Films on Stars: Inside Daisy Clover  (1965)

24 08 2011

Inside Daisy Clover starts off as a typical sort of film about the empty promises of fame and the machinery of Hollywood. When we meet Daisy Clover (Natalie Wood) at the start of the film, she’s a raggedy tomboy who lives in a ramshackle trailer with her mother and sells autographed photos of the stars on the boardwalk (many of which she simply signs herself). Oh the glamour of Hollywood, but it seems so out of reach for seventeen year old Daisy Clover!

The whole rags-to-riches theme is common in films about stardom, but Daisy Clover offers something unique. Unlike the Esther Bloggett (both the 1937 Gaynor version or the 1953 Garland version), she’s no plucky heroine or good girl just waiting to be discovered. She has the appropriate hard luck story: father abandoned the family, mother is mentally unstable and basically relies on Daisy to survive. They live in poverty and under threat from the police because of her mother’s gambling. But instead being a typical sort of Pollyanna attitude about her life that typifies melodramatic heroines in these situations, Daisy is explosive and angry. She yells and spits and lashes out physically at those who cross her. Her rather butch appearance is also uncommon for these sorts of films, but is important to what happens later…

Natalie Wood as Daisy Clover

Her Hollywood dreams are somewhat undefined, but she apparently sent a record of her singing to a producer. Interestingly, we don’t actually see her sing, we just find out about it when the producer, Raymond Swan (a suave Christopher Plummer) sends a limo down to the boardwalk to pick her up. It seems like a set up for the the typical moment Hollywood loves to portray where the heroine’s true talent helps her escape from her harsh life and get the fame she truly deserves. But as we already know, Hollywood is a business and fame is really just an empty promise because it forces you to change who you really are in order to achieve it.

This point constantly driven home by Swan, who is a cynical and jaded Hollywood insider. After their first meeting, Swan says to Daisy, “Incredible as it may seem, I’m going to make something out of you…Money.” What Swan sees in Daisy is “a certain mixture of orphan and clown that always packs them in.” He femmes her up with new hair, clothes and, importantly, demure mannerisms in a Pygmalion like transformation. She has something special, but Swan knows she must also conform to the feminine standards of Hollywood. He basically orchestrates her whole life towards this goal. This includes allowing her mother to be insitutionalized and claiming that she is dead so that the tabloids won’t discover the truth and ruin her carefully crafted image as “America’s Little Valentine.”

The “new” Daisy Clover

The constructed image and made up biography is a familiar theme to stardom films, but this being the 1960s, Inside Daisy Clover gets particularly dark in its portrayal of Daisy’s fame. She thinks that fame and money are going to make her happy and solve her problems, but, surprise!, they really only make things worse. Her true self keeps pushing against this constructed facade, demonstrating that fame is a sacrifice or, as Swan puts it “Fame does have its obligations.” The problem is that boardwalk Daisy simply cannot be contained by America’s Little Valentine.

The machinery of fame and Hollywood is revealed at the outset, and though we do see Daisy sing and perform after she signs with Swan, the idea that her talent is not enough is made clear throughout the film. I find the musical numbers alternately boring and weirdly surreal in that 1960s sort of way (also, apparently Wood’s singing was scrapped in favor of an overdub from a session singer). They do fit with the themes of the film…the first is “You’re Gonna Hear From Me” that both demonstrates her talent and promises (threatens?) us that she WILL BE FAMOUS! Also, what’s up with that hat?

The other, “The Circus Is A Wacky World,” tells us “the circus ain’t what it’s supposed to be” and “isn’t real.” Do you see what they did there? Here’s the first appearance of the song as Daisy films a new movie that is apparently about clowns or something.

Tellingly, it is while Daisy is recording audio overdub of this song during post-production that she has a massive mental breakdown…but more on that to come.

To add to the illusion that is Hollywood, Daisy starts a relationship with fellow actor (and fellow Swan protegee) Wade Lewis played by a smoking hot Robert Redford. Seriously. Brad Pitt wishes he was ever this sexy.

This is the best picture I could find, but trust me, Redford kills it in the hotness department

Anyway, Wade, like Daisy, is forced to be something he’s not in order to fit the Hollywood mold and make lots of money for Swan. In her first act of rebellion against Swan, Daisy falls in love with Wade. The two stars get married, and Wade promptly runs off to New York. Swan reveals to Daisy the truth about Wade, which is he “prefers men” and is a lousy drunk. In fact, according to Swan, Wade really only took up with Daisy as part of his ongoing attempts to hide his homosexuality. Swan facilitates an annulment after only one day to keep Daisy’s image from being tarnished more than to protect her feelings. Furthermore, Swan uses this as further proof that he should always be the one in control.

All this leads to Daisy having massive breakdown while recording audio for that wacky circus song. It’s pretty spectacular, but I can’t really find any quality clips of it. Regardless, she freaks out and physically lashes out like the old Daisy. Swan sequesters her in her beach house and calls in doctors so she can recover out of the public eye (“the world holds its breath as you hold yours”). Swan demands that either she be certified as insane (just like her mom!) so he can collect the insurance on her or that she get her ass out of bed and back to work like the commodity that she is. In case we forgot, money is all that matters in Hollywood. Here’s where the movie gets awesome and really distinguishes itself from other stardom/Hollywood Dreams films.

SPOILER ALERT: Daisy gets out of bed all right. Just watch the last scene of the film:

She doesn’t just walk away from her Hollywood life and self. She burns it down and declares war! But that is the end! So this movie pushes up against the control of Hollywood in some pretty intense ways at the end, but stops short. What will she do? I demand a sequel!

In today’s celebrity culture, she’d probably go on a media tirade about Swan, make some crazy YouTube videos or write a page turning tell all. Then she’d be discredited as an addict and end up on Dr. Drew’s show. But Daisy wasn’t an addict or doing drugs in the film. She just couldn’t take the constraint of being America’s Little Valentine and that Hollywood was a wacky place. I could have done with one less musical number and more Hollywood comeuppance at the end, but this is definitely one of the blackest takes on stardom I’ve come across so far.


Can Monkeys Be Celebrities?

30 06 2011

My writing energies have definitely been directed elsewhere this summer, but hopefully for good reason. I’m also gearing up for a move halfway across the country, preparing for my new job and trying to find some time to actually enjoy my last summer in New England. But if anything can bring me out of blog hiding for a brief post, it’s the convergence of two of my favorite things: celebrities and monkeys. I fully admit up front that this “analysis” is simplistic and silly and may or may not just be an excuse to post some awesome pictures of monkeys. But when I first heard about this on Tuesday’s Colbert Report, I was way too amused to let this pass me by and couldn’t contain my silliness in Twitter’s 140 characters (you should follow me!)

Monkeys, like celebrities, hate it when they are caught by paparazzi

Okay, so we know that monkeys are no stranger to celebrity culture. Elvis had Scatter. Michael Jackson had Bubbles. Even Paris Hilton had a monkey named Baby Luv, but she was confiscated back in 2005.

Elvis and Scatter

Paris and Baby Luv

Michael and Bubbles

But a new study being conducted at the Yale University Comparative Cognition Lab on the effects of advertising on primates (you heard me) is, I think, tapping into some sort of monkey celebrity culture that may tell us something about our own human celebrity culture.

Researchers are trying to find out if monkeys will prefer one “brand” of jello if they are exposed to a billboard “advertising” that brand. And what will be on this billboard? According to one of the researchers:

“One billboard shows a graphic shot of a female monkey with her genitals exposed, alongside the brand A logo. The other shows the alpha male of the Capuchin troop associated with brand A.”

Let’s consider our own celebrity culture for a moment. Celebrities are used to sell products. That we know. Advertisers take famous faces— images that are well-known to the public not just as actors/actress, but as representations of social norms—and connect them to products so that we will think that by buying this watch, we’ll be just like Brad Pitt!

But why use Brad Pitt? On one hand, Brad Pitt stands in for some of our social norms about masculinity that are then transferred to the watch. Celebrity really needs media attention to have this sort of cultural reach. And not just reach in a “hey, we know who they are” kind of way, but as markers for what it means to be a man or a woman in contemporary society. This is why we think of celebrities as “images.” We know there exists a person called Brad Pitt, but when we talk about him as a celebrity, we are talking about his image or how he is represented across media forms, not the actual person. This makes media crucial to celebrity culture because it is how we know what we know about these images.

Which is the same idea of using the alpha male (a monkey already at the top of monkey social hierarchy, and a monkey known to all the monkeys in that culture/community) to make other monkeys want to “buy” the Brand A jello. The alpha male monkey is already a public figure, so to speak, in the monkey community. But now, with media attention, he becomes a monkey celebrity whose very embodiment of all the right kind of “monkey-ness” defines his celebrity image. And that “monkey-ness,” researchers think, will be transferred to the product and make other monkeys prefer Brand A jello. The other monkeys (I’m guessing only the males? There’s a reason I’m not in the hard sciences, people) want to be like him because he is the most “monkey” of all monkeys, and the billboard helps reinforce him as that top monkey.

I believe there is already some precedence for monkeys wanting to be like someone who they perceive to be top of the heap:

What we’re seeing in this study, I think, is the mediation of those aspirational identities in the form of monkey celebrities on billboards!

But what really cracks me up about this whole thing is that the Brand A jello is also being “sold” to the monkeys with the “graphic shot of a female monkey with her genitals exposed.” Once I stopped snickering at that—because I am a 10-year-old boy—I was struck again by the human celebrity parallel. I could go on and on about the objectification and sexualization of women (in general) and female celebrities (more specifically) in media, but that connection should be pretty obvious. In fact, the idea that “sex sells” is the basis of the whole monkey study anyway.

But what I love about this is that monkey celebrity culture goes straight to the crotch shot or “upskirt” photo that really became a thing in gossip media just a couple of years ago. You couldn’t visit a blog without seeing a photo of Paris or Lindsay or Britney flashing their junk to the world. I’ll spare you the pictures. (Sidebar: who “forgets” to put on underwear? Isn’t that really step one of getting dressed? Or am I just old?). So if we’re thinking about monkeys as celebrities, we’ve bypassed the glamorous side of stardom and jumped (evolved?) directly to the high level of discourse of available on TMZ and Perez Hilton.

A male monkey celebrity is defined by power, authority and monkey-masculinity. Female monkey celebrities are sexual and defined by their junk. This is maybe hitting too close to the truth. Thanks, monkeys, for once again pointing out that humans are ridiculous.

Okay, one more cute monkey photo

Why don't I have a baby monkey!?

Lady Gaga gets real?

31 05 2011

I was pretty obsessed with Lady Gaga’s first album, The Fame, when it was released in the summer of 2009. The combination of dance beats and commentary on the nature of stardom provided me a perfect escape that somehow still counted as work during my dissertation writing. (“I’m not dancing! I’m working!”) What drew me to Gaga, in terms of her image, was that in a celebrity culture dominated by the revelation of the ‘private’ and ‘real’ self behind the public persona, epitomized by celebrity reality shows and the nonstop paparazzi surveillance the crash and burn stardom of people like Britney and Lindsay, Gaga was nothing but image. I honestly did not even want to know anything about her private life, as that would somehow ruin the fun.

We only see what Gaga wants us to see

The private self wasn’t completely absent, but it was consciously constructed and a part of the overall “Gaganess” of her image. Though we learned there was a ‘real’ person named Stefani Germonatta, she was never anything other than Gaga (even her mom calls her Gaga, after all). Unlike other stars always tied to the idea that they are ‘themselves,’ I’m thinking here of reality stars like Kim Kardashian, Gaga’s image was rooted in her pop star self. Kim is always tied to her private self, but Gaga is always her public and constructed self. She consciously satirizes fame by both embodying and refusing the contradictions between the private and authentic self and the public and constructed persona that are at the root of stardom. By always being Gaga, it was never clear when the façade ended and the real person began. Or, more accurately, it never did.

This is partly because she never wanted to reveal that real person, and always wanted to be a star. In her memorable 60 Minutes interview, she said:

“As part of my mastering of the art of fame, part of it is getting people to pay attention to what you want them to, and not pay attention to the things you don’t want them to pay attention to.

My philosophy is that if I am open with [my fans] about everything and yet I art direct every moment of my life, I can maintain a sort of privacy in a way,” she continues. “I maintain a certain soulfulness that I have yet to give.”

Take a look at the video for “Paparazzi.: The song and the video play with the notion that being famous means that one’s self is always up for public scrutiny, always being watched, always being built up and then knocked down by the celebrity media. But the ‘real’ self revealed in the video, the ‘behind the scenes’ Gaga is just as constructed as the stage persona. She never takes off the makeup and fashion because that’s who she really is and, more crucially, that self (like all selves) is always already self-consciously constructed. At this moment, I think, we were meant to think of it as a private self, but not necessarily the ‘real’ self. It was still a part of the act.

So in the early days of Gaga’s stardom, she wasn’t really on the blogs or in the magazines (except to mock/adore her fashion, another key part of her persona). You didn’t hear about who she dated, see pictures of her grabbing a latte at Starbucks, or walking her dog in the park. Her image simply could not fit into those established public/private splits the magazines cling to for other stars. They tried though. There was the ‘media scandal’ when she caused a ruckus at a New York Mets game by she showing up in her black bra and studded leather jacket, had to be moved to Jerry Seinfeld’s private box to avoid “distracting” the fans, and flipped the bird to photographers. My reaction was first to just plug my ears and say “lalalala I don’t want to know anything about her ‘real’ self lalalala” and then to laugh at the fact that she was still ‘doing’ Gaga even in this more unguarded moment.

In the lead up to the release of her new album Born This Way, her image has taken an interesting turn in its inflection of private/public . She’s definitely public, as she’s been everywhere lately. And I do mean everywhere. Guest mentor on American Idol. Google Chrome commercial (see it below). The crazy egg thing at the Grammys. Appearances on daytime talk shows from Today to Ellen to Oprah. For the love of overexposure…she was the guest editor of the free newspaper they give you on the subway, The Metro.. What?

I have to admit that even I was getting a little tired of seeing her every time I turned around. Plus, I’ll also admit that I was not immediately sold on her new singles. Since listening to the entire album, I’ve come around and am remembering why I loved her in the first place. Though I still don’t really like the single “Born This Way.” I like the impulse behind it, just don’t really like the song itself. But it does fit in with this new turn where what we once thought was constructed and part of the act of ‘being’ Gaga is actually who she really is. Or at least we are now meant to see it as less constructed (though certainly still conscious) and more ‘real.’

I am in no way surprised that she would shake up her image, as she’s been doing some sort of shape shifting throughout her brief time in the public eye. But what does surprise me is the way her new image hails a ‘real’ self at its core. She’s still the ‘real’ self that is always constructed in her appearance (the fashion, the makeup, the horns), but is now being pulled back to a more ‘authentic’ private self. But it is still one she is actively controlling, rather than a self constructed by the tabloids or other media.

Gaga’s new(ish) Mother Monster self is completely rooted in the idea that she is being herself, even though that self is glamorous, constructed, extreme, over-the-top and all the things that we already associate with her image. Her new songs and the press she’s done surrounding the album foreground the idea that you should, like Gaga, be yourself no matter what. She has become the icon of outsiders by claiming her outlandish identity as not being artifice. What you see is constructed in the sense that it is thought out, but it is not “fake” or an “inauthentic” facade she puts on just to be famous (which is different, I think, from the Gaga of The Fame and The Fame Monster).

Now not only do we see her ‘real’ self, her image also explicitly invites audiences to connect with her and feel she is ‘just like us.” Anyone who has ever been on the outside can look to Gaga as someone who has been through the same ridicule and doubt that all outsiders experience. We see this in her recent Google Chrome ad:

The MTV documentary, Lady Gaga: Inside the Outside that premiered last week, is all about this view of the ‘real’ Gaga who is completely coherent with her public pop star image. Instead of the artifice of fame, her image is all about a highly stylized yet nevertheless authentic self as her claim to fame. Her talent and drive makes her special, but, at the same time, her message is that ultimately anyone who is true to themselves is already as special as she is. It’s a small shift, as she is still controlling what we see of her private self and is explicitly revealing things in her album and in the press surrounding it (in the MTV doc, for example, she discusses her early days as a performer, experiences being bullied in school etc) that showcase this more coherent image.

ICorrect and Celebrity Rumor Patrol

8 04 2011

What I love most about celebrity culture is the constant battle for dominance amongst its various players. My own work focuses on these tensions, drawing out how gossip media outlets, for example, are based on the idea of breaking down the celebrity facade so carefully constructed by publicists, managers and even the celebrity him/herself.

Tabloids are built on the premise that audiences want to know more about the stars than the stars will give up. Audiences love to play the game of determining what is “real” about the star and what is “fake” or controlled by other forces. Are Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson really dating, or is it just for publicity? It’s the ability of tabloids (and, of course, blogs) to intervene into the more controlled system that makes them so appealing.

Is she really going out with him?

At times, this intervention into the star’s image has radical implications. Britney’s shift from good girl pop star to party girl to Hollywood cautionary tale is largely related to the tabloid construction of her image. She and her manager/publicist/other official team members work(ed) hard to counter these constructions and regain control of her image, its circulation and its meaning in popular culture. I’ve written about a component of this particular struggle before, and am currently working on an article about how bloggers offer a new sort of intervention into celebrity culture that draws on both their roles as audience members and as producers or official commentators on celebrity culture. I’ll be presenting a part of that project at ICA this May.

Anyway, such interventions are a necessary part of the celebrity system, in part because they keep us the celebrity in the public eye. Celebrities (and their handlers) know this, and certainly turn to media outlets (including tabloids) to attempt to counter stories that tarnish their image. They typically turn to more “legitimate” celebrity media sources, notably places like People magazine, because they’ll be treated with kid gloves and get the chance to at least attempt to regain control over a tarnished pubic image in a way that gives the appearance of authenticity and truth.

In the midst of a potential divorce scandal, Britney turned to People to set the record straight

This is nothing new, stars have been doing this since the earliest days of the studio system. For example, in exchange for “exclusive” information, Louella Parsons would allow stars to put out their side of the story during scandals (often ones she herself broke and perpetuated). In addition to using these media outlets, celebrities now can harness the tools of new media (indeed, the same tools that are used to expose them via blogs etc) to attempt to control their own images. Celebrities have official websites, some cultivate relationships with fan sites, and many have turned to Twitter as a place to get the news “direct” from the source–the celebrity herself.

Within this tension filled system comes a new, and frankly puzzling, mode for the celebrity to “correct” rumors and media reports: ICorrect. The site’s founder, David Tang, was the guest on Wednesday’s episode of The Colbert Report. You can watch the interview here. Basically, for an annual fee, Tang’s site offers a place for celebrities to write their own corrections/rebuttals to any and all rumors they feel need to be addressed. My cursory look at the site reveals such shocking revelations as Tommy Hilfiger countering the (age old) rumor that he doesn’t want black people to wear his clothes and Cherie Blair denying she will take part in Strictly Come Dancing (the British Dancing with the Stars. Riviting.

I have to say, I don’t get it. Why does this site exist? Who is reading it? And what’s in it for the celebrity, who could find many other outlets to do this sort of image correction/management? The stars have historically turned to places like People because they already have an audience, and I just don’t see a large audience being drawn to this site (in part because the layout is terrible, imo). It seems the cache is that the celebrity (or, let’s face it, a manager or publicist) can quickly correct and control a rumor. Not every star or rumor can get on the cover of People, yet every little rumor can play an important role in the star’s overall image. So ICorrect offers a way for stars to deal with any intervention into their public image.

But how does that make ICorrect different from Twitter or a celebrity’s official website? I’m not seeing how the fact the correction is on ICorrect makes the audience feel it is more “real” or “true.” ICorrect positions itself as “the first website to correct permanently any lies, misinformation and misrepresentations that permeate in cyberspace.” Um, how is a correction on this site any more “permanent” than any other?

In his interview with Colbert, Tang says ICorrect addresses the fact that sites like Twitter don’t verify that the person tweeting/writing is actually the celebrity. But Twitter does verify “well known account users” and gives them a “verified account” checkmark to indicate they have passed the “real” test. It’s all here. So, again, how is ICorrect offering a new sort of intervention into the gossip game that allows celebrities greater control? Yes, Twitter can be more fleeting, but, really, so are most rumors in terms of impact on a celebrity’s image. Remember when Ashlee Simpson got busted for being drunk at McDonald’s? Yeah, I thought so. Are audiences going to look up the “truth” about older rumors? Is such permanence really necessary, particularly in the age of new media where celebrity rumors are constantly changing?

Furthermore, how ICorrect is supposed to reach a larger audience than any other source? This is the most important part of rumor control. If no one reads it, who cares? Now, when celebrities use their websites or Twitter to counter a rumor, you often see those posts/tweets pop up on blogs or in other celebrity media as part of the story. This is crucial for the recuperation of control over a particular story. I know my gossip blog reading isn’t what it used to be, but I haven’t seen ICorrect popping up anywhere. The first time I heard about it was on Colbert. It needs way more access to the media side of the production system in order to become truly effective.

ICorrect also claim it “enables the Corrector [celebrity] to post precise corrections, without the danger of third parties quoting them out of context.” How are they going to prevent third party persons, like a blogger who reposts the “correction,” from quoting them out of context? If they need outside media exposure to bring attention to the correction, how can such a thing be controlled?

So while I love a good intervention into the celebrity system of production, this is, well, lame. It strikes me as an attempt to catch up to new media’s impact on celebrity culture, but one which is way behind. As my friend Zach would say, “Welcome to 2005!”

The 83rd Academy Awards: My Oscar Picks

25 02 2011

It’s Oscar time once again. I have previously written about the importance of awards shows in the production of celebrity image. In a contemporary celebrity culture that emphasizes the private-self of the star over their public performances, awards shows serve to remind us that talent is (supposed to be) the ultimate definition of a star, but also shows audiences that there is a real person (a glamorous and special real person) behind that talent. The Oscars ceremony is the pinnacle of all awards shows and a key place where the actor/actress really becomes a star. Stars glamorously parade down the red carpet in their finery and pat each other on the back for being so amazing, both of which remind audiences that stars are special and extraordinary…not like you and me. It’s over-the-top and definitely pretentious, but that’s why I love it. It’s a glimpse of controlled stardom we don’t see too much these days.

Anyway, since I’m attending an Oscar party and will not be live blogging the event (the internet weeps, I’m sure), I thought I’d give my picks for the major awards. I’ve seen nearly all the nominated best picture films (except 127 Hours, which I don’t think I can stomach despite my Franco-love and The Fighter because, well, meh) and my picks are based partly on my own reactions and partly on (some nearly inescapable) industry buzz. Here we go!

Despite the fact that I’m pretty sure that the stodgy oldsters of the Academy will go with the furs-and-pearls period costume drama of The King’s Speech, I have to go with The Social Network here. You go into both of these films knowing the story and, really, the ending. But SN kept me rivited and engaged the entire time anyway. Who knew typing could be so exciting! I really enjoyed several of the other nominees (particularly True Grit, Black Swan and Winter’s Bone) but I think SN captures an important moment of shift in our culture. It’s not perfect, but it’s my pick.

Colin Firth deserves this not only for his strong performance in The King’s Speech, but really as a body of work Oscar. He is consistently good and has been overlooked for too long. He is the definitive Mr. Darcy, which makes me love him so much that I’ll even overlook his presence in the treacly mess Love Actually (oh yeah, I said it!). Hard to pick a runner up, as it is so far and away Firth’s category this year, but I loved Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Yes, you can have my Oscar vote!

I haven’t seen Rabbit Hole, so Kidman is out. Michelle Williams and Jennifer Lawrence (I hope we see more of her) were both excellent in their roles, but this one is really comes down to Annette Bening and Natalie Portman. I’ve heard some say that Bening should win because she’s been overlooked for so long and, as an “older” woman in Hollywood, doesn’t have that many chances left. I really enjoyed her tightly-wound performance as Nic in The Kids Are Alright. But my strong visceral reaction to Black Swan was all about Natalie Portman’s balls out (that’s right) turn as a crazy (or is she?) ballerina. I also think Swan doesn’t have much chance in its other categories, so this is where voters will honor it.

I get it. Christian Bale is an intense Method actor who completely changes himself for every role. I’m sure he’s great, but, as I said, I haven’t seen The Fighter. So I’m not buying the hype. I have to say I’m thrilled that John Hawkes was nominated for Winter’s Bone because I loved his character’s meanness and that steely glint in his eye. Mark Ruffalo is super sexy in Kids, but not really Oscar-worthy to me. Jeremy Renner was my favorite part of The Town, but he’ll never win. As good as Colin Firth was in TKS, he couldn’t have done it without the strong supporting turn from Geoffrey Rush. The scene in Westminster Abby where Rush’s Lionel Logue sits in the throne and goes toe-to-toe with the angry King George is fantastic. He should win.

True Grit simply would not have worked if the actress playing Mattie Ross had not been amazing. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld gave a strong performance in what really is a central, not supporting, role. True, I’ve only seen two of the five films nominated here, but I’m sticking with the ingenue anyway.

Obviously this is where Toy Story 3 will get its due.

I think Aaron Sorkin has a lock on this one. Especially if my previous prediction about Best Picture comes true. Of all the nominations for The Social Network, I would be most surprised if it doesn’t win in this category.

I’ll go with The Kids Are Alright here. Partly because I think it was well written, but also because Lisa Cholodenko (who co-wrote with Stuart Blumberg) is the only woman nominated in this category.

Toss up for me between Black Swan and The Social Network. Editing was crucial to how both films told their stories. But seamless shifts in point of view that propelled The Social Network’s narrative makes me pick its editors, Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, as the winners.

I’ll go with the sparse yet beautiful Western landscapes of True Grit. Roger Deakins’ work, especially with the Coen Bros, is always fantastic. He’s never won an Oscar either! I think it’s time.

Part of me wants to give it to Darren Aronofsky. Black Swan is really a love-it-or-hate-it kind of movie, and, as a fan of Aronfsky’s, I really loved it. The ridiculous, in-your-face use of the handheld camera, the way your eyes played tricks on you as you watched it…I loved all of it. I just don’t think it will get this award though. Tom Hooper was fine, but such a boring choice, really. Too soon for a Coen Bros repeat. David Fincher really handled the complexities of The Social Network well and never let it be just a Sorkin script-driven film. He’s my pick.

The other more technical awards are usually a crap-shoot for me, so I’ll leave those to my Oscar party ballot. I will say, though, that I am so in love with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ original score for The Social Network. It really made the film and I still listen to it constantly. As much as I want it to win— and provide me with a weird moment of cognitive dissonance when Nine Inch Nails frontman Reznor is on the Oscars stage in a tux—it will probably go to something more traditional, like The King’s Speech. My runner-up would be Hans Zimmer’s work on Inception. If only Daft Punk had been nominated for the Tron: Legacy soundtrack because they would have shown up in spacesuits and made my night. Anyway, I’m sticking with Reznor and Ross as my pick.

I also think that Inception will definitely take the Visual Effects honors, and probably also Art Direction. The fact that Nolan and the effects team used actual rotating sets instead of CGI for that awesome hotel hallway fight makes that film my pick.

Enjoy the show!

Thinking about New Media: Interactivity

19 02 2011

My TiVo is on the verge of exploding with films about stardom, but I’m going to take a brief break from that series. Spring break will be here soon (one more week of classes!) and TiVo and I have a date for a stardom film series that will hopefully result in some more posts as well. But for now, I’ve been working on a couple of more think piece oriented posts about new media and its influence not only on how we get our content, but also on what that content looks like and how audiences actually engage with/read/invest in that content.

I’ve been considering new media in a broad sense this semester, for a variety of reasons, and here I am just trying to work out some major ideas that have been floating around in my head. This is sort of like a comps exam (because weren’t those fun?) where I’m trying to get a hold of scholarly approaches to new media and relate them to my own particular interests. In short, these are some ideas informed by a lot of the reading I’ve been doing this semester as well as some questions that I’m still working through. This is the beginning of my thinking—not the end—so I would definitely appreciate feedback.

What’s so “new” about new media?
The umbrella term “new media” has been used to refer to a wide range of media platforms and technologies. But the vast array of platforms makes it somewhat confusing to really think through exactly what new media are, and, indeed, what’s so new about them. If Netflix streaming is clearly a new media platform, does that mean that Netflix home delivery system is not? Or, is an iPhone the same sort of new media as Netflix? Each technology serves a different function, but the potential spaces of overlap (using your iPhone to watch streamed movies as opposed to using it to make a phone call or send a text) makes, I think, a precise definition of “new media” pretty challenging.

But then again, part of the shifts brought about by new media come from the fact that the technologies are so varied and can be harnessed for many different purposes. Though the technologies that have reshaped everyday communication and media are vital to understanding this new category, but, as I suggest to my students based on the work of numerous scholars in this area (including Henry Jenkins, Sonia Livingstone, Nancy Baym and many others), what’s so new about new media are the ways the technologies enable users to interact with information and with each other. These interactions are tied to how the technology functions or what it makes possible (e.g. the iPhone lets you make phone calls, text, surf the web etc through its digital platform) but also to how individuals actually use that technology in their everyday lives. (

What’s so new about new media, then, is the fact that users can be both producers and consumers of content (even if that production is limited to a very small audience). New media trouble traditional media consumption models that assume users/audiences are on the receiving end of the communication and do little but absorb meaning. Instead, new media shed light on the range of (sometimes invisible) active meaning making that goes when one consumes media and/or communicates with others through these platforms. While it’s easy to see how things like iPhones or Twitter are considered new media, I think we should also consider how older media forms have transformed to meet the demands of our new media society. I think new media, for all the fancy technological advancements, also offer new sorts of ways to think about and engage with “old media.”

One example I’ve been considering recently is the case of reality television. Reality TV certainly has roots traced back to the early days of television (in the form of game shows, documentaries, etc), its explosion into our television consciousness within the past 10 years is, I think, tied to the simultaneous shifts in media platforms and consumption practices. In other words, I want to argue (and I know I’m not the first to do so) that reality TV is a form of new media. Even if you view it on regular “old” broadcast television, I think reality television embodies some important characteristics that, at the very least, strongly tie it (and its contemporary ubiquity/success as a genre) to new media.

1. Reality television assumes (varying levels of) interactivity
Some reality shows are explicitly built upon the audience as a participant in the production of the show, making new media technology and engagement central to the existence of the program. The most obvious examples here are reality shows, like American Idol or Big Brother, where audiences vote for their favorite contestants, thus securing participants a place on future episodes and, ultimately, choosing the winner of the show. Of course these votes come through a range of new media platforms, like text messages or online voting, but the key is that they enable the audience to play (or at least think they are playing) a vital role in creating content of the show.

Text message voting for American Idol

The success of Idol comes, in part, from the idea that we are the ones that are deciding who will be our next pop star or who will stay in the house for the next week. The (in)famous “Vote for the Worst” campaign that, for example, kept mediocre singer Sanjaya in the running for several weeks during the show’s sixth season, is clear evidence that audience participation shapes the show, and sometimes in ways unanticipated/unintended by the show’s producers. Nevertheless, if no one voted, there would be no show. The feeling of participation in the show is an important space for audience pleasure that hinges on interactivity.

There are, of course, elimination style shows where viewers do not directly vote for contestants, such as Survivor, The Bachelor/Bachelorette, Top Chef, Project Runway etc., as well as a range of reality television shows that do not feature any sort of elimination (docu-soaps like The Real Housewives or any number of celeb-reality shows focused on the private life of a star). But even these shows encourage audience interactivity as a key part of viewing the show. There is something about the focus on back stories of contestants or narratives about what goes on outside the competition (like on Top Chef) that calls up a certain notion of interactivity to me. That audiences are given “more” than “just” the competition narrative seems to be a different sort of engagement. Not sure how to work this out yet, but something about this extended engagement strikes me as more interactive than fictional TV in its style and form.

On one hand, I think new media technologies play an important role in increasing this sort of implied interactivity. Advances in digital and handheld cameras are important to how reality television is actually produced. For the most part, we’re not talking about the participants creating their own footage for the show, though we do sometimes get some glimpses of this (an old example: Britney and Kevin: Chaotic was based in large part on the actual footage shot by Brit-Brit and K-Fed during the early days of their courtship). I’ve written elsewhere about how this emphasizes her “authenticity” as a star, and that’s related to the way the digital camera allows the audience to interact with the real person behind the pop star image. Here’s an outtake that didn’t make the show that shows the use of her personal footage. You’ll see how riviting this footage is and why this show lasted a full half season!

Even without the sense of the footage being shot by the participants, digital technologies have increased the range of the voyeuristic eye of the camera, allowing it to more easily go wherever the “reality” is happening. We are in the homes, cars, work places, etc of reality show participants. The fact that the bathroom is the only place where cameras don’t go on The Real World means that we are able to get into the lives of the housemates and, in a sense, interact with–or at least observe–them at any and every moment.

But it’s also about how audiences are encouraged to engage with these shows that highlights the centrality of interactivity to the overall style and narrative of these programs. Fictional narrative television has, of course, long inspired fan communities and people who want to take their engagement with a show and its characters beyond the boundaries of the narrative offered in the weekly broadcast. I think narrative reality television shows as well as the non-audience voted elimination shows named above are increasingly built on the assumption that audiences engage with the characters/participants and narrative outside the boundaries of the weekly broadcast.

The internet plays a key role here, with character/participant blogs giving us a way to read beyond the actual events of the show itself. In other words, to interact with the characters/participants in other platforms as a way to extend viewing pleasure. I, for one, was pretty obsessed with the RHONJ blogs as a way to get each woman’s perspective on the drama of that week’s episode as a way to see what was left out in the actual episode. Yes, I know that many fictional television shows have websites where their characters “blog” about that week’s episode. I’m wondering if those stay as closely tied to the overall narrative of the show as reality TV character blogs? I have to admit that I don’t know because I don’t follow any fictional character blogs.

However, in another connection between “old” and “new” media, the reality shows have the added extratextual site of engagement in the tabloids. Print tabloids like Us Weekly and In Touch are increasingly built upon the backs of reality television stars. The women of The Hills, Teen Mom, or Keeping Up With the Kardashians would not have the same level of fame, nor would their shows have such high ratings, without the constant coverage from these outside sources. More on the connection between celebrity and reality in my next post.

Interacting with Teen Mom in tabloids

What’s fascinating to me is the “inside information” revealed by these gossip magazines is pretty much always the plot of the next week’s episode, as opposed to any new information! So they are giving audiences some information to bring with them to their viewing of the episode, allowing them to interact with the narrative using that knowledge, as well as encouraging them to watch the show. You don’t see Michael Scott on the cover of a magazine talking about his argument with Dwight on next week’s episode of The Office because he is clearly a fictional character. The appeal to “reality” in RTV means that even though we know these shows are edited and that the action is scripted or at least prompted by producers, we are still encouraged to see the participants as “real” people. Thus, by interacting with them in these outside sources, the audience enriches their viewing experience.

Audiences do have some choice in how they interact (or not) with these shows, a topic I will return to in a later post. Additionally, reality television is certainly not the only television genre where new media technologies have had an impact in form and content. Nevertheless, I think the case of reality TV provides some clear insight into the ties between new media interactivity and the production and consumption of media in this shifting landscape.

Films on Stars: A Star Is Born  (1953)

10 01 2011

Stardom, and particularly the more media-based “celebrity” side of stardom, is typically understood as a feminized phenomenon. The overwhelming emphasis on images and the bodies that are the bearers of those images, not to mention the (at least contemporary) emphasis on the private and “real” person behind that image aligns the concept of stardom with the private and domestic sphere most associated with women. The vast majority of stars studied by scholars are women, and the ones most often torn down by tabloids for our voyeuristic pleasure are women. This is not to say men are not stars, but the condition or perhaps more crucially, the pathology of stardom and the tragedy of fame damage is feminized across academic and popular discussions of stars.

I revisited the classic film about the Hollywood star machinery (and my personal favorite), A Star Is Born starring Judy Garland as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester. There’s no one better to play out the tragedy of stardom than Judy, whose own star image is tightly bound to her personal struggles as a result of her child and adult stardom (see here for a brief overview). These struggles are essential to her stardom, and are vital to understanding what makes this role/film such a perfect star vehicle for Garland.

This version of the film differs in several important ways from the 1937 version I previously discussed. It paints a somewhat different version of what it takes to be a star in Hollywood, likely because it was made at a time when the studio system was losing its power and, particularly since Garland and her star image baggage are involved, that system been exposed as a soul crushing factory not simply a dream machine.

In this version, Esther’s talent eclipses her drive to achieve stardom. She works as a singer and does whatever it takes to have the opportunity to do what she loves, but, unlike Janet Gaynor’s Esther/Vicki, her drive is towards the pleasure of her talent, not the achievement of public recognition for it. She has to sing because that’s who she is, not because she is ultimately gunning for the top of fame mountain. Though Norman Maine first heard her sing at a Hollywood benefit, it is her performance of “The Man That Got Away” during an informal jam session with her band that makes him realize her potential. The use of the talent itself is the end, and any fame or recognition that comes with it is just gravy, really. If you need confirmation of Garland’s tremendous talent, look no further than this iconic performance. I’m such a sucker for all the Judy singing mannerisms, and you get them all here…watch for the hand through bangs for emphasis moment:

In Gaynor’s version, we don’t get much on-screen evidence of Esther/Vicki’s talent. Instead, we get a lot of evidence that she is willing to be a good soldier and do the work necessary to become a star in the Hollywood system. In Garland’s, we are constantly reminded of it in numerous musical numbers that show her talent as innate, not something she must craft and package for Hollywood. But, of course, such innate talent must be shared with the public!

In both films, Norman, who is already a Hollywood star, serves as a guide/Svengali who guides Esther into the realm of stardom, but the 1953 Norman (played by James Mason) helps Esther realize that her talent can get her so much more. He tells her that listening to her sing is like hooking a fish or watching a prize fighter…full of “jabs of pleasure” that go beyond the constructed nature of his Hollywood life (the jabs of pleasure I get from hearing James Mason deliver this speech in his iconic cadence makes this one of my favorite moments of the film). He says, “you’ve got that little something extra” that makes a star and dares her to dream bigger than her current dream of just getting one hit song on the radio and then retiring on that glory. He knows she can be more because she’s not simply a studio produced commodity. She’s got something more, something, it seems, they cannot take away from her and will make her famous without any studio machinations.

That Norman wants to bring her into Hollywood stardom is ironic because he hates his life as a Hollywood star. He hates the lies and the fabrications of the publicity department. He hates the way you have to play the game to get anywhere. So it seems strange that even as he feels he has been crushed by Hollywood, he wants to bring this pure and innocent talent into the maw of the machine. Perhaps he thinks the purity of her talent will protect her? After all, he has her take off the fake nose, caked on makeup and blonde wig that resulted from her pre-screentest makeup session. This returns her to her true self and lets her talent, not her constructed beauty, shine through. This, not incidentally, is a key tie to Garland’s MGM experience and her own frustration with never being the stereotypical Hollywood Glamour Girl.

What’s interesting about this film as a depiction of stardom is that the female star is the one who has it together and whose talent actually grounds her in her real self instead of transforming her into nothing but a false image. Even as her star rises, she does not give in to the excesses of fame, remains her real “girl next door” self at heart, and finds her true love in Norman. Compare this to other films I’ve reviewed in this series where the female star either falls into debauchery or is unable to fulfill her true feminine self in relationships.

Here, it is Norman whose stardom produces pathology in the form of alcoholism, depression and his eventual suicide. Of course all this impacts Esther/Vicki, as she is crushed as she watches Norman fall apart. As with other cautionary tales of stardom’s excesses, a tragic personal life lurks just below the glamorous surface of life as a star, and perhaps Esther not entirely successful as a wife because of her stardom. But in this case, it is really Norman who falls victim to the excesses and who is ultimately responsible for these problems. Stardom has corrupted him even as it has fulfilled her. Esther, ever the dutiful wife, recognizes that Norman somehow needs the adulation of stardom in ways she does not, saying “Love isn’t enough for him.” She is grounded by her private and personal relationship with him, as well as by the pleasure of doing what she loves. She does not fall victim to any of the excesses of Hollywood because she already has real love and real talent to remind her who she really is. Norman, on the other hand, does not recognize such anchors. As Norman’s career is eclipsed by Esther/Vicki’s and he is eventually let go by the studio, he becomes a washed up and tragic victim of the Hollywood system.

Though this film does turn the feminized version of pathological stardom on its head, it’s not exactly a feminist dream. Vicki is the long-suffering wife who struggles to put her husband’s needs ahead of her own. She sees Norman as the architect of her stardom, downplaying her own talent and hard work to do what she does. That Norman’s fame is fading at the same moment hers is rising acts to emasculate him. He has become Mr. Vicki Lester, the partner who stays home and cooks dinner, a terrible fate for a former matinee idol.

So while she experiences real love and personal connection, Norman’s experience with fame leaves him unable to fully reciprocate. He becomes increasingly distant and unable to connect with her because of this public and private emasculation. Norman overhears Vicki say she will leave the business at the height of her career in order to take care of him and kills himself in order to let her thrive. Such moments of self-sacrifice are hallmarks of melodrama, but are typically undertaken by female characters. Norman’s self-sacrifice could be read as the ultimate emasculation, perhaps demonstrating the stardom as a feminized phenomenon that destroys masculinity. However, the narrative quickly recuperates Norman’s masculinity when Vicki re-emerges into the public eye after mourning Norman’s death by introducing herself to her public not as Vicki Lester, but as Mrs. Norman Maine.

In the end, stardom still produces tragedy for both men and women. The idea that stardom is still a feminized phenomenon holds up in this film, but is applied to both men and women. Not exactly progress to see that man’s downfall framed as having to give up the public life for the private/domestic sphere as his wife achieves in the public sphere. But the fact that the female star is fulfilled (mostly) by her work, does not turn into a drug addicted mess and is able to balance her public and personal life (until Norman falls apart) is a unique view on the condition of stardom.

As a side note, rumors circulated about a year ago about a remake of this film starring Robert Downey Jr and Beyonce. No. Just no.