‘Don’t know much about history …’

Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson.

Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson.

My apologies to Same Cooke for borrowing a line from “Wonderful World” for the title of this.

Don’t take this post too much to heart; it’s a musing, a passing thought, not a lecture. But, do feel free to chime in with ideas.

My youngest saw Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett and said, “He’s so handsome; she’s so beautiful,” and I realized he was talking about their clothes. To him, they’re “really dressed up,” but people wore suits and dresses all the time in the 1940s, not just for special occasions. My son is 6, but he’s not alone in his reading of the movies from the 1940s. Costuming sometimes throws my college students for a loop because many of them assume characters in the older movies are supposed to be very wealthy or high-class because of their clothing.

While I understand that keeping up with things like fashion and furniture trends of the 20th century might be asking a bit much of the students, it is disconcerting to have people misunderstand a movie because they don’t have much familiarity with historical events. For example, many students assumed that “the Great War” mentioned in Hugo was a reference to the French Revolution instead of World War I—I can possibly understand mixing up the two World Wars, but the French Revolution isn’t even in the same century in which the film was set. In other years, I’ve had students who wrote exam answers that described the “thriving movie industry during the Civil War’—problematic since the American Civil War ended in 1865 and the some of the first movie cameras didn’t appear for almost another twenty years; a “thriving” film industry wasn’t around until the early 20th century.

If  these kinds of misunderstandings happened with only one or two students each semester, I would figure I was witnessing individual cases of people who didn’t like their history classes and did better in other subjects. But, because there are so many students lacking knowledge of history each semester, it makes me worry about what else they’re not able to put into context. To not really understand the Civil Rights Movement may leave them without an understanding of the deep social changes it brought, nor of the continuing struggle of different groups to find equality in America.

Kindergartners like my son can’t be expected to put many things into a historical context, but at what point should we have an awareness of what happened in the past or what our society was like a generation or two before our own time?

On a lighter note, I wonder what people in the future will assume about contemporary movies based on the clothing?

Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl.

Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl.


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 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.

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.



Night view of The Strand theater in Key West, photographed by Dale M. McDonald. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/101079

This blog comes with an expiration date: May 2013.

I’m keeping the blog for my film studies class for the Spring 2013 semester, and while it will be written primarily for my students, I also see it as an experiment in contributing to public learning. This blog is a way to open the discussion up to a wider community so all of us can benefit from shared knowledge and idea exchange. Unfortunately for the general reader, you won’t get college credit for reading and taking part in the conversation, but I hope you find useful information and interesting discussion.

The class focuses on American cinema and representations of race, class, gender, and sexuality in movies and popular culture. Over the next few months, we’ll talk about how the images we see on screen affect us and our understanding of one another. We’ll also look at how societal changes impact Hollywood and its representations of different groups.

Next week we’ll consider reasons for studying films as something with more than simple entertainment value.