Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Fair game?

Dean Hardman
questions the relationship between public funding for sport and the reaction in the British press to the performance of UK players at Wimbledon who have 'failed' to live up to Andy Murray.

If you witnessed much of the British media reaction to the first round of Wimbledon last week, like me, you probably weren’t too surprised at some of the comments aimed at Britain’s tennis players, as they ‘crashed out’ of the tournament. They were invariably described as a national disgrace, as pathetic and, most tellingly, as a waste of public money and funding.

Alex Bogdanovic seemed to be the most harshly criticized, described by the Mirror as ‘serial loser Alex Bogdanovic’, with the opening to its news report of the first round pretty much summing up its stance, and that of the media as a whole:
‘King of the bottlers Alex Bogdanovic became Wimbledon's biggest all-time loser as the Brits equaled their worst wipe-out in history.
On a day of crying shame which left the Union Jack at half-mast, Anne Keothavong broke down in tears after her shock defeat by Patricia Mayr as the strawberry fields of SW19 became a showcase for Britain's Rot Talent.’ (Mirror)

I think that it’s pretty safe to assume that the British media, especially the tabloid press, have always been committed to a nationalist ideology, and that the fortunes of British players have always been a subject of fierce debate. However, I wonder whether the collective sense of shame that we are encouraged to feel, and the sense of outrage that is palpable, is partly to do with the level of public funding that tennis (and most other sports) receives.

There seems to be a growing sense that sportsmen and women should be accountable to the public and, when they fail to live up to the expectations that are partly created by an increase in funding, they should expect similar treatment to MPs who have built duck ponds and had moats cleaned – strong criticism for having wasted ‘our’ money.

Sports like tennis and athletics used to be individual endeavors in which athletes competed primarily for themselves. If ‘we’, as the media and public, wanted to share in any success or commiserate in failure, then great, but I don’t feel that there was the same sense of outright hostility towards athletes who performed to below expectations. The questions are whether this hostility and level accountability is fair and whether it is indeed related to the level of public funding directed towards sport.
(Photo credit: E01. Permissions.)

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Gastronomy, TV and 'Culinary Texts of Indirection' II

The second part of a discussion by Joanne Hollows and Steve Jones which thinks about Heston's Feasts as a televisual form of the 'culinary text of indirection'.

In her work on the establishment of the culinary field in France following the 1789 Revolution,
Parkhust Ferguson argues that in order to redefine the prosaic activity of dining out as a phenomenon of a higher moral and intellectual order it was essential for gastronomic writers to produce ‘culinary texts of indirection’ which aestheticized the dining experience by transforming food into literature. Therefore, at this stage, gastronomy emerged as part of the literary field.

We have been thinking about how
Heston’s Feasts might operate as a televisual form of the ‘culinary text of indirection’ which enables Blumenthal to aestheticize his own work. In this way we can think of Heston’s Feasts as enabling the chef to engage in the practice of ‘self-theorization’ that Svejenova et al associate with his contemporary Ferran Adria. In this process, the chef theorizes their own culinary practice as an aesthetic practice rather than simply being dependent on food critics for recognition. As Bourdieu notes in his discussion of the creative ‘break’ established by Modern Art, the conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp altered the rules of the game: while previous artists had to be ‘made by the field’, the modern artist is self-creating and self-theorising, ‘producing art objects in which the production of the producer as artist is the precondition for the production of these objects as works of art’ (1993: 61). While the celebrity diners in Heston’s Feasts act as a chorus who affirm Heston’s achievement, it is his own commentary that legitimates his practice as art.

For Mennell (1996: 266), in origin both the writers and readers of gastronomic literature were members of an elite. This literature laid ‘down canons of “correct” taste for those who were wealthy enough to meet them’. However, over time ‘whether they intended to or not’, these texts ‘also performed a democratizing function’ by disseminating knowledge ‘of elite standards beyond the elite’. To an extent, this judgment would hold true for Heston’s Feasts. The cuisine on offer unashamedly draws on aristocratic traditions in its conception, ingredients and its service. At the same time, it performs some kind of democratizing function by disseminating knowledge of the practices and techniques of high-end cuisine to a wider audience, using some of the conventions of both popular history and arts programming. This is anticipated in the programme through the choice of celebrities, some of whom are drawn from popular entertainment. Indeed, the very appearance of such a show on a popular medium such as television could be read as essentially democratic (and evidence of Blumenthal’s ability to transgress boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultural forms).

However, as David Bell argues, television chefs – like gourmands in general – inhabit the paradoxical position of ‘marking distinction while democratizing tastes’ (Bell 2002). Indeed, we would suggest that
HF – in which the audience is witness to a one-off spectacular event rather than encouraged to ‘try this at home’ – makes very little attempt to democratize anything but Heston’s brand image. So while much tv cookery might seen as both a televisual equivalent of the cookery book and also an extended advert for the book of the series, HF transforms the relationship between television and written texts. Indeed, with no book of the series to date, the show can be seen to perform two functions. First, the only product being publicized is Heston and the experience offered at his restaurant, The Fat Duck. Second, by breaking the relationship between the tv cookery programme and the written recipe book, the series gestures towards television as a proper medium for producing ‘culinary texts of indirection’.
(Photo credit: robertpaulyoung. Permissions.)

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Gastronomy, TV and 'Culinary Texts of Indirection' I

Since writing a quick response to the Channel 4 cookery show Heston’s Feasts in an earlier blog entry, Joanne Hollows and Steve Jones have been thinking in more depth about the show. In the first of two entries, they explore the idea that the show drew on some of the conventions of gastronomic writing to produce a televisual form of the ‘culinary text of indirection’.

Each episode of Heston’s Feasts saw Heston Blumenthal creating a memorable meal for celebrity diners which evoked a particular historical period: the Victorians, the Middle Ages, the Tudors and the Romans. At the outset of each episode, he says that ‘the future of cooking lies in the secrets of the past. I’m on a mission to use myth, science and history to create the greatest feasts ever seen’. These features give the programmes a scholarly feel that is accentuated by his use of the literary: for example the first episode on The Victorians is inspired by the spirit of the age but mediated through Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In this indebtedness to literature, Blumenthal plays with the connections between the gastronomic and literary fields identified by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson and Stephen Mennell.

Of Mennell’s four characteristics of gastronomic writing, two concern us here: first, gastronomic literature aims to provide ‘a brew of history, myth and history serving of myth’ and second, it is a nostalgic ‘evocation of memorable meals’ (1996: 271). Blumenthal’s characterization of his own practice as using ‘myth, science and history’ corresponds with Mennell’s first definition while his continual emphasis on the meal as the source of memory corresponds with the second. In this way, HF draws on the conventions of gastronomic literature to reconceptualize cookery TV. Like Mennell’s gastronomes, Heston’s role is to transform the creation of food into an activity of a higher order. For example, he experiments with a Victorian recipe for Mock Turtle soup. While the result is enjoyed volunteers on the street, Heston concludes that this incarnation of the soup lacks the element of the sublime he demands from his creations. In order to perfect his take on Mock Turtle Soup, Blumethal subjects it to further processes of refinement:
All I’ve done is made consommé, froze it, ice-filtered it over night… then I just froze it again, put it in a centrifuge… spun all of the clear broth from the ice, and then I froze it again in a minus 80 freezer and all I needed to do after that was pop it in the freeze-dryer and then simply add gelatine and Madeira.
However, even this does not exhaust the process: Heston makes a soup cube from this using a ‘Mad Hatter’ fob-watch shaped silicone mould before wrapping it in gold-leaf to form the basis of his Mock Turtle Soup. The ingot is places like a tea-bag in a tea-pot where the resultant brew is then poured over a turnip and swede gel ‘Mock Turtle egg’ adorned with minute enoki mushrooms, a terrine of cured pork fat and braised ox tongue served with ‘lightly-pickled’ turnip, cubes of black truffle gel, a scattering of mustard seeds and a few micro-leaves.

The original recipe for mock turtle soup that Blumenthal located in an old cookbook is merely an inspiration for the chef-artist’s creativity. Furthermore, it is not the sole inspiration as his culinary process is also infused with literary sources, scientific experimentation and historical research. Across the series, historical recipes serve as an inspiration in terms of what they signify (theatre, fun, experimentation, naughtiness) as much as their actual ingredient and techniques. Indeed, the recipes usually go through a series of versions and refinements as Blumenthal and various guinea pigs reject the ‘authentic’ recipe in favour of a series of improvements. While Heston’s Feasts seems to be an exercise in grounding his practice in tradition, the series is a demonstration of the ways in which tradition can be ‘invented’. Just as Duchamp’s intervention was necessary to create the modern artwork from found objects, so the series demonstrates how it is the production of the chef as artist and theoretician that is ‘the precondition for the production of these object [meals] as works of art’ (Bourdieu 1993: 61).

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Actor Network Theory and Journalism Studies: 'clearly' incompatible???

Can Actor Network Theory have anything to say about journalism? Joost van Loon wants to open up a discussion about the place of ANT in media, communication and cultural studies.

‘Actor Network Theory is clearly unsuited to the field of journalism studies; in fact, journalists themselves will find it strange… This theory is clearly out of place in trying to explain and explore the cut and thrust of newsroom dynamics’ (anon).

The downside of anonymous reviewing of proposals for research funding is that reviewers can exercise judgment without being held accountable. This statement, taken from a review of a research proposal of a friend of mine, is able to invoke the adjective ‘clearly’ twice without having to reveal from what light this clearness comes. In addition, the knee-jerk reaction that ‘journalists will find it strange’ was very revealing. Having spent about 7 years around practicing journalists I can safely state that many journalists find most things that academics write at best ‘strange’, but more often pedantic, pointless and irrelevant waffle. On that count, perhaps being found merely strange is a huge compliment!

But on the bright side, we have blogs now and the gauntlet has been laid down. Journalism studies, claiming to be a ‘field’, has nothing to learn from actor network theory. Why would this be the case? What is so special about journalism studies? What is so unique about ‘news room dynamics’ that these can be granted a priori immunity (because this was only a research proposal) against empirical philosophy? Where are the empirical studies that tell us that ANT has nothing interesting to say about journalism? In what court have the advocates of immunity made the conclusive case for their special status?

I have been making some preliminary enquiries amongst those closer to cultural studies and they stated that whereas there was perhaps not much interest in ANT (outside a few places in the UK), there were some areas where closer contact is easier to facilitate, for example in the area of material culture. There seems to be less of a sense that ANT is ‘clearly’ unsuitable.

I, for one, would welcome an opportunity for an open, rather than semi-anonymous, debate about this. Perhaps a blog such as this one can kick something off; as I suspect that the irritations invoked by ANT have not only ruffled the feathers of those colonizing a field with the name journalism studies, but probably also dwellers of the wider constituencies of communication studies, cultural studies and media studies. We would like to hear from you.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

"Macho Types Wanted: Must Dance And Have A Moustache"

While researching my book on Brokeback Mountain I am also exploring the multiple connections between the western (as a genre) and the West (as a mythic concept) in relation to gay culture. The concept of the West as a space of homosocial freedom and the fantasy of the cowboy are ongoing fascinations and it’s interesting how they are transformed and made meaningful in relation cultural identity. ‘The West’ in US gay culture is also a reference to the movement Westward to California in the 1970s, San Francisco in particular, and is a migratory moment resonant in the history of American post-Stonewall gay male identity; it’s the implicit subject of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series and the recent film Milk. This idea also finds its widespread expression in the Village People’s over-exposed disco anthem Go West (1979) that explicitly connects discourses of liberation and self-discovery with the movement Westward, in fact, their very first release was titled San Francisco (You got Me). Go West reworks the nineteenth century expression ‘go west young man’ coined by US politician and newspaper editor Horace Greeley. While the sentiment of Greeley’s phrase is rooted in colonial conquest and expansion in the move Westward along the Mississippi River, the Village People’s lyrics instead signify that other movement of men West, the so-called 1970s ‘gay flight’. However, the Village people are a rather problematic group when it comes to sexual politics and it’s a misnomer to think of them as in any way ‘a gay band’ or even properly representative of disco despite their self-conscious fashioning through the iconography of gay machismo and the four-to-the-floor beat. The genesis of the band was a response to an advert in a music paper that read "Macho Types Wanted: Must Dance And Have A Moustache". As an eventual pop realisation of disco the Village People were eschewed by gay culture proper and would rarely if ever be heard in the legendary discos because the Village People was actually a bit naff and rather embarrassing. More importantly, the Village People were often tight lipped on homosexuality in interviews (most of them it turns out were straight) despite being sold as an idolatory vision of popular gay macho stereotypes. Thus, despite being explicitly if parodisitic in their visual presentation of gayness and macho vocal posturing, a band name that alludes to New York’s Greenwich Village, and suggestive lyrics focusing on gay culture (Cruisin') and gay positive expressions (I am what I am), the Village People’s apparent homosexuality (which I imagine is axiomatic of how most people interpret the act) was nothing more than smoke and mirrors with good musical production.

The meaning of the Village People’s later songs were expressed in a double-voiced strategy (lyrics mean different things to different people) but the group were certainly anchored through the stereotypical way in which different iconic forms of American masculinity such as the cowboy become a fancy dress version of gay erotica in popular culture writ large. However, when images of cloned up cowboys are couched in lyrics that celebrate the West as a gay utopia it continues to foment the West and the cowboy through liberation and freedom. California was the new frontier for gay America and it just so happens that some of those men were free to dress in ways that channel the apparent freedom the cowboy represents recasting the horizon as a sexual frontier. What is important here is that the Village People’s song that suggests going West ‘where the air is free, we'll be what we want to be’ is grounded in discourses of the West and the cowboy thus bringing together a historical moment in American post-stonewall gay identity, the continuing movement of men westward, and an ongoing tradition of a male-male relations in Western lore. Furthermore, this western dance music fantasy continues well after disco to include Divine’s Walk Like A Man (1984) Erasure’s Who Needs Love Like That (1985), and more recently the knowingly homoerotic rodeo styling (clothes by Dsquared - S/S 2006 picture below) of Madonna’s Don’t Tell Me (2000).

(Image Credits - Casablanca Records; Dsquared; Permissions)

Friday, 12 June 2009

ICAn Work In Progress Seminar: Viv Chadder

After an ill-timed fire alarm disrupted this session earlier in the term, Viv Chadder's paper 'On Irma's Recalcitrance or "The Lure of Lilith" by Rossen and Salamanca' has been rescheduled. The ICAn Work in Progress seminar series offers an opportunity for members of the Communication, Culture and Media team at NTU to discuss their current research.

This event will be held on Wednesday 24 June from 12.00-1.00 in GEE215, Clifton Campus of NTU.

(Photo credit: PlingPlong. Permissions)

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Could Sociology Have a Future?

Joost van Loon explores how we might conceptualize 'the social' today.

One cannot do ‘sociological theory’ without paying attention to forces that bring into being what we commonly think of as ‘the social’. A sociological theory that does not take into account the fundamentally historical nature of ‘the social’ is doomed to fail in explaining how the world we live in today is ordered and organized. More specifically, I want to claim that practices of social ordering today have been fundamentally re-arranged due to the arrival of digital technology. This is not in itself very spectacular, however, I want to add that in this ‘digital age’ something peculiar is taking shape: namely an empirical falsification of two major pillars of modernist thought: (1) the Cartesian separation of res cogitans and res extensa (with the first being primordial) and (2) the Kantian doctrine of the radical unintelligibility of Dingen an sich. The first is easily recognizable in the massive expansion of ‘the virtual’; the second is clearly manifested in the undeniable performative capacity of technology.

As the discipline of sociology is in essence a modernist project, the crumbling of its foundations will therefore also necessarily put into question what sociology is. Whereas until recently, it could be defended that sociology should exclusively concern itself with human behaviour and with the social structures that both emerge out of patterns of that behaviour but in turn also condition these patterns, there are now substantial challenges to these anthropocentric axioms. That is not to say that sociology is not about humans, but merely to indicate that it now has to justify itself if it wants to exclusively be that.

The key question for socio-logy remains the same as it always was, however. It still needs to be concerned with ‘the social’. Obviously, the question of what is the social is a defining one for contemporary sociology. It is that which has pre-occupied the works of, for example, Luhmann (e.g. the impossibility of communication), Bourdieu (the logic of practice) and Latour (actor networks). It has also resurfaced in, for example, the work of Beck on risk and individualization and Habermas’ theory of communicative action as a response to his earlier work on transformations of the public sphere.

Luhmann provided a useful intervention in the prevailing Durkheimian dogma of the seemingly self-evident existence of ‘society’. Although this intervention has been wrongly dismissed as a-political or even reactionary, it has made a huge impact on social theory over the last three decades, especially in German speaking countries. I believe that this was because it did something that is logical and common sensical: If we want to explain what society is, we cannot rely on the assumption that society already exists. Instead we have to ask: what is that makes it possible for us to speak of ‘society?’. Luhmann’s answer is well known: it is communication.

Monday, 8 June 2009

The University of Utopia: Radicalising Higher Education

Thursday 4th June 2009, University of Lincoln

This conference echoed Thomas More’s (1516) call for universal civic education, where the highest pleasures are those of the mind. The conference asked whether there are alternatives to the current culture of vocationalism and academic capitalism in universities, and the questions of whether universities should serve the needs of the economy, or whether they should produce responsible, critical citizens.

The conference was organised by Prof. Michael Neary, Dean of Teaching and Learning at the University of Lincoln. This institution, he claims, has committed itself to a Humboldtian concept of a university where social considerations shape the university and the individual commits themselves to shaping the world around them as a result of their education.

Keynote speakers at the day conference were:
Ron Barnett, Institute of Education - who offered optimism based on the fact that universities have been around for centuries, and they are survivors. He argued for feasible utopias and the institution of four critical concepts which can take us into these utopian spaces: the therapeutic university (it should provide students with succour); the liquid university (it should enable us to deal with fluidity and change); the authentic university (as society encourages the inauthentic, the university should encourage authenticity); the university as an ethical space.

Antonia Darder, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana: “Breaking the Silence: A study into the pervasiveness of oppression”. This was a moving talk on a theme familiar to students and faculty from the cultural margins of the academy in the United States. Universities very often pay lip service to the notions of equal opportunity and diversity. Meanwhile the student body, faculty and administrations of those universities remain predominantly white in demographic and in ethos. The kind of radical scholarship which might transform them is often the object of suspicion, and its practitioners deemed irrational. Power structures in the university are not dislodged by their policies of diversity, rather the university itself is a vehicle of containment of oppositional voices. Just as long as marginal subjects conceal their social, historical and spatial origins, and alternative ways of being and thinking, then they are acceptable. If they challenge the prevailing structures, then they are viewed as renegades. Furthermore, within the curriculum or university structures, if there are attempts to acknowledge difference, these will be seen as indoctrination – so called ‘political correctness’. Professor Darder showed a movie, made by UIU-C students and faculty that captures some of the constraints and instances of resistance on that campus.

Friday, 5 June 2009

A Conference Report on American Independent Cinema

At the beginning of May (8 -10th) an international conference on American Independent Cinema organised by Yannis Tzioumakis (University of Liverpool) and Claire Molloy (Liverpool John Moores) took place at the Liverpool Screen School. American Independent Cinema was the first conference of its kind devoted to the subject and not surprisingly it turned out to be a highly focused, intellectually stimulating and hotly contested topic that provided many friendly disagreements on what might constitute the independence of the title. If anything the debate over definitions and discourses proves what a vibrant subject area this is and no doubt will be for years to come. The conference also served to house the launch of the book series American Indies that I co-edit with conference organiser Yannis Tzioumakis.

The conference was spread over three days with parallel panels punctuated by keynotes from a roster of scholars on American cinema including Janet Staiger (University of Texas – Austin), Peter Kramer (University of East Anglia), Warren Buckland (Oxford Brookes), and Geoff King (Brunel). Conference paper topics and keynotes were diverse in their topics and methodologies from poverty row Tarzans to mumblecore, archival research, data mining, and good old-fashioned textual analysis. Most participants topics gestured towards a number of tensions and topoi upon which the future study of American Independent Cinema might find direction. The major, yet overlapping, division was between on the one hand, a perspective that sees American independent cinema in terms of art and authorship, and the other hand, one that sees American Independent Cinema as inseparable from industrial and institutional machinations. Of course both positions have their own merit and synthesize quite well although the latter was where the mature scholarship was mostly demonstrated. What did surprise me most was the waning of identity politics since the cultural and ideological framing that once defined independent luminaries like John Sayles and Todd Haynes (neither it turns out were mentioned) seemed no longer on the agenda therefore, nothing on New Queer Cinema, only two papers on race, a few on women and feminism; but maybe that’s because the identity issue is fairly exhausted in relation to this topic. What the conference did suggest is that there are so many different accounts of what independence means, that its not just industrial, political, and aesthetic but also epistemological since the meaning of American Independent Cinema and what constitutes knowledge about it is always shifting. In many ways the conference also proves that the concept of American Independent Cinema is a bit like the way we think of genre – a triangulated field of meaning between text, audience and industry that (depending on your position) either aligns awkwardly or monolithically.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Two lakes, a rock, some gravestones and many ghosts …

Martin O'Shaughnessy reports back from a colloquium on film at Dartmouth College.

I was recently lucky enough to attend a colloquium on the topic of committed (French) film, hosted by Dartmouth College and held in Dartmouth's lake house on Squam lake, famous, among other things for having been the location of On Golden Pond, a film that brought together Henry and Jane Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. It was to be Henry Fonda's last big-screen appearance. Although the schedule of the colloquium was demanding (if highly stimulating and enjoyable), time was found for a boat trip during which our guide showed us locations associated with the film. We learned that shooting was moved from the original 'Golden Pond' to Squam lake because the former was too inaccessible. We saw the famous wooden house at the centre of the action: an extra floor had to be added to it for the shooting and was retained by the owner as a free and attractive extension, Hollywood thus accidentally initiating the make-over culture. We also saw the little wooden dressing room built for Hepburn so that the aged star would not have to muck in with the rest of the cast. The owner has also kept this, perhaps to commune with the ghost of the Diva, perhaps to store his gardening tools. We saw too the rock that Jane Fonda back-flipped off and discovered that a pool had had to be dug behind it so that the actress would not crack her head on the bottom. Since the film, the rock has had to be moved into the shore! The pool has been filled in by the movement of the water and people seeking to imitate Fonda's dive risked breaking their neck, it always being dangerous to imitate Hollywood stunts. We found out that the sequence when the boat ran aground on a rock had to be filmed several times because the bottom of the over-sturdy boat had refused to split: eventually a charge had to be used. This was blown a fraction early so that a hole appears in the boat’s bottom just before it hits the rock. Not perceptible in the film when it was released, this premature detonation may be visible on the DVD. You can’t always believe what you see and hear.

Time was also found in the packed schedule to meet committed film-maker John Gianvito who showed us his lovely film Profit motive and the whispering wind, a tribute to Howard Zinn's celebrated People's History of the United States, a legendary oppositional text. The film provides a series of shots of graves of union organisers, native Americans, civil rights activists and so on which together constitute a low key but very moving counter history of the United States. Many of the figures remembered were, of course, murdered. An eclectic document, Gianvito's film also uses inscriptions on head-stones, monuments and signs, alongside some animation and a song (‘The ballad of Joe Hill’), to narrate its counter history. Interspersed with shots of trees and landscapes through which the wind is blowing, the film is deliberately slow-paced. Its fixed shots of monuments and graveyards invite a contemplative engagement with past struggles while the wind embodies the spirit of resistance and opposition that still haunts America. But the film is not simply peopled by ghosts. Refusing to consign opposition to the past, it ends with a montage of contemporary mobilisations that suggests a people still able to arouse themselves, not necessarily the America that we see from this side of the ‘pond’.

Gianvito also showed us another work, An Injury to One by Travis Wilkerson, a powerful film-essay centred on the story of Frank Little, an inspirational organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the ‘Wobblies’. Having come to the mining town of Butte, Montana to help lead striking miners, Little was dragged from his lodging by masked men, beaten and lynched. Many other activists were rounded up and arrested as a prelude to a nationwide assault on the Wobblies designed to arrest their attempt at mass unionisation. Wishing like Gianvito to restore a hidden and violent history to visibility, Wilkerson asks us to read between the lines of official accounts of Little’s murder. His film includes shots of Butte today and shows images of ‘Lake’ Berkeley, the massive man-made hole left by the mining that has filled with polluted water to create the largest body of toxic water in the United States today. Wilkerson tells us how a flock of geese that landed on the water were all found dead day a day or two later, the town still producing corpses even after the mining company has moved on. Hollywood’s ‘Golden Pond’ and ‘Lake’ Berkeley are both haunted, but by very different ghosts. Another illustrious phantom, the great ‘noir’ novelist Dashiell Hammett also traverses Wilkerson’s film. He had apparently told Lillian Hellman that, while working for the Pinkerton detective agency at the time of the Great War, he had been offered money to kill Little, something that had helped him see how corrupt his country was and which had in turn fed into his writing. His novel Red Harvest is set in ‘Poisonville’, a fictional version of Butte.

The question that structured our colloquium was ‘what can cinema do?’ My own provisional response to this question is inspired by the writings of French political philosopher, Jacques Rancière. Rancière argues that cinema and politics are fundamentally different activities that nonetheless overlap in that both struggle over the ‘sensorium’, over what is visible and audible in the world and the place and meaning we give to bodies and things. Not a substitute for, or an equivalent of, political action (if we ask cinema to ‘do’ politics directly, we’ll always be disappointed), film is nonetheless political insofar as it changes what and how we see and hear. Trying to make us see and hear American history and landscape very differently, Gianvito and Wilkerson make their own kind of political intervention in the ‘sensorium.’
(Photo credit: MertzFerdler: Permissions)