My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

October 31-November 1, 2015: October 2015 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
September 28: AMST Colloquiums: Presenting Our Work: A series following up our most recent NEASA Colloquium kicks off with the three presenters featured at our inaugural 2011 event.
September 29: AMST Colloquiums: Studying Salem: The series continues with one more layer to our 2012 analyses of a crucial New England and American city.
September 30: AMST Colloquiums: Defining the Field: Three big questions raised at our 2013 Colloquium, as the series rolls on.
October 1: AMST Colloquiums: The Digital Turn: Two impressive forms of digital humanities scholarship shared at our 2014 Colloquium, and one more I’d add into that mix.
October 2: AMST Colloquiums: Advice for AmericanStudiers: The series concludes with a few key pieces of advice for grad students from our latest Colloquium.
October 3-4: AMST in 2015: A special weekend post highlighting three examples of the best of AmericanStudies in our 21st century moment.
October 5: Before the Revolution: The French & Indian War: A series inspired by the anniversary of the Stamp Act Congress kicks off with contextualizing a globally significant conflict.
October 6: Before the Revolution: Governor Hutchinson: The series continues with two complex and crucial ways to remember a tragic figure.
October 7: Before the Revolution: The Stamp Act Congress: How the 1765 gathering anticipated the Continental Congress and how it didn’t, as the series rolls on.
October 8: Before the Revolution: Wheatley to the Earl of Dartmouth: The poetic letter that both anticipates the Revolution and helps us remember a vital historical figure.
October 9: Before the Revolution: Crispus Attucks: The series concludes with three telling details about one of the Revolution’s first casualties.
October 10-11: (Pre-)Revolutionary Scholarship: A special post highlighting a handful of scholarly sources through which to continue the pre-Revolutionary conversation.
October 12: Early American Writers: las Casas and de Vaca: A series on early American writing kicks off with two of the first truly American voices.
October 13: Early American Writers: Bradstreet and Taylor: The series continues with two expert practitioners of the Puritan confessional poem.
October 14: Early American Writers: Jonathan Edwards: The problem of associating a writer with only one work and how to get beyond it, as the series rolls on.
October 15: Early American Writers: John Woolman: The autobiographer who traced his own wanderings and can help inspire and guide ours.
October 16: Early American Writers: Annis Boudinot Stockton: The series concludes with three layers to the case for remembering the Revolutionary writer and poet.
October 17-18: Siobhan Senier’s Guest Post on Dawnland Voices: My latest Guest Post, with the great Siobhan Senier on her anthology of New England Native American writing.
October 19: UN Histories: The League of Nations: A series inspired by the UN’s anniversary starts with the failures and successes of the organization’s predessor.
October 20: UN Histories: World War II: The series continues with why it’s important to remember the UN’s wartime origins.
October 21: UN Histories: Muir Woods: A potent 1945 symbolic expression of memory and community, as the series rolls on.
October 22: UN Histories: Secretary Generals: AmericanStudying the careers of three complex, telling Secretary Generals.
October 23: UN Histories: Peacekeeping: The series concludes with what we can learn from the longest-running and newest UN peacekeeping missions.
October 24-25: The US and the UN: A special weekend post on the broad spectrum that is the US-UN relationship, and where we go from here.
October 26: 21st Century Villains: Jigsaw: A Halloween series on villains begins with the Saw series and differing visions of morality in horror films.
October 27: 21st Century Villains: The Newest Hannibal: The series continues with what the most recent version of Hannibal Lecter adds to the iconic villain.
October 28: 21st Century Villains: Richmond Valentine: The supervillain who combines a familiar British plot and a unique American performance, as the series rolls on.
October 29: 21st Century Villains: Wilson Fisk: How Vincent D’Onofrio’s portrayal of the comic book villain takes the genre to complex new places.
October 30: 21st Century Villains: Scarlet Overkill: The series concludes by AmericanStudying the Anglophilia of Minions’ central villain.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Topics or themes you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to write? Lemme know!

Friday, October 30, 2015

October 30, 2015: 21st Century Villains: Scarlet Overkill

[For this year’s installment of my annual Halloween series, I’ll focus on 21st century pop culture villains. Share your favorite villains, new or classic, in comments!]
On the random but telling Anglophilia of the summer’s new supervillain.
After having created, in the despicable but gradually reformed supervillain Gru (Steve Carrell) at the heart of Despicable Me (2010) and Despicable Me 2 (2013), one of the more interesting and human film villains in recent years, the creative team behind those films struck out with their newest supervillain. Not much in this summer’s prequel Minions (2015) works well for anyone older than 10 (and this AmericanStudier knows whereof he speaks, having seen it with his 9 and 8 year old sons), but the film’s villain Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock) is particularly lifeless and uninteresting. The character’s personality and motivations are entirely forgettable, her flirtations with her mimbo husband (Jon Hamm) entirely irrelevant, and Bullock’s line readings seem as disinterested as will be the film’s adult audiences. I don’t believe the film was longer than 90 minutes, but I assure you it was the longest hour and a half of my summer.
There is one interesting thing about Scarlet’s perspective and personality, though, and while it’s as seemingly random as the rest of her character, it also opens up an analytical lens worth exploring. This decidedly American supervillain, introduced in her opening scene (that clip is in German, but you get the idea and are spared Bullock’s line readings) as a 1960s American feminist par excellence, is obsessed with England—she lives in a fortress in London, her husband (despite being voiced by American actor Hamm) is a collection of stereotypes from 1960s Beatles-era England pretending to be a character, and her sole villainous motivation is to steal Queen Elizabeth’s crown and (according to the film’s nonexistent logic) become the ruler of England as a result. This defining Anglophilia represents a very specific choice for the film, particularly since the three Minion protagonists meet Scarlet in the United States (which is the setting for both Despicable Me films) and thus the rest of the plot could easily have taken place there as well.
So what are we to make of this Anglophilia? In a movie as poorly planned and executed as Minions, it’s tempting to dismiss this choice as just another random and, well, crappy one. But I would argue that it’s more meaningful than that, although I can’t say for sure whether the filmmakers intended these meanings or simply stumbled into them (much like their bumbling yellow protagonists do). For one thing, the film is set during the 1960s heyday of the British invasion, when handsome British men invaded our shores and were celebrated by adoring American female fans; and it interestingly flips that cultural script, portraying a thoroughly American, very attractive woman who invades England and seeks to conquer it (with the help of an adoring English male fan who happens to be her husband as well). At the same time, Scarlet’s own obsession with all things England, and specifically with the English monarchy, echoes America’s longstanding cultural obsession with the royals, one that would explode in the post-60s decades thanks to another attractive, self-sufficient woman who (you could say) invaded the royal family and for a time seemed destined for a crown of her own. Whether Minions intends these meanings or not, its central villain certainly engages with these American and English connections in ways far more interesting than the rest of the film.
October Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other villains you’d highlight?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

October 29, 2015: 21st Century Villains: Wilson Fisk

[For this year’s installment of my annual Halloween series, I’ll focus on 21st century pop culture villains. Share your favorite villains, new or classic, in comments!]
On the comic book villain who takes the genre to complex, compelling new places.
There’s a lot to like about the recently released first season of Daredevil (2015), the Netflix TV show adaptation of the longrunning Marvel comic book. British actor Charlie Cox is perfectly cast as blind lawyer and vigilante in training Matt Murdock (as are all of the show’s other principal roles), the writing and direction are consistently top-notch, the action sequences are clear and effective but also consistently balanced by quiet and intimate dialogue-driven scenes, and the season builds to a wonderful climax that wraps up a great deal while leaving us very ready for season 2 (and beyond). But for my money, by far the best part of Daredevil season 1 is exactly what I expected it would be going in: hugely talented veteran actor Vincent D’Onofrio’s stunning performance as Wilson Fisk, the man who will become Daredevil’s supervillain antagonist Kingpin.
Certainly a great deal of Fisk’s character in season 1 fits the familiar bill of a comic book supervillain, if executed to perfection: not just in his larger-than-life physical presence (the already big D’Onofrio apparently gained thirty pounds to play Fisk), but also in both his origin story (told mostly through a series of flashbacks in one mid-season episode) and his present agenda. For the former, Fisk is the product of a dark and violent childhood, one that culminated in a traumatic incident that (it seems) scarred and changed him forever, preparing him for the role he is now beginning to inhabit in earnest. As for his present agenda, he is already very wealthy and powerful by the time we meet him, but has plans for much more, and particularly for reshaping the city that he towers over into more of what he sees as his own idealized image. That agenda makes him into a more grounded, realistic comic book villain than some, but it certainly isn’t unique—take a Spiderman villain like Doctor Octopus, a brilliant researcher who was trying to develop revolutionary new scientific advances when it all went awry.
Yet there’s something different about Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk than any other comic book adaptation villain I’ve encountered, and I don’t think it’s just in D’Onofrio’s amazing performance (he’s not the first great actor to play a comic book villain, after all). There’s a layered, multi-faceted humanity to the character, a combination of some of our darkest characteristics with some of our most hopeful and inspiring goals, not only for his city but also in his own life (as reflected by his season-long romantic storyline, also a first in my experience with comic book villains). Moreover, one of the central themes of season 1 is that Cox’s Murdock is confronting his own darkness as well as his heroic goals, and trying to figure out where the line is between those elements (if indeed such a line exists, and if it can be held even if it does); as a result, Fisk and Murdock mirror each other, not in the superficial way often present between heroes and villains, but in a much more nuanced and challenging way, one that makes it difficult at times to characterize Fisk as a villain (or Murdock as a hero) at all. And so when, in the season finale (SPOILER alert), we see Fisk fully embracing his villainy for the first time, in one of the great monologues ever put on film (DOUBLE SPOILER alert for that video), the moment is certainly villainous yet deeply and powerfully human at the same time.
Last villain tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other villains you’d highlight?