Saturday, March 29, 2014

Blossoms & Blood review

The first review for the PTA book (FB page, btw) that I am aware of was posted today over at a Milwaukee-based periodical, Express Milwaukee (I guess we Badgers need to stick together!).

Its a very flattering review overall. The author seems skeptical of the mediation/reflexivity angle as unique to Anderson's films, though I don't think I quite make that claim per se, since I repeatedly position Anderson as a product of his time, and thus overlapping both industrially and thematically with some of his contemporaries. Also, my take on the films in this regard is just as concerned with the ambivalences and contradictions of what it means to live in a late capitalist society, which is as important to the "postmodern" reading of the films as its interest in celebrity culture and other forms of reflexivity.

At the same time, I wrote the book with the idea that this focused theoretical framework would give the subject greater heft, but with the conscious intent that hopefully it would not become a distraction, or worse a complete blockage, for more mainstream audiences looking exclusively for close analysis of the individual films.

All in all, a good start for the book, and my gratitude to the reviewer for taking the time to look it over.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

On the Road


Gave a talk last week on Song of the South at the Gund Gallery at Kenyon College in Ohio. Great, supportive crowd.  Here's an article about my appearance.

Its reassuring to be reminded of the value that Disney's Most Notorious Film has.


Sunday, January 5, 2014

Books

Haunted Nerves keeps plugging along slowly but surely (that summary could use an update). Finished another chapter over the break. The plan is still to have a complete first draft by the end of summer. This is the one I'll be the most personally proud of when its all said and done.

Meanwhile, Blossoms and Blood is officially out. I've set up a FB page in part to help spread the word. Please feel free to like and pass along.

Not sure what else to do at the moment, but I fear it will quickly fall through the cracks without more attention. After all the drama this time last year over the Disney book, its been kind of quiet, too quiet, so far.

Speaking of Disney's Most Notorious Film--its now available in paperback. Its a little more affordable now (btw--UT sets the prices, not me.) Ditto: there's a FB page.

A lot of positive reviews so far. I am particularly fond of the Reynolds article in Pop Matters. I feel it's the one review--good or bad--that really got exactly what the book was trying to do. My gratitude.
"... Disney's Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South ... does more than dissect a film and the pros and cons around it. In its own way, it reveals that Song of the South, more or less by accident, holds a mirror to American views on race, with beauty or the lack thereof completely in the eyes of the beholder."
—Mark Reynolds , PopMatters
“This book is extremely smart, painstakingly researched, and it ties together many concepts and issues that too rarely find themselves in the same book. Sperb is a gifted writer, who holds his reader’s attention with skill, and he provides a fantastic piece of work here, one that will serve multiple publics and that fills in important historical territory while also advancing discussions on race, convergence, Disney, film reception, textuality, and remediation. This is really quite a spectacular achievement.”
—Jonathan Gray, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and author of Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts
Disney’s Most Notorious Film is a tremendously interesting, timely, provocative, and useful project. It is unique in studying reception and fandom through focus on a single, though also importantly dispersed and plural, text of nearly seventy years’ duration and circulation. On its own, Song of the South is a film demanding more analysis than it has received, and Sperb has given it the attention it deserves precisely by focusing on what’s most intriguing about it: its controversial aspects, its unique place in the Disney canon and marketing work, its fans, and the ways its pleasure and affect connect with changing American ideas about race. Perhaps the most important finding of this book is that fan activity—which in contemporary scholarship is most often celebrated for creating new knowledge and engaged producer-consumers—is very complex as it unfolds over time, and that it can have undesirable outcomes.”
—Arthur Knight, Associate Professor of American Studies and English, The College of William and Mary, author of Disintegrating the Musical: African American Performance and American Musical Film and coeditor of Soundtrack Available: Film and Pop Music
"While Sperb's conclusions of conscious racism are debatable, his meticulous documentation of Song of the South merchandising through sixty years and its other cultural references…make Disney's Most Notorious Film an essential reference tool to those interested in SotS-iana."
—Fred Patten, Animation World Network
"This study is meticulously researched and current on contemporary research, and though it reads slowly...the payoff is worth the work. Summing Up: Highly recommended."
S. R. Kozloff, Vassar College, Choice
"Jason Sperb’s Disney’s Most Notorious Film quickly overcomes any concern that there might be nothing new to say about Song of the South by demonstrating how surprisingly “persistent” the film has been."
—Ryan Jay Friedman, Ohio State University, The Journal of American History
- See more at: http://utpress.utexas.edu/index.php/books/spedsn#sthash.CCWHuY6X.dpuf
 
"... Disney's Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South ... does more than dissect a film and the pros and cons around it. In its own way, it reveals that Song of the South, more or less by accident, holds a mirror to American views on race, with beauty or the lack thereof completely in the eyes of the beholder."
—Mark Reynolds , PopMatters
 "Fascinating . . . As cultural history, this is an impressively researched, convincing argument."
—Jon Lingan, Slate
"Disney’s Most Notorious Film is an engaging book that explores both media strategies and audience responses in thoughtful and fair-minded ways. Sperb’s use of sources ranging from traditional periodicals to Internet fan boards is an added strength in a work that highlights the extent to which cultural products can persist, often in fragments disassociated from their original context, long after their 'time' is thought to have passed."
—Jennifer Ritterhouse, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
“This book is extremely smart, painstakingly researched, and it ties together many concepts and issues that too rarely find themselves in the same book. Sperb is a gifted writer, who holds his reader’s attention with skill, and he provides a fantastic piece of work here, one that will serve multiple publics and that fills in important historical territory while also advancing discussions on race, convergence, Disney, film reception, textuality, and remediation. This is really quite a spectacular achievement.”
—Jonathan Gray, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and author of Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts


Disney’s Most Notorious Film is a tremendously interesting, timely, provocative, and useful project. It is unique in studying reception and fandom through focus on a single, though also importantly dispersed and plural, text of nearly seventy years’ duration and circulation. On its own, Song of the South is a film demanding more analysis than it has received, and Sperb has given it the attention it deserves precisely by focusing on what’s most intriguing about it: its controversial aspects, its unique place in the Disney canon and marketing work, its fans, and the ways its pleasure and affect connect with changing American ideas about race. Perhaps the most important finding of this book is that fan activity—which in contemporary scholarship is most often celebrated for creating new knowledge and engaged producer-consumers—is very complex as it unfolds over time, and that it can have undesirable outcomes.”
—Arthur Knight, Associate Professor of American Studies and English, The College of William and Mary, author of Disintegrating the Musical: African American Performance and American Musical Film and coeditor of Soundtrack Available: Film and Pop Music

"This study is meticulously researched and current on contemporary research, and though it reads slowly...the payoff is worth the work. Summing Up: Highly recommended."
S. R. Kozloff, Vassar College, Choice

"Jason Sperb’s Disney’s Most Notorious Film quickly overcomes any concern that there might be nothing new to say about Song of the South by demonstrating how surprisingly “persistent” the film has been."
—Ryan Jay Friedman, Ohio State University, The Journal of American History
"... Disney's Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South ... does more than dissect a film and the pros and cons around it. In its own way, it reveals that Song of the South, more or less by accident, holds a mirror to American views on race, with beauty or the lack thereof completely in the eyes of the beholder."
—Mark Reynolds , PopMatters
“This book is extremely smart, painstakingly researched, and it ties together many concepts and issues that too rarely find themselves in the same book. Sperb is a gifted writer, who holds his reader’s attention with skill, and he provides a fantastic piece of work here, one that will serve multiple publics and that fills in important historical territory while also advancing discussions on race, convergence, Disney, film reception, textuality, and remediation. This is really quite a spectacular achievement.”
—Jonathan Gray, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and author of Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts
Disney’s Most Notorious Film is a tremendously interesting, timely, provocative, and useful project. It is unique in studying reception and fandom through focus on a single, though also importantly dispersed and plural, text of nearly seventy years’ duration and circulation. On its own, Song of the South is a film demanding more analysis than it has received, and Sperb has given it the attention it deserves precisely by focusing on what’s most intriguing about it: its controversial aspects, its unique place in the Disney canon and marketing work, its fans, and the ways its pleasure and affect connect with changing American ideas about race. Perhaps the most important finding of this book is that fan activity—which in contemporary scholarship is most often celebrated for creating new knowledge and engaged producer-consumers—is very complex as it unfolds over time, and that it can have undesirable outcomes.”
—Arthur Knight, Associate Professor of American Studies and English, The College of William and Mary, author of Disintegrating the Musical: African American Performance and American Musical Film and coeditor of Soundtrack Available: Film and Pop Music
"While Sperb's conclusions of conscious racism are debatable, his meticulous documentation of Song of the South merchandising through sixty years and its other cultural references…make Disney's Most Notorious Film an essential reference tool to those interested in SotS-iana."
—Fred Patten, Animation World Network
"This study is meticulously researched and current on contemporary research, and though it reads slowly...the payoff is worth the work. Summing Up: Highly recommended."
S. R. Kozloff, Vassar College, Choice
"Jason Sperb’s Disney’s Most Notorious Film quickly overcomes any concern that there might be nothing new to say about Song of the South by demonstrating how surprisingly “persistent” the film has been."
—Ryan Jay Friedman, Ohio State University, The Journal of American History
- See more at: http://utpress.utexas.edu/index.php/books/spedsn#sthash.CCWHuY6X.dpuf
"... Disney's Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South ... does more than dissect a film and the pros and cons around it. In its own way, it reveals that Song of the South, more or less by accident, holds a mirror to American views on race, with beauty or the lack thereof completely in the eyes of the beholder."
—Mark Reynolds , PopMatters
“This book is extremely smart, painstakingly researched, and it ties together many concepts and issues that too rarely find themselves in the same book. Sperb is a gifted writer, who holds his reader’s attention with skill, and he provides a fantastic piece of work here, one that will serve multiple publics and that fills in important historical territory while also advancing discussions on race, convergence, Disney, film reception, textuality, and remediation. This is really quite a spectacular achievement.”
—Jonathan Gray, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and author of Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts
Disney’s Most Notorious Film is a tremendously interesting, timely, provocative, and useful project. It is unique in studying reception and fandom through focus on a single, though also importantly dispersed and plural, text of nearly seventy years’ duration and circulation. On its own, Song of the South is a film demanding more analysis than it has received, and Sperb has given it the attention it deserves precisely by focusing on what’s most intriguing about it: its controversial aspects, its unique place in the Disney canon and marketing work, its fans, and the ways its pleasure and affect connect with changing American ideas about race. Perhaps the most important finding of this book is that fan activity—which in contemporary scholarship is most often celebrated for creating new knowledge and engaged producer-consumers—is very complex as it unfolds over time, and that it can have undesirable outcomes.”
—Arthur Knight, Associate Professor of American Studies and English, The College of William and Mary, author of Disintegrating the Musical: African American Performance and American Musical Film and coeditor of Soundtrack Available: Film and Pop Music
"While Sperb's conclusions of conscious racism are debatable, his meticulous documentation of Song of the South merchandising through sixty years and its other cultural references…make Disney's Most Notorious Film an essential reference tool to those interested in SotS-iana."
—Fred Patten, Animation World Network
"This study is meticulously researched and current on contemporary research, and though it reads slowly...the payoff is worth the work. Summing Up: Highly recommended."
S. R. Kozloff, Vassar College, Choice
"Jason Sperb’s Disney’s Most Notorious Film quickly overcomes any concern that there might be nothing new to say about Song of the South by demonstrating how surprisingly “persistent” the film has been."
—Ryan Jay Friedman, Ohio State University, The Journal of American History
- See more at: http://utpress.utexas.edu/index.php/books/spedsn#sthash.CCWHuY6X.dpuf


Friday, August 23, 2013

World's End and Nostalgic Disavowal

Having opened in the States today, I was finally able to watch the long-awaited, The World's End (2013). The third in the loosely held together Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, the film follows the zombie spoof, Shaun of the Dead (2004), and the 80s/90s Hollywood action satire, Hot Fuzz (2007). I use the terms "spoof" and "satire" out of convenience--no one that I know of has quite come up with a term to describe Edgar Wright & Co.'s distinctive brand of homage. Both movies start out with a certain kind of ironic distance towards the genre(s) in question, but by the end literally and unapologetically become that which they are referencing in style and substance. Maybe's its just parody with a poker face. The moment I always think of in particular comes late in Shaun when the lead character has to confront his mother, who has become a zombie. Its just about as brutal and nasty a moment as you'd find in George Romero's heyday, and yet it doesn't compromise the larger playfulness of the overall film.

The World's End seems to miss that edge somehow, or maybe there's an intertexual reference somewhere I missed. I would still say its a very good film--in fact, I'd argue that its every bit as funny a script as any of Wright's other films. But the plot/homage doesn't seem as clever as the other films, nor is it as visually ambitious as Hot Fuzz or, especially, his other non-TFC film, the woefully underrated, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World (2010). The movie seems to falter particularly in the third act. No spoilers, but the first act (the awkward reunion phase) and the second one (the sci-fi action shift) both work beautifully, but the film doesn't quite seem to know where to go from there--other than the evolution of Gary King (Simon Pegg) and his friendship with Andrew (Nick Frost), both of which were utterly predictable from the get-go (the film's final, final twist is interesting, particularly in what it presents to Gary, but it feels strangely tacked on to the rest of the movie, a awkward shift in content and tone which Wright usually excels at).

The movie in some ways reminds me of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris (2011), and not just because they are both movies explicitly about nostalgia. Both films pretend to look down on nostalgic impulses as a way to hide their own thoroughly melancholic fascination with the past. I'd even go so far as to say that Midnight in Paris is the most disingenuous of the 2011 "nostalgia" films (along with The Artist, Hugo) because its the only one which pretends to act like its above the desire to romanticize the past, even as it does, especially in the part of the pretentious intellectual (Michael Sheen) and his "golden age" speech, and the film's didactically obvious ending (and, btw, I say this even though its my personal favorite of the three nostalgia films mentioned).

The World's End seems to function in a similar way, using the conceit of Gary's obsessive need to recreate the long ago night of an epic (failed) bar crawl as a thinly veiled allegory for the filmmakers' own recognition that nostalgic memories of Shaun and Hot Fuzz--both their own experiences making them and well as the deep fan investment--hang over the production and expectations of this new film. The film is using Gary's need to grow up and move on as a dictum to themselves as filmmakers and to us as fans (as in, be careful not to become too invested in the past)--but of course, this is an endlessly deferred goal. In that sense, it reminds me of the pretty heavy-handed ending of Toy Story 3--Andy is forced to let go of his childhood and go off to college, but of course the whole generational obsession among people who grew up with the Toy Story trilogy is based on how they ironically never do have to "grow" up--meaning, never letting go of the films and the childhood memories tied to it. In all three films mentioned above (World's End, Midnight and Toy Story 3), there seems to be a kind of nostalgic disavowal where claiming to let go of the past just embeds the nostalgia deeper.

Of course, as with any body of work so dependent on intertextuality, Wright's films were always deeply nostalgic. In fact, that's one of the things I find most fascinating about Scott Pilgrim--it reconciles what Steve Shaviro has brilliantly called "post-cinematic affect" (which to a less ambitious degree, Hot Fuzz was also emulating through its Tony Scott homages) with a deeper nostalgic investment in the history of multiple media forms, and yet never compromising the intensity of its "post-continuity" style. Rather the nostalgia emerges affectively through the unreconciled aural and visual tensions between the pasts and presents of different forms (and generations) of various media.

In this regard, World's End might not be quite as successful because Wright's nostalgia always manifested itself more through stylistic cleverness than through transparent narrative meditations on the topic, where (as with Midnight in Paris) the obvious criticism of nostalgia is ultimately a bit too on the nose as to be effective as a way to structure the story, or even convincing as a larger thematic observation. Not that nostalgia journeys can't work in movies, but especially in World's End it seems mostly rooted in cliches and not sufficiently complicated. More to the point, it doesn't seem to match in any meaningful way to what then transpires over the course of the rest of the film, whereas Wright's other three films--despite their own consistent shifts in style and substance--always felt like perfectly contained and internally logical worlds.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Pixar and Nostalgia

In the shadow of Monsters University's (2013) opening today, a piece I wrote for Antenna just went up, discussing the role of generational nostalgia in both highlighting and complicating Pixar's creative challenges today. I specifically focus on historical parallels between early Pixar and early Disney, and in a sense it forms a direct connection between Disney's Most Notorious Film (which, it is important to note, was a history of the company itself and not just a project on SotS, as is sometimes assumed) and the current project on nostalgia's aesthetic and industrial value in the age of digital cinema. Between Pixar and the TRON franchise, Haunted Nerves will probably end up being much more of a continuation of the Disney book than I originally envisioned (btw--the goal is to have a polished complete draft by next summer).

Friday, June 7, 2013

Thoughts on Inherent Vice News

I contributed a modest piece on the casting news surrounding Anderson's next film, Inherent Vice, which started shooting last month, over at Antenna. I mainly focus on questions of ensemble and adaptation in relation to his earlier work (primarily, Magnolia). I guess this is technically my first publication on the director, since the book won't appear in print until the end of the year, and I never published any articles on the topic in advance. I'm going to try to stay on top of the news regarding this film and follow it all the way to its debut sometime next year. I've made peace with being identified with this subject as a part of my scholarly identity in a way that I was never quite comfortable with the Kubrick book.

Also, look for a piece on Pixar and nostalgia over there around the time Monsters University (2013) opens in a couple of weeks. I'm hoping to write up something on that which will tie into the current project (about which I'm hoping to have good news in the coming weeks).

Friday, May 31, 2013

New Haunted Nerves Blurb and TOC


Haunted Nerves / 
Nostalgia in the Time of Digital Cinema

“What haunts the digital cul-de-sacs of the twenty-first century is not so much the past as all the lost futures that the twentieth century taught us to anticipate. [. . .] The future is always experienced as a haunting.”  – Mark Fisher, “What is Hauntology?”

The future of digital cinema has already passed. We can understand this literally--culminating in 2011 with the industry push towards the exclusive production of digital cameras and the standardization of theatrical projection, no aspect of movies today is outside the use of digital technologies. Yet this idea can also be approached symbolically--making sense of these changes may require not looking forward, but looking back. While it’s no secret that movies have moved into the “digital” age, are we seeing a radically new era of innovation, or a more nuanced and complicated historical moment in cinema largely dependent on film's past?

In the last thirty years, the materiality of film celluloid as a central component to big screen storytelling has given way to digital technologies in every aspect of movie-going—from the spectacular Computer-Generated Imagery of the latest summer blockbuster and the stunning animation of the newest Pixar movie, to the less-noted—yet arguably more crucial—transitions to digital video cinematography and theatrical exhibition. However, rather than present us with a new era of unlimited possibility, digital cinema seems largely focused on reaffirming and drawing from our affection for the dying medium of film. Nostalgia is a powerful force in contemporary popular culture, though frequently misunderstood. It appears during times of abrupt change as a stabilizing, reassuring presence. While nostalgia can be little more than a fond remembrance of days past, it can also be a powerful source of creativity and guidance looking ahead to the uncertainties of the future. Yet, as an inherently romanticized view of the past, it is also fraught with dangers.

This project will explore the artistic and industrial use of nostalgia in the age of digital cinema, with a particular emphasis on films such as Hugo, TRON: Legacy, Zodiac, Ghost World, Toy Story, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Wreck It Ralph, American Splendor, Terminator: Salvation, Lost in Translation, Zodiac, Looker, The Artist and so forth. The goal will be to think about how nostalgia provides a creative and emotional grounding to audiences and filmmakers in the uncertainty and immateriality of the digital age, but also obscures deeper histories of economic inequality in the production and distribution of movies. At the same time, nostalgic impulses can also serve as a guide for highlighting these changes as well—allowing us to look back to the past to understand the changes that have occurred, for better and for worse, in the decades since. The nostalgic gaps between past and present—that sense of loss—can offer a reflexive space within which to articulate a better future to come. In all, this project will be an ambivalent account of both cinematic nostalgia and of what it means look beyond the industry hype of perceived newness and novelty that is “digital cinema,” as well as what’s at stake in this discussion, aesthetically, technologically, and historically.

Table of Contents

Introduction / Archaeologies of the Future

1) The Affect of Time / Digital Cinematography and the “Death” of Film

2) They Saw No Future / New Nostalgia Films and the Digital Transition

3) I’ll (Always) Be Back / Virtual Performance and Post-Human Labor

4) Digital Decasia / Reflexive Nostalgia and Film Preservation

5) Going Home . . . For the First Time / Pixar, Digital Animation and the Limits of Nostalgia

6) TRON Legacies / Disney and Non-Representational Nostalgia in the Age of Transmedia Storytelling

7) Post-Cinematic Nostalgia / Gaming Culture and Post-Cinematic Affect

Conclusion

Bibliography

Monday, May 20, 2013

Thoughts on Trek



The underwhelming box office news on the latest Star Trek has caused some hand-wringing among studio executives and diehard fans alike. While the film was projected to hit 100 million during the opening weekend of its US run, the film instead topped out at around $70-80m (depending on how you define the opening weekend). This is more or less consistent with the performance of its predecessor—though with the IMAX and 3D surcharges (not to mention general ticket inflation over the last four years), along with the expectation (fair or otherwise) that sequels are supposed to do better, it’s probably quite disappointing all the same.

Some fans blamed Paramount for waiting too long to build on the momentum of the 2009 film, but this reasoning seems suspect at best. For example, Skyfall had a similar four-year delay and yet it did record business for a James Bond film. More realistically, industry insiders speculated that it suffered from a crowded May movie line-up and that it might simply speak to the reality that Trek has had, and probably will always have, limited crossover appeal. For whatever reason, it was never going to do Iron Man business. 

Perhaps, this latest development will put an end to the hype that the last two Trek movies are somehow more “accessible” than the ones that came before. I’ve speculated before that—counting inflation—2009’s Trek really didn’t do that much better business than the older films did in their heyday. More recently, as Box Office Mojo has noted, the 2009 version made only slightly more than the much criticized 1979 debut. The first Trek film did great business in 1979 (largely cashing in on the Star Wars phenomenon) even though few today would defend the film on artistic merits. Meanwhile, Wrath of Khan and Voyage Home made tons of money too—especially in relation to their modest budgets. Back then, Paramount invested in Trek movies for so long (nine features over the span of 23 years) not because they were high-profile blockbusters but because they were proven B-list moneymakers with a dependable fanbase.

This is an interesting moment in the history of the franchise—the next Trek film will undoubtedly have a very different look and feel. The last two films have proven to Paramount that Trek is worth sticking with, albeit probably on a smaller budget going forward. This isn't a bad thing--one frustration for me the last few weeks has been the idea that these recent Trek films are automatically "better" in part because they had more money to work with. But as TMP shows, more expense doesn't neccesarily translate to a better film. Meanwhile, JJ has jumped the ship for Star Warssupposedly in part because of licensing issues, but also probably partly because he senses that his achievements with Trek (both creatively and financially) may have peaked.  As a storyteller, JJ’s work is pretty uneven to say the least—but as a businessman, as a brand manager, his instincts are extremely sharp. I’m tempted to say he’s Hollywood’s version of a Vulture Capitalist—identifying existing, perhaps under-performing, opportunities, maximizing their short-term worth, and then quickly moving on to the next one.

As I speculated months ago, JJ’s notorious “mystery box” strategy was no doubt partly designed to hide the fact that Star Trek into Darkness would be a pretty straightforward genre film—a slick and fun, but ultimately forgettable, summer blockbuster. Another reason given for the film's underwhelming performance has been speculation that the excessive mystery around Cumberbatch's character might have backfired--embracing and foregrounding him as the new "Khan" upfront might have made for a stronger impact than playing games only the die-hard fans cared about. Inherently nostalgic brands--from Disney to James Bond--are wise to celebrate their rich pasts rather than run from them.

The mystery box also seems, in retrospect, to have revealed that perhaps the filmmakers didn’t have as much faith in the product itself—both the Trek brand as well as the specifics of this latest movie. ‘Just’ doing another Trek movie centered on the new iteration of Khan would not be enough to sell the movie to a wide enough audience—and in this regard suggests that the excessive hype around the film, and the expectation of 100 million openings, set the movie up for unrealistic, and unfair, expectations.

This is actually the sad part, because Star Trek into Darkness movie was—I have to say—not too bad. Of course, there are a few caveats to this—I admit to having extremely low expectations going in. On paper, the spoilers in the film sounded dreadful (for example, the use of the Tribble as a key plot device read like the worst kind of Trek parody). But, in typical JJ fashion, the style and pacing of the movie covered a lot of that up. Another important reservation is that I generally liked the last one the first time I saw it too—but on repeated viewings, the shallowness and sloppiness of the storytelling became more and more apparent. I really don’t believe that either of these two movies are going to age well—the true marker of a great film.

But considering they had the audacity to go back to Wrath of Khan, I thought it was pulled off pretty well. Maybe, at its core, I’m just a sucker for the central relationship of Kirk and Spock, regardless of the actors or the story. Across the vast emptiness of our current pop culture landscape, I can think of no friendship I value more—and Star Trek into Darkness cut to that core in a remarkably satisfying way (though Bones is an important figure here as well, and it’s a shame he’s becoming increasingly marginalized). And this also may be partly why—beyond the technobabble—Trek will never be a true crossover success. Its central “love” story has always been between two men (Spock’s unexpected and not so subtle jealousy towards Carol Marcus in this film was, I thought, priceless).

So, when we arrive at the controversial TWOK homage in the end—to some degree, but not entirely, mimicked line for line, shot for shot—it still works to a point because these two films have done a strong job of making these two characters, and their complicated relationship, relevant and meaningful in the new timeline, even while the rest of the narratives have been quite uneven. But it also works because the entire film has primed us for Kirk and Spock’s very different investments in this moment—two reoccurring themes throughout the movie are Kirk’s selfish arrogance and Spock’s inability to handle the emotions attached with death. These are somewhat obvious and perhaps generic tropes, and not exactly the grand philosophical ideas of the old Trek, but they still resonate as true to the characters. So the scene lifting at the end—as creatively lazy as it still, to some degree, is—fits the larger thematic arcs of the movie in a way that doesn’t just feel like a repeat of TWOK.

But still it is, at its heart, a repeat—and that speaks to both the strengths and the weaknesses of this latest film. While the 2009 version felt a little like Trek for Dummies—cramming nearly fifty years of Trek into two hours as part of the “reboot” for an imagined new audience—this one actually felt like a story and not just a stylish recap. And it’s a narrative that pays homage to the franchise without feeling overly derivative or recycled. But still the decision to invite comparisons to TWOK is fraught with dangers. That movie has been, and will always be, the gold standard of Trek movies—and the fact that we are still talking about it thirty years later, and that even the latest Trek filmmakers feel the need to heavily draw from it for a “new” film, is evidence of this fact.

Interestingly, TWOK was made, like STID, by a filmmaker (Nicholas Meyer) who admitted openly to never being a Trek fan to begin with, and who was brought in to make Trek “relevant” again. But unlike JJ, Meyer was not looking for a franchise to exploit. Meyer’s revelation was to see in Trek the possibilities of the naval dramas of Horatio Hornblower of which he was so fond. My point is that—as a non-Trekkie—he approached the franchise as a storyteller, and not a brand manager, and the movies were reinvented for the better because of it.

But there are also important differences in the “death” scenes. In TWOK, Spock had to die because Nimoy at the time was genuinely sick of being identified as Spock. The only reason he even agreed to do the film was under the promise that they would kill off the character (just as the only reason he came back for the third one was because they would let him direct). The day of shooting that powerful reactor scene was a genuinely emotional one for all involved because there was that sense of finality—that Spock might never come back. Even Nimoy was reportedly an emotional wreck that day because he was starting to wonder if he had made a mistake.

There is nothing like that here in STID—Kirk’s “death” is powerful in its own way because we care about the characters, but we are constantly aware of the gimmick at work, which means it can never hit as deep or feel as sincere. Plus, we never really feel as though Kirk is in any real danger. I think, going over it again now, the reason that that scene hit me so much emotionally was not because I felt the loss of Kirk but because it’s the first time in two films that Spock is forced to acknowledge his friendship with Jim.

(Side note—I do find it annoying that the new filmmakers have long said that Shatner can’t come back because Kirk was killed. But what do they do in this film? They kill Kirk and then bring him back. I don’t have to see Shatner in the next one by any means, but I’ve always thought that was a lame even insulting excuse, and this latest development almost feels as though the filmmakers are flaunting that point. Meanwhile, I’m more or less ambivalent about Nimoy’s cameo here in the weird Spock “phone-a-friend” moment).

All in all, though, I am happy with where the franchise is headed—and if anything, perhaps, the underwhelming box office totals and JJ’s seeming departure might open up as many creative possibilities as limitations for the future. While I appreciate how Abrams has helped revitalize the franchise, I'm reluctant to give him too much credit for the simple reason that Trek was too lucrative a franchise to lay dormant forever. He wisely struck at the right time.

I also love the idea that Khan is still out there, and no doubt will one day return, army at his side. But I hope they save that one for a little further down the road, and use the next film to really begin the five-year path of exploration—in a creative and well as planetary sense. If there’s less pressure to create a more “accessible” Trek next time, and perhaps working with a smaller budget will put more emphasis on a stronger script, then perhaps the franchise can go back to being the modest, but proven, moneymaker it always was.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Blossoms & Blood

Postmodern Media Culture 
and the Films of Paul Thomas Anderson 

by Jason Sperb 
Forthcoming from University of Texas Press, Dec. 2013 

 From his film festival debut Hard Eight to ambitious studio epics Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s unique cinematic vision focuses on postmodern excess and media culture. In Blossoms & Blood, Jason Sperb studies the filmmaker’s evolving aesthetic and its historical context to argue that Anderson’s films create new, often ambivalent, narratives of American identity in a media-saturated world.

Blossoms & Blood explores Anderson’s films in relation to the aesthetic and economic shifts within the film industry and to America’s changing social and political sensibilities since the mid-1990s. Sperb provides an auteur study with important implications for film history, media studies, cultural studies, and gender studies. He charts major themes in Anderson’s work, such as stardom, self-reflexivity, and masculinity, and shows how they are indicative of trends in late twentieth-century American culture. One of the first books to focus on Anderson’s work, Blossoms & Blood reveals the development of an under-studied filmmaker attuned to the contradictions of a postmodern media culture.

Table of Contents


Introduction /
White Noise Media Culture
And the Films of Paul Thomas Anderson

Chapter 1
I Remembered Your Face /
Indie Cinema, Neo-Noir and
Narrative Ambiguity in Hard Eight (1996)

Chapter 2           
I Dreamed I was in a Hollywood Movie /
Stars, Hyperreal Sounds of the `70s
and Cinephiliac Pastiche in Boogie Nights (1997)

Chapter 3
If That Was In a Movie, I Wouldn’t Believe It /
Melodramatic Ambivalence, Hypermasculinity, and
the Autobiographical Impulse in Magnolia (1999)

Chapter 4
The Art-House Adam Sandler Movie /
Commodity Culture and the
Ethereal Ephemerality of Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Chapter 5
I Have a Competition in Me /
Political Allegory, Artistic Collaboration and
Narratives of Perfection in There Will Be Blood (2007)

Afterward
On The Master

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oscars & the Specter of Labor

the (permanently) unemployed
Rather than watch or blog about the Oscars themselves, I thought I would take a hour's worth of free time to blog briefly about the planned protest at the ceremony by below-the-line VFX and animation laborers, which I've been following the last couple of days. It seems that if the idea of production studies, or industry studies, is going to gain any meaningful traction in the academic world of media studies than it has to confront the issue of "labor" pretty directly and critically. There is increasingly a lot of good work done on the industry side of media studies--how texts are produced, for whom, and in what ways they circulate. Its important to foreground the economic side of what we study, since it is first and foremost a global business enterprise and less an artistic endeavor (though its more often the latter which first draws our critical eye). But the problem too often is that some of this scholarship is driven primarily by the need for: 1) insider access, and 2) some manner of mutually beneficial collaboration--or what the scholar, fan, etc., wants to imagine is mutually-beneficial. There's nothing wrong with either or these goals per se--in theory they seem to promote the kind of intellectual rigor and thoroughness which academia strives for, while also optimistically expanding the potential (mainstream) audience for our research.

But I wonder if, in the drive to accommodate the industry for purposes of research (ideally), an unspoken bargain is struck--namely, not to look too closely or too critically at the object of study. This means, for one, being complicit in a kind of general free labor crowd-sourcing--as both scholars of certain texts, and as passing fans of still other properties that we may may casually write about, and thus work to further promote their visibility. But, for another, I wonder if that also means to some degree overlooking the increasing exploitation of people who do work in the industry in the age of post-industrial, information-age, late capitalism (as in academics more interested in whose going to win tonight than in the protests in the streets--even though the latter is as important an object of study--particularly in industry studies--as the former).

Over the last several decades, technological innovation has more often than not negatively affected labor in the United States. Technology not only decreases the physical demand of individual laborers needed, but also generally drives down the cost and value of those who still find work. I don't need to tell newspaper reporters or auto factory workers this, but it seems a glaring blind spot in media studies--a structuring absence in the constant rush to write about the latest television shows, iPad or digital 3D spectacle. This is partially what I was trying to write about in the "virtual performance" essay, recently--using the notion of the "synthespian" (the virtual actor) as both an allegory for the slow but constant shift to post-human labor, and as a reflection on the persistence of the star system's--and the age-old "how'd they do that" spectacle's--ability to distract us--textually and paratextually--from the kind of radically problematic labor practices which will be (somewhat) exposed today in LA. Its also something that is a constant arch in my Disney (Pixar) classes--the evolution of animation labor practices since the 1930s closely reflects the devastating shift from a massive manual labor force needed in the industrial age to a much smaller, much more specialized workforce in the information age.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

On Postmodernism, Industry and Leisure Culture


When I was a boy, just about every summer we'd take a vacation. . . .
And you know, in 18 years . . . we never had fun.”


Last night on FB, I jokingly wrote that if I ever got around to writing a book on “Post-War American Leisure Culture,” I’d have to dedicate it to Clark W. Griswold. There is no “book” per se, and I suspect there never will be, not as articulated there. But that abstraction reflects a significant shift in my interests of late as both a teacher and a scholar, and yet one that may suggest my academic career is (finally?) coming full circle. And it’s about that time of year where I reflect in broad terms anyway on where my scholarly interests have been and where they seem to be headed. What do I mean by a postwar American leisure culture?

Next month, I start teaching my long-awaited course on images of Hawai’i here at IU (I just published a tentative syllabus here). It’s been a culmination both of a long-held desire to teach such a course, and of a long-proposed and slowly simmering research project on the topic. This is one which I’ve envisioned as something of the methodological and thematic sequel to Disney’s Most Notorious Film—another historical narrative of industries and audiences, similarly charting the intersection of whiteness, nostalgia, historical consciousness and leisure culture within the specific context of a prominently visible site of mid-20th Century populist American media. Only instead of Disney, we now have Hawai’i. Instead of Mickey and Brer Rabbit, we have Elvis and hula girls. Instead of Disneyland, we have Diamond Head.

In prepping for that class, I’ve finally had time to look more closely at Dean MacCannell’s seminal book, The Tourist (1976). It’s a bit too overtly theoretical for my own interests (not a criticism, mind you, simply a point that I’d frame some of the same historical questions differently); yet, I’ve been struck by not only its insightful look at the cultural function of US leisure and the rise of the tourism industry, but also the ways in which it seems to move beyond just my interest in Disney and Hawai'i and bring out from the shadows two additional key areas that I’ve been exploring in my other project at the moment (Haunted Nerves): labor and postmodernism. For MacCannell, leisure is not simply an escape from labor, but its doppelganger: a commodified spectacle by which the working classes can become detached from its value in the age of post-industrial capitalism:
Sightseeing at such attractions preserves still important values embodied in work-in-general, even as specific work processes and the working class itself are transcended by history. It is only by making a fetish of the work of others, by transforming it into an “amusement” (“do-it-yourself”), a spectacle (Grand Coulee), or an attraction (the guided tours of Ford Motor Company), that modern workers, on vacation, can apprehend work as part of a meaningful totality. (6) 
MacCannell sees this, meanwhile, as an inevitable outgrowth of the economic and cultural logic of late modernity, though it’s easy to see why—as others have noted and he later addressed—some read The Tourist as an early manifesto of postmodern theory—leisure culture commodified, spectacularized and de-historicized the spaces of modern production.

MacCannell is understandably resistant to the notion but doesn’t dismiss the postmodern outright “as a mere leisure of the theory class” (xvi). Rather, he seeks to ground his notion of postmodernism—like tourism—as a historical response to the modern, which further conceals the latter: “the need to be postmodern can thus be read as the same as the desire to be a tourist: both seek to empower modern culture and its conscience by neutralizing everything that might destroy it from within. Postmodernism and tourism are only the positive form of our collective inarticulateness in the face of the horrors of modernity”—i.e., as he notes, atomic bombs, concentration camps and so forth (xix).

I don’t disagree with this definition, but it seems short-sighted to not think more carefully about this particular response to the modern--as a historical moment of consumption onto itself--rather than hold onto a (so to speak) totalizing theory of mass culture—especially one which still seems rooted largely in an earlier period of capitalism, a pre-Society of the Spectacle intellectual moment. How does being an image culture irreversibly alter our relationship to the figurative and literal machines of modernity? And by “image” (or spectacle), I mean not only media screens but also the ways which—as he himself explores—physical spaces of leisure (theme parks, beaches, museums) are recognized first and foremost as images?

Perhaps it’s a generational issue—in the (very) old modern/postmodern debate, I’m repeatedly struck by the desire to hold onto an increasingly romanticized notion of a perfectly preserved modernity which subsequent appeals to the “postmodern” distorted rather than clarified. By “generational,” I mean someone thoroughly raised within (by?) a hypermediated tourist industry—if we follow his formulation, does the postmodern become a means to work our/my back from the “historyless void” (5)? (this is in part what I was trying awkwardly to articulate in a popular blog post from many years ago [the image at the top is from a mall in Honolulu, intellectual consistency FTW]—what does it mean to be raised on a steady buffet of movies/TV, parks and shopping malls in a postmodern age of post-60s late capitalism?).

At the same time, I think I am drawn to MacCannell’s work in no small measure because he is (knowingly or otherwise) holding onto that historical moment in critical thought where the modern/postmodern seem in tension with one another. And I suspect that’s also why I keep coming back as well to Robert Venturi, Denise Brown and Steven Izenour’s Learning from Las Vegas—another seminal text of early postmodern thought. Although it is mainly regarded as a crucial contribution to theories of postmodern architecture, it is also I would argue a key text in the analysis of leisure culture—not only because of Vegas itself and its populist function within postwar consumption and tourism in general, but also in the insightful ways in which it suggests the emergence of a highway culture and Route 66 mentality radically changed the ways in which we perceive physical space. And I would also reclaim its value in postmodern theory for the sense in which it is about acknowledging and carefully examining, rather than dismissing, the value of a populist US consumer culture.

I suppose that’s why for the last couple of years I’ve returned to the idea of postmodernism in general when “positioning” myself as a scholar. To put it simply, I think, even after years of searching around, I still find postmodernism as the most meaningful way to articulate my own wide range of concerns regarding populist American media since WWII. When I first started graduate school, I was fascinated by postmodern theory—but in all the trendy ways that I suspect MacCannell is resistant to it: that it is too often used as a self-fulfilling means to talk about textual self-reflexivity and the surface lies of popular culture, rather than as a meaningful reflection on what it might mean to talk about representation in the age of late capitalism. This led to my very first publication, by the way, a valid but rather simplistic postmodern “reading” of Ghost World (2001).

During this period, I was captivated by Learning from Las Vegas, by Baudrillard’s America, by Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality (in other words, a lot of the foundational theoretical texts in part on US roadside culture which are now experiencing a renaissance in my discovery [return?] to thinking a bit more carefully about postwar leisure culture). For a number of reasons, it was something that I gradually left behind by the time I finished my PhD.

But at some point in the last couple of years, I’ve come to the realization that so many of my interests focus on—especially—the question of nostalgia. Although I’m as quick to laments its reservations as anyone, I still find that my definition of the term is drawn heavily from the work of Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism. Although others have provided insightful critiques of his definition of nostalgia (from Linda Hutcheon on), to me the valid concern centers more on how we might articulate personal or individual responses to representations of nostalgia, and less on this broader, collective notion of nostalgia in popular culture that Jameson aptly identified in Postmodernism (this is where I find Svetlana Boym’s remarkable The Future of Nostalgia invaluable).

Nostalgia, meanwhile, is often rightly associated with whiteness, and though I’ve never quite figured out how to define the former, I see them as inseparable within the context of US populist culture. Of course, I am still a white, middle-class suburban kid. Of course, postmodernism is a position of privilege—a meaningful position, and thus one whose assumptions and paradoxical visibility demands unpacking. “Whiteness” forces me to always be critically self-reflexive in a deconstructive way that postmodernism for its own sake (ironically) never could; but it also allows me to begin to create a dialectical (racial) history beyond the surfaces of nostalgia, which is what I was attempting to do in the Disney book, on my last contribution to the second cinephilia collection on Be Kind Rewind, and in an often overlooked piece on nostalgic representations of Detroit’s history—“Islands of Detroit” (and wherein questions of labor, or of the touristic spectacle of such, also returns).

Postmodernism saw nostalgia as inseparable from history—or historical consciousness—and this may again be where the generational question reappears. Raised on postmodern populist history (i.e., nostalgia), I’m not so comfortable dismissing it as a fallacy (i.e., the certainly suspect claims to the “end of history” per se). To me, the surfaces of a postmodernist nostalgia art (not to mention the ambivalent attitudes to my own personal experiences with nostalgia) tend to be the starting point, not the end, to thinking about “history”—however one chooses to define that.

And this speaks to my other interest in Postmodernism—the idea that “defining” history is rooted in understanding the cultural logic of late capitalism, which in turn brings me back to questions of labor and industry. Thus, my methodological interests tend to be in production histories and reception studies which might create a kind of dialectical materialist history that is dependent upon, but not reducible to, the surfaces of postmodern media culture.

And I suppose it’s this tangled populist knot—postmodernism, nostalgia, leisure, whiteness, labor, visuality, historical consciousness—which I’m currently trying to unpack across a number of different projects. 

And that’s what I see is the tragic populist figure of Clark W. Griswold.