Monday, February 17, 2014

The Selective Tradition of Be Kind Rewind

As the community in this film rallies behind the idea of creating their own text, illustrating their folk stories about Fats Waller, one character proclaims, “Our past belongs to us. We can change it.”  “Ours” and “Us” in this sentence appear to belong to the community of Passaic, New Jersey.  And this quote is being used to justify their liberties taken in telling a history of Fats Waller, who was born and raised (and had his ashes scattered) in Harlem and had no factual ties to Passaic.

The way this community participates in this project is fairly illustrative of the selective tradition discussed by Williams.[1] “The selective tradition thus creates, at one level, a general human culture; at another level, the historical record of a particular society; at a third level, most difficult to accept and assess, a rejection of considerable areas of what was once a living culture.”   As the community embraces and indulges in this folk myth, they illustrate the “extent to which the cultural tradition is not only a selection but also an interpretation.”

According to the indulgent plot of the film, the community found themselves at that juncture because their earlier interpretations of existing works were outside of the hegemonic expectation for interaction with the media.  While the film shows characters being legally prosecuted for violating copyright (which is curiously not resisted much, though of all the oppressive structures in the film it seemed the most likely to have been successfully withstood.)  It seems that what is happening is that the Passaic community (and especially Mike and Jerry) have “failed to [interact with the texts] as [the creators] intended.  What [the creators of the original texts/ or the studio system] really meant to say is that [these] viewers are not operating within the ‘dominant’ or ‘preferred’ code.  The ideal of [the studio system] is ‘perfectly transparent communication’ . Instead, what they have to confront is ‘systematically distorted communication’,” [2]which in the case of the “sweded” tapes is not only a decoding of meaning that is not transparent, but also a re-encoding that provides a typically passive consumer into a creator, articulating with the text and his community in an empowered way.

But, after giving up on their re-imaginings of existing texts, Mike and Jerry and their community take on the task of illustrating their imagined past in a manner full of elements of the present.  While there are certainly efforts made to use aesthetic cues or symbols that communicate the time period and culture they desire to illustrate, these come across as two-dimensional and constructed compared to the energy and culture of the present that manifests itself in the film created within this film.  So while the group seemed to be intentionally embracing “things” “symbols” and “signs”[3] that would correlate to the subculture of a poor black urban community in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, what proves its presence in this project is the “Structure of feeling” of a 2006 community, presumably because as Williams said, “Once the carriers of such a structure [of feeling] die, the nearest we can get to this vital element is in the documentary culture…but if we reflect on the nature of a structure of feeling, and see how it can fail to be fully understood even by living people in close contact with it, with ample material at their disposal, including contemporary arts, we shall not suppose that we can ever do more than make an approach, and approximation, using any channels. 

And so the 2006 structure of feeling is present in the Fats Waller Film not only in the obvious forms required by a lack of budget (use of a modern locomotive) and by lack of continuity personnel (breakdancing), but also by the body language between individuals, the self-reflexivity of the piece, the very medium of the piece, and the intentional and affected treatment of the story and material as being illustrative of something “long past.”  Theoretically, the Mr. Fletcher character ought to be some sort of a point of reference, since the film infers that he was alive during this period, but it appears that in this context, the structure of a feeling of a time and place may be lost long before all those that lived it have passed away, as they go on to live through a continuous evolution of structures of feeling, and placing anything with precision in that spectrum proves problematic.

Thus, despite the involvement of characters with living memory of that era, the film, and by extension the “traditional culture of a society tend[s] to correspond to its contemporary system of interests and values, for it is not an absolute body of work but a continual selection and interpretation.” Thus the Fats Waller film becomes a part of the selection process – not only selecting what information is included in the selective tradition, but what is rejected and in this case even changed. 

Interestingly, the film ends with a song performed by Fats Waller played over the credits. While Fats was generally known as composer, this song, “Your Feets’ Too Big, “ is actually credited to Fred Fisher and Ada Benson, although Fats’ version of this song includes a bridge that he is known to have improvised, “Your pedal extremities are colossal, to me you look just like a fossil.”  The history of Fats’ own compositional work is difficult to reconstruct in an area where improvisation was popular, and wherein Fats’ sold the rights to a number of his works during times of hardship, and lost ownership of his own work.  So the ambiguity of the Passaic community’s treatment of Fats’ biography is consistent, after a fashion, with the lack of concrete data available to construct a history. He was, after a fashion, the perfect subject for such an interpretive treatment.

[1] Williams, Raymond. "The Analysis of Culture." Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader. 4th ed. Harlow: Longman, 2009. 32-40. Print.

[2] Hall, Stuart. "Encoding/Decoding*." Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Comp. Meenakshi Gigi. Durham and Douglas Kellner. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001. 166-76. Print.

[3] Clarke, John, Stuart Hall, Tony Jefferson, and Brian Roberts. “Subcultures, Cultures and Class.” The Subcultures Reader. 2nd ed. Comp. Gelder, Ken. Taylor & Francis, 2005. 100-111. Print.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Son of Rambow and tropes of media effects

Garth Jennings’ 2007 film Son of Rambow sets the stage for a spectacular clash of cultures.  Will Proudfoot and his sheltered upbringing rigidly proscribed by the Plymouth Brethren, to which his family belongs, are set immediately on a collision course with Lee Carter and his feral lack of supervision.  Lee bootlegging the same film that Will’s sect opens the film by protesting creates a drastic and immediate comparison.  The Plymouth Brethren’s protectionist insistence that such worldly influences as the cinema will corrupt those who indulge in them is put to the test as Will engages in Lee Carter’s world, and ultimately fails to come to fruition.

There are multiple characters and scenarios throughout the film that seem to embody classifications of the media effects discipline.  Interestingly, although Media Effects leans toward a protectionist stance regarding media consumption, the film, using the character arc of Will Proudfoot and the traction of his unlikely relationship with Lee Carter, seems determined to make a case for a freer and more optimistic paradigm for media encounters.

The Plymouth Brethren sect is depicted as a somber, tense, and pessimistic congregation. Their protest in front of the theater where First Blood is screening is illustrative of concerns that mirror many of the questions addressed by the Charter Motion Pictures and Youth Study.[1]  “What sort of scenes do children see when they attend theaters?  How do the mores depicted in these scenes compare with those of the community? What effect does what they witness have upon [children’s] ideals an attitudes? Do they affect the conduct of children? Are they related to delinquency or crime?”  The Plymouth Brethren are clearly concerned with media having an effect on viewers, and they are deeply suspicious of aberrant, corrupting influences.

Under such a culture, Will is sheltered from nearly the entirety of pop culture, and it renders him socially handicap.  Only once a series of unlikely events leads to his viewing of First Blood does he have a common reference point with his peers.  Lasswell[2] pointed out that the formation of Attention Aggregates relies upon common symbols of reference, and only once Will Proudfoot becomes acquainted with the world of Rambo does he have the common symbols of reference to become the center of the social project that “Son of Rambow” will become. 

Likely because it was his first encounter with any such text, Will’s response to it was far less conditioned than that of any of the other children in the film.  As a symbol specialist (Lasswell) he is the only child engaging with the text as a manipulator/controller rather than a mere handler.  His conception of the concept of Rambo as plastic and manipulatable contrasts with Lee’s conception of First Blood as just another movie – something to consume and discard – and he has consumed enough films that he has “cultivated”[3] a conception of films as a consumable good, and less of a text that he can engage in .  His surprise at Will’s pronouncement that he is the “Son of Rambow” shows that he had not thought to engage with or manipulate the text in this way.

If, as Gerbner defines, cultivation is “the independent contributions television (or media) makes to viewer conceptions of social reality,” then viewing “First Blood” clearly cultivated some conceptions in Will’s character.  However, viewing of the film does not itself account for the zeal and ambition that follows.  The film seems to counter or complicate this definition by suggesting that the text could only catalyze beliefs, interests, and convictions that were already in place in Will’s personality and imagination.  Will’s overactive imagination and his apathy toward the Plymouth Brethren’s imperatives had already been clearly illustrated through his whimsical drawings in his Bible.  His wholehearted embracing of the narrative world of Rambo may have been a surprise, but it was not a shock.

The manner in which Will manipulated the Rambo narrative speaks to Gerbner’s concept of “resonance.”  Having lost his own father to a brain aneurism, Will created an opportunity to save a figurative father figure.  Gerbner said that media will resonate with an audience when “everyday reality and television provide a double dose of messages that resonate and amplify cultivation.”  The lack of a patriarch in Will’s home is depicted as a point of angst throughout the film, and for Will to act as a media manipulator involved in creating a narrative that resonates with his personal life shows an inversion or reversal of Gerber’s unidirectional parameters of resonance.

Lee Carter also proved an interesting foil to Gerbner’s “Mean World Syndrome”.  Claiming that exposure to violence in media would “cultivate an image of a relatively mean and dangerous world in [one’s] conception of reality,” Gerbner proposed that heavy exposure to the world of television cultivates “exaggerated perceptions of the number of people involved in violence in any given week.”  Lee is certainly introduced in the film as a character inundated with violent media, and with a marked pessimism about the people he interacts with and their intentions toward him.  However, the film clearly illustrates that a factor outside of media (in this case his friendship with Will, and their joint project of creating the “Son of Rambow” movie) have a marked influence on his outlook, which within the scope of the film seem to have the opposite effect and in a much more pronounced fashion than Gerbner’s description.

While the film explores the expectation that exposure to a film as violent as “First Blood” could lead to problematic behavior, it definitely depicts both Lee and Will as being enriched by their encounter with that text and with one another.  It depicts interpersonal relationships as being a more important factor than media influence in determining the effect of media (not altogether incongruent with Katz and Lazarsfeld’s[4] discussion of small groups and a 2-step process of media effects.)  It also depicts Will’s experience with the text as being so full of joy as to be transcendent.  This type of engagement is conspicuously absent in the media effects texts we have explored, and Jennings’ film frames this omission as the most important thing about engaging with a film text.

[1] Charters, W. W. 1935. Motion Pictures and Youth: A Summary. New York: Macmillan.
[2] Lasswell, Harold (1948). Bryson, L., ed. The Structure and Function of Communication in Society. The Communication of Ideas. New York: Institute for Religious and Social Studies.
[3] Gerbner, G. (1998). "Cultivation analysis: An overview".Mass Communication and Society, 3/4, 175-194.
[4] Katz & Lazarsfeld (1955). "Personal Influence". New York: Free Press.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Generic Ambiguity – playing with audience expectations in The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon provides an interesting case study for genre analysis, as it is credited with a role in catalyzing the era of Film Noir and as the film itself uses, plays with, and resists genre-based audience expectations.

It is worth noting that this film was seminal in establishing both Bogart and Huston’s careers. Audiences were not familiar with either of them when this film was released in 1941, less than 2 months prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and engagement of the US in World War II.   A retrospective understanding of eminent historical events and of the legacy of Bogart’s career playing a litany of variations on Sam Spade affect a modern viewer’s engagement with this text in a way impossible for its contemporary audience to chew on. The film is now, in several ways representative of a style (and arguably a genre) that was not yet established upon its release.

The film opens under the pretext of a detective mystery, but following the generic shift of the novel on which it is based, the hero of this mystery is flawed and proletariat, speaking in jargon and functioning under a fallen pretense of the society in which he works.  Prior to this film, and even in previous film adaptations of the same novel, the hero and his worldview were significantly softened and romanticized.  Huston’s achievement here may have been in finding a way to cinematically express the pessimistic realism of hard-boiled writers while avoiding conflict with censors or the Hayes Code, and establishing a pattern for all of Film Noir to follow. In some ways he cinematically introduced, what Schrader termed the "narcissistic, defeatist code"[1] of protagonists created by Hard Boiled writers like Dashiell Hammett.

The ultimate nature of the film remains ambiguous throughout, as romantic elements struggle against gritty pessimism.  The ambiguity is ultimately tied up in the mystery of Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s compulsive lies and in uncertainty to how Sam Spade will ultimately respond to her.  In establishing the plot and mystery over the course of the film, several possible solutions are proposed, each of which, if “proven” would create parameters of a given moral code for the film, and thus define it’s genre quite differently.  Each proposition varies based on the level of romanticism versus realism in the characters of Sam and Brigid as well as in the amount of corruption revealed in each character.

If Brigid’s initial lie about her "sister" had been true, the film could have been a straightforward crime drama with a heavy dose of innocuous romantic involvement. "Good guys" and "Bad Guys" would have been easy to identify and categorize.  But each time Spade resists believing her façade and her character becomes increasingly morally dubious, the implications for the moral order of the entire film are that its reality becomes increasingly dark, dangerous, and pessimistic.  The introduction of the possibility that Sam will engage in behavior as corrupt and self-serving as that of Brigid or the more overt criminals Kasper, Joel, or Wilmer, creates a terrific range of possible moral orders for the film, within the film. 

The film concluded in perhaps the perfect place to catalyze the Film Noir movement.  Brigid was revealed as an intractable black widow type femme fatale, but Sam’s actions cast him instead as quintessentially “hard-boiled.”   Ultimately he is a lone wolf – resistant to the allure of Brigid’s dangerous romanticism; a little bit lawless, but fundamentally incorruptible at some limit.

This moral order, where climactically the protagonist can be trusted to resist corruption, but every other character (and the world of the film at large) is suspect, seems like the perfect signature for nascent Film Noir. 

The Maltese Falcon is absent many of the more visual, semantic elements usually attributed to Noir films.  Its lighting in particular is even and unexpressive, but in syntactic elements, many of the structures required for Noir to take off were strongly introduced here; particularly the tension between pessimistic realism and romanticism and the sympathetic portrayal of the protagonist’s narcissistic pessimism and acceptance of his flaws as benign in relation to those of others. (A palatable entry of the anti-hero?)  

It seems that the moral order of the universe of the film is an additional syntactic element that may be used to identify genre, as it certainly relates to the audience’s expectations of any given text.  Altman said that “the audience for a genre film is sufficiently committed to generic values to tolerate and even enjoy in genre films capricious, violent, or licentious behavior which they might disapprove of in real life.” [2]  This would seem to be because the audience has an acceptance and expectation for a moral order in the universe of a given genre’s reality that they accept is different from that of their reality.  If, however, an audience came to a film text prepared to accept a given moral order and were then presented or affronted with a contrary one (as might have occurred in the Maltese Falcon had Sam ultimately proved corruptible), it would likely leave the audience considerably unsettled. 

That potential for unease has certainly been exploited intentionally in more recent times, but in 1941 the gritty pessimism of Sam Spade may have been just enough Noir to be widely acclaimed and accepted and to jumpstart a decade of deep darkness and high style. The counter-cultural acceptance of this defeatist morality works, according to Altman, "When we are in the world, we follow its rule; when we enter into a genre film, all our decisions are self-consciously modified to support a different kind of satisfaction."  The Maltese Falcon appears to have introduced, in large measure, the "satisfaction" possible in Film Noir, and with it's unexpected commercial success, created a "world" and a moral order that audiences were willing to re-enter repeatedly, embracing its "overtly counter-cultural acts" in order to experience the kind of satisfaction that came from watching Sam Spade soundly reject romanticism, living by the moral order of a "narcissistic, defeatist code".

[1] Schrader, Paul. (1972) Notes on Film Noir, Film Comment, Vol. 8, No. 1. Spring, 1972.
[2] Altman, R. (1996) 'Cinema and Genre', in Nowell-Smith, G. (ed) 1996 The Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.276-85.