Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Drive-Ins and the Digital Transition

A very modest piece I wrote--sparked by the recent closing of more drive-ins, as winter (among other things) approaches--is now up at Antenna. I use the occasion to revisit some broader ideas which will hopefully be the centerpiece of the digital cinema project.

This is, I just realized, only the second time I've published something related to that (after 2012's "I'll (Always) Be Back" essay)--though the first to deal explicitly with the central idea of film nostalgia.

To clarify one point in the essay--the digital transition to DCPs didn't directly squeeze out the Keno theatre, as it as others. It just significantly affected the drive-in theatre's bottom line, as 35mm prints became increasingly rare, at a time when the land's owners are anxious to redevelop--thus giving the Keno significantly less leverage in negotiations.

My sense is the realty in question has wanted to re-develop for years, and the prohibitive costs of the digital transition finally forced the issue: why spend all that money to upgrade when the future is so uncertain?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Notes on Bacchilega, “Legendary Hawai’i and the Politics of Place”

The next step in my research was to look over Bacchilega’s Legendary Hawai'i and the Politics of Place: Tradition, Translation and Tourism (2007) as part of a reading list I put together. It was not quite the book I was expecting (in retrospect, I thought I read somewhere that it engaged more with film and television). This is not at all a criticism of the book, mind you—only an admission upfront that I probably won’t have as much to say about it as the other Hawai'i tourism-related books I’m looking at this days. The book is of great use to scholars thinking about the preservation and protestation of folklore construction, particularly among historically oppressed groups and other issues involving colonial/postcolonial contexts.

That said, there is still much of value in the ideas here as I think through my own project. Legendary Hawai'i focuses specifically on how the islands’ rich history of tradition and heritage was revisited and reimagined by the mainland in the immediate wake of the 1898 annexation by the United States. This fascination with Hawaiian lore, the author writes, “delegitimize[d] Hawaiian narratives and traditions and at the same time constructs them as representative of Hawaiian ‘culture’” (6).  The goal then was to superficially pay tribute to Hawai'i’s history and legends as part of a larger fascination with the islands which annexation sparked at the turn of the century—but in a way which also distorted, belittled and re-mystified them as perhaps little more than old superstitions at odds with America’s emergent sense of modernity (we also maybe hear echoes hear of Shoat and Stam’s notion of condescending racism—a canonical idea I wish I would have foregrounded in the Disney book more and will hopefully do here). 

All of this centrals around the useful notion of “Legendary Hawai'i” which refers not to Hawai'i’s own self-representation of its traditions per se but to “a space constructed for non-Hawaiians (and especially Americans) to experience, via Hawaiian legends, a Hawai'i that is exotic and primitive while beautiful and welcoming” (5). In this regard, there is an affinity with my project (though the timelines don’t match as I’m looking at the time period between the 1930s and 1970s) in so far as I’m also thinking as much about the construction of the islands in the Mainland Imaginary as with the islands themselves—though the latter is certainly sometimes complicit in the formation of the former.

Legendary Hawai'i—and not simply Hawai'i’s natural features—is the antecedent and supplement of the “hula girl,” the backdrop against which her performance is loosely placed and justified as “culture” even when it is commodified “entertainment for sale. (18)

Likewise, the author is also careful throughout the book to note the ways in which the local population has reappropriated some aspects of this “legendary Hawai'i” as a means to complicate the simple distinction between colonizer and colonized.

Some other takeaways concern the importance of tourism in the construction of this legendary Hawai'i at an earlier point in time than I has assumed previously, and the importance of this Hawaii as a visual construction. These become, as the book smartly reminds us, another form of translation as Hawai'i is mediated through both photographic and tourist discourses—both of which are complicit in the post-annexation colonialist agendas. I’ve been trying hard to remind myself that music was such an important part of the islands' appeal early on that I may have neglected the early ubiquity of its visual power as well. 

The very images of Hawai'i’s natural beauty—this “landscape vision” (32)—becomes equated with its folkloric tradition—wherein both serve a mutually reaffirming role that romanticizes the islands and its people (who are curiously absent from such representations) as reassuringly pre-modern. This visual construction of the islands pre-dates the ubiquity of cinema by the mid-20th Century and stretches back to the still photography of late 19th century to a far greater extent than I realized (it’s also a reminder to not overlook other media besides radio and film in the early construction of Hawai'i as a premiere tourist destination—but this then raises another variation on the big question which has dogged me during the initial phases of this project: where to even begin tracking, in this case, Hawai'i’s presence in US print media during the 1930s?).

Also, finally, I wonder what intersection there might be between this idea of “legendary Hawai'i” from the turn of the century with later representations of Hawaiian history such as Hawaii (1966) and The Hawaiians (1970), as well as the Tiki pastiche of stuff like The Brady Brunch (1971), along with other theatrical, non-theatrical and televisual accounts of the islands’ history that emerges in the wake of WWII and then later discussions of statehood?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Notes on Daws, Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands

I did some research last week at the UW-Madison archives on Walter Mirisch’s papers concerning the movie, Hawaii (1966), which didn’t initially turn up the much of value to me, other than realizing that the film was originally intended to cover the Missionary period of the islands, which is does, up through the annexation by US, and culminating, as I understand it, with Pearl Harbor.  That’s crazy ambition—eventually a lot of the material about late 19th Century, including the annexation, was put in the follow-up, Hawaiians (1970), but the 20th Century stuff was cut altogether. One possible conclusion from the project’s original plans is not only the centrality of Dec. 7th to the Mainland’s collective vision of the islands, but also how much of a blur everything before it was to America—seeing as how there was this assumption as I see it that all this colonial history could be cramped into one three hour epic. More rewarding from my time in Madison is that there are actually a lot more papers on Hawai’i in the film and TV archives there, that I will have to return to and explore when I have more time.

Anyway, in trying to jump start my Hawai’i project, I’ve been working on a reading list of sorts on the subject. First up was Gavan Daws’ The Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands (1968). I had read much of this epic account a couple of years ago—this time I revisited it only with an eye towards its account of the islands from roughly the 1930s to 1960s (generally, the timeframe of my project). I decided to start with this book because I wanted a general overview of the history itself before looking at more specialized and theoretical perspectives on the same period.

Here are some of the interesting observations I took away from it:

  • Most of Daws’ account of the period overall places a heavy emphasis on labor histories, which is useful in and of itself, but also because of this part of Hawai’i’s recent history is predictably absent in the Mainland’s representation of the islands in film and TV (the only exception I know of for now is Big Jim McClain [1952], an amusing John Wayne spy film which of course equates the labor movement in Hawai’i with the spread of communism in America—a period of witch-hunting in Hawai’i that Dawes also does a good job of documenting).
  • Relatedly, the book seems to suggest that a lot of the rhetoric around communism in the islands during the 1950s was related more to stopping the Statehood movement—as opponents would often raise the idea of inviting an openly communist friendly outpost into the Union. Also, another big obstacle to statehood, which I already knew about, was openly racist factions in the US which did not want a state which wasn’t dominated by white people in the Union—and, even worse, abhorred the idea of Asian-Americans in Congress.
  • The statehood movement began in earnest with the 1930s—as the industrialists became increasingly nervous about not having control over how they were being taxed and other forms of economic discrimination, and realized they needed more stable political clout as a state of self-representation, rather than a territory completely at the mercy of the federal government. This is interesting to me for two reasons: 1) the same powerful few initially pushing for statehood would eventually find themselves opposite a rapidly growing local population using the possibilities of statehood to gain increasing political power to combat those same powerful few. And 2) this is also the time when Hawai’i begins to rebrand itself as a tourist destination (hence the starting point of my project) instead of mainly a manufacturer of pineapples and sugar. I had always assumed that this shift had to do with the unsustainability of the plantation economy (which is probably did), but hadn’t previously thought much about how the question of statehood might have been at play here too.
  • This to me is the one big absence in Daws’ account—the book doesn’t talk at all about Hawai’i’s tourism industry until the very end, positing it as a distinctly post-WWII phenomenon that really didn’t fully materialize until the 1960s. I don’t dispute this, but I envision at least a third of my book as filling in the gaps of what happened prior to the 1960s that laid the foundation for this undeniable explosion of popularity.
  • The book does a good job of explaining how Hawai’i slowly and awkwardly became a model—however illusory—of racial harmony to the mainland, despite a long history of racial tensions. Again, much of the island’s diversity was the direct result of labor issues, and the exploitation of immigrant workers on the plantations—but this eventually had the effect of creating a massive, if delicate, pool of political power in opposition to the white Republican plantation owners, and the “Big Five” the select group of wealthy industrialists who ran the islands from the time of annexation (1898) up to WWII.
  • The attack of Pearl Harbor, of course, changed everything—for one, it planted the seeds of statehood in the rest of the US by reminding the mainland of the islands’ central strategic, and symbolic, value to the US. For other, though, it essentially ended the Big Five’s economic and political reign when the islands became quickly overrun by a flood of new investors and businesses in some way directly, or indirectly, supporting the war effort. But it also brought to a head the delicate issues of race in America, and racism’s hypocrisy as it became difficult to untangle the racial diversity of the islands in the wake of conflict with the Japanese in a way that was less clear than the older entrenched racial hierarchies of the mainland. “To intern one-third of the [local] population was impossible” (347). In short, it forced Americans to think about the presence of “diversity” to perhaps an unprecedented degree—even while, as mentioned above, Hawai’i was historically hardly a model of true racial harmony (though, of course, relative to the Mainland at the time, it kind of was).
  • On that note, the islands’ reputation for such harmony was probably rooted first and foremost in political ends—the wide mix of different types of Asians, Hawai’ians, and Europeans needed to find common political ground in order to have any political power in the eve of statehood (and Daws also makes the claim that the foundation for this was first laid a decade or two earlier by the islands’ union organizers, who first saw the value of uniting around class more so than race if anything was to be achieved).
  • Also, after statehood, Gov. Jack Burns was reportedly an active proponent of the idea of Hawai’i as a model of racial diversity for the rest of the country—an important discourse which shaped a lot of Mainland media during the 1960s.
  • A good account of the Massie Affair, which seems to me to be the one structuring absence in Hawai’i’s complicated historical relationship with both racial tensions and the US’s military long presence—but also a good marker of how the islands’ changed in the US's collective imagination from a lawless, racially dangerous frontier pre-WWII to a model of racial harmony after the war.

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.