Dissertation Days (19): Weasel Words

Today, I worked a lot in Chapter 3, making sure that I cut out some of those pesky weasel words upon which I rely far too often. Words like “indeed,” “furthermore,” “as a result” are my bane, and I’ve been on the lookout for them as I work through these sections of the chapter. Removing them has really streamlined my prose.

I also deleted numerous other things that were basically written clutter. I do have a tendency to clog up the flow of my prose with extraneous bits and pieces that really don’t do much to advance the argument, and I am making a concerted effort to trim more of those out with each reading I do of this chapter. I’ve now reached the point where I’m taking stuff out, and this brings with it its own form of writing pleasure (particularly since there is a large part of the queer section that needs writing).

I also managed to get rid of more couplets (seriously, you would not believe how many of them appear throughout my writing). I have largely either cut out one of the pair or, alternatively, I have changed to a different grammatical construction (typically deleting one term and transforming it into a modifier for the other). I know that it’s another crutch, but it’s at least a bit of stylistic variety in my writing. I will say, though, that I have always tended to rely too much on adjectives, so I’m trying to focus more on using more verbs and nouns. As my adviser astutely pointed out some time ago, relying on those forms gives one’s writing a stronger, more active energy.

I also managed to get some of Chapter 4 done today, and I’m pretty happy with what I was able to produce. I not only worked on some of the theoretical section–admittedly not very much–but also on my close reading of Cleopatra. I think that will be my favourite part of the chapter, though I also want to make sure to give some love and attention to Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire. The real struggle there will be finding something to say that is a genuine contribution.

I’m afraid another hiatus is in the offing. I’m traveling again tomorrow and Friday, but I hope to return to the schedule on Saturday and Sunday. Hopefully next week will be even more productive.

Good times.

Dissertation Days (17): Headaches

Much as it pains me to admit it, this has not been a very productive day on any front. I managed to eke out some progress on Chapter 3, though I did nothing at all on Chapter 4. I had a bit of a pet emergency (Beast, my kitty, had an asthma flare, so a large part of the day has been spent fretting over here; she’s doing much better, thankfully). I also developed a splitting headache, so that ruled out a lot of work progress this evening.

Still, I did manage to do some copy and paste from earlier drafts of the chapter, so the section on queerness, Nero, and Quo Vadis is starting to slowly take shape in a coherent form. I’m still struggling to bring together the strands of queerness, colour, and the terrifying nature of history, but I think I have the avenue I need.

I’m trying to avoid a huge theory info-dump right in the middle of the discussion. I think I’m going to have to just winnow out any theoretical references that aren’t directly relevant to what I’m doing, and relegate the others to a footnote. I also have to find a way to bring together my discussions of queer theory in general and the queer film theorists that I’m also working with.

I think that I need to focus on just the queer theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton and her notion of the queer child and Lee Edelman’s notion of jouissance and the death drive. Now, if I can only make sure that they mesh with both my arguments about chromatic history, I think I’ll have something significant to say about how this film imagines history (I also have to make sure that it fits in with the preceding discussion of S&D and D&B). Lots of balls in the air. I do like a challenge.

Sigh.

Unfortunately, more work is probably not in the offing tomorrow, as I have more family obligations. Sometime, probably early next week, I should be able to get back into something of my normal groove.

Until then, I fear that the installments of Dissertation Days will be as sporadic as the actual progress I’ll be making on my chapters. Still, I’m going to carve out each piece as I can, and that will have to be good enough for now.

In my book, any progress is good progress.

Dissertation Days (14): Sometimes I Love What I Do

Today was one of those glorious day when the pieces at last started to fit together. It was a truly productive day, and I managed to finish the section of the chapter devoted to Samson and Delilah. 

finally found a coherent way of talking about the ways in which the terror and chaos of history is expressed through Samson and Delilah‘s emphasis on costume, fabric, and tactility. If you’ve ever seen the film, you can see the ways in which it expresses a very disruptive and chaotic form of desire, one that cannot be entirely contained by the conventions of narrative.

I really do think that I’m making a contribution with this line of argument, for I’m trying to work against a dominant strand of criticism that tends to see Delilah as little more than an object of the gaze, a femme fatale who is the screen onto which men project their fantasies and fears about women. To me, the period of the late 1940s and early 1950s is far too fractious and unsettled for that to be the whole story, and when you think about both the terrors of modern history and the essentially unruly nature of color as a formal element of cinema, you get a very different picture of the epic films of the period.

I didn’t get to finish my section on David and Bathsheba, alas, though I did hash out the thesis of that section so that it’s a little more clarity, so at least I accomplished that. There isn’t quite as much to do with that section as S&D, since it was always a bit clearer.

That just leaves the last section on Nero and Quo Vadis, and that is definitely going to take a couple of days to both write and make sure that it fits with the rest of what I’ve already been doing. Still, with grit and determination I know this can be done. I know it.

At the rate I’m going, I should be ready to submit this revision before the end of the month. That basically means I’ll have taken about a month and a half to make some pretty significant revisions, so I’m okay with that. Even if it needs another round, I think that the next bit won’t take as long.

Once it’s done, I’m on to Chapter 4. Onward and upward, friends.

Onward and upward.

 

Dissertation Days (9): Rough Days…

Sometimes, you have a day of writing where nothing goes quite as you want, and you spend hours just sort of agonizing over a few pages, or even a few paragraphs. Hell, even a single paragraph. You flick between different tabs and screens, hoping that the caffeine will kick in and you’ll buzz right through your revisions, carving out something intelligible and witty and dazzling and incisive.

Well, that didn’t happen today.

But then again, perhaps I’m not giving myself enough credit. I did make it through almost 8 pages of the draft I have right now, and I chipped out some bits of fluff, tightened up the language in the intro paragraphs. I also came up with a one-sentence distillation of what this whole damn chapter is about: “History thus becomes [in these films] a pleasurable experience of the destructive power of female and queer male desire, an escape from the tyranny of time and hetero-reproductive historical responsibility.”

It’s still rather buried in a paragraph of other context and theorizing, but that’s the basic message. And it really does convey what I’m hoping to do with this chapter, i.e. make us take seriously the question of sexual desire as a problem for the experience and representation of history, rather than just a sneaky means by which canny directors circumvented the Production Code (though it is that too, of course).

I also managed to eke out 500 words of the fourth chapter, which I think is slowly cohering into something vaguely resembling an argument. I’m going to have to do a little more reading to make sure that all of my ideas fit together, and that I somehow manage to make a convincing argument about the nature of imperialism in the epic that isn’t just warmed-over from what someone else has already written (you’d be surprised how easy that is to do, or to at least perceive that you’re doing it).

I’m honestly not sure how much I’m going to be able to get done tomorrow. Hopefully, I can at least make sure that 5 more pages are in shape that’s ready to go, and that might be about it. Still, at this stage that’s pretty good. I have already made plans to get some good work done on both Thursday and Friday, so there is hope that I can get this done by the end of the month (if not sooner).

Onward!

Dissertation Days (5): Clarity at Last

Today was what I would like to call a successful writing day. I not only met my word goal (2000 words!) but also started to achieve that elusive goal of every chapter: intellectual clarity. I know it may not seem like much to some, but man, if you’ve ever written a book-length scholarly treatment, you know that’s no small feat.

I managed to get some important context written today, focusing especially on the postwar consumption boom. I really found the book As Seen on TV to be particularly helpful, as it gave me the theoretical understanding I needed to make the point about the connection between tactile images and erotic desire. If you’ve ever seen Samson and Delilah or Quo Vadis, you know  that there are a number of spectacular fabrics on display, and I can’t help but think that they register to a degree the importance and presence of both female and queer male desire.

The most frustrating thing I’ve found about this chapter is how slippery it is. I’m really trying to tease out the essential contradictions of the epic, to find in those contradictions the systems of power and representational systems that render the terrors of history, its utter unknowability and ineffability, experiential and, just possibly, comprehensible.

I’m…not sure to what extent this draft of the chapter is doing that, but I think it is holding together in ways that definitely weren’t true of its earlier iteration. There definitely seems to be a stronger, more organic connection between the historical and theoretical context and the close textual readings. I just have to find a way to make sure that I make those connections explicit,  without getting repetitive or clumsy about it.

As Sophia Petrillo once said: “presentation is very important.”

Also, incidentally, I also began a new draft of Chapter 4. Still not quite sure what form this final one is going to take but…there’s a glimmer of illumination ahead.

Tomorrow’s goal: more close textual analysis and a bit more context. Goal: 1000 words.

If I keep up at this pace, I might even be able to get a draft of this chapter back to my adviser by middle of May. Regardless of whether it’s approved this time around or not, I really do feel like I’ve made vast improvement.

That improvement, ultimately, gives me the courage and enthusiasm to face the glowing computer screen tomorrow morning.

TV Review: “Feud”–“Hagsploitation” (S1, Ep. 6)

A friend recently remarked to me that, every time he watched an episode of Feud, he felt as if nothing significant had transpired. As I continue to watch, I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with him. While there is still much to love about this series, it does feel like it’s beginning to drag a bit, weighed down by its own pretensions.

In this episode, Joan attempts to resuscitate her career by acting in cheesy horror films, while Bette also struggles to find roles that are worthy of her talents. However, Aldrich is determined to cement his legacy and so, even as his marriage falls apart, he proposes another entry in the “Hagsploitation” genre (a term allegedly coined by Jack Warner), and he hopes to reunite Crawford and Davis and continue to exploit their antipathy toward one another.

The relationship between Aldrich and Bette, as always, continues to ring the truest and to have the most emotional depth. There is an undeniable chemistry between Sarandon and Molina, and they carry this over into the fondness that these individuals have for one another. They understand one another, even more so now that Aldrich is faced with a life without his wife (who has told him she wants a divorce due to his inability to truly privilege her in the face of his work).

As always, though, it is Lange who steals the show, and she manages to continue wringing the role of Joan for all of the pathos that it’s worth. While it remains unclear whether the real Joan Crawford–if we can even speak of such a thing–would ever have shown the type of vulnerability that Lange conveys, the fact remains that Lange combines strength with vulnerability. Lange’s Crawford is knowing and understanding about what the world is like, and the world of Hollywood in particular, but this knowledge does not give her any sort of comfort. Knowledge in this context proves to be just as much a burden as it is a blessing.

She does, however, display a true spine of steel when her brother threatens her with an alleged video of her performance in a stag film (the rumour of the existence of such a film ultimately sunders her friendship with Hedda). While she pays off his demands, she does so because she values her career and her accomplishments above everything else, and she is not about to let a money-grubber, even if he happens to be related to her by blood. Thus, when she finds that he has died during an emergency operation on his appendix, her first move is to cancel the payment on her check. For Joan, family is a burden, yet another sacrifice that she must make in order to solidify her career and the reputation that she has taken such an effort to maintain.

However, while I still take a lot of pleasure in this show, it’s clear that it’s starting to run out of steam a bit. I’ve thought for some time now that it would have probably made more narrative sense for this to have either been two episodes shorter or to have been released all at once. For me as a viewer, the appeal of the show continues to lie in the performances and the sumptuousness of the image, rather than in the narrative. I’m not sure that this is entirely as Murphy intends it, but I have long felt that his skills as an image-maker and as a casting agent far excel his skills as a creator of long-form drama. I suppose that we will have to wait until the final episode to see if my theory is proven correct. (Note: while he is not the writer or director of most of the episodes so far, his imprint is indelibly stamped on the series as a whole)

Overall, I found this to be a touching entry, but I’m still a little unclear about what the series in the aggregate will look like. If the series’ purpose was to show the ways in which women are exploited in Hollywood and their interests sublimated in the service of men’s profit, then that mission has already been well-accomplished. However, one can hop that there will be a deeper takeaway by the end, one that merits the expanded frame of the narrative.

TV Review: “Feud”–“And the Winner Is…(The Oscars of 1963)”

In the most recent episode of Feud, the lead-up to the Oscar ceremony gains momentum, and the chasm between Bette and Joan continues to widen until it is irrevocable. When Bette loses the Oscar to Anne Bancroft, largely as a result of Joan’s scheming, the bitterness is fully set, and there will be, can be, no turning back for any of them.

There’s a nice little aside included in the episode, in which the majestic, statuesque, and ever-so-slightly over-mannered Olivia de Havilland, suggests that the feud between her and her sister Joan Fontaine was one fabricated in large part by a media determined to sow dissent.  There is a slight bit of hypocrisy in this episode, however, in that a subsequent scene shows all too clearly that Olivia had no love for her sister, and that the bitterness between them was quite real indeed.

Though de Havilland has been hovering on the edge of the screen since the series began, it’s only now that she has finally come into full focus, as the episode shows us the close relationship between Bette and Olivia. One can sense in Olivia’s somewhat distant performance a hint of jealousy and bitterness about her friend’s success and talent. As she remarks, Bette always saw her as Melanie from Gone with the Wind to her Scarlett, and she acknowledges, with just a trace of sadness, that that is true. Graceful and statuesque as she is, she knows that as far as Hollywood and the broader public is concerned, she will always be one of the system’s lesser lights, a minor star in a galaxy full of supernovas like Davis.

The other bit player in this episode who also begins to emerge into a fuller light is Judy Davis’s magnificently waspish and poisonous Hedda Hopper. For all of her vitriol and bitterness, Hopper is convinced of the rightness of her poison pen, which she has honed to a fatal point. The episode also reveals that she is as riddled with contradiction as any other woman in Hollywood. She criticizes Davis for being vulgar, and yet she makes a spurious claim that Bette Davis uses one of her Oscars as a doorstop in her bathroom. Yet she sees all of this as justified, her self-understanding as the moral compass of Hollywood rendering her inviolable from any trace of true self-reflexion or criticism.

Once again, Lange’s Crawford continues to wring the pathos from the script. When she says that something in her broke at the word of the Oscar nominations, for the very first time I felt like I was looking at the actual Joan Crawford on screen before me. Her visage showing all of its alcohol-produced flaws in the glaring light of the California sun, she has clearly begun a descent into desperation that ends, embarrassingly, in a phone call to Geraldine Page in which she convinces the younger actress to step out of the Oscar ceremony and an equally uncomfortable and pathetic visit to Anne Bancroft (who eventually wins, allowing Crawford to step out onto the stage). Yet even these moments are full of pathos, as Sarah Paulson’s Geraldine Page proudly announces that Hollywood should be made to look at what they have done to Crawford, and Bancroft graciously concedes to Crawford’s request.

Lange’s Crawford emerges in these scenes as a peculiar mixture of pathetic and malignant, someone driven by her own chronic sense of fragile self-worth.  As she tells George Cukor in one of the episode’s most affecting lines, she is not bigger than this pettiness, a stunning confession that reveals the extent to which she has come to understand her zenith as inevitably and irrevocably past.

(On a random note, I also appreciated the episode’s use of mirrors, in which constantly forces the characters to look at themselves and to face the unflattering light in which they so frequently paint themselves).

All in all, I found this the best episode yet of Feud, and yet also the most tragic. The final scene, in which Joan comes home from her pyrrhic victory was one of the most affecting the show has yet produced. As Crawford sits alone in her bedroom, gazing at the statue, one can’t help but reflect about all that has been lost as the feud between the two women grows ever more venomous. It is truly one of Hollywood’s greatest tragedies.

TV Review: “Feud”–“More, Or Less” (S1, Ep. 4)

Having finally watched last week’s episode of Feud, I am at last ready to share my thoughts. In all, I found this to be the best episode so far, in that it really does a great deal to flesh out the stakes of Baby Jane for everyone concerned, not just the principals, but also those who surround the production.

The opening sequence highlights the extent to which both Joan and Bette have found themselves on the losing end of an industry controlled and manipulated by ruthless (and not terribly likable) men. Both of them have, by this point, become aware that their fortunes may be irrevocably in decline, the possibility of a comeback tainted by the “B” movie status that has already begun to stick to Baby Jane and to taint its artistic pretensions.

The responses of the two women reflect a great deal about their respective personalities. While Bette handles the demotion to the junior leagues with biting sarcasm by taking out a classified ad, Joan spews out f-bombs to her utterly uncaring agent and his cronies. Throughout the episode, Crawford emerges as the one more attached to her rapidly-fading stardom and Davis to the fact that she can’t get roles that challenge her craft (this dichotomy has now become so much part of Hollywood history that it’s become fact).

Lange continues to bring Joan to life in a particularly compelling way. There is an almost frantic energy to Lange’s portrayal, as she teeters on the edge of utter collapse. She sees the writing on the wall of her career, and she is determined to do everything in her power to stop the downward spiral, including distancing herself from Bette and from any other woman who might taint her aspirations, even when that means distancing herself from the very people who would be happy to help her.

The scene at the premiere highlights how dependent Joan has become on the glamour of stardom. The colour and lighting here is quite warm, an evocation of Crawford’s renewed sense of vitality and happiness that she has once again returned to being adored by her legions of fans. One also gets a sense that the episode is making a conscious reference to Lange’s role of Big Edie Beale in Grey Gardens, which also featured her in the role of a woman clinging to vitality in the face of adversity.

For all of her talent, however, Crawford knows something that the others seem reluctant to acknowledge: the golden age of classic Hollywood is well and truly over. When she turns down Pauline’s efforts at jumpstarting her own directorial career, she does so not (so she claims) because the latter is a woman, but because she’s a nobody. Crawford is old enough and wise enough to recognize that Hollywood is a cruel and ruthless business, and she is just cutthroat enough to do what needs to be done to ensure her own legacy (it doesn’t hurt that she’s also being manipulated by the waspish Hedda Hopper).

Despite how despicable he can be at times, Molina’s Aldrich continues to come across as affable, accomplished, and likable, if more than a little self-centered and misogynist. He knows as much as the women do that his career is on the line, and indeed that, for all of his aspirations, he is not, after all, fated for greatness. Even his success with Baby Jane, however, is not quite enough to rescue him and elevate him to the status of an auteur. In a taut and unpleasant conversation with Jack Warner, the latter makes the cutting observation that he is nothing more than a journeyman, it’s a remark that hits all too close to the bone.

Feud is a delicious treat, but it’s also far from subtle. With Joan Blondell and Olivia de Havilland (Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones) as the film’s chorus, we are left in no doubt how we are supposed to feel about the characters and their circumstances. For all that, though, the show continues to hold up a none-too-flattering mirror to the machinery of Hollywood, an industry that still has a lot of distance to go in terms of the way that it treats women.

TV Review: “Feud”–“Mommie Dearest” (S1, Ep. 3)

Just when I thought that Feud couldn’t get any better, it manages to continue to showcase the ability of Ryan Murphy to plumb the depths of despair and sadness in the human psyche. In particular, it shows his longstanding interest in the suffering that women endure in a patriarchal world that rarely, if ever, values them for themselves.

Overall, the episode offers a surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic portrait of the convoluted nature of motherhood in particular. As is well-known, both Bette and Joan had quite vexed relationships with their children. Overall in this episode Bette is the one who emerges as the most compassionate mother, in that she continues to try to support B.D., even though it’s obvious she’s a terrible actress. Further, she also continues working in order to pay the bills for her younger daughter’s schooling.

It is her relationship with Victor Buono, her effeminate and portly gay co-star, that really cements Bette’s inner core of maternal feeling. In Buono, she sees a companion spirit, a man who has suffered because of his sexuality (at one point he is arrested in a vice sting and she has to bail him out of jail), but in whom she sees a great deal of genuine talent. The scenes that show them together show a meeting of the minds, a young acolyte starstruck and determined to make the most out of this moment to costar with one of the greatest stars in Hollywood history (incidentally, Buono would also star with Davis in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte).

Even Crawford, whose motherly reputation has long been overshadowed by her daughter’s tell-all memoir and its filmic adaptation, appears in this episode as a woman who genuinely wants to care for the children who come under her care. The episode makes it clear that she craves the affection that she was denied in her childhood (except from her stepfather), and that it is this desire for human connection that drives so much of what she does. The brutal irony, of course, is that she cannot see the truth that is right in front of her face. It is Davis, more than any other character, who actually understands Joan and what she suffers, yet she is the one person that she cannot quite bring herself to be friends with, no matter how much it might benefit the two of them.

This episode, as with the ones preceding it, continues to show the extent to which both Joan and Bette are being manipulated by those who have a vested interest in keeping them at one another’s throats. It’s particularly frustrating that it’s Hedda Hopper who continues to pull the strings on Crawford, for as a woman one would think that she would be more sensitive to the need for women in Hollywood to band together and support one another. But, like so many others in Hollywood, all she can see is her own aggrandizement, no matter the human costs.

Yet the episode also shows that, for all of their foibles and flaws, both Crawford and Davis are consummate masters of their craft. Even Crawford, acknowledged as somewhat less than an accomplished actress by subsequent filmgoers, manages to impress even Davis by her delivery of Blanche’s final, crushing revelation. All in all, the episode manages to do justice to both of these phenomenal women of old Hollywood.

However, I do have to express a small amount of concern over the future of the show. After all, we’re only in the third episode, and now, diegetically, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane has finished filming. Where will the show go from here? Presumably, it will stretch into the drama over the Oscars, and perhaps will even show the women as they pursue their careers in the aftermath of

TV Review: “Feud”–“The Other Woman” (S1, Ep. 2)

There’s nothing quite like settling in with your Boyfriend to catch up on last week’s episode of Ryan Murphy’s FX series Feud: Bette and Joan. In the episode, titled “The Other Woman,” the tensions between the two women continue to ratchet ever-upward, exacerbated by the machinations of the men running the show (Robert Aldrich and Jack Warner) and by the malevolent Heddy Hopper and other gossip columnists who are only too eager to exploit the escalating tensions between the two women for their own financial benefit.

The strongest part of the series continues to be the performance from Lange and Sarandon. While Lange manages to convey the bruised and aching heart of Crawford–battered by decades in Hollywood at the mercy of the men in charge–she also shows the inner core of iron that allowed this working-class girl to become one of the most prominent stars of classic Hollywood. For all of her vulnerability, there is still a harshness to her, one that only bursts out of her at moments of extreme stress and anger, as when she commands her current husband to leave.

For her part, Sarandon continues to bring a similar amalgam to her characterization of Bette Davis. Her voice has the same sort of tough hoarseness that was Davis’s trademark, and she also manages to convey a similar blend of steely strength and aching vulnerability. Sarandon’s Davis is a woman caught in an impossible position; her belligerent daughter has already begun to turn against her, reminding her in a fit of the fact that she is no longer young. Yet she also is a woman single-mindedly devoted to her craft. Unlike Joan, who seems to be more committed to her star status, Davis sees herself as an actress, a distinction that has, in the historiography of both stars, become the accepted wisdom.

As with the pilot, this episode of Feud continues to highlight its awareness the hypocrisy and cynicism that seethes beneath the glossy surface of Hollywood life. Hollywood cares for nothing more than the accumulation of further financial gain, and it is willing to destroy the lives of the women who, it must be admitted, are key to its very system. Even the redoubtable Hedda Hopper, along with her truly glorious hats, can’t seem to find in herself to have any innate compassion for her fellow women. It is only when Joan promises to let her in on some juicy gossip for her noxious columns that she agrees to be her ally, and it is her machinations that lead Aldrich to betray both women in his own relentless pursuit of career advancement.

While they only appear only briefly, both Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones deliver strong, precise performances as Joan Blondell and Olivia De Havilland. Both of them act as a sort of Greek chorus, offering the audience a sense of the conflicted position women occupied (and continue to occupy) in the entertainment industry. They are the source of one another’s greatest strength and yet they are repeatedly encouraged by the industry to tear one another apart in the media and in the eyes of the public.

All in all, I found this to be an extremely compelling piece of television. Love him or hate him, but Murphy has a knack for churning out stories that help us to understand and empathize with powerful women who are punished by the societies in which they live. It remains to be seen, however, whether Feud can continue threading the precarious needle it has set itself. Is it possible to critique a system that encourages women to hate each other by providing a pleasurable drama about…women hating each other?

Only time will tell.