Shrek Forever After (Mitchell, 2010)

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 2 July 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

This blog contains spoilers.

The Shrek franchise has always riffed on surrounding culture to humorous effect. And like most contemporary franchises, it surrounds itself with merchandise: action figures, duvet covers, video games, clothes. This sort of activity has been around for a long time. However, I discovered this evening another form of diffusion/repurposing that is at least a little newer. There is a particularly memorable ‘turn’ early in the movie, and at what turns out to be a crucial narrative juncture, which involves a young boy, reminiscent of Augustus Gloop in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, repeatedly demanding that Shrek ‘do the roar’. The repetition, editing pattern and timing of this in the movie make it very funny. And ‘do the roar’, a web search reveals, has, to use an ostensibly vague trio of words which in fact precisely captures the nature of the phenomenon we are faced with, ‘become a thing’. When I google ‘shrek do the roar’ this is what I get: http://tinyurl.com/shrdtr. There is a YouTube video that re-edits the movie to MC Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’, to great effect. There is a link to a Facebook group page which bears the following description: ‘Welcome to a Facebook Page about The kid from shrek who says “Do the Roar!” Join Facebook to start connecting with The kid from shrek who says Do the Roar!“‘. And, perhaps inevitably, there is an iTunes App: ‘Do The Roar, will allow anyone to annoy Shrek, and cause him to bellow out his enormous Ogre roar. Use Butterpants to help you annoy Shrek,‘ And those are just the first three hits!

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Who am I writing for? Who should I be writing for?

This is the first entry in a new category of posts on this blog: ‘Research ponderings’. I intend these posts to be places where I try to feel my way through some of the perplexities I encounter while working on my research. This will be helpful to me in its own right, but what will of course be even more helpful is if fellow researchers read my ponderings, and are kind enough to offer any words of guidance they might have. I will try in each entry to stick to a particular problem, or at least a tight cluster of them, and avoid lamentations concerning intractable states of affairs.

I’m at an exciting stage in my research leave. The reading I’ve been doing is connecting lots of dots, and giving me lots of new thoughts. Articles are forming themselves in my head, and even splitting into multiple articles as the issues I’m dealing with clarify.

Anyway, here’s one of the things I’m trying to think through…

I want to write an article that uses the insights of phenomenology to offer new tools for the close analysis of screen drama. My problems are all variations on the same theme: the things I want to do to make the case I want to make are somewhat at odds with the demands of research as I think it is understood in contemporary academia.

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Robin Wood (23 February 1931 – 18 December 2009)

Over the next few months I am re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 31 December 2009 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

If one wished to show a person outside the academy how films can be discussed and attended to intelligently, in a manner that goes beyond the swapping of prejudices in conversation, and the journalistic practice of summarizing a film’s plot and awarding a number of stars between nought and some other number, but that does not alienate a non-academic audience through its style, theoretical apparatus and/or unstated assumptions, then one would do well to recommend any of the numerous books written by Robin Wood, a film critic who participated in the creation of film studies as an academic discipline and critically chronicled its evolution, who died earlier this month.

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A model of critical writing: A tribute to Gilberto Perez

At one point in Moana (1926), Flaherty’s documentary about Samoa, we see a native boy start to climb a coconut tree. We don’t see the whole tree, only the bottom part of it, and that view is held, as the boy climbs up, until he disappears at the top of the frame. Then the camera moves upward to take in the boy climbing up another section of the tree, no longer the bottom and not yet the top, and that view is held again until the boy again disappears at the top of the frame. Again the camera moves upward, to take in now the top part of the tree and the boy still climbing until finally he reaches the coconuts he was after. […] Like a narrator, [Flaherty] makes a sequence of something that is not: he shows us the tree a piece at a time, this and then that and then that, as if he were telling us about it. Deliberately he only shows us so much, which makes us curious to find out what more there is and surprised at how very tall the tree turns out to be. The climb, unlike the tree, is itself sequential, but Flaherty’s rendering of it is sequential in a way that the climb is not. Deliberately he allows the boy to leave our view, which draws our interest to where the boy has gone, the space we are yet to see above the frame.
Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, pp. 53-4.

I was very sad to receive the news that Gilberto Perez, an extraordinary film critic, died suddenly last month. Perez taught at Sarah Lawrence College, and on the college’s website a touching set of tributes has been compiled. I met Perez in person only once, briefly, when he visited the UK for a conference. But as a writer on the page, Perez was a source of near-constant intellectual company, stimulation and inspiration for me for long portions of my postgraduate studies – and beyond. He is one of a very small handful of writers about film that I have tried sustainedly to emulate as a model of critical thinking and writing.

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Spaces (and times) of television

I’ve been feeling increasingly bad about neglecting this blog of late.  My excuse is that I’ve had various other small writing projects on the go: 1. After seeing and enjoying What Maisie Knew at the cinema (thank you, Hull Screen!), I wrote two pieces about it for Alternate Takes, the first of which is up, the second of which is coming soon.  2. I’ve been trying to get a healthy amount of initial content onto another blog, the one I’ve launched for the Film Studies subject team at Hull, Thoughts on the Screen (complete with awesome Saul Bass-inspired design, courtesy of WordPress).  3. I’ve just finished a double book review that will (fingers crossed) appear in the next issue of Critical Studies in Television.  4. I’ve started work on a co-authored article about how time works in The Simpsons.  So far my grappling with the fiendish time scheme of the programme has given me a deepened appreciation for what Fernand Braudel said about being an historian: ‘My great problem, the only problem I had to resolve, was to show that time moves at different speeds.’ 5. In my quest to revive for myself the lost art of letter-writing, I have marked sheets of paper with ink and sent them in stamped envelopes to members of my family!

Another thing that has disrupted my usual routine is that last week I attended the ‘Spaces of Television’ conference at the University of Reading.  The event was chock-full both of great presentations and of lovely friendly people, some of whom I already knew and some I’m delighted to have met.  I won’t attempt to summarise the things I heard, partly because there is already a great summary of much of what went on at the event on this discussion forum.  I did want to write a few paragraphs about what was for me the most exciting and inspiring session.

The session was presented by Dr Andew Ireland of the University of Central Lancashire.  Andrew was telling us about – and then showing us – what he did for his PhD research.  He set himself the challenge of taking the script of a recent episode of Doctor Who, and then re-shooting the script under the conditions that would have existed had the episode been filmed at the BBC in 1963!  This implies some significant restrictions with respect to both space and time.  Andrew was able to use some footage shot on location – but that footage did not have any synchronised sound.  Being able to cut away to this footage occasionally bought precious seconds, but for the most part, the action had to unfold so that it could be captured by the continually-rolling cameras within a relatively small studio space.  This calls for huge amounts of ingenuity when moving from one scene to another (how do you make sure your actors are ready?), and also when lighting sets that, because of the small overall space available to work in, are often very close together (your ‘night-time alleyway’ might well need to be very close to your ‘daytime living room’: how are you going to manage that?!).  And if you make mistakes, you had better recover from them fast and carry on, because recording won’t stop!  When we were then shown the final product that Andrew and his collaborators had produced, I was amazed by how close to a 1960s product it looked (to my admittedly not optimally trained eye; I have seen a fair bit of television from these period, but not masses).  The working practices implied, almost entailed, certain ways of doing things (for example, having lots of frontal staging, with characters huddled around and all facing the camera), and just like that, a past style was resurrected.

It was a great research project, but what it got me thinking about were pedagogical possibilities.  Throughout his presentation, Andrew kept on emphasising that the important thing for him was not the product but the process, and he kept coming back to the idea of ‘embodiment’.  I think he was absolutely on the money on both counts.  If one asks students to reflect upon why certain stylistic elements are present in a television programme, or a film, the first kinds of answers one is likely to get, in my experience, are answers which think exclusively in terms of the experience of a viewer – and often, answers which treat style as a symbol-system (there are shadows on the character’s face to show that he is not to be trusted).  Such observations can be valuable, and they certainly have their place.  However, finding ways of getting students to think like practitioners, and thus to think in terms of restrictions, and problems and solutions (to invoke one of David Bordwell’s very productive schemas for approaching style, and stylistic change), and so on, greatly expands their perspective.  Not only this: it helps them to move beyond seeing style as a punctuation marks or flourishes that occasionally rise to the surface, and to appreciate that style is a system, that nothing appears on screen without being put there, that every shot involves a huge range of choices, and that those choices are confined by the prevailing mode of production, which comprises technology, working practices, and much much more.  That is, practical, studio-based work can help students to pull things together, and to become better and more reflexive theorists (and historians) of style.

When I first started teaching at Hull, a colleague and I experimented, in a final year television module, with getting students to try to recreate in our studio facilities a short passage from a particular episode.  Whilst the process was interesting, I don’t feel that the students got as much out of it as they might have done.  I now think that adding the ingredient of giving them a brief that tells them that they need to abide by a particular set of production conditions could provide exactly what is needed.  That way, it will be clear to the students that they are not being asked to replicate but to adapt.  The result (one would hope!) would perhaps be that instead of feeling disappointed about failing to measure up to the original, the students would instead be encouraged to think through (both in the sense of considering in a sustained fashion, and letting a system become one’s lens of the world, to use an appropriate metaphor), to internalise, one might almost say, different styles and modes of production, the different aesthetic effects they achieve, and the different but not necessarily unequal merits of these.

To the drawing board…!

Close reading; or, my teaching timeline

On the module of my PGCHE focused on classroom practice, one of the first activities we were invited to participate in was to draw up a ‘teaching timeline’.  We had to cast our minds back as far as we could remember, and map a chronology of our experiences of being taught, highlighting particular memorable moments, periods, or teachers.  It was a great activity, which I would recommend to anyone.  The first response it provoked in me, besides nostalgia, was immense gratitude.  My feeling is that I’ve been particularly lucky to have encountered so many great teachers, of so many different kinds.  (The first learning experience I remember in any detail is Mrs Reed, a semi-retired and quite elderly woman – or so she seemed at the time! – coming into one of my classes in perhaps my second year at primary school and teaching us some of the basics of grammar.  Those lessons have never left me.)

The main thing that I soon came to recognise, though, was the primary importance within what I might somewhat loftily call my ‘intellectual formation’ of one method of inquiry: close reading.

The apex of my experience of this method during my days of being taught was my two years studying A-level English literature at Ridge Danyers College (now Cheadle and Marple Sixth Form College), principally by two truly great teachers: Julia Wilde and Tony Cassidy.  We spent two years studying only a handful of texts: A Streetcar Named Desire, The Color Purple, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar, Othello, The Tempest, and some Ted Hughes poetry (there may have been one or two others, but I don’t think there were).  That works out at just over one text per term (although in practice there were overlaps – meaning, in fact, that we spent longer than a term on each text!).  We were not given lectures, and I don’t remember much in the way of secondary critical literature (a point I shall return to later), though I do remember being chastised in the feedback to one of my essays for parroting a reading that I had found in a ‘Critical Guide to…’.  What we did, for two and a half hours, twice a week, was sit in a circle with the teacher, read passages of the set texts together line by line, and talk about what they meant.  It was amazing, and I still (that is to say in part, after a subsequent first degree in film and literature) count Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar, Othello and The Tempest as amongst the texts I know best of all, and admire the most (these two things of course being closely related).

University study (in my experience of the courses I’ve been on or looked into), and not just that of literature, tends to be very different from this.  For an undergraduate, a more typical pace is to have one set text per week of term.  Often, there will only be two hours of contact time per text, and one of those hours will be a lecture.  And that is per module; depending on the institution, a student may be juggling between four and six modules per week.

Another key difference that I found (in my particular but I believe quite widely-applicable experience) between studying humanities at A-level and at undergraduate level was that in the case of the latter there was a much greater emphasis upon engaging, both in the classroom and in one’s essays, with existing academic material on the topics and/or texts one was studying.  Again, this is a point I shall return to towards the end, after offering some thoughts on the issue of speed and depth.

The virtues of taking a ‘deep and narrow’ approach

I have offered above a general sketch of the way university teaching will often be conducted: one text per week, one lecture, one seminar.  However, there are of course plenty of exceptions to this general trend, and plenty of eloquent and prestigious voices in favour of close reading.  I’m not going to talk here about contemporary voices in educational theory that argue (correctly) that the pursuit of coverage is often at the expense of the cultivation of the skills that would allow students to stand back from the rapid-fire tour of modular copses the better to see the woods of the discipline.  (This is one of the arguments of those who advocate ‘threshold concepts’ – the topic of a future blog, perhaps.)  I am also consciously eschewing the ‘contemporary information overload’ argument (which re-emerges every time a new communications technology is disseminated, and is at least as old as the invention of writing).  I find Nicholas Carr’s article ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ interesting and provocative, but that line of argument is not the one I am pursuing here.  I take it that we live, as we always have, in a world where there is more information available than any one person can hope to become acquainted with, but that we also live, as we always have, in a world where there are a range of ways of responding to this fact.

In a previous blog entry I quoted a short passage from a great interview given by communications scholar John Durham Peters.  Here is Peters again, in the same interview, advocating reading in depth as a vital accompaniment to attempts to achieve breadth of coverage:

Truth is robust.  Though there is too much to read, many minds will light on common truths.  So instead of angsting about how to encompass it all, find an angle and start digging and you will soon discover roots and branches that connect you with other perspectives.  Dig into Weber far enough, and you’ll be able to figure out Marx and Durkheim.  This is the wormhole principle: the key thing is to figure out how to access the network.  So instead of dictating a canon of specific titles, I would encourage people to find their scripture, their text that can help interpret the world for them, and then read and reread it.

The main source of reflections upon this topic that I have been reading lately though, the one that prompted me to write this entry in the first place, is the introduction to Robert B Ray’s book The ABCs of Classic Hollywood Cinema (Oxford University Press, 2008).  One thing that Ray cites there as a way of introducing his own method is an interview with Carlo Ginzburg, an historian whose work I admire enormously.  Ginzburg is talking about the thing in his teaching timeline that led him down the professional path he chose:

I didn’t even consider history because I found it so boring.  What changed my mind was a seminar in which [I] was asked to spend an entire week analyzing only ten lines of a book written by a leading 19th-century historian.

It was the slowness that fascinated me.  Every phrase, every word had to be dissected for their possible implications.  I came to understand that texts can have hidden, invisible meanings.  It was not an easy lesson.  In my speech, my writing, my judgments about people, I tend to be very quick.  I learned the importance of reading and rereading one page, even a single passage, for days, weeks. (Qtd. in Ray, xviii)

Ray’s book itself abides strongly by the ethos of close reading.  Not only this: it arises from Ray’s experience of teaching film to undergraduates not by presenting them with a new film each week, but instead by spending fourteen weeks studying four movies (he describes his book, brilliantly, as ‘a kind of lab report concerning what can still be done with four famous movies and a few basic critical texts’ [xxv]).  His experience of this teaching was that, ‘[f]ar from wearing out the films under investigation, the intense scrutiny enhanced both my own and my students’ interest in them’ (xviii-xix), and that his students ‘produced the most consistently interesting work I have seen in my 25 years of teaching’ (xxv).  (I have, happily, experienced some measure of this closeness in my own university film education.  The University of Warwick’s Department of Film and Television Studies, as a rule, screens each module film twice to its students, and expects them to attend both screenings.  I found this to be a great discipline to cultivate, and looking back, I also see that it greatly enhanced the quality of discussion that occurred in the seminar room.  V F Perkins in particular would often spread the study of a single film across multiple weeks in his teaching.  One of my fellow Warwick alumni has since moved on to the University of Bristol, and has told me that there is a final year undergraduate module there on which students spend several weeks studying a single film from a range of perspectives.  I am sure this list could be extended further.)

The (secondary?) place of ‘secondary’ literature

I agree with Peters that it is not worth having a passing acquaintance with a huge number of texts if one does not also possess intimate knowledge of at least a handful of favourites; indeed, that a lack of experience in close reading of some texts will condemn one to a superficial grasp of all texts.

I mentioned that as well as not being diluted by greater coverage of a larger corpus of literature, my primary focus upon a small number of texts during my A-level literary study also largely eschewed any engagement with secondary literature on those texts, or on literature more broadly.  Looking back, do I believe that my engagements with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or The Tempest would have been deepened with the help of other critical voices, or that being taught, at that stage, how to stage a dialogue with existing sources would have made for sounder ‘training’ for the further studies in the humanities that I was about to embark upon?

I would answer each of those questions with a confident ‘no’.  I should immediately add that I believe that engaging with other voices, among them existing academic literature, some of which sometimes goes under the name of ‘theory’, is a fundamental element of study from the undergraduate level onwards.

There was a stage in my university studies where I was a close reading ‘purist’.  What I mean is that I, semi-unconsciously, measured the closeness of my reading by the extent to which I excluded references to ‘theory’.  Theory dealt with the abstract; I was dealing with the particular.  (I’m caricaturing slightly for the sake of clarity: my work was never ‘theory’-free; it was only during particular passages and for particular purposes that I would eschew secondary material.  I still believe there are occasions where this is justified.)  However, I do not see things this way any more.  I still think that ‘theory’, when used badly, can lead to what Kristin Thompson (I think) called ‘cookie-cutter’ criticism: every text that the theory comes into contact with comes out looking the same.  But not all theoretical writing offers its readers a reductive procedure for pigeonholing texts and their components, reducing them to deathly sameness.  As Terry Eagleton puts it in After Theory (Penguin, 2004),

At their most useful, critical concepts are what allow us access to works of art, not what block them off from us.  They are ways of getting a handle on them.  Some of them may be more effective handles than others, but that distinction does not map on to the difference between theory and non-theory.  A critical concept, even a useless or obfuscatory one, is not a screen which slams down between ourselves and the work of art.  It is a way of trying to do things with it, some of which work and some of which do not.  At its best, it picks out certain features of the work so that we can situate it within a significant context.  And different concepts will disclose different features. (94/5)

I still think that offering alive, detailed, sensuous descriptions of individual texts and the experiences they offer is one of the most important and valuable tasks of work in the humanities, but I now have no residual guilt or qualms about using ‘theoretical’ material to help me achieve that goal.

We are what we read, and as Carr suggests in his article (quoting Maryanne Wolf), we are also how we read.  I would go one further: we are the order in which we read.  I believe there is a big difference between, on the one hand, watching Vertigo and then reading ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, and, on the other, reading ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ and then watching Vertigo.  (The example is hardly random or innocent, but there are plenty of others I could offer, and I invite the reader to think of her or his own.)

I think, though (I recognise the possibility that I could be wrong about this), that without that crucial formative period of closely studying literature, largely untroubled by what others (beyond those others in the room discussing it with me) thought about it, I would not have the same respect for aesthetic texts and their autonomy (and what I am even tempted to call ‘rights’ in the face of hermeneutic endeavours directed at them), nor the same taste for losing myself in details and close analysis, nor the same primary reliance upon my own engagement with the text, as a first step, at least (to briefly invoke once again the ‘second screening’ system at Warwick: another part of its logic was that one would have the opportunity to watch a film once with only one’s own preconceptions, before hearing a lecture about it, and then again afterwards to allow one to measure the evidence of the text against the words of the lecturer, and to do so in light of one’s own initial response).  This is why, although one of the leitmotifs of my life is to find myself saying ‘I wish I’d known that sooner’, and although there have been darker moments in my university life where I have cursed my greenness in the face of certain types of academic cut and thrust, when I look back at my teaching timeline I am glad that the encouragements to adopt particular approaches to my objects of study came at the times and in the order that they did.