CAREER BLOCKERS AND BLOCKED MEN: ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE, AND THE MEN HOLDING BAGS

July 3rd, 2020

Today’s post is inspired by two very different items. One is the delicious romantic comedy Always Be me Maybe (2019, Netflix) and the other my coming across the term ‘career blocker’ in a CV sent to my university by a candidate to a teaching post. Yes, very different matters but not really.

The comedy, scripted by its stars Ali Wong and Randall Park, together with Michael Golamco, and directed by Nahnatchka Khan, deals with the difficulties of thirty-something top chef Sasha to convince her childhood friend Marcus that they are meant for each other. Her frantic lifestyle, however, suggests that there is hardly room for anyone but herself in it. In the CV I read a woman academic with a similar hectic lifestyle described her five-year-old daughter and two-year-old boy as career blockers. I didn’t know what that meant, and what my quick search revealed is that, yes, this mother was warning prospective employers that her career had been halted at points by her having children. I understand and profoundly respect the need to send this warning but I was, nonetheless, saddened. Put yourself in the children’s shoes and try to guess how it would feel to be described in this way by a parent.

A very quick Google search revealed three basic meanings of ‘career blocker’, a term which, I assume, must be American (how come Americans are so inventive linguistically speaking?). In the article “Avoding Mid-Career Stalling” by Athena Vongalis-Macrow of the volume Career Moves: Mentoring for Women Advancing Their Career and Leadership in Academia (Sense Publishers, 2014, 71-82) which she herself has edited, you may find this sentence: “The lack of participation in networks has been identified as a career blocker for working women largely because most networking has been traditionally organised around male activities and interests” (77). Here the career blocker is, rather, a career lack. In the article “Beware of These Career Blockers” signed by Performance Management Consultants in their web PMC Training, the focus falls on the relational skills. They offer a table in which these binary pairs appear (strength first, career blocker second): Responsive/Too easily influenced, Careful/Too Cautious, Free thinker/Eccentric, Confident/Arrogant and so on (check https://pmctraining.com/site/resources-2/beware-of-these-career-blockers/). The article by Victoria Butt, manager director of Linked In, “Why Career Blockers are Impacting your Salary” (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-identify-influence-your-career-blockers-victoria-butt) defines very differently ‘career blockers’ as “those people who will inhibit your career in some way –large or small. On a large scale, they will openly block your promotion in a leadership forum and explain to others why you should NOT be eligible for a promotion/role change; on a small scale, they do not recommend your skills when asked”. Definitely, one’s own children are not it… One day, when I get the courage to do that, I’ll talk about the person who was my career blocker for so many years, and in what sense I am an abuse survivor. Not now, perhaps soon.

Extremely successful individuals, then, have no inner or outer career blockers, whereas the rest of us are subjected to them. The gender discourse implicit in the CV is that for a woman becoming a mother is a major career blocker, whereas for a man it need not be, though I think that what is at stake is the construction of personal careers based on masculinist patriarchal models that value competitiveness above all. Whereas men still enjoy the complicity and help of many career wives, few women have the luxury of enjoying the support of a career husband. And this where chef Sasha comes in. She longs to have a baby but when the film begins she is in a relationship with an ambitious man who just sees her as a prop in his own business emporium but not really as a person to found a family with. Who does Sasha turn to? To childhood friend Marcus, as noted. What is the main argument she uses to seduce him to her view of things? That he has blocked his career as a musician at all points and accepted a job, a lifestyle, and even a girlfriend that are not good enough for him.

The problem with this argument is that it still doesn’t work well with men, hence the film’s title: Always Be my Maybe. Apparently, this is a witty distortion of a song by Mariah Carey, “Always Be my Baby”. In the film’s title the certainty of ‘always’ is destroyed by ‘maybe’ for the problem is that love stories involving career women are still fraught with all sort of problems. I was watching yesterday Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), a post-modern take on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, and at one point the Prince Hal character Scottie (Keanu Reeves) falls in love with an Italian peasant girl. Next thing we know, he has transformed her into a well dressed Portland socialite, with no comment required. Her social ascent seems as credible to me today as it was in 1991, I only need to think of Cristiano Ronaldo’s girlfriend Georgina Rodríguez as an example. The opposite case, the guy who adapts his life to that of a career woman is still complicated. Very much so.

Thus, in Always Be my Maybe there is a running gag about Marcus’s inability to match his outfits to each occasion. This is put down to his being working-class but it is really down to his being a man sartorially at odds with the glamorous world of Sasha. Of course, she is not just a cook, but a star chef, though the film makes a point towards the end of endorsing small scale homely restaurants rather than the elite places she runs. The point I am making is that although the likes of Georgina Rodríguez have made a career out of their social climbing, triggered by a man’s erotic choice, in this film comedy comes from the difficulties a regular guy has with accepting a place by the side of a successful woman. This is not even a case of his being considered less manly but of how his decisions not to pursue a career are chastised in the film’s discourse.

There is a more or less general consensus that a career is better than a job, as a career is vocational and if you play your cards well you eventually become your own boss, reap the corresponding economic rewards and live the upper-class dream (or at least upper-middle class). In the film Sasha pulls herself by the bootstraps and gets all this, except that she has no man to share it with, whereas Marcus is content enough until Sasha starts pointing out that actually he is unhappy. In fact, she is projecting her own unhappiness and does so by a constant process of harassment, without quite realizing that if Marcus had been as successful as a musician as she is as a chef he would hardly be there for her. They would be in another film: in Damien Chazelle’s nasty La La Land, that awful film in which love becomes the main career blocker for the man, and so he turns his back on the woman, a successful actor. Always Be my Maybe is much more fun and so it reaches a sort of happy ending but one that provokes just a half smile and not the full confidence that romance will work. In this sense, all romantic comedy is dead.

If you move on five years into Sasha and Marcus’ story what you will probably get is a couple with one or two kids squabbling because she is still running her career at the same hectic pace and his as a musician has not really taken off. Marcus, who is not interested in the lifestyle of the wealthy, might resent his new life as an imposition and try to be the nonchalant dude he was as often as possible. I can easily picture him spoiling a few dinner parties when guests ask him what he does apart from being Sasha’s husband and the father of her kids. This is not a question a woman who has chosen to be a wife and mother would resent but here Marcus has not chosen being a house husband but pushed into becoming something that hardly exists: the working-class husband of a middle-class, ex-working-class woman. Holding her handbag at parties might jar after just a couple of events.

If you’re familiar with Always Be my Maybe you may be wondering when I am going you mention race and ethnicity, for Sasha is American-Vietnamese and Marcus American-Korean. The answer is that I am not because a sign of the normality of racial matters is that they needn’t be discussed. It does matter very much that this romantic comedy enhances the presence of Asian-Americans on the screen and that it has something quite interesting to say about the invisibility of Keanu Reeves’s ethnic background so far, but to me it is essentially a text about class, not a very popular subject these days. Specifically, it is a text about the difficulties of an upwardly mobile de-classed woman to find a mate, for the men in her new circle are too career-minded and the men in her former circle are too little career-minded. Where is the middle ground, Sasha wonders? The solution, as noted, is pushing Marcus very hard up the social scale but, again, this is a very, very complicated choice. Keanu, who plays an obnoxious version of himself, is there, by the way, to test Marcus’s insecurities when faced with a top male star.

I think, in short, that when thinking of gender, careers and career blockers we tend to forget class issues connected with upward social mobility, which is what this romantic comedy has forced me to consider. I do not know if there is a study of who career women of working-class backgrounds end up partnering with and though I assume it is mainly middle-class men, I am really curious to know. I think that men of the same background have the choice of marrying either working- or middle-class girls for women from the lower social strata can adapt far more easily than men of the same class to new social circles. I do wonder how many Marcuses are there holding bags for their career wives and my guess is that very few, if any. So cheers to Wong and Park, and Golamco, for making us think of this neglected topic.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

SCARLETT AND THE STATUE: WHY SUPPRESSION IS NOT EDUCATION

June 12th, 2020

[This one is for Felicity, Esther, and Lola]

The brutal murder of African-American George Floyd by an overzealous, racist white cop, who thought that kneeling on the detainee’s neck for nine minutes was adequate police practice, has resulted in massive social unrest in the USA and other countries. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has taken to the streets in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic to demand an end to racism, while white individuals and white-dominated corporations apologize for having disregarded blacks in a variety of ways, from personal interaction to fictional representation.

As part of this trend, earlier this week streaming giant HBO announced the removal from its Max platform of Gone with the Wind, on the grounds that the film’s racism is no longer acceptable, though recent news updates indicate that the movie will be returned to the platform with an accompanying statement on race. Scarlett O’Hara might then go not with the wind but with the statue of former slave trader Edward Colston, which was tipped into Bristol harbour a few days ago by a crowd of angry protesters. The local City Council has now retrieved it, with the intention of exhibiting it in a museum, complete with the graffiti and ropes the protestors used to deface and topple it down, as a History lesson.

There have been countless articles, blog posts, and tweets about Scarlett and the statue this last week all over the world, but the best I have read is by the geniuses that write satirical newspaper El Mundo Today. Their piece announces that after erasing all racist movies the only one that remains on HBO is Spiderman 2 but since that one has not passed the anti-sexist Bechdel test, the platform will only stream its own menu (https://www.elmundotoday.com/2020/06/spiderman-2-sera-la-unica-pelicula-de-hollywood-disponible-en-las-plataformas-de-streaming-despues-de-que-borren-todas-las-peliculas-racistas/). What else can one add?

The past (and the present) is full of texts of all types that are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, ableist, ageist, speciesist, chauvinistic as regards nationality, and a long etcetera in the long list of human prejudice. We have no excuse now to produce offensive texts (I’m using ‘text’ here in the Cultural Studies sense of the words, which encompasses anything that can be subjected to interpretation), though political correctness is now a minefield almost impossible to navigate (see the J.K. Rowling tweetstorm this week on transphobic issues). What we cannot do is start erasing the texts of the past for we will be left with practically nothing.

Some will say that this is fine, and that the only way that a prejudice-free new textuality can emerge is by applying a sharp cultural rebooting, and starting all over again, from a completely different stance. Seeing this week how many comedians have apologised for having used blackface in their shows, there might be a point in asking for a radical revamping of culture. Still, it seems to me that retrospective apology and textual erasure misses the point without a deeper conversation.

Look at country band Lady Antebellum, now renamed Lady A: why did they think that was a good name? Why hadn’t anybody pointed out that the use of the word Antebellum has certain racist connotations in the fourteen years since the band’s foundation? And when comedians, singers, or even Vogue’s editor Anna Wintour apologize (in her case for not hiring black staff), to whom are they apologizing? It seems to me that there is a strange kind of ghostly tribunal out there deciding who is absolved and what penance must be done, and I wonder why a white policeman had to act like a beast for so many people to suddenly realize that they were being racist but should not be. How come they didn’t know before? It is not as if race is not discussed all the time.

I’ll leave for the time being the discussion of what kind of new textuality can emerge in a fully politically correct atmosphere to focus on why suppression is not education. To begin with, I believe that HBO Max’s decision may have had the opposite effect: attracting many new admirers to Gone with the Wind, a 1939 film which is hardly the type of fare that attracts young compulsive series watchers. I have fond personal memories of watching this film with my mother in its Spanish re-release, at some point in the 1980s, on the huge screen that Cinema Bosque used to flaunt before it was transformed into a multiplex. Any spectators could and can see, I think, that the original novel by Margaret Mitchell and its film adaptation are focused on white people of the American South in ways that are racist because that was a racist society. And least that was my impression: one thing is the racism of what is portrayed, the other is the film’s racism. The film does not defend that the South was right and slavery should have been maintained; in fact, it portrays what was wrong with the white society that Scarlett embodies, if you want to see it that way, and why they lost the Civil War.

Let’s not forget, besides, that actor Hattie McDaniel won the first Oscar ever awarded to an African-American for her role as Mammy (the second win went to Sidney Poitier in 1963!) and that Scarlett O’Hara’s spunkiness (courtesy of English actor Vivien Leigh) was a refreshing innovation especially in comparison to the likes of bland, passive Melania (Olivia de Havilland) in the same film. With this I mean that context matters as much as text. We now read the scene in which Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) drags Scarlett into their bedroom as marital rape and are outraged that next we see her blissful face the morning after. At the time what outraged the censors in Spain was Scarlett’s expression of sexual satisfaction. Times change and we cannot live in a constant presentism, measuring everything by our rod.

If, in any case, the values of a text are so deeply at odds with our values, what happens is that it is eventually abandoned. We show little or no interest in medieval texts that caused major rifts and much personal damage depending on which quirky religious tenet they supported. The ones we attempt to suppress still bother us, but it is much more productive to try to understand why they bother us than simply avoid them. The same applies to statues, a type of art that completely baffles me. I don’t understand what is the point of putting a reproduction of a person on a pedestal to be admired. Public spaces should be filled with art, but not of this kind. The same applies to calling institutions by person’s names. A dear friends who works at Universidad Juan Carlos I has started a campaign to have the name changed, which is the equivalent, I think of toppling down a statue. And with good reason.

I teach Victorian Literature, as I have often noted here, and there is no way that I can do that using texts which offend nobody. Even the texts by women carry a good measure of prejudice, often class-related, and on occasion notably androphobic. I believe that I did explain here that we chose to replace Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines because even though some comments by Conrad’s narrator Marlowe are clearly anti-racist the novella is not on the whole overtly so. It has generated too much admiration by snobbish literary people for its racial politics to be obvious (at least until Chinua Achebe protested in 1970 that for all its elegant prose this is a barbaric text). Haggard is so blatantly racist that, paradoxically, racism is easier to explain and to expose using his text: we do not teach King Solomon’s Mines as a text that needs to be admired but as a text that was extremely popular for a very long time for reasons that need to be looked into. Following the same engaged pedagogy we teach Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a deeply sexist text which is nonetheless extremely useful to understand the patriarchal concerns about women’s liberation.

I think that the crux of all this problematic situation is our personal and collective admiration for certain texts and persons. This is a tricky concept. In Carme Torras’s science fiction novel La mutació sentimental (2008), the future society she depicts has forgotten what admiration is about because individuals live in a totally egalitarian world. This is something she implicitly criticises. Admiration, of course, depends on acknowledging that something or someone is extraordinary and, so, worth our affection and respect. Thus, if a text or a person we admire is negatively valued, we feel an intimate hurt: don’t touch my Gone with the Wind, don’t touch my Edward Colston. I don’t care, for instance, for D.W. Griffith’s appallingly racist Birth of a Nation (1915) or for Alfred Hitchcock’s appallingly sexist Psycho (1960) and feel offended whenever they are discussed as great examples of artistic innovation in cinema. I wish they could disappear from collective memory because they offend me deeply, and if they do I’ll be happy (here contradicting my own argument that nothing should be suppressed). Now, try to suppress Blade Runner for being sexist, as I very well know it is since I am a feminist woman, and you will hear me scream, for I admire it. The same goes for Dracula, which is a superb novel.

The process of education, then, should consist of curbing down the admiration for questionable texts and persons and redirecting that feeling towards what truly deserves it (but according to whom?). The problem, as I am trying to argue, is that the process is more complex than it sounds because admiration has irrational, sentimental roots that have to do with personal experience. At the stage we are, most of us are fast re-educating ourselves but hardly willing to let go of certain texts: as a woman I am offended that men fully aware of sexism still admire sexist texts, but then I do the same if the sexist texts elicit my admiration in any way as I have noted. And nothing is ever one-sided. I admire Charles Dickens very much for certain qualities of his writing and deplore him for others of his personality. It would be very hard for me not to teach him in Victorian Literature but I have no problem not teaching Walter Scott in Romantic Literature because I do not admire him (of course, by not teaching him I am preventing my own students from admiring Scott, which might be very pig-headed of me).

The best I can do, in any case, is ask you do watch Gone with the Wind, even read Margaret Mitchell’s novel, and learn who Edward Colston was, and then decide what you find there to admire or deplore. Just don’t tip both into History’s trashcan (why have I instantly thought of Donald Trump…?) for they are what History is about.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THINKING OF NEXT ACADEMIC YEAR UNDER THE SHADOW OF COVID-19: A TIME TO RECONSIDER WHAT WE DO AS TEACHERS

June 1st, 2020

Like most of my colleagues in Spain, I will not finish teaching until mid-July, when the marks for the MA dissertations will be introduced. Yet, now that I’m done ‘teaching’, that is to say, interacting with my undergrad students before assessment, might be a good moment to stop and consider how Covid-19 has changed some pedagogical matters but will most likely fail to change others. I have spelled ‘teaching’ between quotation marks because since 12 March, when I taught my last two presential sessions, I have been teaching online—again, like the rest of my colleagues in Spain. This does not mean that we have all being approaching online teaching from the same angle, though I lack sufficient information to know what my colleagues have been doing so far. From what I hear, my impression is that, given the lack of general guidelines, they have improvised and have mostly tried to transfer their habitual activities onto our Moodle classrooms. A common complaint by students is that they have been overloaded with extra work to compensate for the missing lectures; this has been gradually corrected but it is for me a sign that the approach taken might not be the best one.

I was an associate teacher at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, a pioneering online university, between 1998 and 2014. I used to teach there an elective subject called ‘Introduction to English Literature’ for the BA in the Humanities. I was part of the team that had written the handbook and I myself set the course in motion under the supervision of Pauline Ernest. I combined, then, online and presential teaching for sixteen years and I only gave up because in the last semester at UOC I had 70 students in my hands. Multiply this by six exercises each and you will see that I just couldn’t cope with UOC and UAB at the same time. The current teacher tells me that the subject is going to be discontinued after twenty-two years, which is a pity.

I joined UOC when I was an untenured teacher, seeking to enhance my possibilities of getting tenure. The money was also an enticement, of course. When I became tenured, in 2002, I found out to my surprise that my new contract was compatible with UOC, so I continued teaching online. My motivation was at this point pedagogical: the UOC students were mostly very well read, highly autonomous mature students and interacting with them was a pleasure. In all my sixteen years, I only failed one student; the rest who did not pass the subject just quit, though most passed the second time around.

I learned plenty at UOC in terms of planning tasks for continuous assessment, giving constructive feedback, encouraging students who were less autonomous. I never used exams—only a variety of written exercises, including forums—and I never missed them. I don’t know how other UOC teachers managed, though. And, although this might sound surprising, I never used video. My students were not taking a degree in English Studies but in the Humanities and although their command of written English was good (in some cases much above that of my UAB students), none of my three UOC supervisors (or coordinators) thought that video was a necessary part of the subject. I agreed.

I had been reading worrying news about Wuhan in the British press for weeks before quarantine started in Spain, so I was ready to go online at any moment with my two BA courses: ‘English Romantic Literature’ (second year, 58 students) and ‘Cultural Studies’ (third-fourth year, 42 students). For this, I have mostly followed the UOC model. In fact I have been following that model for years, in the sense that I avoid exams and I think of my courses as a chance to teach a set of skills though a set of tasks, and not just to teach content. So, what we were doing in class in February is not in the end very different from what we ended up doing after 14 March: I transferred what was supposed to be presential to our Moodle classroom mainly through the use of forums—I use plenty of students’ oral presentations in class, so that was not really a problem. In the case of ‘Cultural Studies’ the students have interacted online infinitely far more than they were interacting in our physical classroom. In the case of ‘English Romanticism’ their interactions have been available for much longer than they would have been in the classroom.

I have not, however, used my teaching time in the same way I was using it in February. To begin with, I believe that online teaching needn’t be synchronous. That is to say: I see no need to keep the rigid schedule of classroom teaching, much less to reproduce online the same twice-weekly ninety-minute sessions we were teaching. With 58 students in one class and 42 in the other, I have seen, besides, little use in online Teams meetings; to the matter of numbers I need to add that for me teaching works by looking at people in the eyes, which cannot be done online. The few Teams meetings I’ve had with colleagues have been quite awkward in terms of visual quality and the personal awareness needed to interact well. For that, the classroom is much, much better.

I know that some of my colleagues have used Teams regularly or have recorded themselves and uploaded podcasts and video, which is fine. I am just saying that I have used other strategies. For instance, in ‘English Romanticism’ I have been teaching students to write papers, and so, for one of our books (Frankenstein) I wrote a paper for them instead of lecturing. The same applies to ‘Cultural Studies’: in this subject I have provided sample written exercises and guidance about how to do presentations. Students have in fact taught each other much, and I have used my teaching time to give detailed, personal feedback. I have certainly missed classroom interaction and I do look forward to meeting face-to-face again. But, let me be completely honest, I have not missed at all the students who were projecting onto me a relentless sense of boredom in my English Romanticism lectures, possibly because that is a compulsory course. That is one of the great advantages of teaching online: students’ eating and drinking in class, using cellphones, chatting need not bother me.

Our schedule for next year is ready but, even though the end of quarantine approaches (21 June), it seems likely that the preventive measures against Covid-19 will be enforced for a much longer time, at least until December. I am personally scandalised by the imprudence that Spaniards are displaying now, after a death toll of possibly near 40,000 persons (not the official 28,000 count) and in the absence of a vaccine. This summer we’ll see the actual danger that the virus poses once foreign visitors return and general national mobility goes back to normal (or pseudo-normal). It might well be that Covid-19, in the best case scenario, is under control by early September and that we can resume teaching as we have done so far. Even so, it would still be a great moment to consider how we teach.

I am logically speaking as a Literature teacher, and I understand that matters can be very different in other disciplines, beginning with the Language section of my Department. A six ECTS course, allow me to remind you, amounts to 150 hours of work, of which 30%-40% (45 to 60) should be of classroom interaction, leaving only 100 for reading, and assessment activities. In my school we used to teach 45 hours in 15 weeks (so, 3 hours a week), but this has gone up to 50 hours in 17 weeks. Here is for me, a first problem: Literature students have too little time to read, and too much is taken by listening to us, teachers, discuss books they haven’t had the time to read. Add to this that to reach UAB, or many other campus universities, students and teachers often have to employ at least 2 hours every day (and think of the carbon footprint this means—you just need to see the parking lot any day). Our buildings are woefully overcrowded with students who spend on average fifteen to twenty hours a week in classrooms, mostly passively listening (if they listen at all!). The furniture in our classrooms consists mostly of benches facing towards the teacher’s platform, which are not only very uncomfortable but also impossible to move and guarantee a better use of the classroom space for group work (and now that Covid-19 is making personal distance necessary). To sum up: the way we teach takes too much reading/studying time, the classrooms are obsolete as teaching spaces, and we contaminate too much.

Next, what do we do in our biweekly ninety-minute lectures? We are supposed not to use ‘lecciones magistrales’ (lectures) but I should think that this is still a very typical model. The question we are not asking is whether this is the best possible model. Ninety minutes is an amount of time that goes totally against all studies in the attention span of average human beings. In conferences we offer twenty-minute papers and each ninety-minute session has three papers followed by discussion. Why do we assume, then, that our students benefit from ninety-minute sessions? And do they? Shouldn’t we start thinking of alternatives? Perhaps forty-five minute sessions? Perhaps one presential and one online session a week? Of course, the problem with this is that our task as teachers is measured by how long we spend lecturing. Try to explain to the authorities that monitor us that teaching is not only face-to-face interaction but mainly guidance. It used to be about passing on information but this is the 21st century, not the Middle Ages, and information is accessible in many other ways than it used to be. The rule should be simple: the classroom should only be used for what cannot be done elsewhere.

Sixty per cent of students’ work already happens elsewhere, in the library or at home. It is ‘virtual’, in the sense that it does not happen in the classroom. The thirty per cent that does happen in the classroom is now a problem because of how Covid-19 has attacked our capacity to be together in the same indoors space in big groups and for a long time. I believe, though, that with or without Covid-19, we still need to think why we need to crowd so many people in classrooms and what for. In primary schools they have 25 children in each classroom, though in really advanced countries like Finland this is down to 15. In universities, however, we think that it makes sense to have 100 students sitting huddled together—it doesn’t make sense now, but it has never made sense at all. Past 25 students classroom interaction simply does not happen, you just see a mass of faces looking at you, as you desperately try to remember their names. In big groups, it really makes no difference whether you’re there in the flesh or on YouTube.

Our target, then, should be making new sense of university teaching in a world that, as Covid-19 is forcing us to see, already needed a profound reform.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

HEGEMONIC MASCULINITY AND PATRIARCHY: CONSENT AND COERCION, OR STELLA AND BLANCHE IN A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

May 25th, 2020

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

I am going back to the discussion of hegemonic masculinity on which I focused my last post, this time in connection to Tennessee Williams’s popular play A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), a Pulitzer-Award winner. The 2014 production by the Young Vic and Joshua Andrew, directed by Benedict Andrews, has been available online since last Thursday, as part of the National Theatre’s generous streaming of successful productions while the quarantine of British theatres lasts. With its attractive cast—Gillian Anderson (Blanche), Vanessa Kirby (Stella), Ben Foster (Stanley Kowalski)—and its gimmicky revolving stage (by Magda Willi), this version of the play was enormously successful. It has attracted these days a considerable number of new reviews, all also enthusiastic—but with a caveat.

Michael Billington’s 2014 review for The Guardian noted that “The updating to the present sits oddly with a play that talks of period bandleaders like Xavier Cugat and where the feel is of an America on the verge of postwar economic expansion”. Paul T. Davies concurs, six years later. The updating (which remains quite fuzzy, as Billington’s comment indicates), “underlines the problematic sexual politics of the piece. Once we move out of the 1950s, Stanley’s behaviour is even more brutish, and it’s a tricky balancing act as, although Stanley hits his wife and rapes Blanche, members of the audience, of any gender specification, must want to sit on their front porches fanning themselves and wishing for the rains to cool their desire for Stanley down” (BritishTheatre.com, 24 May 2020). I should think that what is problematic is that Stanley, the abuser and rapist, is still connected with desire in any way and that the partial updating of the play does not alter its original sex and gender discourse.

As Williams conceived it, A Streetcar Named Desire tells the story of two sisters, Blanche (the elder) and Stella (the younger), during the months of Blanche’s conflictive stay at her sister’s home in New Orleans. The sisters are the last scions of their ancestral home at Belle Rive (in Mississippi) which, as we learn, has been lost to the financial improvidence of the patriarchs in the DuBois family. Blanche has been making a living by teaching English in secondary schools, whereas Stella (no occupation mentioned) is married to WWII veteran and factory parts salesman, Stanley Kowalski.

Blanche has been unable to overcome the serious mental health issues caused by the suicide of her young closeted gay husband, which has led to a scandalous promiscuity and a liaison with one of her seventeen-year-old students, for which she has been dismissed from her teaching post. She is on the run from herself when she takes refuge in the Kowalskis’ home, though she never discloses her actual circumstances. These are dug out by the persistent Stanley, who very much resents Blanche’s presence and her interference in his marriage to Stella, based, as it is apparent, on sexual attraction and a toxic co-dependence. Stella is, nonetheless, happy enough and willing to tolerate occasional abuse from Stanley, despite Blanche’s attempts to open her sister’s eyes. When Stanley realises that Blanche is lying to his buddy Mitch—pretending to be the lady she is not in order to have him propose marriage as a way out of her troubles—he unmasks his sister-in-law. Stanley also rapes her, which breaks the lasts remnants of her sanity. The play ends with Blanche being taken away by a psychiatrist, as a devastated Stella remains with Stanley.

There are a few gender hot spots in the play, which require a negotiation with the audience: the homosexuality of Blanche’s husband and his ensuing suicide; her scene with an underage newspaper boy whom she talks into kissing her; Stanley’s brutal assault on a visibly pregnant Stella; and the rape scene. I do not know the details of the reaction that the play elicited in the original productions, beyond the fact that the rape scene caused outrage (I cannot say how it was performed). Williams himself wrote the screenplay for the 1951 film adaptation directed by Elia Kazan, with Marlon Brando (Stanley), Vivien Leigh (Blanche), and Kim Hunter (Stella). Brandon had been discovered in the Broadway production (in which Jessica Tandy played Blanche, and Hunter was Stella). Leigh, who was English, had been the quintessential Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and had played Blanche on the London stage, directed by her husband, Laurence Olivier.

The film adaptation went through a two-phase process of censorship: first, the Code Hays was applied to it and next the Legion of Decency demanded further cuts. This resulted in much confusion about the reasons for Blanche’s overwhelming sense of guilt and in a toning down of misogynistic violence. Whereas in the original play Blanche is in shock because her husband shoots himself after she calls him “disgusting” (having caught him in bed with his ‘friend’), in the film version there is a vague allusion to his enjoying writing poetry too much. The rape scene, which on the stage is directly seen, is hidden in the film by the metaphorical shot of a broken mirror. An interesting twist, though, is that whereas in the play Stella remains loyally by Stanley despite how he has acted towards Blanche, the producers of the film accepted punishing him for the rape by having Stella abandon him. The 1993 restored version brought back into the film the four minutes elided under pressure from the Legion of Decency, but not even then was the content of the plot questioned. Only now are some reviewers beginning to see its appalling gender discourse.

Of all the elements of the play, the most jarring one is no doubt the rape scene. The standard sexist reading has always been that Blanche is ‘asking for it’, both because of her promiscuity and because she is attempting to undermine Stanley’s patriarchal rule in his own home. She attributes his very short fuse to his being a natural brute, uneducated and rough, though Stanley can also be read as one of the many unhinged WWII veterans whose inexplicable mood swings made marital life so difficult after their homecoming. Of course, any interpretation of Stanley is very much complicated by the bodily magnetism of Marlon Brando in Kazan’s film, but when he is played by less attractive actors (such as muscled, tattooed Ben Foster in the 2014 production) the ugliness of his personality becomes apparent. At the root of the play there is, however, something even uglier than Stanley’s patriarchal masculinity. I believe that the author Tennessee Williams, a gay man, rapes Blanche by proxy, using Stanley, to punish her for her homophobia. When the rape scene happens, Stanley has established his dominion over Blanche and he simply needs to call the psychiatrist to get rid of her. The rape is an act that the character needn’t perform but that the author requires to further humiliate Blanche for her own humiliation of her gay husband.

This brings me back to the discussion of hegemonic masculinity in my previous post. A point that kept nagging me after writing it is the matter of consent. According to Connell, Messerschmidt explains, hegemonic masculinity operates on the basis of consent obtained “largely through cultural ascendancy” or “discursive persuasion” (2018: 28). Furthermore, the concept of hegemony would be “irrelevant” if it “only referred to, for example, violence, aggression, and self-centeredness” (2018: 40). The “discursive legitimation (or justification), encouraging all to consent to, unite around, and embody such unequal gender relations” (2018: 46), and not “direct control and commands”(sic) (2018: 120), is the basis of discrimination. The play by Williams survives and is still very much successful because as audiences we have granted our collective consent, agreeing to its “discursive persuasion” about the fact that both Blanche and Stella need to be disciplined into submission. Yet, here’s the contradiction: A Streetcar Named Desire shows that, actually, hegemonic masculinity does not only work by consent, but also by coercion, perhaps in a 50-50 ratio.

Stella appears to consent to her husband’s sexist dominion over her but his savage punch to her face reveals that this consent is granted by a mixture of willingness and fear (both physical and psychological). Blanche is disputing all the time both Stella’s consent and Stanley’s coercion, and this is the reason why she is ill-treated and ultimately declared insane, which is the ultimate coercion (together with her rape). Those who think that she deserves this fate are granting their consent to the hegemonic masculinity practices by which Stanley undoes her resistance to patriarchy, and are in fact complicit with him (and with Williams, who is as patriarchal as his charcater, despite being gay).

There is a scene in which Blanche tells her sister what is wrong with her dependence on Stanley, and for a second we can imagine an alternative play in which Stella is rescued and the two sisters start a new life helping each other to overcome their toxic relations with the men in their lives. It is, in fact, perfectly possibly to turn A Streetcar Named Desire on its head and, without altering the plot, stress its underlying sexism and misogyny—but for that Marlon Brando needs to be forgotten. If Stanley is, in any way, justified or glamorised, then the play serves the cause of hegemonic masculinity. This is why the 2014 production still falls short: Foster’s Stanley has no charm, but Blanche could and should be played as a strong, independent woman slowly going insane under patriarchal pressure, and not as a clueless girly woman constantly blabbing about gentlemanliness.

The way out of granting our consent is by education. The first time I saw Streetcar, the film, I was too young to understand the rape scene but I had been told by family, friends, and reviewers that this was an amazing film which I had to enjoy and respect. So I did enjoy and respect it. The second time, I was educated enough in gender issues to notice that there seemed to be a discrepancy between the cult around the film and Williams, and the severity of Blanche’s victimization—I was shocked to recognize the rape scene for what it was (Brando a rapist?) and by the truth about Blanche’s husband. This third time I should have known better but I was attracted by the presence of my admired Gillian Anderson (Scully in The X-Files) in the main role. That is another form of granting consent: lowering your defences and accepting to be made complicit with an atrocious story of patriarchal control out of admiration for an actor, whether this is Brando or Anderson.

So here I am, apologizing for my lapse, and trying to educate others into withdrawing their consent and to learn the subtle and less subtle ways into which this is elicited from us. Does this mean that you should not see/read A Streetcar Named Desire? Not at all: by all means educate yourself, just do not enjoy what cannot be enjoyed unless you align yourself with patriarchy.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

HEGEMONIC MASCULINITY AND PATRIARCHY: POINTS OF CONTACT

May 19th, 2020

This is not really a review of Hegemonic Masculinity: Formulation, Reformulation, and Amplification by James W. Messerschmidt (2018, Rowman & Littlefield) but a post inspired by a number of passages I have come across in this volume. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, hegemonic masculinity is the brainchild of Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell (formerly known as R.W. Connell), one of the founding parents of Masculinities Studies. Messerschmidt, Connell’s disciple and academic collaborator, offers here as the transparent title of his volume announces a sort of ultimate guide about how this concept should be understood and used. The problem is that since the concept itself was quite unstable in its origins—poorly formulated, if you want less elegant language—it has generated much controversy about its actual meaning and intended use. Messerschmidt and Connell already published an article back in 2005 intending to fix its use but since they obviously could not succeed, because of the porosity of the concept, Messerschmidt has tried again, sounding a little bit like a disgruntled acolyte offering the definite Bible to errant believers.

A matter which makes me feel disgruntled is Messerschmidt’s cavalier approach to feminism and the fact that he does not even mention Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), an omission that I simply fail to understand in a volume about how gender changes historically. Butler is a philosopher and I’m thinking that perhaps citing her in a treatise on sociology is not kosher, but this is the equivalent of writing about power and ignoring Foucault. Reading Messerschmidt’s account of how 1970s and 1980s radical and socialist feminism ‘failed’ to explain patriarchy, I am reminded of why Masculinities Studies always sounds suspiciously misogynistic. At least he does. Look at this: “Radical feminism made distinctive and original contributions to feminist theory, yet got entangled with biological arguments as the foundation of ‘patriarchy’” (2). Poor things, the silly women!

What seemed to cause the entanglement was that patriarchy, Messerschmidt says, was formulated as an ahistorical system of female oppression which was ultimately too broad-ranging to make any sense. This is why theorists in the social sciences gave up any attempt to further refine the definition of patriarchy in the 1980s. If you ask me, I think that the radical feminists got it right in many ways: patriarchy is not ahistorical but can certainly perdure despite profound historical changes because its main bases as regards gender (misogyny and homophobia) endure. Patriarchy is infinitely flexible and, as I have been arguing, currently it is beginning to invest more energy on organizing society hierarchically on the basis of individual power than of gender. But let me go on.

Now, according to Messerschmidt, Connell took the new feminist theorization of gender in the mid-1980s and started talking about gender relations instead of patriarchy; an important reason why this turn happened is that gay men started explaining their own masculinity in relation to heterosexual masculinity, revealing how they were empowered as men in relation to women but disempowered as homosexual men. In Gender and Power (1987) Connell formulated the concepts of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity in the way in which they were known throughout the last decades of the 20th century (please note that Butler’s Gender Trouble was published just three years later and has had really a much bigger impact). The main point, Messerschmidt clarifies, is that Connell “concentrated on how hegemonic masculinity in a given historical and society-wide setting legitimates unequal gender relations between men and women, masculinity and femininity, and among masculinities” (46, original italics). That is to say, hegemonic masculinity is not a set of actual men or a set of actual features that define masculinity but a set of values that are practiced by certain groups of men (that I would not hesitate to call patriarchal). The aim is to keep femininity and non-hegemonic masculinities in a position of inferiority. Connell also came up with the division of the non-hegemonic masculinities as complicit, subordinate, marginalized, and protest masculinities.

If you want another angle on the same matter, hegemonic masculinity combines a variety of techniques of domination into one. It is, plainly, masculinist sexism, as defined by feminism, and homophobia, but also racism, ethnic supremacism, nationalism, ableism, ageism, and all other prejudices combined into one. Messerschmidt describes a situation in which there is not one but a sort of local, regional, and global network of hegemonic masculinities in charge of policing the gender borders. All of them “must be culturally ascendant to advance a rationale for social action through consent and compliance” (76) for, and in this you see the Gramscian roots of the concept, hegemonic masculinities operate on the basis of consent, not coercion. In contrast, Messerschmidt explains, “Dominant masculinities are not always associated with and linked to gender hegemony but refer to (locally, regionally, and globally) the most celebrated, common, widespread, or current form of masculinity in a particular social setting” (76). If I understand this correctly, Donald Trump is an example of how hegemonic masculinity is practiced (after all he was democratically elected), whereas Barack Obama would be an example of dominant masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity need not be admired but it is obeyed, contributing to gender inequality, whereas dominant masculinity is respected and admired but might have little impact on gender divisions.

That all this is less than perfectly defined appears more than evident when Messerschmidt explains, in what reads like a gender tongue twister, that “Although hegemonic masculinities and emphasized femininities at times may also be dominant or dominating, dominant and dominating masculinities and femininities are never hegemonic or emphasized if they fail culturally to legitimate unequal gender relations; in this latter scenario, dominant and dominating masculinities/femininities are thereby constructed outside relations of gender hegemony” (125). I fail to understand this. There is clearly a great difference between Trump and Obama and how they connect with gender inequality, or how they connect in their different masculinities. But as Presidents of the United States they both belong to the same patriarchal system that has made it practically impossible for a woman to be elected President. Obama did not graciously withdraw when Hillary Clinton announced her intention to be the Democratic Party’s candidate in 2008 and Trump cheated her of a Presidency she had actually won in 2016. Hillary possibly lost much support because many women saw her as either too patriarchal herself or too radical as a feminist, but the point is that the 2020 female Democratic candidates have been also swept aside. As things are now, there is, then very little difference between hegemonic and dominant masculinity because the only way towards gender equality is that these categories are abandoned. Or, alternatively, that the dominant masculine model becomes what Connell and Messerschmidt have called ‘positive’ masculinities and femininities, a label so vague that it could mean anything. I myself prefer using anti-patriarchal, so that the enemy is clearly defined both for men and for women outside patriarchal circles.

When Messerschmidt says that “The hegemonic masculine social structure consists of different types of power relations” (133) it seems evident to me that he means patriarchy. Hegemonic masculinity is “continually and pervasively renewed, recreated, defended, and modified through social action” (133) because it is, plainly, the ideology of patriarchy by another name. Whereas the patriarchy defined by radical feminists was (allegedly) a monolithic, ahistorical institution designed to oppress women, Connell’s hegemonic masculinity is the same dog but with a historical collar, devoted not only to oppress all women but also all the types of men that resist its rule or lack sufficient power to join the ranks. Hegemonic masculinity can be found at the local, regional and global levels where patriarchy exists because it’s the same thing. Or, the other way round: I have altered the definition of patriarchy to make it a more useful concept than hegemonic masculinity. Sorry to sound so smug, but Messerschmidt also sounds smug… In plain words: all types of discrimination consist of “different types of power relations”. He and Connell call that hegemonic masculinity, I call it patriarchy, following my feminist predecessors.

Both they and I, however, are trapped by the same problem: the persistence of gender binarism. Messerschmidt continually alludes to attitudes that are ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, having besides accepted Jack Halberstam’s notion that there is something called ‘female masculinity’. For me, matters look different: if, to give an example, being a nurturing person has been traditionally associated with women, this does not mean that nurturing men are expressing a ‘masculine femininity’. It just means that as society progresses and prejudice diminishes certain attitudes will be seen to be gender neutral. Being, for instance, self-assertive will cease being connected with masculinity to be gender-neutral, just as being blond is gender-neutral. I read recently, besides, that the generation born in the 2000s and later increasingly resists being defined by binary gender labels, which will affect how both masculinity and femininity are understood. Yet, here we are, speaking of men and women as if nothing is moving. The day will come when the moment a baby is born the parents will be told ‘congratulations, it’s a person’ and not ‘it’s a boy’ or ‘it’s a girl’.

What am I ranting and raving about, then? It seems to me that when the use of an academic label fails to please those who created it, as Messerschmidt’s censorious volume evidences, then the problem lies with the label, not with its users (or abusers). I would say that further discussions are a waste of time (here I am wasting my time) while what really matters, how patriarchy follows its rampant path of destruction, goes on. Judith Butler’s notion of gender as performance may also have its flaws but it is useful to explain why patriarchy persists and how it can be changed: patriarchal masculinity is very good at adapting to the changing times without losing much power, whereas anti-patriarchal masculinities are very good but less successful at opening up masculinity to other styles of performance, including its very dissolution into gender-neutral variants. I grant that before the emergence of hegemonic masculinity there was not a single concept to explain the simultaneous oppression of women and of marginalized men, and that Connell and company have made a reasonably good job of explaining how men who feel entitled to power find the perfect niche in their circle to express their sense of entitlement, from Trump down to the unemployed man who lashes out against wife and children. I also grant that patriarchy is not an ideal label to explain how gender and power intersect but perhaps this is because we’re struck with binary labels that cannot help. To be blunt, the behaviour of the lesbian woman who batters her wife cannot be explained by invoking hegemonic masculinity, or masculine femininity, because it has to do with power in ways for which we still lack a name. I have been struggling to find an alternative to patriarchy, but this is what I have for now.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

LEST WE FORGET: THE 1980s AIDS CRISIS AND RANDY SHILTS’S AND THE BAND PLAYED ON

May 10th, 2020

‘Lest We Forget’ is a phrase from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Recessional” (1897) habitually quoted in war remembrance events. May 8 2020 was the 75th anniversary of the Nazi rendition but World War II is not the war I have in mind today. Contradicting my own injunctions to only read positive, ideally utopian books, I have spent many hours this past two weeks reading one of the most impressive American non-fiction works: Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On (1987). This is a terrific account of the early phase of the AIDS plague, covering from the first cases until the public announcement in 1985 that star actor Rock Hudson was a victim of the disease. Shilts, an investigative journalist employed by the San Francisco Chronicle and a variety of Californian TV networks, wrote the book with passion and anger. A gay man himself, he waited to take the HIV test until the massive volume was published, and died of AIDS-related complications in 1994.

Shilts was the author of The Mayor of Castro Street (1982), the biography of Harvey Milk which was one of the sources for Oscar-award winner documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), directed by Rob Epstein. Gus Van Sant’s film Milk (2008) was based on Epstein’s documentary. A while ago I wrote a book chapter comparing documentary and film, and explaining the connections between homophobia and patriarchal masculinity (the Spanish version is available online here https://ddd.uab.cat/record/147464). The point I made was that Dan White, Milk’s fellow supervisor in the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (or town council), did not murder him and Mayor George Moscone simply because he was a homophobe but because he felt disempowered by Milk’s election. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay officer ever elected in the USA and when White, a classic patriarchal man, lost his position as supervisor because of his own ineptitude, he blamed both Milk and Moscone for his disempowerment. Moscone’s death was basically read as collateral damage, though, by an angry gay community that has since then honoured Milk as a martyr. His death in 1978 was the catalyst for the beginning of a time of enormously increased visibility for the San Francisco gay community, which knew how to channel their anger into positive activism.

Shilts’s And the Band Played On reads as a second act in the tragedy that Milk’s death was. As he narrates, the new happier period in the life of gay men lasted for just very few years until AIDS emerged. Shilts’s volume, based on hundreds of interviews that he himself carried out, has an immense cast of (real-life) characters, among which several are members of the Harvey Milk Club, a referent for gay activism in the Castro neighbourhood. What Shilts narrates is the story of how the gay community resisted in a suicidal way any measure that might curb down their newly found sexual freedom. Homophobia was much more intense in the 1980s than it is now and many gays feared being ostracized as lepers by the health safety measures dictated by mostly homophobic public officers. The disease, in short, spread far more than it should have if only many gay men had listened to doctors’ advice and refrained from engaging in dangerous sexual practices. Of course, as Shilts notes with bitterness, the advice came too late, when the virus had been probably circulating for years undetected (he dates the first case back to 1976).

I knew, more or less, of the efforts made by the gay communities of San Francisco and New York, mainly, to organize themselves and work on promoting not only safe sex but also the use of innovative treatment. The book is very critical of how irresponsible personal behaviour contributed to spreading HIV (though Shilts is very unfair to Gaetan Dugas, the Québécois Canadian flight attendant that was never really Patient One). This is an important lesson to apply to our Covid-19 crisis: disobeying health measures is lethal, and personal freedom should always be second to safety. Of course, the main difference between AIDS and Covid-19 is that the former was initially associated to gay men, which caused homophobia to increase even further, whereas Covid-19 is not associated to any specific human group. The lesson, anyway, is still valid. It must be noted that Shilts mentions several times how AIDS was never seen as a gay disease in France, where researchers at the Pasteur Institute first isolated HIV. They saw the disease as a sexually transmitted infection which affected both gays and heterosexuals, and which could also be transmitted through other contacts involving blood (transfusions, sharing needles for IV drug use, drawing nourishment through a placenta from an infected mother in the case of foetuses).

As a researcher, though in the Humanities, I worry very much about how scientists do research in critical situations like the onset of AIDS or of Covid-19. Shilts has two main arguments to develop about this. On the one hand, he demonstrates how President Reagan’s administration (1980-1988) did all it could to hinder research for its own homophobic reasons and because Reagan did not want to lose his most conservative voters in the 1984 re-election. Funding only started to materialise when it became evident that AIDS was never a gay-exclusive disease. On the other hand, Shilts exposes how academic squabbling wasted precious years. Academic authorities withdrew funding and shunned researchers working on AIDS for purely homophobic reasons. Yet what seems to me most intolerable is how the peer reviewing system slowed down progress and how certain scientific stars placed their personal careers before the care of AIDS sufferers. Shilts always defends the idea that Dr. Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi were the discoverers of HIV, siding with those who accused Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Institutes of Health of somehow having used the LAV French samples sent to him as the basis for his discovery of the HLVT-III virus (both LAV and HLVT-III were actually the same virus, later called HIV). Gallo was left out of the 2008 Nobel Prize award, which went to the French virologists.

There is a passage in And the Band Played On which, as a researcher, I found very scary. The French team isolated the virus in 1983, one year before Gallo. They did try to publish their research in the USA but, Shilts writes, “they were inexperienced at writing papers for American scientific journals. They did not present their data as well as American scientists. The Pasteur’s primary spokesman, Dr. Luc Montagnier, lacked the charisma and forcefulness of Gallo”. Peer reviewing, Shilts notes, was also used to prevent the French team from publishing, with prestige journals using reviewers connected with Gallo’s employer institution or others with a known animosity against Montagnier. That this kind of corruption could happen made me even more indignant than the shenanigans of the Reagan Government, for these were no surprise. Call me naïve but I should have thought that national or personal arrogance should play no role in science at times of crisis. Reading Shilts is not at all reassuring in that sense. I would expect personal irresponsibility and political interests to be the cause of many deaths, as we are seeing in the case of Covid-19, but the details of how some scientists misbehaved in the early 1980s in relation to AIDS are simply revolting.

Just this morning I received the Catalan bulletin for research, this time a monographic issue on Covid-19. As you may imagine, and I assume this is the same all over the world, the bulletin is pretty bombastic about the magnificent work of local researchers. I am sure that they are doing their best but what irks me is the nationalist angle at a time when this is the last thing we need. There are, at least, two news items about international matters publicizing the existence of the Covid-19 Clinical Research Coalition and the Coronavirus Research and Innovation Portal of the EU. More importantly, the bulletin includes a short piece defending the need for international open research, which highlights the Global Research on Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) portal run by WHO, and other initiatives mainly referring to open access repositories, among them Elsevier’s Novel Coronavirus Information Center. I cannot say, though, whether publications available there, like The Lancet or Cell Press, have made their peer reviewing processes more agile. Shilts describes the overwhelming frustration of early AIDS researchers forced by indispensable journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine to wait a minimum of three months before publication (remember these were pre-internet times) and not to leak any information to the media under penalty of article withdrawal. The media, I must complain, should be giving us information about all this: how science is being run right now, and not just the endless lists of figures which in the end mean very little.

And the Band Plays On narrates in the last segment the process by which the first antibody tests were put on the market. This will ring familiar: the tests were not made available to all who needed them, they were not 100% reliable, and did not necessarily result in the isolation of infected patients. Like Covid-19, HIV can be carried asymptomatically (the virus, it was determined, may take years to attack the immune system) which is why testing is so important. In case anyone thinks that HIV is under control, think twice: 700000 persons died last year of this disease all over the world. The number of new infections has gone down in most countries (South Africa remains a hot spot) and the rate of survival is much higher, with HIV carriers keeping the disease in check for decades. It must be noted, though, that only two persons have been cured thanks to stem cell transplants “from donors with a genetic mutation present in less than one percent of Europeans that prevents HIV from taking hold” (https://www.sciencealert.com/hiv-cured-london-man-still-has-no-trace-of-infection-nearly-3-years-after-treatment). The second patient was pronounced healthy just last March. Note that here is no vaccine yet, after 35 years of quite dynamic research. 35 million people have died of AIDS since 1981. This week a series of clinical trials have started in different labs of different nations, which sounds promising; there is talk of a functional anti-Covid-19 vaccine for 2021. Apart from questions of funding (remember covidiot President Trump withdrew US funding from WHO?), researchers are now facing ethical dilemmas such as whether it is legitimate to infect healthy persons for the experiments (logically, you could not do that with HIV), because there is always a risk of death. One hundred vaccines are currently being developed (see https://www.bioworld.com/COVID19products#vac). Now, try not to think of the still missing vaccines for AIDS.

Shilts explains that US citizens were shocked into the realization that AIDS was there to stay when they saw images of Rock Hudson’s ravaged physique in his last public appearance (on a TV show with former co-star in many films, Doris Day). Hudson still denied he was suffering from AIDS but his death in October 1985 was used to instil into the nation a widespread fear of the new plague, for good and for bad reasons. We have not gone yet through a Rock Hudson moment, that is to say, we still lack an image so potent that we finally understand what Covid-19 is about. We are being fed images of happy survivors and of hard-working doctors and nurses, but I don’t think we really understand that this coronavirus is potentially lethal for all, hence the daily acts of disobedience.

The US media, Shilts complains, were guilty of misinforming his fellow citizens about the urgency and gravity of the AIDS crisis but he is himself an outstanding example of the best investigative journalism. Read his book, pay him homage, and hope that current journalists are also doing their best.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

SUPPOSING REASEARCH MATTERS: A BAD AND A GOOD EXAMPLE OF LITERARY INVESTIGATION

May 3rd, 2020

The mood has changed so much this weekend that I must think somebody is crazy: either the scientists asking for as much prudence as possible until the Covid-19 vaccine arrives (most likely 2022), or my fellow citizens who have taken to the streets disregarding all precautions as if this nightmare were already over. The latter, I should think. My crystal balls tells me that in two or three weeks we’ll be back in square one, with panicky calls to the emergency services and overcrowded hospitals again. If I were a doctor or a nurse I would be seething with frustration, anger, and disappointment and would scream during the daily 20:00 celebration of their heroism. What a mockery!

I’m writing this preliminary note because I no longer know which direction to take: are we still fighting for the survival of the species and nothing else matters?, or are we already on the road towards business as usual to save the economy? I’ll let my reader take their pick. For those of pessimistic inclinations, I strongly recommend the devastating article by Antonio Turiel “La tormenta negra”, which describes all you fear to know about the next oil crisis (https://ctxt.es/es/20200401/Politica/32045/Antonio-Turiel-petroleo-tormenta-negra-crisis-energetica.htm). For the rest, go on reading…

Supposing research still matters in this world, I’d like to discuss an example of bad literary criticism and an instance of great literary investigation. In a world now gone if somebody published a controversial article a polemic would follow with replies and counter-replies ad nauseam. Today, this is not worth the effort because so much is published and because, let’s be honest, you never know who you might offend. I have, therefore, decided not to name the author or the title of the bad article to which I’ll refer (though, of course, nothing is hard to find anymore). In contrast, I’m very pleased to reference the good article on which I’ll comment next: “‘I’ve learned I need to treat my characters like people’: Varieties of Agency and Interaction in Writers’ Experiences of their Characters”, by John Foxwell, Ben Alderson-Day, Charles Fernyhough, and Angela Woods, Consciousness and Cognition 79 (March 2020): 1-14, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2020.102901.

The bad article analyses Hareton in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, defending the thesis that he is an idiot in the clinical sense of the term. To begin with, I was mightily surprised to see the word used formally but Wikipedia teaches me that even though ‘idiot’ is not used in British psychology, in the United States it is still used in legislation, with amendments in diverse state legislations as recent as 2007 or 2008. The author of the article on Hareton uses ‘idiot’ in the sense of someone with an intellectual disability even though Merriam-Webster, an American source, claims that “The clinical applications” of idiot, imbecile, and moron “is now a thing of the past, and we hope no one reading this would be so callous as to try to resurrect their use” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/moron-idiot-imbecile-offensive-history).

The article I am discussing, published by an outstanding A-list American journal of literary criticism, uses a nice trick to avoid political incorrectness: it reads Hareton by measuring his characterization against 19th century conceptions of idiocy. The author is not simply calling Hareton an idiot, then, but suggesting that this is how the original readers would have understood his ungainly appearance and brutish behaviour. In fact, the author uses a Disability Studies perspective so that they can also criticize how persons with an intellectual impairment were callously classified as idiots in the not too distant past. I have nothing against this line of argumentation, for prejudice needs to be exposed and the appalling wrongness of earlier psychology also denounced. The problem is that Hareton is not at all an idiot, nor would original readers have mistaken him for one. The Literature of the past surely has other examples of persons with an intellectual disability worth exploring.

That Hareton is not mentally impaired in any way is very easy to establish: he responds quickly to the young Catherine’s literacy programme, which the lad himself suggests (once he returns the books he has stolen from her). When Catherine understands that he wants to be educated she proceeds, and this is the first step in their joint undermining of Heathcliff’s patriarchal rule. In the process, Hareton’s good looks and warm feelings resurface, having been buried under the thick layer of illiteracy that Heathcliff imposes on his foster son. If you recall, basically he wants to avenge himself by humiliating the son of his main enemy, his foster brother Hindley. When this man dies, Hareton becomes Heathcliff’s adoptive son. The author of the article, thus, misses what any Victorian reader would understand: Hareton looks and acts like any other person of the time who had received no education whatsoever and was subjected to much abuse from harsh parents. In fact, if one pays attention, there are frequent comments about how handsome the lad is despite Heathcliff’s efforts to destroy him physically and psychologically. No reader who reaches the end of the novel should doubt that Catherine has fallen in love with an attractive, warm-hearted, loyal man who is, besides, willing to learn from her (and teach her in return about nature).

What, then, is the cause of the misreading in the article I have mentioned? Two causes: one is the misguided desire to expand the field of Disability Studies to works which have no disabled character; the other is that we are scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to producing new readings of the classics, as my friend Esther Pujolràs tells me. The author of the article knows that the happy ending disproves the thesis, and even acknowledges that there might be no evidence of idiocy in the text, but the article has been accepted by peer reviewers who have seen no problem in publishing a piece which is plainly wrong. I am 100% sure that this has to do with the use of Disability Studies as the theoretical frame, though I must add that I have seen other articles cheekily warning that there is no evidence for the thesis presented. I was taught that this is mere speculation but it seems that the rules have changed. The other question, the depletion of new things to say about the classics, is visible in the thick stream of research that deals with minor aspects. It is, logically, hard to approach a classic like Wuthering Heights from a truly new perspective and so attention is paid to smaller elements missed by previous research. A result of this is that 21st century bibliography looks like an analysis of single leaves on trees rather than of the forest. Another problem is that there is so much bibliography that any new author has hardly room to develop a thesis among so many obligatory references to predecessors. I am not saying that no new work about the classics should be published; what I am saying is that many other authors, works, and aspects of literary criticism are waiting for someone to pay attention to them.

The article by Foxwell et al. is a very good example of this. Finally someone has thought of asking authors how they imagine their characters and here are the first results. The authors present evidence collected with a questionnaire sent to the authors who presented work at the Edinburgh Literature Festival (in 2014 and 2018). 181 replied (mostly women, mostly British) and from their replies the first tentative sketch of the imaginative process behind writing characters has emerged. Foxwell and his colleagues wanted to investigate a phenomenon which I have often mentioned here: writers claim that characters take decisions in the process of building a piece of fiction, often taking it in directions unanticipated by the author. The questionnaire was designed to have writers be more specific about their relationship with their own characters: are they like the imaginary friends of childhood?, is hearing their voices a sort of hallucinatory experience?, are characters’ voices different from the author’s own inner speech?

Although the results are not homogeneous, a general conclusion is that writers imagine characters and then they give them a voice in ways that recall how we suppose a person we know would react in certain circumstances. Of course, this is a very superficial summary of the many aspects concerning the topic which the article analyses. Read it and you will see how amazing the statements from the writers are. Here is an example: initially, the characters “feel under my control and then at that certain point when they feel completely real, it’s becomes a matter of me following them, hoping to steer” (10). The bibliography, full of articles on diverse forms of hallucinatory madness, indirectly hints that somehow the researchers were worried to discover that the authors of fiction actually suffer from some kind of mental disorder. They very carefully point out throughout the discussion of results that all authors know that their characters are mental constructions and that the voices they hear and the conversations they have are perfectly normal manifestations. Normal for a fiction author, I should add. I remain mystified by how it feels to have your imagination colonized by the presence of other people. The article describes quite well what happens in the mind of a fiction writer at work but it cannot say why it happens.

I am not a big fan of the strict, formalist language in which Foxwell and his colleagues write, and which is habitual in cognitive and linguistic analysis. Here is an example: “Those writers whose characters were fully distinct from their inner speech were significantly likely to report dialoguing as themselves with the character (χ2 = 22.19, df = 6, p < 0.001), to feel like they were observing their characters (χ2 = 32.15, df = 2, p < 0.001), and to experience their characters as possessing full agency (χ2 = 28.29, df = 6, p < 0.001)” (9). In fact, I’m quite sorry that there is no room for discussing how the imagination works in literary criticism, from which living writers are mostly absent. There should be, I think, a middle point between the interview and the statistical analysis, but it seems nobody is really interested, perhaps even few authors (see my post of 13 January, “The Elusive Matter of the Imagination: Too Frail to Touch?”). Tellingly, many writers declined the invitation to participate in the survey, refusing to explore in detail mental processes that are personal and delicate. As the researches stress, imagining characters is “a specific aspect of inner experience for which no established vocabulary exists” (13).

I’ll end by suggesting that perhaps that vocabulary does not exist because writing fiction is play and connecting adults with play is always complicated. I do not mean by this that the task carried out by fiction writers is easy child’s play but that dreaming up characters has a playful aspect. We take fiction too seriously to accept that it is a complex game and in the end we have no idea about how it works. If we could resurrect Emily Brontë, everyone would want to know how she imagined and spoke to her characters, so why not ask the living authors surrounding us? Obviously, they have plenty to say.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

COMBATING SPIRITUAL NUMBNESS: COVID-19 AND THE NEED FOR UTOPIA

April 26th, 2020

This is my forty-third day at home, which means that technically I have passed quarantine, a period which used to mean forty days, and not as it does now a variable period of time extended by Government decrees. Today, Sunday, children have been allowed to take a one-hour walk for the first time in weeks, and this feels as a turning point of sorts, even though there is no way we can predict what lies ahead of us. Minister for Universities Manuel Castells announced this week that the new university year should be started in September with caution, taking into account the high probability of a second bout of infection. He spoke of classrooms that should be occupied only partially to guarantee social distancing (why is this not called personal distancing?) and that would be disinfected between sessions. This is so impractical and preposterous that I think Castells meant that in practice we’ll stay online for at least one more semester. I personally prefer that to taking overcrowded trains to travel to UAB, or speaking to colleagues and students from a distance of six feet, and wearing a facemask.

For those of us fortunate enough to continue working at home, this is a ghostly crisis. Life maintains a certain level of normality until the ‘other’ world appears. This consists of the persons working to guarantee our everyday routine: supermarket cashiers, bakers, food market sellers, sanitation workers, workers at factories and fields, employees of tech companies that guarantee we can work online, those who make sure we can still get water, power, gas, petrol… etc. For them, the changes caused by Covid-19 must be very different from what they are for persons like myself, but, then, where are they supposed to discuss them? Twitter, I guess. And, then, there’s the really scary ‘other’ world, the one we see grossly misrepresented in the media and, if we are less fortunate, in person in the hospitals. It’s hard to imagine the level of terror that doctors and nurses, patients and relatives, have been putting up with while the rest of us discuss the boredom caused by lockdown or the limitations of the Netflix algorithm. That, I think, is a key problem: the experience we have of Covid-19 is communal as no other experience can be except a war but, as it also happens in wars, personal experience is very different. Some self-isolate in total comfort and will suffer no significant trouble, for others the virus is the end of life as they knew it before, or the end of life full stop.

Raül Magí, who writes the blog Les Rades Grises: Una Mirada a la Literatura Fantástica, asked me recently to write a few words about the future of dystopia after Covid-19. You can find my contribution and many others by persons I admire very much in the Catalan SF/fantasy circuit here: https://lesradesgrises.com/2020/04/19/com-seran-les-noves-distopies/. I believe that making predictions of any kind makes very little sense. Nobody making predictions about 2020 back in December 2019 would have imagined the catastrophe we are now going through (even though Wuhan was already in deep trouble). On the other hand, it takes time for traumatic experience to be fully understood and even though we now rush to discuss new events as soon as they begin to happen (Netflix already has a documentary series about Covid-19), what this crisis really means will only be grasped perhaps in the 2030s, supposing it is over by then. The best fiction and autobiography about WWI started appearing in 1929; the Holocaust only became the topic of countless publications from the 1960s onward. I told Raül this and then I added that I hope to see many utopian fantasies of reconstruction (Slavoj Žižek has already written a book proposing a new form of communism, though I’m not sure I would support that) and also an end to dystopia because, I wrote, “this is a genre we can only enjoy as long as we enjoy a safe, comfortable lifestyle, which is what we have lost now”.

I am very much aware that this lifestyle has been so far enjoyed by a privileged minority in the world, to which I belong as an academic but also as a citizen of the Western world (though I’m not forgetting the millions of fellow-citizens who have lost all safety nets). The crisis caused by Covid-19 has so many angles that covering all of them is practically impossible but try to imagine what it is like to be a refugee, a person in a war zone, homeless or poor and then have the virus threaten your life on top of that. What is at stake right now for us, the privileged, is, leaving aside the brutal economic impact for all, a sort of spiritual numbness. Spain has been very hard hit not only because the early signs of the pandemic were disregarded (that has happened in many other countries anyway) but also because our lifestyle involves plenty of personal contact. We touch each other a lot in comparison to other cultures, tend to be gregarious, and think of our lives as extended networks beyond home. Now we are asked to obey personal distance and that is a main ingredient of what I am calling spiritual numbness. Online contact has many advantages but it is not the same as face-to-face contact. What the virus has brought is a total suspicion of proximity which must be already having a devastating impact on intimacy at all levels. If the Government decreed tomorrow that we can go back to normal in about one month, I fear that my own personal sense of abnormality will persist and it will take me time to get close to people again. On the other hand, I think of the Germans demanding that the Government of the Balearic Islands opens up the territory to tourism again this summer and I realize that their selfishness is also part of this spiritual numbness I am describing. Who are they to say that our lockdown measures are unnecessary, I wonder? How can they be so unfeeling?

The other reason why I dislike dystopia, apart from its inherent hypocrisy about privilege, is its destructiveness. What we’re going through is a mild form of dystopia in comparison to what a far more aggressive virus could have caused; a scientist recently claimed that Covid-19 is but a poor apprentice in comparison to HIV, though, of course what makes the new coronavirus so effective is its very simple strategy of contagion. Anyway, in dystopian fiction when a society is devastated and needs to focus on pure survival, it soon becomes apparent that all the skills developed since prehistory are useless. Only hunters, farmers and, if the post-apocalyptic society is lucky, low-level technicians are necessary (I mean smiths, weavers, and so on). In dystopia doctors become gradually useless because they require high-tech machinery; you only need to think of how the lack of basic protective gear has resulted in the death of many doctors and nurses, and how many patients have been lost for lack of respirators. Dystopia is a most potent generator, in short, of spiritual numbness for it makes you feel that if worse comes to worse, we’re done for. It also makes you feel your own intrinsic worthlessness. Why should I survive? Who needs academics in dystopia? What can culture contribute? One thing I regret about this crisis, though, is that it is not having the impact I expected in questioning celebrity. Musicians, for instance, are proving very convincingly that they do have a place even in current dystopia, but not even Covid-19 is helping us to get rid of all the superfluous celebrities that still persist in sharing their parasitical lives. Of course, they might think the same about me and my academic peers.

Utopian narrative of the kind I hope authors feel motivated to write, has the opposite effect: instead of making you feel useless, it asks how you might contribute to building a new society and it provides ideas about how to do it. This is why we hardly have any utopian narrative. Writing dystopia is very easy because it consists of imagining how a privileged world can be dismantled layer by layer: the aliens invade, the climate changes, a plague goes rampant, the economy collapses and one by one the comforts that we know vanish, from voting in democratic elections to eating every day. Dystopia consists of thinking how things could be worse, but for that things have to be good enough, otherwise the loss is not felt, the suspension of disbelief does not work. Many are reading or watching dystopia now for the sake of comparison (was the Spanish flu of 1918 worse than Covid-19?) but this is, I insist, numbing. All energies should go now to taking advantage of this horror and imagine a new way of doing things. Many others are asking for utopia now but I think that the impulse could be best consolidated by potent new utopian fiction. Otherwise, we’ll go back to that false sense of security that made us doubt climate change or the use of vaccines. That recent but already lost time when we felt that we could afford the luxury of enjoying dystopia because it would not happen in our lifetime. Well: here it is, now see how you like it.

Covid-19, I insist, is killing many persons and will kill many more but, above all, it might kill our ability to act in humane ways, which is a result of all-pervasive dystopia. My pharmacist told me that considering the world’s population (7.5 billion) and the average mortality rate, we should expect at least 3,000,000 deaths. The 1918 flu, caused by a virus of avian origins, is estimated to have caused 50 million victims; WWI caused about 40. Those 90 million are the breeding ground for what came next: spiritual numbness so deep that fascism grew out of it and then WWII. 3 million, even 10 million, might seem a relatively low figure but it is gigantic if we think of how unnecessary this crisis is. By this I mean that this is the 21st century and we should be moving towards a utopia with no biological warfare (supposing the virus came from that), minimal animal farming and no wet markets (if eating a wild animal was the cause), and little interfering with nature (third hypothesis). We humans are naturally vulnerable to infection and viruses appear to be far cleverer than we had assumed, but we have increased our vulnerability a hundred fold by following spiritually numb, selfish ideas in our relationship with our so-called civilization. Now we’re paying the price of having abandoned utopia because, guess what?, it is supposed to be boring… It is supposed to be participative, and that is the real reason why it has been abandoned both in narrative and as a political project (with the main exception, I think of feminism).

I hope that by next year, I can reread this and laugh at my fears and anxieties because Covid-19 will have disappeared, or be at least under control. I also hope that by then we will already see a change in the perception of dystopia and utopia, with the latter beginning to dominate over the former. That however may be in itself just a utopian hope, in the sense of pure wishful thinking.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

AS WE DEAL WITH THE ALIEN INVASION: MORE GREAT DOCUMENTARIES TO ENJOY DURING QUARANTINE (2000-2020)

April 19th, 2020

I woke up this morning thinking ‘ok, time to write a bit’. But, what about? I wanted originally to rant and rave about the absurd ideas that I have come across these days reading new bibliography on Wuthering Heights but it is hard to put one’s heart into academic stuff as if this mattered in the current circumstances. Then I told myself ‘maybe you need to write about the black mood you’re in, in case anyone shares the feeling’ but, though I might do that next week, I don’t feel rational enough today (add to this that it is raining quite hard). Besides, everyone is writing opinion pieces about the impact of Covid-19 and I don’t see what else can be added, except a huge scream (no good to fill a post). It’s a no-win situation: Covid-19 seems to be the only relevant matter and it is next to impossible to think of anything else, but at the same time thinking of the coronavirus is exhausting and one needs to focus on something else… or go mental.

So, for the time being, I’m going back to the elective course I’m teaching and offering another round of recommended documentaries. They are filling in my time beautifully and if you have problems, as I’m beginning to have, reading fiction for pleasure because it is hard to stay focused, then watching documentaries is a good alternative. The list that follows has a first section on gender/sexuality and a second miscellaneous list which I have called ‘Icons of America’.

2011 Miss Representation, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1784538/ by Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Kimberlee Acquaro. Siebel is also the director of The Mask You Live In (see below), which is a sort of companion piece to this film. As the clever title indicates Miss Representation describes how the media misrepresent women’s image to keep us enslaved to a view of who we are which only favours the interests of corporations, which are the interests of patriarchy. It created quite a stir but then, typically, it has taken almost a decade for a variety of younger women’s movements to do something more or less effective about the same issues.

2012 How to Survive a Plague, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2124803/ by David France. The plague here is AIDS, for which, we must remember, there is not yet a vaccine even though the disease has been around for thirty years. France documents the efforts of ACT UP and TAG to transform the deathly plague into a chronic condition many persons live with through long years. Exactly what we need right now: a plan to stop the new plague based on people’s own activism and regardless of what the incompetent politicians in government do.

2012 The Invisible War, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2120152/ by Kirby Dick. You may recall how in G.I. Jane (1997, Ridley Scott) Demi Moore’s character, a Navy SEAL trainee, is raped to teach her the lesson of how to endure that kind of attack in combat. Dick’s film shows how rape is used in real-life to teach women in the military the lesson that they are not wanted. What the brave survivors who learned to fight together teach is another lesson: being raped by your own brothers in arms, men you trust, is much worse than anything that can happen in combat –and should never be covered up the military hierarchy.

2014 She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3319508/ by Mary Dore. This documentary should be mandatory viewing in all (secondary) schools and universities because it is a thrilling overview of how Second Wave feminism started and unfolded. With plenty of original footage and interviews with the women protagonists, it is indeed not just a documentary but a document of immense interest. Of course if you see next Miss Representation you also become aware of how much is done daily to repress women’s defence of our own personal freedom.

2015 The Mask You Live In, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3983674/ by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. Another documentary that should be mandatory viewing, in this case for offering an exceptionally accurate and straightforward exposure of how patriarchy is damaging masculinity. The ‘mask’ refers here to the patriarchal demand to be tough, express no emotion and be in control, which is turning many men into unhappy persons and in the worst case scenario suicidal mental wrecks.

2019 At the Heart of Gold: Inside the US Gymnastic Scandal, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8299654/ by Erin Lee Car. Prepare to cry your heart out. Dr. Larry Nassar, posing as a lovely, trustworthy friend, managed to abuse sexually hundreds of American girl gymnasts, including those in the USA Olympic team. He told girls that his gross manipulation of their bodies was just medical treatment, which left his victims confused and feeling guilty for suspecting their ‘friend’ of a misdemeanour. Until a girl unconnected with the world of gymnastics sounded the alarm about Nassar’s methods… and the rest finally awoke to the reality of what had been done to them.

2001 War Photographer, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0309061/ by Christian Frei. The Swiss director documents here the amazing career of American war photographer James Nachtwey (who is not really retired yet). The film shows a selection of Nachtwey’s iconic works, interviews the man himself (who comes across as incredibly serene) and follows him into combat using ingenious photography technology. Wondering whether it is right to invade the intimacy of the victims of man-made disaster Nachtwey concludes that he is a necessary witness. He is also a most humane one.

2006 Finding Vivien Maier, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2714900/ by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Maloof bought at an auction a box full of old negatives which, when developed, turned out be photos by an unknown master photographer. His search led eventually to the discovery of Vivien Maier, an anonymous woman who had worked as a nanny in New York and who, as her secret hobby, documented life as she saw it. This raises many questions: would all trace of Maier have disappeared without Maloof? How many geniuses we have never heard of have been lost?

2010 Bill Cunningham’s New York, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1621444/ by Richard Press. A delicious portrayal of a unique man. Cunningham was a New York Times photographer for many years, in charge of documenting street fashions and social events connected with this field. Humble, not at all in love with luxury but with a sharp eye for personality and innovation in fashion, Cunningham left an amazing legacy while keeping his personal life and identity protected from inquisitive eyes.

2003 My Architect, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0373175/ by Nathaniel Kahn. The architect in question is first-rank American architect Louis Kahn, here portrayed by his son, Nathaniel. Note that the title is not My Father, or My Father the Architect, because what Nathaniel explores here is the question of why workaholic geniuses like his father cannot really be good parents. Or husbands, for Nathaniel was Louis’s extramarital son. Nathaniel does admire his father, and gives a loving account of his main buildings, but he still wonders why those took precedence over family life.

2005 The Devil and Daniel Johnston, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0436231/ by Jeff Fuerzeig. This is a strange documentary a strange artist mainly because, as happens with the documentary on Cobain (see next), much of the material used here comes from the artist himself. Johnston suffered from mental disorders that went undiagnosed for a long time, and whose imagery closely connected with the religious beliefs of the family ha had tried to leave behind. The documentary focuses on the issue of whether Johnston’s musical and artistic genius came from his mental imbalance, implicitly suggesting it did.

2015 Cobain: Montage of Heck, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4229236/ by Brett Morgen. A terrific ‘montage’ of artwork, videos and handwritten texts by Cobain himself and his family, complemented with key interviews, Morgen’s film approaches Cobain from childhood to his suicide on a quite intimate basis. The image that emerges is that of a happy child for whom suddenly life turned badly after his parents’ divorce, and who was heading all the time towards disaster. Everyone loved Cobain for his music but he only loved drugs, because, quite clearly, he didn’t love himself.

2015 Janis: Little Girl Blue, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3707114/ by Amy Berg. A candid portrait of Janis Joplin, America’s most extraordinary (white) blues singer and a woman who taught herself how to be free. Unlike Cobain, Joplin comes across as a woman who loved her life but who, like him, could not control her addictions. In her case the tragedy was not caused by mental instability or lifelong depression but by a tragic accident in her chaotic life as an addict. John Lennon once said that people take drugs because society makes life unbearable but Berg’s film suggests that artists like Joplin just could not keep their distance from the deadliest fad of their times and circle.

2015 What Happened, Miss Simone?, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4284010/ by Liz Garbus. Nina Simone was rescued from oblivion by a 1987 commercial for a perfume featuring one of her songs. She had been a musical star, a powerful Civil Rights activist, and a singular example of female liberation in the 1960s but threw everything overboard to start a downwards spiral of her own making. Simone moved, of all places, to Liberia, stopped performing, resurfaced in France, drowned in loneliness and diverse substances… What happened, indeed?

2013 20 Feet from Stardom, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2396566/ by Morgan Neville. This is a bittersweet look at the mostly African American women who work as backup singers for top international stars. Talented and gifted with beautiful voices that illuminate many favourite songs, these women remain anonymous and, judging from what the film narrates, hardly ever succeed in walking those twenty feet. As happens with secondary actors, perhaps audiences simply should pay more attention to their contribution.

2017 Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5651050/ by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens. An intimate portrait of classic Hollywood star Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia in the Star Wars saga, produced by their son and brother Todd Fisher. News of Carrie’s sudden death were too much for her mother, and the film pays here posthumous homage to both. Bloom and Stevens explore not only their careers but also what it is like to be the child of Hollywood royalty.

2018 RBG, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7689964/, by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Every time US Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg (b. 1933) gets sick, the heart of progressive America flutters. When she goes the country will lose not only a beloved personality but also the person preventing the institution she works for from falling into the dark side of total conservatism. Cohen’s and West’s film is an undisguised hagiography, an in-your-face homage to a very special woman who does really deserve it. Mimi Leder’s recent On the Basis of Sex (2018), with Felicity Jones as RBG, also deals with her career.

2010 Marwencol, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1391092/ by Jeff Malmberg. I don’t see much point in making fiction films based on previous documentaries. In this case, I almost missed Marwencol because I didn’t like much Robert Zemeckis’s Welcome to Marwen (2018). What is embarrassing in Zemeckis’s film is, however, fascinating in Malmberg’s. Mark Hogancamp was the victim of a brutal attack and, left to deal as well he could with the aftermath, he found comfort in building in his backyard a toy town, Marwencol, where he staged a WWII saga but also found healing. His photos are pure art of a personal, strange kind.

2016 Gleason, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4632316/ by Clay Tweel. Steve Gleason, a successful NFL football player, saw his life take a tragic turn when he was diagnosed with ALS. This film documents his making of a series of videos for the baby his wife expects, as both battle with the effects of this degenerative disease and become fund-raising activists. An admirable example of love for life against all odds.

Enjoy!

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

TIGER KING, WHAT ELSE?: THE VIEW INSIDE AND OUTSIDE AMERICA

April 6th, 2020

As I have mentioned in my previous posts, I’m currently teaching an elective third/fourth year course on Cultural Studies, taking as case study the representation of the United States in 21st century documentary films (see one of the volumes that has inspired me, Jeffrey Geiger’s American Documentary Film: Projecting the Nation, Edinburgh UP (2013), here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/american-documentary-film/AA1BF73143D4FD1F33160FCA0CEDF3C9). I feel, therefore, bound to comment on Netflix’s current world-wide hit, the US documentary mini-series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (released March 2020), though I certainly do not feel bound to recommend it. I saw it on two consecutive evenings and I must say that while the first four episodes (out of seven) were thrilling ad hilarious, the last three were less enticing, mainly because the directors, Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode, somehow lose sight of the chronology of events in them. Incidentally, this is the first credit as director for Goode, whereas Chaiklin had already directed Last Party 2000 (2001), Lockdown, USA (2006, with Michael Skolnik) and Another World (2014, with Fisher Stevens).

Since the phenomenon around Tiger King is so gigantic right now –no doubt because the covid-19 quarantine has made the lurid series a favourite with audiences desperate for entertainment– it is arguably necessary to watch it and join the conversation. I don’t intend here to comment on the plot in detail but to take the chance to consider a) what makes a good documentary and b) how judgement necessarily varies if passed inside or outside the society portrayed in the film. I have noticed in work written by my students a worrying tendency to assume an insider position, using ‘we’ when in fact they should use ‘Americans’. I would agree that many aspects of American society are now universal, mostly thanks to 1990s globalisation, but this does not mean that US narrative, including documentaries, is not rooted in specific local concerns. ‘We’ are not ‘they’ and anyone who approaches American texts, and for that matter any foreign text, must bear this fact in mind. Of course, human beings have the ability to understand texts across cultural divides bigger than the one separating my students from the American films we’re analysing but I just don’t see US college students writing about a Spanish documentary using ‘we’.

A while ago I started preparing for my students’ benefit a list of criteria about what makes a documentary valuable, collated from several sources. Here it is:

• clear storyline (the documentary film tells a story, and if it tells several, these are presented in ways the audience can follow)
• powerful story/character arc (a good documentary makes us care about its topic, which does not necessarily mean that you empathize with the persons portrayed: it means that you google for more information the moment you’re done watching)
• originality of topic (the topic must be interesting and if it is not at first glance, then it should be made attractive by the film)
• quality of research /depth (audiences can see that an effort has been made to sustain the ‘truth’ presented with adequate fact-finding that can be double-checked)
• clarity of presentation / good narrative flow (or quality direction)
• creativity of presentation (also quality direction, though many documentaries while not necessarily creative narrate relevant stories extremely well)
• strong interviews (or actors’ performances, in case some scenes are staged, or most if the film is a docudrama)
• exclusive access (the filmmakers go where no members of the audience could not go, and have their subjects trust them as no one else did before)
• trustworthiness (the documentary stays as close as possible to the ‘truth’ which the filmmakers endorse, though this might not be the truth for other persons)
• complicity with audiences (the filmmakers assume that their audience is intelligent and do not patronize them)
• quality audio, cinematography, editing and music, with editing possibly as the most salient aspect
• adequate runtime (the film does not overstay its welcome, nor is its narrative too limited)

Just then I came across a similar list by a man who knows a thing or two about documentaries: Michael Moore. Here are his thirteen rules, summarized from IndieWire, 10 September 2014; https://www.indiewire.com/feature/michael-moores-13-rules-for-making-documentary-films-22384/), check the complete article for his comments. Please, note that he is thinking exclusively of the United States and addressing American filmmakers:

1. Don’t make a documentary—make a MOVIE (call yourself a filmmaker, not a documentarian, and don’t be ashamed of being entertaining or non-artistically inclined)
2. Don’t tell me shit I already know [taken verbatim] (and focus on the majority of intelligent US audiences)
3. Avoid the college lecture mode of telling a story.
4. Don’t make your documentaries feel like medicine your audience must swallow.
5. Make your left-wing position fun, as it used to be.
6. Name the villains and be serious about the political things currently going on in the United States of America, even if people sue you.
7. Make your films personal, let them show your concern to the audience.
8. Point your cameras at the media cameras and expose the lies and manipulation.
9. Make audiences care for documentary films as much as they care for non-fiction books and TV.
10. As much as possible, try to film only the people who disagree with you [taken verbatim]; or, the people you disagree with.
11. Try to imagine what audiences will feel seeing each scene you have filmed, be emotional.
12. Less is more. Edit. Cut. Make it shorter. Say it with fewer words. Fewer scenes. [also verbatim]
13. Finally… Sound is more important than picture for Sound carries the story. It’s true in a fiction film, too. The image may suck, but never the sound.

Now, back to Tiger King. For me, the problem with this documentary is that it uses as bait its main issue –the exploitation of big cats for entertainment in American private zoos– but turns out to be far more interested in the exploiters. Not only the titular Tiger King, the bizarre Joe Exotic, but also other men in his circle (Bhagavan Antle of Myrtle Beach Safari, Tim Stark of Wildlife in Need, crooked businessman Jeff Lowe, and even a mafia boss whose name I cannot find). Whether straight or gay, like our friend Exotic, these men embody a sense of entitlement, over the poor big cats and over the persons they attract as lovers or as audiences with their zoos, that the documentary fails to question. They are all criminals but the only actions that are questioned by Goode and Chaiklin are those of the main female character, Carol Baskin of Big Cat Rescue. Willa Paskin complains in a Slate article that Tiger King chose the wrong villain to focus on, not just because Baskin is the only important woman among this circle of misogynistic men (that too), but most importantly because in this “sordid menagerie of human beings” she is the only one who cares for the big cats as a pro-animal activist (https://slate.com/culture/2020/03/tiger-king-netflix-carole-baskin-villain.html).

As I watched the documentary, I missed with growing concern this angle of the story. It is hard to believe in the filmmakers’ trustworthiness given that although their series avowedly intends to show disgust at animal exploitation, the abundant images of cute cubs will most likely result in more Americans visiting one of these awful zoos or trying to buy a big cat as pet. The documentary begins by noting that there are more big cats in captivity in America than in the wild in the rest of the world but, ultimately, only cares for the business and personal imbroglios of the men it portrays and to bash Carole Baskin, throwing as much dirt as possible on her. This is why, if I look at the two sets of rules I have offered above, I cannot say that Tiger King is a good documentary. If you ask me, I believe it is actually a very bad documentary, mere docutainment to fill in five and a half hours of harrowing covid-19 quarantine. There are much better documentary films and series on offer, even on Netflix, but in our times, I guess, audiences crave for this kind of trash.

Now for the insider/outsider view. Writing for The Guardian, American writer Jessa Crispin (editor-in-chief of litblog-webzine Bookslut, and author among others of Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto (2017)), discusses Tiger King as “our world back to us –one run by megalomaniacs and amateurs”. ‘Us’, of course, means Americans, and she traces in her article a not-so-obvious comparison between the documentary and the current covid-19 reality, reading the mini-series as “the hidden realities of a society that can’t take care of its sick and poor” (see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/04/tiger-king-reflects-our-world-back-to-us-one-run-by-megalomaniacs-and-amateurs). The point she makes is that Joe Exotic and Donald Trump are part of the same American socio-cultural landscape, despite the apparent class and occupation differences, which I grant. “We are the Tiger King. The Tiger King is us”, Crispin acknowledges in dismay, for “This bringing of the wild into our domestic spaces is, after all, what got us sick”. Please, notice that though the origin of covid-19 is not a big cat zoo in America, it turns out that the so-called Spanish flu of 1918 originated in a Kansas slaughterhouse. The disease documented in Tiger King, “the drive for power, the constant need for more, the willingness to remove any obstacle to what you desire, even by using violence”, or in short entitlement, is the reason why America “can’t pass regulations that would reduce real suffering” right now, in the middle of the coronavirus-related horrors.

As an American, Crispin has the right to criticize her own country, but do I? Do my students? One of them asked me how come that most of the documentaries in our list maintain a similarly critical position, and I replied that this is because I have cheated, selecting only those with left-wing credentials. Noticing that quite a few of these documentaries have right-wing counterparts I joked that next time I should teach a course on the Republican documentary –maybe I should, if only for balance. The question is that watching Tiger King as a Catalan/Spaniard/European I feel compelled to say that the United States, as represented in this mini-series, appear to be a very sick society. Whether I should or should not voice that opinion, it is hard to find anything positive in Tiger King, not only in the characters’ actions but in the filmmakers’ intentions. I assume that Goode and Chaikin were not thinking of international audiences, only of shocking US national audiences. Yet, they must have realized that their mini-series confirms a lingering suspicion: that the United States are past their prime as a world-leading society.

Even a far less sensationalist documentary, 2020 Oscar Award winner, American Factory (another Netflix-backed product) gives the same impression, despite dealing with a story of working-class heroic resilience against all odds. Why, in short, I’m wondering, do American texts oscillate between the simplistic patriotism of so many run-of-the-mill action films and the crudity of the true-crime flood coming out of Netflix? Can’t American filmmakers see how deeply eroded the image of the United States already is, nationally and internationally? Arguably, they do, and products like Tiger King should be read as a waking-up call, though the mini-series seems to be just another very American freak show.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

AS WE DEAL WITH THE ALIEN INVASION: GREAT PRE-21ST CENTURY DOCUMENTARIES TO ENJOY DURING QUARANTINE (1966- 1996)

March 29th, 2020

Second week of confinement, already. The situation as a friend tells me, feels surreal. Here we are working a long day at home as we often do, which feels completely normal. Then we sign off our virtual world and the real world punches us in the face with enormous figures for casualties, reports on overcrowded emergency services in hospitals, elderly people dying in scores in underfunded homes, and an extended quarantine (if this means ‘forty days’, that’s what we should be ready for, if not longer). The novelty in relation to last week is that it seems now unlikely that schools, from kindergarten to universities, will reopen. And for the record, yes, I think it was absolutely wrong to allow the feminist demonstrations of last 8 March, and any other mass event. But, then, the world looked very different. Only the day before, I had lunch with my friends and though I avoided the demonstrations, I spent a cheerful Sunday morning enjoying an exhibition of William Klein’s photography. Those were happy times.

As announced, here is a second list of great documentaries, from 1966 to 1996. Again, most of these films can be found online one way or another. As you may imagine, the difficulty is that documentary films have proliferated in recent decades for the very simple reason that equipment has become cheaper and, thus, more generally available. Anyone can now make a documentary film with a smartphone and basic editing tools, though the real boom started in the 1980s when video was introduced. We tend to forget that in earlier periods image and sound were recorded separately, which required at least two persons carrying rather heavy equipment to shoot film. Of course, modern documentaries can be as sophisticated as the budget allows it (just think of David Attenborough’s astonishing nature series for the BBC, any of them!) but they are always on the whole much cheaper to make than fiction movies. Beyond this, documentary films seem to have taken a major leap in abundance and cinematic prestige in the 1990s, which is why my selection for that decade may seem quite poor. I also grant that international representation is here limited.

1967 Don’t Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061589/ This is the documentary where you see a young Dylan holding a series of cardboard notices which he drops one by one as the lyrics in song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” progress. Pennebaker followed the singer-composer during his first major tour in the UK to offer a candid portrait. If you’re a fan, this will make you happy; if you’re not, you will also feel happy: the film confirms that Dylan was, at least at that point, a pretentious egomaniac.

1967 Titicut Follies, Frederick Wiseman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062374/ Wiseman has 47 credits as director to his name and is a major institution in the field of American documentary. Funnily, he has won no Oscars except an honorary award (2017). Titicut Follies, his first film, is quite uncomfortable to watch: it asks you to consider what life is like inside a rather improvable mental health institution. Curiously, Wiseman made next High School (1968) perhaps because he found that institution another type of madhouse.

1969 Salesman, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064921/ The Maysles brothers, kings of the uncomfortable documentary above Wiseman, team up with Zwerin to follow four rather obnoxious luxury Bibles salesmen as they play all their tricks to convince poor Catholic families to buy their products. The filmmakers pass no judgement, but audiences squirm.

1969 Le chagrin et la pitié / The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophüls, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066904/ French ‘chagrin’ does mean sorrow or grief, but ‘chagrin’ also exists in English as a synonym for ‘mortification’. This is what French audiences were asked to endure for more than four hours, as Ophüls narrates the collaboration of the Vichy Regime with the Nazi occupiers in the extermination of the French Jews.

1970 Woodstock, Michael Wadleigh, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066580/ A three-hour long documentary summarizing the three-day epic concert that defined the hippy era. This is a must-see for anyone interested in both aspects: the music and the youth culture of the time, at its happiest.

1970 Gimme Shelter, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065780/ The Rolling Stones missed Woodstock and they decided to offer instead a free concert on a California highway. What followed was major chaos, including the murder of a man right before the stage where the Stones were trying to restrain the anarchic crowd. The Maysles brothers and Zwerin were there to document the sorry mess.

1973-74 The World at War (mini-series), Jeremy Isaacs (producer), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071075/ I’m breaking my own rules here by including a series, but the 26 episodes of Isaacs’ production are simply astounding. I did see the whole series as a little girl on Spanish TV’s second channel, then called UHF, which says much for what public television used to be like.

1974 Hearts and Minds, Peter Davies, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071604/ This American documentaries tries hard to offer a balanced view of the Vietnam conflict, asking all sides for their view. Made in the later stages of the war, the film offers now in hindsight a very complete reflection on the reasons why the United States lost that war. General Westmoreland, head of the US forces, has the gall to say that Vietnamese people do not value life ‘as we do’.

1975 Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073076/ Talk about discomfort… The Maysles brothers and their co-directors document the life of elderly Edith Bouvier Beale and her middle-aged daughter Little Edie in their derelict mansion. Mother and daughter seem a duo out of a Tennessee Williams play but they happened to be Jackie Kennedy’s aunt and cousin. It’s hard to say which aspect of this documentary is more exploitative. Perhaps watch instead the perfect parody in the series Documentary Now!, Sandy Passage (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4943628/ )

1976 Harlan County U.S.A., Barbara Kopple, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074605/ American Factory, 2020’s Oscar award winner, is heavily indebted to Kopple’s pro-union activism in this film. She documents the miners’ strike against the Eastover Mining Company in Harlan County, Kentucky, in June 1973, a conflict of remarkable virulence in which the bosses did not hesitate to use hired guns against the workers.

1978 The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077838/ The Band were a Canadian-American rock ensemble of great fame during their first period (1968-1977), though I confess that I only learned they existed because of Scorsese’s film. He documents, with taste and beautiful unaffectedness, what was supposed to be their last concert. They returned for a second period of lesser fame in 1983.

1982 Sans soleil, Chris Marker, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084628/ Marker is known for his avant-garde short film La Jetée (1962), which inspired Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995). In Sans soleil he follows a woman’s journey beginning in Japan, offering a sort of personal travelogue filmed in Marker’s unique poetical style.

1982 Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085809/ Reggio’s film (followed in 1988 by Powaqqatsi) is a plotless documentary that asks the viewer to enjoy a collections of beautifully photographed scenes showing how everything in the world is interrelated. Others have followed a similar path but this was the pioneer. A real beauty.

1984 Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088178/ Demme won an Oscar in 1991 for The Silence of the Lambs but he appears to have had a far more joyful time filming a concert of The Talking Heads, led by the volatile David Byrne, at a time when the band were at their best. The minimalist style works surprisingly well and it’s just great fun to watch.

1985 Shoah, Claude Lanzmann, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090015/ Even though it is nine and a half hours long, Lanzmann’s very personal account of the traces left by the Holocaust in Europe is not a series. It is an indispensable work but at the same time a problematic one. Lanzmann has too much visibility and his confrontational style is at points awkward. Enjoy, if you have the patience.

1988 Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, Barbet Schroeder, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095341/ In contrast to Shoah, the four and a half hours Schroeder takes to tell the story of Nazi executioner Barbie are fully justified. This is a tale of horror that shows not only, as Ophüls denounced, the connivance of the French authorities with the Nazis but also, as Schroeder adds, how easy it was for these criminals to escape the law for decades.

1989 Roger & Me, Michael Moore, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098213/ The Roger of the title is Roger B. Smith, the CEO of General Motors who closed down the plant employing thousands of workers in Flint, Michigan –Moore’s hometown. Throughout the film Moore chases Smith, hoping to understand the massive downsizing but, as you may imagine, the executive does his best to avoid him.

1989 The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096257/ The thin red line were the soldiers that, according to Rudyard Kipling, saved the nation from disaster. Unformed in blue, not red, policemen fail to bring order and safety in Morris’s classic documentary about the miscarriages of justice. The gradual unveiling of the truth has been copied by countless true crime documentaries.

1990 Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100332/ This film is not at all about the fall of Paris to the Nazi invaders during WWII as one might assume, but about the non-white drag scene in 1980s New York. Livingston films the low-income men doing their best to enjoy themselves in this competitive culture, also closely associated with voguing (which Madonna vampirized for one of her hits).

1991 Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper,
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0102015/ Eleanor Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s wife, provided the footage on which Hearts of Darkness is based. The film documents the disastrous shooting of Apocalypse Now! in the Philippines (standing in for Vietnam). Coppola’s film was an uncredited adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, hence the documentary’s title.

1993 The War Room, D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108515/ This documentary connects with Primary (1960) and Street Fight (2005) as great examples of the behind-the-scenes non-fiction film about political campaigns. Here the focus falls on spin doctors James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, organizers of Clinton’s first Presidential campaign (who is not at all the star here).

1994 Crumb, Terry Zwigoff, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109508/ American cartoonist Robert Crumb is presented here in all his glory (or lack of it) in the context of his disastrous family life. This the kind of film that justifies why an American male genius can also be an utterly unlikeable personality and that never gets made about a woman (who are not really geniuses, are we?)

1994 Hoop Dreams, Steve James, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110057/ James follows the lives of African-American teenagers William Gates and Arthur Agee for five years, while they struggle to transform their passion for basketball into a ticket out of the Chicago ghettos where they live. The film documents with surprising intimacy the lives of the boys and of their families, offering a sad, stirring description of the difficulties they face. James’s portrait of American high school and university basketball as the key to the NBA’s American dream is not overtly critical but any spectator can see that the road ahead for William and Arthur is a very steep climb.

1995 The Celluloid Closet, by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112651/ Based on Vitto Russo’s book, The Celluloid Closet proves what you suspected: even under the restrictive Hays Code, Hollywood managed to insert in their film plenty of allusions to male and female homosexuality. These become apparent if you only know where to look, which is what Russo did. Epstein and Friedman added interviews with actors who had played key parts in this hidden history.

1996, When We Were Kings, Leion Gast, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118147/ I don’t enjoy boxing at all but this is an excellent insight into the top level of this so-called sport. Gast’s film narrates ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ as the fight between young champion George Foreman and the quite old challenger Muhammad Ali (the former Cassius Clay) was known. This took place in 1974, not in the USA but in Zaire, under the auspices of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Enjoy!!! Stay home, keep safe.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

AS WE DEAL WITH THE ALIEN INVASION: GREAT PRE-21ST CENTURY DOCUMENTARIES TO ENJOY DURING QUARANTINE (1895-1965)

March 21st, 2020

Colleagues and friends tell me that they have kept themselves extremely busy this first week in quarantine but this is because for most people in my circle working at home is hardly a novelty. I myself have really no spare time to fill in which means that I will most likely miss the exciting online offer that cultural institutions, professional artists and plain citizens are pouring onto their websites and their social networks. For those of you who still have a little corner to fill in, here is the announced list of great documentaries from 1895 to 1995 (first part!)–the, so to speak, canonical list that I have asked my students to learn about, and enjoy. Most of these 50 films can be found online one way or another (but check first their duration on IMDB, there are plenty of mutilated versions…). I’m discovering these days that the situation changes from day to day, and films impossible to find one week suddenly appear the next one, either legally or illegally. Others remain, sadly, in a limbo, which is a shame.

1895 Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, Louis and Auguste Lumière. The Lumières didn’t know they were making a documentary because the word didn’t appear until 1926, when the British father of this film genre, John Grierson, reviewed Robert Flaherty’s Moana calling it a ‘documentary film’. The Lumières were just testing their camera and simply made a record of their workers leaving their premises, lasting under one minute. The film survives in three versions. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workers_Leaving_the_Lumière_Factory

1922 Nanook of the North, Robert Flaherty, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0013427/ . This is, properly speaking, the first documentary film and also a very controversial starting point. In this film and in Moana (set in the Pacific islands, like the 2016 animated Moana here known as Vaiana), Flaherty had the natives whose lives he was documenting perform scenes staging customs and uses long abandoned. Since then, documentary films are plagued by the question of how close they must stay to the truth.

1927 Berlin, Die Simphonie der Grosstadt / Berlin: Symphony of a Great City Walter Ruttman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0017668/ The idea has been copied countless times: take the camera and see what happens on one day in a big city. Has it ever been done with better insight and taste? I doubt it! The film is also a beautiful homage to Berlin before the rise of the Nazi regime, during the much happier times of the Weimar Republic.

1929 Cheloveks kino-apparatom / Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0019760/ You might think that this is like the Berlin film but set in Moscow. Yes and no. Vertov’s film is a riot of images full of life with shows the Soviet capital as pure humanity, with a sensuality and a freedom that is certainly unexpected, and exhilarating. Don’t miss the birth scene…

1929 Regen / Rain, Joris Ivens, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0020321/ A short documentary based on a very simple concept: recording one rainy day in Amsterdam. The film, as it turns out, took longer to make than that. It has a lovely, strangely melancholy air, very much like the rain… which is the whole point.

1929 Drifters, John Grierson, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0019838/ North Sea herring fishing may not sound like a very exciting subject, particularly considering that this is a silent black and white film. Grierson, however, shows here in the only film he directed (he was mainly a producer) how little is needed to make a memorable record of life at sea. And show respect for the fishermen.

1930 À Propos de Nice, Jean Vigo, Boris Kaufman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0021576/ Another silent, black and white film, which offers a slice of life like no other. Vigo and Kaufman show street life in Nice, on the French Cote d’Azur, mocking its richer inhabitants but transmitting the enjoyment of popular celebrations with glee.

1935 Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0025913/ Yes: I’m recommending that you watch Riefenstahl portrait of the 1934 massive Nuremberg Nazi rally. This was a winner for Best Foreign Documentary at the Venice Film Festival and a film that Frank Capra and other American directors studied very closely for its lessons in political propaganda, copied by the Allies during WWII. We must all understand Nazism for it not to reappear.

1936 Night Mail, Herbert Smith, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0250616/ This is one of Grierson’s pro-Government, propaganda pieces –but who cares? The film manages to make the subject of how mail is gathered in one end of Britain and moved at night in trains to the other end a moving portrait of British efficiency, public service, and care. Like Drifters, it pays homage to the average working man, not a very common subject in our days.

1937 The Spanish Earth, Joris Ivens, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0029594/ This is a pro-Republican propaganda film, made in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, narrated by Ernest Hemingway (reading his own texts and others by John Dos Passos). It’s, I’m sorry to say, a truly misguided portrait of Spain in those times, good only for laughs, though it still enjoys great prestige. I was flabbergasted by hearing Catalan sardanas as the background music for village life in Madrid… But do watch it!

1938 Inside Nazi Germany, Jack Glenn, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0131471/ An amazingly brave, bold description of Nazi Germany released twenty months before the beginning of WWII, which shows in all detail and clarity what Hitler and company were doing. Glenn, an American director, did his best but the world was not listening… Or it was, but trying not to have a new world war.

1943 Fires Were Started, Humphrey Jennings, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0035881/ See how firefighters coped with the bombings and the fires in London during the Blitz. Technically this is a docudrama, since most scenes are staged, but the gimmick does not mean it is less valuable for that. An homage indeed to the heroes who endured all kinds of sacrifices for their neighbours.

1943 The Battle of Midway, John Ford, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034498/ Lt. Cmdr. John Ford U.S.N.R made this 18 minute colour documentary in the middle of the real Battle of Midway, with great danger to his life. The purpose was showing audiences back home what WWII aerial combat was like. The problem is that having seen re-enactments (like the 1976 Midway film) this looks less exciting –but remember that men are dying on screen for real.

1946 Let there be Light, John Huston, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038687/ Huston was commissioned to document the progress of a group of traumatized veterans receiving psychiatric treatment back home once WWII was over but the US military could not stomach this heartfelt portrait of the suffering men. The film, which is a marvel to watch, was suppressed until 1980, when Vietnam had made PTSD a well-known concept. Please, please, please: do see it!

1948 Le Sang des bêtes/ The Blood of Beasts Georges Franju, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041842/ It’s only 22 minutes long but I had to stop watching after just a few minutes –Franju’s camera shows lovely Paris and then what is done to the animals in a local slaughterhouse with no frills. You can call this one the first pro-vegan film.

1955 Nuit et bruillard / Night and Fog, Alain Resnais, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048434/ This may be hard to believe but few people after WWII wanted to hear what survivors had to say about the Nazi extermination camps. Resnais’s short film, made ten years!! after the end of the war, was the first one to bring to light for the benefit of a general audiences what the Nazis did. It completely changed the way the suffering of the Jews and other victims was (mis)understood.

1959 Moi, un noir/ I, a Negro, Jean Rouch, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051942/ This one requires a very patient viewer, but if you can accept the amateurish footage and the poor sound (badly inserted afterwards), you might enjoy this singular pioneering portrait of a migrant’s life. The young Nigerian who interests Rouch survives as well he can in Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast, in an interesting case of intra-African migration.

1959 We are the Lambeth Boys, Karel Reisz, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052380/ This is one of the 1950s documentaries recording ordinary British life in the 1950s associated with the Free Cinema movement (Reisz would have a long career as fiction film director). The Lambeth Boys are not a gang, but a youth club –do marvel at how much the young have and have not changed since 1959. And at the local accent!

1960 Primary, Robert Drew, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054205/ Employing a cinéma vérité style Drew films presidential pre-candidates John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey during the Democratic Wisconsin primary (1960). The film inaugurates a political sub-genre later imitated by many others, in, for instance, The War Room (about Clinton).

1961 Chronique d’un été / Chronicle of a Summer, Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054745/. Authentic French cinéma vérité by the director of Moi, un noir (and Morin). They send their female assistants to ask Parisians randomly met on the street whether they are happy. Their replies lead to a reflection on what we mean by happiness in a quite existential vein.

1964- The Up Series, Paul Almond (as Seven Up!) then Michael Apted, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_(film_series) The Up series is an ITV (later BBC) series, which has been documenting the lives of fourteen British citizens since 1964, when they were aged 7. It has now passed its ninth instalment (in 2019) and will presumably continue.

1964 Point of Order!, Emile de Antonio, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058481/ De Antonio does here something marvelously clever: he edits down to 97 thrilling minutes the TV footage of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings (Senator McCarthy was accused of seeking to obtain from the Army special privileges for a Private he was using as a spy). Along the film, which has no voiceover, we see the infamous McCarthy dig his own grave with increasing arrogance and cruelty. No need to add any comment…

1965 The War Game, Peter Watkins, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0059894/ The BBC asked Watkins to make a docudrama showing the effects of a nuclear bomb dropped on an average British city (Rochester in Kent). The result was so scary that the film was not shown until 1985 (though it did win an Oscar). Can a low-budget, black and white film be so frightening? I was absolutely terrified –please watch it!

Enough for today… the rest next week! Stay safe, keep well.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

AS WE DEAL WITH THE ALIEN INVASION: GREAT DOCUMENTARIES TO ENJOY DURING QUARANTINE (I)

March 15th, 2020

I found nothing relevant to say last week, overwhelmed as I felt by the realization that all would have to stop in Spain in a few days, as it has happened. I’m home, teaching online, for at least three weeks, which in practice means until after Easter –but that’s possibly your situation too, so nothing new on that front. My impression, hence my title, is that we’re dealing with an alien invasion, even though this comes from inner rather than outer space. I am very much scared, above all because of the general stupidity of many people who are out in the streets, the beaches, the countryside, instead of being home, but that’s (Spanish) Homo Sapiens for you… Perhaps Covid-19 is an envoy from poor planet Earth trying to shake us off, and with all reason.

As happens, I’m teaching our ‘Cultural Studies’ elective (third-fourth year) and my case study is the American documentary, or, to be more specific how the United States are represented in documentary films. I am planning to publish an e-book with my forty-five students, so I have chosen two films for each of them (yes, ninety films!). They need to do a class presentation (now moved online) and write a factsheet for the e-book. So far the presentations have been very good and I hope that we can still manage online, and eventually issue the e-book (see my other e-books with students here http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/books). The whole point of the course is persuading my students not only that documentary films are a type of cultural study but mainly that they are an undervalued but extremely exciting type of film to watch. So far, they have responded very well and what I’m going to do here is to extend these main theses to my (possible) readers. In this post, then, and in others that I will write I intend, therefore, to recommend the films that my students are in charge of, hoping that you also enjoy them. I will not include info on where to see them but most are available either legally on the streaming platforms or illegally on YouTube.

The course and the e-book are organized thematically, though I might eventually alter the order if the e-book requires it. In this first post, I deal with the sections on crime (personal and organized), economics (for capitalism is another form of organized crime), and environmental activism. There are other sections on gender, interesting personalities (what I have called ‘Icons of America’), politics, race, religion, other social issues, space exploration, and sports. I’ll post, then, other recommendations as the semester progresses. Next week I’ll post a list of recommended documentaries from the Lumière brother’s Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895) to Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I. The lesson I’m learning is that documentary films have provided audiences with amazing masterpieces in the past, and are providing us now with much better films than standard fiction cinema. They tell far more interesting stories in cinematic styles that are also more creative. Believe me!

These are the documentaries we have so far discussed in class:

Section CRIME. Personal crime

Bowling for Columbine (2002, Michael Moore). Oscar-award winner. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0310793/. This is the documentary film that changed the way we perceive documentaries for good. Moore had made other indispensable films (such as Roger and Me, 1989) but with this one he proved that documentary films could be huge box-office successes and, above all, impact society in significant ways. In Bowling he very cleverly argues that the frequent school shootings in America are not isolated incidents perpetrated by confused young men but the product of the American love of weapons, at an individual and a national level. The pity is that they still continue for the weapons lobby is stronger than common sense.

Capturing the Friedmans (2003, Andrew Jarecki). Oscar nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0342172/. Jarecki was making a documentary on clown Silly Billy, a favourite at children’s parties, when he noticed something was amiss in the Friedman family. Their home movies and an investigation into their lifestyle eventually led to Mr. Friedman’s being unmasked as a child abuser, even though, for odds reasons, evidence was hard to come by. In a move that was certainly controversial and that makes watching the film very difficult today, Jarecki tried to stay neutral. His film, in any case, offers a startling, scary insight into ordinary American life.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1152758/. Be ready to cry your heart out… Kurt Kuenne’s childhood friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby, was cruelly murdered by his possessive, mentally ill Canadian girlfriend Shirley Turner. As it turned out, she was pregnant with their child and Kuenne decided to interview everyone who knew the genial Andy for the benefit of baby Zachary. This story, however, took a sudden, unexpected turn because of the many errors committed by the Canadian prosecutors who should have put Shirley in prison for life. As I say, watch and cry, and sympathize with Zachary’s heroic grandparents.

Tower (2016, Keith Maitland). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5116410. Maitland’s truly amazing documentary connects with Bowling for Columbine as it narrates the first school shooting ever in America. This was perpetrated by a lone gunman (a Marine Sergeant) who on 1 August 1966 opened fire from the University of Texas clock tower, killing 16 people. The documentary focuses on the victims and the heroes, making a point of not glamourizing in any way the mass killer. Maitland uses interviews with the survivors, and original film and photography, but also animation using rotoscoping (mainly in the recreated interviews with the young participants in the horrific event).

Section CRIME. Organized crime

Cocaine Cowboys (2006, Billy Corben). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0380268 This hyperactive documentary film tells the story of how boring 1970s Miami was transformed by drug trafficking in the 1980s. The Medellín Colombia cartel, aided by the Cuban migrants, turned the city into the main gate through which cocaine flooded the USA. The corrupt authorities looked the other way until ‘Godmother’ Griselda Blanco went too far in her use of violent enforcers to get control of the whole turf. If you enjoyed Miami Vice (1984-1989) you will love seeing the actual traffickers that caused all the trouble the series portrayed. Brilliant, really.

Cartel Land (2015, Matthew Heineman). Oscar nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4126304 A truly fascinating look at both sides of the border, dealing with the doomed fight against the Mexican cartels. Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley, leader of the Arizona Border Recon militia, and Dr José Mireles, a Michoacán physician who leads the Autodefensas, are mirror images, men who know that there is really nothing to be done against the disinterest of Governments in fighting drug trafficking. As a narco tells Heineman, it’s really up to American consumers to stop taking drugs. Impressive!

ECONOMICS

American Factory (2019, Steve Bognar, Julia Reichert). Oscar award winner. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9351980 What happens when a Chinese billionaire, Chairman Cao, buys a closed GM plant to re-open it with a mix of American and imported Chinse workers? Cultural clash, and no wonder. This is a great comparative portrait of the United States and Chine, with an unusual focus on the working classes, and their rights.

Capitalism: A Love Story (2009, Michael Moore). http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1232207/. Our second Moore documentary on the list, this time on the impact of corporate greed on ordinary Americans. It is in a way, a descendant of the next one on the list, and both complement each other beautifully.

Corporation, The (2003, Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbot). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0379225 . This is the documentary that explains everything about the USA, and about our current world – perhaps you need to begin with this one. Corporations took the world over the moment USA legislation allowed them to exist as individual entities with rights above people, and develop their truly psychopathic behaviour. Be scared, be aware.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005, Alex Gibney). Oscar nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1016268/ Adapted from the best-selling non-fiction book by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (2003), Gibney’s film narrates a major business scandal, showing how far corporations can go in their greed and, yes, stupidity.

Shock Doctrine, The (2009, Mat Whitecross, Michael Winterbottom). http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1355640. Author Naomi Klein, of No Logo fame, hated the film, based on her own book, which, paradoxically, is a sort of rather accomplished book trailer for her work. The central concept is disaster capitalism, the idea that corporate business thrives on terror, taking advantage of moments of deep public distress, often caused by corporations in cahoots with corrupt governments.

Inside Job (2010, Charles Ferguson). Oscar award winner. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1645089/ If you still can’t understand how and why the devastating 2008 crisis happened, this will solve all your doubts…

ENVIROMENTAL ACTIVISM: Animal rights, environmental destruction, food consumption
Please, note: The Cove (2009) and Earthlings (2005) are not here because I needed to focus mainly on America, and not on how American criticize the rest of the world…

Blackfish (2013, Gabriela Cowperthwaite). http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2545118/ Ever been to SeaWorld or watched a dolphin show? See Blackfish and feel guilty… Tilikum, a young male orca, was captured to be a star but you cannot ill-treat an animal and expect him to respect humans, can you? See what happened

Project Nim (2011, James Marsh). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1814836. Intriguingly, this film mirrors to a great extent a fiction film released the same year, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Nim Chimpsky is stolen from his mother to be raised as a child in a human family, and test whether he can learn the basics of grammar. From this point onward, everything goes downhill for the poor ape.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006, David Guggenheim). Oscar-award winner 2006. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0497116/ Former United States Vice President Al Gore was robbed of the Presidency by the Bush family, and he embarked next on a pioneering career as climate change activist. This is the documentary that started educating audiences about the planetary destruction emergency we now face.

Before the Flood (2016, Fisher Stevens). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5929776/ A sort of follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth, Stevens’s film follows UN good-will ambassador Leonardo di Caprio as he talks to the activists and authorities that might help to save the world, as he himself struggles to understand his own position as a privileged American consumer.

GasLand (2010, Josh Fox). Oscar award nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1558250/ Fox was offered $100000 by a company interested in exploiting the gas resources in his beautiful home in the woods, and suspecting foul play he started exploring the consequences of fracking. This was the film that first warned the world about the destructiveness of the process.

Trouble the Water (2008, Carl Dea and Tia Lessin). Oscar award nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1149405/ The US authorities made no effort to get the poorest, African-American inhabitants of New Orleans out of the city before hurricane Katrina hit and the levees broke. Watch first-hand what it was like to survive the flood and the subsequent abandonment of the survivors to their fate.

Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014 Kip Andersen Keegan Kuhn). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3302820 Andersen tries to understand how he can be a better environmental activist by approaching the organizations supposedly in charge of offering advice. What he finds is silence, rejection, and a few horror stories enough to turn anyone into a vegan.

Food, Inc. (2009, Robert Kenner). Oscar award nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1286537/ Co-produced by Eric Schlosser, the journalist who first described the antics of McDonalds in Fast Food Nation, Kenner’s film examines how corporate farming in the hands of just five companies poisons Americans with unhealthy ultra-processed food, abusing animals and farmers.

Super Size Me (2004, Morgan Spurlock). Oscar award nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0390521/ Spurlock wanted to know what happens if you only eat McDonald’d foot, as he did during a month in 2003. The results were so awful that it forced the restaurant chain to introduce important changes in the food it offers (but did they, really…?)

More next week! Stay safe, don’t leave home.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

HOW ENTITLEMENT AND VILLAINY CONNECT (AS I EXPLAIN IN MASCULINITY AND PATRIARCHAL VILLAINY: FROM HITLER TO VOLDEMORT)

March 3rd, 2020

I have been delaying this post in the hopes that some of our local Spanish universities would have bought by now the monograph I published back in November 2019, Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy: From Hitler to Voldemort (Routledge, https://www.routledge.com/Masculinity-and-Patriarchal-Villainy-in-the-British-Novel-From-Hitler/Martin/p/book/9780367441463). This has not happened yet, though you can check here where the volume is available near you (https://www.worldcat.org/title/masculinity-and-patriarchal-villainy-in-the-british-novel-from-hitler-to-voldemort/oclc/1140353245&referer=brief_results). I’m told there the paperback edition will be published next year, when I’ll continue my own personal marketing campaign, of which this is post is, unashamedly, an item.

It is hard to say how long it has taken me to write this book because the idea first occurred to me back in 2008 (I spent a sabbatical then gathering bibliography), but technically the book expands on a chapter in my doctoral dissertation (submitted in 1996). Since 2006-7 I had been teaching the seminar (in Spanish) “Representations of Heroism” within the Cultural Studies module of the MA in Literatura Comparada: Estudios Literarios y Culturales of my university. I taught the last edition in 2016-17, so you can say that the book, which connects with my discourse on villainy for this seminar, was started back in 2006 and has taken thirteen years to be written. That might be the case, though the actual writing, from contract to publication, took about twenty months. If I have managed the feat of producing a monograph this is only because my teaching workload is now lower (thanks to the Government decree of 2012 by Minister Wert which few universities are applying), and because my Department allowed me to organize my teaching so that I could spend a complete year on the book (apart from tutorials for BA, MA, and PhD dissertations). I am already at work on another book, but I’m not sure at all that this window of opportunity will ever present itself again, considering that it has taken more than twenty-five years of my career for the past one to materialize.

Another reason why it has taken me long to write this book is that, once I hit on the idea that my topic should be villainy and not heroism (on which far more has been written), I had basically the whole field to myself. Believe it or not, there is very little direct bibliography on villainy, and what is available deals mainly with specific villains and not with the concept itself. Typically, I started with lists of villainous characters and soon got mired into what promised to be the beginnings of an encyclopedia. That was not, however, the kind of book I wanted to write. Nor a history of fictional villainy, though now that I’m done writing my own book this is a project that I wish someone else would write (not me!). The problem of how to select a corpus and structure a coherent volume plagued me for years –as I kept myself busy doing a thousand other things– until I ask my previous PhD supervisor, Andrew Monnickendam, for help. His advice was very simple but very helpful: narrow down the field to a genre, a period, and a nationality. Since most bibliography on villainy deals with recent American audio-visual products, here was the solution to my needs: I would focus on the British novel since WWII.

Why? Reason number one: the fictional construction of villainy is rooted in British culture, beginning with the Devil and Vice in the morality plays, following with Shakespeare, Milton, the Gothic novel, Dickens… Should I go on? The villain is, most definitely, not a product of American culture. Reason number two: the villain’s audiovisual presence often depends on novels that have been ignored or that, even when they are very popular, are seen as vehicles for the hero. I wanted to put together a variety of cases that would help me stress a crucial point: there is a remarkable coherence in the presentation of villainy across different fiction genres; this has been overlooked simply because no one was paying attention. Third reason: Adolf Hitler had to be in my book as the real-life villain that changed the rules of representing villainy. I knew from the very beginning that my book should be called From Hitler to Voldemort, though Routledge preferred the title to act as subtitle, and have the volume be called Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in British Fiction, which was originally my subtitle.

Here is the table of contents:
Introduction. Defining the Patriarchal Villain
Chapter 1. Adolf Hitler: The Threat of Absolute Villainy
Chapter 2. Big Brother and O’Brien: The Mystique of Power and the Reproduction of Patriarchal Masculinity
Chapter 3. Morgoth and Sauron: The Problem of Recurring Villainy
Chapter 4. Steerpike: Gormenghast’s Angry Young Man
Chapter 5. Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Larger Than Life: The Villain in the James Bond Series
Chapter 6. Richard Onslow Roper and the ‘Labyrinth of Monstrosities’: John le Carré’s Post-Cold War Villains
Chapter 7. Michael Dobbs’s Francis Urquhart Trilogy: Democracy at Risk
Chapter 8. Big Ger Cafferty, Crime Boss: The Constant Struggle to Retain Power
Chapter 9. Voldemort and the Limits of Dark Magic: Self-empowerment as Self-destruction

This is quite similar to the list I started with, although Chapter 4 was originally split between Mervyn Peake, Grahame Green (Brighton Rock), and Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange). I soon realized that Peake’s Steerpike demanded more room and I gave it to him. As you can see, some chapters deal with very well-known texts, others not so much (Chapter 7 is the first academic essay on the Urquhart novels by Michael Dobbs). One thing that bothered me is that the list of primary sources for each chapter ran from just one book (Orwell’s 1984 in Chapter 2) to twelve (Ian Fleming’s Bond novels in Chapter 5) and even more (Ian Rankin’s many novels in Chapter 8). I discovered, though, that the strict word-count which I had to respect (110000 words), helped me to stay focused. Of all the villains here considered, I was most surprised by Tolkien’s Morgoth, a relatively little known character because he appears in the pages of The Silmarillion, not an easy book to read. If you’re wondering who Morgoth is you need to know that he is Sauron’s much admired master.

How did I tackle Hitler’s immense figure, you may be wondering? A turning point in my research was Ian Kershaw’s two-volume biography, Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris (1997) and Hitler: 1936-1945 Nemesis (2000). Kershaw, an English political historian, discusses Hitler’s rise and fall in relation to how the mechanism of power operates and why German society failed to control his crazed tyranny. Kershaw rejects evil and psychopathology as explanations for Hitler’s personality, and that was what I needed. I added to Kershaw’s interest in power my own interest in gender, and I developed thus my main thesis, namely, that villainy is the expression of the patriarchal sense of entitlement to power in its highest degree. For me, Hitler is not exceptional as a man who believes himself entitled to power in the patriarchal context of his own society, but rather a representative of a type of masculinity we now call toxic but should simply be called patriarchal. What was exceptional in his case, as Kershaw explains, is that all the mechanisms to stop Hitler’s excessive entitlement failed. The hero, I argue, personifies those mechanisms but in Hitler’s case there could be no German hero since he had presented himself as such. The Allies had to play that role but they did so among so many tensions that WWII was soon followed by the Cold War.

My theory of power is, unlike Kershaw’s, gendered but despite my focus on the patriarchal masculinity of the villains I have studied, I believe that entitlement is a negative quality present in both men and women with patriarchal inclinations. That is to say, although patriarchy has so far accumulated most power and deployed a series of strategies to keep non-white, non-heterosexual, non-upper-class men and all women subordinated, patriarchy is so attached to notions of power that as those excluded from power rebel (= empower themselves) it may welcome them in its patriarchal hegemonic circles. This is why, as I have written here before, I find the notion of empowerment very suspect. I decided not to deal in my book with female villains because to really understand villainy in women you need to find them in a post-gender context –while I wrote the book, then, I produced a chapter on Alma Coin, the female villain of The Hunger Games, for a book on the Final Girl. Women, my claim is, may feel a strong sense of entitlement to power, too, but so far this has been denied by patriarchy. If, however, patriarchy becomes less gender-obsessed while still retaining its obsession with power, we might see a female Hitler one day.

At this point, though, I have made it my mission to offer an anti-fascist diagnosis of what makes patriarchal men tick, claiming in the process that we urgently need positive representations of men as alternatives to patriarchy (see my previous post). It has been inevitable, logically, to speak of the heroes in connection to the villains but what I have found out is mostly depressing. The heroes offered by the British authors I have selected are mostly weak and disempowered –often crushed by the loss of male honourability– or plain nasty. I was surprised by how deeply Ian Fleming disliked his James Bond and dismayed by how fond Mervyn Peake was of Titus Groan, to me a young man on the verge of either worshipping or becoming someone like Hitler. My authors are all white and male because I wanted to see, precisely, how they deal with the tale of the hero and the villain, which is so central to hegemonic patriarchal culture. The only woman I chose, though, J.K. Rowling, provides, as I have been arguing again and again, the best possible model of anti-patriarchal heroic masculinity (borrowing from Tolkien’s Frodo). Harry Potter, however, seems to be too good for our macho-oriented times.

Throughout the writing of the book and afterwards I have been daily testing my thesis that what we call evil is actually entitlement based on a patriarchal understanding of power. Evil, in my view, is an interested patriarchal construction designed to mystify us about the operations of entitlement. Let me explain myself. Hitler acted as he did because he felt himself entitled to taking other European lands for the expansion of the German people, and to eliminating other European bodies that (for prejudices widespread at the time) he abhorred. He went further than any other villain (except for Joseph Stalin, of course) but you could say that all of human life is organized on the principle of how we express our own sense of entitlement depending on the power we wield and our disregard of punishment. From colonial occupation down to leaving your motorbike parked in the middle of the pavement everything is a matter of entitlement. Our own sense of personal privilege, our belief that we can do as we wish because we can (= we have the power) overcomes all sense of solidarity with the rest of the species. You might think that there is an enormous difference between bothering pedestrians and killing six million Jews (and many other persons) but this is a matter of degree (I’m NOT being flippant). Let your child’s sense of entitlement go uncurbed and you have a potential fascist in your hands. The rest is a matter of opportunities (the many Hitler had), befuddling your enemies (as he did with his impressive PR Nazi apparatus), and acting fast (while the victims considered appeasement policies that would never appease).

So, if the premise of my book works well readers will stop seeing patriarchy as a mechanism for women’s repression (it’s a hierarchical social structure based on power), and will deny the existence of evil (what matters is entitlement). Readers will also see female villainnesses, specially femme fatales, as the pathetic creatures they are, with their ultra-sexualised bodies, and will perceive how the villain’s masculinity is shaped by patriarchal doctrines. The way I see it, the hero has been invented by patriarchy to solve one of its main weaknesses: if you structure society on the basis of power, sooner or later an individual will claim too large a share, and this will endanger the other powerful individuals. The hero acts out, therefore, on behalf of patriarchy, to limit its excesses but not at all to challenge its hierarchy-oriented, pyramidal construction.

I ended the book with a plea that one day we find other stories to tell, in which there are no heroes because the power-hungry patriarchal villains are gone. I have no idea what these stories might be, or whether they will be exciting at all, but we really need to see beyond power, abuse, and suffering and think of new plots – for the sake of our survival as a species.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WHERE ARE MEN’S ROLE MODELS?: AN URGENT CALL

February 25th, 2020

I was waiting to see Todd Phillips’ controversial Joker before writing this post but now that I have seen it, I have very little to express about it –except indifference. And puzzlement that Mr. Cow Saviour (a.k.a. Joaquin Phoenix) has chosen to play a creep rather than a vegan hero, a figure we really need. I also feel nostalgia for the late Heath Ledger and his marvellous ability to lend Joker an air of mystery: we never know who the villain really is nor can we predict any of his reactions. Phillips and Phoenix’s Joker is, in contrast, a victim of mental health issues that have nothing to do with the colossal sense of entitlement behind villainy. To tell the truth, I found movie and characters more pathetic than thrilling in any way. I wasn’t even offended with this umpteenth portrait of the white heterosexual male as victim. I was, in contrast, incensed by a much smaller film, which is the inspiration for today’s ranting.

David Yarovesky’s film Brightburn(2019), written by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn is a horror film full of gory violence which uses as its starting point a scene that will immediately sound familiar. Tori and Kyle are a couple of farmers in Kansas unable to have children. One evening, as they get ready to try again, a strange artefact lands on their backyard. Next thing we know, they have an adopted twelve-year-old son, Brandon. As he hits puberty, the boy starts noticing that there is something odd about him, manifested in his uncanny powers to move heavy objects, materialize elsewhere, and so on. Yes, this is Superman’s story but with the darkest possible twist; spiteful, entitled Brandon totally outcreeps Phoenix’s Joker, believe me. I stopped watching the movie after a particularly gruesome murder. I next checked the spoilers on IMDB [skip the lines until the end of the paragraph!!!] and was scandalized to learn that horrid Brandon gets away with his violent rampage against parents, family, and fellow citizens. Just the story we need in our times!

[Spoiler alert over] I’m not fond of superhero comics or cinema but I think that characterising Superman as an evil pre-teen boy is much more than a bad plot decision: it is a sign of the decadence of the United States as a civilization incapable of furnishing its men with adequate role models. I’m sure that the scriptwriters would disagree and defend their work as a dark take on so many absurd superhero movies. Yet, though I would certainly welcome healthy parody, their screenplay is just a very unhealthy revision of the only genuine hero left from the Marvel and DC combined collection. How about Tony Stark, Thor, and all the others? What makes Superman special, you might be asking? Call me naïve but he is the only one without dark corners: meek as a man, humble as a hero, always gallant, helpful, altruistic, devoted to doing good. No wonder he is an alien from outer space! If we lose Superman, then we are all lost.

Brightburn, although just a minor horror film, is a clear symptom of a terminal malady, I insist: the American/Western/world-wide (choose!) inability to imagine positive representations of masculinity as role models for boys. This is a conversation I’m having with my doctoral student Josie Swarbrick and my good friend Isabel Santaulària. Josie is finishing her dissertation on the monstrous images of men in recent science-fiction cinema and, now that we are at the end of the road, we have realized that negative representation is dominant. It seems that as women make progress towards better representation in fiction and the media, and personal advance in real life, men retreat, showing themselves under the worst possible light and behaving in bad ways which show an evident increase in misogyny, homophobia, racism, etc. Isabel and I have the project of editing a volume on the good guys that might be an alternative to those nasty boys but we are having serious trouble finding examples. If you know of any, email me.

It is very difficult to say with certainty when the hero –as the highest male role model– started losing his charisma but he is now in the same position as the fairy Tinkerbell in performances of Peter Pan: unless the audience screams for him to reappear, he will vanish for ever. He cannot be the same man he used to be: boys do not need military genocides as role models, or patriarchal abusers of power. Boys need civic heroes: men who work for the good of the community without seeking personal empowerment, and who do so because they think it is their duty. Yes, I’m describing Harry Potter, possibly the last big hero, though if you notice few really admire him except for his ability to do magic. Certainly actor Daniel Radcliffe, who has done the impossible to play really whacky roles in whacky films, is no Potter admirer. Possibly the best boy character of recent years is Miguel, the protagonist of Pixar’s perfect animated film Coco (2017) but I have not read anything in his praise. Just let me say that Miguel and the Brandon of Brightburn are as different as two twelve-year-olds can be, and it’s easy to say who you want your boys to imitate.

Am I exaggerating? Not at all. Girls are increasingly benefitting from the feminist demand of better representation for women. It has been understood that fictional representation is extremely important for little girls to imagine themselves as self-confident persons capable of overcoming patriarchal pressures. There is much to be done along that road because female representation is still very limited in variety but the case is that, whether out of political correctness or sincere feminist belief, the number of positive women characters is growing. The mirror held up to girls is returning a much better image. In contrast, the mirror help up to boys is reflecting a much diminished image of masculinity. Who do boys see on the news or in representation today? Corrupt politicians –beginning with the President of the USA–, rapists (Weinstein and company), mass and serial killers (on Facebook transmitting live or on the many true crime series of the streaming platforms), young men of talent killed by drugs and rampant gang violence (I have lost count of the rap stars killed that way), cheating sportsmen (Lance Armstrong, anyone?)… Where, I wonder, are the charismatic men, the truly good men? Please, don’t name insipid Leo Messi.

If you do a quick Google search, as I have done, the panorama is devastating. Click in “good men” and this leads to the controversial website The Good Men Project (https://goodmenproject.com/about/), which went through a serious crisis in 2013 when a female contributor claimed that a ‘nice guy’ who had sexually assaulted a woman should not be really treated as a rapist (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/18/nice-guys-commit-rape-conversation-unhelpful). The Wikipedia entry for the label ‘nice guy’ warns that the term can be used negatively in relation to “a male who is unassertive, does not express his true feelings and, in the context of dating (in which the term is often used), dishonestly uses acts of ostensible friendship and basic social etiquette with the unstated aim of progressing to a romantic or sexual relationship”. The ‘nice guy’ as major creep is the object of a vicious attack on the website Heartless Bitches International (http://www.heartless-bitches.com/rants/niceguys/ng.shtml). “All too often”, the contributors write, “we hear self-professed ‘Nice Guys’ complaining about why they can’t get a date, and whining that women just want to date jerks, etc. etc. The truth of the matter is that there are genuinely caring, compassionate, decent, fun guys out there who have NO TROUBLE meeting people, getting dates, and having relationships”. Notice two things: a) the problematic ‘nice guys’ are the ones describing themselves as such (whether you are a nice guy, or a good man, this is judgement other people should pass); b) the “genuinely caring, compassionate, decent, fun guys out there” are like unicorns: often mentioned, much loved, but never seen in the flesh. Show me who they are, please…

One of the creepiest things I found out during this hurried search is that Hasbro had marketed for a few years in the mid to late 1980s Mr. Buddy, a male doll intended to be a pal for little boys (see https://nothingbutnostalgia.com/my-buddy-doll/). Screen writer Don Mancini transformed Mr. Buddy into Chuckie, the Good Guy doll protagonist of the slasher film franchise Child’s Play, started in 1988 and still ongoing (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child%27s_Play_(franchise)). This is a doll and I’m reluctant to take 1988 as the departure point for this negative view of men I am describing. I am, though, unable to fix a specific date for the beginning of the current process. When, in short, do men start focusing on nasty male characters as protagonists, pushing the do-gooders to the margins? If you follow my drift, what I mean is that even though there have always been negative representations of masculinity (I have just published a book on patriarchal villainy…), there is a tipping point after which the bad guy takes centre stage. I have the strong suspicion that the trend begins in 1950s USA, with novels such Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952) and Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo (also 1952), and that it might be connected with the extremely traumatic but silenced experience of men in WWII. I cannot tell for sure. Others might argue that the Vietnam War is the trauma that makes it impossible for American men to still believe in positive representation. Rambo replaces John Wayne, whose ridiculous movie The Green Berets, of 1968, is certainly anachronistic. But when exactly the hero begins his downhill journey into decadence remains elusive to me.

I’ll finish by stressing that I’m writing this post for feminist selfish reasons. In recent fiction and even ads (the Audi ad with Romeo and Juliet, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yu4hLYEwak&list=PLE48D5CD449F1818D) young women abandon toxic relationships to proclaim their independence, or simply free themselves from burdens they dislike (haven’t you seen Frozen 2 yet?!). Heterosexual relationships, though, are assumed to be short-lived affairs with a long string of men who always turn out to be inadequate. One thing, I must say, is enjoying your sex life as a free woman, tasting as much happy variety as you want, and quite another moving onto the next guy because all of them are below par as companions. Check what women say of their Tinder dates, wonder why so many Satisfyers have been sold, and come to the conclusion I have reached: heterosexual women do not really like heterosexual men. I’ll go further: heterosexual men are beginning not to like themselves because they have no positive role models to measure themselves against. It’s not just a matter of what women want from men but of what men have lost in the process of facing the worst aspects of patriarchy. Very selfishly I’ll claim that positive role models are necessary, particularly for heterosexual men (I think other men are doing much better), because without them I see little personal happiness in heterosexual women’s love lives. Women, of course, could do better if they stopped overvaluing the bad boys and praising the real nice guys as the good men we all need.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/