An Eye for an Eye: Remakes and Repression
Janani Subramanian/University of Southern California

American Eye

The American remake of The Eye

Two weeks ago, in my Transnational Horror class, we began our “Pan-Asian” section of the course, featuring East Asian films that have been or will be remade by Hollywood. We started with 2001’s The Eye, made by Hong Kong-based brothers Danny & Oxide Pang, which was remade in 2008 by French directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud. I watched the remake before I watched the original, which in and of itself is an interesting occurrence (and one that many of my students experienced with Ringu/The Ring), and I was actually quite surprised by how different the original film was from the remake. The predominant difference was stylistic in nature; the original moves at a different pace than the remake, a fact that points to the influence of the “Asia Extreme” phenomenon in global horror. As Chi-Yun Shin argues, Tartan Video’s “Asia Extreme” distribution title has worked to create an often problematic generic category for Asian horror; the difference between the languid pace of 2001’s The Eye and the more frenetic one of 2008’s version suggests that “Asia Extreme” is a Western-influenced style of horror that has perhaps been foisted upon films that are less visceral than their remakes. ((See Chi-Yun Shin, “The Art of Branding: Tartan ‘Asia Extreme’ Films,” in Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinemas. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009, 85-100.))

As Valerie Wee points out in her insightful article about the haunted videos in the Japanese Ringu and American-made The Ring, the stylistic and narrative differences between the two films can be rooted in the different cultural contexts of their production. Wee’s analysis of the two haunted videos of Ringu and The Ring is exceptional because of its close textual analysis of the videos themselves. The video is the main source of the film’s “haunting,” and, as Wee skillfully brings out, the differences between the Japanese and American videos are illustrative of larger cultural, narrative and stylistic contrasts between the two texts as a whole. Wee’s project with the two films not only gave my students a model for productive comparison and contrast across national boundaries, but also encouraged me to think deeper about the differences between 2001’s Eye and 2008’s remake by focusing on one specific narrative element: the revelation of the cornea donor and her traumatic death. ((Valerie Wee, “Visual Aesthetics and Ways of Seeing: Comparing Ringu and The Ring.” Cinema Journal 50.2 (Winter 2011): 41-60.))

The Eye

2001 The Eye Poster

In “The Pan-Asian Outlook of The Eye,” Adam Knee argues that the original Eye’s characterization of two locations – Hong Kong and Thailand – reveal specific regional assumptions about East Asia. ((Adam Knee, “The Pan-Asian Outlook of The Eye,” in Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinemas. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009, 69-84.)) Mun (Angelica Lee), our heroine, after seeing ghosts through her donated corneas, goes to Thailand to investigate what happened to Ling (Chutcha Rujinanon), her donor, and discovers that Ling suffered from the prejudices of a seemingly rural and close-minded Thai village community. Knee points out that the reference to Thailand not only suggests a link between the present/modern (Hong Kong) and the past (Thailand), but also suggests an alternative connection between the Chinese Mun and the Thai Ling; having Ling “haunt” Mun is evocative of the often-elided labor relationships between East and Southeast Asia, where modern spaces like Hong Kong benefit from “the bodily labors of its Southeast Asian workers – primarily female.” ((Knee, 76.)) Knee goes further to say that this relationship of “structural inequality” can be extended to the production of the film itself, a “transnational” product that borrows heavily from Thai locations and resources. ((Ibid., 77. Bliss Cua Lim has also written extensively about haunting as a disruptive motif in film. See Translating Time: Cinema, The Fantastic and Temporal Critique. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.))

Knee’s argument about the link between the two women and the motif of “haunting” is equally effective in the contexts of the 2008 remake – Los Angeles and Mexico – and the relocation of the action leaves the adaptation as troubled and troubling as the original. Our heroine, Sydney Wells (Jessica Alba), also discovers that her new corneas are generating some unexpected and terrifying visions; as she investigates, she finds that her donor, Ana Martinez (Fernanda Romero), a psychic living in Los Llanos, Mexico, was persecuted as a witch for her ability to envision the future.

The movie’s plot proceeds similarly to the original, with Sydney and her psychologist driving to Mexico to solve the mystery, meet Ana’s family, and lay her ghost to rest. Sydney finally discovers through visions that Ana predicted a fire in the ceramics factory that most of the town was employed in; she tried to warn the workers, but to no avail, and is subsequently blamed for the fire itself, tormented by townspeople with shouts of “Bruja!” (witch) until she commits suicide. Once Sydney assures Ana’s ghost that the accident was not her fault, her soul is supposedly able to leave this world in peace and leave Sydney’s new eyes alone.

Sydney at the border

Sydney goes to Mexico

The same associations that Knee makes between the Hong Kong and Thai scenes of (2001) The Eye seem to hold true of the remake’s locations – Mexico, like Thailand, provides the United States with much of the invisible labor that ensures its global dominance. The haunting presence of the monstrous-feminine and the collapse of the past and the present, while perhaps more prevalent in Asian horror, fits into (2008) The Eye’s regionalization of Mexico’s alleged rural, folk and Catholic mysticism and the United States’ secular modernity. But, as Knee also says of the original film, “the subsequent merging of the two women points to still more profound structural oppositions that cannot be readily resolved.” ((Knee, 79.)) Similarly, the alignment of Sydney and Ana suggests more connections than the film’s narrative can handle, specifically the problematic link of a rural Mexican female laborer and an upper middle-class violinist living in Los Angeles, the idea of haunting as a metaphor for border crossing, or even the unexplored allusion to organ trafficking between the United States and Mexico.

Sydney and her double

Sydney looks in the mirror and sees Ana

The choice of Jessica Alba to play Sydney complicates matters even further, as there is no mention made of Alba’s ethnicity within the film, although her sister (Parker Posey) is white. Alba’s ethnic ambiguity perhaps capitalizes on the popularity of mixed-race actors in Hollywood, but in this case it proves convenient in linking Sydney Wells with Ana Martinez. ((See Mary Beltrán, “Sanjaya and the Mulatto Millennium,” FlowTV 5.12 (May 4, 2009). http://flowjournal.org/2007/05/sanjaya-and-the-mulatto-millenium/)) Both films feature a “mirror scene” where the female protagonist misrecognizes her ghostly counterpart as her own reflection; as the camera switches back and forth between Sydney and Ana-in-the-mirror, it is impossible to imagine recreating the same scene with a white(r) actress. I would argue that the connection between Sydney and Ana represents a variation on the labor divide that Knee highlights between the Hong Kong film industry and Thai labor, suggesting the equally problematic elision of racial and ethnic identities that occurs on and behind mainstream Hollywood screens.

Horror scholars often argue that horror films depend on a return of the repressed, and Knee reads the 2001 film’s twist ending as an example of this return – the film’s unmanaged contradictions literally blow up in the faces of its characters. In a slightly different vein, 2008’s twist – also a massive explosion that blinds our protagonist once more – takes place on the U.S.-Mexico border, as Sydney and her psychologist drive back to Los Angeles. If the original film’s explosion signifies a warning of sorts about “the labor and sacrifices of various socially marginalized or disempowered people,” 2008’s version functions more as a way of putting a violent yet final cap on the discussion of border crossing. ((Knee, 80.)) Whether going from blindness to sight, science to mysticism, or the United States to Mexico, the film’s re-blinding of its heroine and return to Los Angeles suggests that crossing literal and figurative borders is unwise – the ghosts of exploited labor relations and Hollywood’s whiteness are perhaps still too terrifying to confront.

Image Credits:
1. The American remake of The Eye
2. 2001 The Eye Poster
3. Sydney at the Mexican-American border
4. Sydney looks in the mirror and sees Ana

Please feel free to comment.




R.I.P., F.N.L.
Janani Subramanian / University of Southern California

Dillon Panthers

Dillon Panthers: Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose

I need to include an obligatory “spoiler alert” here, since the odd screening schedule of Friday Night Lights (2004-2011) has created a divide between those who have DirecTV (on which the show recently finished its last season) and those who do not (for whom the show’s last season will air on NBC beginning April 15).

This column will probably be equal parts appreciation, critical analysis and eulogy. Saying goodbye to a television show is an odd feeling, particularly because you are saying goodbye to a habit, to a time slot, or, in recent years, to part of a “list” of DVR recordings. The ending of a series also abruptly highlights the fact of television authorship; the continuous experience of a series returning from week to week or season to season perhaps allows viewers indulge in the idea that the series just exists, unending, in some dream-like television database. Friday Night Lights’ primary stylistic feature – the use of documentary-style camerawork – perhaps encouraged the idea that the world of Dillon, Texas would somehow continue week to week, indefinitely. The show did have its own stops and starts, as its future was up in the air after both the first season and the writer’s strike in 2007-2008, leading to premature season finales that tried to awkwardly tie up narrative ends. ((http://web.archive.org/web/20080413145255/http://community.tvguide.com/blog-entry/TVGuide-Editors-Blog/Ausiello-Report/Ausiello-Scoop-Race/800032760?rssDate=12345678))

Focus on the family

Focusing on the Taylor family

On the subject of continuity, FNL faced the problem that most high school teen dramas face at some point in their run – the fact that their protagonists eventually graduate – but managed to circumvent the awkward transition from adolescence to adulthood (that shows like Beverly Hills 90210 (1990-2000) and Saved by the Bell (1989-1993) clumsily tried to address) with a focus on Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his family. Perhaps the show’s greatest contribution to the television landscape was a nuanced and developed focus on rural, working-class Americans; the sense of being dropped into a small Texas town was consistently underscored by the show’s commitment to location shooting. (( http://flowjournal.org/2008/06/i-don%E2%80%99t-think-we%E2%80%99re-in-hollywood-anymore-television-series-go-on-locationalisa-perren-georgia-state-university/ )) The characters’ occupations (football coach, high school principal, waitress, nurse, police officer), the modest houses, an open and unflinching attitude towards financial problems – these were the show’s primary markers of its working-class to middle-class milieu.

Then, of course, there was the football, which also helped the show maintain narrative continuity from season to season and contributed, along with the camerawork and location shooting, to a carefully constructed sense of authenticity around the lives of small town Texas residents. The focus on one high school football team (in seasons 1-3, the Panthers, and in seasons 4-5, the East Dillon Lions) fed seamlessly into the series’ alternation of interpersonal, melodramatic storylines; whether rooting for the team, its player or its coach, we as audience members never really suffered from any conflicts of interest. The football itself was filmed in the same documentary realist style as the rest of the show, highlighting the essential moments of each game with familiar conventions – shots of the scoreboard, close-ups of brutal tackles, the sounds of referee whistles and crowds cheering, and glimpses of Coach Taylor’s tense expressions. (( I can’t find a great way to fit this into my column, but a large part of the show’s Internet fandom was devoted to the emotional resonance of Coach Taylor’s…hair. From episode to episode, Chandler perfected the tousled look of a man who cared little about appearance – his hair just oozed earnest frustration. See the Television Without Pity forum, “What would Kyle Chandler’s Hair Say?” http://forums.televisionwithoutpity.com/index.php?showforum=902)) From my own personal sports-watching standpoint, this was the ideal distillation of the essential moments of football into easily digestible melodramatic nuggets. As my partner and I would watch episodes together, I would often think about the show’s gendered address – why would my sports-obsessed partner agree to watch a teen melodrama with me? Did he see it as nighttime melodrama or sports-themed drama? Did the documentary style somehow mitigate the show’s deep investment in the dynamics of heterosexual courtship and teenage angst? Was the football authentic enough to anchor his identification? Whatever the case, our viewing pleasures overlapped enough to keep us together in front of the television from week to week.

East Dillon

East Dillon’s Vince Howard and Coach Taylor

In comparison to the show’s nuanced and sensitive portrayal of Coach and Tami Taylor’s (Connie Britton) marriage, the black characters come mainly from broken homes. After the exit of Smash Williams, the show’s main black protagonist is Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan), who Coach scoops up from the nasty crime-ridden streets of East Dillon and turns into the team’s star quarterback. Howard’s mother (Angela Rawna) is a heroin addict, but her son’s new leaf prompts her to get clean and find steady work, and when his ex-con father (Cress Williams) enters the picture in Season 5, the Howard family gets a sweet glimpse of what “normal” family life is like. But Mr. Howard can only stay away from crime for a few episodes, and it is the demonization of the black father in season 5 that really made me cringe. For both Smash Williams and Vince Howard, Coach Taylor serves as substitute white father, and with the addition of Mr. Howard’s unreliable and unstable black father character in Season 5, the show truly asserts its conservative nature and what George Lipsitz would call its “possessive investment in whiteness.” Lipsitz argues that Americans are encouraged to “invest” in whiteness, both in terms of capital and ideology; on a narrative level, the success of the town, its minority population, and its football players depends on the particular brand of conservative white patriarchy that Taylor represents. (( George Lipsitz. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).)) On the level of production and television markets, the financial viability on the show, particularly with the increased racial diversity of the fourth and fifth seasons, depends on the white family at its center to carry it through an already whitewashed television landscape.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxTgebdi8lo[/youtube]

I felt increasingly uncomfortable as the last season went on, particularly as Vince Howard’s character suffered under the influence of his black father and only improved under the explicit guidance of Coach Taylor. Camera angles and positions, as well as specific edits and cuts, privileged the relationship between Taylor and Howard as symbolic of the series’ main narrative throughline – not only that sports are a microcosm of life but also that white male leadership is a clean and effective remedy to interpersonal, political and racial dramas. The Taylors eventually move to Philadelphia, and in one of the last shots, the camera pans slowly over black high school football players’ faces, listening raptly, as Coach spouts his various aphorisms. You can take the man out of Texas, but not Texas – or dominant white masculine ideology – out of the man; you can take a show off the air, but it’s hard to forget the ambivalence that it leaves behind.

Image Credits:
1. Dillon Panthers: Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose
2. Focusing on the Taylor family
3. East Dillon’s Vince Howard and Coach Taylor

Please feel free to comment.




Fairly Normal Activity: Horror and the Static Camera
Janani Subramanian/ University of Southern California

Something Disturbs Katie Featherstone in PA1

Something Disturbs Katie Featherstone in Paranormal Activity 1

I saw both Paranormal Activity 1 and 2 with my 19-year-old Indian-American brother and 60-year-old Indian father. We were a motley crew of generations, education, and general outlooks on life, but we were all huddled in our seats, hands over eyes, at various points in both films. At some point after the first film, my brother (the same one who jumped in his seat during the film) scoffed that nothing really happened in the film, and after the second film, my dad joked that he was going to make a movie called Normal Activity where he just hangs out in the kitchen. Both comments made me think about the curious experience of watching these two horror films that were based on a great deal of waiting and watching, a viewing experience fairly rare in mainstream, effects-driven horror films.

Most press about the first Paranormal Activity (PA) focused on its low-budget production and high-grossing profits, relatively unknown writer/director Oren Peli, Steven Spielberg’s involvement with distribution, and the film’s viral marketing campaign. (( See http://articles.latimes.com/2009/sep/20/entertainment/ca-paranormal20, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/entertainmentnewsbuzz/2009/09/paranormal-activity-expanding-after-selling-out-nearly-all-midnight-shows.html. )) The second film, while not as well-received as the first, kept Oren Peli as a producer and attempted to provide both backstory and continuation to the first film’s storyline. In keeping with the primarily Internet-based marketing of the first film, Paramount—who owned the rights to the film after acquiring DreamWorks in 2005—featured a trailer on its website with mysterious “Easter Eggs” that the diligent fan could discover by playing the trailer backwards. (( http://www.paranormalmovie.com/index.php. )) The plethora of press surrounding the film’s marketing, distribution and exhibition, rather than the content of the film itself, is reminiscent of its found-footage horror predecessor, The Blair Witch Project.

Nursery in PA 2

The Nursery in Paranormal Activity 2

The Blair Witch Project shifted paradigms of film marketing, independent filmmaking, and the generic conventions of horror. Marketing started through various websites that claimed that the film’s story was true, while the filmmakers refused to confirm or deny these theories, and by the time of its release, the film had “already acquired a cult status and was guaranteed an audience when it finally opened nationwide.” (( Jane Roscoe, “The Blair Witch Project,” Jump Cut, 43 (July 2000): 3-8. http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC43folder/BlairWitch.html. )) The film’s use of documentary aesthetics—the improvised dialogue of the characters and the shaky camcorder visuals—has been discussed extensively within scholarly discourses, along with the self-reflexivity of using student filmmakers as the main protagonists. (( See Craig Hight and Jane Roscoe, Faking It: Mock-Documentary and the Subversion of Factuality (Manchester University Press, 2002) and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, Nothing That is: Millennial Cinema and The Blair Witch Controversies (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004). )) Working within the traditions of the amateur, found-footage mockumentary, PA creates a similarly chilling movie experience as a young couple tries to document the paranormal presence that has supposedly invaded their home.

What sets PA 1 and 2 apart from the found-footage genre of The Blair Witch Project and the more recent Rec (2007) and The Last Exorcism (2010) is that the couple and family in each film are not trying to create a documentary, but merely trying to understand what is happening to them. In the first film, Micah Sloat and Katie Featherstone (the actors’ and characters’ names) set up a camcorder in their bedroom to try to capture inexplicable activity that goes on while they sleep. The majority of the film is seen from the perspective of the camcorder in the corner of the bedroom, where hours of footage of the couple sleeping is fast-forwarded to the specific points where activity occurs. (( Ingeniously parodied in 30 Rock episode “Verna,” where a camcorder captures Liz Lemon sleep-eating. )) I would argue that there are quite a few elements that make these scenes suspenseful—for one, sleeping is an intensely intimate and mysterious human activity, and the hours of footage of the couple’s inactivity, except for changing sleeping positions, is already marked by an eeriness of witnessing humans at their most vulnerable. The bluish hues of night footage cast the scene in a monochromatic surreality, and, most interestingly, the static camera encourages a different kind of viewing experience. The shaky camcorder of Blair Witch and its ilk creates a sense of suspense just by the fact that the camera is being guided by a human, and therefore vulnerable, hand, while the static camera, I would argue, is marked by a kind of cold, mechanical invulnerability. Unlike the documentary crews and camera-people who are invested in other films’ unfolding of events, from alien attacks (Cloverfield) to zombies (Rec/Quarantine) to possession (The Last Exorcism), neither PA 1 nor 2 ends because the hand guiding the camera gets blown-up/eaten/chopped off; the films end when the tape runs out, when the camcorder falls off the stand, or, in the case of PA 2, when the security camera is destroyed. Our investment as viewers lies only with the technological apparatus that allows us to watch these events unfold, and the distance between the technology and human activity removes any illusion of control we might have over the film’s narrative; the camera’s cruel indifference makes what is happening that much more horrific.

Kitchen in PA 2

The Kitchen in PA 2

The second film in the franchise emphasizes the static nature of the camera to a greater extent, as the film’s events are seen from the different perspectives of security cameras located throughout this family’s house. (( There is a connection to the first PA – this is Katie Featherstone’s sister’s house, and the events we see precede those of the first film. The filmmakers have tried to establish a mythology about why a demonic presence is targeting these sisters, which will probably be the basis of the recently announced third installment in the franchise. )) To me, the second film was even more interesting to watch than the first, because “watching” for a large portion of the film consisted of staring at empty rooms. Without human bodies to focus on, I found myself scouring the screen for out of the ordinary movement of objects or changes in the environment. During the majority of these scenes, the audience not only giggled or called out to the screen out of nervous anticipation, but also because there was something absurd about all of us sitting and staring at a family’s house where nothing was happening. My favorite moment in the film was when the family’s automated pool cleaner keeps mysteriously crawling out of the pool; while the filmmakers used it to toy with us and set us up for the more terrifying events in the film, I also considered it tongue-in-cheek representation of the true horrors of suburban domesticity—having out of control appliances disturb a comfortable and privileged existence.

Pool Cleaner in PA 2

Errant Pool Cleaner in PA 2

Each film’s representations of domesticity, femininity and the demonic demand a closer inspection in the context of generic histories of both horror and the demonic, but for my purposes, I would be interested in exploring more connections between the static camera and the viewing experience in horror films. The static camera and the extremely long take have been theorized in avant-garde cinema, most famously in relation to Michael Snow’s 1966 film Wavelength, a 45-minute slow zoom into an apartment where very little happens. The challenges of watching the film (and of screening it in classrooms (( See Michael Zyrd, “Avant-Garde Films: Teaching Wavelength.” Cinema Journal 47. 1 (Fall 2007): 109-112. )) )—of contemplating an unchanging space for an extended period of time—are what critics have celebrated as Snow’s revelation of the “essence of cinema” and the viewing experience. (( Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (New York: P. Dutton & Co, 1970). )) I am not suggesting in any way that PA 1 or 2 is an avant-garde film or incorporates avant-garde aesthetics, but rather raising questions about the effects of the static camera and unchanging mise-en-scenes on the horror genre and on the viewing experience.

Image Credits:
1. Something Disturbs Katie Featherstone in Paranormal Activity 1
2. The Nursery in Paranormal Activity 2
3. The Kitchen in PA 2
4. Errant Pool Cleaner in PA 2

Please feel free to comment.




Life: Oprah Gone Wild
Janani Subramanian / University of Southern California

The Humboldt Squid

Filming the Humboldt squid

I love my television. It’s the largest one I’ve ever owned, and with size comes a seemingly limitless stream of engrossing images – Don Draper’s face, the many disfigured corpses of Fringe, Paula Deen’s concoctions. I never fully appreciated what high definition meant until I got this new television, and while I’m still trying to understand the benefit of seeing pores and other facial minutia, the exposure to sharply defined mise-en-scenes is exhilarating.

I started thinking more about high definition while watching Life on The Discovery Channel, an 11-part documentary series narrated by Oprah Winfrey. The series was originally produced by the BBC’s Natural History Unit, and the U.S. version of the show replaced David Attenborough’s narration with Oprah Winfrey and edited its script for an American audience. The images of wildlife on Life are stunning, no doubt, but the very act of watching it on my lovely television got me thinking about the strange marriage of technology and nature that allowed Life to be filmed for my consumption.

Each episode of Life focuses on a different class of animal or aspect of animal behavior – “Challenges of Life,” “Reptiles and Amphibians,” “Mammals,” “Fish,” “Birds,” “Creatures of the Deep,” “Hunters and Hunted,” “Insects,” “Plants,” and “Primates.” Each episode is followed by a short segment explaining how some part of the episode was filmed, with one episode, “The Making of Life,” devoted to explaining the “extraordinary lengths” the filmmakers went to acquire such remarkable footage. ((http://dsc.discovery.com/tv/life/episodes.html)) The footage is indeed remarkable, which Oprah constantly makes us aware of with dramatic statements along the lines of “This has never been filmed before.” Such claims, as Brett Mills points out, are common to contemporary cutting-edge wildlife documentaries, which constantly replay man’s ongoing primal struggle to conquer nature in some shape or form. ((See Brett Mills, “Television wildlife documentaries and animals’ right to privacy,” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 24.2 (2010): 194.)) The Life crew battled the elements, as the “making of” segments explain, to bring viewers scenes from the secret lives of animals big and small.

Vogelkop bowerbird

The Vogelkop bowerbird “decorating” his nest for a mate, which has never been filmed before.

Despite the novel nature of the footage, though, Life engages in conventions scholars have identified as common to wildlife documentaries, namely anthropomorphism. Jan-Christopher Horak uses Steve Baker’s phrase “Disneyfication” to describe the facile and reductive ways that animals are often portrayed in popular culture and claims that even amidst today’s more sophisticated discourses of preservation, “the Disneyfication of animal images through extreme anthropomorphy continues unabated and in fact has been naturalized through new digital technologies.” ((Jan-Christopher Horak, “Wildlife documentaries: from classical forms to reality TV,” Film History: Documentary Before Verite 18.4 (2006): 473.)) Life falls into this pattern of mapping human social and cultural relationships onto animal species and societies. Mothers fight tirelessly for their offspring, for example, illustrated by the tortuous journey of the female strawberry poison-dart frog to bring her delicate offspring to safety, or the giant octopus that starves herself to death to watch over her eggs.

Strawberry Poison-dart frog

The Strawberry Poison-dart frog works arduously to keep her offspring safe.

It is in this quaint appeal to animals’ humanity (?) that Life is a throwback to older kinds of wildlife documentaries – as Horak points out, current documentary and reality TV programming is dominated by “rescue narratives” that either emphasize the rescue of individual animals (Animal Cops) or make a general appeal to ecological and conservationist sympathies. Life engages in neither, focusing rather on the more mundane events in animals’ lives and attempting to get as close as possible to the action, which of course, as we are reminded throughout, is only possible because of the filmmakers’ ingenious and creative use of filmmaking technology. But I would argue that the emphasis on technological sophistication does participate in a subtextual conservationist narrative; in each “making of” segment of the episodes, there is a consistent emphasis on using the right equipment to get extremely close to the animals without disturbing their habitats. In “Hunters and the Hunted,” a female killer whale captures a baby seal, and members of the crew reveal how difficult it was to continue filming and not help the “victim.” The rule with wildlife filmmaking, though, is to not interfere in natural processes, and with that rule comes an assumption that any interference man makes in nature is harmful. ((Mills’ article engages with the ethical implications of intruding on animals’ territory, a fascinating topic that I don’t have room to address here.))

But there is something seemingly paradoxical about watching this delicate imagery – of a world that must not be disturbed – on my high definition television. It seems strange that the march of modernization that allows filmmakers to capture and show sophisticated imagery of the natural world is part of the same processes that are encroaching upon this world and its non-human residents. Horak argues that the increase in television programming about nature is a way of managing environmental anxiety, and I would argue that the astonishing imagery of Life manages the discord between technological progress and environmentalism by linking them through consumption, using an old-fashioned wide-eyed fascination with nature to mask any ideological conflicts of interest. Horak says, “Today, the migration of nearly extinct animal species into the digital world can be seen as a virtual rescue from the uncomfortable reality of the natural world.” ((Horak, 473.))

Ants and Filmmakers working diligently

Filmmakers and ants working diligently

I would also argue that the use of human melodrama in Life is also a way of domesticizing the technological sophistication of its production, seamlessly integrating high definition natural imagery into the living room. There is one instance that stands out to me from the series that establishes a curious parallel between the text and the making of the text and creates an overt relationship between nature, technology and the audience. In the “Insects” episode, the last segment of the episode focuses on Argentine grass cutter ants. Ants are generally valorized for being focused hard workers, and Oprah tells us that their communities are “close to human cities” and “they work all day, every day.” ((I find it interesting to compare the representation of ants here to the more ominous overtones of a film like Them! (1954).)) She goes so far as to call the ants “farmers,” and what they do as “agriculture,” claiming that this is a near-perfect “corporate machine” that has existed for millions of years. The narrative of the industrious ants is closely followed by the “making of” segment that caps every episode, which explains the lengths the filmmakers went to create “butterfly vision” and capture hibernating Monarch butterflies in Mexico. ((http://dsc.discovery.com/tv/life/about/press-release.html)) The two segments are startlingly similar in their focus on the hardworking filmmakers/ants who use ingenious methods to achieve their respective goals and “take their falls in stride,” and the similarity in narrative works to not only integrate the filmmakers’ technique into the natural world, but also to make the use of high definition technologies easy for the television audience to consume.

The person who has the last word in Life, literally and figuratively, is of course Oprah. Oprah has created an empire of consumable emotions that lead to even more consumable products, and placing her brand name on Life creates a happy marriage of cutting-edge technology, unique documentary footage, and easy philanthropy. Described by The Discovery Channel press release as “one of the most influential voices of our time,” Oprah and her status as philanthropist are capitalized on by Life, supporting the conservationist subtext I refer to above. ((http://press.discovery.com/us/dsc/press-releases/2009/discovery-channels-life-tells-intimate-stories-som/)) I find it remarkable that the use of her voice alone places a stamp of authenticity on the images we consume, further participating in the “virtual rescue” of Life’s flora and fauna from the “uncomfortable reality” that we live in.

Image Credits:
1. Filming the Humboldt squid
2. The Vogelkop bowerbird
3. The Strawberry Poison-dart frog
4. Filmmakers and ants working diligently

Please feel free to comment.




In the Shadow of a Metaphor: The Vampire Diaries and Southern History
Janani Subramanian / University of Southern California

Katherine and Damon in 1864

Vampiress Katherine and Damon in 1864

Vampires are ubiquitous in contemporary culture and appeal to a range of demographics. The Twilight craze appeals to young girls, tweens, and teenagers, while HBO’s True Blood tries to elevate the genre for adult audiences and quality television consumers. In the last seminar I taught about science fiction and horror, my students were eager to explain (and complain about) the different nuances of both; namely, that Twilight tweaks the vampire myth with some good old-fashioned Christian morality and that True Blood, in HBO fashion, continues in the generic tradition of the vampire narrative to hypersexualize the vampire’s monstrosity.

My students were appalled when I then owned up to watching (and enjoying) the CW’s recent series The Vampire Diaries. Yet Diaries plays a crucial part in contemporary vampire culture, I would argue, as it fills in the demographic “gap” between Twilight and True Blood, combining teen heartthrobs, high school politics, and the darkness and desperation often associated with the vampire myth. Diaries is also a continuation of the CW’s teen-centric brand identity; with its broodingly good-looking cast, troubled teen relationships, and dramatic soundtrack, it is darker than the CW’s flashier shows like Gossip Girl, 90210, and Melrose Place. Supernatural is the network’s main monster-of-the-week (turned biblical epic) series, yet compared to the often tongue-in-cheek treatment of the horror genre by Supernatural’s writers, The Vampire Diaries is strangely, and often refreshingly, earnest.

second book

Second novel in The Vampire Diaries series (1991)

Based on the young adult novel series by L.J. Smith, Diaries tells the story of the human Elena Gilbert, who falls in love with the vampire Stefan Salvatore and is beginning to develop feelings for Stefan’s somewhat evil brother, Damon. Diaries is set in the fictional town of Mystic Falls, Virginia, and the series’ constant emphasis on the history of the town is where another, more complicated story begins to unfold. In 1865, at the end of the Civil War, Mystic Falls was the site of the infamous Battle of Willow Creek, where Confederate Soldiers allegedly killed 27 civilians by firing on a church. It is later revealed that this story is a cover-up for an event in the town’s other history – the mass killing of vampires by “founders” trying to protect their town from being invaded by monsters. The 27 “civilians” who were killed in the Battle of Willow Creek were actually vampires, trapped by a powerful witch’s curse under the church where they allegedly died; over the course of the season, the curse breaks and the vampires are freed, and once again the town’s founding families must contain the outbreak.

bonnie and witchy ancestor

Bonnie and her witchy ancestor Emily (Bianca Lawson)

The use of one narrative to cover up a “true” narrative is often characteristic of the way Southern history is told and re-told, as pointed out by Lisa Nakamura, Laurie Beth Clark, and Michael Peterson in their analysis of True Blood’s opening credits. As the authors say of True Blood’s attempted use of vampire metaphors to represent the South, “Gothic visuality offers an idea of the ‘truth’ of the South, revealing the violence, sexuality, and faith that lie behind stereotypically polite Southern facades.” (( Lisa Nakamura, Laurie Beth Clark, and Michael Peterson. “Vampire Politics,” Flow TV 11.03 (2009). http://flowjournal.org/2009/12/vampire-politicslisa-nakamura-laurie-beth-clark-michael-peterson/.)) Now, what’s different about The Vampire Diaries’ representation of the South is that the town of Mystic Falls, while being geographically located in the South, is not marked by what Nakamura et al. refer to as “Southern gothic cliche: alligators, catfish, ecstatic spirituality and sexuality, and an atmosphere of decay that bespeaks a possibly inbred mutation.” Instead, Mystic Falls, as described by the script of the pilot episode, is an ideal combination of the South and the North: “a small Virginia town. Quaint, picturesque. A place you’d like to raise a family. Southern in its hospitality, northern in its attitude.” (( http://wiki.vampire-diaries.net/Mystic_Falls.)) We might describe Diaries as Gothic-lite, missing the seamy underbelly hinted at by True Blood, yet still borrowing from the Gothic tradition in its use of dark mansions, misty woods, threatening monsters, and doomed love affairs.

With no hint of the opulence and decay usually associated with the Gothic South, Diaries’ clean and wholesome setting is besmirched only by one thing, its history of invading, decaying, blood-sucking bodies. Mystic Falls is obsessed with its history; for example, several episodes leading up the season finale are focused on the preparations for Founder’s Day, a celebration of the town’s founding families complete with 19th century costumes and re-enactments. But what is revealed in the series’ constant references to history, along with the return of vampires to Mystic Falls, is that the story of the town’s history is not as “clean” as everyone thinks. Rooting this vampiric history within the Civil War and within a town seemingly caught between the North and the South is a plot device that was undeveloped within the first season. On the one hand, the premise of a small town hunting and exterminating blood-sucking monsters and expunging these events from the “official” record hints at a metaphor for the history of violence against minority populations in general; yet, on the other hand, as Nakamura et al. argue about True Blood, the vampire metaphor is never directly linked to racial struggle and to the specific history of racial violence associated with the American South.

Caroline, Tyler, and Bonnie at Founder's Day

Caroline, Tyler, and Bonnie at Founder’s Day

Other aspects of the show continue to confuse the racial implications of the vampire metaphor. There are a few black characters within the show’s ensemble cast, including Bonnie Bennett, Elena’s best friend and a newly practicing witch. Bonnie comes from a line of witches that date back to the Civil War, specifically her ancestor Emily, who was the original vampire Katherine’s servant and protector; there is some sense that black witches colluded with white vampires during the war for protection, but now witches (namely Bonnie) are intent on keeping the vampires out. The idea of witchcraft as a tool of survival in the Civil War South or the metaphor of the witch as yet another misunderstood monster are interesting threads to potentially tease out, but The Vampire Diaries leaves these implications unexplored. And while the romance between Elena and the Salvatore brothers is intense and involving, the story of a line of black witches descended from the women of the Salem Witch Trials presents a far more interesting and potentially challenging history to narrate. There is also the black vampire Harper, sealed under the church in 1864 with the others, who appears to be the former slave of Pearl, another one of Mystic Fall’s original vampires, and who unproblematically continues to protect and serve his former master, even in a 21st century context.

The complete elision of race as a signifier – in a story about both the South and Civil War history – is puzzling. To have vampires be the designated Other within a small Southern community during the Civil War – to have their population be almost completely white yet stand in as metaphor for racial violence – seems odd, particularly given the presence of black characters in the narrative. Perhaps it is a symptom of the current “post-race” moment that we occupy, or perhaps it points to the difficulty of narrating the history of regions defined by identity struggles – but The Vampire Diaries’ metaphor of monstrosity, while suggesting interesting possibilities for narrating history, ultimately fails to be convincing.

Image Credits:
1. Vampiress Katherine and Damon in 1864
2. Second novel in The Vampire Diaries series (1991)
3. Bonnie and her witchy ancestor Emily (Bianca Lawson)
4. Caroline, Tyler, and Bonnie at Founder’s Day

Please feel free to comment.




A Bitter Pill: Nurse Jackie and a Discourse of Discontent
Janani Subramanian / University of Southern California

Nurse Jackie s2 poster

Nurse Jackie Season 2 Poster

Showtime has emerged in the last few years as a serious contender in the premium television league with its super-hits like Dexter, The Tudors, and Weeds challenging HBO’s reign over the “quality” (Emmy-winning, adult-oriented, original) television category. Four of its series – Nurse Jackie, Weeds, United States of Tara, and Secret Diary of a Call Girl – center their narratives around a strong female protagonist who eschews conventional morality for personal or professional gain. Jason Mittell notes that “HBO has built its reputation and subscriber base upon narratively complex shows,” and, in a slightly different vein, Showtime has incorporated the female-centric, single camera, half-hour “dramedy” genre into its quality brand identity. ((Jason Mittell, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” The Velvet Light Trap 58 (2006): 29.)) Building on its success with the groundbreaking and controversial The L Word, the network has diverged from HBO in its efforts to push the boundaries of gender and sexuality within premium cable.

Nurse Jackie and Zoey (Merritt Wever)

Nurse Jackie and Zoey (Merritt Wever)

With the addition of Nurse Jackie, which debuted on June 8, 2009, Showtime enters into another conversation within the television landscape; its middle-aged, working class heroine Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco) joins a growing group of older female protagonists across both network and cable programming. Julia Lesage’s “Watching for Botox” in Volume 11 of Flow TV deftly highlights the contemporary prevalence of plastic surgery for public figures but also perhaps touches on another point – that older female protagonists are becoming more ubiquitous in fictional and nonfictional media narratives. ((See Julia Lesage, “Watching for Botox,” Flow TV 11.11 (2010). http://flowjournal.org/?p=4890.)) Glenn Close in Damages, Julianna Margulies in The Good Wife, Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer – these are a few examples of series focused on middle-aged women who try to negotiate professional success with complex personal lives. While these series highlight these women’s powerful professional profiles in the midst of male-dominated environments, they also tap into what Diane Negra defines as a kind of temporal anxiety that often structures women’s lives. In “Time, Crisis and the New Postfeminist Heterosexual Economy,” Negra argues that the convention of “cheating time” in contemporary media texts is often related to a sense of urgency that dominates the female characters’ lives – in particular, an urgency to complete the requisite “stages” of the conventional heterosexual feminine life, including relationships, marriage and children. ((Diane Negra, “Time Crisis and the New Postfeminist Heterosexual Economy,” Hetero: Queering Representations of Straightness, Ed. Sean Griffin, Albany: SUNY Press, 2009. 173-190.)) Along these lines, Close’s Patty Hewes, Margulies’ Alicia Florrick, and Sedgwick’s Brenda Leigh Johnson are represented as having sacrificed or continuing to sacrifice stages of their personal lives for professional achievements, and from week to week, the narrative push behind these dramas is the continuing dissatisfaction of these women with their personal/professional choices. (Just to note, though, that TNT’s The Closer is a throwback to more old-fashioned “whodunit” detective stories, with every case neatly and efficiently tied up by Brenda; the arc that extends from episode to episode is usually focused on Brenda’s recent, “late” marriage to FBI agent Fritz Howard (Jon Tenney).)

Jackie's lover meets her husband

Jackie’s lover (Paul Schulze) meets her husband (Dominic Fumusa)

As Negra notes, anxiety surrounding aging and the passage of time is largely class-based, as upper middle-class women possess the luxury of choosing to maintain their public images from an entire industry marketed towards reclaiming youth. The heroines of Damages, The Good Wife, and The Closer may be conflicted by their choices, but they are comfortably conflicted within well-paying jobs and nice homes. Lesage argues about Damages, “In this show, most of the characters are upper-middle class, so that the actors’ cosmetically worked-on faces fit well with the narrative’s entrepreneurial psychology, one that neoliberalism now imposes on the managerial class: work on yourself, develop yourself, make good choices, take charge of your life—especially in terms of services you can buy.” ((Lesage, “Watching for Botox.”)) While not challenging the individualist rhetoric of neoliberal cultural production, Jackie does break the mold as a solidly working class middle-aged woman whose short hair, unmade-up face and plain uniform, strikingly different from Falco’s image in her previous role as Carmela Soprano, signify a marked lack of concern for physical appearance. As the main breadwinner in her household, Jackie shuttles (on public transportation) between work at the hospital and her modest home in Queens, and with husband Kevin (Dominic Fumusa) as part-time bartender and stay-at-home dad, money always appears to be tight.

Yet Jackie’s focus is not on moving up a professional ladder at work or accumulating more money to improve her home life; her simple lifestyle is constantly emphasized next to the ostentatious nature of her best friend Dr. O’Hara (Eve Best), whose extravagance Jackie observes with amusement rather than envy. Her motivations throughout the series are less obvious than those of her more ambitious television peers; she has to work, she dutifully takes care of her family, but she doesn’t seem to like either one very much. While she moves seamlessly between work and home, it’s not because she’s managed to maintain a healthy work-life balance, but more because she appears to be equally fed up with both. It is through Jackie’s ambivalence that I read the show’s groundbreaking representation of a working class, non-consumer-oriented femininity that adds shades of complexity not only to the work-life conflicts that mark other female-centric series, but also to the idea that a woman must move linearly down a particular timeline in order to achieve satisfaction. While female characters in mainstream television and film are often caught between the “either/or” of personal life and work, Jackie appears to choose neither, her deep dissatisfaction with all facets of life evidenced by her ongoing addiction to painkillers. The half-hour series oscillates quickly between episodes of melodrama and comedy in Jackie’s interactions with co-workers and peers, but often pauses for quite a few beats to focus on Jackie’s lined, tired and inscrutable face, suggesting that there are dark dimensions to the character that we have little hope of understanding.

Nurse Jackie

Nurse Jackie

Jackie’s unhappiness does not stem from not caring, though, but quite the opposite. It is a testament to Falco’s acting prowess that she’s able to carry Jackie’s poker-face grimace from home to work while also conveying the deep compassion and affection that Jackie feels for her patients and family. She appears to care equally about her ex-pharmacist lover Eddie (Paul Schulze) – who she seemed to be sleeping with in exchange for painkillers – as she does about her husband, yet there is no time in the show or her life for self-reflection (or voice-over narration, a la Sex and the City) on the moral ramifications of her affair – it just is. Her often unethical nursing practices and ongoing drug addiction are similarly left unquestioned, which has garnered criticism from critics that the show skims the surface of its characters with a “numb detachment.” ((Cristina Kinon, “Real-life nurses: Pull plug on ‘Jackie’,” NY Daily News, June 8, 2009: http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/tv/2009/06/09/2009-06-09_nurses_pull_plug_on_jackie.html.; Brian Lowry, “Nurse Jackie,” Variety, June 7, 2009: http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117940427.html?categoryid=32&cs=1.)) I would argue, though, that Jackie’s ambivalence poses a challenge to viewers to critically consider her motivations in career and personal life and undoes assumptions that her desire must remain confined to either one or the other. The show not only encourages us to rethink the generic codes of the melodrama and the situation comedy but also to reconsider not what the priorities of our female protagonists should be, but rather what they could be.

Image Credits:

1. Nurse Jackie Season 2 Poster
2. Nurse Jackie and Zoey (Merritt Wever)
3. Jackie’s lover (Paul Schulze) meets her husband (Dominic Fumusa)
4. Nurse Jackie (Edie Falco)

Please feel free to comment.