Thursday, February 24, 2011

Colin Firth's Redemption Song (we'll be singing it this weekend)

It's not that we are privy to holding grudges or anything. But the fact that the dapper Mr. Colin Firth will be squaring off with His Dudeliness Jeff Bridges for the Best Actor Oscar (Sunday, 7PM Central on ABC) for the second year in a row means that we are being forced to tear open an old wound. Last year the Academy gravely disappointed us in overlooking Firth's stunningly beautiful A Single Man performance despite our solid assessment of the odds that that would not happen.

Make no mistake—we do think you're alright, Jeff Bridges. We think you make a heckuva White-Russian-slurping, no-job, feng-shui-enthusiasting bowler, and we admire the work you do with our own Minnesota-grown Coen brothers. It's just that we're about 99.9993% sure that this year, the Academy will not abide (sorry, Dude.).

Go Team Colin!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Zombies. Sea monsters. A Fight Club. What the Dickens would Jane Austen say?

Has the award-winning and highly Oscar-nominated The Kings Speech rekindled your appreciation for the British heritage film? You're not alone. Here, author Dianne Sadoff looks at pop-culture spin-off books, films, and other products of Jane Austen and Brontë sisters classics and what they say about American culture.
Note: If you do nothing else this weekend, please please please join us in rooting for Colin Firth to *finally* get his due and win Best Actor on Sunday night (83rd Annual Academy Awards, ABC, 7PM Central). We don't want The Dude to rob him again.

Spin-offs such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are proliferating. Dianne Sadoff looks at how this trend has gratified some tastes, upset others, and explicated a greater need in American culture. Image from Postertext.

Professor of English, Rutgers University, New Brunswick

The arrival on the publishing scene of titles such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Jane Slayer may well have given Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë fans the creeps. Indeed, the proliferation of remediations, updates, and repurposings of Austen, the Brontës, and Charles Dickens, among others, means that franchising has reached into the canon in a way that readers of literary classics could never have expected. It’s a perfect time for adult culture consumers to start complaining about how bad these spin-offs and generic mash-ups are, even the ones we don’t yet know are in the pipeline. Those sequels, prequels, back stories, and faux biographies—from Julian Jarrold’s mixing of Austen’s letters with Jon Spence’s speculative and romanticized biography (Becoming Jane); to the sublime YouTube video “Jane Austen’s Fight Club” (see below), in which catty girls turn snide aside into punching match; to South Park's animated version of Great Expectations, Disney’s Oliver & Company, TBS’s Oliver on Family Guy, and Will Eisner’s graphic novel Fagin the Jew—may make you squirm, but, okay, when Oliver and Fagin’s gang become, respectively, kitten and dogs, you’ve got to wonder what’s going on in American culture. Is it the “rampant sequelism” that A. O. Scott identified as Hollywood’s “fundamental cynicism” during the summer movie season? Or is it something else?

As I suggest in Victorian Vogue: British Novels on Screen, commercial calculations clearly play a major role in the latest wave of cultural repurposing. I argue that branding and franchising represent the latest frontier in the move to expand the audience for the canonical English novel as well as to launch careers of pulp fiction writers who might have market clout. Forget Austen’s originals. You might not find Pride and Prejudice at your local public library, but certainly would find Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, perhaps as a graphic novel, young adult novel, audio book, and electronic resource. And they’re virtually—no pun intended—all checked out. If your public library owns all these copies and if your neighbors are lined up to borrow them, you know they’re selling like hotcakes at the local Barnes & Noble outlet. Print spin-offs proliferate, including such novels as Paula Marantz Cohen’s Jane Austen in Boca or Jane Austen in Scarsdale; Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary; Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club, all mass-market paperbacks the bestsellers of which became movies. Markets for internet-based and tie-in products have multiplied like antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Tie-ins such as the Jane Austen Action Figure, moreover, enter the toy market, and, whereas other superheroes pose for battle and victory over millennial bad guys on the shelves of Toys 'R Us, the Austen box's ad copy reads: “Weapon of Choice: Character Study.”

Yet, as I argue in my book, repurposing serves not only the culture industry’s mercenary motives but also gratifies the public’s taste. The current franchise expansion and sequel mania demonstrates the twenty-first-century desperation to sell product, given the dangers of online piracy and the economic crunch of the recession, as well as the public’s enervation and depression about the state of the nation’s culture. However, it also expresses the need to seek sensation, pleasure, thrills during the boom 1990s and the bust first decade of a new century. Repurposing attracts a new, wider, and constantly changing market demographic. Every few years, Lizzie Bennet needs updating for a younger teenaged-girl audience, and the new Austen mania solicits a different generation of female moviegoer than did the twentieth-century boom. Joe Wright’s film Pride and Prejudice, saturation-booked at multiple exhibition venues, opened during the all-important Christmas holiday season in 2007 and grossed $38.5 million on U.S. screens, repurposing Austen’s stories of status anxiety, estate envy, and acquisition of cultural goods and distinction via Lizzie’s girlish voyeuristic gaze. Wright added to Austen a romantic marriage proposal and a post-coital clinch for the increasingly global teenaged set.

A new breed of actress, moreover, updates the Austen star image. Not Greer Garson’s Lizzie as the uppity broad of 1930s screwball comedy, whose skill and drive gained her power and admiration, whose snappish responses to gentlemanly snobbery subdued Laurence Olivier’s Darcy in every sexual battle; not Jennifer Ehle’s 1990s Regency Lizzie, walking Pemberley’s picture gallery and admiring its owner’s “regard,” or decorously flirting with upper-gentry, partially disrobed gentleman. No, Keira Knightley and Anne Hathaway instead bring millennial girlhood to the megaplex, updating the Austen countenance (even prettier in glamour lighting!), youthful body (even slimmer yet with more breast exposed!), and girlish pout (even more seductive while playing hard-to-get!) for the preteen set—or the all-important 14-24 demographic. And the even younger newcomer Mia Wasikowska, so thoughtful yet enticing in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, will be the next Jane Eyre, in Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, a heritage film scheduled for release next month that is written, directed, and acted by folks previously associated with mass-market potboilers.

And what about BBC television’s “Masterpiece”? The new “Masterpiece Classics,” which debuted in 2005, updates the 40-year-old series, “Masterpiece Theatre,” which was admittedly beginning to look antiquated and out-of-date.

“We’re not tarting it up or dumbing it down,” producer Rebecca Eaton averred, reminding older viewers and readers, already BBC regulars, that the adaptors remained faithful to their Austen.

Yet Andrew Davies, who penned four of the six fast-paced Austen teleplays, added to his scripts the suppressed scenes Austen couldn’t quite write: he invents little scenes of kidnapping and B&D that Catherine Morland “makes up for herself” in Northanger Abbey, opens Sense and Sensibility with a seduction scene that Austen only reported late in the novel as (nevertheless) consequential backstory. Seeking multiple audiences, these post-classic serials eschew the faithful transcription of dialogue and narratorial discourse that once constituted Austen adaptation. Whereas Fay Weldon lifted dialogue from the pages of Pride and Prejudice, “adding and subtracting scarcely a word” for her 1980 dramatization, Davies confesses he likes a “bit of bodice ripping” in updated millennial romance.

But ask any parent, and he or she will tell you how hard it is to get kids to read, that as long as they consume something—and especially if it’s the “classics,” even in mash-up print or movie version—it’s a cultural good. So, as vampires keep recruiting new undead and zombies new corpses, the classic fiction of nineteenth-century Britain rises from the cultural grave to seek new consumers. Sequel mania, appropriation and repurposing, franchising and branding give the canonical British novel new life, even if only in pulp fiction or at a megaplex near you. Paradoxically, American culture cannot do without them.


Read more in Victorian Vogue: British Novels on Screen, by Dianne F. Sadoff.

“The definitive work on film adaptations of nineteenth-century fiction. . . . Wide-ranging and strikingly intelligent, it has an important thesis, and, best of all, is fun to read.”
—Jay Clayton, Vanderbilt University

Thursday, February 17, 2011

On photography and how it's changed our perception of animals.

Pictures of animals are now ubiquitous, but the ability to capture animals on film was a significant challenge in the early era of photography. In Developing Animals, Matthew Brower takes us back to the time when Americans started taking pictures of the animal kingdom, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the moment when photography became a mass medium and wildlife photography an increasingly popular genre.

Allen Grant Wallihan, Brought to Bay, 1894.

Curator of the University of Toronto Art Centre and lecturer in museum studies in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto.

Q: You write: "It is no longer possible for us to have an 'authentic' encounter with an animal." Can you explain what you mean by this?

A: This is John Berger’s position in Why Look at Animals? He argues that modern humans are alienated from nature by capitalism and technology so that they can no longer meaningfully engage with animals. He also suggests that animals that surround us, like pets or those in zoos, have been marginalized by modern technology and society so that they too are incapable of authentic engagement. Pets are merely dependent creatures and zoo animals are diminished and unreal in comparison to their authentically wild counterparts. Berger is thus comparing our modern encounters with his fantasy of an encounter with a truly wild – and therefore real – animal. It’s a compelling fantasy. When I first came across Berger’s argument it seemed to make sense to me. There were real, ‘wild’ animals that weren’t dependent on humans and then there were the other animals that depended on us in some way and were thus not really natural.

However, as I started to think through his contention, and a conversation with Jonathan Burt really helped here, it became clear to me that the idea that our encounters with animals aren’t authentic is not only erroneous, but also dangerous. It suggests that the animals that surround us aren’t deserving of consideration as they aren’t authentic, it suggests that (modern) humans are unnatural, and it posits an imagined realm of deep nature from which we are necessarily excluded. Yet we are surrounded by animals in our daily lives and, even if we want to discount pets, there are still many of them existing outside of human control. For example, in Toronto I am constantly encountering raccoons. My neighbors and I are involved in an ongoing struggle with local raccoons over access to our garbage and to our roofs and decks. Dismissing them as inauthentic because they live in the city, rather than the countryside or the bush, strikes me as a mistake. They’re real animals whose desires and behaviors exceed our control. The argument in my book suggests that this mistake is so easy to make because we are comparing the animals we encounter to the image of the wild animal in nature that wildlife photography helps construct.

What struggles did you encounter throughout the course of your research?

A: When I began my research, animal studies wasn’t recognized as an area of study, which made it difficult to explain to other academics what was at stake in my work. This also meant that there wasn’t a lot of work on the visual representation of animals that was asking the same types of questions that I was. As a consequence, I needed to read across a lot of fields and time periods to find things that might be relevant rather than having a set body of literature I needed to address. One of the most interesting problems was dealing with the mass of possible source material. There are an enormous number of animal representations that were produced in the period I look at. Narrowing my focus to photography and looking at the development of animal photography as a practice enabled me to focus on the genealogy of the social context of the works and their circulation rather than focusing on the biographical conditions of their production.

What is your favorite early example of wildlife photography?

A: I’m very fond of the book's cover image (left), John Dillwyn Llewelyn’s Deer Parking of 1852. It’s an odd image that can be difficult for a contemporary viewer to read. It shows a lumpy, stuffed deer that has been set in the woods and photographed. While it’s tempting to see it as a faked wildlife photograph, the image really reveals the difference between the Victorian understanding of nature and our contemporary one. My hope is that thinking through this difference can help us realize that our understandings of nature are, in fact, culturally constructed and not simply natural.

Q: What do you make of contemporary representations of domesticated animals (especially popular websites and blogs that feature such photos)?

A: There are many interesting things going on in the presentation of domesticated animals online. Catblogging is enormously popular, cute-blogging around baby animals is also huge, and then there are the strange phenomena of Lolcats and Stuff on my Cat. At a minimum, these activities suggest that people are really interested in looking at and engaging with animals. I also think that a big part of the appeal is the sense that while animals may do tricks and perform, they don’t act in the way that humans do. There’s a sense in looking at these images that while the cats may be attempting to engage their owners, they aren’t directly playing to the camera like so many people online are. In other words, we can look at the animals and believe that these are things they really do; they’re not just exhibitionists trying to get our attention.


Matthew Brower is author of Developing Animals: Wildlife and Early American Photography, which combines approaches in visual culture, critical animal studies, and the history of photography to consider the photograph's role in the social production of animals. See a table of contents here.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Discovering the History of Women in Public

Assistant professor, American and New England Studies and the Department of the History of Art and Architecture, Boston University

In his novels Spook Country and Zero History, Bruce Sterling popularized the idea of locative art—digital art tied to specific locations—using GPS and internet-connected devices. He imagines a viewer of locative art holding up a smartphone and seeing on its screen what is in front of him or her, with an overlay of artwork such as rows of crosses, flying squid, or an actor depicting Scott Fitzgerald.

I also make use of possibilities opened up by mobile smart technology in my San Francisco walking tour, which explores how turn-of-the-century women made use of San Francisco’s downtown in their fight for the vote. I don’t have the programming ability to overlay virtual reality in the mode of Sterling’s imagined locative artists. However, clicking any link on the tour map presents users with not just words that allow them to understand what this place was historically, but also images of what each place looked like that they can imaginatively layer over what they see in front of them. A few even include sound links, so that as a user stands at Newspaper Corners (Kearny, Geary, and Market Streets), he or she can hear Luisa Tetrazzini singing “The Last Rose of Summer” just as she did at that location on Christmas Eve in 1910 to celebrate the rebirth of San Francisco after the devastating earthquake and fire of 1906.

I am very excited about the ways that mobile internet-enabled technology and locative media can help make history alive. All places are deeply layered with history. Some of that history is embedded in the built environment, something I found revelatory when I learned about American vernacular architecture and cultural landscapes and began to understand how to read the built environment to see when a place was settled, by whom, and for what purposes. In my book, Women and the Everyday City, I explore how those ordinary buildings and landscapes are also embedded with the history of gender ideology and women’s experiences. My walking tour unpacks some of that history by informing its users how women at the turn of the century used San Francisco’s downtown and how they reinvented its everyday spaces as political space in their successful fight to gain the vote 100 years ago.

Guided walking tours provide a wonderful way to unpack some of the history embedded in a place. Our memories of memoirs, novels, and history books also enliven our understanding of the history of a place. Locative media like my online tour can add more layers to our experience of place, giving us a place-specific window into the past. With history in our pockets, we can connect the present and the past through our experience of place.


Jessica Ellen Sewell is author of Women and the Everyday City: Public Space in San Francisco, 1890-1915. She will be reading from her book this Thursday, Feb. 10th, at 7PM at Bluestockings in NY.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Egypt Q&A: Unrelenting protests are rooted in many years of civil unrest and bear the marks of a social revolution.

In Cairo, Egypt, a big banner that spells out "Leave," in reference to Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak, appears on Feb. 1st, 2011. Throughout the Mubarak regime's tenure, citizens have experienced violations of their civil rights on a daily basis. Photo by Essam Sharaf, courtesy of Creative Commons. Photo from Flickr.

Professor of politics with reference to the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Q: What issues and emotions are at the heart of protests in Egypt?

A: The protests are to a large extent guided by a desire to assert citizens’ right to dignity and freedom in their own country.

Vast segments of Egyptian society have economic, social and political grievances that they have been articulating both in public discourse and action for more than a decade now with little response from the Mubarak regime. We have seen successive waves of protest by workers in both public- and private-sector industries, by professionals, university professors, civil servants and students. A key issue has been the growing socio-economic disparities, with a tiny elite monopolising most of the economic resources of the country and blocking all possibilities for political change through the existing institutions. While elections were routinely rigged, severe restrictions were set on the formation of new political parties and civil society actors were harassed and persecuted on a regular basis.

The regime and the institutions on which it rests not only failed to respond to the basic needs of the people, having withdrawn most of the welfare provision policies at a time when food prices and utility tariffs increased significantly, but have also put obstacles in the way of peoples’ efforts to meet their material and cultural aspirations. Government policies promoted the interests of a small group of businessmen and created conditions for the emergence of oligopolies and monopolies. A significant number of public-sector enterprises were privatised without guarantees for workers’ rights and without any planning for employment growth. Industrial sectors such as the textile industry were left to decline and reach near collapse conditions.
In denying the economic, social and political rights of the people, the regime relied on the police to rule the country with an iron fist. Police officers under emergency laws - in effect since Mubarak came to power in 1981 - gained extensive powers and deployed a great deal of violence to control the population and to stem any resistance. Ordinary citizens and youths in particular faced police brutality and abuse of authority on a daily basis.

Q: How long has this situation been brewing?

A: It is difficult to say that the Mubarak regime has ever had substantial support among the population. During almost the entirety of its existence, various groups have challenged the regime. However, sustained opposition has been growing for at least ten years now and has come to include a cross-section of society. There are multiple factors here.

First, people have experienced, as part of their everyday realities, violations of their civil rights and have become fearful for their security and safety—owing, especially, to continued violence by police personnel. Highly publicized incidents of police abuse and torture of civilians such as the Khaled Said case (concerning the young man who was beaten to death in Alexandria, Egypt, in 2010 by two policemen) have been a catalyst for uniting people in their rejection of these practices.

Second, the possibility of bringing about change using conventional channels of opposition has been non-existent, as elections are rigged and opposition parties are besieged. The elections in November 2010 were just the latest example of this.

Third, those youths who were offered nothing by the regime and who were the main object of its security politics came forward as the most imaginative actors undoing the chains that tied the society as a whole. Using Facebook and other new media, a new generation carved out spaces for discussion and debate and for working with activists from different political backgrounds.

Q: Your book (Political Life in Cairo's New Quarters) looks at how Cairo's government uses surveillance techniques and violence to disperse opposition to the state. What do you make of Egyptian government's decision to shut down the Internet and cell phone service?

A: These acts are a continuation of the politics of security that consisted of continuous surveillance of the population. The regime deployed police to monitor youths on the streets, using the procedures of ‘stop’, ‘arrest’ and ‘investigate ‘(known as ishtibah wa tahari). This was designed to restrict young peoples’ free circulation and gathering. The youths have put to remarkable use the tools of virtual communication to organize, meet and mobilize, thus circumventing the regime’s use of physical force that tried to undermine their capacity to meet and plan.

The Internet’s disconnection confirms that the regime fails to understand the strength and depth of the opposition and the nature of the peoples’ demands. While protesters were striving for freedom, the regime responded by placing greater restrictions on them, cutting them off from means of communication and trying to isolate them.

Q: How could the US and its allies be directly (or indirectly) affected by the possibility Mubarak's government could fall?

A: The US government and its allies should take lessons from events in Egypt about the need to respect peoples’ will and determination to achieve freedom and dignity. Propping up authoritarian rulers in the Middle East or elsewhere is a recipe for instability and conflict in the long term. Most importantly, the events in Egypt demonstrate that the Western government’s fears about radical Islamists taking over from their authoritarian allies are not very well-founded. The protests in Egypt show that peoples’ primary objectives are focused on the protection of civil and political rights and on achieving greater equity and ending corruption. A particularly Islamist agenda is clearly absent here. It is important that the US and its Western allies move away from this tunnel vision that there are only two political options available to the people in the Middle East: either authoritarian governments or Islamic governments.

Q: Any thoughts on how long this could go on?

A: The developments in Egypt bear the marks of a social revolution. I think that we will be witnessing ongoing transformative processes that will mobilize a lot of energies for a long time to come.


Salwa Ismail is professor of politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She is author of Political Life in Cairo's New Quarters: Encountering the Everyday State (Minnesota 2006).