of forms will occur. The narrative world should feel different, the key characters should be given new backstories or wrinkles. But The Force Awakens isn’t a reboot, and the prominent use of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and (to a lesser extent, at least in trailers) Mark Hamill in promotional materials should’ve made that clear: the gang was getting back together. In the absence of announcements that, say, The Rock was going to play Han, or that Kristin Schaal would play a reinvented Leia, there was no fakeout here: The Force Awakens was sold as a sequel. The most prominent line across many of its trailers was Kylo Ren’s “I will finish what you started,” and one of them ended with Han pronouncing, “Chewie, we’re home.” Those lines subtly (or not-so-subtly?) alluded, too, to the franchise’s need to overcome the prequel trilogy, to reset, and to get back to basics.


As my previous post suggested, The Force Awakens does have a lot that’s new, the world is slightly different, the stakes are revised, and the key narrative and character dynamics are not carbon copies. But even if we acknowledge the significant repetition, mythic resonance, homage, pastiche, and loop-backs, none of those should be the grounds for castigating a text. So by all means say you didn’t like the characters, the feel, the pacing, or any specifics. Snoke sucks in totality, for instance (the name alone is stupider than even “Jar-Jar”). The fact that one sanitation stormtrooper knows how to destroy Starkiller Base is a ludicrous plot-hole (maybe all those Bothan spies wouldn’t have died finding plans for Death Star 2.0 if only one of them had thought to ask the dude cleaning the toilets how to destroy it). There’s more. Or by all means criticize how any plot element was redone and didn’t work as well (or at all) in the reworking. Part of my problem with Starkiller Base is that as new as it is in some ways (a supergun rooted in a planet, that siphons energy from the Sun is somewhat fresh), it violates what we’d expect from the third in a sequence, being bigger and better, yes, yet having far inferior defenses (2.0 was harder to destroy than 1.0, but 3.0 is way too easily destroyed). Or, as strong as the team of Rey, Finn, and Poe are in other ways, I worry that they’re not particularly fun, and that we just killed off Han the Fun Bringer. But the attack on the film as a repetitive, unoriginal clone is replete with erroneous, idealistic notions of originality that simply don’t hold up, and that critical scholars should be able to cut through.

Snoke sucks

Snoke sucks

Finally, and changing tacks again, there’s the critique of this being nostalgia. As I noted in the last post, this alone is an interesting admission that The Force Awakens is different, since A New Hope was more definitively future-focused. Nostalgia is too often used clumsily in regular speech, though, used to mean “a desire for repetition” or “a desire to go back,” yet without realizing that nostalgia always carries an element of pain, emanating from the realization that we can’t go back. There can be great warmth in nostalgia, and some versions of it aim only to revel in that warmth (cf. Happy Days). But handled well, nostalgia should encourage reflection, not only on the fact that we can’t go back because of time’s onward march, but on the idea that the time, place, or feeling that we want to go back to was never really there.

Consider Kylo Ren, who holds onto the melted mask of his grandfather, and who looks to it for guidance and support. We all know this to be a pathetic act, partly because, well, speaking to a melted mask isn’t entirely healthy, but mostly because we know his grandfather well. Anakin went to the Dark Side, destroying many good people in the process, killing kids in the process, and allowing fascism to rise. He lives up to his destiny to “bring balance to the Force” in his last moments, but overall his life was unequivocally tragic. He wore his mask, no less, not strictly speaking to be bad-ass and masked, but to hide a scarred face, to support his crumbled body, and to hide his last vestiges of humanity. For Ren to want to be Vader, to walk in his foot-steps, to “finish what he started,” is thus deeply misguided to say the least, and shows as much misunderstanding of history as does an average Tea Party rally. Ren is a figure suffering from nostalgia, mired and trapped in the past that he has created, not a real past. And yet when his father Han calls for him to snap out of it, Ren acknowledges that moving back in time isn’t possible. That whole scene, no less, is marked with futility – precisely because we’ve seen the original trilogy, we know when Han steps out onto that platform that he’s dead, and as he appeals to Ren, we know the appeal will fail. There is no going back.

Things My Grandpa Did

Things My Grandpa Did, by Kylo Ren

To be fair to The Force Awakens’ critics who allege woeful nostalgia, though, they’re not talking about nostalgia within the diegesis per se; they’re talking about nostalgia for the original films. Abrams certainly gives us Han and Chewie in the Falcon again, X-Wings destroying enemy bases, lightsaber battles in the dark, and even iris and wipe edits, but he also denies us some pleasures in thoughtful ways that conform to this interesting, reflective type of nostalgia. Take Han and Leia. We don’t get much of them bickering playfully and in a somewhat sexually charged way in The Force Awakens, and we don’t see them living happily ever after. We see them hug, but with Leia’s eyes full of loss and sadness. They reflect upon the fact that their relationship wasn’t strong enough to survive the loss of their son, and in their reflections that they each responded by “going back to the only thing I was ever any good at,” there’s an admission that they weren’t good at being with each other. There’s an acceptance of this, moreover, and Abrams never poses the state of their relationship as something to be resolved or overcome. I find a painful beauty in that. Nostalgic? Yes. But not at all repetition, nor a return to the way things were; instead, a message that the only (open, obvious) couple that the original trilogy gave us wasn’t a princess and her knight destined to live happily every after, and that maybe we don’t need a princess and knight to live happily ever after (since neither is “broken” per se).

Just like old times??

Just like old times??

The film isn’t just an exercise in the gleeful nostalgia of going back to where we were, and it has a more complex relationship to time and to the pasts in and of the film. The Force Awakens engages with nostalgia, but it is a thoughtful engagement, not at all the “aw, geez, isn’t it nice to be back where we started?” nostalgia that the disdainful criticisms of it suggest.


Let me conclude by reiterating that I don’t intend anything here to demand that The Force Awakens is an amazing film that must be revered. But to attack it front-on as an exercise in mere repetition, loving and uncritical nostalgia, and pastiche is, as Admiral Ackbar would tell us, a trap, since those pesky shield generators are still up. If you want to dislike it, go for it, but avoid an attack that idolizes a whacky notion of originality, and/or that rests upon on a misguided understanding of what repetition and nostalgia are.


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The Force Re-Awakens: Star Wars, Repetition, and Nostalgia, Part 1 Tue, 05 Jan 2016 17:18:52 +0000 Heading

Since the release of J. J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens, the Internet has been alive with complaints about it as an exercise in nostalgia that revels in mere repetition, pastiche, photocopying, etc. (I’d cite some examples, but at this point it’d be like citing examples of cats being popular on the Internet: you can find these complaints anywhere). Sometimes, these ooze with contempt for fandom, writing the movie off as “fan service” or “fan fiction,” as if that’s the worst thing anything could ever be. Some such posts and reviews rehash the tired, ancient, and utterly insipid suggestion that anyone who enjoys a blockbuster Hollywood franchise film is a brainless sheep, grazing here in the pasture of Farmer Walt. Others are less unkind to the audience, but instead regard themselves as offering aesthetic critiques, arguing that there is “nothing new” and wringing their hands about a culture of repetition.

I want to respond to and engage with this line of attack. I don’t intend this as a defense per se – since the film obviously has many lovers whose gushing praise of the film is as prevalent as the attack, and since I think the film is going to be just fine (understatement alert). Nor is this a plea for critics to come around and see the light, since they’re welcome to dislike the film. Rather, it’s interesting to stop and think through what’s being said about originality, nostalgia, franchising, and repetition.

In this post, I’ll discuss what is in fact new, then in a follow-up post I’ll ask “so what if there’s repetition?” and explore the bizarre criticism that The Force Awakens looking and feeling like A New Hope is contemptible. To discuss what’s new in the film requires getting into its guts, so this post will focus heavily on the plot and characters, whereas the next one will examine broader issues separated from that plot and those characters, of repetition, sequels, and originality.

A warning – spoilers abound. Don’t read past here if you don’t want to be spoiled (but also, hey, it’s been out for three weeks now. If you don’t want to be spoiled, go see it already).


To begin, let’s acknowledge that the film does indeed engage in quite a lot of repetition with variation. The (1) First Order is catching up with (2) Poe, who is believed to have important information regarding the whereabouts of a lynchpin of the (3) Resistance efforts against it, when (4) BB-8 is set loose on the desert planet of (5) Jakku with said information. Our young desert-dwelling hero with a mysterious past, (6) Rey, stumbles into an alliance with (7) Finn, and the old warrior (8) Han Solo, while that pesky evil organization engages its mega weapon, (9) the Starkiller Base, to destroy (10) many planets, to show its supreme fascist power. Positioned within the evil organization, and following the leadership of (11) Snoke, and alongside numerous Brits in grey uniforms, is the disliked Sith figure of power and malevolence, (12) Kylo Ren, who has a fondness for helmets and dark clothing. After encountering numerous interesting species, some friendly some dangerous, our heroes find plans to destroy this nasty base, team up with the x-wings to do so, and in a race of time to see who will strike first, the good guys or the bad guys, yay, the good guys win and destroy the base, but not before the nasty Sith faces off with an old frenemy and kills him, much to the horror of our onlooking heroes. Replace those numbers with, respectively, the Empire, Leia, the Rebellion, R2-D2, Tatooine, Luke, Han, Obi-Wan, the Death Star, Alderaan, Grand Moff Tarkin, and Darth Vader, and you have the plot of A New Hope. So, yes, there is definite overlap.

What’s new?

A lot of scenes, while ostensibly similar, carry vastly different weight precisely because they’re happening in the seventh movie of a franchise that is now 38 years old. Saying that a scene is “the same” as one in A New Hope is like saying a 60s style diner is “the same” as a diner one would actually have visited in the 60s, when of course it’s not – time has intervened and history has added and edited meaning. Maybe that diner you used to eat in as a kid looks just the same, but its neighborhood has changed, the owner has wrinkles, the people sitting there are no longer choosing between it and twenty other similar diners but between it and a Thai place, Chinese takeout, arepas from a food cart, and so on, the restaurant has its own stories, and thus you’re simply wrong if you think you’re reacting to it the same way as you used to. When context changes, meaning changes, and this script would surely have been written with an awareness of context changing. Add “small” changes, since this is not repetition – it’s repetition with variation – and add history, and a great deal changes.


The Force Awakens situates us in a galaxy where fascism and evil seem doomed to return, to hold the day, as a constant threat, even when we thought it was vanquished. By comparison, Leia’s Rebellion in A New Hope has been fighting the Empire for how long? Star Wars fans can now answer that question precisely, but when the film came out, we didn’t know whether it was a recent threat or a long-running one. This changes the stakes considerably, and proposes a bleaker, darker world, one that is further signaled by relationship failures and by loss – Han and Leia didn’t live happily ever after, they lost their son, Leia lost her brother, we all lose Han (and where, really, is the parallel there? The worst unplanned death of a good guy in the original trilogy is who? Porkins? Random Ewok #8? Han’s tauntaun?), and Rey feels the absence of her parents as Luke never did. Tears are shed. The kids with whom I watched The Force Awakens the second time found the movie a downer, and many adults did too, whereas A New Hope is effervescently upbeat.


Our bad guy is different too. When we encountered Vader, he was something of a solitary figure, derided for practicing an obscure religion, and simply A Bad Guy; by contrast, Kylo Ren not only follows Snoke, a Sith Lord, in a way that automatically privileges him over his fascist ginger (am I the only one to see a South Park reference here?) counterpart, and that puts him in a long line of Sith, but we know at this point in the franchise to assume that bad guys have good struggling within them, so we’re asked to relate to him differently. Vader, moreover, is confident and assured: he doesn’t run anywhere, he just strides; he never questions himself (till Return of the Jedi); he seems certain of victory. Kylo Ren, though, is replete with weakness, sensed by Rey when she backwashes his mind-reading trick; he rages like an angry toddler; he shows off; and for half the film he has his mask off, making him more human than Vader. Defeating him therefore seems to require a wholly different bag of tricks than defeating A New Hope’s Vader.


Or take the much-discussed killing of Han, reminiscent of the killing of Obi-Wan. When Obi-Wan’s killed, he’s had about fifteen minutes of screen-time, if that. By contrast, when Han’s killed, he’s arguably the most beloved character in a 38 year-old franchise, somebody who many audience members may’ve imagined they were on the playground, may’ve (should’ve?) even had crushes on. And since it’s Harrison Ford, he’s also Indiana Jones. Comparing the emotional impact of their deaths is thus plain silly. Let’s remember, too, that Obi-Wan wanted to be struck down – his little smirk before he stops fighting is one of the best parts of A New Hope, as is his mercurial threat that striking him down will only make him stronger, and the suggestion that Luke’s meant to watch, that Obi-Wan’s death is a sacrifice in aid of some future gain. Barring major new information, though, Han’s just dead: he won’t be appearing in ghost-form in a swamp near you anytime soon. He doesn’t do it to help Rey along a path. Obi-Wan doesn’t appeal to Anakin as his old friend, as Han appeals to his son; Obi-Wan is sure either than Anakin is gone or that he can’t bring him back except through death, whereas Han wants to bring his son home and thinks for a minute that his appeal is working.


Importantly, too, A New Hope is governed by young people, and brims with youthful desires to become someone, to grow up, to create something new, and to throw off the shackles of old guardians. Uncle Owen is unlikable for holding Luke back (as is Grand Moff Tarkin for holding Vader in check, for that matter), and Obi-Wan is exceptional precisely because he plays the role of cool uncle saying that Luke should go ahead and train as a Jedi, travel the galaxy, leave home. There’s more than a touch of the sixties in these folk. The Force Awakens, by contrast, respects and reveres its elders. Only Kylo Ren rages against his parents, and we as an audience are presumed to side with those parents. The film is quite tender in its brief treatment of Leia and Han as an old couple, Mark Hamill’s face in the closing scene is worn down by time, even new character Maz has a wisdom to be heard. Ironically, in other words, when critics say The Force Awakens is drenched in nostalgia, they’re noting that it’s operating in a very different mode from the future-centered New Hope.


And then there’s Finn, Rey, and (the admittedly under-developed) Poe. I can’t help but notice that an overwhelming amount of the attacks on The Force Awakens offering “nothing new” are from white guys, who clearly don’t get why it might matter that the franchise – the most successful franchise in media and merchandising history, no less – has just been entrusted to a Black English man, a White English woman, and a Guatemalan-American man. This is massive for identity politics. Perhaps not unique, but big. Especially for a franchise that has often relegated people of color to being comic fodder or the basis for stereotyped alien races. As a kid playing Star Wars, I was invited to play a host of white mostly-American figures (or the Black Bad Guy), but if kids are playing Star Wars now, they’re presented with a much wider range of options.


Finn appears in my plot parallel exercise above as a counterpart to Han, but is not at all Han. He’s a defector – a role entirely new to the films – not a rogue. Being a defector invites us to think about the ethical positioning of being part of the First Order, in a way that none of the original movies ever cared about, and in a way that immediately positions him as principled, whereas Han’s principles are notoriously questioned throughout A New Hope. Finn’s not as sure of himself as is Han, and he’s arguably allowed a wider range – brave, crack shot, scared, tentative, funny, impulsive, controlled, along for the ride, ready to act.


Rey, meanwhile, is the movie’s centerpiece. There are some nominal similarities to Luke, but she’s so much more capable, less whiny. The schtick surrounding her annoyance at Finn taking her hand tells us a lot about her independence. The Force is stronger in her, as is having her shit together. And let’s be honest that Daisy Ridley runs circles around Mark Hamill’s rather poor acting from A New Hope. Her Rey is the first bona fide hero in the filmic franchise: I count Han and Obi-Wan as sidekicks, Luke was too dithery and needed two films to get up to speed, and Episodes I-III’s Anakin was so horribly acted that he just existed as a long, stale filmic fart. Despite being the film’s clear hero, she doesn’t destroy the Starkiller Base, nor does she defeat the bad guy, and yet she offers a stronger spine for the next two films than Luke ever did.

I could go on about all sorts of little changes, too, but each of the above changes tone, theme, and stakes.

The Force Awakens isn’t just A New Hope in slightly newer clothing, therefore. But in the next post, I’ll allow the critics the day, assume it is or that my comments above aren’t convincing, and I’ll then ask, “so what?” Why are people bothered that Film #7 in a series seems a lot like some of the earlier films? And what might they be overlooking about how storytelling in this mode works?


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On Tim Burton’s Dumbo Thu, 19 Mar 2015 14:00:57 +0000 Burton DumboLast week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Tim Burton would direct a remake of Dumbo (1941) using a mix of CGI and live action. Of course, this isn’t the first time Burton has remade one of Disney’s animated “classics.” Alice in Wonderland was released in 2010 to critical indifference and a box office bonanza of $1 billion; a sequel is planned for 2016. While the Dumbo pairing thus makes obvious commercial sense, it has occasioned eye-rolling humor (the obvious joke, that Johnny Depp would play the titular elephant, was retold ad nauseam on Twitter) and reactionary outrage at the sullying of a beloved classic. It has also renewed a widely-expressed concern that Burton, the object of a fervent cult for his “dark, gothic, macabre, and quirky” films, has become terminally compromised by his association with Disney and his fixation on remakes. The A.V. Club lamented that a “director once known for his startlingly original vision” is “now known for his limp adaptations of existing properties.” But putting the question of creative decline aside, Burton’s “vision”—or more concretely, his three-decade career—is defined by a synergy of two broad trends: filmmakers’ devotion to pop-cultural allusions and media corporations’ equally obsessive recycling of intellectual property in an effort to create and sustain franchises.

For the past half-century, American directors have stuffed their films with citations of other films, television shows, and pop-culture artifacts. In his 1982 essay “The Future of Allusion: Hollywood in the Seventies (and Beyond),” Noël Carroll argued that allusion “has become a major expressive device” in American cinema, with many popular films employing a “two-tiered system of communication” in which a subset of the audience appreciates the work as much for its knowing references as for its more familiar “action/drama/fantasy” pleasures. While much American film and television continues to operate on these two levels, subsequent decades have seen a kind of democratizing of allusionism, such that a large portion of the contemporary audience has come to expect and appreciate a weave of cross-references in their popular media. The intricate interconnections of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” no less than Quentin Tarantino’s bricolage testify to this.

BurtonPriceOver the years, Tim Burton’s films have helped to tutor the mass audience in the pleasures of allusionism. His earliest works, even those with “original” premises, rely almost entirely on allusions for their meanings and effects. His stop-motion short Vincent (1982) concerns a boy’s fascination with Vincent Price, particularly the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he made for American International Pictures in the 1960s. The live-action Luau (also 1982) pastiches several genres of 1960s drive-in movies. Burton’s first features are less pure instances of allusionism, but only slightly. His breakthrough, Beetlejuice (1988), is a horror-comedy dense with references to The Wizard of Oz, The Fly, and The Exorcist. Edward Scissorhands (1990) might have been pitched as Frankenstein Meets Beauty and the Beast. Mars Attacks! (1997) is a parody of Cold War alien-invasion films.

Adaptations and remakes arguably represent one end-point of this reliance on allusion, and Burton took this short leap early in his career. His critical cachet and attraction to cultural recyclables made him an ideal director for studios’ efforts to revive valuable intellectual property. In 1986, for a rebooted Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Burton re-filmed the 1964 teleplay adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Jar.” Warner Brothers’ Batman (1989) was a landmark in corporate synergy for its integrated marketing and merchandising and for its legacy of comic-book blockbusters. Fox’s Planet of the Apes (2001) was a failed effort to reboot a franchise. Even outside of a blockbuster context, Burton has been drawn to familiar stories with prominent cinematic or televisual intertexts, from Sleepy Hollow (2009; it owes as much to the 1949 Disney animation as to Washington Irving’s story) to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005).

Skeleton DanceBurton’s association with Disney goes back 35 years, to his origins as an animator for the company in the late 1970s. Vincent was, in fact, a Walt Disney Production. His work has exhibited a scholarly devotion to Disney history, as in Corpse Bride‘s quotation of the 1929 Silly Symphony “Skeleton Dance.” The first feature Burton made for the company was Ed Wood (1994), distributed by Disney’s “adult” imprint Touchstone. Although the stuff of Ed Wood’s no-budget films would seem worlds away from Disney’s ethos, Burton’s biopic lightly sanitizes its subject, effecting a willfully ahistorical transformation of what Jonathan Rosenbaum has called Wood’s “miserable, abject failure of a career” into a postmodern “celebration” whose affected innocence is paradoxically a function of the film’s (and tacitly the audience’s) knowingness. In other words, Burton Disney-fies Ed Wood. This operation is akin to the remaking of Uncle Walt himself in 2013’s relatively edgy—for Disney—Saving Mr. Banks, which engages its audience’s knowing skepticism about Disney only to revise and revive his myth, as Mike Budd argues in a recent essay for Jump Cut.

Alice in Wonderland was thus not just a joining of two bAlicerands but a reunion, one that Dumbo will extend. It was also an especially profitable instance of the ubiquitous corporate practice of recycling intellectual property. The Walt Disney Company helped to popularize this strategy in the mid-20th century and has relied upon it more than ever in the 21st; witness their recent acquisitions of the Muppets, Marvel Entertainment, and the Star Wars franchise. Within this broad program of recycled properties is a systematic campaign, often credited to Walt Disney Pictures’ Sean Bailey, to reinvigorate interest in their “legacy” films through a new series of high-profile features. In addition to remakes of Alice, Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), Pete’s Dragon (2016), and Dumbo Disney has produced a “re-imagining” of Sleeping Beauty (Maleficent, 2014) and a fictionalized “making-of” Mary Poppins (Saving Mr. Banks). There are a host of other, slightly more ambiguous cases in the works. These films not only generate or promise huge profits. They also turn the settings and characters of discrete stories into franchise fodder. In this context, allusions allow intellectual properties to exfoliate: Sleeping Beauty spins off Maleficent, which spins off a Disney Channel series, and so on. Films like Saving Mr. Banks and Maleficent also serve as feature-length advertisements for Disney’s film library, which had historically been subject to carefully-spaced-out theatrical revivals and then limited DVD and Blu-Ray editions. This new cycle of remakes and other franchise-extenders is, among other things, Disney’s response to a stagnating home-video market.

Disney has sought to validate its remake of Dumbo by reference to Tim Burton’s body of work. The WSJ report, no doubt inspired by a Disney press release, made sure to note that “[c]ircus motifs have been a favorite of Mr. Burton . . . going back to the Red Triangle Circus Gang in his Batman Returns.” This tenuous association appears quaint in light of the deeper connection that Burton has to Disney and the process that has governed his career for at least a quarter of a century: the aesthetic logic of allusionism converging with the corporate logic of franchising.


Star Wars Now: Fan Creativity and That Trailer Wed, 17 Dec 2014 14:00:46 +0000 1Has there ever been so much kerfuffle around 88 seconds? Granted, Star Wars fans have often (stereotypically) been viewed as fanatical about the fan object, a fanaticism that borders on obsession and is often understood as a impassioned, psychologically questionable pursuit of a force-platonic ideal of textual authenticity.

I am not sure if I have ever bore witness to such a flurry of fan activity and creativity within such a short period of time. Given that the trailer debuted just over two weeks ago (although I am writing this after merely seven days), it astonishes me how quickly ‘24-7 always on’ digital fandom reacted and began posting comments, videos, parodies and artwork to continue constructing the Star Wars: The Force Awakens (or Episode VII) text twelve months before its December 2015 release.

I am currently working on a book-length study of the latest phase in Star Wars history. Tentatively titled, A New Hope?: Digital Fandom and the Star Wars Renaissance, I have been tracking how paratexts—whether producer- or viewer-generated—discursively surround the Star Wars text and how this interplay between audience and industry generates meaning and value creation. I began the first part of this project in 2012 when I conducted an audience research project to gauge fan reactions to the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney.

2During the research process, I discovered that for many fans the Force Awakens text had already begun despite the fact that, at the time, there were no plans for the Star Wars Saga to continue in film (“officially,” at least). As Henry Jenkins pointed out in the seminal Convergence Culture, fans were “determined to remake it on their own terms.” More than this, however, fans were determined to “continue” the saga as well as “remake” it. Now that the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney has opened up the ostensibly “closed” text for further adventures, how will fans continue to play with the Star Wars brand within participatory culture?

Within hours of the trailer’s release, fan vids and art began to surface in cyberspace. Live reactions were filmed and uploaded to YouTube: some of these were intensely emotional, while others were fan parodies of fan reactions (usually of those who visibly wept), and others were negative or indifferent (like the Amazing Atheist who maintained that caution was the best approach citing the Prequel Trilogy as evidence of how things could go horribly wrong). ZachFB Studios uploaded a home-made version of the trailer as homage created entirely with LEGO, and numerous others followed suit.


6There were many criticisms of the new lightsaber with its cross-guard judged by many to be ‘unrealistic’ and lacking sufficient rationale—in his own breakdown on The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert pointed out one fan who tweeted “hilt on lightsaber stupid and impractical childhood ruined everything ruined!!!1!”

Fan art – once again, within hours — was uploaded via Instagram and Tumblr with links provided on Twitter and Facebook.

StarWarsImage3As Jonathan Gray and Jason Mittell have previously argued about fans of Lost, “spoilers” are often actively sought out as an integral feature of the fan experience. Lucasfilm carefully control the release of snippets of information to orchestrate a viral campaign that seeks to stimulate awareness of the brand to create a fever pitch as lead-up to the actual release of the film. Whether or not photographs of the Millennium Falcon or other concept images were “leaked” by Lucasfilm or via other methods—such as Latino Review reporting that set photographs were stolen by a Rebel Alliance of fans who used “affordable home drone technology” to swoop over locations and provide the world with snapshots of X-Wings and so forth—is difficult to determine. After all, this could be part of the plan to drip-feed the audience with tantalising teasers to turn us into Star Wars junkies all over again. Conversely, as Matt Hills suggests in a study of Sherlock spoilers, part of the attraction for forensic fandom is to assuage ontological anxieties about the fan-object, especially when the “idealized object is potentially threatened” by seeking out spoilers to mediate and monitor whether that which is being created matches up with a platonic textual authenticity. For many fans, the idealized object is, indeed, “threatened” (read: prequels) and this—to quote Hills—”working through of possible threats” is negotiated by paratextual exegesis and excursions into spoiler territory.

In the week following the trailer’s release, the mysterious figure know only by the nom de guerre “Spoilerman” leaked alleged, crucial plot details about The Force Awakens (which I could not help but read—I blame research, as despite being someone who usually avoids spoilers of any kind, I found that I could not help myself!). Once more, whether or not this clandestine “Spoilerman” is anything but a Lucasfilm/Abrams plant is difficult to ascertain; however, within the so-called spoiler itself, we are told that “fake” paratexts will be leaked periodically to misdirect and confound the sniffer dog-fans so that no one can be entirely sure what is real and what is not, suggesting there may be something rotten within Spoilerman’s “spoiler” itself.

As a researcher, the rich and creative fandom discursively surrounding a text that does-not-quite-exist yet—although Gray would no doubt argue that this is all part of the text—provides a mélange of data. Methodologically, however, worms are crawling everywhere. This is what I am thinking through at the moment as I seek to conduct an audience research project that is rather ambitious by looking at what Paul Booth has described as “transgenic media.” Instead of focusing on one platform, I want to bring in examples from Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, and so on, while also speaking directly to fans leading up to, and including, the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

This much is certain: Episode VII is in full swing, and we’ve only seen 88 seconds of footage.


Interstellar: It’s About Hope, Not Just Science! Tue, 25 Nov 2014 15:00:04 +0000 [Significant plot spoilers for the film Interstellar below.]

Director Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar opens with a poignant pan across a bookshelf, showing heavy dust falling atop a toy NASA spaceshuttle, symbolic of the near-future world of the film, where climate change has wrought havoc and people have turned their backs on science. “It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are: explorers, pioneers; not caretakers,” pilot-turned-farmer protagonist Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) laments. “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”

Perhaps because of this quite clear dialogue with contemporary politics, many critics have attacked Interstellar’s scientific credibility. Nolan has also weighed into this debate, largely defending his science, and scientific advisor Kip Thorne. But picking the film apart for its lack of fidelity to quantum theory or astrophysics is doing the experience of Interstellar a great injustice.

The film is far from perfect. For such a gifted visual storyteller, Nolan frustrates as he insists on joining the dots with unnecessarily clunky dialogue. For all the visual nods to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Nolan refuses to follow Kubrick’s lead and let the cinematography or visual effects speak for themselves. And there’s something about a misunderstood heroic white man from Middle America saving the human race that looks all too familiar.

But Interstellar’s real value is as an exploration of memory, of hope, and of the power of dreaming of a better tomorrow for our kids.

Let’s take the none-too-subtly named Dr Mann (Matt Damon), for example. Continually referred to as the best, brightest, and bravest humanity has to offer, his improbable appearance in the latter half of the film is one of the first truly hopeful moments, only for that to come dramatically crashing down. The fall of Mann provokes a rather chilling conclusion: it’s not just what’s on the inside, but fundamentally human sociality that keeps us who we are, or at least the version of ourselves compatible with contemporary ethics and values. Staring into the abyss long enough and it’s not the abyss looking back: it’s the realisation that extreme solitude and loneliness breaks even the best of us.

The question of what happens in the final moment of life refracts through the film, and it’s how this moment unfurls for Cooper that shifts the meaning of the film.

One interpretation is, of course, literal: that enabled by future-science so far removed from our understanding it’s incomprehensible, Cooper is able to communicate across the barriers of time and space to his now grown daughter and send her the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe, and save all of humanity. And in an improbable footnote, he also somehow finds his way back to her.Interstellar2

Alternatively, if we can give Nolan’s science the benefit of the doubt long enough to get Cooper into the black hole, then that entire final sequence may just be the adrenalin induced final spark of human imagination before it ceases to be. For a film about the power of imagination, what more satisfying reading can there be than the idea that we get to experience futures where we resolve the differences we’ve had with our children, and along the way play a central role in saving everyone?

Science fiction author Arthur C Clarke once noted that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”; the magic in Nolan’s film is not science, it’s the imagination.

One of the most heartbreaking early scenes comes as Cooper is chastised by schoolteachers because his daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), refuses to accept their ‘updated’ textbooks which explain that the Apollo missions were faked, to trick the USSR into a fatally bankrupting space race. As someone who dreamt of going to the moon, and beyond, as a child, Nolan’s film feels like a total immersion in that exact youthful sense of wonder. A sense of wonder a new generation might just be sharing as they watch the Philae lander touch down on a comet hurtling through space.

Interstellar’s insistence on looking upward, to the stars, to the future, beyond the confines of what we concretely know: this makes the film more than worth your time.

In the final sequence, Cooper awakens in Cooper Station, and presumes it’s named after him. It’s not. It’s named after his daughter, Murphy Cooper. Murphy and Brand (Anne Hathaway), the daughters of the supposed great men, are the real heroes of the film. They make the scientific data work, and they save humanity; it’s their dreams which ensure our future. Or, at least, that’s the hope.


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Drive-Ins, and the Stubborn Usefulness of Film Nostalgia Tue, 11 Nov 2014 15:00:11 +0000 drive in theater

Interstellar (2014) made its well-known debut last weekend. In Chicago, the film (yes, we can still call it that) screened in its “intended” format of 70mm at the Navy Pier IMAX. Its appearance there and at other such venues was predictably celebrated by old school cinephiles as yet another defiant declaration of celluloid’s continuing value in a culture of cinema that has increasingly done away with the old medium. Meanwhile, just across the border in the nearby state of Wisconsin, the so-called “end of film” was also marked that same weekend by a very different, less celebrated, event—the closing of the Keno Drive-In in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for the season, and most likely, permanently. In many ways, this was a more apt snapshot of film today—as well as the value in fighting for it—than Christopher Nolan’s high-profile blockbuster.

The arrival of Interstellar did little more than reiterate that celluloid’s use going forward will largely be as a high-end, niche phenomenon (confined to museums more than IMAX). And the rhetoric around film’s aesthetic superiority, frankly, obscures as many important questions in the digital age as highlights (a debate which will continue being pointless given the endlessly shifting technology). But the closing of the Keno—one of hundreds closing down in the last month or so across the United States—is more representative of the digital transition’s impact on the economics of film. Like many independent theatres, drive-ins often cannot afford the expense of converting from older 35mm projectors to digital ones (to say nothing of imminent maintenance costs)—an issue the studios and several major chains have forced by going almost exclusively to distributing movies as Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs).

Honda-Project-Drive-in-Logo“Of the 366 Drive-in theatres left in the United States,” Variety reported in 2012, “only a handful have converted to digital projection; another 10% are expected to convert before this summer.” Last year, this led to “Project Drive-In,” a campaign funding by Honda to provide the funds necessarily for digital conversion to the rare few drive-ins that won a nationwide voting contest (a drive-in in nearby McHenry, Illinois, was one such lucky recipient).

The Keno wasn’t nearly as fortunate—though its situation is admittedly somewhat different. While the operators of the drive-in were willing to cover costs, the shift to DCP is forcing the issue of land repurposing (including the persistent rumor of a certain “Big Box” retail mega-store). The repurposing means that The Keno is a business which risks having a projector—but no screen.

Still the value of the many closing Kenos of the world are worth exploring further—and beyond just the reassuring nostalgia offered by loving tributes such as the Going Attractions (2013) documentary. The digital conversion reveals at least one darker truth underlying the too-often-utopic rhetoric of digital cinema—innovation is not making things “easier” or “cheaper” for most people involved in the many aspects of the movie business today. Studios save considerable expenses on distribution costs, of course. Lisa Dombrowski highlighted how the “digital [conversion] will produce an 80 per cent savings on direct releasing costs [. . .] (a digital print costs between $100 and $300, while a 35mm print averages $1200 to $2000 more).”

Yet these savings have not “trickled down” to the smaller theatres dependent on 35mm—or to the audiences that pay an increasing premium on all tickets. The same can be said of independent filmmakers and others who may benefit from short-term savings in production and distribution, but will also find it increasingly difficult to get recognized or obtain a livable wage. In short, as with all market shifts in the age of late capitalism, this is simply an unsustainable long-term, financial situation.

Drive-Ins, and the Stubborn Usefulness of Film Nostalgia

Click here to view the video on YouTube.

So, it’s easy enough to look at the rampant nostalgia today surrounding the drive-in’s imminent demise—where all but a small handful will soon be Wal-Marts—and dismiss it as little more than a wistful longing for a bygone era of Americana that’s neither here nor there. Indeed, that does seem to be the city of Kenosha’s “brand,” as it were—a former auto town, with its historic Women’s Professional Baseball League-era stadium, its four museums in a twelve-block radius, its boxcar diner, its countless drive-in restaurants, or its still functioning Streetcar system. But there is also value in how the nostalgia for New Deal liberalism can be less about returning to the past, and more about using that utopic sense of history to shape something better, something more viable, still to come.


Redefining “Public” Education: Reflections from GeekGirlCon, Seattle, October 11-12 Thu, 23 Oct 2014 14:00:36 +0000 GGC-Logo-2013

We have been to three girl-focused cons this summer and fall: LeakyCon, DashCon and GeekGirlCon. These cons are non-profit, largely run by volunteers, and provide alternative geeky spaces to male-dominated cons. These cons extend the work of social media such as Tumbr by providing safe public spaces where feminist, feminine, and queer young people can gather to create communities that validate and encourage creative play, fannish passion, and critical thinking. The cons devote a great deal of attention to social inequalities faced by women, intersecting issues of sexism with racism, homophobia, classism, and related biases regarding ability, religion, educational level, and cultural capital. The socially critical content of these cons have demonstrated to me that we need to redefine what we mean by  “public” education. The organizers and participants of these cons are fashioning their own liberal arts education spaces. Many of the young panelists at GeekGirlCon made the point that they learned about feminist criticism, intersectionality, and social inequities from social media and at cons, not from the traditional public education system.

The role of social media and these types of cons as sites of critical thinking, community building, and social justice training for women has become increasingly urgent, most recently demonstrated by the nationally publicized attacks on Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist critic of video games on social media. Sarkeesian represents this new kind of public educator who seeks to make her work democratically accessible, and she was GeekGirlCon’s opening speaker. GGC hired extra security for the death threats that immediately followed the announcement of her appearance, but the attacks against her, like the more recent threats surrounding her at the Utah State University, were not only leveled at Sarkeesian but at her audiences. The GeekGirlCon hashtag (#GGC14) on Twitter was taken over by Sarkeesian trolls, and any attendee who tweeted in support of Sarkeesian or used the #GGC14 hashtag also received threatening messages directed at them, individually. As numerous panelists and attendees made clear, anyone with a feminine-perceived username is the recipient of hate on many social media platforms.

GeekGirlCon Anita Sarkeesian Tweet

It is vital, therefore, that we view Sarkeesian’s work and the hostility directed at her as not an anomaly, but part of the greater structural misogyny and inequity embedded in and perpetuated by American public institutions. Public education largely does not address social inequalities and erases many identity categories (LGBTQA and transgender most obviously in k-12). There is virtually no sex or rape culture education in schools. Humanities and creative arts programs are increasingly marginalized at both k-12 and college-levels. Career counseling, networking, leadership training – particularly for women and social minorities seeking to enter fields dominated by white men – is generally unavailable.  It is not surprising that feminized spaces such as these cons and select social media sites have become so important to young people; we have heard countless testimonials to this fact from young women at every con.

This was GeekGirlCon’s fourth year, and it has grown in both programming and attendance, with an estimated 7,000 participants this year. GGC is distinguished by its localism. Like other cons, GGC has a robust year-round social media presence but unlike them, GGC is based in Seattle and is able to foster relationships with local schools, industries and businesses and maintain a community presence throughout the year; in this way, the convention itself can be viewed as a catalyst that brings the local community together but also facilitates an extension of its female-centered space.

Used with permission

Used with permission

The age range of attendees at GGC was broad, from pre-teens to women in their 20s and 30s; many children were accompanied by their parents, and thus there were more men than at other Cons. In addition, although GGC encouraged cosplay and devoted panels to fangirl topics such as feminist media criticism and slash, GGC addressed other aspects of the term “geek.” For example, GGC highlighted women’s role in the sciences and offered a DIY “Science Zone,” where attendees were guided through experiments by female science educators. GGC also offered several workshops, booths, and panels that addressed professional career and networking strategies and opportunities for women and girls, particularly those seeking to enter technology, engineering, and science fields. Local industries and educators who support GGC’s mission offered career advice and support.

Panelists continually noted the importance of “finding a support group of other women” for any career pursuit. Indeed, some of the most interesting career discussion came from a new generation of female media journalists. They spoke of their experiences negotiating a media landscape in which their feminist critical perspectives and knowledge of fan cultures were not always welcome by editors and their published work often provoked gender-based hate. At the same time, these fangirls emphasized the importance of the fan community as a resource and support, and they encouraged attendees to draw on the skills they have learned as fans –writing, editing, graphic design, media analysis – in building their careers. One particularly popular and insightful panel on this topic is linked below.

“M from Feels to Skills panel”

GeekGirlCon also distinguished itself by holding two panels explicitly devoted to fat identity and resources. The “Fatness & Fandom” panelists represented a range of fat body types and was also the most racially diverse panel that I (Jen) attended at GGC. Fat fans spoke of being snubbed and erased by manufacturers of geeky clothing, a hot topic within plus-size communities because of the lack of availability of well-made, fashionable plus-size clothes. This panel was a great example of the local presence at GGC, composed of members of PNW Fattitude, a meetup group for fat women in the Pacific Northwest. Taking part in this panel allowed the group to leverage the larger voice of GGC to spread awareness of issues that fat fans face and to allow more people to learn about the group itself. Following the event, panelists invited attendees to an in-person meetup across the street. PNW Fattitude thus allowed attendees to see successful example of sustainable community at GGC.

This article by Allison McCracken was research and written with the help of Jen Kelly.


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New York Film Festival, 2014, Part Two: Explicitly, Sex Tue, 30 Sep 2014 13:30:25 +0000 Life of Riley, David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars, and Abel Ferrera's Pasolini.]]> NYFF-52-thumbnailIn Alain Resnais’ last film, Life of Riley, his adaptation of an Alan Ayckbourn play—on the Main Slate of NYFF 2014 as a fond farewell to one of the French New Wave greats—Riley never appears. It’s not that the other characters are waiting for him, a la Beckett’s Godot, it’s only that we never see the scenes in which the women, all married with the exception of one teen-aged daughter, throw themselves at him, while their husbands, who are abundantly visible, skirmish over trivialities, often regarding a play they are all rehearsing. Riley’s invisibility is no mere device; it is the crux of the film.

All we see are the banal performances that constitute everyday life. The characters, three couples “of a certain age,” regard the play in rehearsal as theatre. But Resnais clearly indicates that it is their lives that are the playacting. He depicts their homes as facades composed of stage flats. Alternately, between dramatized scenes, we see charming drawings of their houses, of the type that might decorate children’s storybooks. There are no doorways, only slit canvas sheets through which the characters make their entrances and exits. All the immediacy and sex remains “off-stage” with Riley. Resnais, who began depicting skin on skin sex scenes in Hiroshima Mon Amour, finishes up with a sense that the only honest representation of sex is one that confesses that the delights of sensual energy are unrepresentable. Riley escapes him—and his audience.


Life of Riley is a charming film. Its characters are mannered but still appealing, filled with the pathos and resignation of maturity, buoyant with the light gallic touch of Max Ophuls’ La Ronde (1950), that fearlessly regards romance and sex as deliciously ineffable. But where Ophuls coyly avoids explicit representation as a matter of aesthetic tact, Resnais actively questions the credibility of direct pictorial confrontation of the passions. This, in stark contrast to the revulsion-filled sexual directness of David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars and Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini. They suggest that the demise of the Production Code has not resulted in an evolved American depiction of sex, but rather a more graphic exhibition of America’s anxieties about the body.

Cronenberg’s Maps is a savage, fully realized portrait of what has become of love and sexuality under the reign of an American culture industry that eats its young, and puts maturity out with the trash. It is not so much a “Hollywood expose,” as the use of the narcissistic showiness of Hollywood as a metaphor for a contemporary American self-involvement so complete that the pleasure and fertility of sexuality has withered into a pervasive culture of incest, a sterile turning inward of the energies that have, time out of mind, stood for outgoing connectivity and faith in the future. Cronenberg explicitly displays for us all manner of sexual acts and nakedness, all suffused with disgust and anxiety. Central to Maps is the Weiss family, harshly cut from the ancient Greek marble of tragic drama, on an inevitable downward spiral because of an inadvertent Sophoclean sexual transgression of family ties.

8c67010c-c2dc-4493-be16-5d7aead28d1b-460x276Or is it inadvertent? Maybe at first. However, enlightenment doesn’t come in the final act, as in Oedipus, but rather lurks in the backstory, in which knowledge of incest was consciously suppressed to facilitate a frantic struggle for fame and fortune, an acid obsession that dissolves all other concerns. As vicious as the Weiss family story may be, however, with its ruined mansion just below the “HOLLYWOOD” sign, and its stunning modern, subsequently built family abode, in the end it displays more nobility than the stories of the other Hollywood characters, particularly the subplot of which Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a star noted for both talent and glamour, is the center. Where the Weisses suffer the consequences of their sins against their own humanity, Havana successfully wallows in the possible incest she may have experienced as a child, and hypocritically embraces mystical fixes to her discontents. Havana resembles nothing so much as a New Age rabid hyena.

Maps is one of the darkest comic films America has yet produced. Yes, comic. The audience at the press screening was often convulsed with laughter at topical references and vicious absurdities. This includes some black humor when, during a visit to the set of a Star Trek-like movie, the scarred face of Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), the 16 year old daughter of the Weiss clan, is mistaken by one of the Assistant Directors for an inadequate alien make-up job. “Get some color on that,” he yells at her, “We’re filming in a half an hour.”

Ferrara’s Pasolini, a cultivated and beautifully shot and edited film about the last days of the eponymous Italian director, has a different but equally fearful take on its explicitly depicted man-on-man sex. In Ferrara’s film, Pier Paulo Pasolini’s gay sexuality is nothing but an undramatic and very small part of a life of a personally sober, if highly imaginative family man, who is primarily concerned with art and philosophy. But Pasolini’s gentle cosmopolitanism is no shield from the undercurrent of sexual hysteria around him. Willem Dafoe’s magisterial performance of Pasolini seems, for most of the film, to be asexual; only in the last sequences does Pasolini search for a “rent boy,” whom he treats with impersonal generosity, an afterthought to a busy and productive day. But, as Pasolini inaugurates sex with the boy on a beach outside Rome, a trio of thugs reduces Pasolini to nothing more than his intended (consensual) copulation through a fatal homophobic attack, the darkness of night standing for the murk of cultural ignorance. True this is Italy, not an isolated road in Utah, but it is an American eye recording the eruption of anonymous violence, once sex is made visible.


One of the gifts of a film festival of the magnitude of NYFF is the availability in the aggregate of many offerings of a rich context for any individual film; in this case the context highlights a tortured American confusion about our physical natures.

Look for Part Three soon. AntennaCinemaJournal-300x119

This post is part of an ongoing partnership between Antenna: Responses to Media & Culture and the Society for Cinema & Media
Cinema Journal.


The Guardians of Good Taste: Critics and the “Fanboy” Menace Tue, 05 Aug 2014 17:00:12 +0000 Guardians of the Galaxy?]]> grootThe Los Angeles Times’ Steven Zeitchik, writing about Guardians of the Galaxy, revives a critical argument that refuses to go away – the idea that narrative is largely irrelevant to the contemporary blockbuster. For Zeitchik, Guardians exemplifies “post-plot cinema” that “was built to be consumed and enjoyed without any holistic understanding of what’s happening or why.” Scholars like Warren Buckland and Geoff King have already carefully rebutted the notion that “post-classical” blockbusters lack carefully developed, coherent storylines. Zeitchik makes a slightly different argument: “I don’t mean to suggest there aren’t discernable narrative developments in the film…But it’s not easy to explain, crisply and without descending into some kind of obfuscatory mumbo-jumbo…More important, I’m not sure we’re supposed to be able to explain it.”

Now, perhaps Zeitchik is right and audiences are simply enjoying the film’s special effects, humor, and endearing camaraderie without having much of a sense of the macroplot. But can we truly separate these things, as Zeitchik implies? He writes, “Why people are literally doing what they’re doing, or what the plausible psychological explanations are for what they’re doing – seem beside the point.” Yet the audience cannot fundamentally make sense of the narrative without understanding each character’s specific motivation. Why does a drunken Drax call Ronan, for instance? Or is the audience simply so dull it does not ask these questions, but rather sits back and waits for the fighting to begin? Considering the relative simplicity of the plot and the film’s concerted efforts toward classical narrative redundancy, Zeitchik paints the audience (and himself) in a rather poor light.

I could continue breaking down Zeitchik’s article, but my primary intention here is not simply to beat up on a piece of pop criticism that strikes me as wrongheaded. Instead it’s to point out a trend in contemporary film criticism in which critics strive to separate themselves from a strawman “fanboy” audience that is completely uncritical of comic book films, and possesses the arcane knowledge necessary to comprehend them. Rather than accurately representing how these films are constructed, and the way audiences engage with them, I believe this critical attitude serves mainly to reinforce traditional taste hierarchies.

Years ago in another defense of the contemporary franchise blockbuster, I suggested that these films were clearly constructed to appeal to both fan and general audiences. I’d argue that Guardians succeeds especially well in this regard, and is quite accessible to viewers who have neither read any Marvel comics, nor seen any Marvel films. Yet many critics continue to propagate the idea that only a fan audience (something that is never concretely defined) can fully understand a film of this kind. Zeitchik writes that “Hard-core Marvel enthusiasts, versed in the 1960s comic where it all began, may disagree” with his confusion. Likewise, The New York Times’ A.O. Scott praises Men in Black 3 because “You don’t need to study up on the previous installments or master a body of bogus fanboy lore to enjoy this movie.”

The New York Times critics have been particularly guilty of defensive posturing while reviewing superhero films. In 2012 Scott griped, “A critic who voices skepticism about a comic book movie…is likely to be called out for snobbery or priggishness…and trying to spoil everyone else’s fun. What the defensive fans fail or refuse to grasp is that they have won the argument.” Manohla Dargis complains that “oppositional voices” like hers and Scott’s “can be difficult to hear in the contemporary media context.” (Reminder: Dargis and Scott are film critics for the newspaper with the second-highest circulation in the country.) Scott continues, with an utter lack of self-awareness, to criticize “comic book fans’ need to feel perpetually beleaguered and disenfranchised.” This is presumably quite unlike Scott and Dargis’s efforts to position themselves as the last bastion of good taste against the onslaught of the fanboy hordes.

Rather than being embarrassed for their alleged lack of ability to follow a science fiction action film, critics take pride in their confusion, using it to carefully separate themselves from fans, considered to be dupes of the Hollywood marketing machine who revel in sexist, racist, and infantile power fantasies. I’ve spent a good deal of time reading film reviews for my manuscript on the economic and cultural transformation of American science fiction film, and it’s been fascinating to trace the shifting tone of critics from condescending dismissal to the nearly hysterical defensiveness and hostility seen today. Film critics may be soured on fandom due to the appalling, unrepresentative behavior of internet trolls. But at a time when comic book adaptations are some of the most culturally prominent films worldwide, critics might consider making an honest effort to appreciate why they strike a chord with the hoi polloi.


Simple Machine & Micro-Wave: Building a Grassroots Film Community Wed, 26 Mar 2014 12:53:13 +0000 THE MEN OF DODGE CITY, directed by Nandan Rao played March 16

THE MEN OF DODGE CITY, directed by Nandan Rao

Filmmaker Nandan Rao launched Simple Machine in March 2013 at SXSW. The goal of the site is to facilitate the public exhibition of microbudget (<$100K) films – most of which are never screened for public audiences after their festival runs – by directly connecting filmmakers to audiences. Though there is a possibility for filmmaker/distributor profit within the Simple Machine model (via ticket revenue), the primary function of the service is to foster a grassroots network of communities (exhibition sites, programmers, and cinephiles) that are passionate about truly independent cinema. It has now been a year since the site began offering its services, carrying a library of films by directors such as Joe Swanberg, Dustin Guy Defa, Robert Greene, and Amy Seimetz. While there have been dozens of one-off screenings along the way, a consistently operating venue or screening series has not arisen. I intend to change that.

If Simple Machine’s potential is to be fulfilled, it is necessary to create pockets of strong local interest. Right now, there are only a few areas where you can see many of these movies in a public setting – New York City, Austin, Chicago, occasionally Los Angeles or Seattle – and there is the Internet, where microbudget cinema has found a home. The challenge, it seems, is to generate new physical outposts for a mostly online community. Ideally, these physical outposts would grow local audiences, which would then feed back into and expand the overall network. People actually talking about films with other people can be quite powerful.

The Micro-Wave Film Series (“micro” budget + new “wave”) is my attempt to give concrete form to the hypothetical promise contained within Simple Machine. Every screening takes place in a fantastic UW-Madison campus theater, is free, and involves a Q & A session with the filmmaker(s) afterward. Sounds great, right? Well, as of now, people are not coming. Community building requires the slowness and steadiness of the proverbial tortoise. However, someone has to take the first big step. If anything, taking that first step has taught me how difficult it can be to create and/or mobilize an audience, especially when relying on the Internet.

In my case, for example, we have garnered 170 likes on our Facebook page. Facebook tells me that 60 of those are Madison residents. Not a ton of fans, but if even 25% of those Madison fans showed up to each screening, we would be pulling in about 15 audience members at each screening. Terrific! However, these are the actual attendance figures for our four screenings thus far this semester: 18, 7, 4, and 3. Indeed, Facebook also tells me that we only have 10 “engaged” fans located in Madison. So much for all those sponsored posts.

To be fair, these early stumbles are likely due to my lack of experience as a promoter, not just the inefficiencies of Facebook advertising. I only decided to do the series in January, so I have been flying by the seat of my pants. Hopefully, more planning time and experience will result in more efficacious publicity. These sorts of difficulties, however, extend beyond my specific circumstance. The challenges of audience building and mobilization seem endemic to public film exhibition outside of a traditional theatrical setting, especially with films that lack mainstream stars and significant advertising budgets. Depressingly, way more people will come out for a campus screening of the new Thor film than a screening of a film they might not be able to see anywhere, anytime, anyhow, even with the bonus of special access to the filmmakers. How does an upstart exhibition organization effectively attract and reward viewers, especially when the films are produced by total independents? This question is interesting to me not just as a budding programmer and exhibitor, but also as a filmmaker and, most pertinent to this blog, an academic. I imagine my understanding will grow along with my experience. I hope to deliver progress reports to Antenna in the future.

Still from Choking

THE INTERNATIONAL SIGN FOR CHOKING, directed by Zach Weintraub, kicked off Micro-Wave in Madison.

Of course, Micro-Wave, has also been a relative success. Our first screening, a double feature of films by Zach Weintraub, was well-attended and well-received. Though subsequent screenings have had lower attendance, audience members have expressed enthusiasm for the films and our Q & As have been candid, informative, and very conversational. Beyond our Madison audience, we have received great feedback from other filmmakers, critics, and miscellaneous participants in the microbudget community. A few of them have even told me that they intend to start their own local chapters of Micro-Wave, which I wholeheartedly support. Importantly, Micro-Wave is also serving as a major testing ground for the Simple Machine model. Screening the films has required me to exchange films in various forms (mailed Blu-ray discs, mailed flash drives, Vimeo downloads, Dropbox downloads, BitTorrent peer-to-peer sharing) and to manage physical Q & As, Skype Q & As and Google Hangouts. To me, Micro-Wave (particularly this first semester) is like beta testing for what Simple Machine will eventually become. Hopefully, it will be something transformative.

Still from MMXIII

Ian Clark’s MMXIII

On Sunday, March 30 @ 7:00 PM, Micro-Wave will be screening Ian Clark’s MMXIII (2013), followed by a Skype Q & A with the director. On Sunday, April 13 @ 7:00 PM, Micro-Wave will present a double feature of films by Kris Swanberg, with the director in attendance: IT WAS GREAT, BUT I WAS READY TO COME HOME (2009) and EMPIRE BUILDER (2012).


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