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“Bring in The Crows to Peck the Eagles:” Rewriting the Politics of “Coriolanus”

Compared to a number of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, Coriolanus does not frequently enter into the popular consciousness.  While T.S. Eliot may have called it Shakespeare’s “[m]ost assured artistic success,” the play has not historically been viewed as one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies.  Despite this, the play has long been the subject of critical scrutiny over its deeply political narrative and its treatment of war and peacetime governance.  Coriolanus is a play in which the victorious Roman warrior Caius Marcius Coriolanus has returned to Rome after winning a prolonged campaign against the Volscian army.  Rome is in a state of civil unrest and the citizens stand in revolt against Coriolanus and the rest of the Roman aristocracy.  After a pair of tribunes, Junius Brutus and Sinicius Velutus manipulate the citizens into supporting the banishment of Coriolanus, he turns traitor to Rome and eventually dies a tragic death following the brokerage of peace between Rome and its enemies.[1]  In the 1930s, the play was briefly banned in France over the perception that the narrative, one of a powerful war hero brought low whose attempts to govern are destroyed by a population that is given too great a voice, could be too easily understood as pro-fascist.[2]  Likewise, the play was heavily critiqued in post-war Germany for being too militaristic and doing too much to celebrate the image of the glorious warrior brought low by his own fellow citizens, demonstrating that during times of particular political anxiety, Coriolanus tends to return to the public eye.

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Fiennes’ Coriolanus

In 2011, Ralph Fiennes directed and starred in a version of Coriolanus which brings to the forefront a number of key political questions raised by the text.  The production ostensibly takes place in a setting meant to be associated with Rome, as indicated by its title cards and maintenance of the play’s language and characters, but the aesthetic is decidedly contemporary, with modern dress and a presentation of warfare that is modeled after military conflicts from the last two and a half decades.  Fiennes’ Coriolanus centralizes the impact that his time at war had upon Coriolanus, bringing to the production an interpretation that focuses on a post-9/11 investment in the state in which soldiers return from war.  It transforms the play into a meditation on the impact that war has, both on the individual and the society that sends those individuals to fight. Fiennes also modernizes the political crisis occurring in Rome.  In his version, Brutus and Sicinius, for instance, are presented as wealthy political insiders whose appearance and actions invoke a modern discourse of class struggle and income inequality, framing them as clearly distinct from the much poorer citizens whom they manipulate into banishing Coriolanus. Critical of both the actions of Coriolanus and the state of perpetual warfare that has impacted both the tragic hero and the citizens of Rome, Fiennes’s vision of the play attempts to utilize Shakespeare’s tragedy as a site for contemplating then-contemporary issues of war and its impact upon citizens.

Earlier this month I quoted Thomas Marc Parrott’s criticism that we could not think of Shakespeare as having an opinion on democracy, and while he certainly wouldn’t be able to have an opinion on the kind of representative democracy that we are most familiar with, the text of Coriolanus does not shy away from examining the idea of the consent of the governed.  It is a play in which a civilian rabble becomes the tool of a small cabal of aristocrats who oust Coriolanus, and the early scenes of the play present the rabble as easily strung along by learned Roman rhetoricians, suggesting the dangers of placing too much authority within the hands of the population.  In addition, if we are to read Coriolanus as a tragic hero, even one brought low by his pride, we must at least entertain his suggestions that the populace of Rome is making a grand error in banishing him, as they are banishing one of their betters, a belief that Coriolanus returns to time and time again.  This is, perhaps, a moment in which it is worthwhile to remember that in Elizabethan England debates over the merits of the consent of the governed and democratic rule were often very pessimistic about the capacity of the citizens of a nation to govern themselves.

Fiennes seems to deny this somewhat pessimistic attitude towards the populace’s complicity in the tragedy of Coriolanus with his presentation of the assorted Roman citizens.  His version centralizes their plight and their desire to resist a Roman system that denies them access to food, with an opening scene framing Roman defense of its grain supply as a militarized police force led by a fatigue-wearing Coriolanus beating back hungry protesters.  While the argument that we are meant to side with the citizens in Shakespeare’s play is by no means unfounded, Fiennes’ invocation of contemporary political struggles against state sanctioned violence leverages a very modern understanding of political crises in order to frame Coriolanus as a tragically flawed individual.  We read Coriolanus’s speech concerning the instability, intemperance, and ignobility of the citizens as proud, unfounded, and misguided in large part because of the visual language of this scene, rather than extracting that interpretation wholesale from the original text that Fiennes recites.

Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus

There is, in this vision of Coriolanus, a certain desire to collapse the current and the historical, both to demonstrate a series of momentarily important political ideas but also to point towards their seeming timelessness nature.  An implicit idea present in Fiennes’ Coriolanus is that the lessons of the text of Coriolanus have a specific relevance that transcends the historical moment of its original production.  This, however, requires Fiennes to traffic in a language of visual and political iconography that makes these lessons legible to a modern audience far removed from the world of the Roman aristocracy.  I bring this up not to denigrate Fiennes’ Coriolanus, but to suggest that the act of attempting to find specific modern lessons in these plays necessarily requires us to reconstruct Shakespeare’s texts to suit our current political climate and we must remain aware of this practice of reconstructing Shakespeare when we attempt to garner political lessons from his plays.

The function of this examination of Coriolanus isn’t to produce a unified reading of the play’s political message, but rather to demonstrate how malleable that message becomes when we attempt to understand it with contemporary eyes.  Fiennes’ Coriolanus is not a more or less valid representation of Shakespeare’s text, but it is transparently bringing a highly modern perspective to the text in order to make its political commentary clear.  This does not invalidate the things that Fiennes’ production can teach us about the political questions that inform Coriolanus, but it demonstrates the ways in which any attempt to parse out the lessons of a text necessarily brings to bear our own political investments upon that text.  This is true for the audiences in the first half of the 20th century who saw the play uncomfortably courting with fascism, and it is true in the case of Fiennes’ Coriolanus, which attempts to use that same text to understand a set of more contemporary questions about war, social dissidence, and the consent of the governed.

[1] This is, admittedly, a highly abridged account of Coriolanus.  A full treatment of the play’s richly complex handling of issues such as the construction of masculine identity, the role of motherhood in the lives of individuals and the state or its examinations of the costs of war alone would consume an entire blogpost.

[2] Coriolanus is far from the only play that has garnered attention for how it might help us understand fascism.  For a particularly unsubtle example, see Ian McKellen’s Richard III.

Part II: Female Identity, Subjectivity, and Knowing the Self (8 March 2016)

“There’s been an Awakening in the Force” – but what kind?

Warning: This post includes potentially triggering discussions of nonconsensual physical and mental assault.  

Last week’s post opened an exploration into the narrative obfuscation of Rey’s identity, and considered the advantages of such inscrutability, both to the character’s further development in Episodes VIII and IX, and to fans eager to argue for a myriad of markers in the signifying process. If, as previously discussed, The Force Awakens presents the mystery of Rey’s origin and selfhood without providing a clear narrative resolution, such representation also obscures access to knowing what this character wants and desires.

In discussing the formation of the modern individual alongside and through the cultural rise of the novel, literary critic Nancy Armstrong describes the subjectivity of a person as:

  1. Culturally constructed and historically-informed
  2. Defined by desire and operating within a contract between the sexes
  3. First and foremost, a woman

Through the ideological influence of literature, eighteenth-century writers and thinkers began to delineate what a man ought to desire in a woman – and, consequently, what a woman ought to be. This process of domestication and feminization, as effectively realized through fiction, eventually came to reorient male desire away from the erotic, physical, and all too material body of the woman, and toward a self-regulated interior depth characterized by emotions and constructed through words. “I am convinced,” Armstrong asserts, “that the turn-of-the-century preoccupation with the unconscious arose in response to the question of what women want.”[1]

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The grand mystery of the universe, answered by artists as diverse as Christina Aguilera and Virginia Woolf.

So what, if anything, does Rey want?

For the most part, a character’s identity relies on the public or private formulation, realization, and eventual acknowledgment of their aims, hopes, and desires – that is, what motivates a character through the ongoing narrative, fleshed out through backstory, and that which functions as integral to invoking a reader or viewer’s sympathy. Moments of subterfuge may allow temporary disguising of one’s “true” identity, but well-rounded storytelling rarely admits a sudden revelation or engineers a redemptive arc without first sowing the seeds for this later evolution. Within the Manichean universe of the Star Wars galaxy, where the split between good and evil has so effectively been named as, respectively, the Light side versus the Dark side, viewers may easily determine a character’s allegiance – and thus, moral stance – through obvious hints: the Imperial march, the proclivity for wearing all black, or rather unsubtle allusions to Nazi imagery amidst grand declarations of superior rule.

Often, the reluctant or unaware hero/ine’s narrative represents a journey toward realizing the burden of fate, or finally accepting the path destiny has laid out for them. But if Jedi only wish to restore balance to the Force, and the Sith are those who have succumbed to the seductive power of negative energies, what becomes of the wayward heroine who only desires to survive while awaiting the return of those who left her?

“Know Thyself,” the Oracle says. Completely different science-fiction universes, though the mystique of subjectivity remains the same.

“I am a Jedi, like my father before me,” Luke Skywalker declares at the end of Return of the Jedi, after some soul-searching under Yoda’s tutelage and advice from Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi. While on Dagobah, his Force-induced vision in the Dark Side Cave imparts a warning against his potential failings – whereas the flashes of memories constructing Rey’s vision receive no such elucidation. Instead, viewers must rely on Maz’s counsel, which suggests a course of action, but fails to deliver satisfactory interpretive meaning:

“Dear child, I see it in your eyes…you already know the truth. The belonging you seek is not behind you. It is ahead…Whoever you were waiting for on Jakku, they’re never coming back.”

Compare, then, this scene of revelation-via-Force to the forced exposure of Rey’s memories at the hands of the film’s conflicted villain, Kylo Ren. In the interrogation chamber, a scene set with uncomfortable signs of bondage and reminiscent of Poe Dameron’s earlier torture, the unmasked Ben Solo looms over a fully restrained Rey and grimly informs her of his ability to just “take what [he] wants.” At Rey’s continued resistance, Ren/Solo uses the Force to enter her mind, exposing her innermost thoughts by speaking them aloud: her loneliness, fantasies of a faraway ocean, and burgeoning admiration for Han Solo as a paternal figure.

The last of these is that which Ren/Solo sneers at the most, providing the scene with traces of Oedipal tension, a prime element for any psychoanalytic reading. Here, a supposed expert – with the Force – delves past repression and resistance into the mind of a couch-bound patient, in order to arrive at and expose the truth at the most foundational level of the self. Whereas Freud would propose such truth to be founded upon genital sexuality, Ren/Solo initially only seeks information Rey has acquired through visual perception. Yet, as he casually flaunts his power of mental penetration, the struggle between intrusion and resistance takes on a darker tone: it is the scene of a male character assuming the right to speak Rey’s thoughts, to determine her desires, and to authorize her identity – all without her consent.

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(Credit: Yahoo Entertainment)          (Credit: Star Wars Wikia)

The film’s early interrogation of Poe Dameron brings to mind Darth Vader’s similarly situated, though purely physical torture of Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.

Although the methods of, and intentions behind the interrogation are the same, a significant factor distinguishing Poe’s cross-examination from Rey’s interaction with Ren/Solo comes in the form of the dangerous erotic charge inherent in an unbalanced gender dynamic.[2] Seeing the villain’s surprisingly youthful features may have ruined the aura of evil for many a viewer, but this act of unmasking stands as Ren/Solo’s response against Rey’s accusation of “being hunted by a stranger in a mask.” Uncovering his face allows him the authority to directly contradict and negate Rey’s words, and to demand that she, in turn, uncover herself per his demand.

“I’m not telling you anything,” Rey flatly states, to which Ren/Solo scoffs, “We’ll see” – then, in one of the most powerful struggles in a film titled The Force Awakens, instead of bowing under the mental assault, Rey does tell him something: about himself.

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“You, you’re afraid…that you will never be as strong as Darth Vader!”

Surely, this must have come as a pleasant surprise to viewers well acquainted with former Princess – now General – Leia’s sudden silence after her capture in the lair of Jabba the Hut, and subsequent degradation in the infamous “slave bikini.” In this pivotal moment of struggle for subjectivity, Rey reveals to the audience more about Ren/Solo’s inner conflict than anything about herself.

This mystery and show of power embarrasses Ren/Solo as much as it intrigues him, and he takes it upon himself to reassert some kind of superiority in “offering” his services as her teacher – a telling demand, especially since he hasn’t even gone through the trouble to learn Rey’s name.

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Caption: Someone needs to write a The Force Awakens and Legally Blonde crossover now.

The effacement, silencing, or flattening out of female characters in the grand narrative of the Star Wars canon has unfortunately been all too prevalent in a family that takes its name from Shmi Skywalker, the apparent Virgin Mother of the Chosen One. However, as that title passes onto Rey, unknown as her identity may be at this point in time, one can hope and expect the embodiment of great things to come. May the Force be with you, Rey.

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(Credit: Superhero Hype Forums)

[1] Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (Oxford UP, 1987): pg. 8, 224.

[2] There are of course fans who note the potential for an equally dangerous, similarly nonconsensual erotic imbalance during the scenes of Poe Dameron’s interrogation, and have begun to create works theorizing on the former friendship between a young Poe and Ben Solo, which can be found at: http://archiveofourown.org/tags/Poe%20Dameron*s*Kylo%20Ren/works


Vicky Cheng is a third year Ph.D. student and teaching associate in Syracuse’s English Department. She studies Victorian literature and culture, with an emphasis on feminist and queer readings of the body. When not reading for forthcoming qualifying exams, she can be found drinking tea, napping, or having strong feelings about Star Wars, Marvel films, and Hamilton.

Part I: Female Identity, Representation, and the Inscrutable Self (1 March 2016)

“There’s been an Awakening in the Force” – but what kind?

Feeling the franchise fatigue? It’s understandable. Whether through filmic expansions on original texts – Parts 1 & 2, for your viewing pleasure and box office sales – recalling nostalgia for a past childhood – I’m looking at you, Finding Dory (June 2016!) – or in the face of Marvel’s ever-expanding arsenal of white male superhero fantasies – poor Peter Parker, doomed to repeat high school once again – viewers all around are perfectly justified in just waiting for the next recycled sequel to hit Netflix or Redbox.

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Presented without comment.

(Credit: Reddit.com/r/Showerthoughts)

And then, came a day that shook up the status quo; a day to live on forever in the hearts of fans everywhere: December 18, 2015.

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In light of heavy-handed promotion, plenty of folks were warning against Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens fatigue even before the film premiered. At present, however, close to two months and 2.028 billion USD[1] in earnings, fans have already begun to anticipate the next installment, set to premiere in December 2017. Fueled by set photos posted on Twitter, cast lists, and conspiracy theories,[2] the Star Wars fervor continues. Amidst all the rumors, one central mystery inspires and drives forth the bulk of narrative speculation:

Who is Rey?

Bringing in a cast of young, diverse, new characters while reintroducing the old seems like a good way of reinvigorating a franchise arguably dulled by lackluster prequels, although naysayers will have their complaints. Put a lightsaber in the hands of a young woman of mysterious origins and incredible Force sensitivity, and absolutely everyone loses their collective bantha-shit.

Popular theories diverge into two camps:

Whether cast as Luke Skywalker’s illegitimate daughter with yet another absent-possibly-deceased mother, or as Kylo Ren’s long-lost sister (which leads all Reylo shippers into a rather uncomfortable position; a mistake twice made in the same franchise), proponents of this theory usually point to the instant affection expressed by both Han Solo and General Leia Organa upon meeting a young woman who, on all accounts, ought to be a complete stranger. This is, of course, in addition to the unreadable look Luke gives his own maybe-daughter while doing his cool posturing on the edge of a cliff.

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“Luke…you ARE the father!”

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Sure, Jedi aren’t supposed to give into strong emotion, much less foster long-lasting relationships outside the realm of fraternal or familial affection, but hey, Obi-Wan Kenobi was quite the suave character. Not to mention, he must have sought out some company whilst in exile on Tatooine.

A third camp proposes Rey might be completely unrelated to the tightly enclosed Skywalker family, and thus unconnected to the rather incestuous network of characters who have been causing imbalances to the Force and disruptions within the galaxy for decades. This minority expresses excitement over the introduction of a new and potentially unaffiliated player to the already crowded chessboard, especially given the evidence of parallel narrative structures inherited from the original trilogy.

Alongside the ongoing primaries, you could make your voice heard! Vote here!

But how does Rey define herself?

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“Classified, huh? Yeah, me too.”

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“I’m no one,” she protests to the keen-eyed Maz, who can tell even without her magnifying goggles that Rey’s estrangement from a nuclear family unit matters little in the grand scheme of epic adventure, inherited destiny, and lightsaber-chosen fate. Some quick-witted fans have already made the connection to Odysseus’s claim of being “Nobody,” extending their conjectures about Rey’s role into a full-fledged allegorical analysis following the Greek hero’s epic journey.

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In the words of another modest recluse, “I’m Nobody! Who are You?”

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But while Rey might feel better off in the comfortable obscurity of being “no one,” the lack of properly signifying markers referencing a stable identity produces both excitement and unease. Who left Rey alone on Jakku as a helpless child? What trauma might have happened in the long stretch of years since that abandonment, and whose return does she so faithfully and tragically anticipate, despite all evidence of permanent separation from her former life?

In her artifact-triggered, Force-induced vision, Rey comes face-to-face with the child-version of herself, wearing similar garb, and even the same hairstyle as her present appearance. While recalling the uncanny encounter of looking at one’s younger self and experiencing one’s memories as in a mirror, the image suggests simultaneous development and stasis. The younger Rey pleads for the return of an unidentified entity, object, or individual – a deliverance still unrealized in the life of the adult, and finally surrendered as an irrecoverable loss. Yet even with this presumably unfiltered glimpse into Rey’s mind and subjective memory, her identity remains murky. Ultimately, such revelations give rise to more questions than they answer.

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Rey as a child, pleading with a departing ship.

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As a character composed of complex signifiers that fail to reveal a cohesive legible image, Rey is an inscrutable character. She represents a text both oversaturated with possible meaning from an overflowing archive of materials in the Star Wars universe, and, at this specific liminal moment, an identity constantly under revision.[3] In contrast to George Lucas’s writing of Luke Skywalker as his own self-insert, the potential for Rey’s development appears all the more infinite given the wealth of questions The Force Awakens stubbornly declines to answer.

Certainly, viewers can anticipate the unfolding of Rey’s identity throughout Episodes VIII and IX, and despite the opacity of her narrative backstory, the popular reception of this new heroine has been overwhelmingly positive. Despite numerous instances of the purposeful exclusion of Rey’s character in available toys and merchandise, the revelation of which resulted in the trending of #WheresRey in backlash, there are those who continue to celebrate the opportunity that such inscrutability grants. Filling in narrative gaps with their own relevant meanings has long been a common fan practice, an exercise in claiming representation, and a process of interpretive meaning. Although Rey appears uncertain as to the ins and outs of her own identity, the construction of such as a work-in-progress appears far more relatable than any pre-made Self.

[1] Scott Mendelson, “Star Wars: Force Awakens Passes Avatar Today to be Top Grosser of All Time in U.S.,” Forbes.com, Jan. 6, 2016.

[2] Exhibit A: Jar-Jar Binks’s triumphant return as Supreme Leader Snokes?? (http://moviepilot.com/posts/3738681)

[3] According to a host of news sources, the postponing of Episode VIII to December of 2017 came as a result of rewrites focusing on characterization  and groundbreaking representation of queer characters.


Vicky Cheng is a third year Ph.D. student and teaching associate in Syracuse’s English Department. She studies Victorian literature and culture, with an emphasis on feminist and queer readings of the body. When not reading for forthcoming qualifying exams, she can be found drinking tea, napping, or having strong feelings about Star Wars, Marvel films, and Hamilton.

 

Adaptation Nation: Popular U.S. Film Originality 2010-2015 (26 February 2016)

Walking into a movie theater last week I noticed that nearly all of the films being advertised were for sequels or adaptions of already existing franchises. As I settled down with my popcorn to watch the film I had come to see (itself the 7th episode in a series called Star Wars—you might have heard of it), I tried to remember the last film I saw in theatres that wasn’t based on a pre-existing story. From adapted novels and comic books, to sequels, to films based on TV shows or even other films, pre-packaged narratives seem to dominate the contemporary film landscape. In this post I examine what originality looks like in popular US film.

By taking a short look at the most popular films of the last half-decade, the depth of US fascination with follow-ups and adaptations becomes clear. Out of the top 20 US grossing films of each of the last 5 years (a total sample size of 100 films) 84% were either based on a piece of literature (novel, comic, fairytale), a direct sequel to another film (e.g. 2010’s Toy Story 3), or based on another film or TV show (e.g. 2014’s Godzilla). Only 16% of top-grossing US films could then be considered “original”, or developing a narrative that is not derivative of another text in any major way.

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Of the 16% of films that were not based on other media, a few notable categories can be clearly defined:

Biographies: These films tell the “true” life story of a person or group of people. Examples are Lincoln (2012), American Sniper (2014), and Straight Outta Compton (2015). These films were among the best reviewed and highest grossing of the non-adaptions. However, some might argue that these films are not “original” narratives because they take their source material from the lives of already extant people (American Sniper for instance is directly influenced by Navy Seal Chris Kyle’s autobiography). Biographies like these are interested in introducing, or re-introducing, a well-known person to the movie-going public and therefore play into America’s taste for a familiar story told in a new way, a primary draw biographies share with many adaptations.

Comedies: Offering irreverent entertainment without the burden of extensive plot or narrative, comedies like Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups (2010), Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane’s Ted (2012), and the Seth Rogan frat-meets-family vehicle Neighbors (2014) represent an uninspiring picture of creativity in popular US film. While these films may certainly have their fans, and many made a considerable amount of money, it is hard to make the argument that a film based on a foul-mouthed teddy bear is a high-water mark for artistic expression.

Animated Films: Making up the majority of “unique” popular films are digitally animated children’s movies such as Frozen (2013), Home (2015) and Inside Out (2015).  And while at first it may seem disappointing to more distinguished film fans that children’s films make up the majority of “original” popular films, these stories often take up progressive social issues in ways that are ignored by many “serious” films. Disney’s Brave (2012) was praised for its representation of its protagonist Merida, a strong female character that defied the company’s long-established trope of the helpless princess awaiting rescue and also rejected the traditional waif-like body of Disney women for a more positive and realistic body shape. 2015’s Inside Out contained an underlying message about mental health, depression, and emotional stability that was surprisingly complex and nuanced for a film targeting younger audiences. Far from being the throw-away fluff that children’s films are often perceived to be, these “original” animated films develop new ways of imagining the world, rather than reformulating tried and tired narratives.

The “Man Story”: There are a small number of notable films that are exceptional in that they are neither adapted from other media, nor one of the three categories listed above. They include Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), David O. Russell’s American Hustle (2013), and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). These films deal with the past, present, and future of a uniquely American mythology of masculinity, simultaneously leveling critiques of US racism, capitalism, and imperialism without disrupting their underlying status-quo of American male exceptionalism. These films may be “original” in many ways, but are firmly rooted in perspective of the boot-strapping, frontiersman, US male who learns to dominate his environment and the women around him.

I am by no means suggesting that films that adapt other texts are in any way deficient compared to films of unique inception in terms of creativity, expression, or reception. Remediation and adaptation have always been popular and successful techniques in cinema. However, I do think it worth-while to examine the “original” films that compose this small sampling of texts, and think about what it means to tell a unique story in film. As a scholar of both literature and film, I find that adaptations can be the entry-point into a number of compelling critical conversations about authorial agency, visual rhetorics, and representation. Adaptations can also be an excellent way of getting students whose main experience of textuality is through popular media like film and television to engage with literary texts. However, I believe it is also important to give credit to those films that do take the leap into new realms of creativity, using the medium of film to transcend the familiar rather than rehash, reboot, and remake the stories we already know.


Max Cassity is a 2nd year PhD student in English and Textual Studies. His studies encompass 20thand 21st Century American fiction, poetry, and digital media. He is currently beginning a dissertation that studies fictional representations of epidemic diseases in American and Global modern literature and digital narratives including Ebola, Cancer, and Pandemic Flu.

History’s Fiction Problem: “Selma” and the Value of Fictionalized History

In a recent piece for SalonAndrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg take aim at both Selma, the newly released film about the activism of Martin Luther King, Jr. Through Selma, they critique Hollywood more broadly for its lack of anything truly meaningful to say about history.  In the process, they also dismiss seemingly all (or at least most) historical fiction. They suggest that there is a measure of historical truth that historical fiction can obtain—but only if it remains firmly ensconced in the responsible, well-trained hands of those housed in the discipline of history.  Fiction’s tendencies to romanticize and to provide narrative closure, they seem to suggest, works against a nuanced appreciation of history.

Skepticism from trained historians is nothing new; historical fiction has increasingly earned the ire of many historians.  Such critiques almost invariably revolve around questions of “accuracy,” as historians ruthlessly pick apart the novels, films, and television series for every incident that is not “how it really was.”  Burstein and Isenberg voice a common desire among many of those who study history, for they suggest that in films “romantic truthiness supplants history.”

Such a critique overlooks so much of the richness and complexity that fiction, in film, in television, in novels, in poetry can offer to readers trained to be able to see it.  True, there are many flaws in these expressions of history, but isn’t it time to stop pretending that they don’t have any historical value, or that they don’t have a particular vision of the truth to offer?  Isn’t it more productive to study the ways in which these texts work, to look at conventions of narrative and other aesthetic considerations, to situate them in their political moments—not just to find out what they say about their present moment, but about how that moment understands history?  Work like Burstein’s and Isenberg’s poses the danger of foreclosing on any possibility of appreciating and studying these texts in all of their complexity, and shores up the already incredibly tenuous distinction between fiction and truth as if one does not have something to say about the other.

I currently teach a course entitled “Race and Literary Texts.”  Part of my intentions while designing my syllabus was to include fiction that helped to make clear to my students the ways in which history, the accumulated sediments of past actions and processes, continue to intrude on the present.  Utilizing texts ranging from Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy to Richard Wright’s Native Son, my pedagogy emphasizes reading literary texts as theoretical texts. We take them seriously as theories of history, and draw out the ways in which they articulate historical visions. This is an incredibly rewarding experience, as we negotiate the ways in which writers, poets, directors, and studios grapple with the how to engage with the intractable problems posed by the past.

For our first close reading activity, we read the vexing poem “The Change,” by Tony Hoagland.  I love and hate this poem, for it represents so much of what I will attempt to convey to my students this semester.  In this poem, the speaker observes a tennis match between a white European and a young black woman from Alabama, secretly hoping that the former will win. Through the match, he wrestles with the intractable nature of history, of momentous (and, to the speaker at least, cataclysmic) social change.  While I condemn the poem’s obvious racism and white paranoia, I can’t help but acknowledge the ways in which it seeks to articulate a theory of history, to wrench a measure of intelligibility out of the chaos and terror of historical change (to riff slightly on Philip Toynbee’s famous statement about good writers grappling against the intractableness of modern English).  When the speaker says:

There are moments when history

passes you so close

you can smell its breath,

you can reach your hand out

and touch it on its flank

one can almost feel him grappling with the idea of history as experience, of the individual come face to face with the terrifying nearness of forces over which he has no control.  The line breaks struggle formally to come to terms with the effects of history, with the sense that a moment is simultaneously passing and has already passed.  Indeed, by the end of the poem he seems to have done so: the last phrase “we were changed” echoes like the closing of some door. The mantra forms a powerful reminder not only of the contradictions of history–as both ongoing process and recollection of the past–but also of the exclusionary power of “we.”  This is in many ways an elegy for white hegemony, and while I find it personally repugnant, I acknowledge that it does offer truth about history—even if it’s one with which we vehemently disagree.

Fiction, whether in the form of the printed word or the moving image, can offer us meaningful and powerful insights into the workings of history.  As Brittney Cooper puts it so forcefully in her own Salon take on the question of historical storytelling in Selma:  “being more accurate does not mean one has told more truth.  Read any Toni Morrison novel and you’ll learn that novels often tell far more truth than autobiography. DuVernay tells us many truths in this film about the affective and emotive dimensions of black politics, about the intimacy of black struggle, about the spirit of people intimately acquainted with daily assaults on their humanity.”  To continue to overlook these texts’ engagements with the past is to do both the texts and us a grave disservice. This shouldn’t stop us from critiquing those theories of history that continue to marginalize and disenfranchise those who have long been excluded from power, of course.  But it’s time that, instead of constantly critiquing and wringing our hands, we move into doing something more interesting and more fruitful: to engage in a more thoughtful and nuanced exploration of the relationship between fiction and history.

 


T.J. is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film and TV Studies in the Department of English. His dissertation examines theories of history as articulated in epic films and TV series set in antiquity. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

Feeling Testy: Assessing our Assessments

Tests and assessment make people angry.

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Yes, this is a terrible film.

No really — tests, and the entire idea of assessment, can produce positively splenetic displays. The comments section of Christopher B. Nelson’s recent essay critiquing assessment provides an apt example. As the federal government pushes to hold colleges responsible for providing students with the best “value” for their dollar, and universities push assessments in order to prove (or expose a lack of) efficiency and excellence, it is easy to shout “crisis!” It’s equally easy to imagine testing companies’ CEOs and CFOs salivating over the money to be made from implementing standardized tests to assess whether university students have met desired (perhaps national) learning outcomes. Common Core Goes to College.*

I have a vexed relationship with testing. I’ve helped edit and write tests professionally. I also majored in secondary education at a school that emphasized a modified-Constructivist pedagogy; I was taught that learning is an active, continuous, individual process shaped by students’ previous experiences and which cannot be assessed using a tool that punishes or unduly stresses students. While there are valuable ongoing high-level conversations about assessment, including what sort of assessments are the optimal measure of learning (multiple-choice versus essay, national standardized tests, measures of student engagement, etc.), I want to focus on an assessment instructors control: midterm and final exams.

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Exams: one of the many things that has killed Sean Bean.

Take my intro-level film course. To produce nuanced interpretations of films (a major learning outcome of the course), students must be able to apply a vast store of terminology relating to the compositional elements (sound, editing, cinematography, and mise-en-scène), as well as terms relating to broader processes. No essay assignment, or even series of them, could realistically require the use of even three-fourths of the course terms. I’ve found that even when students correctly define and apply a term on their quizzes and exams, they still might not do so in class or essays. I’ve administered a range of quiz types (multiple-choice, short answer, brief essay) and spent days crafting my exams, but I wasn’t satisfied that I was accurately measuring my students’ learning. During a final exam review session, surrounded by my sweating, overly-caffeinated students, watching them scribble down, word-for-word, the answers they and their peers provided to their practice questions, I realized maybe one culprit was the sort of memorize/regurgitate/forget culture tests can perpetuate.

Last semester, I taught the course again and tried a tactic I hoped would decrease student anxiety and increase net learning. Throughout the semester, I emphasized the ways in which our class discussions, short papers, and tests were all opportunities to confirm or refine their knowledge of course terms so they could produce exceptional final essays. At midterm and finals, my students took an individual and a group exam. If a student achieved a set score on the individual exam, then I would average their individual and group scores to calculate their overall exam grade (though only if it improved on their individual score).

During the group exam, they were instructed to talk through each answer to come to a consensus, so that students who made mistakes on their individual exams would be corrected by their peers. The exams themselves were a mix of short and long answer questions. For example: Identify 15 of these 20 terms in your own words and provide, for each, an example from a film screened for class. The individual exam was still a scene of frenzied writing (and sweating), but the group exam was a scene of teaching. Students argued about the difference between a long take and a long shot and whether US cinema had widely adopted color film stock during the Golden Age or after WWII. I took the questions most often answered incorrectly on the midterm and incorporated them into the final exam. For example, to see if they had finally grasped high versus low key lighting: List and describe four formal conventions of film noir, one of which must concern lighting, using appropriate terminology.

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Images from http://filmschoolonline.com.

In class, in essays, and on their tests, my students deployed course terms with more frequency and accuracy. On my evaluations, students frequently cited these exams as both less stressful and more conducive to their learning, particularly because of the way in which they had to explain their answers to their peers and pool their collective brainpower. Some students will always see tests as an exercise in short-term memorization, and standardized assessments continue to creep into higher ed, but I think the current assessment fad is a valuable opportunity for us as instructors to examine and potentially revise our course assessments to assure they are best serving our and our students’ needs.

 

* Note: I am using Common Core here metonymically to represent the whole media discourse of “bad testing” — the Common Core Standards themselves present a much more complicated set of issues, and I’m not commenting on their relative merits or demerits in this post.


Lindsey Decker is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate studying Film and Television in the Department of English.  Her dissertation examines questions of transnational cinema in self-reflexive British horror films.