Friday, 18 December 2009

Ulysses and the Mod Fenian

A few weeks ago I finished what is arguably one of the most difficult feats of literature. With no respite I devoted every available moment outside of work to devour James Joyce's Ulysses in just seven days. The experience was viscerally unsettling as I witnessed the English language swallowing its own tail off every line, letter, word and page - only to be vomited back up and reconstituted in a wholly new form.

The biggest problem, however, with a text that is so uninviting and complicit in its own ostricisation from conventionality, is it leaves only academics - and the most intrepid - who dare to peel away it's mystery and accept the work for what it really is -- one of the greatest novels of all time.

On finishing the work, these are the words that best capture my reading of Ulysses:

And done the dragon he did slain.
Battled and bested in a seven day.
The Best of Erin, gutted not by steel, nor by flint.
Felled was he by the Eater of Words.
Devourer of Lines.
Slurper of Syntax.
By champion Lexis Mechanica extraordinaire.
Break, bend, barricade, bump, best and burn the Word.
Ye English is dead.
Long live the Mod Fenian and his tricks!

- lexis mechanica

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Sex Slaves: Literacy in a Bleak Place (BWF Day 2)

James A. Levine was struck by the discovery of literacy in a seemingly hopeless place: Mumbai's street of cages.
(Chair: Marie-Louise Thiele)

Dr James Levine is a scientist turned writer. He told the story of how he was kidnapped by ‘kids’ at Delhi airport and held captive for three days. Thankfully, he was rescued by the police and made it to Mumbai, where he was meeting the rest of his team. Dr Levine mentioned that the streets in Mumbai are set up around a single commercial focus. For example, there is an entire street dedicated to rows upon rows of wedding invitation sellers.

He tells of how he was walking down the infamous street of cages, which is the ‘red light’ district, but far more sinister than the shop fronts in Amsterdam. Standing outside of the cages are young girl prostitutes on display to prospective buyers. Passing a cage he saw a girl who was writing in a blue notebook. He stopped and asked his escort to ask the girl if he could ‘please’ look at her book.

The escort barked a command and basically demanded she hand over her book. To understand the significance of this, you need to picture yourself in the shoe’s of the young girl. You have no family, no future, and you live from one moment to the next, with no hope for a better life. The book then symbolises everything you have in the world; it’s basically your soul.

The girl ‘dutifully’ handed the book over and Dr Levine, whilst he couldn’t read the script, said that it was 2-3 word sentences, written in tiny handwriting – no doubt to conserve space in her precious notebook. He returns the book and thanks the girl, whose name is Batuk.
Sometime after this experience he became constantly haunted by her beautiful brown eyes, and was compelled to write his book The Blue Book.

It’s hard for these simple words to represent the incredible passion and feeling with which Dr Levine tells his story and truth be told I get upset writing this; it was a deeply affective talk. I’ll leave it to Dr Levine and the article he wrote for The Times to finish his story. And yes, there is a happy ending of sorts. Click on the link to read the article, "The Street of Cages".

View from the Middle East (BWF Day 2)

Sydney-born Irfan Yusuf decided he should die for a Muslim cause. Joris Luyendijk spent five years as the youngest ever Middle East correspondent. Abbas El-Zein grew up in war-torn Lebanon. Lana Slezic has published Forsaken, a photographic essay of her two year assignment in Afghanistan.
(Chair: Matt Peacock)

I arrived a fraction late so had to sit all the way down the back, and I’d also missed the introductions. As I was finding my chair the panel started off discussing how there are so many different ideas of the Middle East, and through the media it is simply reduced for Western consumption to the issues of security.

The panel agreed that the Middle East has a history but this is often overlooked in the pursuit of sensationalist reporting. Each of the writers has in some way attempted, either intentionally, or not, to reclaim the Middle East

It was suggested to the audience that Joris’s latest book – Fit to Print: Misrepresenting the Middle East is about what journalists will never tell you themselves. Joris told the audience that his idea of The Middle East was skewed until he got there himself. On leaving for his first trip for Ramallah at the time of the Intifada in 80s, he thought he was writing his farewell. On arriving in Palestine he was amazed to realise it was just like Brisbane in many ways.

Having seen the images on the TV of stone throwing Palestinians, burnt out cars, Ambulances taking away injured protestors on stretchers, and the Israeli Army aligned against the unrestful masses on their side of the border, this is the scene he was expecting.

In a humorous anecdote he told of how he started asking the locals “where are the stone throwers?” To which he was told, to go down the street, take a right, then next left and at 2pm, they’ll start. Joris followed their directions and at the allotted time, students who had finished school for the day started to arrive, then the Israelis appeared on their side of the border.

Sure enough, just as clockwork, the students threw their stones, the Israeli soldiers fired their rifles in the air, then one of them shot a student in the leg, the ambulances arrived, a car was burnt out, and there you have the images that have been replayed over and over, with a white journalist on camera “reporting live from the battle zone in Ramallah” and saying “the chances for peace in the Middle East are slimmer than ever”.

What is remarkable about Joris’s experience of the stone throwers is that it was a public event, the locals came to watch the spectacle, and just as there would be pie sellers at a football game, there were falafel sellers at the “stone throwers”.

Conversation then switched to a more serious tone on the use of words used to describe the Palestinian situation in the media and their inherent difficulty. In calling it an occupied territory infers that it will be returned; calling it disputed suggests that the situation can be negotiated. It was also noted the Palestinian situation is not easily representable visually.

For example, if Israel wants to demonstrate its plight to the world, it simply shows the aftermath of ‘terror’ attacks by Palestinians. However, for the Palestinians to demonstrate the hunger, loss of land, social effects of sanction, etc, the visual images it can deploy are not as affective on the unsympathetic west.

Having spent two years in Afghanistan, Lana was able to give a view of the country that is not normally available to journalists. She noted that at the time of the recent war in Afghanistan, the western media were hailing the saviour of the Muslim woman – the burkha was gone. Women were liberated from oppression and young girls were back at school. However, the real situation on the ground was quite different. These were deliberate images of Afghanistan the west wanted the rest of the world to see.

When she first arrived she spent the first few months being indoctrinated by the military, and was only shown what the military wanted to show her. All journalists that arrive to report on Afghanistan go through this process, and she believes that this is why the stories coming out are all the same repetitive reporting with very few touching the deeper issues. She realised that to get to the heart of the country, she would have to stay on, and so she did, and her photographic essay The Forsaken, is a result of her time there.

Irfan told his story of how when he had finished school in the 80s, he wanted to go off and fight jihad in Afghanistan. He remarked at how if he was to say such a thing in today’s climate of ‘terror’, he’d be locked up. In the 80s, it was the US fighting a proxy war against the Soviets with the help of the Mujahideen. So, when you’re fighting Communists, jihad and terrorism are permissible acts of war, it would seem.

Questions were then invited from the panel to each other and Abbas asked a very interesting question: “Is the Middle East unknowable?” Lana mentioned that because little is really known by the west, what is unknown causes fear, and it is fear which creates a natural barrier to knowing. Joris ventured an ‘Orientalist’ view and suggested that keeping the region unknowable, plays into the hands of those who wish to dominate the region.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

The Brisbane Writer's Festival - 2009 (Day 1)

The following sets out summaries of sessions from my first ever writer’s festival. Aside from the little I could glean from the program guide I had no idea what to expect. I’d pre-purchased my tickets for the ticketed events, and I’d also figured out which of the free events I was interested in. I hadn’t really planned on setting up my event preferences in terms of theme, and certainly didn’t restrict myself to simply fiction or non-fiction authors.

As you will see I managed to cover a wide variety and have no regrets of missed opportunities, and certainly don’t feel I made any poor choices in my selection. It was a truly inspiring experience, and who knows, one day it could very well be me on the stage talking about my book.

This is interesting as I think the festival helped to reawaken something in me that has been dormant since my childhood. I recall loving to write stories, I even wrote a script for a play, but somehow along the way things happen, paths change, and destiny’s callused hand pushes and pulls you this way and that. Drifting and quite often disconnecting.
But that’s youth I guess, and with time’s winged chariot snapping at my heels, it’s time to get serious.

Day 3 (or my Day 1)
Sexing Up Historical Fiction
Linda Jaivin and Tobsha Learner discuss the possibilities.
(Chair: Glen Thomas)

I was looking forward to getting to my first session of the festival so I made an early escape from the office on Friday afternoon. In typical fashion I was early, so I grabbed a seat in the shade and waited to be marshaled into the Studio. Both authors did some readings from their latest books. Given that the session was on ‘sexing up’ historical fiction, it was no surprise that the chosen passages were steamed up with erotic imagery.

Linda read first from A Most Immoral Woman, which is set in China in 1904 against the backdrop of imperialism and the Russo-Japanese War. The story is inspired by the real life journal of Australian George Morrison, a Peking correspondent working for the Times of London. The other main character is Mae Perkins (the most immoral woman), and another real life character. Mae was none too shy in her sexual exploits and freely told her many lovers of her past episodes, the stories of which she used to titillate Morrison.

Tobsha read from The Sphinx, which is set in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1977. The timing was inspired by Tobsha’s interest in the postcolonial situation following Nasser’s socialist revolution, and takes place at the time that President Sadat visited Israel to make peace between the two powers. The result of which saw Egypt thrown out of the Arab League.

The story is told in first person through the eyes of Oliver, an English geophysicist. His wife, Isabella, is a marine archaeologist who dies having discovered an ancient artefact – an astrolabe - she’d been searching for all her life. Oliver is swept up in the intrigue and ensuing sabotage, and seeks to understand its mystery, which takes him to the past of Isabella’s once wealthy Italian-Alexandrian family.

Both authors were asked by Glen to talk about why they chose their respective settings, and to also talk about the sort of research that was required. As an expert on China, the setting came naturally for Linda, but the catalyst was her reading of Morrison’s journal, which is available in the State Library of New South Wales. Morrison, like Mae, was not shy in sharing his sexual exploits and it was here that Linda came across Mae. Given the social mores and morality of the time, Linda was fascinated in the context in which these sordid stories were told by Mae. Linda says her behaviour was so transgressive for the times, so given her personal interest in sexuality, Mae was ready made This then became the idea for her book.

Tobsha points out that there have been a lot of stories written in Alexandria, but none to her knowledge are set in 1977. Her story also goes back to London in the punk 70s, a time she experienced herself, so she was able to revisit those heady days of sex, drugs, and punk music. The astrolabe is also a real artefact, so with considerable research she was able to explore it’s mystery and use it in her story. With Isabelle’s family heritage, she could examine the postcolonial situation and the Italian diaspora. Tobsha discussed the Italian colonial history of Mussolini, and then Nasser’s Egyptian Revolution of 1952, in which the colonials were stripped of land and prestige.

A lot of the discussion revolved around research techniques and a question was asked by someone in the audience wanting to know how the authors got the nuances of dialogue and speech accurate. As with all the research, Linda and Tobsha both talked about reading the literature of the times, and Linda mentioned how in his journal Morrison wrote about his favourite author Kipling, so to better understand Morrison’s psychology, in reading what he read, she was able to construct his character.

Tobsha also talked about visiting the setting and in the case of The Sphinx, she spent a few months in Alexandria breathing in the location. She also mentioned the importance of, where possible, seeking out visual and auditory clues – anything relevant from the time to bring the landscape of the story to life.

Given my personal interest in postcolonialism it was amazing to hear both authors speak.

Science is Stranger than Fiction

Marianne de Pierre and Peter McAllister join physicist Paul Meredith to explore the boundaries between science fiction and science fact and the endless possibilities in between.
(Chair: Jack Heath)

As an icebreaker and to get conversation flowing, Jack asked the panel to talk about what started them writing. Looking at my notes it looks as though I only scribbled down Marianne’s response, which in some ways is similar to my own. When she was eight she wrote an unashamed rip-off of Enid Blyton – “The Splendid Six”. I’d have to check what age I was, but I wrote a Wells rip-off, but mine was a little more obvious – “The Time Machine”.

The next question asked was ‘do SF writers set out to write an account of what the future will be?’ Marianne said that she wasn’t bound with an intent to predict the future, she simply lets her imagination go.

Jack then started to query the panel on the importance of plausibility in their constructed worlds. Paul suggested that it is essential as without plausibility the picture you are building for the reader is destroyed. Furthermore it was agreed amongst them that the logic must be rigorous, even in cases where technologies are invented by the author, the logic must remain constant throughout the story universe. The needs of drama also need to be considered as well.

Paul interesting also noted that scientists go through similar thought processes to creative writers, and that science itself, is a creative process. Looking into the future, is similar to writing fictional stories of possible futures. Peter and Marianne also discussed the balance between story and explanation, and said that it can be difficult to know how much information to give the reader. They also said that sometime you will have pages and pages of research notes, which at the end of the day, in the writing process only make it into a single sentence.

Towards the end of discussion the plausibility of posthumanism was discussed with Marianne a firm believer that sometime in the future we’ll have overcome the limits of flesh, and be able to transport, or imprint our consciousness into virtual, mechanical, or some other hosts. Paul was sceptical and disagreed.

Finally, during question time an audience member asked if they knew of the best way to contact extra-terrestrial life forms. Paul pointed out that if there is alien life out there, regardless of whether they look like us, they will be subject to the same universal laws of the universe, for example, physics, geometry, etc.

The only criticism with the session is that Jack, due I suppose to his young age (23), would interject the discussion, or introduce his question with a Gen Y (dare I say it) attitude. It was juvenile at times is what I'm trying to say.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Screen Theories Essay - An Analysis of the Representation of Family in Three Films: American Beauty, Blue Velvet and Mildred Pierce

Here's another essay I'd like to share with you. It was a colossal effort and there were moments when the task seemed too much for me. I could have taken a very easy approach to the question, but in typical style I decided to challenge myself, and challenge myself I did. The writing didn't come as easy as some other papers, but after plenty of tinkering, I'm more than happy with the final result. Comments welcome.
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Once known as the ‘dream factory’, Hollywood and the institution of film in general is one of the most pervasive cultural mediums for the dissemination of meaning throughout society. This essay will discuss the statement that meaning in any film is produced as a result of combining the formal elements of cinema (the use of camera, lighting, mise-en-scène, use of narrative technique, etc). However, this meaning is also shaped through normative assumptions about gender, race, class, work, the family, and so on, which exist in our culture. Films merely reaffirm these assumptions rather than contest them.
The aim of this paper will be to demonstrate that due to the very nature of Hollywood cinema, dominant ideologies are necessarily entrenched by producers, which work to uphold and perpetuate the hegemony of patriarchal capitalist society. In particular, the representation of family and its attendant ideological assumptions will be analysed with examples provided from two films: Mildred Pierce (Curtiz, 1945) and American Beauty (Mendes, 1999); a third film, Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986), will be deployed as a counterbalance and will demonstrate how a work produced outside of Hollywood can work to disrupt such normative assumptions.
Classic Hollywood cinema is a tradition of filmmaking that dominated Hollywood production from 1917 through to around 1960, and remains a pervasive style in western mainstream cinema to the present day (Bordwell et al 1985:9; Hayward 2000:64). In The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960, David Bordwell titles the opening chapter ‘an excessively obvious cinema’. At first glance this statement would seem to support the claim that Hollywood is a classic narrative cinema with an identifiable body of work, which conforms to a group style, immediately recognisable due to its adherence to certain formal and stylistic criteria (Bordwell et al 1985:5, 12). More importantly, however, he is referring to Hollywood as a set of practices that work together to create a distinct film style, which escapes observation by its very excessiveness (Bordwell et al 1985:11; my emphasis).
The most important criterion in the classical system is narrative causality, which works within subordinate systems of time and space (Bordwell et al 1985:12). The narrative is dependent on a pattern of order/disorder/order-restored, and invariably the agents of causality are individual characters, which are imbued with traits. These include attitudes, skills, habits, tastes, psychological drives, and any other qualities that distinguish the character (Hayward 2000:64; Bordwell and Thompson 2008:94). Traits also perform a casual function, in that the trait of desire, for example, can work to propel the narrative by setting up a goal, and will seek through its development to fulfil that desire (Bordwell & Thompson 2008:95).
In unifying causality, motivation is also necessary to explain justification for certain elements within the film’s diegesis (Bordwell and Thompson 2008:66). It is useful here to introduce the concept of mise-en-scène, which essentially means, “putting into the scene” (Bordwell & Thompson 2008:112). The term is used to signify the control that a director has in staging a scene for the framing of shots, and includes such elements as setting, costume, lighting, and overall movement within the frame (Hayward 2000:231). Mise-en-scène is important for the consideration of space, in that it serves to explain compositional motivation through the choices that the director makes, and functions to establish a cause of impending actions so that the story can proceed (Hayward 2000:242).
To avoid the film drawing attention to itself, the Hollywood filmmaker relies on continuity editing and the strategies of mise-en-scène to ensure narrative continuity. In this regard, the editing is invisible and offers a seamless, spatial and temporal coherence, which presents the spectator with a narrative that appears to have no breaks and no disconcerting unexplained transitions in time and space (Hayward 2000:74, 319). The only time when the temporal unity will be disrupted is through the use of flashback, which is ‘a narrative device used…to go back in time to an earlier time in the character’s life and/or history, and to narrate that moment’ (Hayward 2000:133).
In presenting a seamless reality, Hollywood participates ideologically to disguise the illusion of realism, thereby fulfilling Bordwell’s abovementioned observation that it escapes observation by its very excessiveness (Hayward 2000:311; my emphasis). It is this verisimilitude with reality which makes Hollywood a particularly powerful and pervasive medium for the dissemination of meaning throughout society (Green 1998:16-17). Therefore, it can be said that in presenting a world that appears ‘natural’, the process of naturalising functions to reinforce dominant ideologies and normalises assumptions of gender, race, class, work, the family, and so on (Hayward 2000:258).
According to Marx, the ruling elite, through controlling the means of production, also control the means to which ideas, meaning and reality, are disseminated through society, whereby ‘the ruling ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas’ (Marx in Eagleton 1994:7). In this regard, due to the immense and complicated effort to create a replica of the world, and due to its concomitant reliance on a capitalist mode of production, filmmakers are necessarily intertwined with owners and managers of financial and commercial capital, in whose interest it is to present social institutions as natural and normal, thereby perpetuating the hegemony of capitalist society (Green 1998:17).
It is therefore necessary that the visual images which are allowed to circulate throughout society are those that reinforce thinking which leads individuals ‘to believe that it is right, not merely necessary, to go to work, or to stay home and care for the children; or to obey the law out of a sense of duty rather than of fear’ (Green 1998:25; original emphasis). Thus, it can be argued that Hollywood in presenting social roles as natural, prepares individuals for those roles by making them passively accept, rather than challenge their conditions of subjectivity (Green 1998:17).
Nowhere is this more demonstrable than in the institution of the family, which ‘in so many films serves as the mechanism whereby desire is fulfilled, or at least ideological equilibrium established’, and functions within the narrative to ‘[establish] values of competitive, repressive and hierarchical relationships’ (Harvey 1998:36). According to Harvey (1998:37)
in its hierarchical structure, with the father as the head, the mother as subservient, and the children as totally dependent, [the family] offers a legitimate model or metaphor for a hierarchical and authoritarian society.
As a vehicle for the demonstration of normative values, she suggests that ‘through its manifestation of a whole series of customs and beliefs, the family functions as one of the ideological cornerstones of western industrial society (Harvey 1998:36). It is within this worldview that the dyad of heterosexuality is confirmed to be the norm, and anything outside of that is presented as deviant and threatening. Hollywood achieves this by purporting that happiness, and indeed survival, is only possible within the bounds of its ideologically constructed family and normalised sexuality (Green 1998:29).
Having looked at the nature of Hollywood narrative cinema, and the way it functions to uphold dominant ideologies and present normative assumptions, attention can now be turned to looking at specific examples. Mildred Pierce (1945), directed by Michael Curtiz, and adapted from the original novel by James M. Cain, is part film noir and part melodrama. An examination of the social context of the film’s production provides a clear example of the way in which meanings are negotiated in the production process, and how those meanings are concerned with ideological positioning for desired social effects (Haralovich 2008:239).
At the time of its production, women were going through one of the most dramatic periods of social change, as they took up positions in a workforce to support an economy that was at war. During this time, women were granted unprecedented freedom, however, with the return of the thousands of GIs, there was anxiety over returning women to the domestic sphere so that the men could return to work (Dixon 2006:147). As a shaper of social attitudes, Hollywood provided an important role in reminding citizens of their place in society (Sochen 1978:12).
In Mildred Pierce, this is shown in the complicated and contrasting manipulation of genre conventions, by which according to Cook (1996:69) ‘a hierarchy of discourse is established, suppressing the female discourse in favour of the male’. The narrative is split between a noir present, and a melodramatic past, which is told in flashback by Mildred, the main protagonist. The use of lighting and mise-en-scène can be seen to signify the gendering of the separate genres and the two discourses at play. For example, the scenes in the present are characterised by contrasts in lighting, unsettling variations in camera distance and angle, claustrophobic sets and framing devices, with the events taking place at night. This compares with the scenes from the past, which are evenly lit, with few variations in camera angle, and events occur during daytime (Nelson 1985:453; Cook 1996:71).
The generic split also encourages the sounding of two voices. For example, the female discourse of Mildred’s past is associated with typical melodramatic subjects of family, sexual and emotional relationships, etc. However, the present male discourse of the detective, is that of the law, which seeks to undermine the veracity of Mildred’s story, thereby privileging the “masculine” ideology of the police (Robertson 1990:42). This is further supported structurally in the use of what Nelson (1985:451) refers to as a ‘false suture’.
For example, the film opens with the murder of Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) whose dying words are “Mildred”. Rather than reveal the killer in a conventional shot/reverse shot, the camera pans to the bullet-riddled mirror and the sound of a closing door. The next shot cuts to a car driving away, and then dissolves to a sequence of shots that put Mildred on Santa Monica pier, ready to throw herself into the ocean. The obvious affect of this sequence is to encourage a guilty framing of Mildred. Surprisingly, however, it is revealed after the second flashback that the murderer is Veda, Mildred’s daughter, and the murder scene is replayed, however, this time with the missing reverse shot (Nelson 1985:453).
The dominance of a patriarchal ideology can be seen at work in the film through the way that Mildred is punished for transgressing the traditional boundaries of the nuclear family (Corber 2006:6). After leaving her unemployed husband Bert, she sets up a successful business so that she can provide for her daughters in the absence of a father. This sets off a string of events including a tragic love affair with Monte, the death of the youngest daughter Kay, the transformation of Veda into a sexually treacherous femme fatale, the collapse of the business, and the eventual reconciliation with Bert.
According to Sochen (1978:9), the film worked as social control for women: ‘Women of America, know your place. Erase any ideas you may have to divorce your husband and/or enter the big, bad business world.’ This is important, because had Mildred been allowed to succeed in her transgression, she would have created a new social type: a career wife-mother. Therefore, she ‘had to be destroyed to eliminate any troublesome thoughts held by working mothers’ (Sochen 1978:13).
American Beauty (1999), directed by Sam Mendes, is also concerned with punishing those who dare to overstep the boundaries of their assigned social role. As with Mildred Pierce, a study of the conditions of the film’s production provides a social context which demonstrates dominant ideologies at work. At this time there was a pre-millennium anxiety over masculinity, which had suffered at the hands of feminism, civil and gay rights, and the ‘overall pressures and malaise of an increasingly materialist culture.’ Male authority was perceived to be under threat (Karlyn 2004:71).
This notion is clearly illustrated in the film’s early scenes, which show Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) trapped in a middle-American suburban nightmare. The affect of imprisonment is achieved through the visual style in which the camera traps Lester in a series of framing shots (Law 2006:126). For example, he is shown trapped behind glass in the shower and behind the window as he watches his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) obsessively attending to her perfect rose garden; and at work, his image is reflected on the screen, showing him imprisoned in columns of data.
The family is also in crisis. This is established through the effect of tableau, which works to slow down the narrative and encourages the spectator to contemplate the scene (Law 2006:127). For example, just before the first dinner scene, the camera lingers on the family photographs before cutting to a long shot of the family seated around the dinner table. The mise-en-scène is particularly important here as it sets up the distance between the family members. As the camera pushes in slowly towards the table the simmering tension between the family members is almost palpable.
Narrated by Lester in flashback, the film tells the story of his escape from his job, his overbearing wife, and the responsibilities of fatherhood; and finally, his death. He also goes through a questionable spiritual transformation, which is enacted through an infatuation with his daughter’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari), a sexually precocious teen nymphette. Lester’s lust for Angela signifies reclamation of lost masculinity. In portraying his desire, the filmmakers break from the conventions of Hollywood cinema, once again slowing down the narrative progression, and use stylised surrealist techniques, showing Angela in a series of fantasy sequences (Boeck 2007:184).
As well as being tied to the idea of emasculation, Lester’s rebellion can also be considered in light of the acceleration of consumer culture in America since World War II (Karlyn 2004:81). His mid-life crisis is driven by the need to reassert the freedom he enjoyed in his youth where all he did was ‘party and get laid’. Lester starts smoking pot and listening to 70s music, lifts weights so that he ‘looks good naked’, and buys the car of his dreams. However, whilst the film presents this as a claim for freedom, it fails to acknowledge that it is only due to the things that he is running away from, which enables him to entertain his rebellion. In other words, freedom is only possible if you can afford it (Karlyn 2004:82).
Ultimately, the film is contradictory, and whilst Lester’s transcendence is portrayed as heroic, it uses the disturbing attraction to Angela as the catalyst to which he reaches his epiphany. Guilt is deflected from Lester in the representation of Angela as the typical dumb blonde, which invites the audience to deride her for her ‘naiveté and shallow narcissism’ (Karlyn 2004:2004:87). Finally, given the opportunity to deflower her, Lester is shocked to realise that she is still a virgin, which snaps him back into his traditional fatherly role; he covers her up and offers to make her a sandwich. However, it’s too late for Lester to return to his abandoned social role.
As mentioned in the introduction, Blue Velvet (1986) was produced outside of the Hollywood system. As an independent project it didn’t suffer from the sort of dominant ideologies demonstrated in the discussion so far. Rather, it was able to turn such representations on their head and present a subversive critique of contemporaneous concerns. At the time of its production America was living through Reaganism, a conservative ideology which appealed to old-fashioned values of the past, in particular the post-war 1950s (Prince 2007:147).
Lynch invokes a postmodern style which evokes and mocks the icons of the past, whilst placing them in the present (Denzin 1988:469). By calling into question the ideologies of past representations, the nostalgic ideals to which they appeal are called into question, and ultimately shown to be inadequate (Coughlin 2003:305). According to Jameson (1983:112-113), postmodern texts participate in an effacement of boundaries between the past and the present. He notes the use of pastiche and parody, in which both ‘involve the imitation or, better still, the mimicry of other styles’. In describing parody he says that it ‘capitalises on the uniqueness of these styles and seizes on their idiosyncrasies and eccentricities to produce an imitation which mocks the original.’ Pastiche, on the other hand, lacks the ‘satirical impulse’ of parody.
In Blue Velvet, there is clear evidence to suggest that Lynch is parodying representations of the small-town conservative family, and the ideologies which are packaged with such representation (Coughlin 2003:305). For example, after the credits, the film opens with a close-up of red roses in front of a white picket fence with a deep blue sky in the background, then fades to a slow motion shot of an old-fashioned fire engine with firemen waving, riding with a faithful dalmation as they pass through. Coughlin (2003:305) suggests that ‘these commencing moments forecast precisely that [the] narrative will be located in imaginary small-town America, a concept so often summoned in conventional representation.’
Rather than depicting a traditional family, however, Lynch distorts the idea by exchanging it for a psychic family, and enacts an Oedipal drama, completely subverting the concept of the traditional nuclear family. These Freudian implications aren’t obfuscated requiring psychoanalytical investigation to reveal their meanings; instead they are presented on the surface, and quite obviously at that. For example, in the scene in which Jeffrey is hidden inside Dorothy’s closet and witnesses her ‘rape’ by Frank, the allusion to the primal scene is difficult to ignore. This is further affirmed when Dorothy discovers him and orders him to strip, wielding a knife dangerously close to his genitals, suggesting ‘castration’ (Berry 1988:84).
In constructing the Oedipal family, Dorothy is portrayed as the mother figure and her apartment with its red colour is reminiscent of the womb. Frank is associated with Jeffrey’s father, which is demonstrated in a subjective thought sequence where his father’s reflection is distorted by a mirror, which is quickly replaced by a shot of Frank. And to complete the Oedipal drama, Jeffrey has sex with Dorothy, and at the film’s climax, kills Frank (Biga 1987:46). Interestingly, in the ‘rape’ scene, Frank enters the apartment like a father returning home from work. In the act of copulation (or is it simulated?) Frank calls out “Daddy’s coming home” a reference to his sexual climax, but also to what would appear to be a parody of the sitcom father. This is further exemplified by having Dorothy call him “Sir”.
In conclusion, it has been shown that due to the capitalistic nature of Hollywood and mainstream film in general, dominant ideologies are necessarily embedded into films in the interest of maintaining the hegemony of patriarchal capitalist society. Examples were provided from Mildred Pierce and American Beauty, which illustrated how due to contemporaneous social concerns, dominant meanings were able to infiltrate the text. Blue Velvet was offered as a counterpoint, and it was clearly demonstrated how a film produced outside of the bounds of Hollywood can use subversive techniques such as parody, to call into question the representation of dominant ideologies. Finally, it can be said that films which are produced under the restrictions of Hollywood necessarily reaffirm rather than contest such normative assumptions about gender, race, class, work, and the family, which exist in our culture.

Berry, B. (1988) “Forever, In My Dreams: Generic Conventions and The Subversive Imagination in Blue Velvet”. Literature Film Quarterly, 16, (2): 82-90.
Biga, T. (1987) “Review: Blue Velvet”. Film Quarterly, 41, (1): 44-49.
Boeck, R. (2007) “Ways of Seeing in American Beauty”. Screen Education, 46: 181-187.
Bordwell, D., Staiger, J. and Thompson, K. (1985) The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. London and New York: Routledge.
Bordwell, D. and Thompson, J. (2008) Film Art: An Introduction (8th edition). New York: McGraw Hill.
Cook, P. (1996) “Duplicity in Mildred Pierce” in E. Kaplan (ed.) Women in Film Noir. London: BFI Publishing: 69-80.
Corber, R. J. (2006) “Joan Crawford’s Padded Shoulders: Female Masculinity in Mildred Pierce”. Camera Obscura, 62, 21 (2): 1-31.
Coughlin, P. (2003) “Blue Velvet: Postmodern Parody and the Subversion of Conservative Frameworks”. Literature Film Quarterly, 31, (4): 304-311.
Denzin, N. K. (1988) “Blue Velvet: Postmodern Contradictions”. Theory, Culture & Society, 5: 461-473.
Dixon, W. W. (2006) American Cinema of the 1940s: Themes and Variations. Oxford: Berg.
Eagleton, T. (1994) Ideology. London and New York: Longman.
Green, P. (1998) Cracks in the Pedestal: Ideology and Gender in Hollywood. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press.
Haralovich, M. B. (2008) “Adapting the Family to Murder: Mildred Pierce” in M. Pomerance (ed.) A Family Affair: cinema calls home. London and New York: Wallflower Press: 235-246.
Harvey, S. (1996) “Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir” in E. Kaplan (ed.) Women in Film Noir. London: BFI Publishing: 35-46.
Hayward, S. (2000) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (2nd edition). London and New York: Routledge.
Jameson, F. (1983) “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” in H. Foster (ed.) The Anti-aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. PortTownsend: Bay Press: 111-125.
Karlyn, K. R. (2004) “Too Close for Comfort: American Beauty and the Incest Motif”. Cinema Journal, 44, (1): 69-93.
Law, S. (2006) “Looking Closer: Structure, Style and Narrative in American Beauty”. Screen Education, 43: 123-129.
Nelson, J. (1985) “Mildred Pierce Reconsidered” in B. Nichols (ed.) Movies and Methods. Berkeley: University of California Press: 450-458.
Prince, S. (2007) America Cinema of the 1980s: Themes and Variations. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Robertson, P. (1990) “Structural Irony in “Mildred Pierce,” or How Mildred Lost Her Tongue”. Cinema Journal, 30, (1): 42-54.
Sochen, J. (1978) “Mildred Pierce and Women in Film”. American Quarterly, 30, (1): 3-20.
American Beauty, dir. Sam Mendes, 1999.
Blue Velvet, dir. David Lynch, 1986.
Mildred Pierce, dir. Michael Curtiz, 1945.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Lisa Mitchell - Wonder (Warner)

It's not often that I will get excited about a pop artist, but this week I've been playing the debut album from Lisa Mitchell over and over and over. It's cute and folksy with pop sensibility. Sweet but not saccharine.

Some of you may be aware of her from the 2006 series of Australian Idol. But don't let that colour your opinion. At the age of 16 she demonstrated an incredible maturity of songwriting and coupled with her guitar playing, she was a force to behold.

There's something mystical, wondrous and somewhat magical to her. I'm fascinated at how at such a young age she has developed a depth and vision of the world beyond her years.

Here's a fan compilation of her journey through Idol:

As the final song says 'I'll See You Soon' and indeed we did. In 2007, Lisa released her 'Said One to Another' EP, which went to #1 on the iTunes 'Top Albums' chart. She also toured and I was lucky to catch her show at the Troubadour, here in Brisbane. It was an intimate show with the audience seated in front of the stage, and everyone quiet, hushed and attentive. She simply sang, played guitar, and after a few problems with the harmonica brace, played that too. Remarkable.

Without going into further detail with her bio (see I want to turn attention to her debut album - Wonder, which was released recently on 31 July. Having started the songwriting in 2007, Lisa moved to London where she worked with Ant Whiting (Zero 7, Sia, Arctic Monkeys) and Ed Harcourt, and songwriter Andy Barlow (Lamb).

Lisa is having the time of her life headlining her own national tour and playing to sold out shows. She also played at this year's legendary Glastonbury Festival in the UK.

So with such amazing talent behind her it's no wonder, that Wonder, is set to take the breath of a nation away.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Star Trek Essay: An Ideological Analysis

Having been so proud at finally making a splash into the blog-o-sphere, I've been too busy with uni to put anything together. So, as I used to publish these on Facebook, I'll now share my essays with you here. Comments always welcome.

COM2409 Media Texts - First Essay

Star Trek is one of the most successful and enduring entertainment franchises of all time. Encompassing six television series, eleven feature films, a plethora of licensed merchandise such as video games, toys, hundreds of novels, and even a theme park, not to mention a horde of mobilised active fans, Star Trek is a significant cultural phenomenon. This essay will discuss the claim that Star Trek (like all contemporary science fiction) can never escape dominant ideologies of politics, race, gender and sex, in its depiction of a supposedly utopian/progressive future. The aim will be to demonstrate that whilst the text carries an intentional liberal-humanist agenda, in presenting a utopian future it necessarily relies on ideological markers which work to undermine its supposedly progressive viewpoint. This will be achieved by providing examples from two episodes: “A Private Little War”, from The Original Series; and “A Perfect Mate”, from The Next Generation.

Originally pitched by its creator Gene Roddenberry as a ‘wagon train to the stars’, Star Trek was envisioned as a science fiction series, which would carry Roddenberry’s unashamedly liberal-humanist agenda into the future (Gregory 2000:25; Bernardi 1997:214). In situating the dramatic narrative in a science fiction universe, Roddenberry wanted Star Trek to go boldly where no television program had gone before; to develop a show that was intellectually stimulating and addressed social issues (Johnson 2005:72). This was achieved through Roddenberry’s meticulous planning of every detail, whereby he created not just a new show, but an entire new universe with customs, morals, a complete technology, and an entire rulebook for operating in that universe (Theall 1980:248). According to Roberts (2006:15), the attention to detail and the comprehensive description of reality in science fiction texts means that, very often, they read like realist texts.

This idea of realism is significant for the conception of ideology, which Marx describes as the ‘beliefs, values and ways of thinking and feeling through which human beings perceive, and by recourse to which they explain, what they take to be reality’ (Abrams 1993:24). He argued that the ruling elite, through controlling the means of production, also control the means to which ideas, meaning and reality, are disseminated through society, whereby ‘the ruling ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas’ (Eagleton 1994:7). This Marxist approach to ideology was developed further by later theorists and the concept has become a critical tool for textual analysis. According to Hartley:
it is useful in insisting that not only is there no “natural” meaning inherent in an event or object, but also that the meanings into which events and objects are constructed are always socially oriented – aligned with class, gender, race or other interests (2002:106).
With regard to ideology, television is interesting in that ‘it uses codes which are closely related to those by which we perceive reality itself.’ In other words, it appears to be the natural way of seeing the world (Fiske and Hartley 1978:17). Therefore, with such a close relationship to realism, the writers of Star Trek could infiltrate contemporary concerns of its production time, such as civil rights and the Cold War, into its diegesis (Gregory 2000:25; Bernardi 1997:214). Fiske (1987:44) suggests that where there is social change and a shift in ideological values, television can be part of that change.

At the time of the show’s conception in the 1960s, the myth of the frontier and its attendant utopianism was re-awoken in the American psyche through Kennedy’s Cold War political rhetoric about ‘the new frontier’ in space (Bernardi 1998:79). In his use of the ‘western’ trope, Roddenberry was also able to couple his vision of the future to the past idea of manifest destiny (Bernardi 1998:78-79). These observations are exemplified in the voice-over at the beginning of each episode:
“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Just as the wagon train connotes an idea of adventurism, and a Puritan ethic of conquest and civilising the ‘new frontier’, the ‘voyages of the starship Enterprise’ also invoke such a reading (Bernardi 1998:77).

However, if the future was to be a utopia, the past crimes of racism, colonialism and genocide had to be forgotten. Instead, in the fictional futuristic world of Star Trek, the people of Earth will have united across class, gender, and racial divisions, and war, poverty, disease and the nation-state will have been eliminated (Bernardi 1994:61; Gregory 2000:18). Earth would also be a member of the United Federation of Planets, a powerful interplanetary body with similarities to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) (Bernardi 1994:64).

In Roddenberry’s outline for the original series, he insisted that, by the twenty-third century, racial discrimination would be a thing of the past (Banks and Tankel 1990:31). This is demonstrated in the deliberate multi-cultural composition of the Enterprise’s crew in both series, which further suggests that in the future, the contemporaneous concerns of civil rights, Cold War tensions, and later neo-conservative racism, and gender bias, will have been overcome. Whilst this may appear as progressive, racism does still exist, not between humans, but between other races, whereby race essentially signifies ‘difference’ to humans (Wagner and Lundeen 1998:169).

The Cold War has also been transformed into a battle for galactic supremacy between the Federation’s main enemies, the Klingons and Romulans, with the three powers separated by a neutral zone, or if you like, an ‘iron curtain’, that prohibits one side crossing into the territory of another (Bernardi 1994:63). This idea becomes more apparent when you consider that the Klingon Empire is actually an analogue of the Soviet Union - roughly equal in power and influence to the Federation, it is imperialistic and totalitarian; and like China following the communist revolution, the Romulans are a secondary yet formidable regional power (Worland 1988:112).

In the episode “A Private Little War”, which was broadcast on 2 February 1968, just two days into the bloody Tet Offensive, and two months after opinion polls registered opposition to the Vietnam War, there is clear evidence to suggest that not only was the episode playing out a Cold War scenario, but its message was a self-conscious Vietnam War allegory. (Worland 1988:113). Thirteen years after an initial survey, Kirk has returned to the planet Neural, a primitive Eden inhabited by humanoids who hunt with bow and spear, and is shocked to discover that the Villagers are hunting down the peaceful Hill People with flintlock firearms.

As explained by Spock, the normal innovation time from bow and spear to firearms is 1200 years, which arouses Kirk’s suspicion that the Klingon’s have been tampering with development on the planet. On investigation it appears that the Klingons, to allay detection of their intervention, have been gradually introducing the new technology in small increments. Faced with the moral dilemma to arm the Hill People with equal technology, or allow them to be wiped out, Kirk reluctantly decides to maintain the ‘balance of power’.

In defending his decision to violate the Prime Directive, the overriding Federation law of non-interference, Kirk, in explaining his action to the outraged McCoy, refers to the “twentieth century brush wars on the Asian continent”, which, he claims:
proved the desirability of maintaining a balance so that one side (presumably the Communist bloc, represented here by the Klingons) could not achieve the military domination that might have escalated regional struggles into a global holocaust (Wagner and Lundeen 1998:154).
The most telling quote, which demonstrates a political sensitivity and perhaps ambivalence to the Vietnam situation, is at the end of the episode. However, instead of finishing with a tidy light-hearted resolution as was the norm, Kirk calls the ship and bitterly orders Scotty to start manufacturing a hundred flintlock rifles, or “a hundred serpents…serpents for the garden of Eden.” Whilst Kirk is reluctant and conflicted in his decision, this clearly demonstrates an imperial mentality which is still dominant in the twenty-third century.

Skipping ahead eighty-five years to the timeline of The Next Generation series, the crew is still multi-cultural and under the command of a male captain, however, the mix of men to women has improved to reflect the prevailing real world concerns with women’s sexual and socioeconomic status, and their personal and professional positions (Bernardi 1998:106; Joyrich 1996:64). The deliberate attempt to improve gender representation is illustrated through the alteration of the opening prologue, changing ‘to go where no man has gone before’ to ‘to go where no one has gone before’. However, whilst women have greater representation, their roles are still in traditional caregiver roles. Rather than presenting a utopian future of equality, the viewer is invited to imagine a future in which the social hierarchy is still dominated by an authoritative, active and autonomous masculinity, against a supportive, responsive and passive femininity (Ott and Aoki 2001:404).

Furthermore, the heteronormativity which has been portrayed through both series is still the dominant. This is exemplified in the episode “The Perfect Mate”, which tells the story of Kamala, an empathic metamorph with the ability to “sense what a potential mate wants, what he needs, what gives him the greatest pleasure, and then to become that for him”. She is to be ‘gifted’ as a diplomatic ‘bride’ to encourage a truce between her people and an enemy they have been at war with for a long time. This reduction of her ‘womanness’ to that of commodity is troubling, and whilst Kamala says that she is doing it of her own free will, she admits that she has little choice in the matter.

The moral difficulty of the situation is played out in an exchange between Dr Crusher and Captain Picard, in which she accuses him of supporting forced prostitution. Picard defends his position by citing the Prime Directive rule of non-intervention, and refers to the use of arranged political marriages in other cultures. According to Joyrich (1996:68), Crusher’s failure to question the heterosexist demands of Kamala, simply assumes (and perpetuates) normative heterosexuality.

In conclusion, it has been demonstrated that whilst Star Trek has attempted to present a utopian progressive future, in articulating a discourse against dominant ideologies of politics, race, gender, and sex, and by appealing to a deliberate liberal humanist agenda, contradictions of representation have slipped into the text. Furthermore, these contradictions have limited the text as progressive, instead demonstrating that in the utopian future of Star Trek, imperialist wars are still fought, women continue to be fetishised as objects of male desire, and men continue to hold the highest positions of authority.


Abrams, M. H. (1993) “Marxist Criticism” in A Glossary of Literary Terms (6th edition). Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
Banks, J. and Tankel, J. D. (1990) “Science as Fiction: Technology in Prime Time Television”, Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 7: 24-36.
Bernardi, D. (1994) “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations: Diegetic Logics and Racial Articulations in the Original Star Trek”, Film & History, XXIV (1-2): 60-74.
Bernardi, D. (1997) “Star Trek in the 1960s: Liberal-Humanism and the Production of Race” in Science Fiction Studies, 24 (2): 209-225.
Bernardi, D (1998) Star Trek and History: Race-ing Toward a White Future. New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press.
Eagleton, T. (1994). Ideology. London and New York: Longman.
Fiske, J. and Hartley, J. (1978) Reading Television. London and New York: Routledge.
Fiske, J. (1987) Television Culture. London and New York: Routledge.
Gregory, C. (2000) Star Trek: Parallel Narratives. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Hartley, J. (2002) Communication, Cultural and Media Studies: The Key Concepts (3rd edition). London and New York: Routledge.
Johnson, C. (2005) Telefantasy. London: British Film Institute Publishing.
Joyrich, L. (1996) “Feminist Enterprise? Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Occupation of Femininity”, Cinema Journal, 35 (2): 61-84.
Ott, B. L. and Aoki, E. (2001) “Popular Imagination and Identity Politics: Reading the Future in Star Trek: The Next Generation”, Western Journal of Communication, 65 (4): 392-415.
Roberts, A. (2006) Science Fiction. London and New York: Routledge.
Theall, D. F. (1980) “On Science Fiction as Symbolic Communication”, Science Fiction Studies, 7 (3): 247-262.
Wagner, J. and Lundeen, J. (1998) Deep Space and Sacred Time: Star Trek in the American Mythos. Connecticut and London: Praeger Publishing.
Worland, R. (1988) “Captain Kirk: Cold Warrior”, Journal of Popular Film & Television, 16 (3): 109-117.


“A Private Little War”, Star Trek: The Original Series, airdate February 2, 1968, dir. Marc Daniels, Paramount Television.
“The Perfect Mate”, Star Trek: The Next Generation, airdate April 27, 1992, dir. Cliff Bole, Paramount Television.

Friday, 10 July 2009


A while ago, swept up in fashionable blog-0-mania, I entertained the idea of setting up a blog. At this time, however, I didn't really have much to offer and the blog would have deteriorated into a series of glorified Twitter updates. It would have been rather banal and not the sort of thing I'd expect readers to find interesting.

Recently, however, I've returned to the idea of blogging, as now I have a lot more to offer - or so I hope. Firstly, I want this blog to serve as a platform for writing experiments. I want it to function as a space where I can test ideas and share those bits of politics, history and culture, which fascinate me.

I've named this blog 'The Knowledge Eater' as it is exemplifies my approach to knowledge. Just as a hummingbird flits from flower to flower drinking sweet nectar, I flit from text to text, devouring the food of knowledge. Knowledge is what sustains me. Knowledge is what makes me want to know more and more and more. I want to dive deep; not just skim the surface. I want to mine rich veins, shape ideas, and display them for all to see.

At this stage I should point out that in no way will I be casting myself as an expert critic on any chosen topic; rather, more as a commentator, or cultural observer.

So who am I? As well as being an enigma to myself, I am a dreamer, and a romantic. I am emotional and prone to sensitivity. I love words. I love word games. I love literature. With so much love directed towards the written word it is not surprising that I also have a passion for proofreading and editing, in which I will soon be officially qualified.

I work full-time and I am also undertaking a Bachelor of Arts (Communication) with Monash University. My minor is History and Politics and I am also doing a Writing specialisation. I am aiming to complete my degree with Honours in Writing, but that is a few years away.

The direction of my future studies is gradually taking shape and I'm increasingly becoming interested in postcolonial studies. Every time I begin to trace ideas and events of the modern world, I keep coming back to imperialism, and with it, the later events of decolonisation and the myriad effects that are still rippling through the world. It is in this space that I see myself exploring ideas of identity and belonging in literature and film, whilst also providing opportunity to engage with political, historical and media discourses.

Throughout I expect to learn more about myself, and look forward to sharing the journey with you - the reader.

lexis mechanica