Saturday, April 30, 2016

Escape from Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland immediately grabbed my attention last summer as the kind of movie I would have written about in Flickers of Film had it just been released a year or two earlier. Brad Bird’s nostalgic ode to Disneyland and to old-fashioned space age optimism was another movie that attempted to alleviate anxieties about an uncertain aesthetic and economic future by appealing to a nostalgic longing for past (unfulfilled) utopian futures, at the same time it tries to disavow its own nostalgic impulse through narratives that superficially reflect on the need to let go of the past. Tomorrowland is a film strangely without a clearly defined audience (at least one it doesn’t not so secretly loathe)—a baby-boomer action-adventure whose central premise is that baby boomers are too bitter to still believe in working for a better future.

One of the ways the film was heavily self-theorized was as a truly “original” idea in an era of reboots and remakes—which is ironic to me because it’s a film so dependent on past media. The very name "Tomorrowland" is a nostalgic anachronism. At a point early in the film, one character asks another if she wants to go “backwards or forwards?” in an apparent nod to the film’s insistence on working towards a future-oriented utopia. But the irony is that even the movie doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to “backwards or forwards”—the awkward counterweight of nostalgia omnipresent throughout.

Tomorrowland is about a secret city—which the film depicts as something of an alternative universe that coexists with our own—where the best and the brightest on the earth (scientists, doctors, artists, inventors, and other visionaries) come together to solve the various problems of the world. As another character describes it: “Did you ever imagine what would happen if the brightest people in the world decided to do something about the future?”

Yet the movie establishes itself with extremely nostalgic contexts, with one of the main characters, Frank (George Clooney), explaining that “this is a story about the future,” but then quickly adding that “the future can be scary” and listing off the standard dystopic roster of starvation, riots, global warming, and what-not to show how much there is to be scared of in the future—hence the desire to look back instead. (As a side note, the vaguely eco-friendly message Tomorrowland half-heartedly promotes is somewhat ironic in the context of a film and a corporation that subtly, but also sometimes very obviously [as in the Antique Toy Store], celebrates the excesses of consumer waste—shades of what myself and others have previously written about in relation to the eco-contradictions of Pixar’sWall-E).

As the film aptly puts it: “The future wasn’t always like this.” This leads to a flashback to the 1964 NY World’s Fair, which Frank visited as a kid—and gives the film several opportunities to nod to the Disneyland attractions which got their start there, and more generally to evoke the specter of Walt Disney (and speaking of self-theorizing, the rhetoric around the promotion of the film was very focused on pushing this nostalgic idea that Walt was the ultimate optimist). Tomorrowland is a nostalgic narrative—both for Frank (who lived in Tomorrowland for awhile before being kicked out) and Casey, the teenage girl who comes to find him in the hopes that he can lead her back to that place. Frank is nostalgic for his own lost childhood and a lost love from that time, while Casey is nostalgic for the era of space exploration that NASA pioneered in the second half of the 20th Century.

And importantly her introduction is as a child, with her parents, looking up at the stars and dreaming of the future is a moment of simulacric nostalgia (old home video look, time stamp). Casey’s nostalgia is perhaps the more fascinating because it’s even more anachronistic than Frank’s since she’s fascinated with an era that precedes her own lifetime. Casey—and to a lesser extent, Frank—betrays a hope for the future that is largely rooted in her own childhood ideals, of believing as a kid that anything was possible, and it is that feeling of nostalgic loss for both characters (and I’d argue too director Bird) which is what enables in them the desire to work for a better future. In this sense, it’s a superficial example of Svetlana Boym’s progressive notion of reflective nostalgia—though I would argue that ultimately the film is simply a commodified repackaging of that impulse, since it offers no real clear sense of what a utopic future would actually look like, let alone get there, and it’s ultimately meant first and foremost as a fun summertime diversion.

As both a narrative and a symbol of its parent company, Disney, Tomorrowland is an acute example of the tension in the age of digital production and media convergence between innovation and anachronism. It is a film that pushes hard to promote the possibility of a utopic future through little more than the power of positive thinking, but it is so deeply mired in various nostalgic impulses that it struggles to articulate what that future might look like, or how we might achieve it.

It is ultimately a perfect example of the nostalgic disavowal—a film whose appeal is entirely based on childhood nostalgias, but then tries in the end to argue that we have to move on from that in order to construct the future. Unlike, say, the original Star Trek, which offered a fairly specific futuristic utopia based on promoting ideals of class, gender and racial equality, Tomorrowland articulates little more than a vaguely defined techno-corporatist future based on the promise of mostly unseen scientific innovations to come.

In some ways, Tomorrowland suffers the same fate as its Disneyland theme park namesake—and it’s somewhat surprising that few inside the company seemed to anticipate this sooner. The original Tomorrowland debuted at Disneyland in 1955—one of the founding centerpieces of the park when it first opened to the public. Originally, Tomorrowland was mostly inspired by Walt Disney’s fascination with the possibilities of atomic power (hence the atom logo in the movie’s title) and with the possibilities of interplanetary travel at the dawn of the space age. Tomorrowland was, like the World’s Fairs, mostly a corporate showcase, like Monsanto’s House of the Future or TWA’s Rocket to the Moon.

Tomorrowland in its original design was doomed to fail. The first problem was that our aesthetic and technical conceptions of the future are always changing, and thus it’s impossible to build a physical space that can maintain relevance within that shifting historical environment. Ultimately, in the late 1990s, the decision was made to radically facelift Tomorrowland so that it no longer reflected anachronistic mid-20th Century depictions of a space age future and instead looked like a deliberately retrospective take on past futures inspired vaguely by the work of Jules Verne (who is referenced in the film).

Another problem with Tomorrowland originally was that it was hard to practically envision what innovations would arrive in the future because no corporations wanted to make their research publically available for concerns of corporate espionage—so, in a sense, all that could be displayed were innovations already on, or about to be released to market. And this problem in particular mars the film because it does seem so invested in promoting Tomorrowland as a quasi-Silicon Valley start-up company where the world’s best and the brightest are recruited to invent new innovations in a so called “fun” environment, and yet those innovations are deliberately withheld from the rest of the world. In the film, innovation is an empty signifier—we are meant to believe that it presents the audience a utopic future for no other reason than the fact that it looks really spectacular.

Tomorrowland the movie is certainly evoking the Walt era that the original attractions were tied to, but it’s manifested in the film more by a nostalgia for Disneyland--even as the film clearly implies that this kind of baby boomer nostalgia, embodied in Frank, is powerful but incomplete, as he is depicted as a bitter old man. But the irony here of the nostalgia for “Uncle Walt” is that his own vision of the future, called EPCOT, was an idea for a city in Florida that was meticulously designed and tightly controlled. There was an implied critique of the outside world in EPCOT—one that promoted abandoning what Walt himself called the “old ills of old cities” and starting from scratch in the country.

And of course this carried with it all these unanswered questions about who would be allowed to live in this utopic space—particularly regarding issues of class and race. EPCOT revealed what Mike Wallace has called Walt’s evolution into a “utopian capitalist” as a result of the huge success of Disneyland as a model for urban design: “The state, anticipating mammoth tourist revenues, granted him virtually feudal powers. Democracy for the residents of the Community of Tomorrow would have been a nuisance. (‘There will be no landowners and therefore no voting control’). To ensure that EPCOT ran smoothly, Walt would be King” (43).

I would add finally there is something profoundly dystopic about Walt’s vision of the future (one which is also perpetuated in the recent film)—one based on a fear of the outside world, both of the people and its problems, and of the inability to absolutely control it. Walt’s vision of the future was not a desire to make the world a better place.

This kind of historical revisionism is echoed later in the film when Casey and Frank arrive at the Eiffel Tower, only to discover a secret room with mannequins of Gustave Eiffel, Thomas Edison, Nikola Telsa, and Jules Verne. In the film it turns out that this iconic group of turn of the century visionaries, a kind of Victorian pastiche, were the ones who started the secret society of inventors that led to the discovery and creation of Tomorrowland. There are a lot of troubling ideological questions here—one significant one (which is foregrounded when the film evades the question of the Tesla-Edison rivalry) is the era of economic oligopoly that Edison ushered in through an era of patent wars. The goal of inventing new technology was less in making the world a better place than in making profits off controlling the market. It certainly wasn’t in the collaborative spirit that this sequence implies—but was rather a pretty ruthless and ugly competition.

This is something I find distressing in many of the films that romanticize earlier histories of film in the digital age, for example—where messy economic and technological histories become obscured through nostalgic narratives of personal optimism and perseverance. A film like Tomorrowland seems to suggest that anyone can aspire to be the next Edison—but of course the real life Edisons would probably see you as a threat to be at best co-opted or in some other way legally marginalized.

Thus the other thing distressing here is how the vision of the future that Edison pushed for did indeed come to pass—and the impression that Tomorrowland is some alternate reality fantasy instead of a reality like Silicon Valley—in fact the film’s curious absence of any kind of corporate business presence at all—is perhaps the film’s ultimate nostalgic disavowal.

The film’s unofficial theme song, finally, is “It’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”—which is a song that was featured at the Carousel of Progress at the NY World’s Fair. The Carousel of Progress was a series of A-A panoramas of a typical white middle class family as they aged through the years, and the domestic technology evolved with them—ending, appropriately, on the future. In his famous Marxist critique of the Disney Parks, Wallace wrote that: “At the Carousel of Progress, Disney takes visitors on a ride through time. After they settle down in the Carousel’s small theatre, the curtain rises of a robot middle class family at home in 1900. Mom, Dad, and the kids are chatting about housework. They have the latest in labor-saving devices—gas lights, telephones, iceboxes—and think that life couldn’t be any easier” (39).

Wallace argues that the entire attraction was just basically one long commercial for how GE keeps making things better and easier for the average American family through the decades:
“The Carousel of Progress is more than simply an extended commercial break. It is a paean to Progress—defined as the availability of emancipatory consumer goods . . . [by] putting sanitized [in the historical sense] entertainment at the service of business boosterism, and pointing the way to the original EPCOT.” This is, he adds, “a discernible corporate vision of history [. . .] history is a record of the invention of commodities which allow man to master his environment” (44).
But, he adds “the corporate histories are less than clear as to why problems emerged [… even though] luckily we are given to understand, people (or more precisely corporations) are working on these problems.” (I quote so much of Wallace here because it’s such an eerie foreshadowing of the film, one which nostalgically pines for Carousel of Progress in particular).

One of Tomorrowland’s acts of nostalgic disavowal is to celebrate past innovations as a solution to some of the very same problems those innovations helped cause—since the era of modernity that Edison helped usher in was one of the mass production and consumption which fed so many of the dystopic problems that the film laments in the beginning.

Wallace quoted an Imagineer as saying “what we create is a ‘Disney Realism,’ sort of utopian in nature, where we carefully program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements” (35). Many Disney scholars have noted that the theme parks promote a pro-corporatist vision of the future that omits the histories of class tension, racial strife and gender inequality through its unrelentingly optimistic narrative of neoliberal progress. But, it is impossible to begin imagining a truly better future without working through those “negative, unwanted elements.

Tomorrowland uses an old capitalist nostalgia for the “Great Man” Myth of history (Walt, Edison)—and its selective history of industry, labor and consumption—to envision a thoroughly corporatist future defined, ironically, by the visible absence of any actual corporate presence, let alone the necessary mechanisms of control to make such a utopia a reality, and instead promotes the idea of personal autonomy and independence, which ultimately reaffirms the same paradoxical logic of consumer culture in the digital age.

Finally, the film’s desire for utopia (and commercial viability) is undermined by its own contempt ultimately for its own audience. What else to make of the (long-winded) offered by the film’s main villain (Hugh Laurie), trying to explain why the promises of Tomorrowland are an impossibility?

“Let's imagine. If you glimpsed the future and were frightened by what you saw, what would you do with that information? You would go to... Who? Politicians? Captains of industry? And how would you convince them? With data? Facts? Good luck. The only facts they won't challenge are the ones that keep the wheels greased and the dollars rolling in. But what if... What if there was a way of skipping the middleman and putting the critical news directly into everyone's head? The probability of widespread annihilation kept going up. The only way to stop it was to show it. To scare people straight. Because what reasonable human being wouldn't be galvanized by the potential destruction of everything they have ever known or loved? To save civilization, I would show its collapse. But how do you think this vision was received? How do you think people responded to the prospect of imminent doom? They gobbled it up, like a chocolate eclair. They didn't fear their demise, they repackaged it. It can be enjoyed as video games, as TV shows, books, movies. The entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalypse and sprinted towards it with gleeful abandon. Meanwhile, your Earth was crumbling all around you. You've got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation. Explain that one. Bees and butterflies start to disappear. The glaciers melt. Algae blooms all around you. The coal mine canaries are dropping dead, and you won't take the hint! In every moment, there is the possibility of a better future. But you people won't believe it. And because you won't believe it, you won't do what is necessary to make it a reality. So you dwell on this terrible future, and you resign yourselves to it. For one reason, because that future doesn't ask anything of you today. So, yes, we saw the iceberg, we warned the Titanic. But you all just steered for it anyway, full steam ahead. Why? Because you want to sink. You gave up. That's not The Monitor's fault. That's yours.”

Monday, February 29, 2016

Hawai'i Research Updates

Today, I finished a draft of the last of the seven body chapters for Strangers in Our Own Land: Tourism, Race and Mainland American Media, 1930-1970. Two of those chapters still are missing some minor last minute writing, but otherwise a first draft is just about finished. The bigger caveat is that I have not written the brief conclusion yet (on Brady Bunch and pastiche), and more importantly the introduction. As I've noted in the past, I've learned to save the intro chapter for last, when I have a much clearer picture of what I want to say.

Strangers in Our Own Land explores the historical construction in US popular culture of Hawai’i as a romantic tropical paradise and preeminent tourist destination for American travelers in the pre- and post-WWII and post-Statehood periods. Drawing on theories from the fields of tourism, media studies and critical race theory, it charts both representations of the Islands in Hollywood media, and the central role of industry partners such as the Hawaii Tourist Bureau, the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, Matson Cruise Ships, and United Air Lines to help shape those images. It engages both textual analysis and research into such historical documents as trade papers, industry correspondence, writers’ guides and other archival materials. Rather than see such carefully constructed narratives and symbols as little more that deceptive myths, these highly reflexive media often knowingly negotiated such fantasies through a dialectic of embracing irony and desiring authenticity which I argue often shape touristic discourses. While recognizing popular mainland depictions of Hawai’i as highly constructed, there nonetheless remained a yearning for cultural difference and the pre-modern which defines many such excursions. This complicated relationship with Hawai’i as a “destination image” in turn has useful ramifications for rethinking more established discourses on the colonial histories, nostalgic connotations and rhetoric of racial utopia and tension which traditionally frames scholarship on the subject. 

As I step away from the individual chapters, my next goal in the coming week will be to revisit some of the major theoretical works on Hawai'i and/or tourism (now that the heart of the first draft is done) in order to better nail down the larger argument of the project. The only other work I plan to do in the near future is heavily revising the Hawaii Five-O material in anticipation of SCMS at the end of March. Once the introduction's done, I hope to revise the entire manuscript at some point in the near future, with the benefit of both more research and the hindsight of time away from the project.

Here is the most up-to-date Table of Contents:

1) Save that Gag for the Tourists: Industrial Reflexivity, Genre and the Hawai'i cycle in 1930s Hollywood--this chapter rethinks the notion of Hollywood as simply repeating advertising rhetoric of the time that sold Hawai'i as a pre-modern, romantic paradise. Instead, the studios--often using the convention of the "backstage musical"--playfully reflected on, and at times challenged, these narratives in films such as Waikiki Wedding (1937). It also looks at how the Massie Affair, and the tradition of the "South Seas romance" intersected with these representations.

2) The Time Elements: December 7th, Mediated Memory, and the Contradictions of War Nostalgia--although there is some attention to depictions of the US military presence in Hawai'i during WWII, this chapter primarily explores the collective memory of the events of December 7th as mediated through American film and television. Using such devices as the historical epic and the time travel narrative, these stories reveal fascination contradictions about memories of the attack and of America's participation in WWII--a longing less to return to life before the war, and more a desire for the tragedy itself as a means to sustain that longing--the necessity of horror to maintain the illusion of innocence--as well as the need to somehow both relive but also change the past.

3) "You're Still Talking about Class?": Adapting the Islands for Statehood in Diamond Head (1962)--this chapter approaches the topic of statehood primarily by analyzing the film adaptation of Peter Gilman's popular novel, Diamond Head (1960). The story of a wealthy and powerful white family, led by King Howland, that dominates the industrial and political landscape of Hawai'i, Diamond Head focuses on the challenges they confront in the face of both the coming statehood and a scandalous interracial marriage between their daughter and a local Hawaiian. While the original book focused on the complex intersection between politics, race and labor on the Islands, the film adaptation exclusively emphasized the racism of the interracial drama--using the family conflict to situate Hawai'i's claim to statehood as primarily being a question of whether or not the Islands' reputation for racial tolerance is compatible with the US's somewhat hypocritical claims to democracy and freedom. And, in the process, the film version reflects a neoliberal desire to erase the complex class and labor questions which intersect with racial ones.

4) Founded on Truth but Not on Fact: Pastiche Populism and Historical Revisionism in the Adaptations of James A. Michener--this chapter analyzes the popular historical epic Hawaii (1966) and its less successful sequel The Hawaiians (1970) as key examples of populist American media that negotiate the complex historical questions--those which increasingly emerged in Mainland consciousness after statehood--regarding the legacies of genocide, colonialism, rebellion and annexation that defined America's initial presence in the Hawaiian Islands. More than just revisionism, however, the films try to offset an acknowledged historical guilt over these ugly histories with a celebration of the forward-thinking discourses of multiculturalism and modernity. America's ideals become reaffirmed by depictions of resiliency and adaptation in the face of inevitable (capitalist) change, which necessitates sublimating the destruction of the native Hawaiian people and culture.

5) Business or Pleasure: Working Leisure and Discourses of Immediacy in Elvis' Blue Hawaii, Girls, Girls, Girls, and Paradise, Hawaiian Style--this chapter focuses on the role that Elvis' star persona played in the construction of Hawai'i's popularity in the mainland media of the 1960s and early 1970s. A visible symbol of postwar consumer culture, Elvis' multimedia presence was crucial to reconstructing the aura of romance around Hawai'i tourism rhetoric, while the highly-reflexive films themselves (often explicitly about the tourism industry) played out the baby boomer teen fantasy in the post-war period of finding a way to balance labor and leisure--i.e., to never "grow up."

6) Shoot All Winter, Show All Summer: Frontier Mythologies, Consumer Culture and "Pure" Surf Cinema--focusing primarily on the popular surf films of Bruce Brown (Endless Summer, Slippery When Wet), this chapter looks at the explosion of amateur and quasi-amateur surf movies--as well as its increasing incorporation into Hollywood (Gidget Goes Hawaiian, Ride the Wild Surf)--to highlight the importance of non-theatrical cinema, taste subcultures and the baby boomer desire for new frontiers still to explore, to Hawai'i's continuing popularity.

7) The Hard Sell of Paradise: United Airlines, Hawaii Five-O (1968) and the rhetoric of 1960s Hawaiian Tourism--the final chapter explores the popular late 1960s crime program in the context of discourses on the Hawaiian tourist experience that foregrounded its exhausted, "mass-packaged" nature, in which companies such as United tried to reinvigorate a sense of difference and novelty. Meanwhile, one of the airline's partners, Hawaii Five-O, emphasized the authenticity of location shooting and procedural research, and the urgency of "tourist-in-peril" narratives, to reflect both a shift in TV production strategies and a touristic desire to return a sense of novelty to the mass packaged Hawaiian vacation of the post-war period.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Writing Updates

I feel as though I often begin new blog posts with an apology for not blogging more often. This time is no exception. Some days, for a host of reasons, I wish I spent more time developing a consistent online voice rather than burying myself in the rigors of academic publishing. But for the most part I find the latter is more substantive and more rewarding (and, ironically, more urgent), and so I keep plugging away. A very few of you may remember that when the blogging bug first bit academia around 2005-2006, I tried to be as prolific as the next writer. But after a couple of years, though traffic numbers were OK, it felt strangely empty--as fleeting and inconsequential, frankly, as most of the ephemera which passes across our collective screens each day. So, I turned back more or less exclusively to traditional publications, which (for better and sometimes for worse) feels much more lasting.

First, I posted chapter excerpts from Flickers of Film over on FB. You can check them out here (likes and shares are always welcome). The book itself, in case you missed it, is now available through most all internet vendors. That epic Flickers of Film post here is still one day coming. We'll see.

Ironically, after all that above, the point of this post is really just to give an update on the Hawai'i project, which is drifting along. Some of the older summaries in following those links are no longer up-to-date. For now I'm not going to concern myself with revising it until I revisit the introduction some time next spring/summer (and I can openly say that I'm not at all happy with the title anymore, but haven't thought of a better one yet). Here's the one I'm going with in the time being:

My current project, Strangers in Our Own Land: Tourism, Race, and Postwar Nostalgia in Images of Hawai’i in Mainland Media, 1930-1970, explores the historical construction in US popular culture of Hawai’i as a romantic tropical paradise and preeminent tourist destination for American travelers in the pre- and post-WWII and post-Statehood periods. Drawing on theories from the fields of tourism, media studies and critical race theory, it charts both the representations of the Islands in Hollywood media, and the central role of industry partners such as the Hawaii Tourist Bureau, the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, Matson Cruise Ships, and United Air Lines to help shape those images. It engages both textual analysis and research into such historical documents as trade papers, industry correspondence, writers’ guides and other archival materials. Rather than see such carefully constructed narratives and symbols as little more that deceptive myths, ambivalent audiences and highly reflexive media often knowingly negotiated such fantasies through a dialectic of embracing irony and desiring authenticity which I argue often shape touristic discourses. While recognizing popular mainland depictions of Hawai’i as highly constructed, there nonetheless remained a yearning for cultural difference and the pre-modern which defines many such excursions. More importantly, then, this complicated relationship with Hawai’i as a “destination image” in turn has useful ramifications for rethinking more established discourses on the colonial histories, nostalgic connotations and rhetoric of racial utopia/tension which traditionally frames scholarship on the subject.
It works for now--one thing I've learned as a writer in the last 3 or 4 years is to not bother writing the introduction until I've finished the complete first draft. Only then does what I want to say really come into focus--and in turn helps focus the inevitably heavy rewriting that comes afterwards. Maybe that's not the way others work best, but its been extremely effective for me. 

So (with the above caveat about rewriting, additional research, etc.), at the moment I have completed four chapters on the project--roughly speaking, 1) 30s Hollywood reflexive touristic depictions, 2) Hawaii Five-O and 60s tourist rhetoric, 3) the Elvis period, and 4) amateur filmmaking and "pure" surf films (i.e., The Endless Summer).

This month I am moving on (appropriately, but also pure coincidence) to what I'm calling for now December 7th "nostalgia films"--From Here to Eternity, In Harm's Way, and so on--and the contradictions of a war-based nostalgia, which runs throughout a lot of these Hawaiian-themed texts, but is something I've yet to tackle head on.

The two remaining chapters after that will be on James Michener's body of work (South Pacific, Hawaii) and media representations of the transition to Statehood in the 50s and early 60s.

Onward and upward.


Friday, November 6, 2015

Spectre, or rebuilding the "Big Picture"

First the good news. My personal copy of Flickers of Film arrived in the mail this week. It’s a study about the possibilities and limitations of a consumer-driven nostalgia within the restrictions of late capitalist Hollywood. I’m very excited about this book, and hope that the occasion arrives in the near future for me to say more about it—especially regarding its long, deeply personal, production history. We’ll see.

By way of transition, I will say that Flickers of Film (then titled Haunted Nerves) found a lot of its focus around the same time in summer of 2012 that I composed this popular piece about the anticipation of Skyfall (2012)—though, importantly, none of that really ended up in the book.


It’s no secret that the Bond franchise has long held a special place in my heart, though as the years go on, I increasingly find myself wondering why. I blogged about Skyfall three years ago here, and on Quantum of Solace a few years before that (in the seven years since that film came out, I’ve written on countless subjects—and many of much greater consequence—than the modest piece about what Bond meant when he told M at theend of QofS that she was “right about Vesper.” And yet to this day, it remains by far my most popular blog post, which might make one wonder what they’ve been doing with the last decade of their life. Might).

I also blogged a fair amount about Casino Royale back in the day, but I think most of those pieces are gone as they eventually made their way in some fashion into a book chapter I wrote for Revisioning 007: James Bond and Casino Royale (2010), a narratological study entitled “Hardly the Big Picture”—the contents of which make for a good starting point in approaching Spectre’s many failings.

There are many reasons why Casino Royale remains not only Daniel Craig’s best Bond film, but one of the two or three greatest Bond films ever. For now, I will restrict myself to two—the film was a smart example of the “reboot” before the reboot became a trendy cliché (in a sense, the franchise was always good at that, hence its longevity), and the solid beginnings of what media scholars now call “world-building.” It wasn’t just a successful stand-alone movie—it promised so much more to come with its iconic final moment. Bond had become “James Bond,” and only at the very conclusion does he at last confront the movie’s true villain in a sequence that offers (in a good way) more questions than answers (not unlike, for comparison, Nick Fury’s cameo appearance a couple of years later at the end of Iron Man).

So where did the franchise go from there? Admittedly, Quantum of Solace is not as bad as its detractors argue (including myself in the past) and has arguably improved over time. It is a first rate action film, perhaps the best of the entire series in that regard—but the problem may ultimately be that it’s really *only* an action film. Its emotional depth (which I wouldn’t quickly dismiss) is based entirely on the way it brings closure on a number of fronts with the events of Casino Royale. It’s not only a lesser film than its predecessor but, to make matters worse, it’s very narrative DNA begs the comparison. But I would argue its failings ultimately were not that it relied too much on Casino Royale—which are frankly my favorite moments of the movie, and which cause me to revisit it at least once a year.  Rather, I’d suggest that QofS’ shortcomings are rooted in the fact that it didn’t also continue to lay the narrative foundation for that “big picture” of which Casino Royale was so fond.

So, this brings us to Skyfall. Its too bad the filmmakers felt the need to start over narratively. I have to say, I am not a huge fan. Its quality definitely puts it in the top half of all Bond films ever—maybe even the top third. But that would be as much a reflection of the other Bond films (*cough* 1970s *cough* Roger Moore) than on Skyfall’s inherent attributes. Skyfall was the first Bond film—at least since the Pierce Brosnan era—that felt like an overthought, high-concept, mess. That’s not to say that aren’t a lot of things to admire, but just that the entire story didn’t feel organic—the unnecessary Dark Knight twists, the returns of Q and Moneypenny which seemed to serve no purpose other than they are expected to be there, the rebooting (again), Bond as old relic (again), the shock ending, and so on.

So, this brings us to Spectre—and I’ll state upfront that there are FULL SPOILERS ahead. I toyed with the idea of trying to write around them, but they are ultimately too central to my problems with this film. But I will add if you’ve been keeping up with the trailers and some of the gossip around Spectre, absolutely nothing will surprise you . . . and that right there is the first of many problems with the film. 


Spectre seems to exist in one of those maddening fictional worlds where everybody not only conveniently knows everyone else but also where (more conveniently) everyone seems to be related to everyone else (by the end of the film I was half-expecting the villain C to reveal to M that he was the elder’s long lost son, and the whole conspiracy was rooted in the son’s revenge for his abandonment).

The problem with Oberhauser . . . sorry, I meant Blofeld:

(To start out, however, I will say that I give the press a lot of credit for keeping this one under wraps, even though it was pretty obvious all along. . . . or maybe because it was so obvious all along)

This “mystery box” strategy, at least when it comes to iconic characters in well-known franchises, has . . . got . . . to . . . stop. And I don’t say this simply because it’s a tired promotional strategy—no, there are deeper problems with it by now. For one, you are just setting up the movie for disappointment by creating a lot of unnecessary hype and anticipation. Bond sells Bond just fine by himself, thank you very much. 

But for another, you end up wasting more than half the film building to a moment that the whole audience is already expecting—so, you’ve wasted half of a (very long) film by putting off the actual story you claim to be telling. Blofeld is Blofeld—embrace it, and given him more to work with, and not just have him be an interchangeable third-act villain (the scar was a nice touch, btw, but entirely predictable--yeah, right, Blofeld totally died in that explosion and isn't in any way coming back).

The other problem with Blofeld is this idiotic, grade school psychology business about him being Bond’s long lost adopted brother with a serious chip on his shoulder. So, we are meant to believe that everything we’ve seen in the last four Bond films can be traced back to one kid who was jealous that daddy didn’t love him as much as the other kid.

It's not just that this weakens the film—it’s that you don’t even need this easy, obvious psychobabble junk to make the film work. Skip it. Blofeld works just fine as a villain without any tiresome motivation (and it’s not that motivation isn’t something to strive for, but the writers could have tried to be a little—lot more—creative). 

So, in the end Blofeld’s mad at Bond because he keeps interfering with his plans for world domination? Or, is it because of Daddy issues? Maybe, he’s also repressing homoerotic feelings too, like a couple of the other past Bond villains? Why not? What an over-determined mess.

Finally, Blofeld doesn’t work because, to bring this conversation full circle, there is just way too much retrospectively tying up of the previous three films—Blofeld’s narrative function in the end is basically, “yes, I was there all along (take my word for that). . . . and, oh, and I killed all the women in your life for retaliation (take my word for that too). How do you know? . . . . Because I have lots of pictures of those people!” Ironically, Mendes could have constructed a more cohesive world for Daniel Craig's Bond here, in retrospect, if he hadn't spent all of Skyfall rebooting Bond.

(casting a fine actor like Christoph Waltz, too, was a misfire, as his bad guy persona is a bit of an obvious cliché by now—and partly what made him such a welcoming revelation in the otherwise uneven Django Unchained)

There are other problems with the film—way too many people who just happen to be in the right place at the right time, with often little explanation, let alone a plausible one. And that got on my nerves too as the film wore on. Even for a Bond film there seem to be a few too many plotholes. Also, I do not find the happy ending terribly convincing—the chemistry between Bond and Swain isn’t terrible, but it’s hard to see Bond running off with her in the end. It's an unearned stretch. This is magnified by how much effort the movie makes to suggest he's still haunted by the ghost of Vesper, and incapable of finding much personal connection with anyone, which is conveniently dropped at the end.

Finally, I will say that are moments, at least for me, there were, literally, laughably bad. We don’t need Tanner to tell us someone is dead after falling straight down 10-15 stories onto a rock hard surface (it was at this point, I honestly began to wonder if Mendes and co. was playing a big joke on the audience, but I hope not because that would be even more infuriating).

OK . . . I don’t hate Spectre as much as it probably seems right about now. I'd put it in the top-half of all Bond films. Maybe even the top third! I do appreciate the fan shout-outs (my favorite was the reference to OHMSS’s “Hildebrand”). The initial Spectre meeting was a wonderfully effective throwback, without feeling like an anachronism. Some moments work—like the Billy Wilder-esque talking to the rodent scene which better highlights Bond’s fragile psyche than the countless dialogue meditations on the same subjects (and serves a useful narrative function). On that note, I too love the use of the mirror during the “Bond . . . James Bond” moment. And Craig is still as good a Bond as there has ever been, and I know I’ll revisit it several times in the future. 

But this was a real missed opportunity overall . . . and, more to the point, I’m beginning to wonder the same thing about the entire Daniel Craig era these days.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Hawaii Research Updates

Barring last minute indexing and proofreading on Flickers of Film, I've turned my summer attention back to the Hawai'i project. I spent last week in the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research Archives at UW Madison. Here's some of the materials I've found (partly listing this out for my own reference later):

  • Various NBC memos from 1931 and 1932 about how to incorporate the promotion of Dole Pineapple into radio spots
  • A transcript from a 1951 episode of Now Hear This (military propaganda) called "Hawaii Rescue"
  • Transcript for a 1954 TV special on NBC called "Hawaii--the 49th State"
  • Correspondences (1958) concerning an industrial film made for Kaiser Aluminum called "Opening Night in Hawaii" by Gordon Mitchell
  • 1959 testimonies and other documents from a Civil Aeronautics Board hearing on the value of air travel to Hawaii from the Pacific Northwest
  • Many materials (1958-59) from NBC president Pat Weaver papers concerning the promotion of a real estate deal in Hawai'i called "Hawaii Kai" (?), including how to incorporate advertisements for said plan into media (Maverick TV show, Hawaiian Village in Honolulu, United Airlines involvement, McCann Erickson ad agency, etc.)
  • NBC general notes (1960) on what kinds of formats, plots, themes, etc., should be involved in half-hour filmed or taped shows set in Hawai'i
  • a listing of George Tahara's (producer) short-subject, non-theatrical Hawaii-themed films, circa 1960, complete with summary of film content
  • Correspondence (1960) between Tahara and Weaver concerning the use of footage from Riding the Big Surf in an unspecified TV ad (also reference to Michener show on ABC)
  • Writers Guild documents concerning a credit dispute between Hal Kanter and Dan Beaumont over who wrote what in Elvis' Blue Hawaii (1961)
  • Transcript for a 1962 episode of Keyhole called "The Hidden Hawaii" (overtones of MacCannell's "backstage" authenticity)
  • A massive assortment of materials (circa 1964) from Kirk Douglas' papers concerning the production of In Harm's Way (all-star WWII epic directed by Otto Preminger)
  • 1964 memo from Honolulu mayor's office, offering advice to MGM Studios on what it saw as a realistic depiction of life in Hawaiian politics--in regards to research for show about big city mayor
  • Script notes, press kit materials and Exhibitor promotional guides concerning producer Walter Mirisch's epic, Hawaii (1966) (some materials on the 1970 sequel, Hawaiians)
  • 1967 Writer's Guide for Hawaii Five-O
  • Script Notes and Honolulu Map (!) in files of H5-O scriptwriter Sy Salkowitz's papers
In the next several weeks, I'll be focused only on finishing a draft of the Hawaii Five-O chapter--looking at the show's cultural politics through the historical lenses of tourism, multiculturalism and militarism evolving at the time of its popularity in the late 1960s and 1970s. The introduction is done, I know more or less what I want to say, and I've spent the past two weeks compiling 20+ pages worth of historical research on the show, drawn from the archives as well as several historical databases. No reason I can't finally tidy this one up.

Monday, June 15, 2015

RTVF298 History of Disney

Summer 2015 

Mon & Wed 6:30-9:00 
University Hall 312

Despite the Walt Disney Company’s massive media presence today, little attention is paid to the rich history which built it, dating all the way back to its origins as Laugh-O-Gram Studios in Kansas City during the 1920s. What visible glimpses we have today tend to be shaped by the market imperatives of corporate re-branding and the sentimental simplicity of nostalgic hazes. As such, this course will focus on the many ups and downs over the decades of Disney’s slow aesthetic, economic, and cultural growth, providing a foundation for better understanding the company today. In addition to analyzing particular Disney texts (some well-known and many not well-known), special emphasis will be paid to the many facets of the studio’s first critical and commercial success in the 1930s, its struggles with bankruptcy throughout the 1940s, and its hugely successful re-branding as a prominent component of a new post-war leisure culture in the 1950s and 1960s. Extensive attention will also be paid to the company’s considerable revival and expansion under the “Team Disney” leadership of the 1980s and 1990s, as well as some reflection on the recent investment in once-competing brands such as Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. This course is designed as a smaller-scale class for a limited number of undergraduates, which thus will require active and informed participation from all students who enroll. For instance, every student will be expected to lead discussion on a designated course reading during an assigned day.

Learning Objectives
By the end of the term, students should be able to: 1) identify the cultural, technological, and economic histories of the Disney Studios itself; 2) reflect critically and in writing on how these histories helped shape many of the well-known, but also lesser-known, films and television shows from the company’s past; 3) articulate the aesthetic and commercial particulars of the larger “Disney Universe” beyond individual texts; 4) engage critically on questions of race, gender/sexuality and class which are reflected, and often informed by, these aspects of the Disney empire; and 5) classify the aesthetic and thematic characteristics of the “classic” Disney text.

Evaluation Method
Final grade will be based on two short papers, discussion report, research essay (w/ proposal), participation and serving as reading discussion leader on assigned days.

Required Class Materials
Assigned readings will be posted to Canvas.
Movies and television episodes will be screened in class.

Response Paper 1 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  10%
Response Paper 2 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  15%
Discussion Leader . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10%
Discussion Report . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15%
Research Proposal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5%
Research Essay . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30%
Participation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15%

*Completion of all assignments in a timely fashion is required to pass the course.

Grading Scale: A = 100%; A- = 93%; B+ = 88%; B = 85%; B- = 82%; C+ = 78%; C = 75%; C- = 71%; D+ = 68% D = 65%; D- = 62%; F = 50%

Assignment Descriptions

Response Papers

General grading criteria for both include:

Originality of argument (which means avoid summarizing sources, plots, lecture notes, etc); clarity of argument/organization; effective incorporation of textual evidence from both the readings and the selected film (when required); and general writing concerns (typos, sentence structure, etc.).

*Other notes: typed; 3-4 full pages, double-spaced; 1” margins; no cover page is needed.

1st Paper: Audience responses to Disney movies, shows, music and theme parks over the years tend to follow a lot of similar patterns—appeals to childhood memories, generational relationships, established patterns of consumption, and so forth. But some responses can also be surprising and counterintuitive—truly unexpected ways of looking at, or reading, Disney texts. For the first response paper, interview someone a different generation than you (a relative, friend, etc.) about their relationship to Disney—regardless of their level of interest (as in, they do not have to be a hardcore fan, and it might even be more fruitful if they are not). Some questions to consider (though you are welcome to come up with your own):
·         How would you define your level of Disney interest (fanatic, fan, consumer, resistant, cynic, indifferent)? Why?
o   (NOTE: Feel free to skim the Wasko reading online for a description of these categories—they may also help you generate additional questions)
·         What are your earliest memories of Disney?
·         Has your interest in Disney changed over time? If so, how? Why?
·         Do you prefer some aspects of the Disney “Universe” more than others? Certain movies? Parks?
·         Have you been to the parks? Why or why not? Does it matter to you?
·         Has family and/or nostalgia played a part—good or bad? Why or why not?
·         In addition to familial relationships and nostalgia (presumably, but of course not necessarily), what factors do you feel might explain your level of interest (consumerism, peer pressure, etc.)?

Some other tips for the interview itself: be clear upfront that this is for an assignment; let the subject talk as much as possible (don’t interrupt, but also pay attention to any ideas for possible follow up questions); and record the conversation, if possible, for personal reference later.

Then, for your paper, look for dominant trends in the interviewee’s narrative, highlight things expected and unexpected, and compare and contrast their sense of Disney with your own. For a thesis, argue for what you see as an important insight or two in regards to the Disney audiences historically (as in how things change, or remain, over time). Try to be as specific as possible—avoid broad generalizations such as “everyone loves Disney’s magic” or “Disney’s appeal is timeless,” etc. While Disney’s impact is undeniable (though not universal), there’s a lot of room for nuance and distinction. The idea is to be reflexive about people’s engagement with Disney in dialogue with, but also beyond, your own experiences. In any event, an important goal is not just to think about how someone interprets Disney, but why.

2nd Paper: One difficulty in studying Disney’s history is the temptation to equate watching old movies with studying the company’s past, when there’s so much more going on. Select any one of the films screened in class to that point (up to the 1950s), and write a paper which places that movie within an important historical context beyond just Disney’s role. Incorporate at least one outside source which you found on your own (you may also use a course reading, if relevant, but you must still find an additional scholarly source too). Pick one other development going on at the time within the industry, or the country as a whole (culturally, politically, etc.), which helps shed further light on the film, and explain why. For example, what changes in animation techniques affected the aesthetics of a particular early Disney short? What role did the Great Depression play in affecting audiences’ relationship to Three Little Pigs? How might Disneyland fit within the early days of television? And, so forth. You are not restricted to these titles. Any historical title screened in class up to the due date is fair game. The goal is to think about these films historically—what else should we need to know about them in order to understand them beyond just watching the movie itself?

Works Cited list is only required on the second paper.

Discussion Leader & Report: As we are a very small group, I am encouraging students to take an active role in the direction of the class. During the first week, I’ll assign students to lead discussion during one class period throughout the quarter. You’ll want to prepare at least five substantive discussion questions based on the assigned reading for that day and the accompanying screening, which we’ll view during the previous class. So, you should have plenty of material to work with. Please bring copies of the questions to class for each classmate (and myself). I would encourage you to have tentative answers thought out in the back of your mind, in case conversation stalls, but they should also be broad enough to encourage any number of different responses. Of course, I will take an active role as well, so you won’t be on your own. But I really want to see students take the lead as much as possible.

Then, within a week of the class, submit a two page report over email which reflects back on both the substance of the class (reading, screening) and your own thoughts on the discussion itself—i.e., the challenges of preparing for the discussion, how did your perception of the readings/films change as a result of the discussion, how did classmates’ reaction affect your thinking, other unexpected discoveries, etc. For a thesis, think about how the experience in some way changed your perception of Disney in ways either subtle or perhaps profound. The points for being discussion leader are largely a full/no credit grade. The report, however, will be graded similar to the first response paper—emphasizing in particular the care of reflexive thought put into it. One big pitfall to avoid is simply summarizing the reading and/or class discussion—what larger value do you take out of it?

Research Proposal (1p)—A week before your research projects are due, I will ask each of you to submit a formal, typed proposal for your final project. The proposal should be a solid paragraph (at least 5-7 sentences) outlining the general topic, your tentative argument, and some of the specific texts (films, sources) you plan to explore. In addition to that paragraph description, you’ll also want a short bibliography of five scholarly sources (not the films) that you’ve already briefly consulted as you formulated your topic. The larger goal of the proposal is not to lock in a final argument, but to begin thinking about the project in earnest, while also doing enough tentative research to get a feel for whether or not the topic might be viable/focused/effective, and so forth. You will not be allowed to change topics without my approval once the proposal has been submitted.

Research Essay (8-10pp; 5 sources)—while the class emphasizes the history of the company, the subject of the research essay is open to any aspect of the Disney Universe, past or present—this includes not only the films, but also the parks, Broadway shows, ancillary markets, and so forth. You are also welcome to branch out to other brands such as Pixar, Marvel or Star Wars, etc., as long as the topic in some way ties back to Disney’s influence and/or connection. The final essay should be 8-10 pages, with at least 5 scholarly sources (at least three of which must be from outside course readings). These do not have to be the same five from the proposal, as it is expected that the paper will evolve over the writing and researching process. Outside sources and a works cited list (in proper format) are both required, but otherwise the grading criteria will be largely consistent with the response papers.

Summer Schedule 2015

Notes: All assigned readings must be completed before class that day. All assigned readings will be posted to Canvas. Listed media titles will be screened all or in part in class. Readings and screenings may be tentative, but any changes will be announced well in advance.

June 22nd—Introductions; Journey into the Disney Vault (2006); Reading: Sun and Scharrer, “Staying True to Disney”; Screening: early Mickey Mouse shorts, Silly Symphonies
June 24th— Disney in the 1930s; Readings: Sammond, “In Middletown,” and Gabler, “The Mouse” (excerpt); Screening: The Reluctant Dragon (1941)

June 29th—Disney post-Snow White; Reading: Langer, “Regionalism in Disney Animation”; Screening: Fantasia (excerpts) (1941) and Saludos Amigos (1943)
July 1st— Reading: Luckett, “Cultural Constructions of Disney’s ‘Masterpiece’” and Sadlier, Americans All (excerpt); Screening: WWII propaganda films (1942-1944) and Song of the South (1946)
First Response Papers due via email (Word docs only): 3pm, Friday, July 3rd 
July 6th— Post-War Disney; Readings: Watts, “The Search for Direction” and Ohmer, “That Rags to Riches Stuff”; Screening: Seal Island (1948) and Disneyland (1954)
July 8th— Readings: Neuman, “Disneyland’s Main Street USA” and Sammond, “America’s True Life Adventure”; Screening: The Boys (2009) and The Love Bug (1969)

July 13th— What Would Walt Do?; Reading: Bryman, “Disney after Walt”; Screening: TRON (1982)
July 15th Disney Post-Star Wars; Reading: Morris, “Computer Imaging, Realism, TRON”; Screening: Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009)
Second Response Papers due via email (word docs only): 3pm, Friday, July 17th

July 20th—Team Disney; Reading: Grainge, “Media Branding” and Do Rozario, “The Princess and the Magic Kingdom”; Screening: The Pixar Story (2007)
July 22nd—Pixar; Readings: Ebrahim, “Are the ‘Boys’ at Pixar Afraid of Little Girls?” and Herhuth, “Life, Love, and Programming: The Culture and Politics of WALL-E and Pixar Computer Animation”; Screening: Fantasia 2000 (1999)
Proposals due via email (word docs only): 3pm, Friday, July 24th

July 27th—Disney in the 21st Century; Reading: Pallant, “Neo-Disney” and Willis, “The Family Vacation”; Screening: Escape from Tomorrow (2013)
July 29th—Student Presentations

Research Essays due via email during finals week—
Deadline: 3pm, Friday, July 31st
(*- all missing work is due at this time)

Have a good break.