Department of Theatre and Film
Introduction: Critical and Cultural Resignifications
With the publication of our Spring 2011 issue, we would like to welcome Diane Carson, Heidi Kenaga, Simon Rushton, Martin Shingler, and Frank P. Tomasulo to our editorial board. We are pleased and excited to have them working with us as The Projector enters the next phase in its development. We would also like to extend our thanks to existing editorial board members Christina Adamou, Dyrk Ashton, Cynthia Felando, Tamar Jeffers McDonald, Travis Malone, Joerg Sternagel, Jamie Stuart, and Beckett Warren, who continue to assist us in getting each issue online. As we come to the end of our third year as a peer-reviewed publication, The Projector remains committed to providing a forum for scholarship that explores intersections between film, media and culture, and with the expansion of our editorial board we look forward to new possibilities in this endeavor.
The essays for our Spring issue examine shifting critical perspectives on established film forms, as well as shifts in the meaning of images and narratives over time, or across different versions of the same text. Genesis Downey’s “The Blockbuster as Body Genre” intervenes in critical debates over the classification of films as blockbusters by suggesting that the visual and monetary excess associated with the blockbuster—high budgets, record-breaking profits, saturation marketing campaigns, and spectacle on an ever-increasing scale—might be read as a parallel to the bodily excesses that Linda Williams associates with pornography and with the popular genres of horror and melodrama. Drawing on Williams’s landmark essay “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Downey argues that the “gross” excesses associated with those films that Williams terms “body genre” films are present in the modern Hollywood blockbuster in a slightly different form, with the ostentatious extravagance of blockbuster films contributing to their cultural devaluation, much as the extravagant displays of emotion, violence, or sexual pleasure in body genre films do, because they fail “to conform to middlebrow concepts of taste and art.”
Downey uses James Cameron’s 2010 film Avatar as a case study to illustrate this contention, examining the ways in which “the sheer scope of . . . spectacle” in the film is “geared to provoke the involuntary bodily responses that Williams identifies as part of the body genre, but that also easily belong to the blockbuster genre.” At the same time, Downey also uses Avatar to argue that the depictions of bodily ecstasy and/or suffering that Williams locates as a central element within body genre films are also central to a large number of blockbusters that span generic categorization from science fiction to action films. In the case of Avatar, she asserts that the “spectacle of a woman bleeding, crying, or reaching orgasm” common to body genre films is replaced by a “metaphorical female body,” in the form of Hometree “getting ripped apart by RDA bulldozers, blown up with incendiary missiles, and essentially raped for its mineral content,” with the result that “victimization is still present and is still presented in a way that can generate a response from an audience body that has been primed with excitement and pleasure.”
In “Performing Tricky Dick: Richard Nixon’s Transformation into Popular Culture Caricature,” Travis Cook looks at changing representations of Richard Nixon in U.S. popular culture. Using portrayals of Nixon in the popular press over the course of his political career, as well as his representation in historical films such as Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) and Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon (2008), and television series such as Futurama, Cook traces a shift in characterizations of Nixon from opportunist politician, to disgraced President, to parodic caricature. Examining the ways in which these changes in depiction reflect changes in public perception, and ultimately in the meanings attached to the figure of Nixon within U.S. culture, he argues that Nixon can be read as “a politician whose sometimes ‘failed’ public performances highlighted the artificial qualities of media society” during his years of public service, and whose “sometimes threadbare attempts to create an authentic, sincere, trustworthy public image can be seen as an inspiration for the increasingly stark caricatures of Nixon in film and television” today.
While Cook’s essay looks at the changing significations attached to Richard Nixon over time, Lindsay Smith’s essay “War, Wizards and Words: Transformative Adaptation and Transformed Meanings in Howl’s Moving Castle” looks at differences in meaning across different versions of the same text, in this case Diana Wynn Jones’s 1986 children’s book, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 film adaptation. Arguing for a reading of the Miyazaki film as a “transformative adaptation,” Smith suggests that the film remains “more or less faithful to the book version” in terms of plot, “while simultaneously infusing it with new themes, issues, and possibilities” by shifting its focus to a war that carries resonances of U.S. military operations in Iraq. Through a close comparison of the two texts, Smith contends that “while Jones’s book explores the crucial role that communication plays in preventing and ending conflict,” Miyazaki’s film shows that war becomes possible when open communication is lost. In the transformed narrative, Howl’s Moving Castle becomes a powerful and nuanced critique of the contemporary, international politics surrounding the Iraq War.
The forum of invited essays for our Spring 2011 issue is composed of a series of reflections on the effects Manny Farber’s cult criticism and Parker Tyler’s camp criticism have had on subsequent film critics and contemporary practices of film analysis. Working with Greg Taylor’s account in Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism, the forum essays consider theoretical concerns raised by cult and camp reading practices. They also examine the usefulness of those practices as critical tools. Abigail Van Vlerah interrogates the role of the film critic in contemporary U.S. culture and questions the elite status Farber and Tyler claimed for cult and camp critics on the basis of their critical “recuperation” of mainstream (read: lowbrow) Hollywood films. While Tiffany Knoell reassesses cult and camp criticism in light of subsequent cultural studies work on taste-making, Alexander Champlin examines the influence of Dadaism on Farber’s and Tyler’s critical practices, an influence that, as he points out, is not considered in Artists in the Audience. He uses parallels between Duchamp’s “Readymades” and Farber’s and Tyler’s view of film criticism as a (re)appropriation of existing cultural content for the purposes of artistic creation to argue for an understanding of cult and camp criticism as Dadaist projects.
Turning to contemporary analytic practices within the fields of film, media and cultural studies, Megan Thomassen locates the hierarchical nature of fan communities and communities of cult film connoisseurs in the tradition of Farber’s and Tyler’s approaches to film appreciation, which she argues reproduce “the same structures and hierarchies in their supposedly deviant or resistant” reading practices as the “homogenized” mass media texts they seek to critique. Conversely, Wonda Baugh and Stephen M. Boston apply camp readings to the contemporary films Rango (Gore Verbinski, 2011) and Paul (Greg Mottola, 2011), in order to examine the continued usefulness of this strategy as a critical practice. Baugh argues that camp readings can provide an opportunity for ideological critique that aligns them with more recent cultural studies approaches to “negotiated” or “resistant” interpretive practices, while Boston traces the influence of both cult and camp criticism on acafandom, a contemporary critical practice that originates primarily from the field of media studies. While all of the essays collected for this forum provide different perspectives on Farber’s and Tyler’s critical legacy, they all take up the concern raised by Taylor in his conclusion to Artists in the Audience that Farber’s and Tyler’s desire to make culturally-oppositional art out of the criticism of hegemonic cultural productions has been coopted by “postmodern/vanguard culture, with its encompassing ethos of democratized artistry and empowered consumerism” (152).