Saturday, January 13, 2018

Downsizing; or why less is usually (but not in this case) more with Alexander Payne's films

In an interview with Leo Biga regarding Downsizing (2017) nearly two years ago, Alexander Payne was asked about the challenges of directing actors in front of a green screen. He responded in part that: “the acting style should not suffer from the means of production. But, it’ll be fine. You know, who cares, it’s just a movie.” Towards the end of that same article, meanwhile, Payne was quoted as saying that “a movie is a movie is a movie and we have enough to make this movie, so it’ll be fine.”

There are two ways to read the film in the context of Payne’s career—one, suggested above, is that the film was a technological experiment in figuring out how to tell a new kind of story, on a much more logistically complicated scale, with the end results being what they may. Downsizing may also be read as a metaphor for the arc of Payne’s body of work so far. The film is a science-fiction comedy about a man, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), who undergoes a new procedure that shrinks people to 5 inches tall so that even working class folks can live like kings and queens in a miniaturized theme park world where the use of smaller resources means the dollar can be stretched much further. The film’s weaknesses are not for lack of trying, and perhaps even the reverse is true. Payne and collaborator Jim Taylor spent parts of a decade reworking the script as the project struggled to find funding, and it shows in the final product, which tries awkwardly to tie together several different storylines, characters, settings, and themes. 

Conceptually, the science fiction world of Downsizing had the potential to be far more interesting than its bland main character--a ratio that wouldn't seem to play to Payne's strengths. All great science fiction is essentially allegorical, a means to use impossible futuristic technology to comment on issues in modern society. And what the downsizing procedure symbolizes ultimately isn't articulated in any clear or forceful way. The very title, "downsizing," knowingly teases us with an economic critique that never lands. The film’s muddled critique of class echoes criticisms of Payne’s earlier films, while the philosophical and ethical questions surrounding why this procedure would be attractive, and for whom (both those shrunk and those doing the shrinking), seem largely elided. As Derek Nystrom has written, “that Payne's cinema is centrally about class is clear--or at least would be clear to any culture that did not struggle mightily to repress this fundamental condition of social life [. . .] Yet the class condescension of these films is complicated by their portrayals of middle-class characters.”

Because of their ambivalent fondness towards middle class and working class characters, Payne’s films depict a class-based society in ways that most other mainstream and quasi-independent films most often avoid. If a lack of financial resources is acknowledged at all in other movies, it is usually (following Hollywood’s neoliberal logic) merely a plot device motivating the main character to work harder in order to achieve their dreams. In Downsizing, it is the opposite—the lack of resources appears to initially force an ironic sense of defeatism for the two primary characters, accepting that in the “big” world they’ll never enjoy the economic comfort they desire. At the same time, the film eventually works towards the admirable but predictable conclusion—one which completely negates the film’s opening class critique—that there are more important things in life than money.

But the bigger issue here is that, as with many Payne films, while the economic struggles of these middle class characters are often alluded to in direct, and indirect, ways, the larger institutions creating and perpetuating this economic inequality are avoided altogether. Why is Paul in the position he is? (his ailing mother seems to be the plot device here, but there were so many other possibilities to explore). Why are there so many individuals and businesses out there so anxious to cynically exploit his economic desperation? (On a related note, the very name of the utopic paradise, “Leisureland,” begs comparisons to Walt’s Disneyland—which grew out in part from his love of model trains and, more importantly, the miniaturized toy landscapes which accompanied them—and to his belief that a scaled down world is one much easier to control. That could have been an equally fascinating take on Downsizing’s premise, and one which might highlight the issues of class in ways that don’t ultimately negate them as minimal).

So why a metaphor for Payne’s career? The film’s opening 30 minutes or so are squarely within the filmmaker’s comfort zone—a middle-aged white Midwestern (Nebraskan) male going through a series of personal and professional crises, before then deciding that a journey to a different location might offer some answer to his problems. Like Sideways, About Schmidt and The Descendants, the “hero’s” journey is initiated at least in part by a separation from his significant other. One could arguably also include David (Will Forte) in Nebraska here, as well. But unlike many of his earlier films, the main protagonist does experience some growth in the end. Though, to be honest, it’s an open question whether Downsizing ultimately needed to follow this particular character at all.

Meanwhile, it’s the more interesting remainder of the film that perhaps best typifies a filmmaker moving outside his comfort zone to explore a larger world out there. The problem structurally by then is that the movie is too locked in to Paul’s underwhelming journey of redemption to fully explore this vast miniaturized world, its diverse group of inhabitants, its playful attitude towards American ignorance, or the glaring issues of racial and class inequality touched upon. In many ways, the film’s closest companion might be The Descendants, a script which he and Taylor were working on around the same time as Downsizing back in the late aughts. Both are films which move beyond the abovementioned comfort zone to explore stories about the value of land and other resources as a way—intentionally or otherwise—to mount a critique of class inequality.

And, in both cases, the message is muddled by the films’ respective failures to commit fully to the political and historical consequences of the questions they raise (Payne’s said in the past that he’s more interested in stories than ideology, which is fair, but some of those stories raise a question which demands a messier and dramatically interesting answer). As one example, Downsizing’s admittedly spot-on cynicism towards the slogan of “going green” as being little more than a corporate joke—as a way for companies to make more money while feigning progressive values—feels like it would’ve been much more insightful circa 2007, around the time it was written. Instead, it just reiterates a cynicism about the sincerity of capitalist endeavors motivated first by profit, which then also has the unintended side effect of raising doubt on the sincerity of the film’s own ambitious message.

Considering its near epic ambitions, Downsizing is Payne’s weakest title to date, even though conceptually its perhaps by far his most interesting. His welcome turn back to the broader comedic tone of his first films (Citizen Ruth, Election) lacks the insightful satiric bite of those initial efforts. Ironically, the basic premises of Payne’s other films—pregnant woman considering abortion and trapped within the culture wars, a high school president election, widowed dad takes road trip to daughter’s wedding, college buddies celebrate the last days of bachelorhood with trip to wine country, widowed husband/father decides what to do with real estate—could not sound less original or interesting as concepts on paper. Of course, high concepts can be overrated, and often (as in Downsizing) cause as many narrative problems as solutions.

Payne’s often noted that he just follows the “story” when coming up with a new idea for a movie. But the irony there is that structurally most of those narratives themselves are not usually that engaging. Instead, what makes Payne perhaps the single greatest chronicler of American middle-class populism onscreen, aside from his impeccable sense of mise-en-scene, is that he and his fellow collaborators are singularly unique at constructing not story, but characters and moments (that Paul is by far the least interesting protagonist he’s ever devised is not at all insignificant in articulating Downsizing’s problems—days after watching the film, I’d already forgotten the character’s name, despite the fact that a running joke throughout the film is how other characters are constantly mispronouncing it). When it comes to strongly structured narratives, Payne’s films are, technically speaking, often saddled with, for example, second act problems—seductive openings and deeply moving endings, but often something of a (sideways) struggle to get from one to the other. When the characters and mise-en-scene work, this issue is less noticeable. (Most of Payne’s other films have been based on novels, and the presence of an existing structure perhaps served the filmmaker well in the past.)

Science Fiction is a tricky genre to pull off. The very high concept nature of most sci-fi stories by design implies that they tend to be allegories for the modern world (Downsizing is ultimately a metaphor for . . . something, but what?), and within those inherently narratively and conceptually unrealistic stories, characters are often archetypes themselves. Creating three-dimensional and grounded human characters within such high concept stories is, I would argue, thus more challenging than within some other genres.

The film’s casting, as with other Payne films, is a mixed bag, and the fondness for skit comedy actors again produces uneven results. While I find Nebraska to be Payne’s most visually and aurally beautiful film, it was also hard to take Will Forte seriously as the film’s embattled but loyal son. Similarly, Bob Odenkirk—whose work on Mr. Show and Better Call Saul I absolutely adore—seems to awkwardly play his character as somewhere between a real human being and another exaggerated sketch character (particularly, since his wannabe media celebrity character so strongly evokes memories of Mr. Show to begin with). The presence of talented comedians Mary Birdsong and Rob Huebel take audiences out of the intensely dramatic The Descendants. Similarly, Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudekis feel out of place in Downsizing, despite the former’s admirable attempts at more dramatic work in recent years. The funniest moments in Payne’s films--as is the case in Downsizing--tend to feature performers equally at home with comedy and drama. On the subject of casting, Damon fails to land much of an impact (it’s also safe to say that, outside of Bourne, he isn’t much of a bankable star anymore, and it’s been suggested that Payne’s hand was forced in this regard in order to get funding.)

What ultimately shrinks the film (sorry, couldn't resist), aside from a coherent idea about what the political or economic significance of Leisureland is, is its dependence in the end on the tired cliché of the “white savior” narrative (confounded further by some of the negative publicity surrounding Damon’s condescending comments on gender equality recently). Either way, since Paul doesn’t emerge as a particularly interesting character—sympathetic perhaps, but not in a uniquely compelling or engaging way—the audience is less invested in his journey by the time we arrive at Leisureland and are presented with a much more interesting cast of characters (here the other casting choices, such as the always dependable Christoph Waltz, really begin to pay off better). But in the end, it’s Paul who has to find his place in this new world, and who utilizes his privileged medical skills to help others in need.

Part of the beauty of Payne’s films has long been that the main characters don’t really evolve—at best, they have fleeting and moving moments of catharsis to release their emotions, but in the end they remain (true to life) the people they were in the beginning. But part of the beauty too is that they seem to genuinely emerge from, and inhabit, the landscapes around them.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Disney During WWII upcoming talks

I will be giving public talks on the Disney Studios' role in producing US government propaganda during WWII at the following dates and locations. Although Disney Studios was the toast of Hollywood animation in the 1930s, its fortunes fell quickly on the eve of World War II. I will discuss Disney’s vital but now largely forgotten contribution to the war effort, which not only helped save the country but also a studio which would go on to become an American cultural institution.

Please feel free to attend if you're in the area.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Here's a copy of my SCMS talk today, in case anyone is interested. A big thanks to Benedictine for supporting me, my teaching, and my work.

(please forgive the typos and what-not--this was meant to be performed and not published)

"Save that Gag For The Tourists:
Industrial Reflexivity and Post-Tourism Narratives
in Hollywood's Hawa'i'i Cycle of the 1930s"

In The First Strange Place: Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii, Beth Bailey and David Farber recount the anecdote of a US soldier on the island of Majuro in the Pacific during a lull in combat during WWII. With beer in hand, Samuel Hynes wandered out to a moonlit beach and found himself immediately overwhelmed: “it was a scene that demanded sentiment,” he wrote, “and I knew I should have feelings about it, sad romantic yearnings for the far off beloved, something like that. But how could I have any real response to a tropical island in the moonlight? It was too damn much, too like a movie with Dorothy Lamour; and I could only feel the way I did in movies like that—charmed but disbelieving.” This anecdote highlights what was self-evident by the 1940s—many Mainland assumptions about islands in the Pacific had been shaped by decades of advertising, radio shows, and Hollywood movies which promoted the South Seas in general, and Hawai’i in particular, as a calm, tropical paradise for romance, filled with hula girls, moonlight, palm trees, and pineapples. A couple decades later, Daniel Boorstin wrote about how “much of our curiosity” as tourists, “comes from our curiosity about whether our impression resembles the images found in the newspapers, in the movies, and on television [. . .] We go not to test the image by the reality, but to test reality by the image.” Hynes’ experience reflected how Mainland audiences might have had a more complicated, conflicted, or even resistant, relationship to these mediated visions of utopia than has previously been assumed by scholars such as Robert Schmitt and Jane Desmond about the cycle of Hawaiian-themed films that dominated the pre-war period, and which today are retrospectively situated as a nostalgic period of innocence disrupted by the 1941 Japanese attack on US military forces in Pearl Harbor.

Not coincidentally, Boorstin also wrote about the foundational Hawaiian “pseudo-event”—the Kodak Hula Show. The modern “Hula Girl” as commodified spectacle grew less out of local music traditions than agricultural economy—not the creation of Hollywood or the Hawaii Tourist Bureau, but of the pineapple industry. The evolution of Hula Girl from fruit sales pitch to primary symbol of Hawaiian tourism is an appropriate historical metaphor for Hawai’i’s economic and cultural transition in the first decades of the 20th Century, evoking the transition from material commodity (fruit) to abstract experience (romance) as the Islands’ biggest selling point.

Early on in Waikiki Wedding (1937), there is a remarkable graphic match between a line of native Hawaiian men banging the drums during the film’s opening wedding sequence to a line of local workers on a pineapple cannery assembly line. The reflexive desire to see the work display here gives the knowledge of production an ironic element of authenticity—as though seeing how commodities are produced (real or imagined) gives them added value.

A foreshadowing of the eventual plot twist, this sequence is intended to convey Hawai’i’s modernity in the 1930s—having moved on from its “primitive” beginnings amidst the music of the jungle to a fully modernized economy immersed in a Fordist model of production. While meant as a corrective to condescending assumptions about the Islands as a retrogressive, pre-modern wilderness, the sequence also retrospectively conveys the depressing vision of a local population reduced to its value as cheap compartmentalized labor to be maximized in a factory (while also eliding the ethnic and racial diversity of the actual Hawaiian population). And, as the film’s later plot twists would imply, the next step in its economic evolution would be the performative role of Hawaiians within the emergent tourism market. The transition encapsulated the co-existence of Hawaii’s pre- and post-industrial economies—the spectacle of Hawaiian performance (for the camera) being as important to the local economy as actual productivity in the fields and factories.

In collaboration with Matson Cruise Lines, a Kodak executive came up with the idea in 1937 for an event that would encourage mutually beneficial consumption. A simple performance of what Rob Wilson has called “commercially transformed hula," the show was quite literally defined by its mediation, since the entire point of the performance was to encourage tourists to take pictures and the occasional home movie that would then circulate back on the Mainland. The show, writes Desmond, “gave tourists a chance to photograph the hula dancers, a possibility unavailable during the dimly-lit night-time shows. [. . . Kodak Vice-President Fritz Herman wanted] a natural background of palms, sun, and sand, a more iconic representation of the hula girl, a suitable souvenir.” The hula shows denied the value of a performer’s labor by reframing it in the show context as nothing more than a continuation of ancient leisure activities. The show was where several noted hula girls got their start performing for the camera before moving on to roles in Hollywood films and later television.

Many were also part of the hula circuits which toured the Mainland to perform live hula shows and first helped create what Adria Imada has called “the imagined intimacy between the US and Hawaii, a potent fantasy that enabled Americans to possess their island colony physically and figuratively.” Wilson argues that the show “functions nicely as a postmodern art form, phasing out so-called real hula, or at least desacralizing it in the context of mass images, a trillion copies, flashbulbs popping.” Discussing the notion of “legendary Hawai’i” (how ancient local legends are adapted for a presumed touristic audience), Cristina Bacchilega has noted the emergent technology of photography in the late 19th/early 20th century was key to solidifying Hawai’i’s appeal to outsiders. The wide circulation of these colonial images, she writes, “and the excitement with which they were met in the West depended not only on their novelty, but on their truth value . . . photographs of faraway places and people were thus seen to provide more powerful ‘evidence’ than words.” Certainly, the Kodak Hula Show was a microcosm of the entire Hawaiian tourism industry—a commodified performance of contested Hawaiian culture whose immediate exhibition for island visitors masked how they were really intended for the rapidly proliferating culture of mass media.

For decades, organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce of Honolulu—and particularly their own Hawaii Tourist Bureau—and the Pan-Pacific Press Bureau—aggressively pushed for favorable press coverage. Everything from magazine advertisements to radio broadcasts constructed the same ideal vacation in tourists’ imagination, experiences which companies such as Matson—with a monopoly on shipping lanes and majestic hotels—were quick to provide. However, as a 1939 economic report by the Chamber of Commerce made clear, tourism itself was an important but minor industry in a territory still dominated by that “mainstay of Hawaii’s business”: agriculture. The origins of this publicity campaign had more to do with winning a PR war locally for the so-called “Big Five”—the de facto oligopoly of businesses and banking interests that dominated local industry and stifled worker rights—and with winning support for statehood back on the Mainland. Actual tourists in Hawai’i were secondary—especially given that travel to and from the Islands was still limited to the wealthy few (such as Hollywood elites)—who could afford the time and money to voyage to Honolulu. But that vision of the dream Hawaiian vacation in the American imagination was a powerful one which would prove to be every bit as consequential for the Islands and for Hollywood.

Hawai’i is a prominent example of what John Urry called a sign of the “touristic gaze”—the gaze implies both distance and difference, tourists are both engaged and removed from the places and people they visit. Vernadette Gonzalez has noted how US soldiers in the Pacific were situated as both tourist and solider, and thus his status as consumer masked his dual role as conqueror in a form of what she called “soft colonialism” that proved more resilient than older forms of conquest. Touristic images of hula girls, of Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head, represent more than just an attractive destination—Hawai’i’s distinctive sign is not just one of distant (frontier), mythical tropics but also uniquely American—a loyalty that attempts to mask the militaristic presence and colonial history, and distinctly multicultural in ways that affirm the US’s desire to see itself as a colorblind utopia, even as the racial difference, or what Desmond has called the liminal racial identity of the Hula girl, is what gives the Islands’ their exotic appeal in the first place.

The idea of Hawai’i as an actual tourist destination is less interesting than its construction in mainland media who did far more than just “sell” the ideal—they reflected the broader shift to experience as a highly desired commodity in the postindustrial age—something which serves as a source of near limitless consumption, loaded with layers of affective investment, and yet requires minimal use of material goods in its actual production (appropriately, the very real issue of Hawai’i’s limited land supply as a plantation-based economy is what forced such an economic shift to begin with). Part of media’s power here was with the millions of working class and middle-class citizens who could not afford to experience Hawai’i as another other than as fantasy. They serve either as rich substitutes for a physical touristic experience, where the deferral can be as powerful as the actual journey, or as nostalgic mementoes of past travels—a medium’s visual and aural “truth value” can evoke warm memories as strongly as a souvenir from the local gift shop.

The postindustrial transition to an information-based economy meant physical goods begins to have less of a priority than the interrelated immaterial commodities of knowledge and experience. We become increasingly disconnected from the actual mode (and history) of production—and the value of actual labor—in favor of a simulated (but powerful) spectacle of production. The respective entertainment industries of Hollywood and tourism operate within the post-industrial triangle of production, knowledge, and experience. The production of knowledge and of experience—consumers want to see (others’) work as spectacle (MacCannell’s “work display”), to go “behind the scenes” in order to appreciate the labor that goes into the construction of their leisure. But they also want the knowledge of production and of experience—consumers want to feel informed, to not feel duped, in an era where education (and the performance of education) is an important commodity onto itself. Not the generation of actual “new” knowledge, but the reflexive recognition and appropriation of others’ existing knowledge (such as the opening anecdote about the skeptical WWII soldier). Finally, consumers want the experience of knowledge and production—they don’t want tangible goods so much as feelings, visions, sounds, and other physical sensations, which provide its own sense of authenticity—as in, real experiences—in spite of a certain distance or irony (such as Urry’s notion of post-tourism) which these artifices might invite. All three work together to provide a powerfully reflexive relationship that constructs, sustains, and modifies the various pleasures underlining what Louis Turner and John Ash have called “the great paradox of the 20th Century: the leisure industries.”

Hawai’i is most often situated through touristic discourse as being more real or authentic by virtue of its premodern opposition to modernity, to the grinding day-to-day hassles of the US mainland. Native Hawaiian historian Haunani-Kay Trask has written that this version of Hawai’i is mostly “a state of mind, Hawaii is the image of escape from the rawness and violence of daily American life.” The idea of the “tourist” is a metaphor for a postindustrial lifestyle as much as it refers to actual tourists—modeling for consumers the ideal experience of the leisure-based life. The tourist pushes history and their labor to the margins in pursuit of a leisure-based life which still feels grounded in the value of labor, with as few of the actual physical and mental obligations of work as possible. In this regard, the Hula Girl is the perfect ideal—one whose very performance collapses the distinction between leisure and labor. Wilson has argued that the Islands’ reimagining as “some timeless primordial paradise” allowed “Hawai’i to be released from [the older] system of capitalist exploitation and teleology of modernity [. . . ] and became a site of leisure and letting go.” Relatedly, this fantasy often involves the leisurely pursuit of historical and cultural experiences without the actual weight of history—hence, the experience of pastiche nowhere more self-evident than with an indigenous culture so thoroughly commodified, distorted, and even at times erased through a series of overdetermined stylistic clichés. This was what Grant Wood noted as “echo tourism,” a “nostalgia for bygone days [. . . a] visitor’s sense of experiencing an exotic past where being Hawaiian was once but is no longer important.”

At the same time, Hollywood’s post-touristic relationship to the manufactured “Hawaiian vogue” was more complicated during the 1930s. The studios reinforced, but also quickly moved beyond, the simplistic clichés of the South Seas romance—of sailors stumbling upon an ancient tribe worshiping shark gods and volcanoes on a mythical island—in favor of much more self-aware and playful takes. Just as Hawaiian advertising and PR interests were always highly savvy about how media messages were constructed, an information-based economy must by necessity theorize itself in order to maintain credibility with a consumer who is always presented with more avenues for experience and more possibilities for knowledge. MacCannell has noted that media such as Hollywood films (or what he calls the “modeling” of touristic experience) “must appear to be disinterested if it is to be influential.” The 1930s saw the emergence of sound film technology and the popularity of the reflexive “backstage” musical genre, which were, according to Rick Altman, essentially “behind the scenes” stories that focused reflexively on the construction of illusion and artifice between performer and audience. Unsurprisingly, many of the most prominent Hawaiian-themed films during this time were not only highly reflexive genre exercises but were also explicitly about tourists’ experiences in Hawai’i, about glamorous celebrity excursions to the Islands, and/or about the challenges of running a pineapple business.

In many of these films, the backstage musical shares a close affinity with what MacCannell (drawing on Erving Goffman) has described as the “back region” of tourist sites—spaces constructed for outside consumption, but made to appear as though outside the usual tourist “traps” and thus more “authentic.” Luau shows, the Polynesian Cultural Center, Waikiki Beach—these are all examples of “the kind of social space tourists attempt to overcome or to get behind.” Touristic rhetoric about seeing the “real” Hawai’i, or to “get off the beaten path,” and so on, appeals to the tourist’s desire to find parts of the Islands that haven’t yet been coopted.

Reflexive narratives provide this kind of back region experience—by not only fetishizing secluded beaches or local hula performances in their native context and not in the resort ballroom, but also by deconstructing the front region in the first place—while also turning history—the materialist histories of colonialist exploitation, labor struggles, and capitalist production—into entertainment.

As early as 1931’s The Black Camel, local haole businessman Jimmy Bradshaw (Robert Young) calls himself the “publicity director of the whole island and the rotary club and the chamber of commerce and everything.” He attempts to woo his would-be love interest: “Take a moment to enjoy the palms of paradise!” To which she cynically replies, “save that gag for the tourists!” He insists, however, that “I’m sick of the tourists. I want to sell Honolulu to you!” Such a deconstruction of Hawai’i’s status incorporated a post-touristic irony, even while the generic classic Hollywood goal was still to reaffirm for commercial interests the deeper “truth” of finding love in Hawai’i. Here, not only the experience of love—but also the knowledge of its artifice—becomes central to its resilience as commodity in the studio system.

Meanwhile, Waikiki Wedding is the story of a pineapple company employee, Tony Marvin (Bing Crosby), who specializes in genius PR campaigns, only to find his last idea backfire. After a Midwestern woman, Georgia Smith, wins his “Pineapple Girl” contest, she’s flown out to Hawai’i, where she’s promised “three romantic weeks in Hawai’i.” But, as she points out to the executives, “I’m here and I’m not getting them.” The problem for business interests is twofold—her experiences directly challenge the romantic myth the Islands’ had been selling, but it also means her syndicated letters describing the disillusionment back home will be a major black eye for them. In order to please Georgia, Tony concocts an elaborate scheme involving his local Hawaiian buddies to stage a completely sham performance of the exotic, primitive adventure not too far removed from the typical clichés of South Seas Romance.

As a final example, Honolulu also starts out as a movie-within-a-movie (although that particular sequence is not set in Hawai’i, it does reinforce the movie’s larger commentary on the artifice of mediated romance). In the latter film, Hollywood star Brooks Mason (Young) attempts to flee his obsessive fan base by switching places with a pineapple plantation owner who just happens to look exactly like him (played of course by Young as well). When he first meets his would-be love interest (Powell) on a Matson cruise ship to the Islands, Mason is forced to fake his firsthand knowledge of Hawai’i in an attempt to use its romantic reputation to seduce her.

(there was originally a clip planned here--a very amusing one, if you can find it).

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Haunted Nerves

Justin Wyatt wrote a review of Flickers of Film in this past summer’s issue of Cineaste—it’s not a particularly glowing review, though Wyatt takes some pains to appear even-handed, complimenting some parts of the book more than others. Written more for my own personal agenda (which I will explain below), Flickers of Film ultimately was an unapologetic, idiosyncratic attempt at negotiating the ambivalences of nostalgia for film and the analog era in the age of digital cinema, with particular attention to Hollywood production. I guess I should be flattered by the fact that someone as accomplished as Wyatt took the time out of his busy schedule consulting with people in the industry on “market research” to acknowledge what was frankly a pretty minor and unambitious little work in a magazine as prestigious as Cineaste. But maybe that itself is telling—something I wrote about the economics of Hollywood in the post-industrial age really got his attention.

Of course, comments like saying my work is “naïve” are kind of a cheap shot, not to mention condescending. But then I think Wyatt represents a class (within and outside academia) that is completely out-of-touch with some of the actual on-the-ground economic realities involved, so I guess it’s all relative.

He puts forth something of a “graduate student” argument—criticizing the book for not being the one he would have written, instead of engaging with what the book is actually trying to do. But I suspect that’s the problem—we have fundamentally opposed ideas on the subject of Hollywood’s investment in nostalgia, and Wyatt’s review—coming from the perspective of the industry—is less about dealing with my book in good faith and more about defending an outdated economic model that is coming increasingly under strain (particularly in this political climate). Maybe that’s not what he intended, but that’s the general effect nonetheless.

Which reminds me—Wyatt puts a lot of stock throughout his criticism of my book in the idea that the filmmakers didn’t “intend” some of the ideological positions I take the movies to task for—which strikes me as awfully convenient. It doesn’t matter what was intended—what matters are larger hegemonic norms that continue to be perpetuated.

(And, on a not entirely unrelated note, Wyatt’s belief that since filmmakers don’t “intend” to perpetuate troubling narratives about the value of labor, consumerism, historical distortion, and so forth, and therefore shouldn’t be held responsible for those messages, sounds an awful lot like older Disney fans who try to claim that Song of the South isn’t racist just because “Uncle Walt” didn’t intend it to be. We should kill off this idea of intention once and for all. At best, it’s a slippery target; at worst, it’s morally irresponsible).

Take, for example, this one passage from his review:

The tone is accusatory, no more so than when Sperb singles out Disney Chairman Bob Iger for a bevy of Disney staff cuts while enjoying a significant increase in his own yearly bonus. Not to diminish concerns over labor in the new economy or the inequities in media industry executive versus staff salaries, I am less convinced that Sperb is bolstering his argument by layering in this additional level of analysis or by taking easy swipes at capitalism.

The original passage in question from my book is as follows:

Also significant is how the acquisition of these brands allowed Disney to consolidate certain sections of production and distribution—such as the complete gutting of LucasArts videogames in 2013—and thus further downsize labor in an effort to reduce costs. Since the initial purchase of Pixar in 2006, Bob Iger has worked aggressively to cut work staff across the Disney Universe:

650 staffers in 2006
1,900 in 2009 (mainly from theme parks)
450 in 2010 (ImageMovers)
250 in 2011 (mainly film studio and interactive personnel)
60 in 2012 (Disney Interactive)
300 in 2013 (Disney film studio and LucasArts)[i]

Meanwhile, Iger’s own personal earnings increased by 13.6% in 2011 alone.[ii] Added to this are the accusations that Disney/Pixar, LucasFilm and others conspired for years to keep wages down even before the merger.[iii] Thus, any celebration of aesthetic potential given the avenues available to audiences and producers today always feels premature; increased consolidation of media brands may open up the creative possibilities for transmedia storytelling, but it also restricts the opportunities for a rejuvenated and healthy labor pool in the era of media convergence.

To be clear, Iger’s negative treatment of workers at Disney is a pretty minor point in the larger context of the overall book (literally half a page), but the fact that he highlighted that passage as opposed to others says a lot about his narrow agenda (and, seriously, what’s the issue with another “easy swipe at capitalism”? I suspect it could handle a few more. Someone’s just worried about their consulting fees).

Passages like these make Wyatt, “Vice President of Primary Research at NBCUniversal,” come across as little more than a corporate apologist. And all of this also brings to mind my central quibble with some academic work which engages in the field known as “media industry studies”: what does it add to our understanding of the industry that goes beyond what the industry is already saying about itself? What sacrifices do such scholars make in the name of “access”? What’s the space for critique without being appropriated and incorporated back into the system? Wyatt’s own work on “high concept” Hollywood movies is a perfect example of this problem—research that was less an insightful deconstruction of the industry and more a fancy academic repackaging of what was already established practice by the studios.

It’s clear to me that Wyatt was looking for the kind of book whose data could enhance Hollywood’s existing understanding—and thus manipulation—of the nostalgia market. But—and this is the crux of the tension—I knowingly sought to write a book which was rejecting those industrial ambitions, which refused to offer any kind of material for the kind of market appropriation Wyatt is seeking, while also acknowledging the very real and resilient power of nostalgia nonetheless (including very much, but not exclusively, my own).

The challenge in my book—and I know I didn’t entirely succeed—was how to create a space for a critique of postindustrial capitalism in the context of Hollywood’s digital transition which acknowledged and perhaps even embraced nostalgia’s elusive ability to engage us in historical questions, but could still elude Hollywood’s intensely reflexive awareness of nostalgia’s power to 1) manipulate—frankly—millions of consumers who possess various degrees of self-awareness and 2) block more complex historical questions which might actually challenge many of the assumptions about the impact of postindustrial capitalism by imagining possible alternatives.

I was trying to articulate a kind of nostalgia ultimately that people like Wyatt couldn’t repackage into a PowerPoint presentation for investors.

And the fundamental flaw in his Cineaste review is that Wyatt does not acknowledge two of the most important aspects of my book—1) that I state upfront that it’s a polemic—fair or otherwise—one which takes as its target exactly the kind of status quo that he seems quite invested in defending, and 2) the central notion of “self-theorizing nostalgia,” which is an attempt at negotiating exactly the above frustration of reconciling the very power of nostalgia with the industry’s own aggressive awareness of its aesthetic convenience and value as commodity. If my theory of nostalgia sounds frustrated, that’s because it was (as I wrote in the book, btw). Without acknowledging these aspects of the project, the potentially valid criticism is empty.

*                                  *                                  *

Anyway, that wasn’t what I really wanted to say. Reading the Cineaste review reminded me of a longer blog post that I’ve long wanted to write, yet put off for several personal and professional reasons. As the book receives more attention, I realize that perhaps Flickers of Film is difficult to appreciate without the backstory of my own life while writing it. I have told friends in the past that it’s really a book about “subtext,” and so maybe it’s best to finally get on with it.

The project begin (unknowingly) in the spring of 2011 when I was teaching at Northwestern. I was assigned a course called “Digital Cinema” in the department of Radio/Television/Film. At first I was terrified, since it wasn’t an area I was particularly comfortable with. But I embraced the challenge—in part because I thought professionally it would be a useful area to strengthen. This wasn’t the first time I’d reviewed digital cinema scholarship, but it was my first really sustained engagement—and as often happens I become more focused and even fascinated with material after spending an entire term negotiating it through new research, lesson plans, class discussion and student writing.

Doing prep work for the class introduced me to Michael Crichton’s Looker (1981), a dystopic satire about an evil corporation’s plans to create digital copies of glamorous models and then kill off their real life counterparts, with the hope that their stored versions will provide an endless supply of free, "post-human" labor. It is also a brilliant satire on our modern superficial obsessions with beauty and perfection—the idea being that a computer can achieve a level of perfection that a physical human body never could (definitely prescient, mostly before the era of photoshopping and post-production retouches). The film was a huge inspiration for Flickers of Film with its vision of digitized labor in a post-industrial age, though ultimately it was not as central to the final book as I long envisioned it to be. 

It was also hugely popular with students—in the spring of 2014, students at NU broke out into applause at its conclusion, loving the mix of sharp and prescient cultural satire with cheesy 1980s Hollywood thriller aesthetic. Looker continues to hold a special place in my heart—that perfect scholarly storm of finding that rare media text which 1) fits the research agenda perfectly; 2) hasn’t been talked about much by anyone else; and 3) is just a whole lot of fun to watch on its own.

By the summer of 2011, I wasn’t thinking much yet about a book project on digital cinema. I was finishing final revisions on Disney’s Most Notorious Film and polishing Blossoms and Blood for prospective publishers. I had an idea for an essay about digital labor and Looker by then, but not much else—and whatever specific ideas I had at the time (it’s admittedly hazy now) didn’t consciously involve any sustained interest in nostalgia.

No, mainly what I was thinking about that summer was my job. Northwestern didn’t feel like a long-term situation at the time, especially after I was made to sweat out the prospect of my possible reappointment for the coming academic year (a reoccurring theme, it would occur). And so I made the difficult decision to leave Evanston to go to take a position as Assistant Professor (Limited Term) in the English Department at Michigan State University because I thought I would have the opportunity to work towards something more lasting.

My first semester at MSU was intense—on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I taught Film History at 9am, then Introduction to Film around noon, and finally a 400-level special topics theory seminar at 5pm. Given the success of the “digital cinema” class at NU, I pitched the idea for “Film Theory After Film,” merging my interest in the digital with the English department’s focus on overtly theoretical courses. During this time, the idea for “I’ll (Always) Be Back” began to come into focus. I revisited the theories of postmodernism by Fredric Jameson, since a lot of scholarship on the digital touched on the postmodern to some degree. For context, I began the class by having the seniors read Jameson’s famous New Left Review article.

And it was only after doing the lecture and discussion that I begin to appreciate how much his ideas had unknowingly shaped my own approach to digital cinema and would prove to be a major influence on Flickers of Film since his aesthetic critique, which I still find useful on its own, is also rooted in a sustained attention to post-industrial late capitalism (though I deliberately did not cite his work very much ultimately, since I feared some academics’ aversion to Jameson’s work would make the effort more trouble than it was worth—and I wasn’t really interested in revisiting the history of postmodern theory in this context anyway).

During this first semester at MSU, I wrote an initial draft of “I’ll (Always) Be Back,” which would prove in retrospect to be the very first part of the book. At the time, I was primarily looking at the piece as its own article, but I also knew that it could be the start of a larger project on digital cinema (though I didn’t yet know on what exactly). Teaching “Film Theory After Film” definitely planted ideas in my head, and brought me up to speed with scholarship at that point in time, but any more ambitious idea for a book was unfocused. Back then, my interest was largely limited to the perception that there was some kind of implied post-industrial kinship between the exploitation of labor in Hollywood and the exploitation of labor in academia. And, given my teaching load, there really wasn’t much time to think about any other writing projects anyway.

At the end of that year at MSU, I found myself back in the unemployment line. The department found a couple other folks they liked more than me—the kind of pattern which can really start to wear on a guy’s sense of self-worth after a while. Despite working myself to the bone in the classroom, despite two book contracts with university presses, despite (oh . . . by the way) winning an SCMS Writing Award . . . oh, well.

It was definitely a time to reflect on a number of things, but mainly—in classic neoliberal logic—I just tried hard that summer to stay positive, focus on my writing for the time, and hope that something else emerged. I finished indexing and proofreading on Disney’s Most Notorious Film and then final revisions on Blossoms and Blood. This was an important time for the latter, as I really went in and ruthlessly trimmed a lot of the manuscript to make it a much tighter book. I cut roughly 15,000 words largely just by tightening up the wording throughout. It went from being a good book to a great one—my best.

It was also that summer—spurred in part by the insistence by search committees that my work needed to follow a clear research agenda—that I began to think more seriously about how this idea of “nostalgia” had long been a central concern through almost everything I’d ever written. To me, nostalgia was never something that was particularly interesting on its own—it had more resonance in dialogue with other issues such as reception studies, historical consciousness, industrial contexts, and so forth. And so I didn’t think of it seriously for its own sake for quite a while.

I used to pride myself on my intellectual curiosity—searching out new, interesting ideas and having the writing skill and discipline to see those projects through. I never particularly desired to tie myself down to any specific research area. I wanted to always be finding something new—something that provoked me—and then find a way to write about it. And, much as I’ve been made to feel shame over it over the years, I won’t apologize for that ambition—then or now. I won’t apologize for my level of scholarly production all these years. Others will never match it--that's their problem. I’m proud of my eclectic body of work over the last 10 years, much as others in the profession have tried to find ways to dismiss its significance.

But I also recognized the need to have a job. And so I tried harder to focus my research agenda on questions of nostalgia (which wasn’t necessarily inaccurate, just I feel unnecessary). 

And, by fortunate (not so much) coincidence, I realized too around this time that nostalgia was really what Flickers of Film was going to be about—with the transition from celluloid to digital in post-industrial Hollywood being the specific historical context. So, at the end of that summer, I tried plugging away at more material beyond the “I’ll (Always) Be Back” stuff. I wrote a first (very different) draft during this time of what would eventually become the Jump Cut article—and later book chapter—about the new “nostalgia films” (Hugo, The Artist) and the TRON chapter (while I don’t agree with much of Wyatt’s specific criticism of that chapter—yeah, sorry, Hollywood does exploit free fan labor—I do agree that I could never quite get a handle on how to conceptualize that material).

Ultimately, not too much of useful substance emerged from that summer of new writing in retrospect (though the other two books crossed the finish line nicely). But I had to do something to keep trying to move forward. When the fall arrived, I found myself back at my old grad school alma matter, Indiana University—this time as a Visiting Assistant Professor. It proved to be a very bittersweet experience, but it’s true what they say (speaking of nostalgia)—you really can’t go home again.

Here, my approach to Disney (appropriately the subject of my dissertation) began to evolve. I was asked to teach two sections of a course entirely on Disney, which proved to be the most challenging and perhaps influential task of my teaching career—so much so that I ended up writing about the experiences in an article that’s set to appear either late this year or early next in the Journal of Film and Video

I wrote that article for three main reasons—one, to show how seriously I take my teaching; two, because so many of the challenges in teaching Disney (such as how to negotiate one’s nostalgia) echo across so much of my other scholarship; and, three, I wanted to fight the frankly infuriating perception by some that somehow teaching Disney is easy.

Perhaps, just as important was that Disney’s Most Notorious Film was finally published in the fall of that year. Overnight, thanks to this article, I found my work exposed to a level of visibility I had never experienced before. And, much of the attention, frankly, was not flattering—as random strangers online were suddenly accusing me personally of the same kind of “reverse racism” nonsense that often appears on the internet when anyone points out uncomfortable truths about the world.

If you’ve read the Disney book, or the Cinema Journal article, you’d know that none of this kind of rhetoric is new or surprising—what did catch me off guard was the specific level of attention my book actually got. In a depressingly ironic way, it all proved a point I’d been trying to make since I began pitching the dissertation to my committee—that there was just *something* unique about Song of the South that always seemed to get people’s attention. 

Indeed, after news of my book’s imminent publication first broke the previous spring, the papermill Theme Park Press rushed Whose Afraid of The Song of the South? through production in order to beat my book to press and offer its own “But Walt Meant Well” counter-narrative (though my book was much more thoughtful and even-handed than critics tried to claim). Insecure proponents of that book felt the need to trash my book on Amazon in some misguided attempt at building their own junk book up. If the other one was so strong on its own, they wouldn’t have needed to rip me personally.
(I’d be more sympathetic to the other book if the weasel publisher didn’t misrepresent himself to me through email correspondences earlier that year in an attempt to steal an early copy of my book for his own author’s use—but that’s another long story I don’t want to get into).

Magnified by the challenges of teaching Disney around that time, the reaction to my Disney book was thoroughly demoralizing—I became more much skeptical of most people’s ability to engage with complex historical questions (as I would go on to write about in Flickers of Film). It was a complete reversal of what was in Disney’s Most Notorious Film—I set out in the book to show how much more complicated and nuanced actual Disney audiences were, and yet ironically their kneejerk reaction to the title of my book (because we all know none of them bothered to really read it) undermined the very respect I was trying to give them in the book itself.

And, more importantly, Disney’s Most Notorious Film didn’t help me land a job—all it accomplished was generating a lot of undue vitriol directed towards me by some on the internet. Think about it—this was my dissertation, this was my life’s work in a way, and I couldn’t imagine a more depressing outcome—to be without a job and publicly embarrassed to boot. And this was all magnified exponentially by the fact that it all went down while I was back at Indiana, my PhD alma mater. The one place I thought I was respected. Nope--you really can’t go home again.

So, in the previous two years to that point, I had had 13 different interviews for tenure-track jobs (in total now I’ve had close to thirty), but could never unlock the, let’s say, “idiosyncrasies” of search committees. But I thought I had done everything that was asked of me as a teacher and a scholar—I could not have built a stronger profile. I really thought I was working towards something bigger, something better. But, as it turns out, I was just heading towards the unemployment line. For the second time in two years, a department had thrown me back on the same garbage heap of cheap disposable labor where they’d found me. This was a new experience for me—for a decade up to that point, I’d always been in a position at several different schools where I was rewarded for my efforts with more work if I wanted it.

But not in East Lansing. Not in Bloomington. Since I had done everything I thought I was capable of doing, to no effective end, I felt like I had run out of options and out of hope. For a couple of months there in the late spring/early summer of 2013, I had given up on life about as completely as I had the courage to. People who talk about the “coward’s” way out don’t have the first goddamned clue what they are talking about.

*          *          *

Anyway, somewhere in there, I think my old colleagues back at Northwestern took pity on me and quite out of the blue that June offered me my old job back. Of course, I accepted, though it was hard to be too ecstatic. My three years at Northwestern overall were by far the happiest of my professional career, so I can’t complain (and don’t want to sound like I am). With one telling exception, they let me teach what I wanted to teach; the resources and the students are second to none. It’s also not a coincidence that the bulk of my writing occurred while I was there. 

But when I came back to NU, after my experiences in Bloomington and East Lansing, I wasn’t so naïve anymore. I knew—whether it took one year or five—NU too would eventually dump me once they hired enough permanent faculty (and indeed that was exactly what they finally did in 2015). So, as happy and relieved as I was to be back at NU and now living in my beloved Kenosha, Wisconsin, it was impossible to shake the overwhelming depression—the feeling that all my work inside and outside the classroom was worthless in the eyes of others and that eventually I would be thrown back on the garbage heap of cheap labor.
With about two months to go before I started my job back at NU in September 2013, I moved to Kenosha. That might strike someone as odd—but the reality is that I lived right by the Metra station in downtown Kenosha and the direct commute every day to Evanston was actually a pretty painless and even quite enjoyable one. The separation of work and leisure that these two disparate locations afforded me was clarifying. I spent the day working hard in Evanston and then took the train out to Kenosha—something of a tourist town anyway, really—and thus every night felt like a mini-vacation.

But I am getting ahead of myself. I find Kenosha to be a hauntingly beautiful town—a former auto manufacturing hub, Kenosha tried to reinvent itself as a tourist destination in the wake of economic hardships of the post-industrial age—though throughout the city, remnants of its manufacturing age still linger. A big part of its tourism identity is grounded in a celebration of its past. Drive-in restaurants, trolley cars, WWII-era baseball stadiums, museums, traincar diners—in its own admittedly modest way, Kenosha perfectly symbolizes the all too common nostalgic reimagining of the US’s transition from 20th Century manufacturing-based economy to a 21st century customer service-based one.
Along those lines, there was also the old Keno Drive-In—though, sadly, that didn’t make it in Kenosha much longer ultimately than I did. Its last film screened in early November 2014, before the long winter set in. But when I first moved there, the drive-in was still plugging along. There was something about the Keno in particular that not only symbolized my love for the city of Kenosha but also embodied the tangible impact of the digital transition in Hollywood that I had been teaching about in digital cinema classes at IU, MSU and NU.

Small independent theatres—especially drive-ins—were the ones taking the brunt of the financial hit as a result of switching from film projection to digital projection. That’s what I tried to write about here (which also does a good job of gesturing towards my affectionfor the larger city). Ultimately, I did not really write about drive-ins in the book, but I think the Keno itself—as well as the Fordist era nostalgia of Kenosha in general—proved to be just the Muse I needed at the time to finally get serious about Flickers of Film. It is not a coincidence that the book’s cover is an abandoned drive-in (though I will be the first to admit I got lucky finding that image).
So, it was at this moment (the late summer 2013) that Flickers of Film started to really come into focus—a combination of wanting to say something, anything, and having the time finally to say it. That summer, I would spends my days sitting at the Simmons Library in Library Park—literally across the street from my apartment—slowing chipping away at the manuscript a thousand words at a time. At night, I would walk down to the beach at Lake Michigan or hike the many eerie streets of the town.

I started with revising the Jump Cut material (which would eventually become bulk of the second chapter), then “Digital Decasia,” then Pixar, then back to revising Disney and TRON (which over the years had become such a blockage for me that I deliberately set it aside, waiting until the last possible second to rewrite, heavily—but, like I said above, it never quite came together like I wanted).

The book, like the writing process, followed its own idiosyncratic logic—for which I make no apologies. But, to be clear, I did not get serious about finishing a draft of Flickers of Film in late 2013 and into early 2014 because I was consciously trying to contribute scholarship to any particular field—I was writing it because I was trying to hold on to my sanity amidst a downward spiral of depression and isolation (it is not a coincidence that “death”—as in, the death of film—is a motif throughout a big chunk of the book), and I was just trying to bring together all these different things I wanted to say. I didn’t care then who would actually read it. I wrote it for myself. Flickers of Film was “my substitute for pistol and ball.” So, I was just writing and writing—when it was over, I thought, I would try to figure out what it (not me) was trying to say. 

There was, however, some precedence for this approach—with both Disney’s Most Notorious Film and Blossoms and Blood, I wrote an entire manuscript only to discover that the respective introduction didn’t work anymore. In both cases, I ended up writing an entirely new introduction from scratch (with only a few leftover pieces used here and there) and so I knew better than to try and write an introduction the third time around before I finished the rest of the project (this is a model since followed again with Strangers in Our Own Land—a first draft of the chapters themselves is mostly finished, but I’ve only begun to chip away at the intro).

Of course, Flickers of Film is heavily influenced by my own nostalgia (hence “self-theorizing nostalgia”)—how overwhelmingly powerful but also deeply unsatisfying it is; how it can be a guide—both constructive and destructive—for the future. In a sense, the book began in 2011 with the difficulty in trying to reconcile my deep nostalgia for the original Terminator movie (1984) with that destructive clown of a governor they had in California at the time. I think I struggled with the TRON chapter most of all, ironically, because it was the one that came the closest to most directly articulating the objects and frustrations of my own personal nostalgic investments (and, back in 2012, that chapter more than the “I’ll (Always) Be Back” one is what gave the book project its first real focus on nostalgia).

But, and here’s the final thing, it’s also very much a book about my relationship with my own young daughter. The secret truth--the real "subtext"--is that some of the movies I’m harshest on (Wall-E, The Lego Movie) are also the ones that I have deeply warm memories of watching with my own child. My daughter’s great affection for Wall-E, for example, was a source of great nostalgic comfort to me through all those awful times at places past. Taking her to see Lego Movie at the old Keno is one of (many) fond memories of Kenosha. Part of the frustration expressed throughout the book is the continual sense of nostalgic manipulation as not only a child of the 1980s but also as a father now myself. And I suspect the book’s ambivalence cannot be fully appreciated outside of that.

*          *          *

So, I wrote what I wanted to say during a very difficult time in my life. Maybe I could have taken more time with it—making it more like the project Wyatt (and a search committee or two I know) wanted to read. One can always say that about an academic book, I think. It would have become something very different, though, and Flickers of Film is nothing if not a particular snapshot of a particular time. There were at least three issues at work in my decision to publish the book and move on to the next project—one was that the aspects of the project which made it so timely (the digital transition) was also what would quickly make it so outdated; another was it wasn’t ultimately the grand project I wanted to be working on (that was Strangers, which I’d already put off for five years); and finally I thought having it close to, or under, contract would help me on the job market one last time (ha ha, right?). So, I started sending it out to publishers. But I’ve embraced now that I don’t need to prove to anyone anymore that I know how to bring a quality writing project to conclusion.

I guess there’s still some subtext that remains, but I’m stopping here. You get the idea. But I would like to end by noting that anyone who dismisses Flickers of Film as merely cynical fails to see how much the book struggled to find a pathway for hope.