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Saturday, November 1, 2014

November 1-2, 2014: October 2014 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
September 29: American Collectors: Isabella Stewart Gardner: A series on famous collections begins with the life and legacy inside my favorite museum.
September 30: American Collectors: P.T. Barnum: The series continues with two sides to the famous showman, and how to reconcile them.
October 1: American Collectors: George Catlin: What the artist and collector got right, what he got wrong, and what we owe him in any case, as the series continues.
October 2: American Collectors: The Smithsonian: Three exemplary moments in the history of our national collection.
October 3: American Collectors: Phil Collins!: The series concludes with a wacky recent moment and collection, and what it can help us analyze.
October 4-5: Crowd-sourced American Collections: But wait, a crowd-sourced post on collectors and collections rounds off the series—add your thoughts in comments!
October 6: AmericanStudying Appalachia: Wrong Turn and Deliverance: A series on cultural images of Appalachia starts with films about cultural clashes, and how to complicate them.
October 7: AmericanStudying Appalachia: Miner Texts: The series continues with three different types of representations of mining lives and communities.
October 8: AmericanStudying Appalachia: Murfree’s Mountains: Multiple compelling reasons to read one of Appalachia’s most talented writers, as the series rolls on.
October 9: AmericanStudying Appalachia: The Black Mountain Poets: How cultural and historical contexts can add to our understanding of individual authors and works.
October 10: AmericanStudying Appalachia: The Fire and the Furnace: The series concludes with the interesting messages behind a couple macho action flicks.
October 11-12: AmericanStudying Appalachia: Online Resources: For those interested in further AppalachianStudying, a few great websites and resources.
October 13: New NEASA Books: Beyond the White Negro: A series highlighting recent books by NEASA colleagues starts with an exemplary work of public scholarship.
October 14: New NEASA Books: Inventing the Egghead: The series continues with a book that reveals the crucial stakes of inter-scholarly debates.
October 15: New NEASA Books: Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life: The compelling historical biography that’s also a lot more, as the series rolls on.
October 16: New NEASA Books: American Blood: The challenging academic analysis that reminds us how constructed and contested even the seemingly simplest American concepts are.
October 17: New NEASA Books: A History of Spiritualism and the Occult in Salem: The series concludes with the latest SalemStudying book by one of my favorite AmericanStudiers.
October 18-19: My Own Current Projects!:  As I wait for word on the status of my own next book, an update on three spaces to which I’ve recently contributed pieces.
October 20: De Lange Follow Ups: The Rice CTE: A series following up my opportunity to serve as a Social Media Fellow for the De Lange Conference begins with the impressive and important work being done at Rice University’s Center for Teaching Excellence.
October 21: De Lange Follow Ups: Ruth Simmons: The series continues with two vital contributions from the conference’s most inspiring keynote speaker.
October 22: De Lange Follow Ups: Keynote Speakers:  Some of the provocative questions raised by the rest of the keynote speakers (questions that need more answers, including yours!), as the series rolls on.
October 23: De Lange Follow Ups: Pedagogy Sessions: On my specific and broader takeaways from the conference’s wonderful breakout sessions.
October 24: De Lange Follow Ups: Backchannel Conversations?: The series concludes with three ways to think about our conference-long Twitter responses and conversations.
October 25-26: De Lange Follow Ups: My Fellow Tweeters: One more De Lange post, on my amazing group of fellow social media chroniclers.
October 27: AmericanSpooking: The Saw Series: A Halloween-inspired series starts with the question of morality in horror films, and whether it matters.
October 28: AmericanSpooking: Found Footage Films: The series continues with the appeals and the limitations of the ubiquitous contemporary genre.
October 29: AmericanSpooking: The Birds and Psycho: Defamiliarization, horror films, and social prejudice, as the series rolls on.
October 30: AmericanSpooking: Those Scary Foreigners: The terrifying travails of young Americans abroad in two recent, hugely successful film franchises.
October 31: AmericanSpooking: The Scream Series: The series concludes with the benefits and the drawbacks of metafiction, in any genre.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. Topics you’d like to see covered on the blog? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know, please!

Friday, October 31, 2014

October 31, 2014: AmericanSpooking: The Scream Series

[For each of the last couple years, I’ve featured a Halloween-inspired series. It’s been spoooooky fun, so I figured I’d continue the tradition this year, focusing specifically on scary movies. Share your thoughts, on these or other AmericanSpookings, and I promise not to say boo!]
On the benefits and the drawbacks of metafiction, in any genre.
In this post on E.L. Doctorow, Robert Coover, and the Rosenbergs, I highlighted postmodern theorist Linda Hutcheon’s concept of “historiographic metafiction,” a genre of creative art that blurs the boundaries not only between fact and fiction (as do the found footage works I discussed in Tuesday’s post) but also between art and reality, the work and its audience. The characters and creators of such works step back to examine and address themselves, the works as creative works, and their audiences, among other layers to their metafictional engagements. In the mid-1990s, master filmmaker Wes Craven and his collaborators introduced such metafictional qualities into the horror genre: first in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and then, far more successfully and influentially, in Scream (1996) and its multiple sequels.
Scream has plenty of qualities of a straightforward slasher film, as the justifiably famous opening scene with Drew Barrymore amply demonstrates. But the discussion of “scary movies” integral to that opening scene is extended and amplified in the movie proper, which features a cast of characters who have been seemingly raised on such films and who engage in multiple (even constant) metafictional conversations about the genre’s “rules,” conventions, and expectations. The metafiction unquestionably works, elevating what would otherwise have been a largely unremarkable horror movie into an analytical commentary on its own existence, the legacy of which it is part, and the guilty pleasures it and its ilk offer (and make no mistake, Scream remains scary and gory despite, if not indeed through, these metafictional qualities).
As with any genre and form, metafiction has its potential drawbacks and downsides, however, and as the Scream series evolved it reflected quite clearly one of those drawbacks: the tendency of such self-referential commentaries to multiply to the point where they’re chasing their own tails more than either analyzing or entertaining an audience. So, for example, Scream 2 features both a movie version of the first film’s events and a killer hoping to get caught so he could be the star of a televised trial; Scream 3 is set in Hollywood, on the film set of the third movie version of the prior films’ events; and so on. When metafiction amplifies both the effectiveness and the meanings of the text that features it, it can be an important quality of 21st century works of art; when it becomes an end unto itself, it can reflect our most self-aware and snarky sides. Or, to quote a film that was terrifying in entirely distinct ways, “it’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”
October Recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Spooky films (or other texts) you'd highlight?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

October 30, 2014: AmericanSpooking: Those Scary Foreigners

[For each of the last couple years, I’ve featured a Halloween-inspired series. It’s been spoooooky fun, so I figured I’d continue the tradition this year, focusing specifically on scary movies. Share your thoughts, on these or other AmericanSpookings, and I promise not to say boo!]
On the horrifying xenophobia at the heart of two recent hit films.
It’s hard to argue with success, and Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) and Pierre Morel’s Taken (2008) are by many measures two of the most successful films of the last decade. Hostel made more than $80 million worldwide (on a budget of $4.5 million), led to a sequel two years later, and contributed significantly to the rise of an entirely new sub-gerne (the horror sub-genre generally known as “torture porn”). Taken cost a lot more to make (budget of $25 million) but also made a lot more at the box office (worldwide gross of over $225 million), has its own sequel coming out later this year, and fundamentally changed the career arc and general perception of its star Liam Neeson. Neither film was aiming for any Oscars or to make the Sight and Sound list, but clearly both did what they were trying to do well enough to please their audiences and hit all the notes in their generic (in the literal sense) formulas.
What the two films were trying to do is, of course, a matter of interpretation and debate (although Eli Roth is more than happy to tell us his take on what his film is about); moreover, they’re clearly very different from each other, in genre and goal and many other ways, and I don’t intend to conflate them in this post. Yet they both share an uncannily similar basic plot: naïve and fun-loving young American travelers are abducted and tortured by evil European captors, against whom the travelers themselves (in Hostel) or the traveler’s badass special forces type Dad (in Taken; young Maggie Grace apparently gets to fight some of her own fights against additional Euro-types in the sequel) have to fight in order to escape. While it’s possible to argue that the travelers in Roth’s film help bring on their own torture as a result of their chauvanistic attitudes toward European women (in the sequel Roth made his protagonists young women, and much more explicitly innocent ones at that), there’s no question that the true forces of evil in each film are distinctly European. Moreover, since all of the young travelers are explicitly constructed as tourists, hoping to experience the different world of Europe, the films can’t help but seem like cautionary tales about that world’s dangerous and destructive underbelly.
It’s that last point which I’d really want to emphasize here. After all, bad guys in both horror and action films can and do come from everywhere, and that doesn’t necessarily serve as a blanket indictment of those places; if anything, I would argue that the multi-national and multi-ethnic villainy of (for example) James Bond films is a thematic strength, making clear that evil can and will be found everywhere.  Yet both Hostel and Taken are precisely about, or at least originate with, the relationship between American travelers and Europeans, about the naïve ideals of cultural tourism and about creating plots that depend on very frightening and torturous realities within these foreign worlds. “Don’t travel to Europe, young people,” they seem to argue; and if you do, well, be prepared either to kill a ton of ugly Europeans (or have your Daddy do it) or to be killed by them. Not exactly the travel narrative I’d argue for, and indeed a terrifying contribution to our 21st century American worldview.
Last AmericanSpooking tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Spooky films (or other texts) you’d highlight?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

October 29, 2014: AmericanSpooking: The Birds and Psycho

[For each of the last couple years, I’ve featured a Halloween-inspired series. It’s been spoooooky fun, so I figured I’d continue the tradition this year, focusing specifically on scary movies. Share your thoughts, on these or other AmericanSpookings, and I promise not to say boo!]
On defamiliarization, horror, and prejudice.
In his essay “Art as Technique,” pioneering Russian Formalist theorist Viktor Shklovsky (whom I never imagined I’d be discussing in this space, but I am an AmericanStudier and I contain multitudes) developed the concept of “defamiliarization”: the idea that one of art’s central goals and effects is to make us look at the world around us, and particularly those things with which we are most familiar, in a new and unfamiliar light. Such defamiliarizations can have many different tones and effects, including positive ones like opening our minds and inspiring new ideas; but it seems to me that one of their chief consistent effects is likely to be horror. After all, the familiar is often (even usually) the comfortable, and to be jarred out of that familiarity and comfort, whatever the long-term necessity and benefits, can be a terrifying thing.
Steven King, by all accounts one of the modern masters of horror, seems well aware of that fact, having turned such familiar objects as dogs and cars into sources of primal terror. And Alfred Hitchcock, one of the 20th century’s such masters (and, yes, a Brit, but he set many of his films, including today’s two, in the U.S.), certainly was as well, as illustrated by one of his silliest yet also one of his scariest films: The Birds (1963). The film’s heroine Melanie, played by the inimitable Tippi Hedren, asks her boyfriend, “Mitch, do seagulls normally act this way?”; it’s a ridiculous line, but at the same time it nicely sums up the source of the film’s horror: we’re always surrounded by birds of one kind or another, and there are few ideas more terrifying than the notion that such accepted and generally harmless parts of our world could suddenly become constant threats. I defy anyone to watch Hitchcock’s film and not look askance at the next pigeon you come across.
The Birds was Hitchcock’s second consecutive horror film, following on what was then and likely remains his biggest hit: Psycho (1960). Psycho relies for its horror more on a combination of slow-burn suspense and surprising and very famous jump scares than defamiliarization, with one crucial exception: the ending, and its relevation of the killer’s true identity and motivations. If that ending is meant to be the most terrifying part of all—and the film’s marketing campaign suggested as much very clearly—then there’s no way around it: the defamiliarization of gender and sexuality that accompanies the revelation of Norman Bates’ cross-dressing is presented as something fundamentally frightening, not only connected to Norman’s murderous ways but indeed the titular psychosis that produced them. That is, while those murderous birds are clearly deviating from their familiar behaviors, I would argue that Bates is presented as deviant in his normal behaviors—and that his gender and sexual deviancy represents, again, the film’s culminating and most shocking, and thus troubling and prejudiced, horror.
Next AmericanSpooking tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Spooky films (or other texts) you'd highlight?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

October 28, 2014: AmericanSpooking: Found Footage Films

[For each of the last couple years, I’ve featured a Halloween-inspired series. It’s been spoooooky fun, so I figured I’d continue the tradition this year, focusing specifically on scary movies. Share your thoughts, on these or other AmericanSpookings, and I promise not to say boo!]
On the longstanding appeal, and the limits, of faux-realism.
In this very early post on Washington Irving’s History of New York (1809), I noted how interestingly Irving’s book foreshadows (in form, although clearly not in genre or tone) early 21st century found footage texts such as The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Mark Danielewksi’s House of Leaves (2000). There are obviously just universal and longstanding appeals of such works, among which I would include the possibility that we are encountering something genuine (always a challenge to find anywhere, including in creative art), the blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction (and the resulting discomfort, in the most provocative sense of the term, that such blurring produces), and the undeniable thrill of following along in the processes of making and finding such texts (ie, of putting ourselves in the shoes of both those who filmed and those who “found” Blair Witch’s footage, of both House’s creators and its initial readers, and so on).
If found footage has been an artistic element for centuries, though, it has nonetheless reached new levels of popularity and ubiquity in recent years. In film alone we have seen found footage monster movies, found footage superhero films, found footage alien invasion dramas, and, most consistently and most relevantly for this week’s series, the exploding genre of found footage horror films. The latter category includes, to name only a fraction of the entrants (and only some of those that have thus far spawned sequels), the Paranormal Activity series, the [Rec] series, the Grave Encounters series, and the Last Exorcism series. Each of those series fits into a different sub-genre or niche within the horror genre, but all rely on the same found footage trope, and thus all to my mind tap into some of those same aforementioned appeals. (With, perhaps, the added bonus of being able to yell at stupid horror movie characters whom we can imagine are actual people.)
When it’s done well, as I would argue it most definitely was in Blair Witch, found footage undoubtedly and potently taps into all those appealing qualities. But I think it has a significant limitation, and not just that it’s become far too frequently used (and certainly not the blurring of fact and fiction, for which I’m entirely on board). To me, the central problem with found footage works of art is that they too often tend, by design, to eschew artistic choices and complexity—after all, their amateur filmmaker characters likely weren’t concerned with such artistic elements (especially not once the crap started hitting the fan), and so their actual filmmakers often seem not to be either. But while we might well look to works of art for the kinds of appealing elements that found footage features, we also look to them to be artistic, to be carefully and effectively designed as something more than—or at least something other than—the reality with which we’re surrounded. Great found footage works, that is, help us escape into their artistic alternate reality—they don’t simply remind us of our own.
Next AmericanSpooking tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Spooky films (or other texts) you’d highlight?

Monday, October 27, 2014

October 27, 2014: AmericanSpooking: The Saw Series

[For each of the last couple years, I’ve featured a Halloween-inspired series. It’s been spoooooky fun, so I figured I’d continue the tradition this year, focusing specifically on scary movies. Share your thoughts, on these or other AmericanSpookings, and I promise not to say boo!]
On different visions of morality in horror films, and whether they matter.
There’s an easy and somewhat stereotypical, although certainly not inaccurate, way to read the morality or lessons of horror films: to emphasize how they seem consistently to punish characters, and especially female characters, who are too sexually promiscuous, drink or do drugs, or otherwise act in immoral ways; and how they seem to reward characters, especially the “final girl,” who are not only tough and resourceful but also virgins and otherwise resistant to such immoral temptations. Film scholar Carol Clover reiterates but also to a degree challenges those interpretations in her seminal Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992); Clover agrees with arguments about the “final girl,” but makes the case that by asking viewers to identify with this female character, the films are indeed pushing our communal perspectives on gender in provocative new directions.
It’s important to add, however, that whether conventional slasher films are reiterating or challenging traditional moralities, they’re certainly not prioritizing those moral purposes—jump scares and gory deaths are much higher on the list of priorities. On the other hand, one of the most successful and influential horror series of the last decade, the Saw films (which began with 2004’s Saw and continued annually through the 7th and supposedly final installment, 2010’s Saw 3D), has made its world’s and killer’s moral philosophy and objectives central to the series’ purposes. The films’ villain, John Kramer, generally known only as Jigsaw, has been called a “deranged philanthropist,” as his puzzles and tortures are generally designed to test, alter, and ultimately strengthen his victims’ identities and beliefs (if they survive, of course). That is, not only is it possible to find moral messages in both the films and which characters do and do not survive in them, but deciphering and living up to that morality becomes the means by which those characters can survive their tortures.
That’s the films and the characters—but what about the audience? It’s long been assumed (and I would generally agree) that audiences look to horror films not only to be scared (a universal human desire) but also to enjoy the unique and gory deaths (a more troubling argument, but again one I would generally support). So it’d be fair, and important, to ask whether that remains the case for Saw’s audiences—whether, that is, they’re in fact rooting not for characters to survive and grow, but instead to fail and be killed in Jigsaw’s inventive ways. And if most or even many of them are, whether that response—and its contribution to the series’ popularity and box office success and thus its ability to continue across seven years and movies—renders the films’ sense of morality irrelevant (it would certainly make it ironic at the very least). To put it bluntly: it seems to make a big difference whether we see the Saw films as distinct in the inventiveness of their tortures/deaths or the morality of their killer. As with any post and topic, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Next AmericanSpooking tomorrow,
Ben
PS. So what do you think? Other spooky films (or scary texts in other genres) you'd highlight?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

October 25-26, 2014: De Lange Follows Ups: My Fellow Tweeters

[Last Monday and Tuesday I had the honor of being invited to attend Rice University’s De Lange Conference IX  as a Social Media Fellow, helping to create conversations about and around the conference theme (“Teaching in the University of Tomorrow”) and talks. It was a wonderful experience, and I followed it up this week with posts on a number of the issues and ideas I encountered there. For this weekend post, I wanted to make sure to acknowledge my fellow De Lange Tweeters.]
A few words on each of my four fellow Fellows, all of whom I got to meet (in person, that is!) for the first time at the conference:
1)      Dr. Kelly Baker: Kelly has a PhD in Religion from Florida State, and has become one of our foremost independent writers on and scholars of religion in American society, history, and popular culture. Her first two books, the first on the KKK in the early 20th century and the second on zombies in American culture, exemplify this impressive range.
2)      Dr. Jason Jones: While a ground-breaking Victorianist at Central Connecticut State University, Jason helped launch the Chronicle’s ProfHacker blog, one of the preeminent spaces for academic writing and conversation (on- and offline). He has recently moved to Trinity College, where he is the Director of Educational Technology, and where he continues to write all over the web.
3)      Dr. Dorothy Kim: Dorothy is an Assistant Professor of English at Vassar College, where she works on medieval literature and the digital humanities. Yet in true 21st century style, Dorothy combines that historical and literary focus with a consistent and deep engagement with contemporary cultural social, cultural, and political issues and conversations.
4)      Dr. Liana Silva: Liana is one of our most talented and significant freelance writers and editors, having published and worked extensively in the fields of gender studies, cultural studies, musicology, and academic labor studies, among many others. She currently works as Editor in Chief for Women in Higher Ed, and as usual has a ton of great stuff in the works.
A very impressive group, and I was honored to share this role with them. Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. Any other follow ups to the conference and/or the week’s posts?

PPS. Unrelated to the week’s series, but I wanted to remind any Canadian readers that I’ll be giving a talk on the American and Canadian Chinese Exclusion Acts on Monday afternoon at 2:30 at the University of Toronto’s Cheng Yu Tung East Asian Library. I’d love to see you there!