Friday, June 7, 2013

Thoughts on Inherent Vice News

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

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

Monday, May 20, 2013

Thoughts on Trek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 5, 2013

Blossoms & Blood

Postmodern Media Culture 
and the Films of Paul Thomas Anderson 

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

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

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

Table of Contents

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

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

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

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

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

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

On The Master

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oscars & the Specter of Labor

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

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

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

Sunday, February 17, 2013

On Postmodernism, Industry and Leisure Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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