Friday, November 6, 2015

Spectre, or rebuilding the "Big Picture"

First the good news. My personal copy of Flickers of Film arrived in the mail this week. It’s a study about the possibilities and limitations of a consumer-driven nostalgia within the restrictions of late capitalist Hollywood. I’m very excited about this book, and hope that the occasion arrives in the near future for me to say more about it—especially regarding its long, deeply personal, production history. We’ll see.

By way of transition, I will say that Flickers of Film (then titled Haunted Nerves) found a lot of its focus around the same time in summer of 2012 that I composed this popular piece about the anticipation of Skyfall (2012)—though, importantly, none of that really ended up in the book.


It’s no secret that the Bond franchise has long held a special place in my heart, though as the years go on, I increasingly find myself wondering why. I blogged about Skyfall three years ago here, and on Quantum of Solace a few years before that (in the seven years since that film came out, I’ve written on countless subjects—and many of much greater consequence—than the modest piece about what Bond meant when he told M at theend of QofS that she was “right about Vesper.” And yet to this day, it remains by far my most popular blog post, which might make one wonder what they’ve been doing with the last decade of their life. Might).

I also blogged a fair amount about Casino Royale back in the day, but I think most of those pieces are gone as they eventually made their way in some fashion into a book chapter I wrote for Revisioning 007: James Bond and Casino Royale (2010), a narratological study entitled “Hardly the Big Picture”—the contents of which make for a good starting point in approaching Spectre’s many failings.

There are many reasons why Casino Royale remains not only Daniel Craig’s best Bond film, but one of the two or three greatest Bond films ever. For now, I will restrict myself to two—the film was a smart example of the “reboot” before the reboot became a trendy cliché (in a sense, the franchise was always good at that, hence its longevity), and the solid beginnings of what media scholars now call “world-building.” It wasn’t just a successful stand-alone movie—it promised so much more to come with its iconic final moment. Bond had become “James Bond,” and only at the very conclusion does he at last confront the movie’s true villain in a sequence that offers (in a good way) more questions than answers (not unlike, for comparison, Nick Fury’s cameo appearance a couple of years later at the end of Iron Man).

So where did the franchise go from there? Admittedly, Quantum of Solace is not as bad as its detractors argue (including myself in the past) and has arguably improved over time. It is a first rate action film, perhaps the best of the entire series in that regard—but the problem may ultimately be that it’s really *only* an action film. Its emotional depth (which I wouldn’t quickly dismiss) is based entirely on the way it brings closure on a number of fronts with the events of Casino Royale. It’s not only a lesser film than its predecessor but, to make matters worse, it’s very narrative DNA begs the comparison. But I would argue its failings ultimately were not that it relied too much on Casino Royale—which are frankly my favorite moments of the movie, and which cause me to revisit it at least once a year.  Rather, I’d suggest that QofS’ shortcomings are rooted in the fact that it didn’t also continue to lay the narrative foundation for that “big picture” of which Casino Royale was so fond.

So, this brings us to Skyfall. Its too bad the filmmakers felt the need to start over narratively. I have to say, I am not a huge fan. Its quality definitely puts it in the top half of all Bond films ever—maybe even the top third. But that would be as much a reflection of the other Bond films (*cough* 1970s *cough* Roger Moore) than on Skyfall’s inherent attributes. Skyfall was the first Bond film—at least since the Pierce Brosnan era—that felt like an overthought, high-concept, mess. That’s not to say that aren’t a lot of things to admire, but just that the entire story didn’t feel organic—the unnecessary Dark Knight twists, the returns of Q and Moneypenny which seemed to serve no purpose other than they are expected to be there, the rebooting (again), Bond as old relic (again), the shock ending, and so on.

So, this brings us to Spectre—and I’ll state upfront that there are FULL SPOILERS ahead. I toyed with the idea of trying to write around them, but they are ultimately too central to my problems with this film. But I will add if you’ve been keeping up with the trailers and some of the gossip around Spectre, absolutely nothing will surprise you . . . and that right there is the first of many problems with the film. 


Spectre seems to exist in one of those maddening fictional worlds where everybody not only conveniently knows everyone else but also where (more conveniently) everyone seems to be related to everyone else (by the end of the film I was half-expecting the villain C to reveal to M that he was the elder’s long lost son, and the whole conspiracy was rooted in the son’s revenge for his abandonment).

The problem with Oberhauser . . . sorry, I meant Blofeld:

(To start out, however, I will say that I give the press a lot of credit for keeping this one under wraps, even though it was pretty obvious all along. . . . or maybe because it was so obvious all along)

This “mystery box” strategy, at least when it comes to iconic characters in well-known franchises, has . . . got . . . to . . . stop. And I don’t say this simply because it’s a tired promotional strategy—no, there are deeper problems with it by now. For one, you are just setting up the movie for disappointment by creating a lot of unnecessary hype and anticipation. Bond sells Bond just fine by himself, thank you very much. 

But for another, you end up wasting more than half the film building to a moment that the whole audience is already expecting—so, you’ve wasted half of a (very long) film by putting off the actual story you claim to be telling. Blofeld is Blofeld—embrace it, and given him more to work with, and not just have him be an interchangeable third-act villain (the scar was a nice touch, btw, but entirely predictable--yeah, right, Blofeld totally died in that explosion and isn't in any way coming back).

The other problem with Blofeld is this idiotic, grade school psychology business about him being Bond’s long lost adopted brother with a serious chip on his shoulder. So, we are meant to believe that everything we’ve seen in the last four Bond films can be traced back to one kid who was jealous that daddy didn’t love him as much as the other kid.

It's not just that this weakens the film—it’s that you don’t even need this easy, obvious psychobabble junk to make the film work. Skip it. Blofeld works just fine as a villain without any tiresome motivation (and it’s not that motivation isn’t something to strive for, but the writers could have tried to be a little—lot more—creative). 

So, in the end Blofeld’s mad at Bond because he keeps interfering with his plans for world domination? Or, is it because of Daddy issues? Maybe, he’s also repressing homoerotic feelings too, like a couple of the other past Bond villains? Why not? What an over-determined mess.

Finally, Blofeld doesn’t work because, to bring this conversation full circle, there is just way too much retrospectively tying up of the previous three films—Blofeld’s narrative function in the end is basically, “yes, I was there all along (take my word for that). . . . and, oh, and I killed all the women in your life for retaliation (take my word for that too). How do you know? . . . . Because I have lots of pictures of those people!” Ironically, Mendes could have constructed a more cohesive world for Daniel Craig's Bond here, in retrospect, if he hadn't spent all of Skyfall rebooting Bond.

(casting a fine actor like Christoph Waltz, too, was a misfire, as his bad guy persona is a bit of an obvious cliché by now—and partly what made him such a welcoming revelation in the otherwise uneven Django Unchained)

There are other problems with the film—way too many people who just happen to be in the right place at the right time, with often little explanation, let alone a plausible one. And that got on my nerves too as the film wore on. Even for a Bond film there seem to be a few too many plotholes. Also, I do not find the happy ending terribly convincing—the chemistry between Bond and Swain isn’t terrible, but it’s hard to see Bond running off with her in the end. It's an unearned stretch. This is magnified by how much effort the movie makes to suggest he's still haunted by the ghost of Vesper, and incapable of finding much personal connection with anyone, which is conveniently dropped at the end.

Finally, I will say that are moments, at least for me, there were, literally, laughably bad. We don’t need Tanner to tell us someone is dead after falling straight down 10-15 stories onto a rock hard surface (it was at this point, I honestly began to wonder if Mendes and co. was playing a big joke on the audience, but I hope not because that would be even more infuriating).

OK . . . I don’t hate Spectre as much as it probably seems right about now. I'd put it in the top-half of all Bond films. Maybe even the top third! I do appreciate the fan shout-outs (my favorite was the reference to OHMSS’s “Hildebrand”). The initial Spectre meeting was a wonderfully effective throwback, without feeling like an anachronism. Some moments work—like the Billy Wilder-esque talking to the rodent scene which better highlights Bond’s fragile psyche than the countless dialogue meditations on the same subjects (and serves a useful narrative function). On that note, I too love the use of the mirror during the “Bond . . . James Bond” moment. And Craig is still as good a Bond as there has ever been, and I know I’ll revisit it several times in the future. 

But this was a real missed opportunity overall . . . and, more to the point, I’m beginning to wonder the same thing about the entire Daniel Craig era these days.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Hawaii Research Updates

Barring last minute indexing and proofreading on Flickers of Film, I've turned my summer attention back to the Hawai'i project. I spent last week in the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research Archives at UW Madison. Here's some of the materials I've found (partly listing this out for my own reference later):

  • Various NBC memos from 1931 and 1932 about how to incorporate the promotion of Dole Pineapple into radio spots
  • A transcript from a 1951 episode of Now Hear This (military propaganda) called "Hawaii Rescue"
  • Transcript for a 1954 TV special on NBC called "Hawaii--the 49th State"
  • Correspondences (1958) concerning an industrial film made for Kaiser Aluminum called "Opening Night in Hawaii" by Gordon Mitchell
  • 1959 testimonies and other documents from a Civil Aeronautics Board hearing on the value of air travel to Hawaii from the Pacific Northwest
  • Many materials (1958-59) from NBC president Pat Weaver papers concerning the promotion of a real estate deal in Hawai'i called "Hawaii Kai" (?), including how to incorporate advertisements for said plan into media (Maverick TV show, Hawaiian Village in Honolulu, United Airlines involvement, McCann Erickson ad agency, etc.)
  • NBC general notes (1960) on what kinds of formats, plots, themes, etc., should be involved in half-hour filmed or taped shows set in Hawai'i
  • a listing of George Tahara's (producer) short-subject, non-theatrical Hawaii-themed films, circa 1960, complete with summary of film content
  • Correspondence (1960) between Tahara and Weaver concerning the use of footage from Riding the Big Surf in an unspecified TV ad (also reference to Michener show on ABC)
  • Writers Guild documents concerning a credit dispute between Hal Kanter and Dan Beaumont over who wrote what in Elvis' Blue Hawaii (1961)
  • Transcript for a 1962 episode of Keyhole called "The Hidden Hawaii" (overtones of MacCannell's "backstage" authenticity)
  • A massive assortment of materials (circa 1964) from Kirk Douglas' papers concerning the production of In Harm's Way (all-star WWII epic directed by Otto Preminger)
  • 1964 memo from Honolulu mayor's office, offering advice to MGM Studios on what it saw as a realistic depiction of life in Hawaiian politics--in regards to research for show about big city mayor
  • Script notes, press kit materials and Exhibitor promotional guides concerning producer Walter Mirisch's epic, Hawaii (1966) (some materials on the 1970 sequel, Hawaiians)
  • 1967 Writer's Guide for Hawaii Five-O
  • Script Notes and Honolulu Map (!) in files of H5-O scriptwriter Sy Salkowitz's papers
In the next several weeks, I'll be focused only on finishing a draft of the Hawaii Five-O chapter--looking at the show's cultural politics through the historical lenses of tourism, multiculturalism and militarism evolving at the time of its popularity in the late 1960s and 1970s. The introduction is done, I know more or less what I want to say, and I've spent the past two weeks compiling 20+ pages worth of historical research on the show, drawn from the archives as well as several historical databases. No reason I can't finally tidy this one up.

Monday, June 15, 2015

RTVF298 History of Disney

Summer 2015 

Mon & Wed 6:30-9:00 
University Hall 312

Despite the Walt Disney Company’s massive media presence today, little attention is paid to the rich history which built it, dating all the way back to its origins as Laugh-O-Gram Studios in Kansas City during the 1920s. What visible glimpses we have today tend to be shaped by the market imperatives of corporate re-branding and the sentimental simplicity of nostalgic hazes. As such, this course will focus on the many ups and downs over the decades of Disney’s slow aesthetic, economic, and cultural growth, providing a foundation for better understanding the company today. In addition to analyzing particular Disney texts (some well-known and many not well-known), special emphasis will be paid to the many facets of the studio’s first critical and commercial success in the 1930s, its struggles with bankruptcy throughout the 1940s, and its hugely successful re-branding as a prominent component of a new post-war leisure culture in the 1950s and 1960s. Extensive attention will also be paid to the company’s considerable revival and expansion under the “Team Disney” leadership of the 1980s and 1990s, as well as some reflection on the recent investment in once-competing brands such as Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. This course is designed as a smaller-scale class for a limited number of undergraduates, which thus will require active and informed participation from all students who enroll. For instance, every student will be expected to lead discussion on a designated course reading during an assigned day.

Learning Objectives
By the end of the term, students should be able to: 1) identify the cultural, technological, and economic histories of the Disney Studios itself; 2) reflect critically and in writing on how these histories helped shape many of the well-known, but also lesser-known, films and television shows from the company’s past; 3) articulate the aesthetic and commercial particulars of the larger “Disney Universe” beyond individual texts; 4) engage critically on questions of race, gender/sexuality and class which are reflected, and often informed by, these aspects of the Disney empire; and 5) classify the aesthetic and thematic characteristics of the “classic” Disney text.

Evaluation Method
Final grade will be based on two short papers, discussion report, research essay (w/ proposal), participation and serving as reading discussion leader on assigned days.

Required Class Materials
Assigned readings will be posted to Canvas.
Movies and television episodes will be screened in class.

Response Paper 1 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  10%
Response Paper 2 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  15%
Discussion Leader . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10%
Discussion Report . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15%
Research Proposal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5%
Research Essay . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30%
Participation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15%

*Completion of all assignments in a timely fashion is required to pass the course.

Grading Scale: A = 100%; A- = 93%; B+ = 88%; B = 85%; B- = 82%; C+ = 78%; C = 75%; C- = 71%; D+ = 68% D = 65%; D- = 62%; F = 50%

Assignment Descriptions

Response Papers

General grading criteria for both include:

Originality of argument (which means avoid summarizing sources, plots, lecture notes, etc); clarity of argument/organization; effective incorporation of textual evidence from both the readings and the selected film (when required); and general writing concerns (typos, sentence structure, etc.).

*Other notes: typed; 3-4 full pages, double-spaced; 1” margins; no cover page is needed.

1st Paper: Audience responses to Disney movies, shows, music and theme parks over the years tend to follow a lot of similar patterns—appeals to childhood memories, generational relationships, established patterns of consumption, and so forth. But some responses can also be surprising and counterintuitive—truly unexpected ways of looking at, or reading, Disney texts. For the first response paper, interview someone a different generation than you (a relative, friend, etc.) about their relationship to Disney—regardless of their level of interest (as in, they do not have to be a hardcore fan, and it might even be more fruitful if they are not). Some questions to consider (though you are welcome to come up with your own):
·         How would you define your level of Disney interest (fanatic, fan, consumer, resistant, cynic, indifferent)? Why?
o   (NOTE: Feel free to skim the Wasko reading online for a description of these categories—they may also help you generate additional questions)
·         What are your earliest memories of Disney?
·         Has your interest in Disney changed over time? If so, how? Why?
·         Do you prefer some aspects of the Disney “Universe” more than others? Certain movies? Parks?
·         Have you been to the parks? Why or why not? Does it matter to you?
·         Has family and/or nostalgia played a part—good or bad? Why or why not?
·         In addition to familial relationships and nostalgia (presumably, but of course not necessarily), what factors do you feel might explain your level of interest (consumerism, peer pressure, etc.)?

Some other tips for the interview itself: be clear upfront that this is for an assignment; let the subject talk as much as possible (don’t interrupt, but also pay attention to any ideas for possible follow up questions); and record the conversation, if possible, for personal reference later.

Then, for your paper, look for dominant trends in the interviewee’s narrative, highlight things expected and unexpected, and compare and contrast their sense of Disney with your own. For a thesis, argue for what you see as an important insight or two in regards to the Disney audiences historically (as in how things change, or remain, over time). Try to be as specific as possible—avoid broad generalizations such as “everyone loves Disney’s magic” or “Disney’s appeal is timeless,” etc. While Disney’s impact is undeniable (though not universal), there’s a lot of room for nuance and distinction. The idea is to be reflexive about people’s engagement with Disney in dialogue with, but also beyond, your own experiences. In any event, an important goal is not just to think about how someone interprets Disney, but why.

2nd Paper: One difficulty in studying Disney’s history is the temptation to equate watching old movies with studying the company’s past, when there’s so much more going on. Select any one of the films screened in class to that point (up to the 1950s), and write a paper which places that movie within an important historical context beyond just Disney’s role. Incorporate at least one outside source which you found on your own (you may also use a course reading, if relevant, but you must still find an additional scholarly source too). Pick one other development going on at the time within the industry, or the country as a whole (culturally, politically, etc.), which helps shed further light on the film, and explain why. For example, what changes in animation techniques affected the aesthetics of a particular early Disney short? What role did the Great Depression play in affecting audiences’ relationship to Three Little Pigs? How might Disneyland fit within the early days of television? And, so forth. You are not restricted to these titles. Any historical title screened in class up to the due date is fair game. The goal is to think about these films historically—what else should we need to know about them in order to understand them beyond just watching the movie itself?

Works Cited list is only required on the second paper.

Discussion Leader & Report: As we are a very small group, I am encouraging students to take an active role in the direction of the class. During the first week, I’ll assign students to lead discussion during one class period throughout the quarter. You’ll want to prepare at least five substantive discussion questions based on the assigned reading for that day and the accompanying screening, which we’ll view during the previous class. So, you should have plenty of material to work with. Please bring copies of the questions to class for each classmate (and myself). I would encourage you to have tentative answers thought out in the back of your mind, in case conversation stalls, but they should also be broad enough to encourage any number of different responses. Of course, I will take an active role as well, so you won’t be on your own. But I really want to see students take the lead as much as possible.

Then, within a week of the class, submit a two page report over email which reflects back on both the substance of the class (reading, screening) and your own thoughts on the discussion itself—i.e., the challenges of preparing for the discussion, how did your perception of the readings/films change as a result of the discussion, how did classmates’ reaction affect your thinking, other unexpected discoveries, etc. For a thesis, think about how the experience in some way changed your perception of Disney in ways either subtle or perhaps profound. The points for being discussion leader are largely a full/no credit grade. The report, however, will be graded similar to the first response paper—emphasizing in particular the care of reflexive thought put into it. One big pitfall to avoid is simply summarizing the reading and/or class discussion—what larger value do you take out of it?

Research Proposal (1p)—A week before your research projects are due, I will ask each of you to submit a formal, typed proposal for your final project. The proposal should be a solid paragraph (at least 5-7 sentences) outlining the general topic, your tentative argument, and some of the specific texts (films, sources) you plan to explore. In addition to that paragraph description, you’ll also want a short bibliography of five scholarly sources (not the films) that you’ve already briefly consulted as you formulated your topic. The larger goal of the proposal is not to lock in a final argument, but to begin thinking about the project in earnest, while also doing enough tentative research to get a feel for whether or not the topic might be viable/focused/effective, and so forth. You will not be allowed to change topics without my approval once the proposal has been submitted.

Research Essay (8-10pp; 5 sources)—while the class emphasizes the history of the company, the subject of the research essay is open to any aspect of the Disney Universe, past or present—this includes not only the films, but also the parks, Broadway shows, ancillary markets, and so forth. You are also welcome to branch out to other brands such as Pixar, Marvel or Star Wars, etc., as long as the topic in some way ties back to Disney’s influence and/or connection. The final essay should be 8-10 pages, with at least 5 scholarly sources (at least three of which must be from outside course readings). These do not have to be the same five from the proposal, as it is expected that the paper will evolve over the writing and researching process. Outside sources and a works cited list (in proper format) are both required, but otherwise the grading criteria will be largely consistent with the response papers.

Summer Schedule 2015

Notes: All assigned readings must be completed before class that day. All assigned readings will be posted to Canvas. Listed media titles will be screened all or in part in class. Readings and screenings may be tentative, but any changes will be announced well in advance.

June 22nd—Introductions; Journey into the Disney Vault (2006); Reading: Sun and Scharrer, “Staying True to Disney”; Screening: early Mickey Mouse shorts, Silly Symphonies
June 24th— Disney in the 1930s; Readings: Sammond, “In Middletown,” and Gabler, “The Mouse” (excerpt); Screening: The Reluctant Dragon (1941)

June 29th—Disney post-Snow White; Reading: Langer, “Regionalism in Disney Animation”; Screening: Fantasia (excerpts) (1941) and Saludos Amigos (1943)
July 1st— Reading: Luckett, “Cultural Constructions of Disney’s ‘Masterpiece’” and Sadlier, Americans All (excerpt); Screening: WWII propaganda films (1942-1944) and Song of the South (1946)
First Response Papers due via email (Word docs only): 3pm, Friday, July 3rd 
July 6th— Post-War Disney; Readings: Watts, “The Search for Direction” and Ohmer, “That Rags to Riches Stuff”; Screening: Seal Island (1948) and Disneyland (1954)
July 8th— Readings: Neuman, “Disneyland’s Main Street USA” and Sammond, “America’s True Life Adventure”; Screening: The Boys (2009) and The Love Bug (1969)

July 13th— What Would Walt Do?; Reading: Bryman, “Disney after Walt”; Screening: TRON (1982)
July 15th Disney Post-Star Wars; Reading: Morris, “Computer Imaging, Realism, TRON”; Screening: Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009)
Second Response Papers due via email (word docs only): 3pm, Friday, July 17th

July 20th—Team Disney; Reading: Grainge, “Media Branding” and Do Rozario, “The Princess and the Magic Kingdom”; Screening: The Pixar Story (2007)
July 22nd—Pixar; Readings: Ebrahim, “Are the ‘Boys’ at Pixar Afraid of Little Girls?” and Herhuth, “Life, Love, and Programming: The Culture and Politics of WALL-E and Pixar Computer Animation”; Screening: Fantasia 2000 (1999)
Proposals due via email (word docs only): 3pm, Friday, July 24th

July 27th—Disney in the 21st Century; Reading: Pallant, “Neo-Disney” and Willis, “The Family Vacation”; Screening: Escape from Tomorrow (2013)
July 29th—Student Presentations

Research Essays due via email during finals week—
Deadline: 3pm, Friday, July 31st
(*- all missing work is due at this time)

Have a good break.