Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Winter 2015 Course Descriptions (Nostalgia and Billy Wilder)

RTVF 322
Nostalgia and Popular Culture

Winter 2015
Thursdays 3:00-6:00
Louis 119

Course Description
It’s no secret that nostalgia dominates popular culture today—deeply influencing how media are produced, promoted and received. And yet deeper considerations of the term itself—its definitions and implications—are often left unexplored in favor of easy dismissal. Nostalgia is often used in a negative context—both as a way to disregard overtly sentimental evocations of the past, and as means to romanticize a period of time that often never existed as such in the first place. Indeed, these notions are often apt, and the nature of nostalgia as an innocent, often child-like, and even debilitating vision of history’s complexities too often takes precedent in popular culture today. Yet, nostalgic impulses can also be reflexive, fragmentary and even at times future-oriented. As such, this course will explore the various aesthetic and industrial functions that nostalgia plays in media today with careful attention to both its conservative and progressive uses. We will think about how nostalgia overtly shapes the style and narrative structures of various media, but also how it intersects in subtler ways with questions of distribution and reception. This will be largely a theory-oriented course, with readings by writers such as Svetlana Boym, Fredric Jameson, Richard Dyer, Christine Sprengler, Vera Dika, Paul Grainge, Linda Hutcheon, Pam Cook, Annette Kuhn, and others. Screenings may include, but are not limited to, The World’s End, Mad Men, Daughters of the Dust, Chinatown, King of Kong, About Schmidt, The Artist, Going Attractions, Boardwalk Empire, Twilight Zone, Detropia, Wild Strawberries, Star Trek, Grand Budapest Hotel, Lost in Translation, and so forth. Some more questions we may consider include: how do films "represent" nostalgia? Do they offer images of an idealized past, or do they explore a character(s)' own struggle with nostalgia? How do these texts negotiate nostalgia for a genre, a franchise, or a star? How does mediated nostalgia affect public and private understandings of history? How do films, intentionally or otherwise, activate feelings of nostalgia through circulation and/or repurposing?

Evaluation Method
The final grade will be determined by shorter papers, a research essay, group work, and participation.

Required Course Materials
Assigned readings will be posted to Canvas

Course Objectives
By the end of the term, you should be able to: 1) theorize the concept of nostalgia in a variety of media contexts; 2) consider the representational, affective and industrial aspects of nostalgia; 3) differentiate between public/private, reflective/restorative, and other forms of nostalgia; and 4) discuss the aesthetic, cultural and political value of nostalgia as represented in films.

The Films of Billy Wilder

Winter 2015
Tuesdays 3:00-6:00
Louis 119

Course Description
Modern conceptions of many noted auteurs from Hollywood’s “classical” era tend to be dominated by ambitiously visual directors, those (Hitchcock, Minnelli, Ford, Welles) who largely distinguished their films from the studio norm through the use of striking innovations in how films could look. Less visually-oriented directors from the period—such as Billy Wilder—have often been regulated to second-tier status in the pantheon of Hollywood directors, despite the fact that just as many studio classics from the Golden Age (1930s-1960s) bear their names as any other. While the compositional impact of his films shouldn’t be underestimated (Double Indemnity, for instance, set the template for noir iconography), Wilder nonetheless was first and foremost a writer. His films privileged visual efficiency in the service of witty and often cynical dialogue, which he co-wrote with a number of collaborators, including Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond. Like many Hollywood directors, Wilder was a European √©migr√©—a Jewish filmmaker who fled the rise of Nazi Germany early in the 1930s. Most of his family was left behind, many of whom died later at the concentration camps. To a point, this may help to explain the deep cynicism which underlines much of his work; yet Wilder’s films often buried that bleak view of the world within a more playful relationship with some of the lighter genres of Classic Hollywood—romantic comedy and screwball farce. And within his body of work is a fascinating historical glimpse into the contradictions of modernity, gender identity, the cultural logic of capitalism and media institutions in the mid-20th Century. While this course will attempt to cover Wilder’s entire career, the primary emphasis will be on the most noted films from the height of his Hollywood fame. These may include: The Major and the Minor (1942), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), Stalag 17 (1953) Sabrina (1954), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), One, Two, Three (1963) and The Fortune Cookie (1966). The assigned readings will be posted to Canvas.

Evaluation Method
The final grade will be determined by shorter papers, a research essay, presentations and participation.

Required Course Materials
Crowe, Cameron. Conversations with Wilder. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.
Phillips, Gene. Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2010 (*-available through NUCat as an e-book).
Additional readings will be posted to Canvas

Course Objectives
1) Identify some of the major thematic and stylistic tendencies in Wilder’s films; 2) study the biography of Wilder, his collaborators, and the production histories as they shed light on some aspects of this body of work; 3) engage with some of the broader cultural and industrial contexts which shaped the films’ production and reception; 4) reflect on, and challenge, some of the basic tenets of auteur theory.


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Quick Thoughts on the Inherent Vice trailer

Prepping for Punch Drunk Love in my intro class. Interesting timing that the trailer for Inherent Vice (2014) came out while I was rethinking Anderson's body of work anyway (along with the sweet reviews the book's gotten so far).

I remain excited about PTA's next film--it looks gorgeous and the source material seems like a good fit thematically with that body of work. The post-war existentialism of The Master (2012) has been replaced by the "what's it all mean?" musings of late 60s counterculture, but the existential crises--and chemical addictions--amidst the empty facades of a California consumer culture remain the same.

In reading the book recently, I was struck by this passage:

" . . . Coy and I, all we saw was the freedom--from the endless middle class cycle of choices that are no choices at all--a world of hassle reduced to one simple issue of scoring" (38). 

Seems like the kind of passage that would get the filmmaker's attention (fwiw: I have no clue if this ever got anywhere near the adaptation itself).

All that said, the trailer was pretty underwhelming--its trying too hard to sell the movie as funny and quirky. I'm assuming that this is just the work of the studio itself (Warner Bros) and its uncertainty about how to sell it. (Seriously, the fact that a major studio is backing Anderson still amazes me). Following that logic, a lot of the moments in the trailer are hopefully taken out of context in so far as they don't reflect the general tone of the movie itself.

Also, some of my initial reservations were not alleviated by the trailer either--a concern intensified by the supposedly long running time. We'll see.

I will blog about it when I have a chance to see it--probably not until December.

I also hope to do a "field" trip with some Northwestern students--possibly in January. The interest is still definitely there.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

A Plan for a Plan

I confess I've struggled a little with getting my Hawai'i project Strangers in Our Own Land off the ground in the last couple of months. All in all, I'm only about 5K words in. The reasons are probably understandable--I was burned out by August with finishing Haunted Nerves (I have pulled almost all stuff on the blog regarding that nostalgia and digital cinema project in hopeful anticipation of eventual publication) as well as an article-length piece on Detroit-themed documentaries--esp., Detropia and Deforce. I've also, understandably, been uber-busy with teaching with a new quarter underway, so there's hasn't been much of any free time.

The other problem, though, is that the Hawai'i project is by far the most ambitious one I've ever encountered and its been a matter of not what to say, but where to begin. Some of this concerns the film and TV titles themselves, which covers a large time frame of four decades and taking up a very different set of historical questions along each step of the way. But another is also trying to think of which databases and archives to look at, as I envision the project covering both production and reception histories, as well as the larger cultural and political questions framing them. Its all been kind of overwhelming.

So, anyway, back to basics: I've come up with a tentative scholarly reading list for the next several months, and I'll try to blog about it accordingly. Along the way, I'll also try to take the primary research one database at a time (such as possibly taking a couple hours to look over the Walter Mirisch papers at U-W Madison when I visit there later this month for a Race and Media Conference). Since my little free time in the next two weeks will be devoted to prepping for that conference, I won't pretend to get much done on this project before then.

Some of these I've looked at a bit before, some I've yet to even open. I will re-visit some of the larger theories of tourism and leisure (MacCannell, Desmond, Urry) when I get closer to doing some actual writing.

Oct. 24th: Daws, Shoal of Time

Nov. 7th: Bacchilega, Legendary Hawai'i and the Politics of Place

Nov. 21st: Imada, Aloha America

Dec. 5th: Bailey and Farber, The First Strange Place

Dec. 12th: Gonzalez, Securing Paradise

Dec. 19th: Skwiot, The Purposes of Paradise

Dec. 26th: Rohrer, Haoles in Hawai'i

Maybe I'll just plan out for the rest of the year for now, and re-evaluate the progress at that time.


Friday, September 5, 2014

Blossoms & Blood Reviews

Two more strong reviews for Blossoms & Blood . . .

First off, Cineaste had in part this to say in the latest issue:

"'Blossoms & Blood,' Jason Sperb’s very strong new book, doesn’t so much argue the case for PTA’s greatness as show, slowly and methodically, how he moved through and within the ranks of American filmmaking—a case study of how even the most self-determined directors are always borne aloft by cultural currents. . . . Addressing Anderson’s generally polarizing films in measured, reflective tones rather than the sort of over-heated rhetoric that appeals to both his fans and detractors—and the success of 'There Will Be Blood' forced a good number of critics to double down on their misgivings alongside a wave of grateful converts—allows Sperb to retain a certain authority even as he admits that his findings are largely provisional . . . If one of Sperb’s clear models for 'Blossoms & Blood' is Robert Kolker’s 'A Cinema of Loneliness'—merely the finest book on commercial American filmmakers published in the last thirty years—then hopefully, like Kolker, he’ll get a chance to revise his findings in a follow-up edition."

Meanwhile, Choice had this to say:

"Sperb's thorough, well-written book covers Anderson's work from Hard Eight (1996) to The Master (2012), although the author discusses the later film only in the conclusion because his text and Anderson's final film appeared at the same time. . . . . Sperb has complete mastery of the critical reviews and industrial histories of the films, and it would be easy to take the films up with a more theoretical view, based on what is offered here. Major themes (masculinity, media culture, random chance) are established and pursued, chapter to chapter, and readers come away with a thorough understanding of Anderson's films. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Undergraduates to faculty; cinephiles."

Onward and upward.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

Hawai'i Project

With most of Haunted Nerves in something of a holding pattern for now (except some last minute tightening), I've moved on to my Hawai'i project. You can read at least some of the back story here.

Here is a very rough sense of the Table of Contents (titles are really just placeholders for now):

Strangers in Our Own Land /

Racial Utopia and Post-War Leisure Culture in Images of Hawai’i in Mainland US Media, 1930s-1970s

Table of Contents
Introduction /
      Strangers in Our Own Land

1)      Waikiki Weddings /
Work Displays, Rebranding Hawaii as a Tourist Destination in the 1930s

2)      The Good War /
Pearl Harbor, WWII and Hawaii’s Militaristic Legacy

3)      Statehood /
Hawaii, Television and Postwar Leisure Culture

4)      Paradise Elvis Style /
Elvis, Travelogues and the Hawaiian Soundtrack

5)      Hawaiian Heritage /
Historical Representation and the Period Epic

6)      Endless Summers /
Bruce Brown, Hawaii and the Documentary Tradition

7)      Not That Much Different /
The Impact and Legacies of Hawaii Five-O

Conclusion /
Brady Bunch, Pastiche and Hawaiian Kitsch

For now, I am forcing myself to just focus on the Hawaii Five-O part, since its the one that I feel will be the easiest to get started on. What follows below is a tenative introduction to that piece, which also in a way outlines the broader question that'll dominate the first part of this project: Why was Hawai'i so popular in the US imagination during the 1960s? (one will note that nearly every single chapter at least touches on that period):

Today, thoughts of Hawai’i—shaped through decades of touristic discourses—tend to gravitate towards simple images of swaying palm trees, sunny beaches, and warm breezes. Pushed further, one might further conjure up images of hula girls and beachboys, with the ubiquitous Diamond Head and Waikiki beach in the background. Those these images offer only a limited, and at times entirely distorted, sense of what the Hawaiian islands actually are, their hold on the American psyche has proven surprising resilient as a vision of leisure, nostalgia and utopia to which one always thrives to both visit and somehow hold onto. Here, every day concerns in the “real world,” such as time, money and race, seem to have no meaning—despite certainly a long history to the contrary. The islands tend to evoke an image of paradise unlike that which any other state in the union can offer.
            This is the sense of Hawai’i as has been promoted in more recent media texts such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2010), Modern Family (2010), Lilo & Stitch (2002) and even the most recent remake of Hawaii Five-O (2010-). Not coincidentally, these paradise visions of the islands are similar to some of the earliest visual images to circulate throughout Mainland US media in the first half of the 20th Century—primarily in magazines, cover sheets and later the cinema. At that time, all of this was the direct result of some of Hawai’i’s most powerful bankers and plantations owners’ conscious decision to rebrand the islands from a site of agricultural production (coffee, pineapples) to one of touristic experiences. The industrial history here behind Hawai’i’s emergence as one of the premiere sites of 20th Century American leisure culture is fascinating enough on its own—but the push within the islands to remake its identity is only the beginning of explaining Hawai’i’s overwhelming popularity across the decades.
            Namely, visions of Hawai’i—particularly in the time period in-between (from roughly the 1930s to the 1980s)—revealed a very different sense of the islands than the above, largely decontextualized and thoroughly ahistorical, images might suggest. Movies such as From Here to Eternity (1953), Diamond Head (1963), Endless Summer (1966), Blue Hawaii (1961), as well as television shows such as Follow the Sun (1961), Hawaiian Eye (1959) The Brady Bunch (1971), and the original Hawaii Five-O (1968) reveal a much more historically specific glimpse of Hawai’i’s popularity to American audiences which reflected uniquely timely concerns to those of the Post-World War II generations. I would argue that, during this period, the appeal of the islands in the US collective imagination roughly congealed around four key contexts: 1) Hawai’i’s central role militarily as the hub of the US’s immense naval presence in the Pacific during conflicts with Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, and the ambivalent memories of said conflicts for both veterans and civilians; 2) the long held, though often contested, ideal of Hawai’i as a site of racial harmony, given its much more complex history of multiculturalism, which appealed in particular to mainlanders after decades of racial tensions back home in the wake of the Civil Rights movement; 3) the belated development of a post-war leisure culture centered on the beginnings of the Baby Boomer demographic, the sudden affordability of airfare, and the general emergence of a new middle class with more disposable time and money on its hands; and, finally, 4) questions about understanding the state’s long (colonial) history, while also defining its new identity, in the wake of statehood in 1959.
            There is no question that Hawai’i’s immense popularity was singular during this time, culminating I argue during the decade of the 1960s. Consider the following: Blue Hawaii (1961) was the highest-selling album of Elvis’s lifetime, reflecting a popularity that also included not one, but three, successful films featuring the musical star & the islands; Bruce Brown’s Endless Summer (1966), a story about teen surfers who go in search of the “perfect wave” and who spend much of their time in Hawai’i, became one of the first mainstream commercial hits for a non-fiction film, the culmination of several successful titles Brown made (Slippery when Wet, Barefoot Adventure) featuring surfing on the islands; Hawaii (1966), a historical epic about the earliest missionaries to visit the islands, was both the year’s Oscar Winner for Best Picture and its top-grossing film, while the book on which it was based (James A. Michener’s novel of the same name) proved to be one of the decade’s most popular reads; finally, Hawaii Five-O debuted on CBS in 1968 and went on to be the longest-running nighttime drama in American television history, before finally being surpassed by Law & Order in 2003. In short, it seems fair to pose the question: Why was Hawai’i so popular in the American imagination during the 1960s? Perhaps, more interestingly, what does such popularity saying about the United States during this time?
            In order to begin, answering this question, I will focus my discussion on Hawaii Five-O in particular, as its broad narrative canvas provides ample space to take up many of these varied historical and cultural concerns, while its undeniable popularity suggests that the show spoke to multiple, and no doubt at times conflicting, television viewing demographics of the time. Over the course of twelve seasons, we see Hawaii Five-O repeatedly engage with questions of tourism, racism, nationalism, police brutality, war politics and counter-cultural ideologies which offer no simple commonality, but rather reflect the fractured ideologies of the country itself. Ed Rampell, for example, has argued that—despite the show’s modest attempts at racial diversity in its (often local) casting—Hawaii Five-O was largely symptomatic of a larger reactionary trend culturally that pervaded both television cop shows and the larger political climate of the time period. “What,” asks Rampell rhetorically:
Was the response of “Haole-Wood” television (“Haole” is the Hawaiian word for “Caucasian”) as millions marched through the streets chanting “give peace a chance” in the largest demonstrations ever held in the USA? A new network series set in the Fiftieth State called Hawaii Five-O, which premiered on September 26th, 1968, glorifying the police, intelligence agencies and the Pentagon, at the very moment that millions of Americans and others around the world were rallying against these institutions. In the guise of popular entertainment, Five-O broadcast virulently anti-communist Cold War propaganda, set in the Land of Aloha, on prime time from coast to coast.
Yet while the show was undoubtedly “virulently anti-communist,” befitting the rabid culture of the Cold War, such a description gives the impression of a television show that was far less nuanced politically that such a militaristic, right-wing, description would otherwise imply. Instead, Hawaii Five-O’s engagement with other hot button issues of the time was far more ambivalent and contradictory. So, while some have been quick to dismiss the tough-talking, no nonsense, cop show’s popularity as simply another product of a larger fascination with the rhetoric of “law and order” (a phrase the show itself had some fun with) that certainly did dominate many of the more reactionary texts to emerge in the late 1960s, in the wake of both urban racial rebellions and anti-war protests of the time, I would seek to argue that the television show’s long-term success, as well as its relatively varied content, suggests a much more nuanced and ambivalent engagement with both Hawai’i’s popularity back then, as well as with other concerns that dominated the United States at the time.