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.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Why Song of the South is Offensive, or, a (Hopefully Useful) Resource for the Curious

Let me begin by saying that, of course, Song of the South is hardly the worst movie ever made. There are even a lot of things to admire about—especially, its technical achievements, and James Baskett’s admirable performance. And, in classic Hollywood style, some moments of the narrative are genuinely affecting—despite its (even for Hollywood) excessively over-the-top melodrama.

(You know what the most consistent reaction to Song of the South is when I screen it for my Disney students? Giggling.)

And, moreover, I know that there are any number of reasons why people love and/or defend the film as much as they do which does not necessarily have anything to do with its racial stereotyping.

But, apparently, qualities such as nuance, thoughtfulness, and subtlety were big problems for some. In the age of twitter, we need to reduce it to the most obvious and superficial question (i.e., is it racist--"yes or no"? And really that is by far the least interesting question to me about that film's complicated history). So, here, I’ll just get to the point.

It’s been difficult to know how to respond to some of the misguided, largely uninformed, and even vitriolic, criticism that’s been addressed to me personally, as though “shooting the messenger” and other ad hominem attacks were a substitute for meaningful critique.

(Of course, some have had my back--which I'm very grateful for).

Why “shooting the messenger”? Well, let’s just say that anyone who felt I sought out to “prove” how offensive Song of the South was seemed to miss the book entirely. I had no interest in doing so, for the simple reason that I didn’t feel it needed to be restated for the 100th time (in academic books, we look for new areas of inquiry, not opportunities to rehash old ones for an easy, quick buck). 

In this sense, people who say my book isn’t even about Song of the South are quite correct—it was a history of the complicated relation between racial politics, audience reception, and media transitions across the last 100 years of American culture, with Song of the South as simply a uniquely interesting case study—especially given its singular relationship with Disney, and all the fascinating possibilities therein.

But, whatever. See above point about nuance, blah-blah, etc . . . The larger point here is that I’ve had little interest until now in re-engaging that debate, which is little more than a virtual quagmire that reaffirms once again the internet’s ability to occasionally draw out the worst in human nature.

Oops, there I go again.


7 Revisionist Myths about Song of the South

Far more urgent and important, however, are some addressing of the many lies regarding Song of the South that I fear have begun to solidify in the wake of my book’s first appearance a year and a half ago—as we move further away from not just the making of Song of the South, but from any direct memory of what the American Civil Rights Movement even was (to use a metaphor from a 1957 episode of Disneyland, I feel it’s my responsibility to try to put this “genie” back in the bottle--however futile that will prove to be).

So, I feel a need to distill some of Song of The South’s many problems down to their basic essence—a primer to why Song of the South was and still is offensive, and why none of its defenses hold any water.

Myth #1: Little Johnny “doesn’t see race.” 

Well, sorry, it’s still there . . . as the last, oh, four centuries of American History should have taught us by now. And while it’s occasionally nice to live life from a child’s point-of-view, that’s ultimately pretty irresponsible in the long-run, wouldn’t you say? (plus, Johnny’s innocence would not preclude him from eventually internalizing the prejudices of his mother—see part of Myth #5 below)

Myth #2: It’s just a “product of its time.”
Here, the idea is that everything was racially insensitive when the film was made, so its no big deal. But, alas, no, America (and Hollywood) was a much more complicated place in the 1940s. During WWII, a conscious effort was made on the part of the US Office of War Information, most Hollywood Studios and various Civil Rights groups to promote “positive” images of African-Americans onscreen to boost morale—refuting exactly the kind of clichés Song of the South would later promote in the immediate aftermath of war. This is exactly why the film was controversial when it was released—many people were all too well aware of how this was a regression to older stereotypes. Plus, there is ample evidence that everyone within the studio knew all too well that they would have serious problems with the material (see conversation below about Walt’s so-called “intention”). If Song of the South was indeed a “product of its time,” wouldn’t the Disney Studios have instead been completely oblivious to what they were doing? Something doesn’t add up. Also, let me add that fans who continue to defend the film as a "product of its time" to this day, in our more "enlightened" age, should think long and hard about what they are really defending, and why they are really still invested in defending it.

Myth #3: It’s “not about slavery.”
Well, technically, no, it's not—its set after the Civil War, but you’d have a mighty hard time figuring that out just by watching the movie, which is so riddled with old Plantation clichés that it’s difficult to figure out when it actually is set. This was by design—it could tap into conservative nostalgia for the Old South on a visceral level, while still having the “out” of being *technically* (but not really) set after the war.
But I’d like to push this a step further and say that, in a sense, yes, Song of the South is very much “about” slavery. Why? Because the origins of Brer Rabbit are not just Joel Chandler Harris but go back to oral slave traditions. Let me repeat that—the Brer Rabbit stories are inherently slave stories. The idea of the physically weak outsmarting the more physically dominant were thinly veiled allegories for how slaves—who were otherwise powerless—could outwit their white master. Plus, Uncle Remus and the other African-American characters in the movie are no doubt former slaves, and would carry that painful memory with them. So, in short, yes, the weight of slavery’s history is very much in the very DNA of Song of the South regardless.

Myth #4: That’s “just the way things were back then.”
Ok—let’s say we accept the fact that the film is set after slavery. The problem with that is that the Civil War was hardly the end to the nation’s racial troubles, and anyone with any historical sense could tell you that in some ways things got a whole lot worse before they got better. Since African-Americans were no longer technically slaves, other forms of racial violence were necessary to maintain the “old” way—black men were subjected to regular lynchings if they forgot “their place” (and often even if they didn’t), or in some cases to being burned alive while white people threw a bonfire party around them, not to mention the more everyday instances of the kind of institutional discrimination (Jim Crow laws) and other forms of intimidation used to maintain segregation. This is the history Song of the South distorts, if you want to take the out by saying its set after the Civil War. So, no, this isn't the way things were.

Myth #5: Uncle Remus is just a “sweet, kindly old man.”
Let me start by saying my respect for Baskett’s achievement here is massive. It’s no secret that an African-American actor in the 1940s couldn’t be choosy about the roles he took, and if he rejected and/or criticized any of them, he’d never work in that town again. To his endless credit, Baskett did the best with what he had to work with.
Beyond that, this argument about Remus himself just completely overlooks what the “Uncle Tom” stereotype was to begin with, and what it meant historically. The Tom’s existence was solely to please, and seek the approval, his white "master"—he had no identity outside of that. This is made explicit in the film by the repeated ways in which Uncle Remus is "put in his place” by the two white women in the story, and by the fact that he is completely emotionally devastated at the end when the mother tells him he cannot spend time with Johnny—so much so that he feels compelled to leave the area altogether (seriously, the guy clearly has nothing to do with himself but please Johnny, and when denied that purpose he’s unable to recover—that’s at best condescending).
And what of that big happy smile? It's long been noted that the cliché image of the grinning African American which has so long been ubiquitous throughout US popular culture was historically really about alleviating white guilt over slavery—a reassuring fantasy based on the desire to believe that black people really held no grudges about all that stuff. This is a fantasy that Song of the South is especially guilty of indulging in. Plus, it also brings us back to the idea of the Uncle Tom—he’s always just happy to please, and he never forgets his place (see myth #4)

Myth #6: It’s actually a movie about “overcoming” racial problems, promoting harmony between the races.
Completely disingenuous. Granted, this one might hold some water if Song of the South was brave enough to actually address the legacy of slavery in the first place, and to deal directly with the actual pain that a real life Remus would no doubt carry with him back then. You cannot have the healing without the confrontation first. And, of course, Disney wouldn’t touch that topic directly with a ten-foot pole. No, it’s not a movie about overcoming the legacy of slavery—instead, it’s a nostalgic fantasy that pretends slavery never happened, and that African-Americans collectively have no history (see myths #3 & #5).

Myth #7: “Walt’s intentions were good.”

OK—now we get to the heart of the matter, one which deserves its own sub-categories, because we need to take this BS one step at a time:

1)      The fundamental problem with establishing “intention”—First off, read up on the "Great Man" Myth of history, and realize its foolish to put all of the film on Walt himself in any case when so many people worked together to build that studio and this film in particular. Beyond that: we don’t really know what an artist was thinking at the time; we don’t have a pipeline directly into someone’s head, let alone someone who existed 70 years ago. At best, we have interviews which need to be contextualized by other sources, or second-hand anecdotes from the people who knew the artist, as well as the, shall we say, “wishful” projection of diehard fans, but those are often heavily clouded by nostalgia and bias, and thus raise as many questions as answers about what the “true” intentions were.

2)      There’s really no hard evidence to support this defense anyway—where exactly are we supposed to see definitive proof that Walt’s intentions were good? The only positive stuff is just typical Hollywood studio PR spin—a shrewd business operation wisely trying to protect their (massive) investment. Of course, Walt and his inner circle are going to claim they tried the best they could, in that sort of “aw, shucks,” faux-naive, kind of way that the uber-smart Walt often deployed when confronted with potentially dicey issues surrounding some of the studio's films. But, look beneath the surface here—few changes were made once the studio recognized there were going to be problems, and by all accounts Disney largely ignored African-American concerns (he clearly wanted them to just sign off on the project more so than have any creative input). He did bring in a more liberal screenwriter for revisions, but Maurice Rapf apparently just came away from the experience more frustrated than anything else. And, if anything, evidence suggests Walt really just thought the whole controversy was more communist agitation, and not really about civil rights. Starting with the Animator strike at the studio at the beginning of the decade and perhaps culminating in his participation with the Congressional witch hunts later, it’s easy to speculate that it was labor and class—not race—that Walt was obsessed with.

3)      Walt didn’t have to make Song of the South—I cannot stress this point enough. Ok, ok: let's say Walt really “did try to do the best he could.” But, this overlooks a giant elephant in the room: nobody forced him to make the movie. If his intentions were truly good, if he really was sensitive to African-American concerns, why did he proceed to make the film even after so many people within his studio told him he’d had trouble? Just from a business standpoint, let alone a racial one, why proceed with such a risky project with too much at stake instead of just dropping it and moving on? That to me is the most damning evidence. Look, to be clear, I’m not saying Walt was a bigot at all—didn’t know the guy personally, don’t see a lot of overwhelming evidence to support it, and I’m not into knee jerk labels anyway (see point above about nuance). But what I am saying is that, at the end of the day, most actual evidence from the time suggests, at best, he really didn’t take the criticisms all that seriously, and thus didn’t “intend” to do well. As Walt often did throughout his life (and sometimes to absolutely brilliant effect), he wanted to make his movie his way, and didn’t care who got in the way, or what others had to say.

4)      “Intention” is really about Pattern Recognition—So, to modify point #1 above, I do of course support the so-called auteur theory (asI’ve written about before—in the book I’m most proud of), but as I tell my students when I teach, say, the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s not about establishing a direct link to Paul’s brain, and then downloading information. It’s about looking at the films themselves, looking at industrial and biographical sources, about looking at what others have written, and then looking for patterns to emerge. Only then can you begin to map out an “auteur” reading of a body of work featuring one historical figure as the common link. Almost every single Anderson film is about fathers and sons--clearly, there is something there. This is to me why ultimately Song of the South was (and in some ways still is) such a problem for Walt Disney—there is no pattern in his films of an really engaged or “positive” interest in  African-American representations, if we look at his entire career. Instead, we have an unrelentingly white, upper-middle class vision of the world—with blackness either relegated to the furthermost margins or absent entirely. Song of the South was the only Disney movie ever made that focuses primarily on the African American experience in his lifetime—and it's one riddled with the worst clichés about that experience. It just doesn’t look good. I firmly, honestly, believe that if Disney had made a slightly more diverse collection of movies about that experience through the decades (however modest), people wouldn’t really have focused much on Song of the South, whatever its problems. Yes, a lot of studios made movies “back then” whose stereotypes we would cringe at today, but those same studios in retrospect also made some other films that—for its day—could have been read as “positive.” But Walt never really did, and that, unfortunately, is, yes, a part of his legacy.

Finally, on the subject of "intention" let me add that, frankly, it really just does not matter in the end what Walt intended, even if we could deduce it. Why? Because cause does not negate effect. In the end, we are left with an offensive film either way, and hiding beyond intention is simply a cowardly way of avoiding responsibility for the work itself.


I’m sure there are some things I’ve forgotten and/or overlooked, but I trust the larger point has been made.

I will say, finally, that I’ve changed my mind from what I wrote in the book: Disney is right to continue to keep the film out of circulation. I was naïve and idealistic. There is simply no way to re-release the film now in a way that wouldn’t be read as a vindication for those who say it was never offensive to begin with—and beyond that, there are too many chances for its “natural” ideologies to continue to spread.

Time to let it go.