There is a kind of humiliation particular to graduate school in the humanities. Graduate humiliation is unique because it is experienced solipsistically. In light of the fact that humanistic work requires the juncture of creativity—blending or concocting new concepts—and the need for analytical rigor, unfavorable feedback from advisors and committee members feels deeply personal. My analogies for the experience are completely clichéd: a blow to the guts; the rug gracefully, but unexpectedly, pulled out from underneath you; or, in the most acute moments, an experience of vertigo in which my relationship to points of reference in the world is just beyond grasp.
Even before I entered graduate school doubts about my self-worth tinged my everyday experiences. So there must have been something particularly masochistic in my applying to East Coast and Midwest doctoral programs and turning my back on a climate I considered ideal for human bodies and an intellectually engrossing, if sometimes misguided, activism on the West Coast. In this previous context I felt I had finally come into my own, and I assumed a confidence lacking in preceding years. This self-assurance came across in the bombast of my first years in the PhD program during which I freely, and joyfully, denounced ideas I found suspect and other graduate students whose work seemed soft and without stakes. But as my dissertation writing group noted early in my drafting of my first chapter: this confidence is now “shot.”
As some already know, MoMA’s design department has recently gotten into the role of acquiring video games as part of their permanent collection, a move that was of great interest to me as a gamer and someone who devotes much of a lot of my scholarship to video games. It so happens that last semester my girlfriend interned in MoMA’s architecture and design department and, as a perk, she was able to bring me along for an intimate, after-hours tour that included the exhibit of the recently acquired video games—a tour made particularly unique because it was led by the senior curators themselves. In the exhibit, the 14 games are displayed with very minimal fanfare (aside from one wall covered in screenshots from Sim City 2000) and even the consoles are hidden behind a blank wall so that just the screens appear with a shelf underneath that holds a set of headphones, and, depending on the game, a controller. About half of the games are playable while the other half run recorded demos of the games. I had already read about the exhibit in the NYTimes and had gone to see it for myself, so now I was really excited to get to meet and talk to Paola Antonelli, a Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, who appears to have been the driving force behind the effort to start a video games collection.
From my perspective, MoMA’s decision to begin acquiring and displaying games is another instance of the gatekeepers to high culture slowly aligning themselves with the increasingly accepted notion that video games should be talked about in the same category as other major forms of popular art. This should be a good thing. For me, gaming still remains a guilty pleasure—a “guilt” that implies this layer of judgment projected on to those around me who still associate gaming with a juvenile pleasure for young males. Maybe it’s for this reason that my own avowed love video games actually makes me more self-conscious about justifying a scholarly engagement—it makes me feel like I have found a way to rationalize remaining a 13-year-old boy well into adulthood. When MoMA or the Smithsonian starts including games in their collections I feel a little less judgment coming my way (and maybe my mom will be a little less embarrassed to tell her friends what I write scholarly articles about). Yet, even as I am excited about MoMA’s and Ms. Antonelli’s efforts, I am also skeptical of the two main functions going on here: first, the idea of acquiring games into a permanent collection ostensibly for recognition and preservation and, second, the manner that these games are displayed. Read more
I spent five days hearing papers on a broad variety of cinema-related topics at the SCMS conference in Chicago recently. It was a terrific, stimulating experience. When I first sat down with the conference program I circled the sessions that featured writers whose work I already knew and admired, like Victor Perkins, Lesley Stern, Gilberto Perez, Dan Morgan, and a few others. Then I turned my attention to other sessions whose topics sounded intriguing, featuring scholars whose work I didn’t know. The sessions in the former category turned out to be reliably great, but I was surprised by the latter category – specifically, the high number of graduate students who delivered dynamic, well-researched and memorable presentations.
Surrounded as we are today by a conversation about the ‘crisis in higher education’, I couldn’t help wondering: What percentage of these students will have the opportunity to devote the rest of their lives to teaching and researching cinema/media studies? To make a statistical prediction: that number is likely to be low. Which seems deeply unjust. Veronica Fitzpatrick provides the valuable, much-needed graduate student perspective on the conference experience in her recent blog post. She calls for a discussion on the theme of “disillusions”: on “the bad feelings associated with carving out a life in academia: discouragement, disenchantment, faltered hope, insecurity.” Her post is essential reading.
And so, if a distressing number of current PhD students in the field are unlikely to get a full-time position doing what they truly love, what will that mean for their continued interest in writing about cinema for the rest of their lives? Doesn’t moving image culture stand to lose an enormous amount of potential thought and writing in the decades to come? Which makes me wonder: What are the cultural conditions necessary to recover some of this potential that is on its way to disappearing forever? Under what circumstances might scholars continue to write about cinema even if they were condemned to the slave labor of a system that exploited them as adjunct faculty for the rest of their lives – or if they ceased to be professionals in the field altogether?
As a child I would listen to oldies radio stations, and certain songs would draw me in. Songs by girl groups were often hard to tell apart: bright instrumentation, sunny harmonies, always about love. But some girl group songs added something indelibly sad to that sound that I couldn’t place. The way the background singers would turn their notes downward in the chorus of “Be My Baby” just before the main vocal came in and the melodic line in “Will You Love Me Tomorrow“ made the songs rich and full of longing. Some years later, taking music lessons, I surmised that these and other songs that had made me feel the same way (like “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”) used minor-mode variations: minor chords, changes, and keys that flattened the third and gained a romantic depth borne of some prelinguistic pain.
The recent work of Phil Solomon, screened at Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Melwood Screening Room on April 4th, seems to be after something of a piece with these episodes in popular music, looking for a combination of image and sound that will overpower with epic, aching beauty. (Given his acknowledged debts to 60s artists like the Beach Boys and the Beatles, who learned a great deal from Spectorized pop, this is hardly surprising.) Solomon’s Grand Theft Auto Works and his Corcoran-commissioned American Falls, though widely divergent in subject matter, share this basic sensibility. They feel too familiar to seem properly avant-garde. This isn’t because he deals with popular materials, but because he recalls and continues familiar experiences with popular culture. Taking the cinematic qualities of Grand Theft Auto to their logical (yet unexpectedly moving) conclusions and boiling American iconography into a liquid monument of loss are as roughly familiar to New Sincerity as they are to the experimental film tradition. (And both carry on the concerns of Romanticism, albeit in different ways.)
Side Effects poster art, with added warning
NOTE: Given that Side Effects might be Steven Soderbergh’s last theatrical feature, two Special Affects contributors, Natalie Ryabchikova and Felipe Pruneda Sentíes, thought they’d do a double post for the occasion, which hopefully will set the stage for an open-ended conversation. Indeed, the conversation is yet to happen, as the following pieces were written independently of one another, so that coincidences and differences will surprise the authors as much as the readers. A piece of advice: if you have not seen the film and don’t want too much information about the story, skip to Natalie’s piece. Otherwise, the plot description in the first piece will prepare you in some ways for the second.
When I was thirteen, my best friend’s family bought a home entertainment center. As an extra, Best Buy threw in a copy of Roger Ebert’s Video Companion, 1995 edition. I sometimes perused the book while I was at my friend’s house. It was a morbid curiosity, an 800-page behemoth with gaping holes in it that made it a poor reference guide. Leonard Maltin’s movie guide was more concise and more exhaustive. I was puzzled at why it took Ebert so many words to recommend a movie. I was puzzled at the principles of selection: where were the Monty Python movies, and why would I want to read about Henry and June or My Favorite Year?
I found myself returning to the book repeatedly, without really knowing why. I re-read reviews of movies I’d already seen multiple times (The Shawshank Redemption was a particular favorite). I read reviews of movies I’d never seen and never would see – like Exit to Eden, in which Ebert included his grocery list.
It took several months for me to learn that I actually enjoyed reading the book, and it took even longer for me to figure out why. It was not a reference guide to pick up and discard at my leisure, but a companion for silent conversations. Talking about why certain movies were better than others seemed to extend their powers over time. The sadness I felt when a movie I loved had to end could be lifted; good words about good films let them live on. He seemed able to say why I liked Shawshank better than I could. But talking about movies also had powers over and above the movies themselves. Talking about why bad movies were bad was fun, in a way that went beyond “I hated…hated hated hated hated hated this movie” into more subtly sarcastic articulations like, “The parents have provided little North with what looks like a million-dollar house in a Frank Capra neighborhood, all on dad’s salary as a pants inspector.” From such combinations of plot summary and judgment, I could build a miniature movie in my head, complete with my emotional reaction to it, regardless of whether or not I’d seen it.
My first time attending the Society For Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference in 2011, I was thrilled to have been accepted from the still-mysterious open call submission pool in the first place, and doubly so to be randomly placed on a panel chaired by Rosalind Galt, whose writing on both space in contemporary European cinema and queer aesthetics I knew and so admired. Hours within arriving to New Orleans, I had spotted Steven Shaviro at the one cafe within walking distance of the Ritz, given my talk on masculinities in zombie apocalypse films to a fullish room, and was dodging dreamy gusts of wind-borne sugar at Café du Monde. The latter is a memory that returns in darker moments, such as waking to emails concerning misprocessed travel reimbursement forms and final deadlines on degree progress – at a different time, in another life, there was Rosalind Galt and beignets.
Ocean’s Twelve is about as cool and cosmopolitan as they come. While still beholden to the heist concept of Ocean’s Eleven–though this time, the crew has to get together in order to make monetary amends for their previous job–it expands the canvas, stretching it comfortably, without ripping apart the fabric that made the first film work so well. The largely American cast is expanded to include Welsh (Catherine Zeta-Jones), French (Vincent Cassel) and British (Albert Finney) stars. Their world of opportunity has moved away from the Vegas strip, into the dazzlingly beautiful vistas of Lake Como, the streets of Rome, and the canals of Amsterdam. This time, the explanation for the impossible job is even more unbelievable, yet Soderbergh nicely withholds just the right amount of information to keep things grounded in the warped plausibility that seems natural to the Ocean group.
I watch Ocean’s Twelve several times a year, but I don’t keep revisiting it for the story. While the landscapes and the elliptical style keep my attention, the real star is the film’s soundtrack. When I mention the Ocean’s Twelve soundtrack, people immediately think of the memorably electronic song that accompanies Francois Toulor’s evasive dance through the security laser field. Where Catherine Zeta-Jones’ storied laser scene from Entrapment (1999) had been about maximizing her sensuality, Cassel’s show-stopping scene is meant to suggest the perfection of his body in relation to the impossibility of the job. The music–Nikkfurie’s “The a La Menthe”–corresponds to the random, manic nature of the lasers. It’s worth noting that “The a La Menthe” does not appear on the soundtrack album to the film: an instance in which a film’s most famous music doesn’t get “official” recognition! Despite the omission, the Ocean’s Twelve soundtrack (officially, a CD labelled “Music from the Motion Picture”) remains a bright star indeed. It is part original score, part compilation disc. Read more
Justin Timberlake’s 2007 song “What Goes Around…Comes Around” has been thought of by many as a sequel to his 2002 break up masterwork “Cry Me a River.” Both songs feature videos in which JT suffers a wrong that can only righted through some unsavory doings. In the first video he breaks into the house of his ex and leaves behind a sex tape featuring him with his current ladylove, a woman who looks astonishingly similar to Jessica Biel. In the video, JT waits for his ex to come home, sets the tape to play in her bedroom, and stalks her from the closet while she showers. In the second video, he simply kills her. All of this is not very Suit & Tie of JT, but considering these two videos together does suggest the ways in which he was getting there. These videos demonstrate how JT has worked hard to polish and deepen his image through an active recreation of his past as something perhaps slightly less embarrassing than all that early boy band stuff.
In the spirit of the song and its themes of circularity, I thought it might be interesting to think about the video for WGA…CA not as a sequel to CMAR, but rather as do over – a kind of revisionist history in which JT reimages his own past in more opulent terms as a means to craft a more expansive and broadly appealing public persona. I want to approach this by looking at the ways in which the videos recast the two protagonists: JT and the figure of his ex, reportedly modeled in the first video on JT’s real life ex-girlfriend, Britney Spears.
Justin Timberlake’s latest music video is part American Graffiti, part The Notebook, all sincere sentiment, and supposedly a true story. Dedicated to Timberlake’s grandparents, William and Sadie, and particularly inspired by the recent passing of his grandfather William, the video tells the story of how the real-life William and Sadie met and fell in love. All of the flashback scenes are narrated from the perspective of Sadie, now old and widowed, looking through mementos in the bedroom she once shared with her late husband.
The theme and tone of the video bear little visual or musical trace of Timberlake’s preceding single, “Suit and Tie.” “Mirrors” replicates none of its panache, its smooth surfaces, its high-contrast sheen. Musically, too, this is quite different stuff, and far more familiar Timberlake-Timbaland fare. A power-ballad guitar/strings/synth backtrack primes us for some serious emotion, but then a hard-and-funky handclap and beatbox reminiscent of (and nearly indistinguishable from) 2002′s “Cry Me a River” takes us back to the hip-hop-infused pop we’re used to from Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds. No soulful horns this time around.