On a recent trip to Hong Kong, however, I decided to take a risk by departing from my standard viewing practice to watch Oliver Stone’s Snowden, a political thriller about the whistleblower who pulled back the curtain of the surveillance state by ...

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Falling in love with the national security state

Romantic comedies help me get through long international flights. On a recent trip to Hong Kong, however, I decided to take a risk by departing from my standard viewing practice to watch Oliver Stone’s Snowden, a political thriller about the whistleblower who pulled back the curtain of the surveillance state by exposing how the NSA threatens the privacy of just about everyone. Would this movie set me on edge, making me fearful and paranoid for the remainder of the flight?

I need not have worried at all, since the film is essentially shot as a love story. To the extent that Snowden is a romance, it mistakes the true nature of surveillance and intelligence gathering by representing matters of national security as affairs of the heart.

The pivotal issue of Snowden is not whether the NSA is scooping up phone records. The audience already knows that story from the headlines that grabbed international attention in 2013 and 2014. Instead, the question raised by Stone’s script is whether a shy young man with off-the-charts computing skills will disclose his most private feelings to the free-spirited woman who enters his life. The true revelations are not about illegal government surveillance but the surprising charms of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who, in all his nerdy vulnerability, plays the private security contractor who leaked the secrets of the NSA.

Will Joseph end up with Shailene Woodley, his love interest in the film? Will Shailene learn to trust a man who possesses and is possessed by so many secrets that he can’t really open up, either emotionally or practically, in the way women in movies today expect? (If using the actors’ first names seems catty, it’s rather that each is so personable and friendly.)

By the time that the real Edward Snowden makes a cameo in the film, his appearance seems gratuitous, since the script has already suggested that the drama transpiring between Joseph and Shailene is far more interesting and significant than anything happening between the national security state and its citizens.

For the economy-class traveler, trapped on a 14-hour flight across the international dateline, Snowden comes tantalizing close to a satisfying experience. Were it not for Snowden’s cameo in the final scenes, one might readily enjoy the film as the romantic comedy it was never meant to be.

Nonetheless, Joseph and Shailene’s characters are clearly meant to be together. The only thing standing in their way is the NSA. A close-up shot of a laptop camera, innocently left open in the bedroom, implies that the US government is getting its jollies by snooping on moments of private intimacy. Where Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice only had to contend with the hauteur of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the romantic couple in Snowden has to withstand the invasion of privacy perpetrated by shadowy, but all-powerful government agencies.

In the end, then, it is not love but the right to privacy that conquers all. At this level, our telegenic lovers fade into the background and the true hero emerges: the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees people the right to be secure in their “houses, papers, and effects,” and, we might add, their e-mails, web searches, and viewing habits. This emphasis upon privacy centers on single entities, not collective ones, which is perfectly consistent with the reliance on a single individual—Snowden—to encapsulate a complex set of issues involving national security and surveillance.

Ordinarily, entertainment allows us to take pleasure in the subject of a biopic who stands in for events of broad historical significance. Surely, Stone has had success with Nixon, JFK, and The Doors in commenting on American history by focusing on individuals who are both representative of and exceptional to their eras. But the electronic eavesdropping of all phone calls, or the ability record the subjects of all web searches, are hardly ordinary.

National security at this level entails the compilation and storage of aggregate data. No one is specifically targeted because under mass surveillance everyone is already suspected.

When it comes to understanding the intricacies of national security, a romance about two people can be seductive. It allows us to enjoy the feeling that the big, bad security state, with its unimaginable capacity to intrude on our most private moments, is the principal villain that individual citizens like us face. Equally, if not more concerning, is that surveillance and security depend on indiscriminate power– that is, power that does not discriminate among individuals but instead, in the words of the NSA mandate, endeavors to “collect it all.”

Featured image credit: Snowden © Open Road Films. Used with permission from Open Road Films.

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His shadow, her doubt: The feminine versus the queer in Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock’s films foreground a conflict that I call “the feminine versus the queer.” The heterosexual heroine, fighting for love and often for her own survival, finds a surprising rival in a queer character, who simultaneously understands and thwarts her. (see Figures 1 and 2)

Figure 1. Bruno Anthony stalks the unsuspecting Miriam in Strangers on a Train
Figure 1. Bruno Anthony stalks the unsuspecting Miriam in Strangers on a Train.
Figure 2: The heroine Eve Kendall cries out when she sees the villainous henchman Leonard in North by Northwest.
Figure 2: The heroine Eve Kendall cries out when she sees the villainous henchman Leonard in North by Northwest.

Hitchcock’s American career commences with Rebecca (1940), which features a near-explicit lesbian character, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), the head housekeeper of Manderley, the stately home of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Danvers torments the fragile, awkward heroine, the second Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) in several sadomasochistic scenes. Scholars such as Patricia White, Rhonda Bernstein, and Tania Modleski have eloquently explored their sexual significance. (see Figure 3)

Figure 3: “Why don’t you?” Mrs. Danvers tempts the heroine, with death and desire.
Figure 3: “Why don’t you?” Mrs. Danvers tempts the heroine, with death and desire.

Mrs. Danvers remains closely allied to the first Mrs. de Winter, the now-dead Rebecca, who perished in a suspect seafaring accident yet still wields considerable power over the sprawling English mansion. The second Mrs. de Winter wanders about the vast patriarchal home, dwarfed by looming door-frames and adrift in enormous rooms. Every room seems to contain physical remnants of her predecessor, such as the stationary and pillowcases emblazoned with the bold majuscule “R.” The dead woman carves her initial on the heroine’s psyche, imprints her artistic signature on Hitchcock’s authorship.

Lesbian threat is an important dimension of Hitchcock’s work—see especially Stage Fright (1950), The Birds (1963), and Marnie (1964). The feminine/queer conflict will most often occur, however, between the woman and a queer male. Films such as Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Spellbound (1943), Notorious (1946), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960) exemplify this intimate crisis. (see Figure 4)

Figure 4: Sparks fly between Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman’s women in Stage Fright
Figure 4: Sparks fly between Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman’s women in Stage Fright.

Shadow of a Doubt depicts the feminine versus the queer as a fatal struggle between the heroine and her sexually ambiguous uncle. This suspense film, as so many of Hitchcock’s most significant do, intersects with the woman’s film genre that had its heyday from the 1930s to the 1950s. In woman’s film fashion, anxieties over the singular heroine’s romantic future loom. While the film does, if rather wanly, offer the possibility of a romance for her with Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), one of the detectives on her uncle’s trail, the focus is much more intently placed on Charlie’s maturation. It’s a dark coming of age; her exposure to Charles’ evil and the discovery of her own potential for retributive wrath change her indelibly. (see Figure 5)

Figure 5: The opening credits ironize the image of happy heterosexual couples
Figure 5: The opening credits ironize the image of happy heterosexual couples

Charlie, luminously played by Teresa Wright, longs for excitement, the precondition for the arrival of chaos in the Hitchcock film (The Lady Vanishes, Rear Window, Psycho, The Birds). Charlie abhors the conformity of her small-town life. For this reason, she is overjoyed to hear that her dapper, well-traveled Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten, in his finest performance), is coming to visit. Little does Charlie or her family suspect that Charles is a serial killer known as “The Merry Widow Killer,” given his murders of rich widows. (see Figure 6)

Figure 6: Dark doubles: Charlie and her uncle Charles in the ‘Til Two bar.
Figure 6: Dark doubles: Charlie and her uncle Charles in the ‘Til Two bar.

A brief montage introduces somnolent Santa Rosa, California, where the restless Charlie lives with her much-loved but frustrating family. We are shown a series of attractive sun-dappled house fronts. But their thin veneer of normalcy has an ominous air, given the unmasked Charles’s confrontational line to Charlie: “Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses, you’d find swine?”

Hitchcock uses visual parallels between uncle and niece to convey emotional ones. Eager for change, Charlie rejects her father’s comforting words as she lies brooding on her bed. Charles, when introduced, lies pensively in the same position on a bed in a boarding house as a motherly landlady speaks to him. Suddenly, Charlie gets the idea to go to the Telegraphy office to ask Uncle Charlie to visit them; once there, she discovers that he has sent a telegraph to her and her family announcing his imminent visit! The pattern of doubling continues throughout, reinforcing the idea that Charlie and her uncle remain closely linked even when her role as his comeuppance emerges.

It is significant that the image of the proto-married couple in the closing moments—Charlie and Graham standing in front of the church as Charles’ funeral mass occurs inside—is inextricable from death and fallen knowledge. The hollow words of praise for the dead killer, heard only as sincere eulogies by the unsuspecting crowd, painfully contrast with Charlie’s somber reflections about her uncle’s philosophy: “He thought the world was a horrible place. He couldn’t have been very happy, ever. He didn’t trust people. Seemed to hate them. He hated the whole world. You know, he said people like us had no idea what the world was really like.”

The heterosexual couple is haunted by the specter of a threatening queerness that has been ambiguously reincorporated into the normative social order. Charlie comes of age when she defends herself against her uncle’s murderous advances, pushing him off the train before he can do the same to her. Sexual doppelgangers, the heroine, standing apart from unsuspecting society, and the socially inassimilable queer male double one another, giving resonance to the idea that one’s double augurs one’s death. Shadow of a Doubt prefigures Psycho, a film that takes the feminine versus the queer conflict to a new level of murderous intensity.

Image credits: (1) “Strangers on a Train – Bruno in line” Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, distributed by Warner Bros., Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) “North by Northwest movie trailer screenshot” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) “Rebecca trailer” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (4) “Marlene Dietrich Stage Fright Trailer” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (5) “Shadow of a Doubt (1943)” CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr. (6) “Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt trailer” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Featured image credit: “Multiple exposure of Alfred Hitchcock 1942” by user kristine. CC by 2.0 via Pixabay.

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Society of Cinema and Media Studies: the 2017 conference guide

This March, the Oxford University Press cinema and media studies editorial and marketing team will see you in chilly Chicago for the SCMS annual conference. We’ve listed our favorite sessions below. And, don’t forget to test your film expertise with our film director quiz below.

Wednesday, 22 March

10:00 – 11:45 AM

Visual and Print Media: Adaptation, Influence, Intertextuality featuring Sarah Gleeson-White, Priyanjali Sen, Andrea Schmidt, and Philip Scepanski

Thursday, 23 March

1:00 – 2:45 PM

Documenting US History featuring Susan Courtney, Laura LaPlaca, Nicole Strobel, Michelle Kelley, and Ashley J. Smith

5:00 – 6:45 PM

Experiments in Feminine Poetics featuring Rebekah Rutkoff, Paige Sarlin, Noa Steimatsky, and Ara Osterweil

Friday, 24 March

12: 15 – 2:00 PM

Race in American: Nontheatrical Film Mining Archives, Expanding Canons featuring Marsha Gordon, Allyson Nadia Field, Colin Williamson, Noah Tsika, and Laura Isabel Serna

Sunday, 26 March

1:00 – 2:45 PM

Playing with the Archive: Memories of the Past in Contemporary Spanish Film and Television featuring Dean Allbritton, H. Rosi Song, Tom Whittaker, Sarah Thomas

While you’re around, take time to visit our Oxford University Press Booth. You’ll be able to browse new and featured books which will include an exclusive 20% conference discount. Stop by the booth the last two hours of every exhibit day for special flash sale offers. Pick up complimentary copies of journals which include Screen and Adaptation . You can also receive free access to our online resources including Oxford Handbooks Online, Very Short Introductions Online, and Oxford Reference.

Quiz background image: Alfred Hitchcock directing Family Plot inside Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, California by Stan Osborne. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Featured image: Sony lens walimex camera. Public domain via Pixabay.

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Celebrating Samuel Barber and his Adagio for Strings

Last week, we celebrated what would have been American composer Samuel Barber’s 107th birthday. Upon the composer’s death in 1981, New York Times music critic Donal Henahan, penned an obituary that asserted “probably no other American composer has ever enjoyed such early, such persistent and such long-lasting acclaim.” Despite Barber’s great popularity with audiences, performers, and many critics, there is an unusually small amount of scholarly literature on his life and music, with scholars often casting Barber as a relatively insignificant, neo-Romantic composer.

There is perhaps no better reflection of Barber’s impact on American music culture than the legacy of his Adagio for Strings. In a 2004 BBC radio survey, the Adagio earned itself the title “the saddest song ever written” and has been utilized in several contexts that would support its new moniker. The Adagio was originally written as the middle movement of Barber’s first string quartet, op. 11 (1936) but exists today in myriad re-imaginations, some by the composer himself, some by close confidants of Barber, and still others that Barber likely would never have been able to imagine.

Barber created a five-part version of the Adagio for string orchestra that was premiered by Arturo Toscanini in 1938 and is the version most commonly heard today. This arrangement exploded into the American consciousness in 1945 when it was broadcast alongside a radio announcement of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death. Musicologist Luke Howard argues that this event marked the beginning of a process through which the Adagio garnered its connotation of sadness and mourning. The piece continued to be imbued with melancholy when it became the foundation to the media soundtrack during coverage of President John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963. Writer and director Oliver Stone utilized the piece in his 1986 film Platoon, which depicts the horrors of the Vietnam war, and continued the semiotic association of the Adagio. Most recently, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attack, the Adagio became an integral part of the musical soundscape of a nation in mourning. American conductor and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor Leonard Slatkin, for example, conducted the final night of the 2001 BBC Proms with a tribute to the United States centered around the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Barber’s Adagio.

John F. Kennedy funeral procession on 25 November, 1963.
John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession leaves the White House on 25 November, 1963. Abbie Rowe, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But it would be shortsighted to view the Adagio as merely a piece of sad music. It’s music of reflection; music of peace. This can be seen in Barber’s own 1967 arrangement of the piece for chorus using the Agnus Dei text of the mass.

The piece has also made its way into electronic dance music (EDM) where it became a staple at raves, and a hugely popular song in the realm of trance after DJ Tiësto created his own arrangement in 2004. And just as Barber’s original Adagio was voted “the saddest song ever written,” Tiësto’s version was voted the second greatest dance track of all time by Mixmag readers in a 2013 survey.

The Adagio’s ability to reach the zenith in both the category of sadness and dance is perhaps the greatest indication of the diverse impact that this piece has had in the past 80 years both in the United States and around the world. It has been featured in television shows (The Simpsons, South Park, and How I Met Your Mother), films (The Elephant Man, Lorenzo’s Oil, Platoon), and in video games (Homeworld). The impact of this single piece alone cements Barber’s legacy not only in American art-music culture, but also popular culture as well.

Featured Image credit: Samuel Barber’s transcription of Claude Debussy’s Syrinx, 1960. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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War, movies and Sam Fuller: A Q&A with Marsha Gordon

American screenwriter, author, and director of over 20 films, Sam Fuller influenced the work of filmmakers the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, and Luc Moullet. Marsha Gordon, author of Film is Like a Battleground: Sam Fuller’s War Movies, sat down for a Q & A with Matt Shipman of The Abstract to discuss the work of this legendary filmmaker. The following was originally published in The Abstract.

The Abstract: When did you first become interested in Sam Fuller and his films?

Marsha Gordon: I came to Fuller rather late in the game. In fact, I saw my first Fuller film when I was a Master’s student at the University of Maryland in the 1990s. I was taking a class on 1950s film and culture from one of the great thinkers and writers about American film, Robert Kolker. The film he showed the class was Pickup on South Street, which I write about in Film is Like a Battleground all these years later. I was immediately drawn to it and to the many shocks and surprises it offered. My interest in that film led me to seek out the other films Fuller made in this time period and beyond.

TA: What sets Fuller aside as an auteur?

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Candy (Jean Peters) and Skip (Richard Widmark) have a volatile, combative relationship in Sam Fuller’s Cold War Noir Pickup on South Street (1953, Fox), a film that is really about what motivates people in the open market of money, ideology, and emotions.

Gordon: I just finished teaching a course on Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder in the fall of 2016 at NC State, so I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about the subject of authorship and film. To my mind, Fuller had an unusual dedication to dealing with issues that personally mattered to him in the movies he wrote and directed, despite the significant difficulties in doing this on screen.

The most recurrent and important of those subjects had to do with war and patriotism. And right alongside those concerns were questions about humanity and American society that were not commonly asked on the big screen in the 1950s, especially having to do with race. Like Billy Wilder, Fuller was a writer and also a frequent producer of his own films – so he often had a significant amount of control over their content, which was both liberating in terms of his personal creativity and challenging in terms of his responsibility for their political content.

TA: Normally, when we think about assessing a filmmaker’s body of work, we want to consider all of his films. Why did you decide focus solely on his war films?

Gordon: There are have been a number of books published about Fuller over the years, though nowhere near as many as about his contemporaries like John Ford, Nicholas Ray, Alfred Hitchcock, and so on. Fuller fought in World War II and obsessively documented it: in personal and official military journals as well as in journalistic writing, on 16mm film, in photographs, and in screenplays and books. It was the experience that defined his psyche and his moral compass, and informed his thinking about the world and the American way of life.

It just seemed natural to me to isolate his war films, starting with the 16mm films he shot during and after the war (including the aftermath of the liberation of a Nazi camp) and moving on to his combat films as well as his cold war films. This really gave me a sharp focus on the central idea that Fuller dealt with throughout his career. It also allowed me to explore the nature of war filmmaking in the United States and the intense scrutiny it received in the 1950s in particular. I was also able to delve into Fuller’s difficult relationships with the FBI, the Department of Defense, the Production Code Administration, and the other military watchdog organizations that had a stake in how American military and political interests were represented at the time.

TA: Focusing on just one part of Fuller’s body of work could sacrifice some of the context provided by other films in his canon, such as his Westerns or later films, like White Dog. How do you balance the desire to focus on a single genre with the absence of context provided by Fuller’s other films?

Three of the exhausted survivors at the end of Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951, Lippert Pictures), the first Hollywood feature made about the Korean conflict. Image courtesy Chrisam Films, Inc.

Gordon: Well, I do acknowledge the fact that combat was the overarching metaphor for Fuller’s career, even in the films he made that had nothing seemingly to do with war. But since other books have already been published about Fuller that provide a career overview, I didn’t feel obligated to repeat that. Also, this focus allowed me to dig deep. I’m working with archival sources, such as the documents in Fuller’s Department of Defense file at the National Archives in Washington DC, which nobody has discussed before.

Limiting the number of Fuller films I discuss in the book – eight feature films, plus several other shorter, nontheatrical films – allowed me to be thorough in a way that I believe does justice to those works.

TA: I’m guessing you watched Fuller’s films quite a few times while working on the book. After repeated viewings, which one stands out as a favorite? What is it about that film that makes it stand out?

Gordon: That’s a cruel question! I think I have to go with Pickup on South Street. Maybe it’s that it was the first Fuller film that I saw. Maybe it’s the great performances from Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, and Thelma Ritter (who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role).

Maybe it’s the use of extreme close-ups and jarring camera movements, which sets the film apart stylistically. Maybe it’s the fantastic dialogue and playful use of street slang, which Fuller must have had so much fun working with. Maybe it’s the treatment of the New York City criminal underworld, the police, and the FBI – with the criminal coming out on top. It also has one of the most poetic, haunting, and dark murder scenes in the history of American film. I could go on and on, but if you haven’t seen it by all means do!

Featured image: Movie print with soundtrack on 35-mm b&w positive film ‘Svema’. Photo by Runner1616. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. 

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