Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Latest on Sex in Cinema

So once again, I'm figuring out how to fit this into 12 sessions, but I'm trying to articulate some principles--not only movies I think are cool, but following a theme. I'd been thinking the idea here is Conformity and Repression, Rebellion and Subversion. Sometimes the best theses are sort of obvious, and it seems to me it makes sense to emphasize how American representations of sex, in popular culture and in politics, are founded in essentially puritan notioons of orginial sin. New populations, new media, new artforms, new belief systems arise, but that is the currency they deal in, so they adapt only in terms that fail to escape the prevailing ways of framing the cultural questions around sex.
Now, I like this approach because it gets at what's American about American movies' ideas about sex; because it allows us to focus on sexual behavior and how it's represented, instead of taking sexuality as a mere instance of gender identity and relations; because it allows me to ground the course in a few basic instances I particularly like, especially Bill Condon's film Kinsey (along with the cultural politics of serious biological, sociological or historical study of sex) and Michael Warner's book The Trouble with Normal; because it puts the hetero/homo division, along with fetishisms and paraphilia and the whole question of what Americans do and don't consider sex, consider racy, and really enjoy and fear in representations of sex, in a more interesting light than either politics or Freudian views; because it sets me up personally to come back later and discuss the garden-of-Eden fantasy in relation to Melanie Klein's ideas about sex and aggression; because it seems to me to place issues of genre and sexuality in an interesting light (as with film noir, horror, and farce especially); because it gives me some kind of ground for distinguishing between the commercial cinema, porno and the adult film industry, and avant-garde and experimental film, on a kind of ideological as well as purely descriptive basis; and because I think it provides the ground for interesting choices in readings.

So that is kind of where I am today, and it leaves me choosing from among the following films, I think
Introduction to the course:
with Sex Ed Videos from the 1950s, with excerpts from The Subject is Sex, Heavy Petting, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex
If I decide to cover the early establishment of sexual themes in melodrama in silent film it might be with
Broken Blossoms, Our Modern Maidens
To establish the difference between American and European representations of sex:

Pandora's Box

For the importance of star persona and celebrity:Marlene Dietrich (Blonde Venus), Mae West, Marilyn Monroe

I want to do something on the erotics of the musical: The Gang’s All Here, with Busby Berkeley numbers, and the documentary on Carmen Miranda, Bananas is My Business. This covers star persona and exoticism of culture and race as well.

For melodrama on the theme of repression in "middle America": All That Heaven Allows (women and children)
Rebel Without a Cause (teens, homoeroticism, "homosociality" and triangles)
Blue Velvet
For farce on the same theme:
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

Pillow Talk, The Thrill of It All, or Man’s Favorite Sport

Back to the Future (great Oedipal stuff there, a good place to cover Freud)

On sex and power:
The Apartment, Secretary, Some Like It Hot (as well as Sunset Blvd.)

On the film noir "myth" of repression, erotics, and violence:
Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd.

On the same issue in other genres:
Duel in the Sun / Lust in the Dust, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Carrie, Psycho, Bonnie and Clyde, Scream (as pastiche)
Boys Don't Cry (with The Brandon Teena Story)
The "erotic thriller":Basic Instinct

How homoerotics is represented:
Top Gun, The Gay Deceivers, The Celluloid Closet, Poison, Postcards from America

How race is read as sex and vice-versa: Mandingo, Foxy Brown, She’s Gotta Have It
Porno: Inside Deep Throat, with some interviews with Adult Stars and early porn; Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation (British documentary)
Avant-garde: Trash, Curt McDowell shorts, Thundercrack!, Blow Job, Sins of the Fleshapoids, Scorpio Rising, Flaming Creatures, A Dirty Shame. I'm surprised and pleased at how much stuff I've got on this topic, so I want to do it right.

To establish differences between American and other ways of representing sex, I'm thinking about: The Dreamers, Last Tango in Paris, Belle de Jour, and Happy Together, but especially thinking of showing Y tu mama tambien or Law of Desire.
Some of these are pretty indispensable to me; the others I need a couple more weeks to mull over. I'm working on the readings now, and in some instances I may choose a film on the basis of whether I can find a good reading to go with it. I'm still thinking these over as possible required texts:

Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal

D’Emilio, John, and Estelle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters : A History of Sexuality in America

Dyer, Richard. Stars. McNair, Brian. Mediated Sex : Pornography and Postmodern Culture.

Money, John. Gay, Straight, and In-Between: The Sexology of Erotic Orientation

Poulson-Bryant, Scott. Hung : A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America.

There really isn't a reasonably short introduction to the critical study of film I can throw in, or I would. I have a lot of essays collected for reserve readings. That's it for now.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you . . . Shorty!!!
Shorty used to be Chris Moukarbel's cat. Now she's ours.
She is, I think you can see, adorable.
She is also deep. The little wheels are always turning, the grey matter percolating.
Shorty has had an immediate and dramatic effect on the whole dynamic here.
If there were a novel about this household, I'm afraid it's clear who would be the central character.
Shorty--she's a cat and a half.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Bernard the Blue-Nosed Reindeer

I'm at St. Mary's--although it doesn't look like St. Mary's. I'm going to meet up with some people at a swimming hole; a young woman is giving me a ride. They seem to be the people I went to school with at Hopkins. In the water, I'm aware I'm wearing contacts and shouldn't get water in my eyes. I can see my own body from above, through the water; I'm impressed I can see the definition of my abs and pecs and think I'm really not far from having a good body. I'm naked; so are some of the other swimmers but not all. There are two young women wearing Mennonite or Amish caps wading in shallow water in full skirts. The water seems to be draining away, and now I'm not in a swimming hole but an artificial pool. The water is lower on one side than the other, as if it's tilted. When I stand on my head in the water, there's hardly enough water to cover my eyes and nose; I can still breathe through my mouth.
There's a black preacher handing out pamphlets. I shake my head and think that's the end of it, but he starts a religious service. The swimming pool is now a large room, like a gym. He's going to start reading from the New Testament; we all have copies in front of us. My copy is open to the Book of Jonah in parallel Hebrew and English. I say aloud, "I can read Hebrew," in a joking manner. One of the man's two young sons steps forward and reads aloud in Hebrew--not well, haltingly, but he reads it. Then he pipes up, "I can read Hebrew," just as I did.
The boy and his father produce some candies wrapped in colored foil. The boy places a blue one in my hand, then splays out the end of a red one and puts it on my nose. He looks at me, then removes the red candy from my nose and replaces it with a blue one and sings,
"Rudolph, with your nose so blue,
Who'd have thought you were a practicing Jew?"
March 18 2006

Saturday, April 08, 2006

My Mother is Dying Again

My mother is dying again. She is in her bedroom in the old house--the one that burned down in the '70s. She keeps falling out of bed and I have to lift her up and get her back into bed. I talk to Art about this: "She already died, didn't she? I mean, we buried her." He says, "Yeah, I didn't want to bring that up. I thought we did, but now I'm not sure."
At the same time, I've lost the car. But it also seems like it isn't me that lost it; it was borrowed by an older relative who lost it, Junior from The Sopranos or Sophia from Golden Girls, someone who's supposed to have senile dementia. So I have two things to discuss with Art, my dying mother and the lost car.
Back at the house, I ask my mother how it's possible for her to be here when she's already died. She becomes much younger suddenly. She has in her hand a black stone figurine that's supposed to be from ancient Mesopotamia and says she is never going away. She appears very happy about this but I am troubled; there's something supernatural about this that bothers me very much. A naked man appears in the doorway to the bedroom, looking very embarrasssed; a naked woman peeks over his shoulder behind him. "You wouldn't have any condoms, would you?" he asks. I say no; I'm irritated with him for interrupting. When I come out of my mother's room, he's sitting fully clothed in another bedroom, with another man seated in a chair near him. His name is Derrick but I call him Rick. I ask if he knows anything about possession. He says no, but the other guy starts to mumble, "I had a dream once . . ."
March 17 2006

Thursday, April 06, 2006

I go to some weird shit sometimes. Among the weirdest shit I've seen is Hot Feet, the Earth, Wind & Fire musical. I vaguely remember Earth, Wind & Fire as associated with the bad kind of disco, the kind that seemed to have very little to do with drugs or illicit sex.
Hot Feet appears to begin with the character Blossom from the late-80s TV show wandering through Taxi Driver. (There's a fine line between Jodie Foster and Mayim Bialik, really.) She runs into some creatures who have escaped from either The Lion King or Ionesco's Rhinoceros plus, I think, Debbie Allen in Dorothy's ruby slippers. The audience is enjoined to "boogie," which, I find to my surprise, is actually easier while seated than standing up--or maybe I'm doing it wrong--is it anything like Kegel exercises? After that, it's kind of a really bad version of The Red Shoes performed on the set of Fame, with a little bit of the Sparks notes for Faust and some Oedipus, or Iphigenia at Aulis, or something. And Soapdish, without the funny parts.
I used to dance (they gasp) and it's always a little weird for me to see the mythology of dance in recent popular entertainment. I get the dance-off thing, I get Footloose, but when did dance become a kind of desperate high-stakes struggle? Bob Fosse has a lot to answer for. Why do the unnatural, forced expressions of ecstasy on the dancers' faces seem to mask an implacable hostility toward the audience, and a profound despair at their condition in life? Dance is deep, deep, deep. My suggestion for a tagline: Hot Feet - Because Moulin Rouge went way over your heads.
I am waiting for the sequel: Hot Nuts.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

I Am a Dirty Rotten Scoundrel
The last matinee of the Broadway musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has just ended and I am going on as the understudy for the co-star, Norman Leo Butz for the last evening performance, the last show. Apparently, he's never missed a performance and there's some rule that the understudy has to go on once and now I have to do it. I haven't taken this very seriously so I don't know my lines or the musical numbers. Suddenly it strikes me that what he has to do is really complicated and I can't just fake my way through it by doing what everyone else is doing. I have had dental work that day and it sounds serious but really hasn't hurt very much; still, I decide I am going to get out of it by saying the dental work makes it impossible for me to sing or speak on stage. (At the same time, I am frantically riffling through the script.) But I put off calling, and although the people I'm with don't have a real problem with my faking my way out of this, they are starting to get upset that it's 6:30 and I haven't called in yet, since the curtain's at 8:00. I get the impression it will basically be OK because although the understudy has no understudy, in a situation like this, they can list the actor as the understudy to the understudy. Norman Leo Butz will go on after all, as he wanted to all along.
(BTW: The use of "Butz" kind of screams out at you, doesn't it, but in the dream there's also this obscure sense that Norman Leo Butz may also be called Norman Bates.)

Sunday, April 02, 2006

You really want to know what I'm writing? I just finished the first draft for my section on film and literature in the book proposal for Dreaming in the Classroom, which I'm co-writing with Kelly Bulkeley and Phil King (God bless 'em for getting me to actually to do something that might result in publication). I know you will find this f a s c i n a t i n g.
The photo is by Ralph Gibson.

Draft: Film and Literary Studies (BW) – 4-3-06
Literary studies of dreaming may begin with myth, folklore, and biblical criticism, and thus address the same cultural and psychological issues as the anthropology of dreaming. Folktales and religious scriptures featuring dreams set the models for later literature, from medieval dream visions to surrealist poems. The range of possible objects of study is extremely wide, and in offering some suggestions in our chapter on this topic, we try to focus on texts from different cultures and periods that are accessible, available, and perhaps most importantly, short enough to be actually read by your students.
In his introduction to The Dream Adventure (Orion, 1963), Roger Caillois identifies two main approaches to literary dreams: the psychological, which seeks an interpretation applying to the psychology of character or author (or by extension, to the group psychology of a society), and the philosophical, which uses the dream as a device to illustrate a metaphysical issue, or perhaps more properly, considers the genuine metaphysical questions raised by dreams. Contemporary classes may learn from Freudian or Jungian theories, apply the lessons of Gestalt therapy or Montague Ullman’s dream-appreciation seminars, or extend the horizon of topics from Western to Eastern literature, but the fundamental division in method remains the same. The psychological approach treats the dream as a coded message like others in the literary text to be decoded through the critic’s favored method; the philosophical approach may be more conducive to post-structuralist approaches like deconstruction, as it invites continual reconsideration of the ontological status of both the dream and the text. (Just think of Alice’s position in her underground adventures, trying to figure out whether she is actually dreaming, and the enduring appeal of the philosophical approach even to untrained readers is abundantly clear.) Both are of obvious relevance to contemporary classes in literature, especially when so many have branched out into popular culture, cultural studies, and alternative media, all of which present new contexts for dreams outside of traditional literary genres. (A third approach, which treats the literary dream as historical evidence, can add fascinating conundrums and new interest to history courses, particularly in periods when the dream vision is a prominent form as in the European Middle Ages.) Increasingly, instructors who invoke psychological theories in their teaching of literature must be prepared to offer the relevant accounts not only of depth psychology such as psychoanalysis, but also of contemporary brain science, mind-body philosophy, and cognitive psychology.

What is true of literature is, in this case, anyway, true of film, where the lessons of cognitive psychology are only beginning to be integrated into critical study. A limited number of courses on dreaming and cinema have been taught in the United States. Those initiated by psychology departments or instructors have emphasized the interpretation of dream sequences as revelation of character—as, perhaps most famously, in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece, Wild Strawberries. But courses developed by film instructors are more likely to broaden the focus beyond the psychology of character to consider dreams in relation to the many issues raised by the genres of fantasy, children’s film, and most recently, the spate of metaphysical fantasies such as The Matrix, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Waking Life that testify to an unprecedented interest in dreaming among filmmakers and the general movie audience. Nearly every specialist on film has encountered the idea of the cinema as a form of collective dreaming. The difference among instructors is primarily in how they choose to investigate this analogy. Those who adhere to a realist theory that characterizes film essentially as a means of faithfully recording the objective world will treat cinematic dreaming as an interesting special case; others may find that films featuring dreams and dreaming consistently pose provocative challenges to realism.

Clearly, the fundamental topics in which dreaming can be of special interest in courses in literature and film studies are: the unique access that dreaming offers to the study of symbols generally; the models, derived from the theories of Freud, Jung, and other psychologists (including traditional non-Western sources only now becoming familiar in the United States) for understanding how dreams express the relation of the individual to the world; the genuine metaphysical questions raised by dreaming as they appear especially in self-reflexive texts; and the endlessly fascinating question of the relation of dreaming to the roots of imagination and creativity generally.

Dreaming may be not only an object of study but homework in a class in literature, film, or any of the humanities fields. Beginning (to the best of our knowledge) with Richard M. Jones’ courses at Evergreen State College in the 1970s, as described in The Dream Poet (Schenkman, 1979), many teachers of literature have found that asking students to keep a dream journal and raise their own dreams in class fuels their imaginative impulses and fosters a subjective identification with authors and characters that results in eager, engaged and creative interpretation of literary texts. Composition and creative-writing teachers have long found that dream-based assignments not only often result in an unlabored, unself-conscious that breathes new life into student writing, but also encourage active and empathetic listening when writing is shared in class.