Dissertation Days (40): This is Progress, Right?

Despite the title, today was actually a good day, in terms of progress. As I said I would do yesterday, I switched to a bit of the close readings, focusing today on Cleopatra. I think the bare bones of how that section is going to look are almost there, but it will take another few days of composing to make sure that my close reading is both internally consistent and flows naturally from the contexts.

Speaking of which. I actually wrote at least half of today’s word count (a bit over 1,000, thank you very much), specifically in the theoretical context. To be quite honest, I don’t think this section is as theoretically rich as the earlier ones, but I do think that the sources I’m drawing on–particularly David Quint and his theory of epic narrative and Tom Brown and his theory of the “historical gaze”–are useful for thinking through the tension between spectacle and narrative that exists at the heart of the genre of the historico-biblical epic. Well, perhaps tension isn’t the right word. Perhaps I should say that it helps us to think of the relationship between those two seemingly opposing cinematic principles.

Overall, I’m happy with the progress I’ve made so far on this chapter. I also can’t believe that I’ve already written 40 of these entries! However, I do believe that they have really made this whole progress infinitely less lonely. Just knowing  that there are others out there reading these (or even just skimming them), makes me feel that there just may be an audience for the type of work that we do in academia. As a writer, it’s easy to lose track of that, particularly with everything else going on in the world.

I will, as always, be taking a bit of a break this weekend. I want to focus a bit on the novel, and on cleaning my house. Both of those things take a bit of a backseat when you’re really buried under the chapter that seems to press in on your every waking thoughts. I’ve also got a conference paper set to be delivered in a little under two weeks, so I have to make sure that that is in presentable condition.

Rest assured, though. On Monday I’ll be right back at it, and this time I fully plan on getting back into Chapters 1 and 2.

Don’t quote me on that, though. 😉

Dissertation Days (37): Back to Work

After a very rough weekend, I got back into the swing of things today with some decent work on Chapter 4. I only wrote 500 words, but I do see the entire chapter starting to cohere in a way that it didn’t before. I’m still not entirely certain that the pieces are all knitted together as tightly yet as I would like, but that should arrive soon.

Nowadays, I’m not so sure that the version I’ve been writing will be the absolute final version. I think it may take one more to make sure that everything appears as I want it to, and a great deal of how I proceed will stem from how much my adviser likes (or does not like) Chapter 3. Still, I am confident that I can have a draft of this chapter fairly ready for submission by the end of August, though I can also push it off to the end of September if need be.

Overall, the chapter is standing at about 9,500 words, so I would say that it’s about 3/5 done (I’m aiming for a 15,000 word limit). This will be one of my shorter chapters, but I’m happy with that. Sometimes, it really is better to focus on writing concisely rather than expansively.

In terms of what I produced today…well, I sketched in a few blank spaces in the historical context section. It wasn’t anything terribly complicated, to be perfectly honest, but hopefully those sentences will be the seeds for future development. More promising was the material I produced about Cleopatra. The more I reflect on this film–its industrial context, the plot, the formal elements that it mobilizes–the more fascinating it becomes. As I’ve said many times before, it seems to me that this film is critically undervalued, and I hope that my analysis of it helps others to see that, despite its weaknesses, it really tries to engage with the historical questions and pressures of the time.

At some point in the near future, possibly as later this week, I am going to go back and start revisiting my earlier chapters. I honestly haven’t looked at them that much since they were approved, and I want to start the revision process on them before it gets too late.

Given that tomorrow is a holiday, I might take a little time off to clean and work on the Novel. Then on Wednesday it’s back to work.

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 (25): A New Day, A New Chapter 4

In between the chaos of moving and travel (I’m about ready to set off for another round tomorrow), I managed to squeeze in a little work time today. Since I’d rather hit a wall with Chapter 4 as it was, I started a new version, one which really, consciously sets out to be the version I want to submit at the end of July.

To that end, I only managed to write 500 words today, but I’m pretty happy with them. I managed to bring together everything I wanted to argue in this chapter, in a way that’s more coherent than I’ve managed to attain so far. As I’ve said before, I want to focus on what I’m calling “imperial melancholia,” a yearning for a form of political stability that seems to always exist frustratingly out of reach, perpetually tantalizing with the possibility that it might be brought into fruition.

A lot of my thinking on this has been shaped by recent reading I’ve been doing on the role of spectacle in the way that film works, as well as my most recent reading research, a history of the Cleopatra icon by the British author Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Spectacle, to me, has always been frustratingly vaguely defined, and one of the things I hope to do in this chapter is to tease out the sort of meanings inherent in this oft-used cinematic expression. It is all part of my redemptive critique of the epic, my attempt to take it seriously as a means of engaging with the larger questions posed by modern (and ancient) history.

Once I return to my normal work schedule, I’m really hoping to get back into my old habit of writing 1,000 words a day, especially since I want to have a really strong draft of this ready for submission to the adviser by the end of July. If I can do that, and if I can get Chapter 3 and 4 approved by the very early Fall by pretty much everyone, I’ll feel like a great deal of pressure has been lifted off me. It’s a tall order, but I think I can do it.

I’ll be hitting the road for yet more traveling tomorrow and throughout the weekend into the early part of next week, so don’t expect any updates from me until then. After that, though, I should be able to get back into the swing of things.


Dissertation Days (23): Is this the End?

At the end of Quo Vadis, the delightfully queer Nero (played by Peter Ustinov) declaims: “Is this the end of Nero?”

I’ve now been led to ask: “Is this the end of Chapter 3?” Fortunately, I think that it just might be, or at the very least that I’m closer than I have been for a long time. I’ve pretty much finished with the third section (the one that discusses Quo Vadis), and now that leaves only the conclusion to really flesh out. Fortunately, I wrote the majority of that some time ago, so that shouldn’t take too long to finish.

Needless to say, I feel really good.

While there is some material that I want to reflect on more–there’s still a little bit of something that continues to elude my attempts to capture and put it on paper–I have come to accept that this isn’t the last version of this chapter that I will ever write. Indeed, it will probably go through several further iterations before that wonderful day when it finally sees the light of day as part of a book.

In Chapter 4 news, I think I have finally found the missing theoretical piece that has so far been eluding me. I’ve been reading an excellent book about spectacle in classic Hollywood (by Tom Brown), and his articulation of the vertical axis of spectacle vs. the horizontal one of narrative that I find really helpful.

It is in his essay on Gone with the Wind for the British film journal Screen, though, that I find to be especially useful, as he shows how the “historical gaze” mobilized by Scarlett enables her command a measure of agency denied many of the other characters.

As I work through Chapter 4, I think I am going to make the argument that the later epics of the midcentury cycle allow some characters a measure of Brown’s historical gaze, even as it denies it to others. It is the power of the spectacle that allows these characters to forge their own political destinies, to allow the film to remain suspended in a moment of profound, utopian potential, even as the inexorability of narrative ultimately brings ruin to these grandiose ambitions.

That’s what I’m thinking for the chapter now, though I hope to continue nuancing it based on historical context.

Time is ticking, and I have to tick with it.

(I don’t know what that means).

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.

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.


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.