Department of Theatre and Film
Introduction: Reflections on (Film) Genres and on (Women’s) Bodies in Art and Performance
The essays in this fall 2010 issue of The Projector continue a line of inquiry that winds its way through many of the articles found in previous issues, for like those earlier pieces that re-assess deep-rooted positions in scholarship, here we find the authors rethinking accepted ideas about genre conventions and genre criticism and offering counter-evidence to some tacit assumptions about modernist art and opera aesthetics. This issue also continues our practice of following the referred essays with invited contributions, in this case, a collection of brief essays based on the introductions to the films screened during the fall 2010 Tuesdays at the Gish series held on the Bowling Green State University campus.
Mark Bernard’s essay, “Balancing Threat and Power: Re-evaluating Three Kings as National Security Cinema,” makes the case that while the 1999 film by David O. Russell has been seen as an anti-war film, its depiction of U.S. military personnel “as vulnerable and under threat of attack” not only muddies its ostensibly anti-war message but also reveals its connection with a host of Hollywood action and war films that are best understood as examples of what Jean-Michel Valatin has termed national security cinema. While critics like B. Ruby Rich have found that Three Kings “launches a savage analysis of the first Gulf War,” referencing Kathryn Kane’s work on the war film genre, Bernard points out that like other anti-war films that have, as Kane puts it, “a predictable place on the genre continuum,” Three Kings can offer a superficial critique of U.S. actions during the first Gulf War but “still support the basic tenants of the United States’s National Security policies.” Bernard’s essay thus invites us to think more carefully about seeing cynical depictions of war as critiques of war, and about the implications of cordoning off the war film genre in ways that mask its connection with action-adventure, science-fiction, and other genre films that sustain and give florid expression to the U.S. national security position that the “‘outside world’ is a constant threat to the ‘American way of life.’”
“A Brief Note on the Possibilities of Genre, or, Whose Genre Is It, Anyway?” by Sudipto Sanyal explores, in more abstract terms, the same considerations Bernard does in his analysis; just as Bernard shows that considering a film like Three Kings simply within the war film genre leaves out the film’s visible participation in national security cinema, Sanyal argues persuasively that “There is, almost always, something that’s left over, remaindered, after we’ve considered an artifact in its genreness.” Noting that all critical approaches share one goal, namely, “the imposition of order onto the invariable chaos of the film text,” Sanyal uses Jacques Derrida’s work to suggest that in many instances, the analysis of film practice “operates under the central notion of genre” because it invariably involves attempts to classify and organize elements in and surrounding films. Further observing that “there is always something left over . . . even after analyzing [a film] through different methods,” Sanyal makes the important point that the “doubt” surrounding categorization can and should be “extended to the object of study [so that it too can] be acknowledged as a perpetually open text with some sort of excess always remaining to be analyzed.”
The next two essays ask us to reflect on certain assumptions overlooked in some discussions about representations of women in ostensibly avant-garde art and the casting of women in musical performances for audiences ostensibly unaffected by the values of lowbrow consumer society. In “Enslavement by the Male Gaze: Female Depiction in Modernist Art,” Heidi Nees shows that while modernist artists broke with the past by focusing not on idealized, heroic depictions of male figures but instead on sexualized or deformed representations of the female form, it was only a limited, provisional break because, as Pam Meecham and Julie Sheldon explain, the female body in modern art is best understood as “a perpetual carrier of overwhelmingly male signs.” Nees notes that in modern fashion, women’s bodies were freed from corsets but contained once again by clothing that featured “colonial tropes of the Orient.” She points out that the exotic figure of Salome, well known to audiences due to productions ranging from Oscar Wilde’s symbolist play to Maud Allan’s provocative performances of the “dance of the seven veils,” was consistently rendered in terms “emblematic of the objectifying male gaze in modernist art.” Concluding with a look at how Chaplin uses a scene in City Lights to expose “disinterested,” gentlemanly gazing at female nudes as actually involving sanctioned leering at naked women, Nees makes the point that women had a new visibility in modernist art but that the depictions are a sign of continued male privilege.
Moving from fin-de-siècle and early-twentieth century examples to a well-publicized moment in the high-art world of the twenty-first century, Hope Bernard’s essay, “Weight, Loss, and Opera: Deborah Voigt and the Little Black Dress,” underscores the reality that even today, when women are visible they are required to conform to a vision of female beauty that is itself a sign of male power and privilege. Focusing on the little black dress incident that led soprano Deborah Voigt to transform herself from a size 30 to a size 14, Bernard finds that while female opera stars in the past have been allowed and even encouraged to take up considerable space on stage, the emerging demand by critics and directors that they embody conventional visions of femininity puts opera divas in the double bind of being required to have excessive voices that fill auditoriums and soar to the highest ranges but visibly moderate bodies that are increasingly modest, restrained, and slimmed down.
This issue concludes with a collection of brief essays that served as introductions to the films screened during the fall 2010 Tuesdays at the Gish series hosted by The Culture Club at BGSU. Distinguished by its focus on cult cinema and studio era films likely new to audiences whose tastes have been shaped by cult and camp criticism, this fall the series featured screenings of: Serial Mom (John Waters, 1994), Two Thousand Maniacs! (Herschel Gordon Lewis, 1964), Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (Russ Meyer, 1965), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Lewis Milestone, 1946), D.O.A. (Rudolph Maté, 1950), The Thin Man (W. S. Van Dyke, 1934), His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940), and Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987). Information about ongoing Tuesdays at the Gish film series can be found at http://www.battlegroundstates.org/ or