Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same: The Musical Moment in Film. By Amy Herzog.

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, January 2010. Paper: ISBN 978-0-8166-6088-9, $25. 296 pages.

Review by Albin Lohr-Jones, Independent Scholar

Given the growing volume of writings on Gilles Deleuze and film – now ubiquitous at Deleuze studies conferences and in interdisciplinary essay collections dedicated to his work – one might wonder whether or not his role as an innovator of film criticism is beginning to eclipse his legacy as a philosopher. At the heart of this emergent field, however, lies an inescapable contradiction. Reflecting on the impact of his Cinema I: The Movement-Image (1983), Deleuze acknowledged that his turn toward thinking about film was largely accidental, and then only as a means of addressing specific philosophical problems to which examination of linguistic signs prohibited access. In the nearly 27 years since the publication of this book, the distinction between “philosophical concept” – on which Deleuze’s writings constantly ruminate – and critical methodology has become increasing blurred. The philosophical is, in Deleuze’s view, incompatible with the creative (artistic) act. Yet, notwithstanding this purely accidental origin of what has emerged as a Deleuzian mode film analysis, the discipline has and continues to witness a precipitous growth.
Amy Herzog’s Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same: The Musical Moment in Film may be one of the more daring of the newest additions to this growing literature. Taking as its focus cinematic examples which utilize film-musical devices – a diverse range of “camp” and other genre hybrids deploying what Herzog labels the “musical moment” – her book is markedly ambitious. Rather than restricting the Deleuzian framework from which she examines these films to the Bergsonian/Peircean concept-base outlined in the Cinema books, Herzog adopts a different strategy. Taking as its central concern the varying modalities of repetition which operate coextensively within the “musical moment” (“repetition” here understood in its range of qualifications defined in Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition ), Herzog effectively reorients (and recontextualizes) key concepts from the Cinema books and from Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s collaborative opus A Thousand Plateaus. In itself, synthesizing these texts and attempting to construe consistency between the concepts they invoke can be a problematic undertaking. Yet Herzog’s sound command of Deleuzian thought, coupled with a keen awareness of the difficulties inherent in trying to synthesize (or conflate) Deleuze’s various writings, sets the stage for the clear and well-delimited studies comprising the body of her book.
Herzog is quite accurate in the introduction to her book in advising her readers that this is not a “genre study” in the proper sense. The focus of her investigations, rather, is of a more philosophical nature: to interrogate and explore what she identifies as “a fluid and malleable expressive form” constituting the “musical moment.” Neither purely musical (in the proper sense) nor wholly-integral to the visual narrative of a film, the musical moment names a site of dislocation, of radical disparity between a filmic-work’s temporal flow (linear development) and the disruptive excesses of diegetic musical material. Thus the musical moment embodies an irresolvable tension: one born of complex and often partial negotiations of both conservative and radical ideologies. In her words, these “moments are marked by a tendency to restructure spatiotemporal coordinates, to reconfigure the boundaries and operations of the human body, and to forge new relations between organic and inorganic elements within the frame.” Herzog’s analyses, consequently, seek to elucidate various ways in which these parameters (and the hierarchical thought that informs our normative, “classical” expectations of them) are frustrated in these singular and temporally un-assimilable instances marking the disruption of narrative progress.
At just over 200 pages (plus its introduction and conclusion), perhaps the only ways in which this book’s ambitions are thwarted are in its brevity and in its choice of examples. One gets the sense that her line of development, the trajectory of her argument, is occasionally abbreviated; and that a longer treatment (even if only a few additional pages in each chapter) would afford her the opportunity to elaborate more upon her observations. An ideal reader of this book (someone at least casually familiar with Deleuze’s writings) will no doubt fill in the missing pieces, supplementing Herzog’s observations with knowledge of the conceptual background from which her reasoning emerges. Despite the eloquence of her introductory notes on Deleuze’s philosophy – one of the best that this reviewer has read – the uninitiated reader may be at a slight disadvantage. Her examples are, for the most part, extremely effective in their diversity and their relevance: Godard’s and Preminger’s Carmen films (Chapter 2); Jacques Demy (Chapter 3); and Esther Williams, Busby Berkeley and Tsai Ming-liang (Chapter 4). The first chapter – on the proto-music video formats of the 1940’s “Soundies” and 1960’s “Scopitones”– however, seems slightly out of place. By focusing on the technologies themselves rather than on individual works, Herzog’s objective here suggests a different type of study. And though her application of the Deleuzian notion of “fabulation,” fits nicely with her analysis, and – as is the case throughout the book – her research is first-rate; the musical moments discussed here are less concrete than those in the following chapters.
In summary, Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same represents advances on two fronts. First (and most immediately), in its simplicity and unadorned style, and through a varied choice of examples, Herzog makes a convincing argument in favor looking anew at how the key mechanisms of the film-musical style operate. But her book makes an important contribution in a more significant and purely theoretical direction. In advancing the notion of the musical moment – as clear and as useful in its conceptual import as the Deleuzian perspectives from which it derives its saliency – Herzog demonstrates the viability of philosophizing about cinematic signs in a way consistent with and complimentary to Deleuze’s philosophical pursuits. And, if one looks closely enough at the musical moment, as Herzog shows, one finds not merely a cinematic device, but rich – if ultimately inchoate – formation whose varying modulations provide a means of scrutinizing the technical, social and ideological resonances which configure them.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Controversial Cinema: The Films that Outraged America. By Kendall R. Phillips.
Westport: Praeger Publishers, July 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0275994648, $44.95. 206 pages.
Review by Robert G. Weiner, Texas Tech University Library
Throughout the history of cinema, some films produced by major studios have caused controversy, outrage, discussion, and for some, a blot on the film industry. Kendall Phillips, a professor of Communication and Rhetoric at Syracuse University, has produced a study of the controversial films that have changed the popular culture landscape. Phillips is concerned with controversy within mainstream American cinema.
The book is divided into chapters, each of which details a particular aspect of cinema that transgress certain boundaries. These categories include general censorship of film, sex and gender issues, violence and crime, race and ethnicity, and religion. Phillips begins each chapter with a historical background related to the category and then usually discusses one particular film that outraged filmgoers, placing it within the historical context of film censorship.
For a mass communications professor, Phillips writes with the detail of a historian, telling the history behind the film’s controversies. He documents everything with a detailed eye. The first chapter goes back to the beginnings of cinema with the likes of the Lumiere brothers and how their film showed the arrival of a train, at a station, which caused riots and terrified audiences (thus beginning the long debate over the power of film to influence a person’s behavior and moral standing).
Sex has always been a hotbed of film censorship since the beginnings of film, the first onscreen “touching” in Edison’s 1890s films The Kiss, and the erotic dancing of Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance. Phillips documents the countless films that caused the ire of censors due to “sexual” content and the rise of the movie production code and ratings system.
One of the most controversial films in the history of mainstream cinema was Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs. Oddly, much of the controversy did not center on the film’s depiction of cannibalism (the ultimate taboo and transgression), but rather on the portrayal of the female and homosexual characters. At the 1992 Academy Awards ceremony there were several hundred protesters of the film’s perceived negative depiction of a stereotypical homicidal homosexual killer. Some protesters believed that Demme’s film helped set back positive strides for homosexuals and viewed the film as offensive (and homophobic). Many feminists also saw Jodi Foster’s character as submissive and anti-feminist (although there were those who argued the opposite as well).
Portrayals of violence in film have also been subject to censorship and discussion. From the 1930s gangster pictures to the 1950s juvenile delinquent films, there have been critics who saw these movies as glorifying violence for impressionable young minds. (Even real-life gangster Al Capone loathed gangster films and thought them to be a bad influence on society.) Phillips points out that what is most ironic about portrayals of violence is that violent war pictures are never seen as threatening when they reinforced societal norms.
One of the most controversial violent films in recent years was Oliver Stone’s 1994 number one film Natural Born Killers. (Although not really credited as an influence, Stone’s film has an uncanny similarity to James Landis 1963 serial killer classic The Sadist and the real life story of the late 1950s killing spree of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.) The characters of Mickey and Mallory in Natural Born Killers are very similar to Starkweather and Fugate. Some critics saw Stone’s satire against media violence and destruction as actually glorifying it. Senator Bob Dole spoke out against the film during his 1996 unsuccessful bid for the Presidency. The irony is that Dole’s “critique did not, however extend to other contemporary violent films like … True Lies (and) Die Hard with a Vengeance,” both of which starred well-known Republicans (79). Apparently, Natural Born Killers did inspire some copycat killings from fans of the film, and some critics even argue that the Columbine Massacre was somehow inspired by this film.
A heated topic in the history of film is the portrayal of race when it shows Native Americans, African-Americans, and Asians etc., as marginalized characters. This is particularly true in the case of Native American portrayals in Westerns. Phillips discusses in detail how race has been showed on screen since the 1915 showing of Birth of a Nation and its horrible depictions of African-Americans to Within Our Gates, the 1920s African-American response to Birth of a Nation. It would have been interesting to know Phillips’s take on the racial depictions in 1954’s Salt of the Earth, which some consider a controversial film (due to its view of equality and female empowerment). Spike Lee’s 1989 Do the Right Thing caused a great deal of comment in the press for its representation of race, but as Phillips points out, it “was a controversy that never came to fruition” (125).
The last section studies representations of religion in film and not surprisingly picks Mel Gibson’s 2004 Passion of the Christ as its focus. Gibson’s film caused controversy among those who viewed as an anti-Semitic diatribe or a splatter film for Christians. The film was a big success among many churches and many a sermon was preached based upon the film. The film opened a hornet’s nest of debate still discussed today.
Controversial Cinema: The Films That Outraged America is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history of transgression in film and how it relates to filmmaking today. Phillips writes in a crisp, readable style that shows his passion for the topic. This volume is suitable for as a textbook for both undergraduate and graduate courses in history, mass communications, rhetoric and writing, screenwriting, and the general study of film.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past. 2nd edition. By Robert Brent Toplin.
Chicago: University of Illinois Press, February 2010. Paper: ISBN 978-0-252-07689-3, $25. 280 pages.
Review by Greta Methot, Rhode Island School of Design
Sensitive to criticism that popular cinematic treatments tend to wreak havoc on historical accuracy, in History by Hollywood author Robert Brent Toplin sets out to determine “what happens to history when Hollywood’s moviemakers get their hands on it” (1). As a filmmaker, as well as professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Toplin is well suited to comment on both the film production process, from inception to promotion, and the political and social environs surrounding a movie’s release.
In his introduction, Toplin defends Hollywood filmmakers against charges that they intentionally and unconscionably mislead the public by distorting evidence and inventing facts in the interest of producing profitable entertainment. He concludes that, while these filmmakers are, of course, beholden to the profiteering values of their industry, they nonetheless maintain a genuine curiosity about the past and, more often than not, present history “responsibly.” Toplin goes on to confront specific criticisms frequently aimed at this film genre, in particular the partisanship of historical docudramas. He argues that dramatic films cannot arouse the emotional response of audiences without taking a stand. The conventions of dramatic storytelling require a designated hero and villain, thus the filmmaker must choose sides. Even documentary filmmakers, despite their greater claims to truth-telling, are often bound to narrative conventions which require subjective interpretation.
While Toplin asserts that we should be receptive to the possibility that educational value can be gleaned from historical docudrama, he does urge viewers toward adopting a critical lens. There is such a thing as too much artistic license and, ideally, one would learn to discriminate between “an admirably filmed presentation and a poor one” (17). Sound counsel to be sure, yet by what measure such judgment should be made and how to ensure this informed critical thinking among broad audiences remains unclear.
In the eight case studies that comprise the text, Toplin examines four primary approaches to the cinematic treatment of history: use and abuse of artistic license, the past as relevant to the present, contemporary controversies inspired by the past, and celebrating the “great person” in history. Toplin begins by acknowledging that filmmakers often rewrite history. This, he asserts, is the exercise of artistic license in the aid of communication and manifests in narrative techniques such as the merging of several historical figures into one character, compression of time, and reduction of many complex sociopolitical factors into single causation.
While Toplin maintains that the manipulation of facts in the interest of engaging audiences does not necessarily mean all historical authenticity is voided, he does take issue with the excessive creative license of his first two case studies. Toplin engages with JFK (1991) and Mississippi Burning (1988) and concludes that, while these films succeed in evoking the emotional drama of their subjects, the liberties they take with historical evidence are such that they cannot rightly be said to represent history. Toplin is much more satisfied with the historical accuracy of Norma Rae (1979) and All the President’s Men (1976), though he acknowledges that these films promote a “great person” theory of history problematic in that it emphasizes the impact of individuals and neglects the importance of collective action or social movements as agents of historical change.
In chapters on Sergeant York (1941), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Missing (1982), and Patton (1970), Toplin considers the ways in which cinematic representations of history can offer statements about present-day political and social concerns. Upon their release, these films ignited public debate over contemporary issues such as the social impact of violent media, American foreign policy, and US involvement in Vietnam. Ultimately, Toplin seems to forgive the historical liberties and romanticizing at work in these films given their power to incite debate. There are some drawbacks to the structure of History by Hollywood. Each of the eight chapters focuses on a single film, documenting the specifics of its production and recounting the debate surrounding its historical accuracy. In organizing this discussion into discrete case studies, Toplin neglects to present a clear sense of any evolution in the treatment of history in Hollywood film. One is left wondering how material developments in Hollywood—changes in the studio system, modifications to production codes, expanding commercial markets, etc.—might have impacted the films themselves. What’s more, though each analysis stands well on its own, connections between the films and between decades are left unexplored. Still, Toplin’s essays are generally quite engaging and offer considerable insight into the production process and reception of each film.
Finally, it should be noted that the press blurb for this second edition of History by Hollywood promises the text has been updated with “a fresh look” at recent films and television programming such as, Titanic (1997), Pearl Harbor (2001), The Patriot (2000), and John Adams (2008). In fact, the revised edition offers only the most cursory references to these titles (I found no mention at all of The Patriot) in a moderately revamped introduction. A brief look at the 2003 mini-series The Reagans and Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1999) replaces discussion of Quiz Show (1994); otherwise, the majority of the text remains unchanged. This is unfortunate as Toplin, a pioneer in the study of historical films, would no doubt mine rich material from these and other more recent works as he does with the films in the original 1996 edition. Nevertheless, History by Hollywood remains a worthwhile text in the field of historical film criticism.

He Was Some Kind of Man: Masculinities in the B Western. By Roderick McGillis.
Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, May 2009. Paper: ISBN 978-1-55458-059-0, $29.95. 222 pages.
Review by Laurence Raw, Baskent University, Ankara

Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Ken Maynard, Bob Steele, Larry "Buster" Crabbe – all were stars of the B western, that highly popular genre that dominated American screens from the earliest days of the talkies to the mid-1950s, when television took over. He Was Some Kind of Man is an affectionate tribute to these heroes, written by someone who spent his formative years taking them as role models. The book is sprinkled with autobiographical reminiscences – for example, an occasion in 1954 when the author was photographed as a nine-year-old in a family group with two toy pistols at his side: “What is clear [from the photograph] is how pleased I was with the gun, how proudly I wore the holster; and how engaged I was in performing the quick draw. I was, of course, emulating the cowboy heroes I saw in the movies” (61).
At the same time McGillis tries to account for this popularity by showing how the B western hero communicated a view of masculinity that seemed particularly appropriate for the time. He argues, for instance, that the cowboy code was very similar to that of the Boy Scouts: both stress the importance of duty to God and country, helping other people at all times, and individuals’ keeping themselves strong and healthy at all times. The western hero had to be strong and powerful and exhibit “no sissy stuff” (such as bursting into tears), yet at the same time understand the importance of collective action to stop the kind of male posturing that leads to mindless violence (43).
On the other hand, the western hero offered a vision of freedom – especially for young boys brought up in the confines of the urban environment. Many of the films were set in a consciously fictional, almost nostalgic world of the American West, a world where good invariably triumphed over evil and the hero lived to fight another day. Young boys recreated these fantasy worlds for themselves. For McGillis “the identification with the cowboy provided a complex cover and compensation for a troubled home life. To enter the world of the cowboy was to escape the anxiety of home” (58). His comparison between the world of the B Western and J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is very apt here. The fact that B Westerns are basically fantasies is also important in looking at the way they deal with guns: “What the cowboy heroes […] offer is a clear-cut fantasy. Their guns, like their clothes […] remind us that they are the imaginary, impossible ideals that have life only in the world of play and pretend” (81).

Yet the screen representation of the western hero incorporated some ambiguous elements – especially in the way they dressed. McGillis shows how stars such as Rogers and Autry wore the kind of jeweled clothing never actually seen in the real West; rather, they made a kind of fashion statement, emphasizing their feminine as well as their masculine sides: “These are camp cowboys. The self-conscious assumption of a costume, the flaunting of the masquerade, signal immaturity. Camp is a guilty pleasure because it subverts the norms of straight living, and also because it keeps us loving childhood” (101). This is an important point: B Western heroes could never be accused of homosexuality. Rather they inhabited a childlike world in which adult distinctions between masculinity and femininity did not prevail. It was a world where women took little or no part, and where the hero cared more for his horse than anyone else: “the attractions of the cowboy and his horse appeal to our spectacular imagination, they are the imaginary” (128).

But McGillis also suggests that this image was a product of its time when white America reigned supreme and members of other cultures were either marginalized or othered. Mexicans or French Canadians were portrayed as sexually rapacious, while African-Americans were excluded altogether. It was only in films such as Harlem Rides the Range (1930), or Harlem on the Prairie (1937), intended specifically for African-American audiences, that more positive images could appear. However they seldom attracted mass attention, as they revealed the seamy truth lurking behind the façade of the white westerns: that the heroes were not always perfect in their treatment of other people (139).

The dominance of the white male in B Westerns also made sound commercial sense, as the studios marketed a range of products designed to help children relive their screen experiences. They included Hopalong Cassidy bicycles, crayon and stencil sets, tablecloths, wrapping paper, pocket knives, pins, comics, and of course guns and holsters (168). Many stars became successful business people in their own right, trading on their image to attract customers. Most of them have now passed on, but their lives and work are commemorated in museums: for example, the Roy Rogers/ Dale Evans Museum in Branson, Missouri, or the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles. The image of the Western B hero lives on.

And what of the hero today? He has been consciously appropriated by military leaders such as Norman Schwarzkopf and politicians such as George W. Bush as a way of justifying foreign interventions. However, McGillis argues that this is a “one-dimensional” version of the image, designed to validate the cowboy virtues of aggression, enterprise, and expansion. It neglects the more human side, which had its parallels with the Boy Scout movement. And perhaps it is these qualities, rather than the aggressive aside, that renders the B Western hero enduringly attractive even in a pluricultural world. Skillfully combining cultural history, critical theory, and reminiscence, He Was Some Kind of a Man reminds us of just how powerful an influence the Poverty Row products of the mid-twentieth century had on American popular culture. I thoroughly recommend the book to all readers.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience.
By Jennifer M. Barker.

Berkeley: University of California Press, June 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0520258402, $60; paper: ISBN 978-0-520-25842-6, $24.95. 208 pages.

Review by Henrike Lehnguth, University of Maryland

With the The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience Jennifer Barker approaches what she calls “the sensual dimension of the cinematic experience.” Barker systematically follows her initial hunch that we not simply watch a film but are intimately entangled with it through our bodies. To her, viewing a film is, in other words, a fully embodied experience.

The Tactile Eye applies phenomenological insights to the cinematic realm. Barker draws heavily from the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty to flesh out a relationship between the viewer and the cinema that neither relies solely on the notion of an ideal (objective) nor an empirical (subjective) spectator but collapses both into one. Her viewing position thus presumes an interdependent relationship between the viewer’s and the film’s bodies.

Barker guides us through these bodies chapter by chapter—from the skin, through the musculature, to the visceral. Her section on the skin addresses our haptic sense in relation to the texture and materiality of the film. She explores the contact zone between film and viewer, where we as viewers are not afforded a distant—penetrating or clinical—gaze but are pushed “too close to comfort” to the film’s surface. This proximity to what Barker calls the film’s skin, where we lack orientation and visual control over the film space, is unsettling and, ultimately, envelopes us emotionally in the film. We, as she points out, do not see a film with emotional distance but feel it.

Her section on the musculature explores our kinesthetic sense in relation to film space. Barker takes Linda Williams’s seminal essay “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess” as a point of departure to argue that our mimetic relationship to film far exceeds what Williams limits to particular film genres. According to Williams we mimic the premises of genres such as horror, pornography, and “weepies,” when we, respectively, tense up, are sexually excited, and saddened. Barker argues instead that we mimic films through kinesthetic engagement. Our musculature converges with the film so that we lose our sense of being in space. We are neither completely in the filmic space nor in our chairs in the cinema. Rather, we resemble the Warner Brother’s cartoon character Coyote, who seamlessly floats in mid-air until he becomes conscious of his impossible state and falls. We float similarly in the filmic space until our attention returns to the reality of our bodies in the movie theater.

Her final section focuses on the visceral quality of our relationship to the temporal qualities of film. Early cinematic technologies, such as the mutoscope, directly relied on the human spectator as a handler of the machine to produce the illusion of motion. The spectator could slow down and stop the machine to get a better peek. Experimental film like the Wallace and Gromit shorts leave human traces on the modeling material with every move Wallace and Gromit make. Barker here ultimately suggests that these cinematic experiences remind us of what it means to be a body in time—a body that moves, a body that is still, and a body that will never move again.

Overall, The Tactile Eye systematically complicates our relationship to film in what is, yet, only an emerging field of studies in affect and embodiment in film theory. She importantly expands the works of film scholars with similar research interests such as Vivian Sobchack and Laura Marks. Barker’s book is a jewel for all, who may long have shared her hunch that film theories like “suture” and a widespread interest in visual literacy may not give sufficient justice to the cinematic experience as an experience.

However, although Barker presumes that her theory of embodied cinematic experience be applicable to the film-spectator relationship-at-large, her book would benefit from specifically addressing this applicability issue. This question arises the more because of her somewhat eclectic selection of films. Individual works that she engages with include, for instance, Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. as much as Soviet filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Annabelle Serpentine Dance from early cinema, and the more mainstream Toy Story by director John Lasseter. However, Barker approaches these films with different goals. She, for instance, discusses a scene from Sherlock, Jr. as a trope for our kinesthetic sense of being at two places at once--“here” in the movie theatre and “there” in the space of the film. In her inquiry into Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses she, in contrast, theorizes the film’s skin and the spectator’s entanglement with it. The film, as Barker suggests, provides a rich visual texture that our eyes gently explore at the surface. Her use of film for different purposes presents a challenge to readers and their understanding of the larger applicability of her otherwise engaging theory.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Diasporas of Australian Cinema.

Edited by Catherine Simpson, Renata Murawska, and Anthony Lambert.

Fishponds, Bristol, UK: Intellect Ltd., August 2009. Paper: ISBN 978-1841501970, $40. 128 pages.

Review by Sarah Pinto, Centre for Australian Indigenous Studies, Monash University

Australian cinema seems to be enjoying yet another renaissance in 2009. After several years of apparent darkness, during which critics and commentators lamented the state of both box office receipts and filmic quality, a number of films have arrived on screens to much local success, including Academy Award winner Adam Elliot’s claymation feature Mary and Max, which opened the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah, winner of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival’s Caméra d’Or (for best first feature). Of course, these (and others) have come in the wake of Baz Luhrmann’s epic Australia, which brought with it a great deal of local and international attention, good, bad, and otherwise. As many film historians will know, however, this year’s “renaissance” is one of several since the industry’s revival in the 1970s, and demonstrates, yet again, the degree to which local filmmaking attracts public anaylsis in Australia. Indeed, at times Australian films can seem swamped by the ongoing debates about the local industry that inevitably swirl around them. This analysis is certainly important, particularly given Australia’s limited funding opportunities and the heightened sense of local film’s importance to the nation’s identity and character. But I’m less convinced that this should be at the expense of closer examinations of the films themselves, not for verdicts on whether they constitute “good” or “bad” cinema, but for a consideration of their storytelling and engagements with the worlds of their release, Australian or otherwise.
This is precisely the project of Diasporas of Australian Cinema. Using diasporic hybridity as its central motif, this collection sets out to do two things: to address an absence of collected works on diaspora in cinema generally and national cinemas specifically; and to demonstrate the importance of “diasporic qualities” to Australian cinema (17). The collection begins with a theoretically-engaged Introduction where the editors provide two substantive arguments for the significance and importance of their diasporic approach, one historical, the other political: that ideas of a “transient, diasporic collective” are increasingly being attached to the Australian state (18); and that discussions of inclusive identities that allow for the possibility of multiplicity and “national cultural heterogeneity” (27) are particularly important at a time when calls for homogeneity have once again returned to prominence in Australia.
The collection itself is divided into three sections. The first, on theories, draws on and extends the discussions of the Introduction, with a particular focus on the specificities of diaspora in contemporary Australia. Both Catherine Simpson and Sonia Magdelena Tascón gesture, for example, towards the potential for contemporary Australian diasporic films to function as interventions against the increasing homogeneity of official conceptualisations of Australian identity at the turn of the twenty-first century, led particularly by the conservative federal government of former Prime Minister John Howard. In doing so, both pieces talk in some detail of the Howard Government’s deliberate move away from policies of multiculturalism that were so significant to Australian culture and identity in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the politics of multiculturalism more generally. These discussions point to what I think is one of the greatest strengths of this collection: the way in which it revisits, and perhaps re-opens, a conversation about multiculturalism, a conversation that has been largely closed down in recent times, and not just in Australia.
This discussion continues into the section on representations, particularly in Felicity Collins’ nuanced opening chapter. Collins considers the ways in which the “diasporic, multicultural or wogsploitation” comedy film engages with the conventional Anglo-Celtic Australian “national type” – the “ocker,” the “larrikin,” or the “decent Aussie bloke” (75). According to Collins, the wogboy, as an active agent in these films, manages to assimilate and appropriate, trumping the ockers that have traditionally dominated Australian comedies. More often, however, the chapters in this section – engaging with Italian, Greek, Russian, German, Turkish and Japanese diasporic representations – show cultural and ethnic “others” mobilised simply in support of the definition of a (contrasting) Australian national identity. I was particularly drawn to Antje Gnida and Catherine Simpson’s chapter on the depiction of Turkish and German enemies in Australian war films, which they argue have helped produce and reinforce “conservative myths of nationhood” around the figure of the Australian soldier (95). It is only in Ana Kokkinnos’ powerful Head On (1998) that “’other’ remains ‘other’” (121), as John Conomos’ chapter on Greek-Australian cinema argues. As the first section made clear, films have the potential to intervene, dispute, and disrupt; but they can also be implicated in the political needs of nation-states, even when they might appear engaged with diasporic, transnational, or multicultural critiques.

It’s not surprising, then, that this collection’s final section on film-makers brings with it a critique of diaspora, most particularly in the chapters by Susie Khamis and Ben Goldsmith and Brian Yecies. Both these chapters focus on film-makers whose films exceed notions of diaspora. Focussing on two participatory documentary films by Tom Zubrycki, Khamis considers the complexity of the Lebanese Muslim community depicted in Zubrycki’s films, a complexity she argues cannot be neatly explained by the term diaspora (147). Similarly, Goldsmith and Yecis’ discussions of Korean-Australian filmic collaborations, and especially the animated short film Birthday Boy (Sejong Park, 2004), consider film that are simultaneously diasporic, Australian, and transnational (168).

Taken together, these chapters reveal a vibrant and important diasporic cinematic tradition in Australia. The collection both engages with and critiques its central diasporic concept, which gives it a methodological and theoretical strength that extends beyond its national focus. And although the individual chapters could have engaged with each other more productively, Diasporas of Australian Cinema works cohesively as an edited collection. I was, however, left wondering about the usefulness of – or need for – an exclusively national framework in studies of diasporic cinema, particularly given the editors’ definition of Australian cinema as a “loose,” open category (17), which, for me, destabilized the cohesiveness of the book’s project. Nevertheless, reading this collection has reminded me of the importance of cinema to identity and culture, and sent me back to the films themselves, which is surely a good thing.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier.

Edited by Rhonda V. Wilcox and Tanya R. Cochran.
London and New York: I.B. Tauris, October 2008. Paper: ISBN 978-1845116545, $22.50. 304 pages.

Review by Madeline Muntersbjorn, University of Toledo

“Yes. Yes, this a fertile land, and we will thrive” (Serenity 1.1). This line from the first episode of the short-lived television series Firefly (2002-2003) opens this review, as this anthology demonstrates the scope of scholarly discourse on both the television series and the movie Serenity (2005). When Wash, the pilot, speaks this line, he plays with plastic dinosaurs on a spaceship dashboard, saying much with few words. Joss Whedon, writer and director, does not play on a ship, but on a soundstage, feeding his lines to beautiful talent. Whedon’s space-western features nine outcasts and heroes just trying to keep flying on the edge of civilization. Carey Meyer designed the 10th character of the show, the Firefly class spaceship called Serenity; just as there are fourteen Firefly episodes, there’s only one Serenity film. Whedon and his gifted crew bring our fond ambitions and fraught anxieties to life in a post-apocalyptic future wherein alien planets are rendered suitable for human habitation by mining, farming, terra-forming and civil war. While much changes in the next 500 years, people are still human. Well, most of them are: some of them might be monsters! In any case, “Earth That Was” is just a history lesson for the kids, a creation myth of dubious relevance.

“Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!” The dinosaurs fight, misled by greed only to be swept aside, their fertile land destroyed by forces beyond their control. Who could have known, when the scene was first shot, of the FOX network betrayal that would cancel the series, loose ends of narrative thread waiting to be woven into the rest of the story? Could anyone have predicted that fan support, from DVD sales to online activism, would be so voluble and vociferous that Universal Studios would help Whedon produce the film? (Serenity: Those Left Behind, a Dark Horse comic published in 2006, bridges narrative gaps between the series and the movie.) The story behind the story calls for further inquiry into this science fiction on the frontier. Given the eclectic academic community that coalesced around Whedon’s most famous series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, complete with peer-reviewed journal, Slayage, this anthology is inevitable if not altogether sudden.

Wilcox and Cochran quote the pilot near the end of the beginning of their book and at the close of their introduction to the special issue of Slayage. For just as the show is one story in two formats, small screen and silver screen, their editorial project yielded two texts. The twenty-fifth issue of Slayage features five articles, while this installment in I. B. Tauris’ Investigating Cult TV series presents nineteen essays. Yet these contributions represent less than 17% of submissions received in response to the call for papers. The integrity of these collections is explained, in part, by the quantity of discussion these shows have inspired among educated viewers. The editors chose writers from diverse disciplines yet generated a coherent whole wherein lines of dialog, images, episodes, and characters are examined from several points of view: theology, ethnomusicology, aesthetics, anthropology, and gender studies, among others. Firefly and Serenity do not come to us ex nihilo. They descend from the Star Trek series, and the 1939 film Stage Coach, both of which were subject to subsequent remakes. These essays reveal meaningful connections between these direct ancestors as well as Plato’s Symposium, Shakespeare’s Tempest, Orwell’s Citizen Kane, and Sartre’s Nausea, to cite but a few more distant relations.

The word “reveal” is important. People like stories with pretty girls, scary monsters and explosions. Firefly and Serenity have gorgeous girls, terrifying monsters and awesome explosions—enough said? Yet the writers in this collection are not so much piling it on as peeling it back, exposing layers of meaning and depth. They challenge questionable elements of the show including legalized prostitution, racialized villainy, and summary execution. Since no one who reads this volume will have expertise in all of the disciplines, everyone will have to look something up. Perhaps future editions could follow the lead of Cricket magazine for children, wherein vocabulary is defined as marginalia. What would be lost in convenience at the press would be gained in accessibility. Reader effort is rewarded: The code-switching of the characters between English and Chinese is an abrogation of a monolingual form of discourse (Mandala 38). When “competing but co-existent status systems…arise when independent hierarchies from different cultures interact” tensions are bound to mount between high-class hookers and working-stiff cowboys (Aberdein 70). The inconclusive dichotomy between brute pragmatism and blind faith teaches the value of pluralistic approaches to humanity as, “Meaning is not in things…but between them, in the interplay, the connections, the empty space” (Erickson 179). Mayhem abounds but, “the film is able to dazzle its audience with a beautifully conceived and thrilling space battle…and to provide them with a more intimate struggle as the crew fights on the surface of the planet to reveal the truth” (Abbott 232).

The truth? Really? What role could such an old-school notion play in this postmodern post-mortem of a polysemic post-colonial pastiche? Why, the premise of the show is “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things” (Whedon quoted on 168). Well, maybe the truth is not out there; it’s just a plot device, a cheap plastic toy that’s swept away when the complex danger of the real world bears down upon us. But perhaps, “Firefly is effective because it uses science fiction without losing sight of the human and embodied concerns that are unlikely to be swept away by technology, even if we become more scientifically advanced and cyborg as a species” (Bussolini 140). Maybe the truth is not something we assign to any one view but something relational that emerges from the intimate struggle between people “who trust each other, who do for each other and ain’t always lookin’ for the advantage” (“Our Mrs. Reynolds,” 1.6; quoted on 59). Neither the characters nor the critics see the same things—but that’s an asset, not a liability, for our ability to thrive may depend more on how we do for each other than whether we are right or come out ahead. To investigate Firefly and Serenity closely is to see many things in this fertile future myth of resonant relevance.