Dissertation Days (18): Increments

Well, I finally returned to the semi-normal writing schedule. Today, I mostly worked on a read-through of Chapter 3, finessing some of the prose that has been rather clunky. Of course, I made sure to clip out a few of those pesky couplets that are such a troubling part of my prose (gods I hate those fucking couplets). There are still a couple that have resisted all efforts to get rid of them, but I’ve been successful for the most part.

I managed to make it to page 20 of the draft, and I’m pretty happy with the way that this first section looks. I’ve had to really hard to make sure that the section has allusions to what happens later, so that it’s clear from the beginning how the context that I’m laying out relates to the parts that come later. I think, at least in a dissertation chapter, that you want to have a number of signposts so that your reader can keep the bigger picture in mind.

Tomorrow, I hope to get through another 20 pages, and then I should just about be ready to get back into that section on Nero’s queerness. I am really struggling to get that section to fit into what I’ve written before, but I’m confident that I can at last corral everything into a coherent whole.

I also managed to write 500 words of Chapter 4, almost entirely in the historical context section. Gradually filling that out allows me to clarify what it is that I’m trying to accomplish with the chapter as a whole. The conceptual framework is still a little hazy, but I’m inching closer to a coherent argument. If I can manage to eke out a draft, no matter how rudimentary, by the end of July I will be happy.

Tomorrow is definitely going to be a busy day. I’m going to try to keep up the momentum with Chapter 4, as I don’t want to lose sight of that. It’s very easy to let my wheels start spinning in the midst of the revisions on Chapter 3, with the result that I can’t really accomplish anything else. Now that the end of Chapter 3 is (I think) at last in sight, I should be able to resume concerted work on the final chapter. (Can I just say how glorious it is to write that final sentence).

Tomorrow is going to be a glorious day.

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 (15): Three Outta Five Ain’t Bad!

I know it’s been a while since I posted a dissertation update. My Parents and I lost a furry member of our family, so we’ve been grieving. Today, though, I knew I had to get back in the swing of things. And here we are.

So, this chapter of my dissertation has basically five complete sections: context (historical); context (theoretical); close reading of Samson and Delilah; close reading of David and Bathsheba; and close reading of Quo Vadis. There is also, of course, a very brief conclusion.

So far, I’ve managed to finish three out of those five, especially since I managed to finish up my close reading of David and Bathsheba. It’s a little briefer than the one about Samson and Delilah, but that’s okay. It’s basically meant to be a complement to that earlier reading, an elaboration of the many ways in which the historico-biblical epic engages with the question of desire and history.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the way that this section turned out, and I think I’ve added some nuance to the ways in which scholars have already talked about the film. I really think that thinking about colour adds a new layer of understanding to the way in which the film engages with the question of history and desire. David and Bathsheba may not have attained quite the canonical status of some other epics of the midcentury period, it does, I think, deserve more critical consideration than it typically receives.

Tomorrow, I’ve got to get deep into the weeds on the section of Quo Vadis. I’ve thought about excising it from the chapter, but have opted not to. I do think there is a strong case to be made for the way in which queer desire in the film operates at the level of form, and it makes a compelling counterpoint to the question of female desire raised by the other films discussed. So, it stays in for right now.

I was planning on submitting this chapter later this month, but since I’ll be traveling for quite a while, I’m going to submit it around the middle of June. However,  I going to continue working on Chapter 4 (which I fully intend to do tomorrow, in addition to my other work).

There is still a lot of work, but I think most of it will be done this week.

It can be done.

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 (12): No Rest for the Weary

Well, I have to break my habit of taking weekends to do creative writing (so no Novel Weekends this weekend, alas), in order to make sure that I continue the momentum with this chapter. I can still see the finish line in the distance, but if I don’t want to lose sight of it I have to keep moving.

I’ll be honest, though; it feels like this revision is eating up my entire life. Ugh. This is what happens when your first draft is a bit of a hot mess (even though it took like 8 months to write). Still, I just have to remember to be patient with myself. Sometimes, the more complex an idea is, the longer it takes to eloquently and coherently articulate it.

Today was a bit of a mixed bag. While I finished up a few sections, there are still that are a bit glaring in terms of their inconsistency. However, the section on female sexuality is almost complete (should be able to definitively finish it tomorrow), and I aim to also finish the section on sexuality and queerness as well. I might even (if I’m extraordinarily lucky and determined) make it most of the way through colour. I was particularly happy with the way that my discussion of fashion turned out today; hoping for more of that sort of breakthrough tomorrow.

Once again, I managed to trim out a few pieces of superfluous material, which I did through a combination of deletion and relegating things to footnotes. I’m well aware that most people don’t even read the damn things, but there are, I think, little tidbits and supplementary information that can’t necessarily be included in the main body of the text but that you want to see the light of day.

So, tomorrow is going to be a busy day. Sunday, alas, is a bit out of the running for work of any kind, though I might be able to squeeze a few pages of the close reading of Samson and Delilah. If not, I am definitely going to try to get both that section and the one on David and Bathsheba done on Monday.

The chapter is sitting at around 18k words, which is pretty long, but I am determined to keep this under 20k. Anything longer than that, and I fear that it is going to lose focus altogether.

But, onward.

And.

Onward.

Dissertation Days (10): Bits and Pieces

Well, friends, I wasn’t quite as productive as I should have been. It was a busy day of meetings and such, and that prevented me from working on what I had intended to. I just need to remind myself that it’s okay if I don’t meet my goal every single day. Sometimes, it’s not going to be possible for one reason or another, what with grading, editorial stuff, and just general life.

However, I did manage to chip away at a few paragraphs that were giving me a particularly large amount of trouble. I even managed to craft this sentence about the visual contrast between the Philistines and the Danites: “The color scheme, bifurcated as it is along lines of power and prostration, registers the essential brutality of history.” This, in fact, helped me to clarify some of the issues that I’ve been struggling with, and I think it actually may end up being the linchpin for the whole chapter. As I go on to discuss in the rest of the chapter, the spectacle of color provides an immediate experience of the violence of erotic history.

Also, while I’m thinking of it, I also managed to weed out several of my “couplets.” I have this nasty habit of pairing up two nouns (or two adjectives) to round out a sentence. For example, I almost wrote “the violence of the erotic and of history” above but changed it. I don’t know whyI have this habit, but I’m working on breaking it.

I also managed to revise several of the paragraphs associated with my close reading of Samson and Delilah, so that actually felt good. That particular reading is beginning to cohere nicely, and I hope to have it done by early next week (though that means I might have to work during part of the weekend).

There might be a little bit of productivity left in me tonight, but I honestly rather doubt it. However, I do feel like I can get at least 10 pages revised tomorrow, as well as my customary 500 words of Chapter 4. If I’m really lucky, I might even make it entirely through my historical context section. Wouldn’t that be something?

I have to get a lot done in the next couple of days, before the travel-heavy May and June begin.

Sigh. There is, as they say, no rest for the weary.

So, on to another day.

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.

Film Review: Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) is a Charmingly Sweet Confection

If I had to use one word to describe Disney’s recent remake of one of its classic entries from the Disney Renaissance, it would be: charming. Not substantive, not really moving in the way that the 1992 version was, yet enjoyable all the same. If that sounds like damning praise, it isn’t. The film doesn’t really set out to do anything grand or earth-shattering and, to me, that’s perfectly okay.

It basically follows the same plot as its predecessor, though it does fill in a few narrative gaps. We learn, for example, that Belle’s mother died of the plague, and that the reason that the people in the village forgot about the prince and his servants is because the enchantress made that part of the curse. I don’t know about anyone else, but the smoothing out of these inconsistencies was rather nice, even if it did evacuate a bit of the mystery and glamour that always surrounds fairy tales.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the objects in the castle threaten to steal the show from the human leads. Ewan McGregor steals almost every scene that he’s in, and he is a surprisingly fitting heir to the late Jerry Orbach (who played the witty and debonair candelabra in the 1992 film), while Ian McKellen is delightfully stodgy as Cogsworth (not quite as exuberantly uptight as David Ogden Stiers). Emma Thompson has a lighter touch for Mrs. Potts than her predecessor Angela Lansbury, though her rendition of the titular song is as charming and appealing as the rest of the film.

Yet Dan Stevens and Emma Watson more than hold their own, he as the rather gothic hero and she as the independent woman determined to make her own way in the world. The film is a little more explicit in its treatment of why the Beast turned into such a brat, suggesting that it was the indifferent cruelty of his father that led him astray. For her part, Emma Watson brings her signature brand of feisty feminist heroism to the role, so that she actively attempts to change the restrictive atmosphere of the town by teaching a young woman to read (which we learn is firmly against the law).

That being said, even the cast of Emma Watson can’t quite undermine the fundamentally conservative vision of this film. After all, this is still the story of an independent young woman who ultimately falls in love with a man who has attempted to rob her of her agency. No matter how much the film attempts to cover over that fact, it still leaves something of a bad taste in one’s mouth, especially given the fact that Donald Trump is president. Being a man who imprisons women is never a good look, even for Dan Stevens.

This sense of charm (rather than substance) is as relevant to the maelstrom swirling around LeFou’s sexuality as it is to the rest of the film. When it was revealed that Josh Gad’s delightful character would be “openly” queer, the announcement was met with a strange mix of hysteria (from the Right) and dismay (from the queer left, who were upset at the fact that he would continue to fit into the stereotype of the sissy). Gad brings his own unique brand of buffoonish charm to this otherwise infuriating character–one of the worst in the original film–and that in itself helps to make him a more sympathetic character. The film itself gives almost zero attention to his actual romance, though, so it appears we will have to wait a bit longer for an actual, fully-fledged queer character to appear in a Disney film.

There were a few sour spots. I like Luke Evans well enough as an actor, but to my mind he just doesn’t have the gravitas (or the singing ability) to play the role of Gaston. The original character was truly a paragon of toxic masculinity, but it was precisely the hyperbolic nature of it that threatened to deconstruct the very idea of gender altogether. Evans…just doesn’t have that much personality, if I’ve being perfectly honest. He’s more suited for brooding and sulky characters (such as Bard from The Hobbit) than he is as a blustering huntsman obsessed with his own beauty. It just feels like a role that Evans forced himself to take on, and it just doesn’t quite gel for me. It leaves me wondering if he might have done better cast as the Beast, but I suppose that will have to remain one of those what-might-have-beens.

All in all, Beauty and the Beast is a fitting tribute to the original though I, like many critics, still wonder why exactly it exists. If rumours are true, there are some indications there might be a sequel, but let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

Even charm can only go so far.