My Name Is Khan

My Name is Khan poster

My Name is Khan poster

My Name is Khan was a crossover success for Indian film director Karan Johar. The film is set in America and has a large amount of English language content. For many Americans, this film served as an introduction to Indian cinema and two of its biggest stars—Shah Rukh Khan (also billed in some films as Shahrukh Khan), who plays the lead character, Rizvan Khan, and Kajol, who plays his wife, Mandira.

The film tells the story of an Indian man with Asperger’s Syndrome in post-9/11 America who takes his wife’s challenge to “go tell the president who you are!” seriously and makes a journey that takes him on a cross-country tour of the U.S. as he tries to meet the president and explain that he is not a terrorist. It also a story about a mixed marriage as Khan is Muslim and Mandira is Hindu (as a bit of trivia, Shah Rukh Khan is Muslim and married to a Hindu in real life; Kajol is Hindu).

Some critics have compared the film to Forrest Gump and there are definitely parallels between the two films, such as Khan’s and Forrest’s journeys which put them in the path of people and events that make the news; the way both men change the people they encounter; and the quests they embark upon.

My Name is Khan will seem familiar in some ways to American viewers because of the similarity to Forrest Gump and some parts of film narrative and production are common to both Indian and American cinemas, such as the use of flashbacks and the use of close-ups to convey the characters’ emotions and responses.

There are also some aspects that are much more typical of Bollywood: the length of the film, the use of melodrama, musical numbers to extend the narrative, choreographed crowd scenes, and using the camera to revolve and swirl around characters to convey a sense of emotional distress.

Bollywood elements of the film

Melodrama is one of the staples of Indian cinematic narrative. Plot (and often overly theatrical acting) weighs more heavily than characterization. In My Name is Khan there are several events that move the plot forward and which may seem too predictable or too heavy-handed to American viewers, such as the deaths of Mark and Sameer. Khan’s arrest, beating, and release from prison are another example. Any of these events on its own might work in a typical American film, but all of them together pushes the limits on the American viewer’s ability to suspend disbelief. In Indian cinematic tradition, the use of melodrama is expected—the characters usually have every single crutch or support device ripped away from them over the course of a film so that when there is resolution in the end, the viewer has a sense that the character has overcome absolutely all odds to reach victory.

What makes the melodrama of My Name is Khan palatable for American viewers is Shah Rukh Khan’s acting. He refrains from doing overblown acting through most of the film and is usually very believable as Khan, stuck inside his mind and unable to process the unspoken emotions and responses of other people. Shah Rukh Khan lets the slightest flickers of expression around his mouth and eyes tell the story as Khan makes discoveries and realizations about the world he encounters.

While American movies use music in their soundtracks and sometimes have characters who sing snippets of a song in a scene, Hollywood movies generally don’t use songs to advance narrative unless the film is a Musical. In Indian cinema, musical numbers are expected in almost every genre. While there are no big dancing numbers in My Name is Khan, there are a few places where a song is used to move the story along. A song starts when Madira cuts Khan’s hair and turns into a montage of the pair falling in love. The closest we get to an all-out song and dance routine is during the memorial service at the church where Mama Jenny and the congregation sing “We Shall Overcome” and Khan joins in.

An example of a more typical musical number in Indian cinema is this piece from Mission Kashmir:

In the film, the two characters in the scene were childhood friends who haven’t seen each other for years; the man, Altaaf, has been groomed to be a terrorist and he originally plans to use the woman, Sufiya, to gain access to a TV station where she works. Here, he fakes his way into a performance she is doing of a song that is sometimes played on the night a Kashmiri bride-to-be is painted with henna. At the end of the performance Sufiya has a flashback to her childhood and singing the song with Altaaf; she recognizes him and they are reunited.

Many of the post-9/11 events in the film are designed to show the anti-Muslim sentiment in America at the time (and which is still lingering). Again, some of these incidents fall into the realm of melodrama: for American viewers, it is hard to buy the idea that Reese and Sameer would be best friends for seven years and then Reese would suddenly stop speaking to Sameer after his father dies in the war in Afghanistan. The other kids at school believe Sameer is a Muslim, but surely his best friend would know Sameer’s true character (and that he is Hindu).

American viewers might also be thrown off by the overlapping events and subplots in the film—as Khan makes his way across the country, new characters and situations are introduced and the film goes back and forth with these scenes and the larger story of Khan’s journey.

‘There are only two kinds of people in the world’

The character of Mama Jenny is interesting in light of our previous discussion of the representation of blacks in Hollywood films. In My Name is Khan, Mama Jenny is close to the stereotypes of a Mammy character and what Spike Lee calls “the magical, mystical Negro,” a character who has special spiritual, healing, or magical abilities. Mama Jenny’s spirituality and generosity are supposed to show that Khan’s mother’s assessment of people was right; his mother told him religion doesn’t really matter, that there are two kinds of people in the world: good and bad. Mama Jenny is supposed to be a “good” one. While the intent of the character is good, the characterization may be flat and stereotyped to American viewers when they see Mama Jenny in her big skirt and head-wrap that are eerily similar to Aunt Jemima’s or her life in a ramshackle cabin that is eased by her involvement in her church. This type of portrayal is so common in the films and TV shows that America exports, the representation is picked up and reproduced in other cultures.

The film tries to show that Khan’s mother was right about the two types of people in the world by contrasting Mama Jenny with the woman at the fund-raiser who tells Khan it is “for Christians only” and by showing different types of Muslims over the course of the film. We are shown Khan and his mother, his brother, and his sister-in-law as “good” Muslims. Khan is shown praying in several and his sister-in-law wears the hijab, but we don’t get much perspective on what they think or believe—again, this is where plot and action take precedence over fuller character development. In contrast, the “bad” Muslims are shown in the mosque inciting one another to violence.

By the end of the film, we don’t get too deep into any of the characters, which may seem odd to American viewers who are used to films that often follow the literary expectation that a character must grow in some way or change perspectives by the end of the film. Part of this may be a cultural difference: in America, there is much focus on “the individual” and we expect a certain amount of depth and motivation to explain a character’s actions. In other cultures where family and group take precedence over the individual, storytelling may focus on actions and consequences of events rather than an individual’s unique understanding of those events.

Film Terminology

Diegetic Sound—the sounds a character can hear on screen, even if the source is not visible (e.g. birds chirping or music playing on the radio). Non-diegetic sound is not implied to be part of the character’s environment (e.g. narration or music that swells in the background during a suspenseful scene). The music that plays when Mandira cuts Khan’s hair is non-diegetic; when Khan, Mama Jenny and the congregation sing “We Shall Overcome,” it is diegetic sound.

Flashback—interrupting chronological sequence by injecting scenes of earlier events unfolding.

Melodrama—the use of extravagant theatricality and the predominance of plot or physical action over character development.

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African Americans on film

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band with Del McCoury.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band with Del McCoury.

If it’s a film class, why is there a picture of a bunch of musicians? Well, this week we’re talking about race in Hollywood and focusing specifically on African Americans in film. This week, the students in the class read a chapter about how the Civil Rights Movement impacted American society and popular culture in the 1960s.

The representations of blacks in Hollywood films was historically full of stereotypes (the domestic, the fool, the threat) or, just as troubling, notable for a complete absence from the screen. We’ll get to those ideas in a few minutes.

Now about that photo. It’s not the one I would like to have at the top of this post. The one I would like to have hasn’t been taken. See the man with the clarinet and the man with the guitar in the center of the photo? They are Charlie Gabriel and Del McCoury. Gabriel is one of the members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and McCoury leads the bluegrass ensemble that bears his name. The two bands recorded an album, American Legacies, in 2011 and occasionally do performances together.

The two bands recently did a concert at the university and there was a moment before the show started that I would have captured had I been able to photograph the performance: before the stage lights went up, Charlie and Del walked out on stage together holding hands. Two men so full of talent and love for their music supporting each other as they took the stage–the gesture was a small, human, and completely beautiful moment. With Charlie being 80 and Del in his 70s, I kept thinking about how unlikely that gesture would have been at the start of their careers–even if they had no personal qualms about race, the society around them and the audiences in the 50s and 60s would have.

A sampling of how the two groups’ styles blend well together, bringing together two uniquely American sounds:

Now, let’s look at the movies.

African Americans & the Film Industry

The early American film industry operated similarly to the music and theater fields—often, there were separate productions for black and white audiences. From about 1915-1950, more than 500 race films were produced for black audiences. While most of these films were financed and scripted by whites, a handful were made by black filmmakers. Unfortunately, many of the films have been lost and only about 100 remain.

Filmmaking pioneer and author Oscar Micheaux

Filmmaking pioneer and author Oscar Micheaux

An early pioneer of cinema, Oscar Micheaux, worked for Lincoln Motion Picture Company and advertised that the company’s films were scripted and produced entirely by African Americans. The 1920 film Within Our Gates, written and directed by Micheaux is the oldest surviving film made by an African American director. The film tells the story of a black woman who travels north to raise funds for a school in the South. Along the way, she discovers secrets about her family history, which sets the stage for racial violence that culminates with the lynching of a black man. Micheaux’s films and books often depicted the accomplishments of blacks in the face of adversity. Some critics complain about the overwrought acting and limited production values in Micheaux’s work, but his films were often more concern about the message than the delivery, and are worth viewing to see his ideas about politics and societal roles.

After Micheaux, there were very few black filmmakers in America until the late 20th century and the rise of the Blaxploitation movies. From the 1930s to the late 1950s, the African American presence in Hollywood films is limited to secondary roles. One thing I ask students to consider when they’re thinking about this era is how it would feel to never see reflections of your “self” on screen. What message would it send to continually see only white people in leading roles and portrayed as successful? For nearly 40 years, black audiences did not see their lives reflected back through popular movies. (Other minority groups have a similar treatment in Hollywood films; often those representations don’t show up on screen until an independent filmmaker has success with a film that shows the world his or her community; once larger studios see that there is an audience for the material, more films with a bigger budget follow.)

Sidney Poitier helped both black and white audiences envision African Americans in dignified positions.

Sidney Poitier helped both black and white audiences envision African Americans in dignified positions.

In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Sidney Poitier broke through the American color barrier and delivered performances that helped Americans begin to envision blacks and whites as equals. The Defiant Ones, A Raisin in the Sun, Blackboard Jungle, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and A Patch of Blue allowed Poitier to play a wide range of roles from the comedic to the romantic and the dramatic. At the height of his career Poitier placed an emphasis on dignity, delivering his performances with measured emotion that emphasized wit and intellect. He gave white audiences a different vision of African Americans and their potential.

By the 1970s, though, the reserved performances of Poitier gave way to films that bubbled with anger and frustration at unjust situations and a racist society. In 1971, Melvin Van Peebles hit big with his independent film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song as did Gordon Parks with Shaft (Note: These trailers are graphic and contain adult language). These films, with an emphasis on the gritty urban scenes, the drug trade, violence, revenge, and stylistic editing and funky soundtracks opened the doors to a new generations of black filmmakers as well as opportunistic low-budget imitations by studios trying to cash in.

Charles Burnett’s films of the 1970s and 1980s were often attempts to show realistic images of black life in America; his films do not rely on the flashy color and creative editing of the Blaxploitation era movies. Instead, they have a stark, quiet realism Killer of Sheep, My Brother’s Wedding, and To Sleep With Anger are some of his best known films.

From the 1980s to now, filmmakers like Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, John Singleton, Allen and Albert Hughes, and Julie Dash, etc., have been directing movies that depict black life in contemporary America. Critics and the film industry started noticing Spike Lee with his short films and the 1986 feature She’s Gotta Have It, but his 1989 film Do The Right Thing caught all of  America’s attention for its fresh camera work, inventive dialogue, and the mix of humor, anger, and sadness that show the events that unfold in a racially mixed neighborhood on the hottest day of the year.

This week, the class watched Something New, which focuses on an interracial relationship. Kenya (Sanaa Lathan) is a successful business woman who finds herself set up on a blind date with Brian (Simon Baker). As the film opens, the audience sees she is under pressure at work to prove herself and in her personal life to find a mate. Her girlfriends try to get her to lower her high expectations—she wants a man who is educated, has a job, has good teeth, and “isn’t crazy,” which seems reasonable, but then she keeps listing requirements further narrowing the possibile candidates. When a friend sets her up on a blind date with a single landscape architect, it sounds like an good match until she sees he is white.

The film offers a glimpse into the life of an upper-class black woman; even with her accomplishments and background (coming from a family of “academics” and graduating from top schools), Kenya still has to work harder than her white colleagues to prove her worth to the firm where she is employed. The film does a frank exploration of race in America and shows both black and white views with honest, if not very subtle, scenes where Kenya and Brian explore their own expectations and values while also dealing with the opinions of family and friends.

An interesting thing about film is that it can be reflective of current societal attitudes or it can project an ideal for people to strive for. For example, many of the War films during World War II show a racially integrated military while the armed forces were still segregated in real life—desegregation of the armed forces took place in 1948. Showing a fictional unity on screen reinforced the idea of all Americans working together for the cause.

American films and TV shows featuring black characters often make a point of explaining the difference between black culture and the rest of America. On the TV show House, Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) often makes exaggerated comments about Dr. Foreman’s (Omar Epps) experiences with crime and life in a ghetto. An interesting contrast can be seen in British television shows where multiracial casts often do not discuss their backgrounds. In the crime drama Luther, lead detective John Luther’s (Idris Elba) experiences as a black man in England are not mentioned by him or other characters. Racism exists in the UK, but it is focused differently than it is the U.S. The history of slavery in the U.S. and legislative language that ignored the basic human rights of significant portions of the population still reverberate today; other issues such as economic anxieties and fears over security impact how immigrants and people of other religions are treated.

NPR did a piece on African American stereotypes in the movies that is worth listening to. Click here to listen. Professor Anna Everett makes the observation that many of the stereotypical black characters in films are not “contextualized” within a family or community; they come out of nowhere and are attached to nothing. The white characters around them impart significance and meaning to their existence within the world of the film. Actor/director Bill Duke talks about the limited roles for African Americans in Hollywood and the dilemma many face as they are torn between paying the bills and holding out for roles that go beyond stereotypical representations.

Masculinity, war films, and Windtalkers

The poster for Windtalkers sends the message that the film's story is really about the white protagonist.

The poster for Windtalkers sends the message that the film’s story is really about the white protagonist.

The film the class is watching this week is Windtalkers, directed by John Woo. We’ll address representations of Native Americans in the film, masculinity, and some things to look for in John Woo’s directing. But first, let’s do a quick overview of the War film genre in Hollywood. We’ll use John Belton’s American Cinema/American Culture as our main resource for discussing the genre and its place in American popular culture.

War films

War films occupy an important place in American cinema. This genre, along with the Western, helps us define ourselves as well as defines us to the rest of the world. These films often show a unified America that does not exist in reality and they often depict the idealized American man–a strong individual with high morals who will fight for his country (and, it is often implied, the underdog).

Belton writes, “The war film mediates our relationship to war, helping to prepare us for it, reconcile us to victory or defeat, and adjust us to its aftermath. The conventions of the war film continue to shape our understanding of real wars–to inspire us, on the one hand, to fight in them and, on the other, to protest against them. Though wars continue to be fought and won or lost on the battlefield, they also continue to be fought and won or lost through their representation on the movie or television screen. Images of war explain why we fight; they stage and restage war’s battles; and they attempt to explain why we won or lost” (182).

The war films made during and shortly after World War II were generally supportive of the American military and our role in the war. These films helped garner support for the war effort or depicted the actions of the soldiers involved as unquestionably heroic. While there might have been occasional references to “war is hell,” the mood is overwhelmingly supportive. The Vietnam war changed that. War films from the early 1970s on, often question American involvement in global wars and the decision making process  where young men and women are sent to wars for reasons other than a direct military threat to the U.S.

Belton lists four conventions in American war films:

  1.  the suspension of civilian morality during war (i.e., killing other people is no longer considered murder during war).
  2. collective goals take precedence over the goals of the individual (i.e., completing the assigned mission is more important than any personal goals).
  3.  there is rivalry between men in predominantly male groups and the objectification of women (i.e., many war films contain sub-themes where recruits compete for the drill sergeant’s favor during boot camp; when women appear in war films, they are often companions for the men when they have leave or are caregivers such as nurses).
  4. the reintegration of veterans to civilized society (not all war films include this aspect, but the struggle to return to civilian life is a frequent theme in post-Vietnam war films).

Masculinity  constructed

In “Men, Masculinity, and Manhood Acts,” Douglas Schrock and Michael Schwalbe discuss how masculinity is developed and studied. They provide an overview of masculinity studies in the late 2oth century and suggest studying how men interact and collaborate to build and reinforce masculine identities.

If you’re not used to thinking of gender as separate from biological sex, it may help to do some thinking about the ways in which gender is socially developed. Most of us are labeled “male” or “female” at birth based on our genitalia. That is our biological sex, and while it seems fairly cut and dry, there are intersex conditions that make even biological designations of male or female unclear—something that seems like an essential marker of identification—”male” or “female”—is not always a reliable or easy categorization to make.

Gender is different from our biological sex. Gender is how we view ourselves (and are viewed by others) as male or female*. Gendering starts early—often before we even make it out of the womb. Parents who find out the sex of their baby often share the news so well-wishers can stock up on pink or blue items. Since we are concentrating on masculinity this week, I’ll write about how social gendering happens with boys; you can think of similar examples of how it works with girls.

A young boy decked out in "Lone Ranger" clothes and toy gun. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/154796

A young boy decked out in “Lone Ranger” clothes and a toy gun, circa 1940s. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/154796

Cowboy costume for sale on vegaoo.com

A more recent version: cowboy costume for sale on vegaoo.com

Early on, boys are given “boy toys”—trucks, construction toys, sports equipment, and toy swords and guns. The little boy who dresses up as a fireman or a superhero gets indulgent smiles from strangers. The little boy who slips his feet into mom’s shoes gets scolded even if he has put them on because he thinks they are a neat color or he wants to be an inch taller; adults fear the little boy will “turn gay” by putting on the shoes or playing with his sister’s Easy Bake Oven. (For whatever reason, it is more acceptable in the United States for a girl to show “masculine” traits like assertiveness and interest in “boy” things like sports.)

For American males, anything that smacks of femininity or homosexuality is forbidden and adolescent boys quickly learn to use both femininity and possible gayness as insults to regulate each other’s behavior–i.e, “you throw like a girl!” Boys who do not conform to the expected gender roles are ostracized, sometimes with tragic results.

While gender roles are shifting, there is still a lot of pressure for men to conform to narrow definitions of “acceptable” masculine behavior and presentation. Men in the U.S., are, by and large, expected to be strong, assertive, to objectify women, be rational, keep their emotions in check, etc. The problem with this narrow definition is that it excludes many types of masculinity; it  assumes heterosexuality, for example, or leaves out familial cultural roots and their impact.

Many of the ways men define themselves (or are defined by society) is in opposition to the concept of Woman. Why does it seem natural to define something by what it isn’t? Are there other ways might men define themselves that isn’t dependent upon a binary?

In 2010, Esquire Magazine did a poll of American men on a wide range of topics to see how the generations felt about everything from politics to sex. Click here to see how men in their 20s and 50s responded. What might we gather about American men from the survey results? How do the two generations seem similar? Where do they seem divided on what it means to be a man in the U.S. now?

 Windtalkers

Windtalkers is a 2002 film directed by John Woo. By the title of the film, we expect to hear the story of the Navajo Code Talkers who served during World War II and kept the Japanese forces from deciphering American radio transmissions. Instead, the film focuses most of the attention on Sergeant Joe Enders (played by Nicolas Cage) and his perception of the mission, including his assignment as a body guard to Private Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach).

Director John Woo uses many parts of the formula found in standard Hollywood war films: a racist soldier, a nurse with a heart of gold, a love-sick soldier, a commander who does everything by the books, a scene where the Navajo solider saves the racist, etc. Woo also presents the Japanese soldiers as a largely faceless enemy, so he can spend more time on the pyrotechnics.

Woo built his name as an action director, so it is not really surprising that the film is actually thin on story, but Windtalkers doesn’t really show his trademark almost balletic action scenes. The hand-to-hand combat is heavy on bullets, blood, and bayonets and the large-scale battle senes are full of explosions and flying bodies, but it doesn’t show Woo’s style at its best. Be on the lookout for the juxtaposition of sound and action in Windtalkers—some of the most violent scenes in Woo’s films have a light, peaceful soundtrack. To fully appreciate Woo, check out The Killer, Hard Boiled, and Face/Off.

While we don’t get much deep understanding of the Navjo Code Talkers’ story, the film is different from many Hollywood portrayals of Native American life because it takes place in the 20th century. Hollywood often relegates Native Americans to Westerns and historical dramas. In Windtalkers, we see Ben Yahzee and Private Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie) as men with some complexity—Ben writes letters to his son which he is forbidden to send in case they fall into Japanese hands and Charlie uses his spirituality to deal with the stress of war.

The production crew did go to the trouble to cast a Navajo speaker (Willie) in one of the lead Navajo roles; even though some of the pronunciation by other Native American actors is sometimes off, the effort to use the authentic language is still rare in Hollywood. In many Westerns from the Golden Age of Hollywood, indigenous languages are often simply made-up languages.

Adam Beach got into acting as a way to escape the rough life and his troubled childhood. Beach has used his place in the public eye to speak up about the lives of indigenous people in North America and to reach out to other young people in similar situations. Here, he speaks about being a role model:

What obligations do celebrities have to the public? Why should someone who is part of a minority culture feel obligated to speak up for their “group”?

For another perspective on the representations of Native Americans in popular culture, click here for an interview with actor, playwright, and doctor Evan Adams.

Film terminology for the week:

Close-up—a detailed view of a person or object without other context; the actor or actress may be framed so that part of their face or only their head and shoulders appear in the shot.

Jack Nicholson in "The Shining."

Jack Nicholson in The Shining. The “Here’s Johnny!” scene is one of the most iconic uses of the close-up.

Slow motion—shots of a subject photographed at faster than 24 frames per second, which when projected at a normal rate produce a dreamy or dancelike slow action; often used to emphasize mood or capture a “moment in time.”

A shoot-out from John Woo’s Hard Boiled uses slow motion to great effect to raise the tension throughout the scene:

* I am presenting this information in fairly traditional binary terms, but it should be understood that gender is complex and most people display both masculine and feminine traits because all of us are individuals and do not conform 100 percent to any stereotyped descriptions.

Love and romance in American comedy

Myrna Loy and William Powell; the pair made several films together including the Thin Man series and Love Crazy.

Myrna Loy and William Powell; the pair made several films together including the Thin Man series and Love Crazy.

Note: This blog is a virtual lecture that accompanies a film studies class, so there are references to specific readings and films the students have access to, but the casual reader might not. However, there are also general ideas about film studies and Hollywood history that don’t rely upon the texts and films.

British writer/comic Stephen Fry suggests that the difference between American and British humor comes down to self-confidence. He claims American comics’ routines hinge on a sense of optimism, while British comics celebrate their failures. Fry’s observation is interesting for the insight an outsider brings to our humor; also, he seems to be onto something.

When looking at American movies, the main character is often an underdog who has the pluck to get out of a sticky situation through wit, a little fast talk, and action. It is kind of ironic that one of the iconic comedians from Hollywood’s early days, Charlie Chaplin, was British; his Little Tramp character was the embodiment of the American myth of the everyman who can pull himself up by his bootstraps and make a name for himself. Another American comedic icon, Cary Grant, was also British; he came to the U.S. when he was 16, reinventing himself and helping Americans imagine an American man who could be urbane, witty, and sophisticated. While Grant played several types of roles throughout his career, he first hit big in screwball comedies—our genre this week.

Slapstick and anarchy

From the earliest silent movies through to today, slapstick has been a big part of American comedy.

The Marx Brothers had a special mix of wordplay and physical humor that reflected the wisecracking urban sensibilities of an evolving America where even the sons of Jewish immigrants could become world famous movie stars. The Marxes simultaneously lived the American dream and destroyed all attempts at creating any sort of institution. The brothers started out life in a poor section of New York’s upper East Side and worked the family vaudeville act into a film career that afforded them fame and wealth beyond their expectations. In their films, the Marxes poked fun at anyone or anything that attempted to impose order or assign value–higher education, socialites, government, etc., were trampled on with glee by the Marx Brothers.

The desire to destroy the institution—physical or more often, social—is a hallmark of American comedy. This brand of humor ties in with our idea of ourselves as iconoclasts and individualists. However, even with the destruction, there is usually a resolution where the institution is restored, but changed somehow and improved upon before the restoration is complete.

Movies such as Big Daddy (starring Adam Sandler) take on the institution of marriage and family. Sandler’s character, Sonny, is first presented as an overgrown kid who is selfish and destructive, belittling his friend Kevin for getting engaged. When a child (Julian, played by Dylan and Cole Sprouse) lands in his care, Sonny is forced to grow up, but he does it on his own terms—there are experiments with letting Julian dress himself and go by the name Frankenstein. He encourages the boy to urinate in public in attempt to keep him from constantly wetting his pants, but Sonny also uses a similar creative approach to get Julian to take a bath–dressing up as the father of the boy’s favorite superhero, Scuba Steve, and asking Julian to keep Scuba Steve company in the bathtub. A threat to the newly formed bond between Sonny and the boy by the court system forces Sonny to reevaluate not only his child-rearing strategy, but also his own views on marriage and family. By the film’s end, Sonny has become “normalized” into a marriage with a newborn of his own; his “improvement” to the system is introducing the ideas that each person involved in the child’s life has an impact and that men can raise well-adjusted children if given the opportunity.

Love and laughter

The battle between the sexes provides much fodder for American comedy. While the Romantic Comedy is often thought of as a genre that appeals more to female moviegoers, its foundations are in the Screwball Comedy, which had more general appeal. See the overview of the genre on Green Cine for more in-depth information about specific films, performers, and directors.

Screwball Comedies often pitted men and women against each other in conflicts that were substitutions for sexual expression. The term “screwball” was first used in the 1930s to describe the unpredictable pitches thrown by baseball players like Carl Hubbell. Movie critics adopted the term to describe the comedy films that came about in the early 1930s that revolved around unpredictable plots and zany antics between seemingly mismatched romantic partners.

Many films of the 1930s and 1940s have been labeled Screwball Comedies, including the film we are focusing on this week, Love Crazy. However, the label is often thrown at movies that simply have an element of madcap antics thrown into the mix.

For our purposes, a Screwball Comedy usually has the following elements:

  • A couple that is mismatched socially (one is usually from the upper class while the other is middle class), but a good match intellectually
  • Absurd situations or characters with secrets
  • Physical comedy that stands in for sex or physical affection
  • Rapid-fire dialogue that includes one-liners and innuendo from both parties
  • A series of misunderstandings that complicate the plot and prevent the couple from uniting until the end of the film
  • Neither party is idealized—the pair find each other irritating at the start of the film; interest often develops as the result of a challenge (there is no “love at first sight/stars-in-the-eyes” scene)
  • The resolution includes marriage or remarriage
  • Often, the middle class is idealized as virtuous in Screwball Comedies while the rich are viewed as being in need of reform (this is due in part to the original Screwball Comedies being produced during the Great Depression when audiences sought escapism and enjoyed seeing the rich get a comeuppance)

If you have done this week’s reading, you’ll note that Screwball Comedies reached their peak during the Production Code era. During this time in Hollywood’s history, the industry engaged in self-imposed censorship and graphic depictions of sex and violence (among other things) were banned. The 1931 film Scarface is considered the catalyst for the Production Code; read more details here.

Screenwriters had to develop films that would have mass-generational appeal. Keep in mind that during the 1930s and early 1940s, going to the movies was often an all-day affair where the audience saw a newsreel, comedy shorts and cartoons, the feature presentation, and possibly, a second feature as well. The movies had to appeal to everyone and offend no one.

With the Screwball Comedies, the screenwriters found ways to push the envelope and write dialogue and situations that adults would understand as intimate in nature and younger viewers would simply find funny or entertaining.

Jane M. Greene, in “A Proper Dash of Spice: Screwball Comedy and the Production Code,”* makes the case that antagonistic relationships stood in for sex during this era. She also argues that Love Crazy is not a true Screwball Comedy.

While we do see signs of the Production Code at work in Love Crazy—the Irelands have separate beds in their bedroom, for example—and Greene points to examples of how the dialogue was edited to conform to the Production Code, many elements of a classic Screwball Comedy are missing: Steve and Susan are already married when the film opens and even during the separation scenes, they do not have a physically antagonistic relationship. Their dialogue may be a bit suggestive on the night of their anniversary, but otherwise, the pair rarely exchange one-liners that hint at the sexual tension between them. Finally, the Irelands are both solidly middle class, so no tension exists over perceived social status.

Some elements of Screwball that appear in the film: There are outside forces that work to keep the pair apart (Susan’s mother, Ward Willoughby the archer, and Steve’s former girlfriend Isobel); the misunderstandings about Ward Willoughby and Pinky Grayson, as well as Steve’s masquerade as his “sister”; and the scenes where Steve is institutionalized.

If you haven’t watched Love Crazy yet, or plan to revisit it, here are some things to look for:

  • The performances of William Powell and Myrna Loy: the duo was paired up in several films in the 1930s and 40s, including the Thin Man series. They play off of each other well and have a natural chemistry on screen that makes them believable as a married couple. While Powell isn’t as familiar to today’s audiences as other comedic actors of his generation (Cary Grant, for example), he had a natural grace and accessibility that made him an audience favorite. Likewise, Myrna Loy had good comedic timing and sass that made her more than just another pretty face.
  • The use of lighting and sound to underline the lighter comedic fare: unlike in heavy drama, the lighting in the film tends to be pretty even from scene to scene. Few dramatic close-ups are used; instead, there are many medium shots which allow the audience to focus on the entire scene unfolding rather than on the emotional impact for only one character at a time.
  • The reinforcing of middle class values: from the set design to the etiquette in place around meal times and standards of dress, the Irelands embody 1940s middle class values.
  • Gender roles and expectations: We have different visions of what it meant to be a man or woman in America at the time the film was made. How are the various characters presented? What does the film tell us about how men and women were expected to behave during this period?
  • Somewhat related—stereotypes: We see a nagging mother-in-law in several scenes. There is also a scene where the valet at the party is presented as a wide-eyed fool; the few blacks shown on screen in this era were often cast as domestic servants who also had an air of childishness about them. Listen to an NPR segment about black stereotypes in Hollywood here.

Questions to consider:

Why are relationships such a big source of comedic inspiration?

How has American film comedy evolved over the decades (or has it)?

What do you think of Stephen Fry’s assessment of the difference between British and American humor?

Until the Production Code was replaced with the ratings system in 1968, films were regularly edited or censored to conform to the standards of the code. Have you ever watched a film that you found offensive or thought should have been edited to some degree?

Film terminology for the week:

Classical cinema–mainstream narrative cinema, roughly from the mid-1910s to the 1960s. These movies are characterized by a strong story, star, and high production values. These movies usually have a clear conflict, complications that rise to a narrative climax, and a resolution that provides closure.

high key lighting–Bright, even illumination with few conspicuous shadows; this style of lighting is associated with comedies, musicals, and other “light entertainment” genres.

medium shot--A medium shot usually shows the performer from the knees or waist up; the shot is relatively close up and includes some details of the surrounding scenery.

A medium shot from Sherlock Holmes. Director Guy Ritchie places Robert Downey Jr. in front of the crowd where he is filmed from a slightly low angle.

A medium shot from Sherlock Holmes. Director Guy Ritchie places Robert Downey Jr. in front of the crowd where he is filmed from a slightly low angle.

mise en scène–how the various elements in a frame are arranged–this includes settings, decor, props, actors, costumes, makeup, lighting, performances, and character movements and positioning. Cinematic mise en scène is both the way the action is staged and how it is photographed. Also long, un-cut, unedited and uninterrupted sequences shot in real-time are often referred to as mise en scène.

Greene, Jane M. “A Proper Dash of Spice: Screwball Comedy and the Production Code,” Journal of Film and Video 63.3, Fall 2011.

Why film studies?

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/5852

Residents of St. Augustine, FL, line up to see Distant Drums, starring Gary Cooper. The movie was filmed on location in the Florida Everglades and there are also shots of the Spanish-built fort on St. Augustine’s bay front. Distant Drums was billed as “steel-fisted drama wrought from the soul and sinew of mighty men.” Image from the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/5852

What can we learn from watching movies?

What do Hollywood films tell us about ourselves? How early do we become aware of the social expectations that are on us? What role do films and other forms of popular culture have in making us aware of what is expected of us as men and women (and any other way you want to identify yourself—racially, ethnically, by religion, by sexuality, by subgroup, etc.)?

Spend a little time watching TV shows and movies aimed at children. Some ideas about conforming to society’s expectations are reinforced–often the basic roles of males and females. However, some things are showing up in this programming that might affect how a child views things; in the film ParaNorman, one of teenagers seems like a stereotypical guy–he lifts weights and works compulsively on his van. Yet, the buff motorhead turns out to have a boyfriend. A kid’s movie normalizes homosexuality while also destroying some of the stereotypes associated with gay men. The mention of the boy’s homosexual relationship is only that–a mention, but, some parents were upset by the character and the idea that the film “promotes” homosexuality. (Nancy French’s Review and Jeff Quinn’s response to a negative review of the film present two reactions to the gay character in the film; the commentary from readers is interesting.)

How seriously should we take pop culture? Does it really have that much power over us?

Justin Jedlica has spent more than $100,000 transform his body into a human Ken Doll. Image from ABC news.

Justin Jedlica has spent more than $100,000 to transform his body into a human Ken Doll. Image from ABC news.

Douglass Kellner, in “Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture,” gives an overview of why there are courses like this one at universities across the country. He writes, “Media images help shape our view of the world and our deepest values: what we consider good or bad, positive or negative, moral or evil.” He gives a lot of credit to the media in shaping us. How much of who you are is shaped by the media images around you? How much comes from other sources: family, school, peers, religious institutions, etc.? Are the parents who were upset by ParaNorman justified in their fears that film would somehow undermine the values they are trying to impart to their children?

Kellner says it is necessary for us to learn to look at the media with a critical eye. How much of your information about others comes from first-hand research? How much comes from other sources? If you’ve never been to the Middle East and only have Hollywood images to go by, you would expect to find terrorists, women covered head-to-toe, open-air markets, mummies, sheiks, camels, pyramids, oil, etc. Depending on which country you go to, you would find things are nothing like what we see in our movies about the Middle East–deserts don’t make up the whole of the region; in many countries, women have jobs and are educated, etc. Jack Shaheen’s article “Reel Bad Arabs” lays out in smaller form the basic argument of his book with the same title. We’ll read Shaheen’s article later in the semester, but one of his biggest points is that Hollywood’s images of Arabs and Muslims have been largely negative since the beginning of the American film industry and that these images help justify anti-Arab sentiment and Islamaphobia in America.

Brining it closer to home … how do you feel about the way your “group” is portrayed on screen? For example, I grew up in the South. When I see Southerners on screen, we are usually portrayed as ignorant, racist, backwoods fellas with three teeth in our heads who carry shot-guns and say things like, “Yee-haw!,” “I’m busier than a two-tailed cat in a room full of rockers,” and “Git ’er done!” Some of those stereotypes might be more true than others, but I rarely run across people here who fit all of them.

Lynn Weber’s “A Conceptual Framework for Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality,” provides some historical context for the study of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Among the things she expects us to examine is structures of power and authenticity of voice.

Cultural critics like Weber force us to ask questions about authority and authenticity—who gets to speak for whom and why? She gives the examples of how straight middle-class whites are held up as the “norm” in both feminist and masculinity studies. While the women’s movement of the late ’60s and ’70s fought for equality, many within the larger group felt voiceless—women of color, lesbians, the disabled, etc. In a similar manner, men’s studies usually revolve around the experiences of straight white middle-class (and sometimes working class) men. Men of color are often ignored as are non-heterosexual men.

Considering this problem of smaller, underrepresented groups in the larger society, we might ask how can they make their stories known and their voices heard? How can they get the larger group to care about the issues they face? Why should any of us listen to the voices of groups outside our own?

Each semester that I teach this course, many students suggest that America is a fully equal society where everyone is treated the same. While many things have improved since the photo below was taken in 1963, all kinds of “–isms” still exist in America. Women still earn less than men in many occupations; nearly half the reported hate crimes in the U.S. during 2011 were racially motivated and another 20 percent were based on sexual orientation.

Patricia Stephens Due (in black dress with dark glasses) and John Due (visible above the policeman's cap) are among the protesters outside a segregated movie theater in Tallahassee. Photo from the State Archives of Florida: Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/34010

Patricia Stephens Due (in black dress with dark glasses) and John Due (visible above the policeman’s cap) are among the protesters outside a segregated movie theater in Tallahassee. Photo from the State Archives of Florida: Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/34010

Over the next few months, we’ll explore how the images we see on screen help reinforce concepts about race, class, gender, and sexuality in American society.

Next week we will talk about the beginnings of cinema and the film Hugo.

Douglas Kellner, “Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture” and Lynn Weber, “A Conceptual Framework for Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality” are the sources referred to in this post. Both are in Multicultural Film: An Anthology, edited by Kathryn Karrh Cashin and Lauren C. Martilli, and published by Pearson; copyright 2013.