For many people, Halloween means it’s time to throw on a classic teen slasher like Halloween or Friday the 13th. Today, we often look back on those movies as festivals of gore and cleavage designed to appeal to teen boys. But, as film historian Richard Nowell writes, the most coveted audience for these movies at the time was teenage girls.
Nowell writes that teen slashers emerged in the wake of 1970s horror films aimed at adults. Starting with the success of Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, many moviemakers had centered scary supernatural plots on strong female characters. In contrast to the horror movies of earlier eras, these films generally avoided the trope of cowering, half-dressed women. For example, in 1973, the theatrical trailer for The Exorcist, and the film itself, focused on the working single mother of the possessed girl.
By the late ‘70s, adult horror audiences were on the decline. Overall, market research found, half of U.S. theatergoers were between 12 and 20, with a fairly even gender balance. Many went to the movies with dates, and industry professionals generally believed that teen girls usually chose which movie to see on a date with a boy.
To sell movies to a teen audience, writers and directors took special care with their depictions of teen girls. Debra Hill, cowriter of 1978’s Halloween, later said she wanted young women to be able to “see themselves” in the female leads, who spend significant time talking about schoolwork, dating, and babysitting.
While later commentary has often assumed that the sex in teen slashers was gratuitous and promiscuous, Nowell writes that films like Friday the 13th (1980) actually spent a lot of screen time showing couples’ sexual relationships as emotionally intense and romantic. Following on the heels of non-horror teen films like Grease, studio executives had discovered that young love and platonic teen relationships were strong assets for marketing a movie. Lobby cards for Friday the 13th featured few moments of horror or titillating shots of female leads. Instead, they showed romantic moments, platonic friendships, and even a female character showing a young man how to change a light bulb.
“Taken as a whole, Paramount’s lobby cards marketed Friday the 13th as female-youth-friendly entertainment,” Nowell writes.
The marketing apparently worked. Forty-five percent of the theater audience for Halloween and Friday the 13th was under 17, and, of those young viewers, 55 percent were girls.
Following in the footsteps of those hits, a flood of teen slasher movies showed up in theaters in 1981, including My Bloody Valentine, The Burning, and Friday the 13th Part II. These movies followed the newfound convention of mixing romance with horror, leading New York Times critic Vincent Canby to refer to the genre as “teen-age love-and-meat-cleaver films.” The heroines of these movies were traditionally feminine, tough, and sexually confident.
So, if you’re inclined to throw on something scary this Halloween while also celebrating empowered young women, it turns out there are a lot of options.
It seems like every few months, a new movie remake populates movie theaters. These reinventions often adjust stories to fit today’s trends and values. But what happens when an entire genre is “remade”?
In her piece “Shall We Dance?: Feminist Cinema Remakes the Musical,” film scholar Lucy Fischer explores some of the ways in which female filmmakers such as Chantal Akerman flip the narrative of the traditional Hollywood musical, a form traditionally dominated by male and heteronormative direction.
The movie musical is a genre in which audiences suspend belief in order to enter into a world where singing drives a story. A song often emerges from a quotidian moment, in an effort to display a character’s feelings or motivations. Gender is frequently at play. Fischer quotes film critic Rick Altman, who says that within musicals we
alternate between the male focus and the female focus, working our way through a prepackaged love story whose dynamic principle remains the difference between male and female.
Akerman’s The Eighties takes place entirely in a shopping center and follows its protagonist Jeanne as she finds herself caught up in multiple romantic entanglements. In a way, it’s a standard set-up for a musical, with a love triangle at its center. The first act of the movie features snippets of a play in rehearsal which eventually culminate into that play’s performance in the second act.
Ackerman creatively inserts herself through several stand-ins such as the rehearsal director and conductor. Fischer writes, “As though to underscore the traditional power of male discourse (both on screen and off), when the first male actor speaks he does so assertively and no directorial voice comments on his delivery.”
Fischer also explains how the setting of the shopping center parodies the dominant culture of consumerism. She notes that traditionally, women in Hollywood musicals are seen as decoration. The Eighties, however, puts women in the center, with songs and a score that reveal the characters’ emotions.
Akerman dissects the melodrama that is traditionally part of a musical, using repetition to the point of absurdity. For example, the first scene of the film features a line about grief, “At your age, grief wears off,” that is reiterated multiple times throughout. According to Fischer, “The radical use of repetition underscores the redundancy of certain cliches in the melodramatic repertoire and foregrounds their endless replay in real women’s lives.” This theme of repetition is extended into the use of multiple actors for a single role which makes it more challenging for audiences to identity a particular character.
The second act of the film finally places the previous rehearsal scenes into context for the audience as the play is performed in full. Once in context, it is clear that the play is a parody of the musical romance. As a woman sings her romantic, explicitly sexual song, it becomes literal as she begins to make love with her partner as background singers poke their heads into frame. Fischer notes the ridiculousness of these over-the-top musical sequences.
The film doubles as homage and parody to the traditional musical romances, but Akerman revises the genre with her feminist sensibilities. According to Fischer:
Through her “re-make,” Akerman also engages what literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin describes as the rhetoric of parody, wherein “the dominant discourse is reflected as something more or less bounded, typical and characteristic of a particular era, aging, dying, ripe for change and renewal.”
Hollywood director Frank Capra was born in Sicily as Francesco Rosario Capra on May 18th, 1897. He settled in Los Angeles with his immigrant family at five years old, and reached his height of Hollywood influence during the 1930s.
There are two main critical views on Capra’s work. One is that his films are “Capracorn,” kitschy stories about American small town heroes who conquer evil forces through grit and determination. Ronald Reagan, for one, saw Capra’s films as offering an optimistic view of American life, extolling the power of the individual.
Another view takes Capra’s most signature films—Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe and It’s a Wonderful Life—as dark messages about American life, pictures of a society overrun by corrupt elites with sinister motives, a place where the poor and working class struggle to little gain.
In the years between 1936 and 1946, Capra was given relative free reign after Columbia Pictures reaped massive box-office earnings from his comedic 1934 hit, It Happened One Night. That was when he made those four signature films, which feature idealistic lone individuals set against corporate and political elites. American Studies scholar Glenn Alan Phelps argues that Capra’s darker vision of American life, exemplified in those films, is under-recognized. “I would sing the songs of the working stiff, of the short-changed Joes, the born poor…I would gamble with those pushed around because of race or birth. Above all, I will fight for their causes on the screens of the world,” Capra once said.
The four films share similar dramatic arcs: an unassuming young man from small town America is confronted with the power of large institutions catering to a secretive, corrupt elite. Idealistic values eventually prevail. “His America is quite simply a plutocracy,” writes Phelps. Capra’s wrath is often aimed at the media. The reporters in Mr. Smith accept political corruption. In Meet John Doe, a manipulative newspaper magnate changes the motto of his paper from “A Free Press of a Free People,” to “A Streamlined Newspaper for a Streamlined Era.”
It’s A Wonderful Life is now considered pleasant holiday television fare. But at the time it was a box office failure. Critics noted that its depiction of small town bankers as corrupt exploiters of regular people ran afoul of post-war American optimism.
Mr. Smith fared better at the box office. But at its initial screening held for Washington luminaries, many power brokers objected, including Congressman Sam Rayburn and Senator Alben Barkley. Joseph Kennedy, then ambassador to Great Britain, urged that the film not be shown in Europe, for fear that its negative portrayals of American politics would disillusion allies as war loomed. But Franklin D. Roosevelt liked the film; he related to its hero breaking from political bosses, and shared its negative views of newspaper publishers.
Phelps notes that the “Capracorn” view probably comes from the upbeat endings of Capra’s films. The individual hero always prevails, despite daunting obstacles, including thoughts of suicide. He blames the endings on the Hays Code, which governed Hollywood at the time. The Code called for any portrayed evil to be punished at the end. Capra also knew that the public was unlikely to accept dark conclusions.
Capra himself retired early from Hollywood, failing to connect reliably at the box office. His films live on, popular with subsequent generations at ease with more sinister portrayals of American life.
The post Frank Capra’s Not-So-Sunny Vision of American Life appeared first on JSTOR Daily.
“All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” Compared to the People’s Front of Judea’s comical political ignorance in Monty Python’s satire The Life of Brian, post-Enlightenment European countries were deeply familiar and preoccupied with Roman legacies...
Jan-Erik Olsson had a plan. The escaped convict entered the Sveriges Kreditbank in Stockholm’s Norrmalmstorg square on a summer day in 1973. He was armed with a machine gun, explosives, rope, and a transistor radio. This was a stick-up the likes of which Sweden had never seen. In a fake American accent, Olsson instructed the police to deliver $710,000, along with a getaway car and his imprisoned friend, Clark Olofsson. If they failed to meet each of his demands, he promised to harm the four bank employees he had taken hostage. They all trusted him more than the police.
The so-called Norrmalmstorg robbery would end six days later, with Olsson in custody. The four hostages emerged unharmed, with no ill will toward their captor. The police, they believed, were the ones who had actually endangered their lives. This unusual sympathy inspired the pop psychology phrase “Stockholm syndrome,” a label that was quickly attached to other cases—for instance, to the notorious 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress-turned-bank robber Patty Hearst. But the original Stockholm hostage crisis revealed much more: Due to Olsson’s unique disguise, the robbery served as a commentary on the American outlaw—and demonstrated how poorly this swaggering figure translated.
Olsson was born and raised in Sweden. When he arrived at the Kreditbank on August 23, however, he didn’t speak in his native tongue. He barked orders in English, obscuring his identity. According to Daniel Lang’s New Yorker report on the robbery, he also donned “a pair of toy-store spectacles and a thick brown wig; his cheeks were rouged; and his reddish-brown mustache and eyebrows were dyed jet black.”
But the American accent proved to be perhaps the most crucial piece of his cartoonish disguise. He announced his presence to the customers and tellers at the bank with a round of fire, directed at the ceiling, and a shout: “The party has just begun!” This was a line Olsson had lifted from “an American movie about a convict on the loose,” as Lang wrote, though the exact film was never specified. It wasn’t the only bizarre allusion to U.S. pop culture that day. When a plainclothes police sergeant arrived on the scene, Olsson threatened him at gunpoint, teasing him to sing a song. The sergeant chose Elvis Presley’s “Lonesome Cowboy,” assuming the (seemingly) American man before him would enjoy a familiar tune.
Through this assumed identity, Olsson was telegraphing a propensity for violence—one that was largely foreign to Sweden. As a Stockholm University report on Nordic crime from 1950 through 2010 notes, robberies were “more or less unheard of in these countries” at the end of the 1950s. Robbery was still not quite a regularity in Sweden by 1973, though it was climbing dramatically. According to the report, the number of robberies in the country had risen from 469 reported offenses per 100,000 people in 1960 to 1,511 in 1970. Another decade later, that number would jump to 3,427.
This was part of a general increase in violent crime that emerged in Sweden in the mid-1960s, but the trend hadn’t fully registered yet—or at least Olsson didn’t believe it had. He later told Lang from prison that he had banked on “a deep-seated aversion to violence” in Sweden, assuming that the police would grant him enormous concessions to avoid bloodshed. He wasn’t wrong. Per Olsson’s instructions, Swedish law enforcement released Olofsson—who was at the time serving a six-year prison sentence in a Norrköping penitentiary—and escorted him into the bank, where he would serve as Olsson’s accomplice. They also procured a blue Ford Mustang for the pair, along with the $710,000 ransom. The only point on which the police and Swedish government would not budge was the hostages. Olsson wanted them in the car with him, outfitted with helmets and bulletproof vests. The police refused, leading to the six-day stand-off.
The robbery garnered wall-to-wall news coverage in print and on television, where the so-called “bank drama” dominated the evening broadcasts. On Lang’s account, Swedish families would gather outside the Kreditbank, “trying to imagine what was going on behind it, puzzled that their country, stable and enlightened, should provide the setting for so unseemly an episode, prevalent though hostage-taking might be elsewhere.” But if Swedes were struggling to grasp how this kind of crime could happen in their home, they could easily picture it happening somewhere else. As one of the hostages, Kristin Ehnmark, told Lang: “I believed I was seeing something that could only happen in America.”
What did Ehnmark—and other Swedish citizens—think was happening in America? The U.S. had long enjoyed a fantastical reputation abroad, as a place with “gold in the streets, of opportunity and unlimited freedom,” Franklin D. Scott, a Northwestern University history professor, wrote in 1954. But with the arrival of the Vietnam War, the spate of political assassinations of the 1960s, and the general turmoil brewing between the counterculture and establishment, the American dream was turning into an American delusion. This reckoning was also bringing darker aspects of the U.S. tradition to light. “For much of our history, and for a great many people, there is no doubt that America has had an unreal, almost fictional aura about it,” scholar G.D. Lillibridge wrote in 1965. “Even American violence—the Indian on the warpath, the gunman of the West, the gangster of the city—lost its brutal reality when viewed across the Atlantic or the Pacific, and acquired a romantic appeal not granted, for instance, to the Spanish Inquisition,” Lillibridge noted.
The “romantic appeal” is most easily understood through the American folk legends surrounding Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Sam Bass, and Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. These men were all real, but years of mythologizing turned them into beloved, fictionalized characters that symbolized American individualism. The outlaw, as the folklore scholar Richard E. Meyer defines it, is quite literally “one who stands outside of and defies the law.” But for this uniquely American archetype to work, he must be softened into a Robin Hood figure, a man of the people who never attacks the common folk, only corrupt oppressors. Even then, the outlaw deploys violence sparingly, sticking to an unusual yet rigid moral code. “Only certain types of extralegal activities are acceptable,” Meyer writes.
For Meyer, “[w]hen the lawbreaker transcends these limitations he ceases to be an outlaw and becomes a criminal, i.e., one whose acts are unmitigatingly reprehensible to all sectors of society. Holding up banks, trains, or Brinks armored cars is outlaw activity; it is acceptable to the folk mind, which will even go so far as to countenance an occasional homicide, providing it is clearly in what might be termed the ‘line of duty.’ But cold-blooded and calculated murder, crimes against women and children, acts of sadism and terrorism—these constitute criminal activity and the supporters of outlaw-heroes would be as quick to condemn their practitioners as would any other segment of society.”
In reality, several American outlaws did not pass this test. According to folklore expert Kent L. Steckmesser, Jesse James “committed several cold-blooded murders,” while Billy the Kid and his gang picked off a Lincoln County sheriff and a deputy sheriff “from behind the cover of an adobe wall,” in an act that was clearly not self-defense. These historical details were usually dropped from their narratives to maintain their popular image as folk heroes. But by the time of the Norrmalmstorg robbery, violence was becoming less of a dealbreaker for outlaws in the American imagination.
Consider Bonnie and Clyde, the groundbreaking 1967 film that retold the legend of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. These Depression-era criminals were credited with a string of bank robberies, kidnappings, jailbreaks, and a suspected 13 murders—and while the movie obscured some aspects of their story, it did not shy away from their violence. Bonnie and Clyde features multiple shootouts with law enforcement, as well the callous killing of a civilian. Clyde shoots a bank teller in the face. Bonnie and Clyde eventually die in a bloody hail of bullets, in a scene that marked one of the first major uses of squibs in Hollywood history. The violence was thus no small part of the movie; it was unavoidable and kind of the point. This was underlined by the tagline: “They’re young… they’re in love… and they kill people.”
These kind of antiheroes—who represented an updated version of the outlaw folk figure, with less smoothing around the edges—became increasingly visible in Hollywood as a new generation of filmmakers pumped out bolder and bloodier movies, many with roots in U.S. history. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid cast the charismatic Paul Newman and Robert Redford as the infamous outlaws, who, like Bonnie and Clyde, went out in a siege of gunfire. Badlands fictionalized the 1950s murder spree of teen couple Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. Soon even the movie cops were starting to resemble outlaws, as Dirty Harry and The French Connection’s Popeye Doyle dispensed a brutal and completely illegal form of justice.
While it’s unclear which “American movie about a convict on the loose” Olsson saw before he burst into the Kreditbank, clearly, he had plenty of options. But what happens when someone takes an outlaw figure from American history, folklore, and popular culture and transfers that idea to a totally different country? The Norrmalmstorg robbery stunned Sweden, and few found anything “heroic” or folksy in Olsson’s crime. Kaj Hansson, another Swedish thief who the police initially believed was behind the Norrmalmstorg heist, actually called them from hiding to “indignantly den[y] that he would stoop to so foul a deed as taking hostages,” Lang reported.
Over the course of the six days, Olsson also soured on his American caricature. He dropped the accent and disguise as the hours turned into days, and was soon conversing candidly with his captives and accomplice in Swedish. Though he repeatedly threatened to harm the four bank employees, he didn’t follow through with any of his promises. Despite his bravado and criminal history, Olsson, it appears, shared at least some of the “deep-seated aversion to violence” he presumed in the police. He was not, in the end, an American outlaw. He was Swedish, and no amount of cowboy cosplay could hide that.
Music has a way of bringing us back in time. A song from when you were a teenager can take you back to the school dance, or you might have a soft spot for that one pop song that reminds you of childhood. Curiously enough, however, many people feel a particular warmth for the music of not just their childhood, but that of their parents.
In 2013, Cornell University psychologists Carol Lynne Krumhansl and Justin Adam Zupnick conducted a study to find that “music transmitted from generation to generation shapes autobiographical memories, preferences, and emotional responses, a phenomenon we call ‘cascading reminiscence bumps.’” They found, somewhat unexpectedly, that it’s not just the music we listened to during the first two decades of our lives that provides us with fond memories, but also the music our parents listened to in their young adulthood.
The study’s participants included a group of sixty young adults with an average age of 20.1 years old. They listened to Billboard Top 100 songs spanning decades since the 1950’s and were asked which songs brought about the most emotions or memories and whether or not they involved their parents or peers. The researchers played snippets of a range of songs such as “Surfin’ USA” by The Beach Boys to “Irreplaceable” by Beyoncé, and the participants were asked to describe how those songs made them feel. The participants enjoyed the contemporary songs, since they were more nostalgic for their recent past. However, participants also recognized and enjoyed songs from previous decades, from the late 60s to early 80s.
The researchers write that “these participants exhibited something like a reminiscence bump for music released in two time periods before they were born.” It was natural for the strongest emotions to be for recently popular songs, but they also found intergenerational influences when it comes to music. Those “reminiscence bumps” occurred with the participants as a result of listening to music from the 60s and 80s, the periods of time when their parents and grandparents were most likely forming their musical tastes as 20- to 25-year-olds.
Krumhansl and Zupnick write, “One assumes, therefore, that this music was played during parents’ child-rearing years, and made an imprint on our listeners when they were children.” The memories associated with the songs from decades past would often involve their families and cause these nostalgic “reminiscence bumps” of enjoyment. The researchers ultimately reported that the relationship between songs and memories were “closely related to whether they made participants feel happy or energized.”
So while some may consider the music of yesteryear better than what’s on the radio now, that may simply be a result of what our parents listened to.
Bleary-eyed and snug under the covers, I end most nights in bed with my laptop propped on my lap as I squeeze in one more episode of Russian Doll. I binge, you binge, we all binge. But at this point, six years after Netflix began releasing full seasons of original television content all at once, what have we really learned about the binge watch? Experts researching our modern viewing practices have focused on the “flow” of streaming and how these design choices have helped bring us to the binge model, and on the (not unassociated) consequences of the algorithmic control these platforms have over our habits of consumption. The roots of these practices, though, lie further back than the arrival of streaming.
In a 1954 article for The Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television called “How to Look at Television,” Theodor W. Adorno wrote about his concerns over how little was understood about how television worked, and the dangers it posed:
By exposing the socio-psychological implications and mechanisms of television, often operating under the guise of fake realism, not only may the shows be improved, but, more important possibly, the public at large may be sensitized to the nefarious effect of some of these mechanisms.
While his focus is largely on the “imagery” of television and its attendant morality, Adorno presciently points out how significant the mechanisms of television would be to its reception and uses as an artistic medium, and the ways in which the audience would take on ever more importance in evaluating television and its cultural impact. These “mechanisms” are the specifics of how the medium works, the means television producers employ to keep viewers glued to the screen.
Scholars and consumers alike will put pressure on any new medium to account for what differentiates it from others. But this process takes place alongside a struggle to understand how the medium works and what effects it has on us. When the cinema came along, we wondered what it meant to attach images together sequentially, and later, with the release of home television sets, what it meant for an audiovisual machine to become a mass medium. More recently, video games have been subjected to the same lines of inquiry, with an emphasis on the effects of interactive play.
The media and communications scholar Arthur Asa Berger, writing in the Journal of the University Film Association in 1978, quotes the academic George Gerbner, who was speaking in testimony to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence in 1968:
In only two decades of massive national experience television has transformed the political life of the nation, has changed the daily habits of our people, has molded the style of the generation, made overnight global phenomena of local happenings, redirected the flow of information and values from traditional channels into centralized networks reaching into every home. In other words, it has profoundly affected what we call the process of socialization, the process by which members of our species become human.
In the streaming age, we should remember this historical context. With the modern binge model of consumption, these concerns have intensified and evolved. The concept of television “flow” is not new, traditionally describing the strategies networks have used to keep viewers glued to their screens from program to program. The Marxist theorist Raymond Williams called it “the defining characteristic of broadcasting, simultaneously as a technology and as a cultural form.”
Television’s traditional linearity has been upended via home video, on-demand, and most significantly, streaming, with a greater emphasis put on “viewer choice,” such as it is. James Bennett, writing in Cinema Journal in 2008, said:
Television studies should pay close scrutiny to both the interfaces and applications that structure our access to “television” content and manage user flows, as well as the discourses and aesthetics of such content/programming itself.
Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and the rest are deeply invested in these structures (each interface may look similar, but works according to distinct inner logics) and in creating the ideal consumer flow, intended to keep us watching for as long as possible. Berger commented: “Television, in many cases, creates the very dependencies we use it to overcome, so we become caught in a vicious cycle.” Watching television might soothe or entertain us, but the shows are written to draw us back in.
These moralistic (and vaguely health-related) worries over watching too much TV have existed since TV became available to regular families, and the contemporary binging affliction seems like a hyper-indulgent progression. It’s built around different systems, with better technology (you’ll probably notice Netflix introducing you to shows via a “Binge-worthy Shows For You” segment on your home page).
We’re also more aware than ever before of the 24-hour news cycle, with folks now claiming to binge-watch CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News. In an article from Spring 1984 in The Public Opinion Quarterly called “Political Correlates of Television Viewing,” the authors claimed that “television’s impact on the political front is not limited to news and specifically ‘political’ programming, but that the entire dramatic structure of network television may contribute to viewers’ underlying political orientations.” Interestingly, they claim that those who watch the most news and political programming tend to identify as moderates. Without an updated version of the study, I’d wager that the accelerated style of our news cycle and the drive to maintain eyeballs, along with many other factors, suggest that the opposite is now true, and we’re stuck in the muck of hyper-polarization partly as a result of these dramatic structures of network news television.
Compounded by the relative skill of platform algorithms, this all feeds into bingeable TV lives of personalization, each viewer experiencing their own individualized interface and consuming their own niche segment of the culture. A friend may tell you about their favorite show that’s popular now on Netflix, but if it’s not “on brand for you,” you likely haven’t even seen it appear in your app. Nothing is dominant anymore within a medium that was once thought of as the ultimate mass medium, or what the geographer Paul C. Adams in 1992 called “television as gathering place.”
With all this in mind, the nine critical propositions on binge-watching put forward by Tanya Horeck, Mareike Jenner, and Tina Kendall in a recent issue of Critical Studies in Television offer an instructive account of the unprecedented changes in viewer behavior we’ve seen in recent years. What we consider to be “bingeing” changes—it’s not just about the number of episodes you watch; it’s about the choice of a single show. Netflix’s full TV season drops have created an insular flow: “Rather than going back to the home page and making a deliberate choice… the post-play function takes us directly to the next episode. The ‘skip intro’ function even allows us to make the narrative flow feel more seamless.” Netflix tells us at every moment how to watch it.
The authors offer some directives for further work. One of these is to question the extent to which binge-watching has impacted biopolitical production. In its advertising campaigns, Netflix has made light of how sleep and the necessity to eat or leave your apartment can get in the way of your binge. Horeck and colleagues point out how this colonization of sleep is a core tenet of the company’s business model. Netflix’s CEO in 2017: “We’re competing with sleep.”
Not unrelated, I think, is their proposition regarding low-intensity consumption. Much of the binge discourse has been about the high-intensity versions—long nights, deeply felt fandom. Concurrent with those practices is the opportunity to zone out through consumption: “in a binge culture, the banal pleasures of zoning out coexist with—and play an increasingly strategic role in maintaining—the intensive pleasures of switched-on viewing.” This complicates our immediate notion of what it is to binge by bringing attention to how Netflix and other services recreate and rearticulate the televisual experience. Nodding to the medium’s history of being left on as background noise, these low-intensity binges are a natural outgrowth of the auto-play function and the easy-to-digest content Netflix in particular is increasingly producing: cheap reality shows, cooking bonanzas, stand-up specials, and a wealth of assorted documentary content.
These authors also suggest that we consider how bingeing repurposes gender and racial dynamics, often via well-worn tropes. Netflix’s role as a transnational broadcaster (everyone around the world can watch and discuss after a series drops), and the binge model’s role in “shaping viewing protocols in relation to a wider media ecosystem concerned with the generation of ‘clicks, likes and shares’” are all worthy pursuits. But what becomes clear is that bingeing in the streaming age is, right now, transforming how we watch, and we need to be aware of these changes and watchful of their consequences. As the media scholar Elana Levine wrote for Cinema Journal in 2011:
The medium need not speak in a single voice to be a factor in the exercise of dominant interests, nor do its audiences need to engage in a single experience of television to make their negotiations with it central to current social, cultural, and political debates.
Television and its flows remain hugely influential. We can’t just let ourselves binge.
Legendary filmmaker Barbara Hammer (May 15, 1939 – March 16, 2019) was known as one of the first lesbian experimental filmmakers. In the 1970s, she shook up the establishment by exploring queer life and feminism in her films.
Hammer wasn’t only a filmmaker, however; she was also a teacher. In 1984, she wrote the article “The Artist as Teacher: Problems and Experiments” as a way of documenting how she taught her students about art while being an artist.
Hammer wrote, “One of the ways I keep my ‘artist-self’ alive while teaching is to teach in new ways, to use my imagination in shaping or developing a class.” It was a welcome challenge to experience her students’ differing perspectives on the topics that she covered in film. Her own preparation for the class required tremendous research and visiting libraries, which she found lacked a large amount of history regarding women in film.
As a director, Hammer felt an inherent need to be in control of her artistic projects. Despite this instinct, Hammer wrote, “my chosen role as an art teacher is nondirective. I try to be a nonauthoritarian teacher of art who supports the unique development of students on a feminist basis of equal and shared learning.” In this way, she encouraged the artist within the student without imposing her own artistic ideas and strategies on them. When she found that a student was inspired by her work, she found it difficult—but crucial—to “hold back” and allow them to discover their style on their own.
It is evident from Hammer’s piece that she invested as much time and energy in her students as she did in her own work. “I no longer think it is necessary to create personal work while teaching full time. In fact, I suggest the opposite. When teaching, teach; when making art, don’t teach,” she wrote.
Hammer interrogated her identity as a teacher, which often challenged her identity as an artist. By collaborating with her students, however, she found the gender, power, and racial dynamics that she aimed to address in her films were also present in her classes. As Hammer wrote, “In creative teaching, the whole body, mind, spirit, physicality of the teacher is used; all her resources and capabilities are at play.”
This spring, the Brooklyn Academy of Music will present a retrospective dedicated to critically-acclaimed French filmmaker Claire Denis, called “Strange Desire: The Films of Claire Denis.” Claire Denis is a part of a group of contemporary French filmmakers who push the physical body to its limits. The genre is known as corporeal cinema, or cinema of the body and senses.
Film scholar Tim Palmer writes of Denis’s filmography: “Forcible and transgressive, this is a cinema of brutal intimacy.” Palmer includes in this category the work of Denis’s contemporaries, Bruno Dumont and Gaspar Noé. While cinema is often a place of refuge, where viewers go to witness some sort of satisfaction or gratification missing from our own lives, Denis and her contemporaries create films that do just the opposite.
Palmer writes that their filmography
offers incisive social critiques, portraying contemporary society as isolating, unpredictably horrific and threatening, a nightmarish series of encounters in which personal relationships…disintegrate and fail, often violently.
To create this cinema of the body, the filmmakers create drastic visual and auditory experiences, making films that become visceral for the viewers. For example, Palmer writes that Denis’s 2001 film Trouble Every Day features “carnal appetites [that] literally consume others.” In the controversial art house film, gore and lust are taken to the extreme when two former lovers share an interest in cannibalism. Palmer notes the use of parallel editing, or cross-cutting, to depict the slow denouement from psychological decay toward cannibalism. Additionally, Denis, along with her cinematographer, Agnès Godard, chose to shoot the most crucial scenes in the story at night to contrast with the harshness of day.
The way that Denis extends silence to create dramatic tensions, sometimes for up to twenty minutes, causes the audience to become restless. A disturbing soundtrack builds “from auditory claustrophobia rather than structured vocal interactions.” Both audio and visual elements are more enhanced during sexual encounters; Denis’s long takes make the scenes all the more excruciating for the viewer.
As Denis often chooses to stay away from light in the most intense scenes, the darkest scenes are normally when the story’s narrative is illuminated. This experimental, art-house, body-horror kind of film makes for an uneasy viewing experience, but that’s part of the point. Denis’s intent is to always explore the truth, even and especially when it disturbs the audience.
Need a pick-me-up in the middle of the week? Whether you’re listening on Wednesday (the day I’m posting this) or not, welcome to this collection of sonic uplift! I’ve named it after the song you almost certainly know: Piero Umiliani’s “Mah Nà Mah Nà,” made famous in various versions performed by Jim Henson’s Muppets. On this playlist, however, you’ll hear the original, from the soundtrack of Svezia, inferno e paradiso (1968). You’ll also hear 49 other songs, composed by Umiliani, Ennio Morricone, Armando Trovaioli, Piero Piccioni, and others.
To give credit where due, this selection of film music by Italian composers, all recorded between 1965 and about 1976, draws inspiration (and a good portion of its playlist) from a 90-minute mix created by Bill DeMain over 20 years ago. He gave it to me on a cassette, but without song titles.
Maybe 5 or so years ago, assisted by the Shazam app, I managed to reconstruct much of it digitally. (It has long been a favorite mix of mine!) When I couldn’t find a particular track, I added something in a similar vein. I had such fun making it that I made a sequel. This playlist includes tracks from both — the attempted recreation of Bill’s original and my “Part II.” Though not everything is available on Spotify, a surprising amount is.
Tomorrow, this week-long experiment in musical delights continues with… a travel-themed playlist for children and their adults. See you then!
The mixes/playlists thus far…
I am quite excited to announce my newest publication, as it marks my first venture into a fully realized work of videographic criticism. “Adaptation.‘s Anomalies” was just published in [in]Transition, culminating a project I began at the Scholarship in Sound & Image workshop we hosted in Middlebury last summer. (I’m also presenting the video on a panel of videographic work at SCMS in Atlanta, Friday April 1 at 12:15pm.)
While the video stands on its own, I encourage readers to visit the journal’s version for contextualizing material, including my author’s statement and two open peer reviews that provide good insights into the project. I hope it prompts a conversation, either here or at [in]Transition!