Film Response #4 – Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

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This was yet another American classic that I had yet to view, and I really enjoyed it overall. Below, I focus on how a five-minute sequence about a third of the way through the film the film appears to comment on how the film industry has curated the public’s definition of “beauty” and has centered on the sexual appeal–and not the artistic craft–of female performers.

Left: A dancer (Cyd Charisse); Right: Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) in Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

For all of the glamorous and glorious theatrics that Singin’ in the Rain (1952) includes, which have been the basis for its legendary stature, one particular sequence during a crucial transition in the main plot is seemingly awkward and forced but is woven into the narrative in a clever manner. At approximately a third of the way through the film, the sudden success of the first “talkie” The Jazz Singer has motivated the studio’s president R. F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) to halt production of the next Lockwood and Lamont film The Dueling Cavalier and upgrade to creating their own talking picture. Just before this plot transition, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) informs Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) that she was responsible for the firing his new love interest Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), which further divides Lockwood and Lamont as a congenial working couple. This desire to add synchronous speech to their films presents a problem for the studio and Don: Lina’s nasal voice and crass vocabulary will make the transition to talking pictures a seemingly insurmountable task. At 00:34:30, the film director, studio president, and Don Lockwood slowly turn toward her, and each man’s non-verbal expression–perhaps a cinematic nod to the silent film era–clearly represent their collective realization that Lina will complicate this shift.

The scene cuts to three brief spinning-newspaper swish pans, providing viewers with barely enough time to see the Variety headlines touch on the success of the talking films. The sequence that follows–which concludes with an extended scene of what appears to be the filming of a women’s clothing advertisement supplemented by the song “Beautiful Girl”–seems to interrupt the existing plot lines, but it symbolizes Don and Kathy’s relationship while providing an exaggerated synopsis of the advanced technology within the film industry in the 1920s. 

This sequence opens with an extreme close-up of three women jovially and synchronously singing the lead-in of an upbeat tune (00:34:40) and becomes a montage of various samplings of songs that feature synchronous and asynchronous singing. The second shot is a medium close up that features a series of women in matching musical note dresses and dancing with the upbeat rhythm. This cuts to four men, seemingly on their backs and with their heads in close proximity to one another in a high angle shot while singing synchronously. A second upbeat song shifts simultaneously into a long shot of over a dozen women dressed as toy soldiers. The camera zooms in quickly on the face of the faux-marching woman at the apex of the inverted V formation. At 00:34:55, the image shifts to a bizarre shot of a string of women’s uncovered legs rapidly placing right feet upon left knees on top of a vibrant green speckled background. Two seconds later, the song and image changes again, revealing a bowtied man bellowing a ballad through a megaphone. The megaphone is brought into an extreme close-up, and the chorus of showgirls–now in bright pink hats and dresses–are superimposed within the centralized close-up of the megaphone’s amplifying end. The next brief cut reveals a dancing woman in a flapper dress appearing to the left of a saxophone held by disembodied hands. The series of bare women’s legs reappears in the same angle as before but in standing position in what could be a dance studio. As the montage heads toward its close, the rapidity of images increases, first with a candy-stripe-suited man and woman in the midst of a dance performance, then a return to the toy soldiers, the megaphone ballad, the candy-stripe suit, a new trio of men locked together and tap dancing on an invisible platform, the musical note-dressed ensemble, and a mix of a few others before the culminating swipe-out back to the ballad singer surrounded by the chorus girls, one of whom is, we ultimately see, Kathy Selden. 

This sequence is highly sexualized, which nods at the public fandom toward Don and Don’s attraction to Kathy. However, embedded within this sequence are song snippets that match the imagery and action, but jar the viewer until the camera zooms out to reveal that Simpson is supervising a non Lockwood and Lamont production. Pointed out as “That girl on his right [who] looks familiar” (00:35:42), Simpson brings attention to Selden, and Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) realizes she’s the mysterious woman for whom his best friend Don has been searching for several weeks. This plot point was necessary to reunite Selden and Lockwood, and it also provides an opportunity for what Jane Feuer notes as the true basis for the film’s creation: the song catalog (487). The cache of song samples during the sequence (00:34:30 — 00:39:32) includes bubble-gum tunes concerning a man’s anticipation a relationship ending, a woman’s wedding day, a ballad expressing a man’s hesitation to be forthright in his feelings, and the extended ballad “Beautiful Girl”, the lyrics of which seem to prioritize the subject’s looks over her intelligence. While the specific lines of “Beautiful Girl” are arguably quite reductive toward women, they emphasize the parallel of Don and Kathy’s relationship. 

Thus, in a film that tends to “wink” at itself and poke fun at Hollywood’s misrepresentation of real life and real interpersonal relationships, Singin’ in the Rain further complicates its stature by incorporating existing songs like “Beautiful Girl” in a thinly veiled commercial manner while attempting to de-sexualize silent film stars like Lina and promote multi-talented performers like Kathy. 

Film Response #3 – Rear Window (1954)

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Week 3’s discussion was of Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. I am falling in love with these films more and more each week! I chose a brief one-minute “pan” to analyze in the paper below. This brief transition appears right before the end of Jeff and Lisa’s second night together in his apartment.

Left: Lisa (Grace Kelly). Right: L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) – Rear Window (directed by A. Hitchcock, 1954)

In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), James Stewart plays an injured renowned photographer named L. B. (“Jeff”) Jeffries, who, at the tail end of a seven-week recovery for a broken leg has been limited to people-watching through his apartment windows during the peak of summer. Hitchcock quickly conditions the viewer to believe that every time the various neighbors and their apartments are shown, they are seeing shots in Jeff’s point-of-view. Additionally, the camera pauses at various medium shots of the various apartment dwellers, then the camera cuts to a close up of Jeff’s reaction to these images or micro-scenes. At the beginning of the second night of the main narrative, however, Hitchcock departs from that conditioning and simultaneously satisfies the addicting quality of voyeurism that has arrested the entire narrative. Laura Mulvey discusses the “pleasures” that cinema offers, and it seems clear that Hitchcock explores this effectiveness of scopophilia in at least one key turning point in the film.

In the opening phone conversation with his editor and through the initial dialogue with his nurse, Stella, Jeff establishes his disconcerting views of marriage. During the first evening, Lisa enters Jeff’s apartment jovially, advertises the coming seven days to be a week Jeff will never forget, and their contrasting views toward the trajectory of their relationship are earmarked to become the core conflict of the narrative until after her departure when Jeff, immobile and alone again, watches the peculiar activity of the salesman, Mr. Thorwald, across the courtyard. From Jeff’s POV, we see Thorwald leave and return twice; then, in what becomes a departure from the established point of view, we see Thorwald and a woman leave the apartment before the camera pans to a sleeping and oblivious Jeff. This momentary POV shift is crucial to the entire narrative, and it is the first key detail that makes viewers just as much voyeurs as Jeff has become. Through dramatic irony, we are now even more helpless to communicate concerns and theories to Jeff as he is to Stella or Lisa. 

The second departure from Jeff’s POV recycles a shot on the thermometer, suggesting that both Jeff and the activity within his vantage-point have cooled a bit. The camera pans left and slightly up and down throughout what seems to be his POV which exhibit a series of symbolic nods to Jeff’s stated concerns of his future. The first image is that of the shirtless (vulnerable) pianist, who mops around the piano and is apparently cleaning up a past discretion–likely the drunken one he had had while alone the previous night. He pauses his work momentarily during an obvious flash of inspiration, keys a few chords, but unsuccessfully capitalizes on that flash and angrily returns to his obligatory duty. Symbolically, this parallels Jeff’s own artistic drive as a photographer and how his physically disabled state has stunted his growth as an artist. Notably, though, the pan pauses here, capturing an unsavory moment of self-loathing and frustration. Secondly, in a brief high-angle shot during the right-to-left pan, we see a father assisting a child with pajamas on the balcony. This wholesome scene is clear but never stops (as it had with the pianist), and it is also the most distant in space from Jeff’s point of view. This glimpse is a probable microcosm of the images Jeff has seen over the past six weeks on this balcony. He may envision himself as a father, but because these characters are so minimally featured, it becomes clear that Jeff does not anticipate positioning himself into domesticity and parenthood anytime soon. 

The camera pans down and left and blazes past the salesman’s empty, but lit, room as we hear the whistling from the dog owners above. The flowing pan finds the whistler, then cuts downward to find the dog running toward its retrieval basket. By now, the camera pan has mirrored the natural instinct to spot movement and immediately discern whether the movement is either arbitrary or threatening. Lastly, In a continuous stream, we see brief glimpses of the harmless women near Thorwald’s apartment opposite Jeff: “Miss Lonelyhearts” (sewing), “Miss Torso” (grooming), and the spinster artist below Miss Torso (sculpting). These three women also represent various aspects of Jeff’s life and desires: repairing/healing (sewing); independence and self presentation (grooming); and returning to his artistic craft (sculpting). The flowing pan continues left and withdraws back into Jeff’s apartment to reveal that these images were not observed by Jeff at all, but rather by the audience alone. Lisa sits on his lap, obstructing his view as they engage in amorous activity, but she is also obstructing his concentration on the Thorwald narrative he’s been constructing since the previous night. This second “departure” from Jeff’s POV further deepens the viewers’ investment in this neighborhood. Interestingly, the scene unfolds as Lisa attempts again to engage in romantic exchanges, yet Jeff struggles to reciprocate fully because he has become so immersed in the mystery across the courtyard. As the scene develops, we watch a frustrated artist wrestle with his desire for Lisa and his moral obligation to protect a stranger. Hitchcock uses this scene to demonstrate that at least some men are not driven solely by conquering sexual desires. This exchange challenges a stereotype and complicates the relationship he has with Lisa, but moments later, she finally sees what he has been seeing and becomes just as enamored as Jeff has become. 

Film Response #2 – Citizen Kane

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For our second response paper, we were asked to view Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and analyze a scene and/or cinematic technique. Here’s what I submitted. I do really like the film, but there are some glaring plot holes that disturb me to my non-critical core.

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Within its non-linearal structure, one significant two-minute flashback in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) that takes place during the interview of Mr. Leland (Joseph Cotton) at the hospital includes six brief scenes demonstrating the breakfast time exchanges between Kane (Orson Welles) and his first wife Emily Norton (Ruth Warrick), and these scenes feature clear and subtle clues to the sour trajectory of Kane’s first marriage. As the camera dissolves from Leland in the foreground to the early days of Kane’s marriage to Emily in what critic James Naremore identifies as the “celebrated breakfast table montage,” Leland states in a matter-of-fact fashion that, after the first few months, their marriage was “like any other marriage.” Through these six brief scenes, we learn that Leland’s observation of their relationship implies that most marriages begin with passion and dwindle into silent despair and contempt.

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941)

The first scene within this two-minute flashback opens with Emily sitting daintily at the breakfast table and pours herself tea. Her bright formal gown, we realize, has been worn since the previous evening, and Kane enters jovially with a cloth napkin and food for each of them. His tuxedo and demeanor are clearly aligned with his adoration of his young wife. Throughout this exchange, Kane appears to be so enamored by her beauty that he rather rudely interrupts her speech as he repeats a compliment. The shots cut back and forth on each character during this first scene, but the indication is clear that they maintain intense eye contact. Kane’s boyish body language exhibits his helplessness against her pronounced beauty. The sexually suggestive conclusion of this first sequence implies Kane’s willingness to sacrifice time from work in order to stay with his wife. Yet, this brief moment of mental and physical attraction is never superseded in the following five scenes within this flashback, during which the contents of the breakfast table and each character’s body language serve as two key unstated changes that support Leland’s claim of the marriage’s typical downward spiral of passion. 

During the subsequent five scenes, all of the food and drink are already on the table, which suggests that Kane’s cordiality has floundered. There is no physical contact, and each character experiences an increase in stress, though Kane attempts to insert self-serving wit to wash away the building discontent. Flowers appear between them in the foreground during the opening three portions, but they are absent remaining scenes, serving as a clear metaphor for their relationship. Though we are naturally drawn to each character’s face during each interaction, the removal of the flowers creates a void between them and seems to broaden and lengthen the physical space between husband and wife. This subtle space-generator signals the growing distance among two former lovers.

Consistently, each scene opens with a medium shot of Emily always facing Kane directly; however, Kane’s position across the table moves slightly to his right over the next two medium shots on him. This “turning away” indicates a departure from the giddiness we see in the opening scene. In the fourth scene, Kane is formally dressed for his day and faces her squarely, but this repositioning is overshadowed by his business-like demeanor. Emily questions Mr. Bernstein’s presence in the nursery, but Kane coldly rejects this concern. In the penultimate exchange, each character’s facial expression has drastically shifted to concern and defense. Emily’s hopefulness to discuss matters of concern has been replaced with a clear indication of her growing frustration. Kane’s squinted eyes demonstrate his equal amount of angst. The final wordless exchange, though, serves as a powerful microcosm of their marriage’s demise. Emily’s intentional choice of her husband’s rival newspaper implies her eventual departure, and Kane’s sneer over his copy of the Inquirer echoes his selfishness. 

Naremore identifies Citizen Kane as “a series of reminiscences by witnesses to Kane’s life,” and suggests that viewers are being presented the truth through these interviews. Though Mr. Thompson’s interview with Mr. Leland creates an opportunity for this flashback, the scenes potentially misrepresent the “truth” they attempt to exhibit because they are, notably, conjecture from someone who was not in the room during these alleged exchanges. If we assume these six brief moments were constructed in Leland’s mind through a variety of Kane’s comments, we must then understand that these scenes are subjective and not objective. Thus, the subtle strategy of this flashback further emphasizes Kane’s tireless protection of his ego and appearance to the world.  Naremore also centers on the ironies of the five distinguishable extended flashbacks. The six short scenes in the singular montage between Kane and Emily include examples of irony as well. Kane and Emily appear in either contrasting colors or clothing choices. Furthermore, viewers experience dramatic irony in this flashback since neither Kane nor Emily know that their marriage will dissolve before its tragic and sudden end in her death. 

Bicycle Thieves (1948) – Response Paper 1

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*I am beginning a new graduate course today at Ball State – ENG 654 – Film Studies. We were tasked to view the film Bicycle Thieves and write a brief 500-700 word response prior to our first class session tonight.

The film is available for rent or purchase through streaming services, but there is also a site/app called Kanopy where it can be viewed for free by subscribers. My response begins under the photo below.

L: Enzo Staiola (“Bruno”); R: Lamberto Maggiorani (“Antonio”) in Bicycle Thieves (1948) directed by Vittorio De Sica.

The 1948 Italian film Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) from director Vittorio de Sica features the quest of Antonio Ricci, a newly employed layman, who searches for his stolen bicycle. Antonio’s dependence on the bicycle is not only established quickly, but the bicycle also proves to represent various tangible and intangible elements of humanity. The bulk of the narrative exhibits Antonio modeling strong, respectable citizenship while in the company of his young son Bruno, yet Antonio reaches a moral threshold that clearly demonstrates a central struggle through an example of the circumstances that would lead anyone to contradict one’s own ethical code. 

The choice of the bicycle for this purpose is apt due to its multifaceted symbolic power. The universality and familiarity with bicycles contributes to the power of the film’s general thesis which exhibits the challenges one man faces with his own moral code while under extreme duress. Bicycles are often associated with youth as the first mode of transportation that truly separates the owner/rider from his or her home and outside the realm of visible adult supervision, which conjures the notion of one gaining independence. The independence Antonio desires is not one of isolation from others but rather one that would remove him out from under the weight and struggle of poverty. As Antonio’s story develops, the bicycle further serves as a symbolic generational bond between Antonio and his son, and the clarity of the father-son relationship blurs at the same pace as the whereabouts of the stolen bicycle. 

The opening sequence of the film cleverly establishes the immediate, yet undefined, significance that owning a bicycle has for Antonio, and this leads to the first of many conflicts the protagonist faces. Viewers are immediately immersed in the struggle all of the unemployed workers experience, and their frustration with the lack of opportunity quickly becomes a microcosm for the oppressed individuals. Because Antonio has pawned his bicycle, his wife Maria decides that selling their bedsheets, objects she clearly treasures, is worth the sacrifice so Antonio can not only reach the desired position but eventually earn enough to take them out of their dire financial state. Thus, the specific bicycle he re-claims serves as a physical representation of his past debt and current cash crisis. 

What is so striking about this scene is how quickly Maria’s sharp and selfless idea to pawn the sheets comes to her when compared to the visibly painful and helplessness Antonio displayed after accepting the job bid. In this scene, De Sica could be promoting the maternal instinct to think of the entire family’s needs before her own, but this altruistic action is never later discussed among the couple. However, upon buying back his bicycle, viewers watch through Antonio’s vantagepoint as the sheets they’d just sold are stored into an immense and seemingly endless collection. It is clear De Sica felt an obligation to contrast these two through tangible goods for this scene to garner as much as time as it does. 

Once the bicycle is stolen, the narrative’s tone returns to the struggle the unemployment line conjured in the opening scene. Antonio helplessly chases after the thief, earns little or no respect from law enforcement, and becomes visibly fraught with the notion of returning home to his wife and newborn to explain the loss. Interestingly, De Sica opts to allow the viewer to watch the seedy heist the three-man team of thieves initiate come to fruition, which makes the audience experience the struggle and helplessness right alongside Antonio. Because the lone thief who rode off initially was shown briefly and only in profile, the audience cannot be any more sure than Antonio himself when he believes he’s found him the following afternoon. De Sica thus forces Antonio and the viewer to consider one’s willingness to reach closure, even if it means putting others into a poorer condition. 

Lively…on Beyonce (?)

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Much of the conversation in class after we finished viewing Lemonade this week centered on the expansive funding required to produce a professionally scripted and directed visual album that features elaborate costuming, choreography, and set designing. There is something to be said about the size of the platform Beyonce has by leading the production of this film, but that creates a slippery slope. These discussions can, for example, suggest that various hypothetical redistributions of the presumably hefty final costs of a project of this size might have directly benefited intended viewers and very people it features. That said, the film has spawned a large academic response in just three years, so it stands to reason that scholarship on it will only grow at a higher frequency in the coming years. Thus, our attention should be redirected toward the functionality and general value of the film.   

Ashleigh Shackleford’s article discusses representation, and the tone of her essay mixes compliments with condemnation. The notion of representation is an intriguing one because, on the surface, it seems to be the most respectful way to display oneself artistically as conscientious of minorities and marginalized groups. However, meeting our collective idea of how we are differentiated (e.g. age, gender, sexuality, ableness, skin tone) would lean toward inclusion more than it would representation. Shackleford sees the film as a missed opportunity for Beyonce et al. to destroy stereotypes from within the Black community because the film does not include any “fat” Black women, especially since “fat” professional dancers exist, but none were brought into the fold of this film’s creation. If this criticism of the film were included as a paired text with Lemonade for undergraduates or high school students, the instructor has an obligation to chart the distinct differences between these two terms. 

One of the arcs presented throughout the visual narrative is that of a jaded lover who vocalizes her inquiries as to the whereabouts of someone with whom she is intimate, and we  eventually see that she has correctly guessed at/uncovered his disloyalty. A particularly curious portion of the narrative that stands out early in the film is the baseball-bat wielding version of Beyonce whose anger is represented through various acts of glass-smashing, denting, and crushing while maintaining a presumably satisfied smirk. While these criminal acts may not just be a thinly veiled revenge trope, the sinister exuberance she appears to be experiencing while creating so much havoc is simultaneously progressive and regressive. Fearlessly acting out an immediate impulse to destroy can inspire (especially impressionable) viewers to react just as violently through similar vivid, lasting “statements” when they are victimized. However, it is equally regressive not to promote a less violent response. The Louisville Slugger-swinging character clearly represents a fed-up woman whose struggle while being on the receiving end of a (now former) lover’s emotional abuse are behind her. This angry, reactionary, and physically agile persona exemplifies the liberating ramifications of shedding the anvils of a toxic relationship by violently (and/or maniacally?) destroying objects of literal or sentimental value, but the character here is less directly reminding viewers that it is only the relationship–not the individual–that has died. Perhaps a second missed opportunity lay in the absent scenes of this liberated, untethered woman celebrating a personal or professional success instead of the imagery of instant gratification, which, at its core, perpetuates the adrenaline-enhanced–but relatively brief–antidote that a smashing ceremony does for one’s soul. 

Walden and Known Failure

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For many years, I assigned to my high school juniors whatever excerpts from Walden the literature textbook had supplied. This usually included the opening lines from “Economy” (though the editors may have fragmented some portions) and ended shortly after the heavily cited and depressing sentiment “All men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I believe that was followed by the meticulously detailed account of the building and planting materials from that same initial chapter. The opening of “Where I Lived…” appeared next and stretched until the line about living “deliberately” met my students’ eyes. Later, of all things, “Brute Neighbors” was portioned out in our textbook, but the section chosen by the editorial team centered on the aerial view of the large red and black ants, included because, we eventually discussed, that it was a relatively strong sample of Thoreau’s use of symbolism concerning, some students suggested, themes such as individualism, war, and community. As a career educator, I would eventually like to slip into future conversations concerning the American canon, and I continue to believe passages of Walden are essential to the shaping of literary thought in America. While each of the aforementioned excerpts represents either a general or specific thematic feature of the book, this week’s re-reading of Walden paired with the supplemental articles by Arsic and Walls identified for me other valuable portions that might pull back from Thoreau’s desire and ability to check out of society (more or less) for twenty-six months, and instead center on some revealing stylistic choices that make the book relatable to individuals born since 2000. 

I was especially drawn to the thorough examination Laura Dassow Walls identifies in her analysis of the relationship between the Thoreau of Walden Pond and the “everyman” neighbor Mr. Field (later, Mr. Farmer) from the latter half of one of the shortest chapters in the text, “Baker Farm.” The theme of this scene directly echoes a key remark from  Emerson’s “Nature” essay (which, I would argue, should also remain accessible in standard anthologies) where he shrewdly observes how mankind takes ownership of land, but that “no one owns the landscape.” Walls cites how the first half of Walden establishes themes of industry and fortitude as the cornerstones of soulful satisfaction. By inserting John Field–a man who respects the sage words of the author/narrator, but who also elects not to heed his advice–into the narrative, however, Walls sees that Thoreau has set himself and the project of the book up for failure. Because the Fields (who Walls suggests may represent a hesitant-to-change Us) remain unaltered by his words, Thoreau is reduced to dwell on their irrationality. Walls, though, believes this short scene was structured “deliberately,” in order for it “to confront us unequivocally with the true sources of evil in our own well-meaning desire to improve ourselves by working hard, buying more stuff, and rising in the world, just as we have been told to do” (20). 

This passage from Walls struck me because it runs parallel to so many themes found in the various essays and fiction from David Foster Wallace, one of the subjects I’m considering for my area of specialization. Wallace, like Thoreau–or, what Laura Walls suggests is the character named “Thoreau”–often discussed The American Dream of proudly and ceaselessly logging hours at work (and consequently away from one’s friends and family) in order to climb the corporate ladder, upgrade a car every so often, move into a larger living space and fill it with stuff no one needs in what ultimately will end, whether we want to believe it or not, in a fruitless quest to secure happiness. Walls believes Thoreau sought to appear defeated in this scene because Walden “will succeed only if [Thoreau] can pivot his audience from material failure to spiritual success” and that readers “must feel this failure” (21). 

Branka Arsić’s essay uncovers a focal point from Walden that I had not considered earlier either. This approach toward Things was, for me, a much more abstract analysis, but I applaud her efforts in identifying and tracking the Things themselves and navigating through different classifications of those Things. The portion of the essay that resonated the most with me appeared toward the end of the middle section “Deathway of Things.” By labeling things from Thoreau’s perspective as either living or dead, she cites from the book the “two different responses to the phenomenon of dead things, that of the Mucclasse Indians and Mexicans, and that of the New Englanders” and notes that Thoreau “does not side with either” (165). Walls notes that the way the author seems to understand things aligns with the “non-dualistic understanding of the world” to which the Mucclasse Indians subscribe”[m]eaning must be embedded in the material” of the Thing (165).  

The value of Arsić’s essay and Walden is that these two Things themselves have potential in formal and informal educational venues. The book itself allows students in classrooms or readers in book clubs multiple opportunities to identify what is or should be treasured, to discuss the evolution of our moral values, and to express the bond we have with material (or immaterial) Things. While culturally, we may clash about the value or usefulness of living or dead Things, the discussions themselves about these differing perspectives can lead to a greater appreciation for one another as human beings, which, it seems safe to say, is among Thoreau’s central objectives within Walden.

Question for Class Discussion

  • Walls discusses how past analyses have concluded that Thoreau’s alleged disdain for the Irish is short-sighted. Are there other instances in the book where he reveals his privilege and/or expresses any level of contempt or prejudice toward an individual or group? 

Sources

Arsić, Branka. “Our Things: Thoreau on Objects, Relics, and Archives.” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 23 no. 1, 2014, pp. 157-181. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/556056.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. (original 1845 publication).

Walls, Laura Dassow. “‘As You Are Brothers of Mine’: Thoreau and the Irish.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 88, no. 1, 2015, pp. 5–36., http://www.jstor.org/stable/24718201.

Critiquing Criticism – Week 2 -Part 1 (?)

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On Monday, our 19th century American Lit course met to discuss two critical articles that focused on the book American Renaissance by F. O. Matthiessen and tied those articles to the core text for the week, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (original 1855 edition). Because most of you are likely uninterested in the specific details and critical strategies of the academic articles, the book they discuss, or the classic text involved with all three, I’ll save you from as much extemporaneous material as I can. Thanks for reading though. I’ll place all the texts at the bottom if you’re genuinely looking to brush up on your literary criticism. In short, Matthiessen spent well over a decade putting together this critical text that centered on the five authors (Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman) whom he deemed had single-handedly created a unique, unprecedented American voice in the mid-nineteenth century.

Students in my past have often asked (in their own way) how the excerpts that they’ve been assigned to read in textbooks or anthologies were selected and have continued to appear, generations after their publications. In their words, it’s something like “Why can’t we read authors who are alive and stuff?” Many times, I’ve chatted with parents who want to 1) tell me what they read in high school, 2) ask if their son or daughter will be assigned the same books as they themselves were assigned a generation earlier, 3) regenerate a love (or lack of) for a canonical text (e.g. “Are you gonna make them read The Scarlet Letter? I HATED that book!”), or 4) all of these.

Here’s where it gets a little interesting: Matthiessen was clearly an intellectual man whose passion for not only identifying and categorizing these works, but also for demystifying them and creating the groundwork for the first truly American canon of literature. He was also a vocal advocate for academic freedom at a prestigious university. Because he challenged so many traditions and norms, he earned a widespread following of cheerers and jeerers. [Jeerers, evidently, is not a known word to my computer; however, this is just a blog, so I’m moving forward.] When his book was finally released (he’d had to “check himself in” at one point because the project had become so overwhelming and he was also afraid his lover was on the brink of death [more on that in a sec]), he was met with a less than resounding response from his colleagues in literary circles.

So, Matthiessen was a homosexual man. It feels so strange to write that [because, so what?…right?], but it ends up being pertinent to this brief essay. For decades now, American Renaissance–by far his most notable publication–has become the subject of a vast amount of interpretations. I have not read it, but that’s secondary. Anyway, his own reservations about how much of these authors’ personal lives and lifestyles should play into his criticisms was apparently always at the forefront of his mind. What’s even crazier–crazier is a word but it’s not very academic…meh–is that some of Matthiessen’s critics thought he offers a less authentic book because he essentially omitted the authors’ sexuality, even though he himself was writing a genesis of what’s become “gay criticism.”

This leads to the question that found its way in the center of our class discussion this week: When writing a critical article over a piece of literature (or really any art), does the critic have an obligation to insert anything beyond the art, or should the artist (and his/her life, history, sexuality, politics, etc.) be discussed as well? Matthiessen’s book also prompted some to suggest that the critic’s own life, history, sexuality, politics, etc. should be in play as well.

I suppose a less intense way to discuss this debate is to think about why you like the art you like. Why, for instance, does a Picasso piece appeal or disgust you? Why are you drawn to Game of Thrones? Why do you still have your favorite songs from when you were fourteen in a saved playlist? If you told me the answer to any of these, would you be comfortable with me bringing in your past relationships, your issues with your parent(s), your sexuality, or your voting history as my interpretation of why you still love Asking Alexandra?

I don’t have answers. But I find this discussion intriguing. The era of criticism most of us have been conditioned to follow/use has been what’s known as New Criticism–interpreting/judging the art for itself and dismissing all other aspects. However, is it possible to truly analyze art without consciously or subconsciously harboring in our own lives and perspectives?