Dissertation Days (57): An Overdue Update

Since I realized that it’d been over 2 weeks since I’d written an update on the Dissertation, I thought I’d take a hot second and do so. Things continue apace. I’m getting ready to submit a revised version of parts of Chapter 3 to the adviser, while I continue finishing up the readings themselves.

And, fortunately, I continue to make some really good progress on Chapter 4. The writing has been coming remarkably smoothly these last few weeks, and that is a huge relief. I now actually feel like I can get this whole project done and defended in the next 7 months, and that is also a tremendous relief.

There is something poetic about writing about the lost dreams of a a powerful woman and the feeling of melancholic utopia that that generates in the wake of 2016. It’s not that everything in the world has to line up neatly with the election and its aftermath, but it’s funny how very different it feels to write this dissertation now that an eminently qualified woman and her dreams of a better future were dashed. Not to mention the fact that when I began writing about a period in which an entire country trembled before the possibility of nuclear war I never dreamt I would be living such a reality.

Such, though, are the vagaries of a project that takes a couple of years to complete. Now that I’m almost done, I can take a bit more time to reflect on those larger questions. If nothing else, they’ll make a nice anecdote with which to open or close the book (when I finally get around to changing this beast into a monograph).

Overall, I’m very happy with the way this dissertation has taken shape. I’ve worked long and hard on it, and I feel like I’ve intellectually accomplished something. There are still a few more mile-markers to cross, but I do believe I can see the finish line, over there in the distance somewhere.

I plan to continue these little updates until the very end, but they may be a bit more sporadic. I have a lot of other writing projects going on, both on this blog and in the outside world, and I want to make sure they get the attention they deserve. In the meantime, you can always check my Twitter, since I usually tweet diss updates there.

Well, I’m off.

Keep writing, my beauties!

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Screening Classic Hollywood: “Anastasia” (1956)

I’ve always had a fascination with the legend of Anastasia Romanov, the youngest daughter of the doomed Nicholas and Alexandra who was rumoured, for much of the 20th Century, to have survived the massacre that struck her family. Before there was the exquisite Anastasia of animated fame, there was the 1956 film starring Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman.

The film is a briskly paced drama. While this was not quite what I was expecting–given the grandiosity of the subject matter–it works well for the film, rendering it more of a character study than the epic one might expect to tell the story of one of the most famous royals of the 20th Century. Though there are a few scenes that contain the extravagance one might expect from a period drama, for the most part the tension is between the three principal characters: General Bounine (Brynner), Anna Koref (Bergman), and the Dowager Empress Marie (Helen Hayes).

All three characters have an investment in maintaining the fiction that Anna really is the long-lost Anastasia. For Bounine, it’s the chance to make a great deal of money, while for Anna herself it is a means of recovering an identity that she may in fact have never had. And of course for the Dowager, it represents an opportunity to regain the loving family that was taken away from her in the fires of brutal revolution.

The film finds its most soaring effect is in its use of music. There is a remarkable sequence during a visit to Denmark to visit the Dowager Empress and the exuberant strains of Tchaikovsky greet her entrance (though her face isn’t revealed for a few more minutes). Though she is a supporting character, Helen Hayes manage to imbue this formidable historical figure with a grace that cannot be rivaled.

Bergman manages to imbue her own figure with a certain tragic elegance, as she is drawn in to the plot of Brynner’s rapacious general. As he draws her into his scheme, she begins to lose even the sense of who she is. Is she, in fact, the long-lost daughter of the tsar, or is she just another nameless orphan who has been brought into the scheme of an avaricious and embittered nobleman? The film leaves the answer unclear, and that is part of the pleasure.

She is matched by two other formidable characters, Brynner’s general and Helen Hayes’ iron-clad Dowager. Yul Brynner has always been one of my favourite actors from classic Hollywood, an object of simply exquisite and imposing male beauty. This film is no exception and, while he once again plays something of an asshole, he still maintains a measure of charisma. One always has to wonder what really lurks behind that austere and often callous exterior, what fiery, sensuous heart lurks in that brutal breast.

For her part, Hayes is truly magnificent of one of the 20th Century’s most tragic figures, a woman who lost her entire family and was frequently beset  She seems to bite off her words in a tense conversation with the general, and she is even more scathing to her attendant, remarking acerbically, “To a woman of your age, sex should be nothing but gender.” This is truly one of the most wonderful lines I have heard in a film.

More than that, though, Hayes is in many ways the emotional center of the film. When she finally comes to accept Anderson as her long-lost granddaughter, it is a truly heart-wrenching moment in the purest melodramatic form (ironically, she initially condemns Anna for indulging in precisely that kind of melodrama). If you don’t feel the familiar tug on your heartstrings that is the hallmark of a really good (which is to say, effective) Hollywood melodrama, then you may want to reconsider whether you are actually a fully-functioning human.

Given that we now know with a certainty that Anastasia was in fact murdered with the rest of her family, the film cannot but be fundamentally melancholy. We know all too well that the glamorous Russian princess perished at Yekaterinburg, the victim of the Bolshevik Revolution. Yet the film, as any good melodrama should, indulges our hope that maybe, just maybe, history has lied to us, that in the world of fantasy known as Hollywood film, the doomed Russian princess lives on. It might be a fantasy, but it’s a pleasant one.

All in all, Anastasia is a truly compelling product of its time, full of beautiful colours, exquisite performances, and a story that is as sad as it is beautiful. Truly an exquisite film.

Dissertation Days (36): DONE

Well, the biggest news of the day is that Chapter 3 is, at last, finished and submitted. I think that it is a much stronger version of the chapter than earlier, so there is that to be proud of. It might be a while before I hear back about it, but I’m okay with that.

Now, on to Chapter 4. Today was one of those great days where the juices just seemed to be flowing in the right amount. I managed to bang out 1,000 words of the chapter (and most of them good ones!) before the rest of my life interrupted me. I’ve gotten into a bit of a flow with this chapter, and that is definitely a blessing. I’d really rather avoid the rut that kept me bogged down in Chapter 3 far longer than I would have liked.

I’m really hoping to rewatch Cleopatra this weekend, as I need the details that such a re-watch will provide me. But, for those of you who have seen it know all too well, it’s an obscenely long movie, and thus quite an investment in a weekend that’s already quite packed. However, even if I just manage to watch a part of it, that will still provide me enough material to work with for next week’s composition.

I also have a pretty extensive research program lined up for the next week. The broad strokes of the historical context is there, but I need to start filling in the details. The hard part will be making sure that it’s clear how this context fits in with the close readings, but I wrote a couple paragraphs devoted to that today. I’m not sure they’ll survive into the final draft in their present form (they’re a bit ham-handed, tbh), but for the moment they are serving their purpose.

Ugh. It’s getting to that point where I can’ just throw words on the page anymore. Now that I’ve reached the 8,000 word mark (a little over half), I’ve got to really start drilling down into precision. That’s always the hardest part for me, because it means that shit is really getting real. At the same time, it’s also the point at which, if you really squint, you can see the finish line of the chapter (and of the project) in the distance.

That’s a good feeling, but also a terrifying one.

But, I march onward.

Good times ahead.

Dissertation Days (35): Out, Out, Damn Chapter!

I know I keep saying this, but I think I mean it this time. It looks like Chapter 3 will be sent off tomorrow. I’m finishing a few last-minute things–mostly footnotes and bibliographic entries that eluded me–but I’m so damn close! If I can just push myself over the finish line, and if I can just get this sent in tomorrow, I will feel soooo much better. Then I can take a day to catch my breath and then dive full-on into Chapter 4.

I am very happy to report that that Chapter is really coming along. I’m coming to that part in the process where I’m starting to get into the weeds, drilling down into the details that I really need to make it click. Today, I worked mainly on the section of the chapter dealing with The Bible. For some reason, I really find myself drawn to this film.

Luckily (or perhaps unluckily, depending on how you look at it), there is really only one chapter of a book that I’ve been able to find that discusses it at length. This has caused me to lean rather heavily on that one chapter, which is something of a handicap. On the other hand, it allows me to really negotiate and engage with another scholar’s ideas in great detail, something I haven’t really been able to do.

I also started a new book for research, this one devoted to the icon of Mark Antony. While this particular character is only tangential to my argument, I hope to find a few nuggets in the volume that will help me talk about the politics of the 1963 Cleopatra, particularly the way that it deals with politics, imperial stability, and imperial fall and decline. I hope to have that one finished in the next week or so, and then it’s on to another book that provides some context on the politics of containment.

I’m really hoping that Chapter 4 starts to come along a bit faster. I’ve been making steady progress, but I really want to pick up the pace. I tend to get mired down in chapters if I don’t get them done quickly, so I’m hoping to avoid that. Of course, a lot of that hinges on Chapter 3 and its reception, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed.

Tomorrow may not see a Dissertation Days update, but Friday will be back at it.

Forward, friends. Forward.

Dissertation Days (31): Work, Work, Work

Overall, I think this was a better work day than yesterday. I actually managed to go beyond my 1,000 word goal for Chapter 4, and my re-reading of Chapter 3 made me feel like it’s not total dreck after all. Of course, that could be the caffeine talking, but I do like to think that this draft shows significant improvement from its predecessor.

If I have one complaint about Chapter 3, it’s that I think it’s still a bit bloated. If my adviser suggests it, I think that I will take out about 10 pages of excess, both in the context and close readings sections. It’ll work for right now, but there’s no question that the project as a whole can be a bit leaner. There is, though, a certain appropriateness to having a chapter about epics be too long. However, I’m not sure that my adviser, or my committee as a whole, will view it in the same light. There is something to be said, after all, for concision.

Chapter 4 is still coming apace. I felt better about the material I produced today than I did yesterday, both in the section about Cleopatra and about Fall of the Roman Empire. I still can’t quite shake the feeling that this will be the least dynamic and original of my chapters, but I suppose that’s an acceptable thing.

I am also not entirely sure how I’m going to fit my discussion of John Huston’s The Bible in there, though there are moments when I see how it fits. If I have to, I may eventually end up moving it to some sort of conclusion, but for the moment I’m going to keep it where it is and continue to hope that its connection to the other parts of the chapter becomes clearer as I go along.

Tomorrow, I am going to start my final read-through of Chapter 3, focusing on smoothing out any remaining rough edges, as well as making sure that the bibliography I have is the updated one (especially since I deleted some entries for this revision). I’ll also have to make sure that I fill out some of the footnotes that are still missing information.

Furthermore, I think I will only write 500 words of Chapter 4 tomorrow. I really want to get Chapter 3 knocked out ASAP, so I’m afraid that has to be my priority.

Onward and upward, as I always say. Onward and upward.

Dissertation Days (30): Hmmm…

Well, today was a productive day, at least in terms of what I was able to get done. I did feel a bit of discouragement emotionally and mentally, but powered by coffee I managed to power through. I’ve learned that you really can’t let those types of days get you down in any sort of systemic way, or else you’ll never be able to muster the energy to get done what needs done.

I really am reaching that point, particularly with Chapter 3, where I feel like the whole edifice stands on the edge of a knife. Part of me feels like it could use an extra round of revision, and possibly even another draft, but another, stronger part realizes that that would probably do more harm than good. It really is time to simply let it go for now, send it to the adviser and patiently (if anxiously) await his feedback. It’s the hardest part of the process, but it has to be done.

I’m still having a bit of trouble with Chapter 4, and I think that stems from the fact that I’m still in that composition stage where I’m really just trying to get words on the page. I think that there some islands of intelligibility in the mass of prose, but it will take some chiseling to get them into shape. I think that will actually be one of my areas of focus next week (after I submit Chapter 3). Once Chapter 3 is done, I also plan on beefing up my daily word goal. It’s currently 1,000 words, but I’m hoping to be able to churn out 1,500 once I really get my groove going.

I’m also going to have rewatch at least one of the films I’m writing about this weekend. I’m thinking I might do Cleopatra, so I can hopefully get that close reading section pretty thoroughly done by the end of next week. I’m also hoping to finish the book I’ve been reading about the icon of Cleopatra, and then I have to do some more primary research.

There’s a lot of work to be done yet, but I know I can do this. I just need to keep on reminding myself of how much progress I’ve made, and how good it will feel when all of this work pays off.

As always, thanks for reading and liking my posts. It gives me inspiration to continue on!

Dissertation Days (29): Good Feelings (Mostly)

Today was a very good day indeed in terms of revision and writing. Though I am rapidly approaching the point in Chapter 3 where I’m not hugely fond of my work, a part of my brain still recognizes that the chapter as a whole is much stronger than its earlier iterations. However, I also know that it’s just about time to get it submitted, before I pull one thread too many and the whole piece falls apart.

That being said, I like how the close reading sections have turned out. There are a few blips here and there, with both conceptual issues and prose, but those (I think) can be safely pushed off to a further round of revision after the adviser sees it. I think that the whole thing is hanging together pretty well, but I fear I’m becoming so enmeshed in the midst of it that it’s a bit hard at this moment to see it with an unjaundiced eye.

Chapter 4 is also in a strong position, stronger in fact than at an any other point. Part of this is due to the book I’m currently reading about Cleopatra’s iconography that has really helped to add some contextual heft to my analysis. Fortunately, there isn’t a huge amount of work on the 1963 film that takes it seriously as an engagement with history, so I think that will probably be the strongest part of the chapter.

At some point soon, I am going to have to go back to Chapters 1 and 2 and undertake some of the outstanding revisions there. I don’t think that will take that long, necessarily, but I’d like to knock it out before it gets too much later in the summer. After all, while I have several months left to finish it, I know full well they are going to speed by much faster than I’d like. But, such is the nature of the world alas.

Tomorrow, it’s more work on Chapter 3. I am hoping to finish that by the end of the week, let it rest over the weekend, then submit early next week. Chapter 4 will require 1,000 words tomorrow. I’m hoping to get all of that done early in the day, but we’ll see how that turns out.

There’s much yet to be done, but I feel good about my progress. If only that damned Chapter 3 will get approved…

Wish me luck, friends!

 

Dissertation Days (27): Progress?

Today was a very successful day when it comes to Chapter 4. I met the goal of writing 1,000 words again! I am really excited about the historical context section. There’s something really compelling about the late 1950s and early 1960s, given that they marked the ultimate nadir of colonial and imperial ambitions, and I really think that there is a profound imperial anxiety in the films produced in this period.

I do want to avoid doing an allegorical reading of these films. While I think that’s one useful way of thinking about them, ultimately I’m more interested in how these films engage with the question of imperial history and the telescoping of temporality. It’s a rather complex and slippery set of concepts, and all the reading I’ve been doing has really helped to clarify what I’m aiming for in this chapter. There’s a long way to go, but I know I can do it.

Still, there’s no question that this is the most difficult chapter that I’ve written so far. I’ve known from the beginning that it’s the most challenging one. In larger part it’s because it’s actually a vestigial reminder of an earlier arrangement of the dissertation, one that I’ve still managed to incorporate into the revamped version. However, it’s precisely the fact that this chapter is such a strange beast that it’s taking so long to carve into some measure of intelligibility.

Despite all of that, I’m pretty proud of the progress that I’ve made over this last year. This time last year I had just submitted Chapter 2, and now I have at least some version of Chapters 3 and 4 done. It’s not as far along as I might like, but it’s still good progress.

I fear that I didn’t get as much done on Chapter 3, and I only made it through it through a few pages of actual revision. Nevertheless, as I make my way through it, I have to say that I’m pretty happy with how it ended up conceptually. It’s probably still a little rough around the edges, and I’m sure that it will need a bit more revision before it’s truly ready.

The next couple of days will probably be a little less productive. I’m headed back to Syracuse on Sunday, so I’m spending tomorrow with the BF before headed northward. Once I get back, though, I’ll be submitting Chapter 3!

I can do this.

Onward!

Dissertation Days (22): Siiiiggghhh

This third chapter, I am starting to feel, is a right pain in the ass. I feel like I’m just creeping along, making a few edits here and a few edits there, bringing in some material from an earlier draft in the hopes that it will help to make some sense. I do think, though, that it’s almost there. It really is all about pushing it over the finish line that is the hardest part.

To be quite honest, today was not the most productive day. There’s a lot going on with helping the Boyfriend move, but I’m still carving out a bit of each day to do at least some work on both chapters, even if that work doesn’t seem to have an immediate payoff. Still, it’s always helpful in these situations to keep an eye on the long game, eve though that can be tremendously difficult on days like this.

I will say, though, that I managed to write some good stuff in those close reading sections of Chapter 4. I really do think that I have something I want to say about Cleopatra, which is an epic film that has been tremendously undervalued (if not outright condemned and derided) by film critics and scholars alike. Given the film’s troubled production history–and the dubious distinction of losing money even though it was successful at the box office–there’s quite a lot to be done. If you know me, however, you know that I love rescuing derided films from their critical obscurity. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be working on the epic.

Still a little concerned about my section dealing with Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire. I’m not sure how much I’m really going to be able to say that’s new about the film–there are already some really good books and essays on it–but hopefully I’ll be able to at least add a slight layer of nuance to what’s already been written.

So…no work shall be done tomorrow, since it’s basically moving day. However, I’ll be back into something of a regular schedule on Wednesday, though Thursday and Friday will be a bit touch-and-go, since I’ll be traveling again. I’m a busy little bee this summer, but I still have to make time to get some of this Dissertation done.

After all, I have a deadline to meet, and I shall do it.

Heaven help me, I will.

Dissertation Days (21): Roadblocks

I’ve reached that stage in Chapter 3 where I know that the end is in sight, but it’s precisely the nearness of accomplishment that proves more than a little debilitating. Still, it is precisely in those moments that one has to continue onward, pushing past the mental barricades to get to the rich intellectual material beneath.

I did manage to eke out some new material in Chapter 3, both by writing some new stuff and also by importing a paragraph from an earlier draft. The third section still needs a little development to fully cohere, and it’s going to take some doing to make sure that it fits together both internally and with the rest of the chapter, but I think that’s doable, so long as I don’t let myself get bogged down too much.

That being said, I do feel like I made some genuine progress today, and I’m setting Wednesday as the day that I would like to be done with the heavy lifting on this draft. That puts me at just about two months revision which, considering all that’s been going on–pet loss and illness, travel, family obligations–isn’t bad at all. I really do have to keep my momentum going if I want to defend by this coming spring (which I basically have to do regardless). So, any positive thoughts and encouragement y’all could send my way would be much appreciated.

In terms of Chapter 4, I wrote 500 words, mostly in two of my sections that deal with the films. Today, I focused mostly on Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning. At the moment, I’m trying to think through the utopian sensibility that these films express, even as they also acknowledge the rather dystopian realities of history.

Once I settle down again, I am going to need to rewatch both Fall and The Bible. It’s been a while since I’ve seen them, and I need to make sure that I have the type of detail that enables a textured film analysis. Given how much of a stickler I am for sound film criticism, I have to be extra careful to practice what I preach.

On tomorrow’s agenda: keep plodding away at Chapter 3 (as usual). Then it’s on to Chapter 4, and I think I have a rich vein of inquiry ready to be tapped.

Tomorrow is going to be great.