Film & Media Studies Theory

Whitman College – FMS 387


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Terror and Seduction

NBC’s new TV series Dracula is a good example of a basic fantasy, according to Williams’ definition, because it is set during a period in the past that actually occurred, but with the added element of folklore and myth (Williams, 613). In addition, Dracula touches on the original fantasies exemplified in all three genres that Williams discusses (horror, pornography and weepies). There are the obvious elements of “horror” in Dracula’s minor habit of killing lots of women in order to feed off of them, but this is also mixed with a hint of pornography in the sense that his methods lure these women into the throws of ecstasy with a distinct aura of primal seduction before he murders them to quell his own desires. Then, there is the added twist that he is in love with one particular woman who he has waited endlessly for, but his “quest [to reconnect with her] is always tinged with the melancholy of loss” (Williams, 615) because she has no memory of their past life together and she is in love with another man. Thus, it also exemplifies a form of male weepie, as he continually struggles with the concept that his desire (in many forms) is futile.


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Moulin Rouge, Barbie and the Postmodern Artifact

(Apologies, I could not find a very good video for this particular scene. Skip ahead to around 0:57)

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The scene that depicts the opening number of Spectacular, Spectacular is one of many potent examples of postmodernism in the film Moulin Rouge. The play opens with an extremely elaborate set and tens of people dressed in ornate Bollywood costumes. This scene is an example of postmodernism in many ways, but the main aspects of it that I will discuss are its focus on representation and visual aesthetics, and the amalgamation of styles and cultural references depicted.

According, to Malpas, one of the characteristics of postmodern artifacts is their “focus on style and modes of representation” (Malpas, 12) as opposed to focus on a grand narrative characteristic of modernism. The visual aesthetics of this scene are a good representation of the film’s visual orientation; the image of the opening number is really quite spectacular, as the name of the play suggests, but it is clear that the elaborate style is really just performance for the sake of performance. The play is meant to be looked at and to be listened to, and the representation of the performance within the film clearly focuses on these visual aesthetics and over-the-top stylistic choices as opposed to the narrative structure of the play itself.

In addition to its obviously ornate visual aesthetic, the number makes reference to many different cultures and time periods, and it is this amalgamation that produces such a salient sense of postmodernism in the number. Throughout the opening performance, there are continual “ironic citations of older styles…[that] quote pre-modern elements in ways that both acknowledge the traditions from which the contemporary springs and playfully reincorporate them into its futuristic designs” (Malpas, 17). The play is supposedly set in the distant past in India, but the costumes are reminiscent of a cross over between ancient India and an elaborate Bollywood performance; to further complicate the scene, the song that they perform is a Bollywood pop number mixed with the famous song “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” traditionally sung by Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  This scene consciously and openly draws on a number of different cultural references, and mixes all of the styles together in order to create a number that plays on these references while making them an entirely separate piece.

This postmodernist style is further represented by the fact that all of this mix-and-matching of genres, styles, and cultures occurs on a stage. Traditionally, we think of theatre performances as a form of high art; however, the performance depicted in this scene effectively “breaks down…the ‘Great Divide’ between high art and popular culture” (Malpas, 20) by incorporating pop cultural references in a traditionally high-brow forum. In this sense, the scene of Spectacular, Spectacular’s opening number is very representative of a postmodern artifact.

 

Barbie-Doll-Fashion-ShowI think Barbie (wish I had some sparkles to go on either side of that) is an example of a simulacra. Barbie dolls are a mass produced product, so in that sense there is no true original that exists, but they are also a simulacra in the deeper sense that the dolls are supposedly representative of this “real” girl that we can all somehow emulate when we are young; but in reality the construct of Barbie is imaginary in many ways and comes to represent something that does not actually exist.


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‘Bamboozled’ and ‘Steve Urkel’ as Racist Ideology

bamboozled

I think that Stuart Hall would find Spike Lee’s Bamboozled a unique and potent example of racist ideology in media because it contains all of the elements of ‘inferential racism’, but displays in an unsettlingly overt manner that exposes them for what they are. The film acknowledges the latent racism that we see (or, in many cases, don’t see) in contemporary media and calls our attention to the fact that ‘yes, that is racist.’

Throughout the film there are many instances that demonstrate the various “base images of the ‘grammar of race’” (164) that Hall discusses. The most obvious example is the characters Mantan and Sleep’n Eat, who fulfill the role of the ‘clown’ or ‘entertainer’. The blackface that both of the men are required to wear is, in itself, representative of their role as the ‘clown’ because the full black face paint and over-applied red lipstick mirrors that of the white clown. However, the deep root of the racist ideology lies in the performance itself; as Hall says, the ideology is captured in the “‘innate’ humor, as well as the physical grace, of the licensed entertainer—putting on a show for The Others. It is never quite clear whether we are laughing with or at this figure; admiring the physical and rhythmic grace, the open expressivity and emotionality of the ‘entertainer’, or put off by the ‘clown’s’ stupidity” (164). It is clear throughout the film that the primary audience of the Mantan show is not black. Even though there appear to be some black viewers, there is a distinct sense that the intention of the show is to entertain people like Delacroix’s white boss, who revel in the consumption of the black entertainer. In addition, Manray’s original dream was to be able to perform as a tap-dancer; while he is able to tap-dance on the show, his physical grace and skill is made into a comedy that primarily pokes fun at the silliness and stupidity of the over-the-top interactions between Mantan and Sleep’n Eat. Bringing the concept of the minstrel show into a contemporary context overtly exposes the racist ideologies of the show in a way that can only be seen from the outside (our world).

Another significant example that Hall would likely pick out in Spike Lee’s portrayal of the show in Bamboozled is the highly comedic elements that it takes on. According to Hall, comedy, as a genre, is particularly prone to perpetuating these racist ideologies because it allows, “[us to] encounter race without having to confront the racism of the perspectives in use…comedy is a licensed zone, disconnected from the serious. It’s all ‘good, clean fun’” (165). In the film, the comedic elements of the Mantan show essentially serve as a mask that allows the audience to ignore the blatantly racist ideologies that the show perpetuates. It is clear that neither the audience or even the writer of the show can acknowledge the reality of this, that is, until they are forced to confront it through the live broadcast of Manray’s execution. Only at that point, when the form of media is taken completely out of its comedic context, can the audience face the racism that was there all along, both in the show and within themselves.

In this sense, I think Hall would truly commend Spike Lee for his ability to call attention to all of the ways that we perpetuate racist ideologies; the film forces people to face this reality just as the audience faces the reality of Mantan and Sleep’n Eat.

And now, here is my (somewhat) contemporary example of racist ideology in media. Ladies and gentlemen, I present: Steve Urkel.

This video of “The Best of Steve Urkel” serves as a prime example of the ways in which media subtly presents blacks as the entertainer; Steve Urkel is entertaining, but it seems more often than not that we laught at him, rather than with him. The first clip is especially potent in terms of racist ideology because it reinforces the idea that white men (Jessie, in this case) still need to show black men/boys (Urkel) how to function properly in society.


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The Dude Abides

“The Big Lebowski.” Although this film is far from what one would consider horror, it is still rife with examples of abjection. While the film displays abjection in many instances, I will focus on the abjection that is experienced specifically by the Dude.

the dude

At the film’s start, the Dude is established as just a regular unemployed, joint-smoking, middle-aged (but awesome) man, and we get a sense of his norm through the depiction of him walking down the aisle of a grocery store in a dirty robe and picking out a half gallon of half and half. However, the film very suddenly disrupts this norm and introduces the abject forms that threaten to cross the metaphorical border discussed by Creed. As soon as the Dude arrives home from the store he is ambushed and given swirlies by three nihilists. With this, the first form of abjection is established, because these nihilists threaten to disrupt order in the Dude’s life.

Rather than making the decision to situate himself away from the abject, the Dude “includes himself among [the abject], thus casting within himself the scalpel that carries out his separations” (Kristeva, 8). As the film progresses, the Dude places himself more deeply in the abject, surrounding himself with all of the people who threaten (and succeed temporarily) in disrupting all order in his life.

biglebowski

Throughout the film, the Dude continually experiences the placement of the abject through the use of humor. The Dude makes many attempts to laugh off the situations that he faces, but each time he does this it serves only to place the abject more firmly in his life (Kristeva, 8). The primary form of abjection that the Dude faces throughout the film is manifested in the characters that he encounters through the continual threat of castration, both metaphorically and literally. An example of this occurs after the Dude fails to make the ransom drop. As soon as the Dude arrives home, he is pulled into the “real” Lebowski’s car; knowing that he has screwed the pooch, the Dude scoffs and laughs at Lebowski and his right hand man in an attempt to displace the abjection he is faced with. However, as soon as the Dude finishes making his humorous excuses, he is presented with a threat of castration in the form of a woman’s severed pinky toe. According to Creed, “Woman’s body is slashed and mutilated, not only to signify its own castrated state, but also the possibility of castration for the male” (Creed, 256). When the Dude receives the pinky toe that supposedly belongs to Bunny Lebowski, he panics not simply because he is holding the mutilated body part of a female, but primarily because the severed pinky toe is a metaphorical threat to castrate his tiny, little manhood (by that I mean his penis).

Another interesting aspect of the abject throughout the film, relates to a point that Kristeva brought up, which states that abjection “interferes with what…is supposed to save [one] from death” (Kristeva, 4). This statement is strongly exemplified through the many declarations of innocence that the Dude makes. Typically, we believe that our innocence in a situation will protect us from any harm. However, as the Dude experiences, the fact that his only involvement with the original dispute was the unfortunate happenstance that his name is Jeffrey Lebowski, does not save him from the threat of castration nor from the disruption of order in his life.

See for yourself:


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I guess my post didn’t actually go up the first time, but here it goes again! Although now I feel very unoriginal given the two posts below (oh the irony).

original hipster

The philosophy of “the hipster” is primarily focused on the idea of individualism and the rejection of all things mainstream or pop-culture. The hipster strives to be unique and ironic, hobo and chic, intellectual and unpretentious (although, as Gilly pointed out, the attempt to be unpretentious leads to quite the opposite). Such a culture is fundamentally rooted in its opposition to the mainstream media, in its direct attempt to assert individualism by not caring what mainstream society proclaims as the norm. In theme with this, hipsters tend to have fairly liberal views, and are strong supporters of most causes that would seem to overturn the prevailing political structure; such causes as gay rights, the right to abortion, and the environmental movement. Everything that a hipster stands for necessarily screams “opposition” and “individualism.”

The one mistake that the hipster made, though, was to look so darn marketable.

Free-People-Americana-13urban outfittersfree-people1

Although you will almost never find a “true” hipster who will admit to being a hipster, there is no denying that hipster culture is everywhere in contemporary youth culture. Ironically enough, nowadays there is nothing more clichéd and mainstream than the hipster.  Storey claims that, “Youth cultures…always move from originality and opposition to commercial incorporation and ideology diffusion as the culture industries eventually succeed in marketing subcultural resistance for general consumption and profit” (Storey, pg. 82), and the hipster culture was by no means an exception. A movement that originated from the attempt to be unique, rebellious, and anything but ‘commercial’ has turned into the most marketable fashion for anyone aged 15-below 30.

This cultural hegemony was initiated by the very mainstream capitalist entrepreneurs that hipsters claimed to resent. Take Urban Outfitters for instance. U.O. is currently one of the most popular brand names in youth fashion, and it blatantly markets to this hipster culture ideology. Yet U.O.’s CEO Richard Hayne, a man who has known conservative tendencies, has become one of the 300 richest men in America because of his capitalization on “hipster culture.” Although Hayne had to make some sacrifices in order to market his brand, as Gramsci points out, “such sacrifices and…compromise cannot touch the essential” (Gramsci, pg. 76). For Haynes, all he had to do was keep quiet about his personal political views and private donations. The ultimate irony of the present-day-hipster, though, is that it is now the ultimate mainstream culture, something that used to be the very thing that it opposed. The true hipster movement died the day that its interests became fashionable, and thus economically profitable.

As a fun endnote, here is a video about the evolution of the hipster. Enjoy!


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The Manly Drink of Choice

It’s finally the Saturday night you’ve been eagerly anticipating. The guys are coming over soon and you’re getting ready to kick back, have a fun night out, so you reach down and grab your glass. What is that glass filled with? Beer? Vodka mixed with some fruity juice? Neither. According to the myth presented in the ad below, if you are a man, your glass is filled with only the best, whiskey.

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On a purely denotative level there are a lot of things one can pick out in this classic Jim Beam ad; most significantly, one can see a bald eagle with wings raised painted on wood, vintage photos and frames, an antiqued tint, and bold text that reads “CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS GETTING THEIR LEG SAWED OFF WEREN’T GIVEN A VODKA CRANBERRY,” which can initially be taken at face value as a factual statement. The objects depicted in this ad are telling of several different aspects of the myth it presents. On a connotative level, the wood grain, antiqued tone, and vintage decorations imply a sense of the past, and of tradition. The painted image of the bald eagle, an iconic American symbol, emphasizes this sense of the past by connoting a long-standing tradition of patriotism. Perhaps the most telling aspect of this ad, though, is the bold-faced text. As Storey states, “image does not illustrate text, it is the text which amplifies the connotative potential of the image” (123). Breaking down the text, there are several key phrases that amplify and add to the connotations already discussed. The words “Civil War” also have a connotation that is rooted in patriotism and the past; however, it also connotes the concept of war, brave soldiers, violence and masculinity. Another significant phrase is that which states, “getting their leg sawed off,” which connotes the concept of amputation. Taken with the context of the Civil War period, though, the idea of amputation implies significant pain that only a man could endure. Finally, the last bit of text, “vodka cranberry,” asserts the implication of whiskey as a manly drink by presenting us with a beverage that connotes the opposite: a fruity and thereby girly drink. The synthesis of all of these messages and signs reveals the myth that this ad so shamelessly presents: real men drink whiskey, and they always have.

 

This ad is successful in communicating this myth because it plays off of many different implicit societal associations that we don’t even consciously perceive, and as Barthes states, “naturalization of the concept [is] the essential function of myth” (268). The ad invokes a strong sense of patriotism, which, in America, has a very implicit association with maleness, especially when considered within the context of the Civil War, a time when only men were soldiers. It also references vodka cranberry, a drink that has very strong associations to femininity, which effectively asserts whiskey as the manly, all-American man’s drink. The add overall has a vibe that provides a nostalgia for the past, a past that many of us in the present day never even lived; yet the ad makes us feel a strong connection to the past and roots our association to this brand of whiskey as something that stems back far into the past. All of the associations brought up in the ad are so ingrained in our societal understandings that the myth can be perceived without us consciously making the different associations. Looking at the ad, the myth that real men drink whiskey seems so obvious, so natural.

 

The implications of this ad are nothing new in society. The myth presented by the ad implies the fact that hard alcohol is a manly drink, and whatever your drink of choice is defines your level of masculinity. But by asserting hard alcohol and whiskey as the positive, it makes any other choice appear feminine. This has the effect of reinforcing men as a dominant or superior entity in society, and asserts women as the meek and the mild. However, the myth presented in this Jim Beam ad is just that, a myth. Obviously, when we think critically it is clear that there are plenty of men who drink lighter alcohols, or don’t drink alcohol at all. Yet when we think of these men they do not appear any less masculine because of their drink (or no drink) of choice.