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Hollywood’s Global Domination

My experience of foreign cinema – or the value that it has provided for me personally – is deeply rooted in my national identity and Hollywood’s history of global dominance. Scholar B. Ruby Rich writes in Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film, “My guess is that foreign films function as a rebuke for some viewers, offering up evidence that the world is not made in ‘our’ image, and that neither our society nor our language is universal.”[1] While I agree with Rich’s evaluation, I’d like to complicate it just slightly. My argument, instead, is that foreign films function as a rebuke for most American viewers specifically, though not all.

In his chapter titled Hollywood’s International Market, from The American Film Industry (ed. Tino Balio), Thomas H. Guback describes how Hollywood began to permeate the global film market after World War I, acting in a moment when numerous countries were economically devastated by the war and left financially indebted to the U.S. As a result, due to the surmounting strength of the American film market, international film industries faced substantial difficulty in penetrating the U.S. And while numerous countries responded to the influx of Hollywood imports by establishing quotas, America’s domination of the international market had already taken effect. Guback writes:

“…on the cultural side, film was considered a great medium of information and persuasion, which not only selectively presented certain traits and ideals but also glamorized them, even if unintentionally. Hollywood’s output pointed up American stories and myths, American products and values. In 1926 it was already being charged by no less than a former general counsel of the Motion Picture Board of Trade in the United States that ‘American producers are now actively “Americanizing” England, her dominions and colonies, and all of Europe.’”[2]

After WWI and leading into WWII, Hollywood’s “Golden Age” was in full swing. This period is generally characterized by a powerful, star-driven studio system, which remained largely intact for decades, though the industry’s economic structures were complicated by the Paramount Decision in 1948 (outlawing the vertical integration of studios). Beyond the industry’s appreciation of star power, remakes, and stories of heterosexual coupling, many Hollywood films can also be described as particularly a-political, a consideration which is examined in Charles Lindholm and John A. Hall’s chapter Frank Capra Meets John Doe: Anti- politics in American National Identity from Cinema and Nation (ed. Mette Hjort and Scott Mackenzie). The chapter dissects the work of Frank Capra, one of the few Hollywood filmmakers to explore questions of American political identity and citizenship, and notes America’s general lack of political filmmaking – a fact which makes Capra’s work so striking. The authors quote Phillip L. Gianos, writer of Politics and Politicians in American Film (1998) who remarked that, in Hollywood “‘politics is not consequential; politics is not interesting; happiness is purely an individual matter; things will be all right. This is what virtually all American films tell their audiences.’”[3] Lindholm and Hall argue that, for the most part, Hollywood showcases an “anti-political national identity,” a concept that I believe necessarily influences how foreign films are watched by many American viewers. In effect, there exists an audience that’s craving the explicitly political, both within the U.S. national context, and beyond.

Following WWII, despite the global turmoil of the past decade, strong national cinemas began re-developing in war-torn countries such as Italy and Japan. As a result of interest in these popular film movements, the rapid increase of television sets in American homes, the economic effects of the Paramount Decision, and various social transformations, international cinema found its way into the U.S. market. In Vector, Flow, Zone: Towards a History of Cinematic ‘Translatio’ from World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives (ed. Natasa Durovicova and Kathleen Newman) Natasa Durovicova writes:

“Reappearing in the swirl around the Paramount Decrees and carried by the wave of neorealism, film imports had a resurgence in the United States inside a new crop of independent ‘art cinemas,’ but by then their fundamental ghettoization inside the ‘non-entertainment’ quadrant was – and still continues to be – taken as a given. Nonetheless the logic of translation operated within mainstream US cinema for roughly a decade in the 1960s, as the temporary shrinking of the US domestic market reconfigured the boundaries of for-me-ness itself.”[4]

Also significant to the influx of European and Asian cinema in the U.S. was Burstyn v. Wilson, the 1952 Supreme Court case which “declared that motion pictures are ‘a significant medium for the communication of ideas,’ their importance not lessened by the fact that they are designed ‘to entertain as well as inform.’” The case was a result of the fact that the New York State Board of Censors refused to exhibit Roberto Rossellni’s neorealist film, The Miracle (1948), due to its supposed controversial content.[5] After the case was won by Joseph Burstyn, a U.S. distributor who concentrated on international art cinema, the American market then became more welcoming of foreign cinema, which was characteristically open to violence and sex unlike Hollywood productions dictated by the censorship of the Hays Code. Beyond the political and economic conditions that allowed for an increase in foreign films coming into the U.S. market, this trend also revealed that a considerable amount of Americans – many of whom were presumably young artists, activists, and students – were uninterested in the tidy image of the a-political and nationalistic American landscape (an image which many likely did not prescribe to in the post-WWII political environment). It wasn’t until the late 1960s that American films began to blatantly challenge the status quo, as a result of the end of the Hays Code, but also the vast influence of international cinemas including European and Asian post-war film movements. Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 historical epic, Seven Samurai, exemplifies an early international film which infiltrated American theaters and left a lasting mark on cinema in the U.S. and beyond.

By 1954 Akira Kurosawa had already debuted Rashomon (1950) in the U.S., a film which received considerable acclaim, winning an Academy Honorary Award at the 1952 Oscars. As a result, Kurosawa had previously made a name for himself in the U.S. before releasing Seven Samurai. Taking place in Japan in 1586, the film features a group of farmers who, having their village sacked by bandits periodically and to the point of starvation, hire seven samurai to train them with weapons and fight off the soon-returning outlaws. A clear theme of Seven Samurai is that of honor and how the calculated and morally just way of the samurai (known as Bushido) prevails, despite the significant loss of life endured in the village.

The time that the film’s story takes place, as well as the time of release, are both historically relevant. Seven Samurai premiered nearly a decade after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6 & 9, 1945) at a time when Japan was still rebuilding and finding its footing within the global economy and political community. The fact that the film details the heroic qualities of the samurai – in addition to clear class divisions and questions of intrapersonal relationships in some way or another comments on Japan’s complicated cultural and economic realities after the war. And it could be argued that the film’s story of invasion from an outside force could also, hypothetically, reflect a national fear of subjugation. In addition to the reflexivity of the film’s historical significance (in both fictional and real worlds), it also seems that Seven Samurai’s popularity in the U.S., considering the historical relationship between the two countries at the time, comments on the artistic, cultural, and historical desires of some American audiences in the 1950s, which were unfulfilled by Hollywood-style storytelling.

Beyond Seven Samurai’s nationally-specific story of honor and the Bushido tradition, Kurosawa’s work also provided U.S. audiences with a new and unique cinematic style. Kurosawa’s films, and in particular Seven Samurai, are characterized by a number of distinct formal choices. Geometric staging is a hallmark of Kurosawa’s work, with each frame branded by his highly specific and deliberate composition. Movement also plays an essential role in the visual narrative of Kurosawa’s films; audiences are treated to dynamic movement within the frame, as well as camera movement which tracks action, often building upon the epic nature of the samurai battle. His expert assemblage of precise formal choices and narrative impact makes Seven Samurai a cinematic classic that was even respected by Hollywood – resulting in the Western-remake The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960) and the subsequent reboot in 2016 (dir. Antoine Fuqua).

My own experience watching Seven Samurai – a film which I appreciate for its pace, exploration of character, and formal qualities – is complicated by a number of circumstances. Beyond the complexities of difference in language and culture lies national and historical distance. Not only do I have no point of reference for Japanese Bushido tradition in the 1500s, my existence and experience is entirely distant from 1954 as well. As a result, the historical context of the film’s release is in no way reflected in how I perceive the film as a contemporary viewer. Though the specific historical moment is not something I can remotely relate to (both when the film takes place and when it was released) the themes of Seven Samurai, which comment on honor, class, and tradition, are what I would characterize as “universal concepts” and can be understood and appreciated by most viewers.

What further complicated my initial viewing experience, as an American audience member with no immediate connection to another country or region, was the way in which Hollywood and U.S. nationalism once clouded my perception of cinema and the world. Before having access to foreign and arthouse cinema (as someone who grew up in a non-cinephilic household in a city with one arthouse theater), my experience of movies and movie-going in adolescence was explicitly Hollywood-centric. In college, foreign films did provide me with “evidence that the world is not made in (my) image, and that neither (my) society nor (my) language is universal.”[6] As evidenced by Hollywood’s economic domination of the international market, escaping the a-political, American-centric gaze is difficult, especially from within the country itself. While Hollywood attempts to “Americanize” the rest of the world, those outside America (and those within the U.S. who are in some way connected to outside countries and regions), can resist the dominant ideologies of Hollywood to a degree because they are beyond its nationalistic grips. But, as someone who was raised without immediate access to outside countries (literally and figuratively) I believe foreign films provided me with the ability to escape Hollywood’s self-centered, American-centric world view. My current view is that (especially because I’ve seen more of the world both in person and on film) my enjoyment of foreign cinema relates to the ability to escape the style and themes which impede the Hollywood film, not simply to rejoice in hearing a language or seeing an expression of nationalism beyond my own experience.

One such film which I believe presents a style and subject far beyond the potentials of Hollywood is Federico Fellini’s 8 1⁄2 (1963). While Fellini originated from the Italian neorealist tradition, with 8 1⁄2 he turned clearly to a surrealist mode. Traces of the surreal are evident in La Dolce Vita (1960), and even the ending of Nights of Cabiria (1957) when Giulietta Masina’s character Cabiria turns directly to the camera with tears in her eyes and smiles, breaking the fourth wall. My enjoyment of 8 1⁄2 (or rather, love of) is indebted to the freedom of experimentation that’s possible outside of Hollywood’s grasp.

8 1⁄2 follows the story of Guido, a director who’s experiencing writer’s block and struggling with the pressure to deliver a film worthy of acclaim. While he unsuccessfully searches for the ability to produce something, anything, Guido revisits his past and those he’s loved through dream-like episodes of spontaneity and passion. Thematically, the film explores the demands of the creative process, questions of identity and relationships, the effects of modernization, and the difficulties of creating something meaningful when you’re scrutinized by the public and your peers. Fellini’s 8 1⁄2 is explicitly self-reflexive; not only is it about a director’s struggle to make a film, but the title references the number of films Fellini had made at that point. And 8 1⁄2 seems influenced, to a degree, by Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, valuing the dream world nearly as much as the “real.”

At the time of its release, 8 1⁄2 ostensibly provided American audiences with the ability to escape the formal and narrative confines of traditional Hollywood cinema (which was and still is pigeonholed by goal-oriented characters, unambiguousness, and clear resolutions). My assumption is that America’s fascination with Italian cinema, which began with the import of neorealist films, was partly because these films provided U.S. audiences with a realness rooted in stories of post-war disillusionment, showcasing dilapidated city streets and the disenchanted expressions of non-actors. Then, as Italian cinema transitioned to post-neorealism, the U.S. was seeing a cultural shift as well, characterized by the civil rights movement, sexual liberation, hippie culture, and the general dissatisfaction of American youth. The post-neorealist movement thus satisfied arthouse audiences with films that examined sexuality, repression, identity, and individualism – subjects almost entirely ignored by American film until the manifestation of the “New Hollywood.”

Beyond 8 1⁄2’s modernist subject matter, Fellini’s film is distinguished by dynamic formal choices. In terms of aesthetics, there’s a sort of freeness to the staging and camera movement, due, in part, to the experimentation that comes with exhibiting playful, surrealist dream sequences. The framing of shots consistently bounces between wide-shots and close-ups, visually reflecting the film’s play with subjectivity and interpersonal relationships (both the distance and closeness we feel with others). 8 1⁄2 showcases the life of the artist – maybe an artist who has no more to give? – which is a relatable subject for many. Though the film is explicitly Italian, it seems clearly focused on the individual, rather than national or historical context. This is not only reflected in the film’s storyline, but also in the locations, which rarely shift into the public world beyond the hotel (except through Guido’s dreams and memory). It seems, instead, that the entire film could be a fantasy, based on its removal from the urban landscape. This interplay of the particular within the universal makes 8 1⁄2 clearly representative of the style of modernist film that was so popular with American arthouse crowds in the 1960s.

Revisiting Natasa Durovicova’s essay Vector, Flow, Zone: Towards a History of Cinematic ‘Translatio’ from World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, she writes:

“In the vast cinematic middle field, for most film audiences of the world, watching movies does not entail either being seamlessly ‘homed,’ immersed in a familiar acoustic and cultural ‘scape of one’s own (national) cinema or signing up for the estrangement experience of the manifestly foreign, as in the narrative space of a polyglot plot. With the general exception of (North) America and Japanese audiences, plus certain regional audiences in India, a majority of the world’s audiences has for sustained periods taken in its movies encrusted with a thin but distinct coating of difference, that is, supplemented by an additional layer of graphic or acoustic matter comprising the inevitable residue of the two standard methods of translation, dubbing, and subtitling.”[7]

By and large, it seems that Durovicova’s statement aligns with my argument that foreign films function as proof that more exists beyond the self, language, and nation of specifically American audience members unconnected to outside countries or regions. As a result of Hollywood’s global attempt at Americanization, most American audience members themselves see foreign cinema coded explicitly “Other” – an “otherness” which may provide individuals with the opportunity to see beyond their own nationalism. For this reason, I am grateful for the opportunity foreign films once provided me with; the ability to see beyond myself.

________________

[1] Ruby B. Rich, Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film, (MIT Press, 2004), 116

[2] Thomas H. Guback, “Hollywood’s International Market,” The American Film Industry, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 392

[3] Charles Lindholm and John A. Hall, “Frank Capra Meets John Doe: Anti-politics in American National Identity,” Cinema & Nation, (New York: Routledge, 200), 32

[4] Natasa Durovicova, “Vector, Flow, Zone: Towards a History of Cinematic Translatio,” World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, (New York: Routledge, 2009), 106

[5] Richard S. Randall, “Censorship: From the Miracle of Deep Throat,” The American Film Industry, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 432

[6] Rich, On the Foreignness of Film, 116

[7] Durovicova, “Towards a History of Cinematic Translatio,” 101

 

 

A Weekend in NYC

A few weeks ago I spent a long weekend in New York City, marking my first trip to the big apple ever. On the flight from Reykjavik I started reading How to See the World by Nicholas Mirzoeff – on visual culture and how we see things and are seen – and realized that although I had the experience of observing the New York City of film, television, and advertising, I had never actually seen the city.

While I had been dreaming of visiting NYC for years, I showed up almost nervous. After spending time in parts of rural Iceland (the least populated place I have ever been to) I was heading to the most densely inhabited place I had yet to occupy. Iceland has a way of slowing you down and I worried that the extreme change in environment would almost be jarring. But instead of feeling overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of New York’s streets, it felt good to finally see it myself – not on a screen or billboard.

I found New York City to be undeniably charming, but with a sharp and unique edge. The sheer intensity of the city has a magic to it. So many people, so much to do, so much to see. It seems to be a place populated by tough, hard-working individuals who have pride in both where they live and where they’re from – especially NY natives. A place where personal expression and creativity thrive, but where you have to keep your nose to the grindstone in order to survive. And a city that you could never stop exploring.

There’s obviously so much more to New York City and New Yorker’s than my first impressions illustrate, so I can’t wait to come back and see and do more. Below are some photos I took on my brief trip – enjoy, and be sure to share some of your favorite things about New York City in the comment section.

Life After Facebook

Why I Can’t Stand Facebookwhich I wrote in 2014 after dropping the site from my life, remains the most popular post I’ve written for Catch-all (apparently people are constantly Googling “Can’t stand Facebook”?). Since a few years have passed, I decided to share a brief update on what living without Facebook has been like.

Before getting into the benefits of LWOFB (I just made that up but don’t you think “Life Without Facebook” could catch on?) I think it’s important to characterize what type of Facebook user I was, and how the site became damaging for me personally.

After years of using Facebook, and being connected to nearly everyone I knew, I became obsessed with my online persona. I was constantly wondering “is my header photo cool enough?” “Do I look good in my profile photo?” “Are my status updates clever or getting sufficient likes?” I’m also a pretty curious (or maybe even nosy) person, and as much as I wish it weren’t the case, Facebook lurking was something I definitely took part in. “Oh that girl that was mean to me in high school is constantly traveling and taking beautiful photos?” “Wait that guy’s married now?” “So-and-so is sharing their annoying political views?” I was just so over it. I wish I was the type of person that could have a Facebook and update it occasionally, just to keep family and friends back home in the loop, but I’m not. I would obsess, and worry, and get jealous, and see people living exciting lives and feel like I was missing out.

In my life after Facebook, those issues dissipated. It took time, but I was no longer worried about what other people were doing or if I was keeping up. I may be on other social media platforms, like Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, but I’ve never felt as possessed by them. Facebook sucked the life out of me.

Although I don’t have a Facebook profile anymore, I do find political events on the site which are shared publicly. In spite of my issues with the Facebook, I’m grateful that it provides a hub for protests and rallies to be hosted and shared. It’s been used across the globe as an activist platform (I imagine it’s at least part of the reason that the Women’s March was so massive) so I see immense value in the site regardless of my personal issues. But while Facebook has its benefits, for me the negatives outweighed any positives. In my life without Facebook, I’m living each moment to the fullest. I’m not bogged down by social expectations online and I’m freer because of it. I don’t fear missing out, I embrace it.

Getting Back into the Swing of Things

Since my last blog post I’ve been all over Iceland, spent a long weekend in New York City, returned to Los Angeles for a few days, and took a trip back home to Tucson, AZ. Once I’m back in Los Angeles I’ll have to find a new place to live, move, say goodbye to my sister who’s leaving LA, and find a job. Regardless of the major changes coming my way, I’m still putting off the stress of thinking too much about everything until I can’t avoid it any longer.

Beyond the logistics of moving and looking for work, there’s a lot in my life that’s currently up in the air. Graduate school was wonderfully rich and life changing – but exhausting – so I’m glad that’s over now. Aside from personal issues, drumpf and his people are wreaking havoc on this country and our world. I can’t help but feel that Americans are on the brink of a collective meltdown, and we’re all just holding on by a thread. But while all of this has been getting me down, as someone with immense privilege I am trying my best to stay strong and self-aware, doing all that I can to support those who aren’t as fortunate as I am.

These past two months, but particularly this last month, I’ve been able to slow down and remind myself of what’s truly important. I’ve re-evaluated my priorities and how I view myself within the world. I’m doing my best in order to lead a happy, healthy, and productive life not only for myself, but for others. I’m always striving to be a good partner, sister, daughter, friend, and community member, but of course I fail (and fail often). It’s my recovery time after each failure that I’m currently working on.

Ending my break means getting back to blogging. In the next few months I’ll be posting about living without Facebook, 30 feminists to follow on Twitter, and some of my favorite media studies texts. I’ll be sharing more favorites, including the 80’s movies that I adore, my go-to vegan restaurants in Los Angeles, and what to do if you have the chance to explore downtown LA. I’ll also be posting photos from my travels in Iceland and my weekend in NYC, and writing about the love/hate relationship I have with my hometown. And I’m hoping to start a monthly women in media post, but that may take me some time to get off the ground!

If you haven’t already, be sure to follow me on Twitter and Instagram (@jvvblog) where I post more often, and check back weekly for new posts on Catch-all.

🙂 ❤

UNTIL NEXT TIME,

Julia

#RESISTANCE Playlist

With major news breaking every single day, the enormity of the issues that we’re dealing with in the U.S. and abroad can seem insurmountable. In America, I feel as though we’re on the verge of a collective meltdown. Stress and tensions are mounting and the government seems to be doing everything it can to weaken the people. From blocking refugees, to pulling out of the Paris Agreement, and fighting to dismantle our healthcare system – the list goes on and on. Across the globe we’re seeing an uptick in fascism, and it’s our duty to fight it.

On the day of the election I listened to a playlist I made in hopes that Hillary Clinton would become our first woman president. That day didn’t arrive, but I’ve continued to make playlists – for the inauguration and the historic Women’s March – to either get me through the day or strengthen my resolve. Today I wanted to share my #RESISTANCE playlist, which is short, but packs a punch. We have to persist, and listening to music is a powerful way to regain the energy necessary to keep up the fight.

Be sure to share any song recommendations you have in the comment section below.

On America, Mobility, & Freedom in “Easy Rider”

“A man went looking for America, but he couldn’t find it anywhere.”

Few taglines remain relevant long after a film’s release, but Easy Rider’s ominous warning (“he couldn’t find it anywhere”) maintains its potency nearly 50 years after its debut. In David Laderman’s Driving Visions, he situates the road film genre within an explicitly American context and characterizes Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) as “arguably the quintessential, genre-defining road movie.”[1] Following the cult popularity of low-budget biker exploitation films, Easy Rider seems to have borrowed from the aesthetic and tonal vigor of these works, but extended itself to a broader cultural critique that was relevant for a wider spectrum of Americans falling under the banner of “the counterculture.” While the influence of cinema imported from Europe and Asia facilitated the rise of the American auteur, the explosive socio-political context of late 1960’s could also be credited for cultivating unique works which explored social tensions and questions of identity, and more specifically, what it means to be an American. Easy Rider – in addition to preceding 1960s biker films such as The Wild Angels (Roger Corman, 1966) and Hell’s Angels on Wheels (Richard Rush, 1967) – uses motorcycles, mobility, and Western iconography to illuminate the 1960’s as an age of social discontent and conflicting ideologies, while examining questions of American identity and projecting the limits of freedom. Earning $19 million in 1969 (making it the fourth-highest grossing film of the year) Easy Rider accomplished what few films do, securing its status as a commercially successful cult picture and further illustrating its relevance in an age of social tension and political instability.[2]

Although Easy Rider is unlike many of the 1960s motorcycle flicks that came before it, the film owes much of its success to the image of the outlaw biker on the open road that earlier works cultivated, in addition to the skills that Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson acquired while working within the biker exploitation genre themselves. In Sleazy Riders; Exploitation, “Otherness,” and Transgression in the 1960s Biker Movie from the Journal of Popular Film & Television (2003), cultural historian Bill Osgerby notes that The Wild Angels, which was advertised as “the most terrifying film of our time,” “laid the way for a slew of low- budget, lurid, and gratuitously violent movies based around the exploits of marauding motorcycle gangs.”[3] Starring Peter Fonda as “Blue,” the head of the Hell’s Angels Venice chapter, Nancy Sinatra as his loyal girlfriend Mike, and Bruce Dern as his doomed friend “Loser,” The Wild Angels showcases the exploits and perceived freedoms of the swastika wearing biker gang who are always heading somewhere but also going nowhere. Though there is little plot, nor deep thematic exploration, the image of the outlaw biker crafted by Corman left a lasting impression on the genre, and American culture at large. Osgerby writes:

“Like classic exploitation cinema, films such as The Wild Angels and Angels from Hell privileged exhibition over narrative, spectacle over intellect. In their depiction of snarling, maverick outsiders, biker movies conjured themes of an uncontrolled, macho “Otherness” whose unrestrained lusts and sneering disaffection set it beyond the pale of mainstream culture.”[4]

While The Wild Angels does highlight questions of freedom and identity, the film ultimately luxuriates in the biker’s over-the-top exploits, rather than sustaining any meaningful engagement with social criticism. Although the film “feverishly articulates subversion of conventional American institutions (such as church, work, family, etc.) through the aimless mobility of the Angels’ motorcycle subculture, insisting on the equation of perpetual movement with moral, political, and spiritual freedom,” as Laderman notes, it seems that The Wild Angel’s treatment of race and gender limits the pursuit of freedom to the white, macho male.[5] These limits are most explicitly expressed in the film’s two rape scenes; the first involving a black nurse who is knocked unconscious while the gang is kidnapping Loser from the hospital, and then later when Loser’s widow is drugged and gang raped at his funeral. The treatment of women’s bodies as objects (raped, passed off from one man to another, and relegated to the back of the bike rather than driving) severely limits the independence and autonomy supposedly explored by the characters in The Wild Angels, as well as other biker flicks.

Following Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels, exploitation director Richard Rush’s Hell’s Angels on Wheels arguably presents a more successful examination of freedom and the open road, though not without flaws. The film stars Jack Nicholson as “Poet,” a spontaneously violent, but more often than not sensitive and sympathetic biker who’s been invited to join the Angels on their next trip after gaining their trust. The gang’s volatile, yet charming leader Buddy is played by Adam Roarke, and Sabrina Scharf plays his unpredictable and loyal-to-a-fault girlfriend Shill, who’s also the subject of Poet’s desires. The gang sets off on an impulsive road trip when Buddy decides a wedding is in order for one of the bikers, and the second half of the film documents their on-the-road adventures and details the complexity of their relationships (which are dictated by the gang’s strict hierarchical system). Though women are still relegated to submissive roles – a reflection of the actual gender politics of the Hell’s Angels – Shill’s perplexing unpredictability could be read at times as somewhat empowering, despite her insistence of subjugation. And unlike The Wild Angels, Hell’s Angels on Wheels delights in the iconography of the motorcycle on the open road, and the possibilities mobility permits. Notions of freedom are most clearly articulated on the road, and in particular, when the bikers deviate from it.

Returning from the impromptu wedding, the gang drives by a large hill with a path heading straight upwards at a dangerous incline. Intrigued, they slow down and one biker goes to see if the path is actually traversable. Though it’s drivable, the incline is certainly risky. But this group relishes in moments of vulnerability, so they pull off and start a competition, individually driving up the side of this colossal hill and enticing other bikers who pass by to join them. Back on the road again, the group pulls off where a field of sheep are grazing. Inspired by this moment in which the natural and mechanical meet, Shill hugs a sheep and says to it quietly: “Oh, you beautiful sheep.”

Trailing only a few years later, Easy Rider took Hell’s Angel’s on Wheels’ treatment of the open road as mystical and meaningful, and infused it with potent cultural critique through the lens of hippie wanderers. The film stars Peter Fonda as Wyatt (or “Captain America”) and Dennis Hopper as Billy, two bikers who are heading to Mardis Gras after profiting from a major cocaine deal in Los Angeles. Wyatt is quiet and philosophical, yet self-righteous, while Billy is more restless, anxious, and self-absorbed. Despite their differences, what they both share is a preference for change and the open road instead of stability. The film also features a stellar performance from Jack Nicholson as George Hanson, the playful, endearing, and intelligent lawyer for the ACLU that they meet along their journey.

Identifying with the American counterculture and emerging from the tradition of exploitation biker films, Peter Fonda’s role as co-producer of Easy Rider is unsurprising. According to Lee Hill in BFI’s Easy Rider, Fonda supposedly came up with the broad concept for Easy Rider while promoting The Wild Angels:

“Whether it was just the dope or idle rambling inspired by fatigue, Fonda suddenly had a revelation. He and Dern were modern cowboys! Instead of John Wayne or Gary Cooper, he saw two hip guys traveling across America on bikes experiencing the freedom of the road. As the image came into deep focus in his mind, he saw Hollywood’ version of the grail – the idea for a hit movie.”[6]

But despite Fonda’s predilections for countercultural values and lifestyle, he still emerged from mainstream Hollywood, and his institutional ties were inescapable. Dennis Hopper, on the other hand, had been blacklisted by the studios after refusing to play a scene how director Henry Hathaway wanted him to for From Hell to Texas (1958), and was relegated to television work. Despite these limits, Hopper’s marriage to Brooke Hayward – a descendant of Hollywood royalty – and his mentee-relationship with James Dean allowed him to flourish financially and creatively.[7] As two actors who felt that their careers were stifled by studio expectations (According to Hill, “simply by growing their hair long, they had seriously impaired their careers in the eyes of studio casting agents and producers,”) Fonda and Hopper were seemingly the ideal actors to take on such a film.[8]

Nearly as famous as Easy Rider is the mythology of the film’s production history, which was fraught with disagreements and conflicting egos. Hill writes:

“Behind the making of Easy Rider was an uneasy, but passionate, collective driven by the flow of contradictory ideas and emotions that dominated the 60s. The disparate backgrounds of Fonda and Hopper, screenwriter and novelist Terry Southern, co-producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, Jack Nicholson, Lazslo Kovacs and Henry Jaglom, among others, led to varying degrees of conflict. Yet the communal ethos of the decade kept the creative disagreements and one-upmanship in check until the film was completed and released.”[9]

As Dennis Hopper’s directorial debut, crew members were actively concerned about his egomaniacal tendencies, and there are many stories that have been widely circulated regarding Hopper’s temper and dictatorial approach.

Especially important to Hopper was the film’s soundtrack, which is deeply entrenched in emotions of the era. Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” one of the first songs heard in the film, overtly celebrates the counterculture and the open road, but so does the rest of the soundtrack, including 1960’s classics “Wasn’t Born To Follow” by The Byrds, “The Weight” by The Band, and “If 6 Was 9” by Jimi Hendrix, among others. In addition to music, the film also celebrates mobility visually, through cinematography, editing, props, and costumes. Common to the road film is the use of a tracking shot, which follows the vehicle containing the protagonists down the open road. But on two motorcycles, Wyatt and Billy’s movement is more dynamic than one vehicle’s. The camera cuts from riding ahead of them, to behind, and then each side – giving the spectator a chance to see the characters at every angle, taking on the perspective of a car passing by. The space between the bikers changes as well, creating a visceral energy which emphasizes the movement on the road and the stillness in the distance. Easy Rider’s stylized editing – which is most notable in transitional moments when locations are intercut multiple times as the story moves forward – are interesting in that they visualize movement in the frame, as well as a temporal shift. These cuts are utilized in instances when the time and space the protagonists occupy has changed, and could be read as a visual metaphor for the tensions between stasis/immobility and change/mobility. Like other films which call attention to the medium itself through self-conscious cinematography and editing choices, Easy Rider is as open to interpretation visually as it is thematically.

In terms of theme, Easy Rider poses questions regarding identity, conservatism, and the counterculture – all of which are positioned distinctly within the American socio-political landscape of the time. The 1960s were a decade fraught with tension and tragedy, from the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, (1963) and civil rights leaders Malcolm X (1965) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1968), to the U.S.’s increasing involvement in the Vietnam War. The period was also a time of great transformation, with marginalized groups demanding equality and agency. Major movements of the decade included the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, The American Indian Movement, and the Disability Rights Movement, among others. Aligned with anti-war efforts and hippie culture, these groups clashed with conservative Americans whom President Richard Nixon would refer to as “The Silent Majority” in a 1969 speech.[10] In Easy Rider, Wyatt, Billy, and George are all brought to their ends by rednecks coded as members of “The Silent Majority” – who reject the “long hairs” and their brand of freedom.

While the Western genre is often associated with a conservative, nationalistic notion of manifest destiny, Easy Rider appropriates Western themes and iconography to oppose its conservative ideology – for the most part. Unlike traditional Westerns, these bikers head east and their trusty steeds are slick motorcycles instead of horses. They aren’t protecting the town; rather, they represent the danger that comes to it. But Wyatt and Billy travel through the same open landscapes as traditional Western cowboys, and seem free of concerns for borders or boundaries, much like those characters. Coming from the city, both men seem to yearn for a frontier sense of freedom, but to actualize this fantasy would require finding a place to lay down roots, which doesn’t seem to be their style. Ultimately, it appears that their freedom is not only limited by conservative institutions and members of the “silent majority”, but by Wyatt and Billy’s own inability to figure out what they actually want. While David Laderman argues in Driving Visions that the film’s “countercultural attitude toward the landscape and nature is quite distinct from that of the Western,” he notes that the film “also rearticulates the Western’s nostalgia for the frontier, with the more general American pastoralist tradition of fondness for the wilderness.”[11] On the road film and Western iconography, Laderman also maintains:

“(One) aspect of the road movie’s iconography related to these highways is the vast, open landscape bordered by seductive horizons. These expansive spaces obviously recall the Western’s compelling articulation of the frontier, and more generally the shifting nature/culture divide. However, the road movie reinvents the Western’s preindustrial iconography of slow-paced horse treks as motorized motion and speed.”[12]

In addition to Easy Rider’s ambivalent aesthetic and thematic relationship to the Western, the film also deals with the social anxiety of the time in a manner that is sometimes unclear. While Wyatt and Billy objectively defy the normalcies of mainstream American culture simply by growing their hair long and riding motorcycles, there are times in which both characters, but particularly Wyatt, seem to support more “traditional” conceptions of American life. This conservative subtext is most clearly illustrated in the film’s treatment of race and gender, with Hill arguing that the film’s lack of black characters resulted in a “missed opportunity to expand the film’s critique of the American Dream.”[13] Wyatt, whose nickname “Captain America” also illuminates nationalistic predilections, first exposes his conformist, traditional leanings near the beginning of the film when he openly admires the lifestyle of the white rancher (who has many children with his Mexican wife, who is quiet and subservient). Regarding that scene, Laderman writes: “The lifestyle Wyatt admires – and that he himself embodies, to a degree – bears within it cultural and historical baggage full of patriarchal and imperialist oppression.”[14] Easy Rider’s “cultural and historical baggage” often complicates the film’s notions of freedom and non-conformity – notions which are also frequently contradicted by the words and actions of both Wyatt and Billy.

Lee Hill argues that Easy Rider “is a film about the contradictions of the American pioneering spirit and the sheer waste and destruction that lies behind so much of the ambition underpinning the American Dream.”[15] But it seems, instead, that the film’s overt conclusion is that the American Dream does not exist at all. Wyatt and Billy, two men who strongly identify with countercultural values are, themselves, contained by their own conservative ideas of freedom and happiness. Though their bikes traverse freely on the open road through iconic Western landscapes, their mobility and “freedom” is still limited by the effects colonialism and American self-righteousness have had on outside forces, and themselves. And this limitation is so ruthless that it results in their demise. A man went looking for America, but he couldn’t find it anywhere” and maybe he didn’t find it because he didn’t know what he was looking for, or maybe it never existed.

________________________

[1] David Laderman, Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie, (Austin, TX: U of Texas, 2010), 66

[2] Lee Hill, Easy Rider, (London: BFI Publ., 1996), 31

[3] Bill Osgerby, “Sleezy Riders: Exploitation, “Otherness,” and Transgression in the 1960s Biker Movie,” (Journal of Popular Film and Television 31.3, 2003), 98-108

[4] Osgerby, “Sleezy Riders,” 98-108

[5] Laderman, Driving Visions, 47

[6] Hill, Easy Rider,11

[7] Hill, Easy Rider,13-14

[8] Hill, Easy Rider,11

[9] Hill, Easy Rider, 9

[10] Richard Nixon, “Address to the Nation on the War in Vietnam,” (Washington, DC. 3 Nov. 1969)

[11] Laderman, Driving Visions, 79

[12] Laderman, Driving Visions, 14

[13] Hill, Easy Rider, 54

[14] Laderman, Driving Visions, 79

[15] Hill, Easy Rider

Visiting the Huntington

I’ve been meaning to visit The Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino for over two years, and finally went with my sister recently. Below are photos we took in the various gardens, which span 120 acres and include a Desert Garden, Japanese Garden, and Chinese Garden, among others. The photos below do not do The Huntington justice, so I recommend spending the day there if you’re ever in the Los Angeles area.

The Huntington Library was founded in 1919 by Southern California businessman Henry E. Huntington. Huntington had a deep interest in gardens, art, and books – building a massive research library, art collection, and botanical gardens. Only 12 miles from downtown Los Angeles, the Huntington Library is a wonderful place to relax and appreciate nature.

Fast Fashion & “The True Cost”

The True Cost is one of those documentaries that everyone should watch, and then tell their friends and family to see too. I discovered the film after a friend told me it was necessary viewing, and I’m so grateful for her insistence. In order to be conscientious consumers, it’s imperative that we know where our clothes come from, who’s making it, and how they’re being treated. The True Cost examines the human rights, labor rights, and environmental impact of the garment industry, focusing on the horrific practices of fast fashion in particular. It’s also important to note that with women making up the majority of garment workers across the globe, this topic is a feminist issue as well.

Before watching The True Cost I admittedly shopped at places like Zara and H&M because they offered affordable, cute clothing. But such low prices are the first sign that something is not ethically produced. Now I not only shop less (why do we need so much stuff?) but I buy second-hand and search for brands that are known to treat their employees well and embrace sustainable practices. Compared to the simplicity of just showing up at any store and grabbing the best fitting outfit, shopping now takes extra time and diligence, but it’s certainly worth it. I understand that “ethical” brands are often too expensive for the average consumer, but even if you cut back on buying clothes at fast fashion stores and shop secondhand more often, you’ll be making an impact.

After you watch the documentary, be sure to check out The True Cost‘s Buying Better page, which provides information on shopping smarter and what brands promote sustainability and proper treatment of their employees.

The True Cost is available on Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and iTunes.

The Lessons I Had to Learn in Order to Survive Grad School

WOOHOO. I did what I honestly wasn’t sure I’d be able to do and finished graduate school. I’m grateful for the opportunity to pursue a graduate degree at such a prestigious university, but ultimately I’m most thankful for how I’ve grown as a person over these past two years.

No matter what you’re studying, graduate school is extremely time-consuming, stressful, and often highly competitive. In my first semester we were required to take a professionalization course in which we learned about conferences, academia, and a lot of things that didn’t pertain to me since I was never interested in becoming a professor or pursuing a PhD. But one concept stuck with me, and that was the dreaded and all-consuming Imposter Syndrome.

My entire graduate school experience was shaped by this syndrome, which Wikipedia characterizes as “a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.” (And yes, I wanted to use Wikipedia as a source since it’s such an academic no-no). I felt like an imposter the entire first year of my program, and continue to off-and-on to this day. But surviving graduate school required that I put the worries of Imposter Syndrome aside and find my inner strength.

As a student I’m more of the quiet type. I like to listen and absorb, and then present my ideas in a paper or presentation, rather than contributing extensively to class discussion. This is a bit of an issue, however, since graduate school is all about class discussions, and a bit of intellectual showing off. I spent so much time feeling stupid for not having the confidence to talk much during class, but then I realized that it wasn’t that I lacked confidence (since I felt comfortable teaching my own weekly class of undergraduates) it was that speaking up wasn’t necessarily my style of learning. I learn best by listening, not talking, but I’m thankful for those in my classes who did speak up often. My first lesson of graduate school is that in order to survive (happily at least) you must be true to yourself.

Graduate school was also the first time in my life I spent surrounded by scholarly folk, who pontificated using big words while referencing philosophers and fellow academics. But my approach to cinema and media studies has always been more accessible – somewhat pop culture driven – so at times I felt out-of-place. My way of thinking and writing was often more “approachable” than my peers, and it took me a long time to realize that my accessibility was my strength, not my weakness.

My second lesson of graduate school is trust in your ability and know your strengths.

I found myself constantly counting the ways in which my peers were better than me, rather than embracing my own strengths. Something finally clicked when I was entering my fourth semester and I suddenly realized, quite literally out of nowhere, that I was in my program for a reason. If I was qualified to get in, I was qualified to stay. While other people were having their work published in journals and presenting at conferences, I was doing other things. And that was okay.

The third and final lesson I learned in graduate school is that being able to think critically is a precious tool. Before entering my program I felt like I was fairly media-literate and questioned the status quo often, but now I engage with everything I come across on a much deeper level. I fine-tuned my critical thinking skills by learning from some of the greatest scholars in the world, but also from my peers outside of academia. My sister, for example, is naturally gifted when it comes to examining and engaging with ideas and images below the surface. Some of my most deeply held opinions come from ideas she’s discussed with me. So the addendum to my third lesson is also that education is everywhere. School is valuable, yet inaccessible (or not the right fit) for many. Whether you attend college or not, make the world your school. I learned so much in the two years I took off between college and graduate school, and those years shaped me almost as much as my time at USC did.