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.

 

TV Review: “Feud”–“You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?”

So, we come at last to it, the finale of the first season of Feud. I’m still not sure that the series needed all 8 episodes that it got in order to get to this point, but I do think that it told a good story, solidly acted, and beautifully shot. It may not go down in history as one of the greatest TV series, it is nevertheless a solid part of the Murphy oeuvre, a testament to his ability to imprint his vision on Hollywood history.

Whereas earlier episodes showed Lange’s Crawford slipping into moments of high-strung histrionics, this episode sees her bowing out with a measure of pathos-drenched grace. This is the Joan whose body has begun to fail her, first in the rash of dental problems that are the result of her having molars extracted in her youth to give her cheeks a more carved appearance, and then when the cancer that will take her life starts to take its toll. She gradually withdraws into her apartment, determined at the last to maintain a measure of dignity despite everything else (this becomes an especially acute issue after a photo that she deems unflattering sees the light of day).

The episode makes no secret that Joan’s career was definitely the one that fizzled out much more ignominiously than Davis’s. (While you wouldn’t know it from this episode, Davis would actually go on to have several more notable film appearances, even costarring with Lilian Gish in The Whales of August). One cannot but feel sorry for Joan, that one of the giants of the screen should be reduced to playing in a film such as Trog. Even there, though, the series does show that she continued to be a consummate professional, working with all of her considerable skills to bring an element of craftsmanship to this inglorious position. She faces every new humiliation with aplomb, even though she is truly working in less-than-ideal conditions.

The highlight of the episode is, of course, a fever dream in which Joan sees Hedda, Jack, and Bette gathered in her living room. There ensues a conversation  in which Bette and Joan at last say the things to each other that they never said in life. As with the rest of this episode, the moment is laden with ambiguity, a potent and pathos-laden incident in which we are treated to a world that might-have-been. It’s a moment when both Bette and Joan are restored to their former glamourous glory, and they can at last be honest with one another.

Of course, the fantasy cannot last, and the scene abruptly shifts to Joan sitting alone in her dark living room, her long hair askew. The fantasy has been punctured, and the revelation that Joan died shortly thereafter makes the scene all the more poignant. When Bette responds to the death with a cruelly offhand remark, we’re left wondering if she does it out of a residual sense of bitterness, a lack of feeling one way or another, or just because by this point it’s what she’s expected to do.

The last scene is one that is also laden with ambiguity, as we are shown a scene in which Bette and Joan, on the first day of shooting for Baby Jane, both think that is the beginning of a beautiful new friendship. But, of course, the past 8 episodes have shown us that that is a hope that remains unfulfilled, that the dark forces of male Hollywood will always come in between them. This sequence ultimately raises more questions than it answers: Is this a flashback to what actually transpired on the first set of the film, a moment of utopian longing for a friendship that could have been? Or is instead just that, a utopian figment, a figment of the imagination, a cautionary tale about the dangers of Hollywood feuding (and, by implication, our complicity in consuming this narrative?)

And of course the last shot is the most heartbreaking of all, as the two actresses, both of them larger than life, both of them outshining many of the stars who would come in their wake, go to their separate dressing rooms. It’s a moment laden with a melancholy significance, as we in the audience are left to mourn a friendship that never was, just as we were left to contemplate the tragedy of Joan’s final delusion, in which she imagines a rapprochement that never took place but which we wish might have, as it would have offered both of them an opportunity to unite against the system that worked so stridently to keep them apart.

In the final analysis, I think Feud is a thoroughly good show. Is it one of the greatest or even great on its own terms? I don’t think so. It tends to rely too much on cleverness and surface, and there are some questionable historical choices (and even more questionable accuracy). As with so many Ryan Murphy projects, it tends to be better in concept than in execution. Still, as a student and amateur historian of classic Hollywood, I’m excited that it was made, and I’m glad that it has brought such increased visibility to a period that has only recently begun to get the respect and attention that it deserves.

If I have one major complaint about the series, it’s that it tends to focus too much on Joan at the expense of Bette. This wasn’t as noticeable early in the series, but as it went on it was very clear that Murphy was more invested in her side of the narrative than Bette’s. She gets to have more of the tender moments–particularly in this last episode, where we see her visibly touched by the love of one of her daughters–whereas Bette is always seen as the tower of strength. That by itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though it does tend to skew the series in Joan’s favour.

Overall, I’m glad that Feud was made, and I am very glad that I stuck with it to the very end. While I tend to fall of the wagon with Murphy’s series, for once he made it worth sticking with him.

Long live Bette and Joan.

Dissertation Days (13): Breakthroughs

Somehow, it seems that revision and incremental writing seems to take so much more energy and time than producing new material. It’s one of the bitter ironies of writing a new chapter draft. As a result, it took me several hours to work my way through a mere few pages, but luckily I had some substantial breakthroughs.

This came about as I was finishing the section on queerness and communist subversiveness. It actually provided me with the final piece of the puzzle that I needed, so that I can finally make a compelling and (I hope) original point about the way in which Nero’s queerness in Quo Vadis works as an expression of the pleasure of terrifying history. There’s nothing like a bit of collective queer fantasy to encounter the ineffable nature of history, am I right?

Still, despite the fact that today was a bit of a slog, I made good progress today. The queer section is pretty much done in its broad contours, and the same is also true of the section on colour. A little more fine-tuning might be needed to make sure that that section is ready for submission, but overall I think it does the work that it needs to do.

Since this is a pretty large and complex chapter, I’ve found that I’ve had to use a bit more signposting than I usually do, just to make sure that the reader is able to follow my logic and understand why I’m including the evidence that I do. It does pad out the chapter, but I personally think it’s helpful to have those rhetorical bits when you’re dealing with a 40-50 page piece of academic writing.

I’m quite happy with the way that this day turned out, really. The queer section was a hot mess this morning, and now it feels like it actually works in the chapter as a whole. Not too bad, if I do say so myself. Now I don’t actually feel bad about not doing any work tomorrow.

Yes, you read that right. I am indeed taking off tomorrow. Then it’s back to work on Monday to finish up the close reading sections of both Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba. Once those two sections are done, the home stretch will finally be in sight. What a glorious feeling.

It’s going to be a great day. I can feel it.

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!

TV Review: “Feud”–“Abandoned!”

I’m running a bit late with the reviews of FX’s Feud, so in the interest of giving the finale the appreciation it deserves, I’ll have to make this one a bit abbreviated.

I thought this episode, as a whole, was a fitting lead-up to the finale, in that we see the toll that this whole set of affairs has begun to take on both women. Joan falls deeper into a form of self-pity that eventually becomes destructive, while Bette has to contend with the fact that her daughter has begun to see her as truly the worst sort of mother.

Lange is one of those truly extraordinary actresses who can combine, in one scene, a mixture of vulnerability and strength. Whether that is how the real Joan Crawford would have acted is for me somewhat beside the point. When she confronts Bette after being left behind during filming, one can sense in Lange’s performance that powerful sense that she has endured so much at the hands of a system that really couldn’t care less about her. However, her great strength is also her greatest weakness, for she is prone to seeing sinister motivations, even where none exist. And as the last scene reveals–in which Joan is left screaming in a hospital room, abandoned by both the film studio and by Mamacita–Joan winds up being the worst victim of her own machinations.

The bitter irony of the entire ugly affair, of course, is that each actress possesses the thing that the other desires most. Bette has all of the acting power, the acknowledgment from all of her peers and from the establishment that she is one of the greatest craftspeople to grace the screen. Joan, however, is already acknowledged as the more powerful star and the greater beauty. Each, in a tense exchange, recognizes a piece of herself in the other, and they also acknowledge, in their gestures and their performance, the enormous weight of Hollywood history that weighs on them and on their present relationship. They are both victims of the system, and the real tragedy is that they don’t really have a meaningful way of communicating that to one another.

On a bit of a random note, I’m still not quite sure what to make of B.D. I can’t tell if I’m annoyed by her because the actress is terrible (which I think might be true), or is it a reflection of the fact that the real B.D. was also pretty awful? Maybe, on reflection, it’s a bit of Column A and a bit of Column B. It might even be the unique combination of the two that makes her such an utterly unappealing and insufferable character. However, it’s also worth pointing out that she has a lot to complain about. True, we’re meant to identify with and align ourselves with Bette, but that doesn’t mitigate the fact that she really is something of a tyrant–even if she is a benevolent one–to her daughter.

I want to close out with a brief discussion of the best line of the episode (and possibly the series): When Olivia is asked by the interviewer whether she felt that she had ended Joan’s career by taking her place on Charlotte, she responds that no, “Time did that. All on its own.” Wow. If ever a line will go down in the annals of bitchy invective infamy, it will be this one. It comes out of the mouth of Olivia, of course, who has her own subtextual feud with her sister Joan Fontaine. Despite its venom, there is a note of truth to it, one that Olivia was also in a position to recognize in the 1970s.

For all of its flaws, Feud does make clear that time, inexorable, destructive, crushing, is truly the enemy of us all.

Dissertation Days (6): The Lies We Tell Ourselves

So, I have to fess up to something. I didn’t, in fact, end up writing anything at all of Chapter 4 last night, and I don’t think I will today either. I was being a little overly optimistic in my estimation of how much I would end up getting done.

However, I did make some solid progress on Chapter 3. Met the word count for today, and I’m pretty happy with the way that the writing turned out. I made some important points about understanding Delilah as an inheritor of the tradition of the vamp, thus working around the critical impasse that sees her as little more than a femme fatale, a projection of male desires and fantasies. I tend to see as more of a vamp, a potential site of resistance to heteronormative closure, the color schemes associated with her registering an embrace of the emotions, the self, and desire rather than the burdens of history. If you’ve seen the almost lurid Technicolor design of the film, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

I have noticed a pesky habit, though. Since I’m so scattered in my composition process, often bouncing from one paragraph to another without finishing a full thought sometimes, I end up repeating something that I forgot that I already wrote. This can be quite the pain in the ass, particularly since it’s very wrenching to delete words of any sort.

Still,, sometimes you just have to accept your writing process, even if it isn’t always the most productive way of getting things done.

Well, tomorrow I’m going to aim for another 1,000. I think I can do this, and I also want to begin sculpting the raw material that I have into what will be the final form. Some of the paragraphs are mostly done, but there are also several that need some finessing in order to reach their final form. Getting those tidied up will definitely be the major writing agenda item from here on in. Going to scale back on new material and focus on strong and focused revision.

I really want to get this submitted by the middle of May (end of May at the latest). I just…need to get this version approved as soon as possible so I can resume my intensive work on Chapter 4.

Speaking of. I am definitely going to work on Chapter 4. Need to keep actual forward momentum going.

Let’s go!

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.

Dissertation Days (3): Genuine Progress

Today I set out to write some more of the contextual sections of the third chapter, but unfortunately I ended up writing the sections that deal with the readings of the individual films.

Fortunately, however, it turns out that both of those close readings are coming together much more coherently than they have until now.  I’ve taken my adviser’s advice to excise most of the references to “spectator,” as that ends up being very limiting. And you know what? That actually helped to clarify some of what I want to say. It turns out you can still talk about the haptic allure of the epic film without foregrounding the spectator’s experience with the cinematic image.

As it stands now, I’ve managed to write two fairly coherent close readings, one of the disruptive desire, chromatic eros, and the loss of historical subjectivity in Samson and Delilah (sexy stuff, huh?) and one on the registering of dangerous desire in David and Bathsheba. Much as this project frustrates me sometimes, it’s also really exciting to engage with the epic film and to really try to understand how it attempts to convey an experience of the dark, ineffable, terrifying nature of modern history.

Today was one of those really good writing days, when you seem to finally hit that sweet spot of caffeination and inspiration, where the clarity of the ideas in your head finally makes its way onto the page. It’s really hard–impossible, really–to predict when those moments are going to arrive or what is going to precipitate them, but when they come…wow. You really do feel like you’ve accomplished something when the day’s writing is done.

At some point, of course, I’ll have to return to Chapter 4, but time enough to think of that when Chapter 3 is sent in (and hopefully, in short order, approved).

Now, I would like to go on record as saying that I fully intend to write 1,000 words tomorrow, only in the contextual or theoretical sections. Those are always the hardest parts to write, as you have to somehow straddle the line of conveying actual historical/theoretical information while also showing how they connect to your argument without, of course, becoming too repetitive.

Word total is now standing at 11,000, so we have about 7/8,000 more to go. Tomorrow is going to be a good writing day. I can feel it.

Onward and upward, friends. Onward and upward.