Friday, September 19, 2014

ON THE WIRE: The Evening Class Interview With Linda Williams

From the back cover of On The Wire (Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2014): "Many television critics, legions of fans, even the president of the United States, have cited The Wire as the best television series ever. In this sophisticated examination of the HBO serial drama that aired from 2002 until 2008, Linda Williams, a leading film scholar and authority on the interplay between film, melodrama, and issues of race, suggests what exactly it is that makes The Wire so good. She argues that while the series is a powerful exploration of urban dysfunction and institutional failure, its narrative power derives from its genre. The Wire is popular melodrama, not Greek tragedy, as critics and the series creator David Simon have claimed. Entertaining, addictive, funny, and despairing all at once, it is a serial melodrama grounded in observation of Baltimore's people and institutions: of cops and criminals, schools and blue-collar labor, local government and local journalism. The Wire transforms close observation into an unparalleled melodrama by juxtaposing the good and evil of individuals with the good and evil of institutions."

Linda Williams is Professor of Film Studies and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. Her books include Screening Sex and Porn Studies, both also published by Duke University Press; Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson; Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film; and Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible." In 2013, Williams received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.

Linda Williams' introduction to On The Wire is used with permission of Duke University Press. Purchase On The Wire by supporting your local bookstore, or buy the book through My thanks to Laura Sell at Duke University Press for setting up my interview with Linda Williams.

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Michael Guillén: In your introduction to On The Wire, you explain that you got into watching The Wire when you were laid up in bed in the summer and fall of 2007. How did you then go about structuring your study? Did you watch the series several times? How did you decide which episodes would best present your themes?

Linda Williams: It was harder than anything I'd ever done because we're talking about more than 60 hours of viewing time. I found that daunting. I simply watched The Wire the way anybody watches it, though I didn't watch it on a weekly basis—somebody had given me what were in effect bootleg copies of the first three seasons—so I was able to watch it every night and I did. It was the wonderful thing that I would give myself every night. I would go to bed at 7:00 and I would watch an hour of The Wire and then go to sleep exhausted.

It was overwhelming to me and also really intriguing: what was it that I had watched? What would I call it? A really long movie? That didn't quite seem right. I'd never encountered a serial that was as compelling. Serials never seemed timely to me, even though I'd grown up with serials like Flash Gordon.

My initial thought was, "Wow. What did I just see? That's amazing." Then I needed to teach an honors seminar with a relatively small class of only about 15 students so I could experiment, which is a rarity at a large public university. I said, "Well, all right, what if I were to teach a course on The Wire?" Then, as a group, the class and I could try to figure out what we were watching. But even there I had the problem of how to screen it? So, I would give long screening sessions every week of three to four hours; but, that still wasn't quite long enough to see it all. Besides which, I didn't want to just re-experience seeing it all over again—although, ultimately, that is what I did—but, I wanted to be able to organize it a little bit for students and help them through the viewing even though I was not really a great guide at that point because I didn't know much; I didn't know enough.

That first class that I taught was probably pretty bad. But one of the devices that I used in order to decide who would be in the class—because I couldn't take everyone who wanted to be in it—was to give them a quiz about the first season. I expected them to have seen the first season. The quiz had simple questions like "who was Omar?" or "what word do detectives Moreland and McNulty exchange in episode four of season one?" Questions like that. Then I could weed out people who didn't already care or hadn't already immersed themselves in the first season. I basically decided not to show the first season and expected the students to know it. I don't particularly like the second season, although I showed some highlights from it. Basically, then, I had three more seasons to show them. I felt a bit guilty about that. I kept changing my mind. At first, I was going to only give them flat summaries of certain things but then I realized they had to see more. I was bad at it because I didn't know how to handle a series that big and then, of course, there was the necessity of having to compare other kinds of serial television narratives.  So the first time I taught The Wire, I learned a great deal from the students who were, most of them, real fans, if not absolutely brilliant analysts. They were really into it. They knew it and they had more familiarity with television than I did because I, frankly, had not watched much television.

Then the second time I taught it, I did it in a large lecture class and I had it down. I knew which episodes I wanted them to see and I would analyze them and talk about them. It was in that process of trying to organize what it was—it would actually be interesting for me to go back and look at the syllabus of that class—that I began to think about television seriality as an important thing to talk about. I began to think about the rhythm of a series like The Wire and to count the beats, which was important to me. Somewhere in the book I argue that there is a telling rhythm to television that is different from movies. That rhythm is created by commercials. And it's a rhythm that doesn't quite trust the attention span of viewers. Even in a series like The Wire, if you take the commercials out—the commercials often interrupt moments so you get a climax before a commercial—that is the rhythm of television. Even when the commercials aren't there, you can tell that they should be there; that they're meant to be there. So I started counting the beats and rhythmically figuring it out and then I thought, "Well, how did this come to be? How did David Simon come to write this?" That was a rather natural process of reading his newspaper writing and reading his long journalism. That became important. Gradually I began to get chapters.

Then for me there was this huge question that everybody who talks about The Wire talks about its authenticity, its realism, its quality of being a visual novel like the 19th century realist novel and I just felt that was wrong because of earlier work that I've done with melodrama. That became a major thesis of a couple of the chapters, which allowed me to explore the tragic elements of The Wire, which are definitely there, but then pursue the series' more melodramatic qualities. And I don't mean "melodramatic" as a pejorative term.

Guillén: No, in fact, you've given the term a resuscitated definition. I had envisioned that maybe in your office you set up a huge evidence board with lines connecting names and photos.

Williams: [Laughs.] No, no, no.

Guillén: I didn't quite know how a person could have culled out and connected such subtle themes from so many various episodes, so I thank you for all that associative research. Let's approach some of the terms you've used in your study. One of the terms that has intrigued me in recent years is the concept of the "spatial imaginary." I can't profess to understand it fully or that I have explored it fully—you've certainly inspired me to explore it more fully—but can you give my readers a sense of what is a spatial imaginary and how you have applied it as a racial perspective on The Wire?

Artist: Tim Doyle
Williams: Geography is a discipline that is not just about maps. It's a discipline that has to do with how people and space interact, especially urban spaces. The idea of space has gained a greater prominence in thinking about the determination of human action within space and, of course, time. Space and time are the two components of life, you might say. In trying to understand and get a handle on what The Wire was, I glommed on to a term that I found in ethnography. Ethnographers are the people who go to certain places—it might be Papua New Guinea—and they spend a long enough time to understand not just the language but the rituals, how people live, and why they live that way. It struck me that there is an ethnographic quality to The Wire with the main difference being that it's not about that white man going to the jungle to understand the natives. In their earlier work, Simon and his co-writer Ed Burns, literally hung out on the space of the corners (The Corner), or hung out with the cops in police cars (Homicide: Life on the Streets). They were doing an ethnographic study of what typically happens on the corner with the police and they were able to do that because they stayed there for a year. They tried to understand what was happening, how people lived, and what the economy was. I could understand that their long form journalism was really a kind of ethnography because they were sticking with it long enough for it to become ethnography.

But I glommed on to the term "ethnographic imaginary" first by reading ethnography and realizing that ethnography always has a problem. It goes to a particular street corner, let's say, and it tries to understand what's happening; but, how can it fully understand what's happening if it doesn't understand the larger world in which that economy of the corner functions? With drugs and street corner stores and all the things that go with it: poverty, etc? You end up attributing a single-sited ethnography to something that is absent. Let's call it the system. And let's say it's capitalism in our society or—what do people like to call it?—neoliberal capitalism.

Artist: Tim Doyle
One ethnographer who interested me, George Marcus, made the argument that you always have "the fiction of the whole." If it was a Marxist analysis, you would have the idea of the abandonment of capitalism as "the fiction of the whole" that determines everything. The ethnography is always about that single space, but ethnographers dream of looking first at one space and then the adjacent space to see how all these different spaces fit together. That is an ethnographic imaginary that really can't be achieved by ethnographers because they just don't have the time to go to all these places.

Once you get this idea of "the fiction of the whole", and the ethnographic imaginary, then you realize that if you move into fiction it's possible to see how all the singular sites work together as a system. That's what initially interested me, but then I thought, "Well, of course, these specific sites are racialized, they're in Baltimore, and many are in inner cities, not entirely but predominantly spaces of especially black men who do not have jobs, who are hustling enough for drugs, or whatever. I began to think that maybe "the fiction of the whole" could be a useful term.

I'm critical of the way in which one critic, George Lipsitz, exchanges the terms racial and spatial. It's one way of accounting for what The Wire accomplishes as a fictional, melodramatic serial. Because the series goes on for so long and because it encompasses so many different spaces, viewers begin to get a notion of the whole. You can't get that notion of the whole without it being fictional but the fiction is related to the ethnography because Simon and his colleagues know that place. Certainly they know the police. Certainly they know the corners. And then they begin to expand to the schools and to the media. Certainly Simon knows the media. He knows the newspapers. Simon built through an ethnographic knowledge of specific spaces an ethnographic imaginary that is, in fact, fiction but which turns out to give more of the sense of the interactions of a whole than I had ever seen! And I've read Balzac! I know how these things work. I needed a vocabulary to talk about what was happening uniquely in this work.

Guillén: Which is precisely what you've achieved.

Williams: But I do think it's important to recognize it as a fiction. The language of The Wire is something that, the more you immerse yourself in it, the more you understand, which is why I don't like the subtitles because then you don't rely upon yourself to learn. A lot of that language is made up. Slang changes so fast. My guess is that nobody speaks that way—maybe they say, "You feel me?"—but nobody speaks exactly that same way today in Baltimore.

Guillén: Once you decided upon the structure, which you've laid out for me, did you approach Simon? Did you run your thoughts by him? Have you two had any interaction?

Artist: Tim Doyle
Williams: Yes, we have, but no. Some people might have approached him for an interview but there are a million interviews with David Simon. And I've read a lot of them. I think I know what he likes to say. I decided—and I guess it's my prerogative—that if I just listen to what Simon says about his work, he will say it is true, authentic, novelistic, and will also say it is Greek tragedy. I think he says Greek tragedy because he consciously thinks about Greek tragedy—there's references to the Gods and there's even that moment in Season Two when the union leader is found in the harbor, is cranked out of the water, and everybody forms a circle; it's consciously staged the way a Greek tragedy would have been staged.

If you just follow what Simon says, you end up interpreting The Wire as he wants it to be seen, which is simply: truth. In a way, this does a disservice to the form, the structure, and the power of what has been achieved in The Wire. I wanted to say yes, it's trying to be tragedy, but we don't have Oedipuses today, we don't have King Lears. These are great figures; great human beings who fall. And that's all you get in tragedy, is the fall. And then the fatedness of the fall.  It seems to me there's this other force that's operating in The Wire and it's a force that I think most of us respond to in our day and age, which is to say what's wrong and to show how people suffer through the lack of social justice, and that we want to fix it. We want it to be put right. That's the hopefulness of melodrama, which is often disappointed. But it's not a tragic fall. It's not a preordained fall.

So, no, I did not want to talk to David Simon. I wanted to, with my students, enter into an interpretation of what we thought it was. I didn't want to have his intentions articulated once more. I was more interested in a deep reading. But I also got in trouble with Simon. He threatened to sue the press. And I did have to change a few things [she laughs] because he's a feisty kind of man. But what I changed is not important to me, to my reading of The Wire, and had to do with facts about his journalistic career.

Guillén: You've talked about The Wire's televisual elements, its seriality, and you've distinguished between melodrama and tragedy, so now I'd like to approach your concept of "the buffer host"—so important to Simon's previous effort The Corner—but all but eliminated in The Wire.

Williams: Novels have narrators and narrators can sometimes be present in the work. But sometimes the narrator is not a presence and simply says what's happening. What I discovered in Simon's journalism, in his long form and his short form journalism, was a certain tendency for that narrator to be present, and for there to be a strong narrative voice. That narrative voice is, naturally, the voice of a white, middle class man. In reviewing his journalism, I talk about an essay he wrote on metal scavengers for the Baltimore Sun wherein he responded to metal scavengers industriously pulling every piece of copper or metal out of a house even before it's built in order to sell it to get a fix. He writes, "The ants are here; the picnic is us." When you do that, when you use "us", it creates us vs. them, the ants. That voice is the middle class voice disturbed that we are being eaten by these ants. There's nothing wrong with it. It's nice phrasing. But the work of a buffer is going on there. We don't just dramatically get into what the ants are doing. Simon's voice is there to distinguish between us and them.

I felt that in the creation of the dramatized version of The Corner, where actors are playing the real people who are chronicled in The Corner, that the insertion of Charles Dutton at the beginning and at various points was very much to create someone who could buffer us from the raw encounter with the addict who will do anything to get a fix, for example. The fact that Dutton is black and from Baltimore was an attempt I think by the producers of the show—I don't believe this is something that Simon actually wanted—to protect viewers from that raw encounter by creating this once-addict once-street corner man who is no longer that but who is black so you get rid of some of the paternalism of the white buffer of Simon's voice. But there's still a problem in not trusting the viewer and not dramatically structuring what is going on in a way that you can just sort of see it happen. The progression into The Wire, where you do not have a host buffer, where you do not have the literal voice of David Simon, means to me that the drama—and I would say the melodrama—has achieved a state where it can do what it wants to do without using that voice. I applaud that.

Guillén: Can you speak at all to what it might have been in the culture, in the reception of the time, that allowed audiences to be ready for that?

Williams: That's a good question. Among other things, HBO itself had ventured into grittier topics with, say, The Sopranos, which preceded The Wire by a couple of years. The fact that cable television in general did not have the usual prohibitions on language and sex and violence that films had, at least with the ratings system. The fact that Simon's own journalism had preceded and maybe got some people ready.

Guillén: You've described The Wire as a little bit retro with its square screen format and the simplicity of its presentation and you introduce the topic of the allure technology has for law enforcement. The whole notion of "the wire" changes each season slightly adapted to each season's variant narrative. I'm wondering if we can bring this further into the present where there's currently so much discussion about the militarization of the police and the technology being provided them?

Williams: The Pentagon is giving it to them! But I don't actually mean to say that there's not some surveillance technique that's useful to the police. But it does strike me that in The Wire this obsessive search for the better and better technology, the envy that McNulty always has of the FBI man, is meant to be seen and certainly teaches the lesson to anyone open to it that we are too technologically dependent and that there's something about good old-fashioned face-to-face cop on the beat that we lose with the quest and the fetishization of the latest technology.

Guillén: In the compelling distinction you make between tragedy and melodrama, you liberate melodrama from the domestic center of the home and observe it at an institutional level. That made me wonder if, in turn, a nation could be a tragic entity?

Williams: In the common parlance I think that our nation has made tragic mistakes. The invasion of Iraq. It would have been so much better to have left it alone. Yes, you could say there's a tragic flaw in the American character. But I think it's maybe more instructive to say that we are caught up in a melodrama rather than a tragedy, because tragedy is now almost an anachronism to modern culture. Tragedy believes in Fate and the Gods. We believe we can change things.

The United States was adhering to a melodramatic script when it got attacked by al-Qaeda and then thought, "Oh, we have been harmed. We have been injured." There's a terrible flaw in melodrama in that it sanctifies whoever gets hurt, whoever is injured, and whoever is suffering but seems to undergo an alchemy and become—as a victim—automatically good. America had already done a lot of things wrong in Iraq, supported all the wrong people, but all of a sudden we were hurt and we became the victims and we had—in our eyes—the moral right to invade a country. Even though the people who probably brought down the Towers were not in that country. We could lie to ourselves about the weapons of mass destruction and lie to everybody else because we had that apparent moral upper hand. That's the phenomenon that I'm interested in. The phenomenon of injury and suffering which seems to give a certain moral rectitude.

Melodrama is an insidious tool, but it is the way we think. If somebody runs over me with a car, I will feel like a victim and I will play that victimhood to the hilt to try to get whatever reparation I can. We don't accept things like that. Whereas a tragic hero may scream to the Gods but what does Oedipus do? He blinds himself. He so agrees that he did such a wrong thing that he takes the punishment into his own hands. That's a tragic gesture.

Guillén: I don't speak French, but I loved a term you used—ressentiment. Is it safe to say it translates into English as resentment?

Williams: It translates into resentment, but I believe the term comes from Nietzsche and I believe he used it to talk about lesser people, not tragic people, not big heroic people, but lesser people who feel a resentment towards the greater people or the more powerful people. Neitzsche thought it was a terrible sign of his times that ressentiment was such an important feeling. It's a feeling of, "I am wronged. I deserve to get back." But, in fact, it's not coming out of the heroic sensibility of ancient times.

Guillén: Reading your book while watching movies has heightened my appreciation of the melodramatic strengths of those movies. For example, I recently watched Michaël R. Roskam's The Drop (2014), whose narrative protagonist is basically a bad guy, he's a murderer, and a little bit of a thug, who gets injured and becomes morally resentful, which recalled me to a statement you made that most action films are based on melodramatic formula.

Williams: They're all melodramas. We settled on domestic melodrama and soap opera as the definition of melodrama and we like to watch Douglas Sirk movies—I love them myself—but, before those movies, melodrama could encompass action. There are passive victims and active injured victims who get their revenge. Typically, it was the women who would suffer in the home and sacrifice, so we have Mildred Pierce and Stella Dallas and that whole tradition. The other side of it is the action hero who is injured, always, and who then becomes righteous. Bruce Willis is my favorite example but there are a million of them. I don't know why we call those "blockbuster action" movies, but they're premised on an old-fashioned kind of melodrama.

Guillén: Let's talk about some of the characters in The Wire. The one character you did not mention much in your study is Bunk, the character who most captured my imagination when I began watching the series. I thought Wendell Pierce's portrayal was magnificent. You didn't say much about Bunk in your book?

Williams: No, you're right. I have so many regrets about this book, which again had to with how to structure it. It didn't seem right to have a chapter about my favorite characters.

Guillén: For me, Bunk was the realistic voice of The Wire.

Williams: Yeah, and he turns out to be the morally correct voice in the end. There's a television critic by the name of Jeffrey Sconce who says that if you're a true fan of The Simpsons then you not only know Apu but you know the names of his eight children. I asked this to a class once: "If you are a true fan of The Wire, you not only know Bunk Moreland but you know the name of his wife." [Directly at me.] What's the name of his wife?

Guillén: Oh dear, I'm no good at pop quizzes. I don't remember.

Williams: Maureen, or Nadine, or something like that.

Guillén: Nadine sounds right, now that you mention it. Returning to our earlier discussion on the spatial imaginary, as a self-identified queer male I've been considering a queer spatial imaginary and have discovered quite a lot has already been written about that. With regard to The Wire, one of my first obvious attractions to the series was to its gay and lesbian characters, specifically Omar and Kima, and possibly Bubbles. At that time in 2002 I had yet to see queer characters like the ones enacted in The Wire. They maybe didn't reflect my personal queerness, but they reflected a competent queerness, an effective queerness, which inspired me. Can you speak at all to that?

Williams: I think you're right. As with race, the important thing with The Wire is that in a way it doesn't make a big thing about somebody being black, because that's really common, and it doesn't make a big thing about somebody being gay. Which is not to say that there isn't homophobia. Within the book I share some images that show a homophobic reaction to Omar. The Omar character is a rich character and everybody's favorite character, though not always, but often. Part of the reason is because he's a really tough gangster and yet he feels things and he expresses his feelings and he suffers and he mourns and he feels guilty and puts a cigarette out in his palm. He's somebody with very strong emotions and also a strong moral code. In a way he's different from the other characters because he's so good. Aside from the fact that he robs people, he doesn't want to kill them. And sometimes people just give him the drugs. Omar is exceptional and wonderful and I talk about how he overcomes that problem of the "magical Negro." Bubbles is an interesting case because many people don't think he's gay. Only one person has actually said that in print.

Guillén: But there's no question that he's within a homoerotic domain?

Williams: He has repetitive relationships with younger men in which he likes to be the wise man who teaches them. There's no sense that he's sleeping with these men but, yeah, there's something queer about him.

Guillén: You actually say that in your book, that Bubbles may not be gay but he might be queer. What do you mean by queer?

Williams: Queer is a term invented by the queer community that signals that it doesn't necessarily have to do with sexual practices. According to some gay queer activist you just have to think a little different and be a little different and you get to be queer. It's a more encompassing category. There are reasons to be just a little suspicious of it, but it's there.

Kima's interesting because she's one of the guys and wants to be one of the guys and proves herself as one of the guys. It is possible to use someone like Kima to argue that the whole series is insensitive to women. The Wire is really good on race, and it's really good on queer or gay identities, but where are the sympathetic women? That means that you would be counting Kima as a man. The same thing with Snoop. It would be hard to say that Snoop is a lesbian, but she also is a woman who wants to be a man, as Kima wants to be a man, in the social way that men are. So where are the women in The Wire? That leaves us only Rhonda Pearlman really. There aren't strong, interesting female characters, if you go along with the idea that Kima and Snoop are really like men.

Guillén: You suggest further in your book that's possibly due to the fear of associating melodrama with the feminine; the popular mode of the '50s.

Williams: When narrative television drama got to be so serial—it wasn't always serial; it used to be more episodic—but when it got to be so serial, then there was a little bit of a concern that it might be regarded as soap opera. That may be the reason to account for the insistent maleness of so many of the television dramas: Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Deadwood.

Guillén: And why Orange Is the New Black....

Williams: so refreshing!

Guillén: In trying to understand narrative issues of identity, the danger of fixing things into nouns has long irked me, instead of finding comfort in the flexibility of adjectives. In other words, instead of being a melodrama or a tragedy, it might be more useful to point out how a film has melodramatic or tragic elements. As a professor of rhetoric, can you say we are too hooked on the fixed quality of nouns?

Williams: Well, you have a point but I don't just want to use the word "melodramatic" first of all because that always is a term of disapproval, whereas melodrama once existed as a thing that people liked. "Don't be so melodramatic," we say. One of the things I'm trying to do is to rehabilitate the noun melodrama and to understand it a little more historically. If we understand it a little more historically, maybe we can see that its reputation goes up and down at different times and that we would not dare call the brand-new serial television that we're all watching melodramatic because that's a form of abuse. I'm saying, let's look at what melodrama is and has done and let's look at how it doesn't want to call itself that anymore. I want to reassert the noun.

Guillén: And you've done that well by posing the difference between melodrama as genre, which is how I think most people think of melodrama, and melodrama as mode. Can you speak to that?

Williams: In film studies this has been a real problem because we are avidly interested in the genres of cinema.

Guillén: And in recent years there's been a lot of talk about elevating genre.

Williams: Yes, and that's why David Simon insists The Wire is not a cop show. I think it is a cop show and a lot of other things. Why do we have to deny genre? Because it's low. When we think of melodrama as a genre, we actually lose the sense of genre, because I would say that science fiction, action, westerns, crime thrillers, almost all of those would have what I like to think of as the structure or the skeleton of melodrama. To say melodrama as a genre usually refers to just those women's films. Every now and then one gets made and we all cry but that's to ignore all the guy-cry movies that are very popular but never called melodrama because they're manly.

Guillén: So what do you mean by the "mode" of melodrama?

Williams: You wouldn't say that realism is a genre. Realism is a mode. Realism is a way of telling the story. My argument is that melodrama is a chameleon-like mode that often interacts with realism. But if the purpose of the story, if the way it makes you feel, is to watch it and right a wrong or fix an injustice or judge the fairness of something, then it's better to call it melodrama making use of realism and bringing into the realm of the representable things that typically have not been represented, like drug addicts.

Guillén: When The Wire came out in 2002, and I was watching it on HBO and had to wait each week for the next episode, I found it difficult to keep up with things.

Williams: By "keep up" you mean "hard to remember"?

Guillén: Yes, because there were so many characters, so many sites, so much going on. Then, towards the final seasons I gave up watching on HBO and waited for each subsequent season to be available on DVD, which I would then watch in batches of three or four episodes per disc. Now I binge. The availability to visually binge on a series helps me absorb its narrative traction. Any thoughts on the changes in viewer reception and their capacity to absorb what The Wire really has to say through binge viewing?

Williams: First of all, perhaps the history of serials can be instructive. It was in 1837 that Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers and—instead of publishing the novel—he published parts of it and people started buying it. Some of his novels were weekly installments and some of them were monthly installments. Sometimes they were in magazines and sometimes in penny installments; sometimes 20 installments once a month. And somehow people were holding all of that together. There were the bingers among them who would wait and collect all of the installments—but still the novel hadn't been published as a whole—and they would binge on the parts.

Guillén: Like some collectors do with graphic novels and comic books?

Williams: Yes. Bingeing has always been with us. The ability to binge is greater now with DVDs; or to, at least, binge on a season, if not the whole. Part of the problem with bingeing is—if you wait too long—you don't get to be part of the conversation that everybody might be having, although it's hard to know where and when that conversation is taking place. I don't know if you do much television criticism?

Guillén: A bit of short form commentary on social media, but I primarily just watch lots of television. I mainly write about film, but I'm getting tired of writing about movies because I'm finding the better stories are on television.

Williams: That's what's happening. But then when do you write about television? When you see a movie, you have something to say about it but when do you say something about a serial? Only when it's over? Or at the beginning? Or in the middle? It's a real issue.

Guillén: You've talked about melodrama having an impulse to right a wrong and you've shifted melodrama out of the personal realm into an institutional realm....

Williams: Well, it can be and, again, The Wire is the example.

Guillén: As one citizen to another, I'm troubled by the fact that—even though we know so much more now and are more articulate about what's going on and the pressures impacting our lives under neoliberal capitalism—we seem unable to do anything. Reading your book, I kept wishing everyone could take a class in melodrama to understand what they're doing (or not doing) and then maybe we would have a fighting chance. Can melodrama truly offer remedy to social ills?

Williams: No, it can't. I wrote this book because I thought The Wire was the best use of melodrama I'd ever seen, the most intelligent, equally dramatic and compelling, and yet socially relevant and engaged. We can see that the war on drugs is stupid. But I'm acutely aware that melodrama is not always on the side that I want it to be. I learned this lesson many years ago when I began teaching one of the most famous movies in American history and probably the film most responsible for making movies popular to large audiences, which was The Birth Of A Nation, which is....

Guillén: Hard to watch.

Williams: ...a powerful melodrama and not hard to watch if you just give yourself up to it and there you are rooting for the Ku Klux Klan at the end of the film. That's the power of melodrama. The Ku Klux Klan, as that story is told, was being terribly abused and injured by these former slaves who wanted to rape their women. The Klan had to ride to the rescue. Melodrama is neutral as far as position. You can have strong melodramas on the side of Ceaușescu, or all of the melodramas prevalent in Hitler's Germany. So it's not like melodrama is the answer.


Autumn doesn't officially begin until next Tuesday. The Bay Area's succession of fall film festivals, however, unofficially launches this Saturday, September 20, with Silent Autumn, a one-day celebration produced by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF). The day's five programs include a trio of Laurel and Hardy shorts, a recreation of a "Night at the Cinema in 1914," Rudolph Valentino's swan song The Son of the Sheik, Buster Keaton's The General and the original creep classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. While the familiarity of these titles lend the event a "greatest hits" vibe, it's worth noting that with the exception of one Laurel and Hardy short, everything at Silent Autumn will be screening at the 19-year-old festival for the very first time. All of this good fun takes place, of course, at San Francisco's historic 1922 movie palace The Castro Theatre, with live musical accompaniment for each program. I'm especially excited that the singularly fabulous Alloy Orchestra will be on hand to play for two programs, marking their first SFSFF appearance in over two years.

Here's a glance at what the SFSFF has in store for us on Saturday.

11:00 AM; Another Fine Mess: Silent Laurel and Hardy Shorts (USA, 1928–29)—I find few things more life-affirming these days than a Castro Theatre full of 21st-century children howling at the antics of classic silent comedy. Silent Autumn's tribute to the greatest comedy duo of all time begins with Should Married Men Go Home?, a lesser known film that was the first Hal Roach-produced comedy to bill L&H as a team. That will be followed by Two Tars, in which a pair of sailors encounter a traffic jam that inspires some cataclysmic Roaring Twenties road rage. Finally in Big Business, which SFSFF last screened in 2010 as part of the program The Big Business of Short, Funny Films 1918-1929, the duo star as door-to-door Xmas tree salesmen who inflict tit-for-tat mayhem upon a recalcitrant customer. All three will be screened in 35mm and Donald Sosin will accompany the madness.

1:00 PM; The Son of the Sheik (USA, 1926, dir. George Fitzmaurice)—After appearing in a string a box office disappointments, Rudolph Valentino was talked into doing a sequel to 1921's The Sheik, in which he'd reprise his role as Ahmed Ben Hassan and play the character's son as well. The film caused a sensation at its Hollywood premiere, but the actor fell ill during the pre-release publicity tour and he died on August 23, 1926. The Son of the Sheik arrived in cinemas two weeks later and went on to become one of the actor's greatest successes—some consider it the quintessential Valentino film. This screening will be a new restoration by Ken Winokur and Jane Gillooly of Box 5, and Winokur's Alloy Orchestra will world-premiere their newly composed score. The program will be introduced by Donna Hill, author of Rudolph Valentino: The Silent Idol. Out of the 100 plus silent films seen in my lifetime, I've managed to miss every opportunity to experience Valentino, both on the big screen and small (including this year's SFSFF opening nighter The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse). So this is the Silent Autumn program I'm anticipating most.

3:30 PM; A Night at the Cinema in 1914 (US/UK, 1914)—In this unique program curated by the British Film Institute, we'll get the opportunity to experience what it might have been like to go to the movies in the UK an entire century ago. Feature length films were a rarity at the time, so the program is comprised entirely of shorts—14 of them—comedies, newsreels, travelogues and even animation. Selections include everything from a chapter of the popular serial The Perils of Pauline, a newsreel about suffragettes demonstrating at Buckingham Palace, a comedy featuring a "face-pulling" competition, a profile of the Austro-Hungarian royal family (this being 1914 Britain, at least half the films are WWI-related), and finally, Charles Chaplin's A Film Johnnie, Charlie's sixth film ever (and one of 36 he made in 1914, his inaugural year as a motion picture artist). Donald Sosin will provide the musical accompaniment.

7:00 PM; The General (USA, 1926, dir. Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton)—Although it wasn't well received by audiences and critics at the time, this Civil War-set comedy / adventure would come to be considered one of the greatest achievements of the Silent Film Era. It placed at #35 on BFI's most recent list of The 50 Greatest Films of All Time, and it was amongst the initial group of films first inducted into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry (along with classics like Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Sunset Boulevard, Casablanca and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves). Keaton himself is said to have considered it his best work. Sure, you've seen The General before, perhaps multiple times, but does it ever fail to deliver the goods? Besides, this screening will be in glorious 35mm and The Alloy Orchestra will accompany with their now-classic score. Come get it while you can.

9:00 PM; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Germany, 1920, dir. Robert Wiene)—This eerie masterpiece of German expressionism about a carnival hypnotist and his murderous, clairvoyant somnambulist has been called "the first true horror film" by no less than Roger Ebert. The film has also been credited with introducing the "twist ending" to cinema, and was an early example of a frame story being used to introduce a flashback narrative. I've seen it several times on the small screen and I've even strolled amongst its distorted, hyper-angular sets which used to grace the old Cinémathèque Française in Paris. I have never watched it on a big screen, however, so it's fortuitous I've waited for this new 4K digital restoration from the original camera negative, which premiered at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Silent Autumn will be its U.S. premiere. Donald Sosin accompanies.

Cross-published at film-415.

Friday, August 22, 2014


Called the most important British filmmaker of his generation, Terence Davies made his reputation with modern classics like Distant Voices, Still Lives [1988] and The Long Day Closes [1992], personal works exploring his fractured childhood in Liverpool. His idiosyncratic and unorthodox narrative films defy easy categorization, as their seeming existence within realism and personal memory cinema is undermined by an abstractness that makes the way he lays bare personal pain come across as distant, even alien.

Film critic Michael Koresky explores the unique emotional tenor of Davies's work by focusing on four paradoxes within the director's oeuvre: films that are autobiographical yet fictional; melancholy yet elating; conservative in tone and theme yet radically constructed; and obsessed with the passing of time yet frozen in time and space. Through these contradictions, the films' intricate designs reveal a cumulative, deeply personal meditation on the self. Koresky also analyzes how Davies's ongoing negotiation of—and struggle with—questions of identity related to his past and his homosexuality imbue the details and jarring juxtapositions in his films with a queer sensibility, which is too often overlooked due to the complexity of Davies's work and his unfashionable ambivalence toward his own sexual orientation.

"A significant contribution to the field. Koresky is able to both chart the development of Davies' cinema, while convincingly conveying the coherence and continuity of both theme and style at the heart of this very singular auteur."—Duncan Petrie, author of Creativity and Constraint in the British Film Industry.

From Terence Davies by Michael Koresky. Copyright 2014 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. Support your local bookstore, or buy the book through IndieBound or

The Fiction of Autobiography

Not far into Terence Davies's Of Time and the City, the narrator-director cheerfully intones: "If Liverpool didn't exist it would have to be invented." In the film, Davies identifies the source of the quote as the French artist Felicien de Myrbach. The sentiment is inscribed in Liverpool's St. George's Hall, a local landmark we soon see onscreen, and which the director describes in the interview that concludes this book as "the largest Greco-Roman neoclassical building in Europe." The quote eloquently expresses not only Davies's strategies in constructing this nonfiction portrait of the city of his youth but also his cinematic approach throughout his entire career. Says the director, "I suppose what [the quote] means is that even when you move away from it, it's still very much part of your imagination. When most Liverpudlians move away, and a lot of them do, they recreate that city as they remember it, and as they didn't remember it" (Hillis). Of Time and the City is a re-creation of Davies's hometown as he remembers—and doesn't remember—it; the abundance of found archival footage taken on Liverpool's streets that makes up the film does provide a historical portrait of a place, but more importantly it serves as backdrop for Davies's specific experience of it. This is reminiscent of most of Davies's films, which present information in seemingly autobiographical terms—as reflections of a certain reality—only to purposely distort or reimagine that reality as a way of getting at a greater, poetic truth. By overturning expectations of what nonfiction filmmaking is taken to be in the early part of the twenty-first century, Davies, with Of Time and the City, reveals the ambiguous nature of his overall cinematic project—a recontextualization of the familiar, and a personalizing of the historical. As Jim Ellis writes, "Cinema is a particular way of viewing the world; for Davies, it offers the best representation of one version of a queer consciousness." History inevitably cooperates in the shaping of that queer consciousness.

It is important to note that even though shame and stigma have necessarily played a role in shaping his cinematic persona, Davies is not easily reducible to the image of the traumatized artist—a filmic Francis Bacon, if you will. As I hope to make clear, the contradictions inherent in his approach to movies flow out of trauma but give voice to an array of richly crisscrossing feelings, crescendos made up of both darkness and light. Davies is undeniably a survivor—of abuse, of crippling religious and sexual guilt—yet his work has never neglected to magnify the losses of queer history, even if implicitly.

"Come closer now and see your dreams," says Davies by way of a prologue for Of Time and the City, beckoning us as a deep-red curtain rises silently in a dark space that feels like a theater of the mind. Then, so as not to mistake his intent: "Come closer now and see mine." No detached ethnography, Of Time and the City is a ruminative and wistful journey into a past that for Davies is always present. Even though it shows a humane focus on the working-class people who have populated Liverpool for decades, the film is largely about Davies, which means that the director's recollections of his own stirring pubescent desires and confessions of distaste for rock-and-roll music and the pomp of the British royal family sit squarely alongside poetic musings on the cultural degradation of a city amidst increasing modernization and an exquisite socioeconomic portrait of the ever-struggling working classes. It becomes difficult to separate the personal from the political in the film, as Davies's narration places both on the same continuum.

In visual terms, Of Time and the City is most fascinated by architecture—how we interact with it, and how it defines landscape, character, and national and local identity. Liverpool's buildings, from its terraced working-class row houses to its municipal establishments, are the clearest evidence of the simultaneous development and decay that are the twinned hallmarks of any Western city throughout the twentieth century, especially those bombarded by the events of World War II. Davies most memorably expresses this ironic reverse development in a three-and-a-half-minute sequence that charts the demolition of the city's slums in the 1960s and 1970s to make way for low-income high-rises. Wholly without narration, and accompanied by Jerome Kern's "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," as sung in an ethereal 1957 recording by Peggy Lee, the sequence at once comments on what Davies sees as increasingly common urban blight, pays tribute to the working class from which he hails, and intimates the erasure of his own past. In fact, it was the conception of this sequence that convinced Davies that he could pursue the project, his first documentary, at all. Says the producer Solon Papadopoulos of this sequence, "Once he'd got that image in his head, he thought there was a film to be made: that was the moment, the catalyst." While he doesn't make the inspiration explicit, this bravura section of the film could be a concrete visualization of the opening metaphor of "East Coker," the second of Eliot's Four Quartets: "In succession / Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended / Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place / Is an open field, a factory, or a by-pass."

The Liverpool of Davies's past is gone. "Now I'm an alien in my own land," he mourns near the end of the film. Liverpool is not only a specific past but also the past for Davies, therefore impossible to recoup as anything but a memory, an ideal, and a fantasy. This distinguishes Of Time and the City as more a work of imagination than a strict documentary. In the absence of a tenable extant connection to the place of his youth, Davies must create a narrative around it—it has to be invented. Though the film was funded to be a celebration of Liverpool on the occasion of the city's status as the European Capital of Culture for 2008, Davies ended up making both a personal film and an occasionally sharp-tongued social critique that didn't honor a city's legacy so much as excavate its ghosts, focusing mostly on its working poor. Furthermore, Davies does not seem interested in providing contextualizing historical information on Liverpool, so the universe as depicted in the film often comes across as mindscape more than landscape. He said at the time of its release, "I insisted on not making a strict documentary, but one based on my emotional memories—a subjective essay, which I discovered after completion was my farewell to Liverpool" (Quart). But what is this place we see onscreen that has haunted Davies's career? The city we see in the film is postindustrial, distinguished by its slums and tenements even more than the municipal grandeur of its landmark buildings, and as memorialized by Davies it seems trapped in amber. But is this a city that hasn't moved on, or is it just Davies who is locked in a moment forever imbued with a complicated nostalgia?

A borough of Merseyside, a county in Northwest England, Liverpool was once one of the major ports in Europe—in the early nineteenth century, at the height of its status as a locus of commerce, nearly a fifth of world trade went through it, and it was known as a hub in the routes of the transatlantic slave trade from Africa to the Americas. At points during this period, Liverpool was an even wealthier city than London. In the twentieth century, however, the city was wracked with enormous economic difficulties, stemming from the Great Depression in the 1930s, the destruction wrought by World War II in the 1940s, and the decline of its manufacturing and shipping industries in the 1970s. Partly as a result of its being a port city, Liverpool, home of the "Scouser" (a long-held nickname for a Liverpudlian taken from a meat stew eaten by sailors), retains a significant immigrant population, and the social makeup of the city has long been identified as among the most diverse in England—its black community, for instance, is the oldest in Great Britain, and the city is home to Europe's earliest Chinese populace. That Davies has only hinted at Liverpool's economic deprivations and social upheavals in his films, and that he has mostly ignored the city's considerable multiculturalism (an exception is one brief yet pointed scene in The Long Day Closes, in which a West Indian man mistakenly arrives at the family's address and is rudely, fearfully cast off), could be seen as evidence of economic and cultural myopia on his part. Yet in Of Time and the City, as much as in his fiction features set in Liverpool, such as Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, Davies is creating an unabashedly subjective memory piece, not a social history. The Liverpool we see in Of Time and the City is largely white and Christian (Irish Protestant and Catholic), and it encompasses found footage of the city's streets, ports, row houses, and slums from 1945 to 1973, the years that Davies lived there. "They asked why I hadn't put certain things in the film, like the Toxteth riots," Davies told Wally Hammond in Time Out London in 2008, "I said, 'Because it's not part of my psyche and it's not part of my emotion.' When I was growing up, Toxteth was a long way away and you just didn't go places a long way away."

Michael Koresky is staff writer and associate editor at The Criterion Collection and cofounder of the online film magazine Reverse Shot.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

FANTASIA 2014—DIRTY MOVIES: A History of the "Stag" Film

Suffering the dog days of Summer in Boise, Idaho, I regret all the more not being able to attend this year's Fantasia International Film Festival (Fantasia), where I usually escape in late July-early August. Admittedly, Montreal has its own potential to steam me out, but at least at Fantasia I can spend most of my time in air-conditioned movie theaters watching my first and favorite passion: genre films.

Still, not being able to attend in person this year has afforded an opportunity to explore an experience of Fantasia contingent upon the generosity of publicists willing to share streaming links, and access to (at least) archival films incorporated into the program on such online platforms as Vudu and Netflix. In other words, I still have access to content, if not community. There's an argument to be made—and film festival scholar Dina Iordanova has recently made it at EatDrinkFilms—that "nowadays (and especially in view of the growing practice to stream content across borders), the films that show at a festival can be seen in multiple contexts. It is no longer necessary to go to a specialist film festival to see the films. More and more one goes to a festival for the socializing and the togetherness. The cohesive power of an event is in its 'liveness', and no longer in its expertly programmed content." [Citations omitted.]

It is, in fact, Fantasia's "live" events and workshops that are especially rewarding, which I sincerely regret missing, along with sharing the spectatorial experience with an enthusiastic fan-based audience. Case in point would be their program "Dirty Movies: A History of the 'Stag' Film", scheduled for Sunday, August 3, 9:15PM in the J.A. De Seve Theatre. Sponsored by Le Cinéclub de Montréal: The Film Society (C/FS), this combination lecture and screening event will be hosted by Philippe Spurrell (C/FS) and Thomas Waugh (Concordia University Research Chair in Sexual Representation and Documentary, Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema).

Le Cinéclub de Montréal's Philippe Spurrell contextualizes the screening in his program capsule: "Beginning many decades ago, in an age when explicit erotic imagery was taboo, 16mm projectors were set up in secret darkened rooms, where risky stag films showed generations of people everything they wanted to know about sex. Even more risky than viewing them was actually filming them, but that didn't stop some directors from being creative, funny and outrageously daring. We will explore the origins and development of the genre from its early days through the 1970s.

"The centerpiece of this exploration is the little-seen Inserts (1974). This black comedy, written and directed by John Byrum, tells the story of a washed-up silent-movie director who reboots his career by making films in his crumbling mansion for the growing XXX market. Playing the lead in this major studio release is Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws, CE3K), who took on this small project as a quiet break following months of insanity on a big-budget film he predicted would flop because it featured a giant mechanical rubber shark. Other key players who give intense (and quite revealing) performances are Veronica Cartwright (Alien) and Jessica Harper (Phantom of the Paradise, Suspiria). The late great Bob Hoskins (Brazil, Roger Rabbit) plays a money man named Big Mac. Very theatrical and oddly compelling, Inserts still has the ability to shock modern audiences, who get drawn into its cast of damaged characters and its intelligently acidic screenplay by a director who successfully pitched the idea to a producer riding in the New York taxi he was driving.

"PLUS: Preceding the feature will be unedited footage of iconic pin-up Betty Page struck directly from 16mm camera negatives, and original vintage 16mm prints of shorts actually played at stag parties many decades ago, including a short film shot at the notorious Manson Family lair Spahn Ranch—and a clip from If You See Kay. If you do see her, tell her not to miss all these rare moving images pulled from the Cinéclub/Film Society vaults, all to the benefit of your sexual education! (Strictly 18+)"

Though he had admitted reservations about Inserts and didn't consider it successful, Roger Ebert nonetheless conceded it was "an odd and ambitious little movie" with "a certain quirky charm." In other words, "it's interesting and it has its moments." At the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum opined: "Chances are you'll either be bored stiff by the conceits or exhilarated; personally, I found it gripping throughout."

Vincent Canby of The New York Times categorized Inserts as "essentially a stunt, a slapstick melodrama in the form of a one-act, one-set, five-character play. It is, however, a very clever, smart-mouthed stunt that, in its self-described 'degenerate' way, recalls more accurately aspects of old Hollywood than any number of other period films, including Gable and Lombard. It's not anything that Inserts says, but something to do with the dizzy pace, the wisecracks, the lack of sentimentality and, mostly, the characters, who could be shadowy parodies of once-living legends."

With his customary poetic prowess, Fernando Croce offers: "Between silents and talkies (art and exploitation? body and soul?), 'the valley of indecency.' The key is Richard Dreyfuss' resemblance to Josef von Sternberg as a ruined auteur scrambling for genital close-ups circa 1930, the rest of this Hollywood-Babylon apparition falls in place as brackish facsimiles of Jeanne Eagels, Louis B. Meyer, et al. ...Cinema is alternately equated to bootlegging, grave-digging and meat-wrapping and unwrapping, yet Fassbinder's holy whore in John Byrum's sardonic exposition of the artist's dilemma is also a vivacious gal in a cyclone of splayed crotches and wisecracks. ...[R]eviewers got stuck on the X-rating and, like the trenchcoaters in the opening scene, fumbled in the dark wondering 'where the fuck's the cum shot?' "

I'm glad Croce mentions that opening sequence because it sets up the cultural context of the stag parties where porno films—like the one being made in the movie—were exhibited. Here, I will lean heavily on the scholastic work of Thomas Waugh, who I have long admired, met in San Francisco in June 2001 (before I began writing on film), and wish I could have interviewed in Montreal (now that I do write on film). I will especially rely on his commentary on stag films from his volume Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from their Beginnings to Stonewall (in which he inscribed: "Dear Michael, Happy Reading!"), and his essay "Homosociality in the Classical American Stag Film: Off-Screen, On-Screen" published in Porn Studies, edited by Linda Williams (Duke University Press, 2004).

According to Waugh, stag parties (or "smokers", as they were sometimes called in the U.S.) were a form of non-theatrical distribution for stag films where "itinerant projectionists would provide an evening of reels on command. Younger audiences belonged to college fraternities, while members of benevolent societies such as the Shriners made up the already-initiated part of the constituency." Apparently, the law tolerated this semiclandestine circulation and in Bloomington, Indiana, the American Legion even went so far as to announce their smokers in the local paper.

"In both European and American contexts," Waugh writes, "the screenings had both an instructional and a communal function, operating as instruments of socialization and initiation. How did audiences respond? Not with the deadly silence that would later reign in the porn houses of the 1970s, but with a boisterous, interactive free-for-all. The films were silent of course, but both the intertitles and the audience repartee articulated an oral culture of masculine sexuality, drawing on both the folk tradition of vulgar humor and the personal bravado of individual spectators competing with each other."

Inserts—whose title is fraught with salacious double-entendres of penetration and intravenous drug use—likewise inserts its audience among the rowdy crew of the film's opening sequence who immediately begin heckling the first few fluttering frames of the projected reel. Straightaway are complaints that the film is in black-and-white, not color (throughout the film director Byrum shifts between color and black-and-white to distinguish between art as complicated and ongoing process and art as the finished—and surprisingly innocent—artifact). Harlene (a startlingly disrobed Veronica Cartwright) and Rex, the Wonder Dog (Stephen Davies) simulate an over-the-top ascot-strangulation and rape scene.

My first thought when seeing Stephen Davies enter the frame naked with only an ascot around his neck was that he wasn't bad-looking and had a good build, which was uncharacteristic of most of the men in these early stag films whose out-of-shape bodies were rarely shown (the focus being—allegedly—on women's bodies), and were often masked to assert their anonymity and render the women even more abject. Davies enters the frame and someone in the audience shouts out, "Looks like a homo to me" and is met with, "It takes one to know one." The film will reveal that Rex, the Wonder Dog is, indeed, homosexual and that the reel's director "Boy Wonder" (Dreyfuss) suffers from impotence both sexual and creative, unable to get his "rope to rise." When the final complaint shouted out at this stag reel is, "Where the fuck's the cum shot?", Inserts' opening credits roll and we're taken to the scene of the cinematic crime to discover why, in fact, there is no fucking cum shot.

This brief, boisterous opening scene can be unpacked in several ways. First, as already mentioned, as a culturally-specific mode of specularization that—as Waugh has argued—serves both an initiatory and socializing function. The "narrative" of Boy Wonder's reel is simple and straightforward. Harlene (Cartwright) mocks Rex's dick and is punished for it by being strangled with his ascot and then savagely raped. As one of the few female members at this smoker complains in disgust, "You guys are sick!"

Waugh identifies that sickness as the "great American pop culture tradition of genital aphasia of the postwar era, shaped by censorship, yes, but also by shame and disavowal", implying that the inability to talk about sex, and genitalia in particular, was a mental disorder peculiar to the culture at the time. Aphasia, a medical complication that robs a victim of the ability to understand written and spoken language, though medically a physical malady, is here metaphorically applied as a cultural and psychological affect; i.e., a "consistent pattern of denial."

Waugh pulls no punches in asserting that stag films are a "paradoxical, primitive, and innocent art form that seeks cunt and ... discovers prick." Clearly, they were films "presumably directed by men, and ultimately sutured within the framework of male subjectivity." He asks what these films and the stag parties thrown to show them teach us directly, even indirectly, about men? He suggests: "The whole mosaic of underground erotic film and its spin-off genres does more than expose men's gazes and gestures, and even the occasional full-shot male body. It also expresses the spectrum of male sociality, the experience of having a penis (and being white) in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. For in front of and behind the camera, on the screen and in the screening room, this spectrum radiates in all its ambiguities and over-determinedness, however hermetic, abstract, individualized, and displaced the narratives are." If stag films did indeed seek cunt and discover prick, they also discovered that pricks live in packs, which is precisely their initiatory and socializing function.

Let's pursue that "spectrum of male sociality" by exploring what Waugh argues is "the homosocial core of masculinity as constructed within American society" tenaciously engaged by stag films, both on-screen and off-screen. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick earlier identified this "homosocial continuum" and defined "homosocial desire" as "the affective or social force, the glue, even when its manifestation is hostility or hatred or something less emotively charged, that shapes an important relationship [between men]."

Waugh likewise cites John. H. Gagnon and William Simon as the only social scientists studying the stags' subcultural milieu. Even earlier than Sedgwick, they wrote in 1967 that the primary referent of stag films lay "in the area of homosocial reinforcement of masculinity and hence only indirectly a reinforcement of heterosexual committments."

Now we are getting, as they say, to the meat of the matter.

"Above all," Waugh continues, "the specularization of homosocial desire is in place, in the screening room and on the screen: men getting hard pretending not to watch men getting hard watching images of men getting hard watching or fucking women." (I absolutely love that quote.) Waugh wonders why Dr. Kinsey—who was intensely aware of stag movies as an element in the erotic socialization of American (white) men and asked his respondents about the use of the stag film as an object of arousal—curiously failed to ask them "about the context of erotic stimulation, about the same-sex collective public sharing of these cine-homoerotic stimuli."

Waugh asks: "What about homosociality on-screen? The screen, like a mirror, reflected many of the same dynamics unfolding in the screening room." He cites several examples of films where "men share women, men get off watching men with women, men help men with women, men supplant men with women, men procure women for men, and so on."

Let's turn now to Veronica Cartwright's performance as Harlene—whose name is an inch away from harlot. This is, without question, one of Cartwright's finest performances, steering away from the stereotyped weeping and sniffling seen in her childhood performances (The Children's Hour, The Birds) up through their adult inflections (Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers). From the moment she opens her mouth, it becomes apparent why she is a fallen silent screen star reduced to making blue movies. Like Jean Hagen's character in Singin' in the Rain (1952), talkies destroyed her career as a silent screen star because her squeaky voice couldn't meet up to the demands of the medium; but, whereas Hagen's Lina Lamont was a comic villain—the diva audiences loved to hate—Cartwright's Harlene is a truly likeable, if horribly damaged, soul whose former career has spiraled downward into drug use and debauchery. If she is a harlot, she is the proverbial harlot with a heart of gold.

Just as Inserts' heckling audience in the first scene tagged the actor in the stag film as a homo, the presumption would have been that the actress was a whore. "The hooker presides over the entire corpus of stags in a generalized way," Waugh writes, "inflected by the familiar hypocritical class-centric contempt for the working girl since the audience undoubtedly assumed the female performers to be sex workers—and most clearly they often were as much, just as their inept male partners were assumed to be, and visibly were, amateurs. (In fact, pursuing this documentary reading, the stag corpus may well be the best visual ethnography of sex workers in America during this period.) Many of the performers were decades older and less trim than the prevailing ideal of the sixteen-year-old Candy Barr, adding the complication of age to the misogynist economy at play around the sex worker.

"On a literal level, the hooker is incarnated specifically in character types who exchange sex for money, not desire. ...Few literally drawn prostitute characters appear in the stag stories as such, but the recurring exchange of money and services implies that most female characters are candidates. This element of populist male blame which channels the stresses of masculinity awakened by the stag-film setting, this social scapegoating attached to the attractive / repulsive lumpen femme fatale, of course makes for a familiar element in popular and high art of the period." Contempt, Waugh argues, centers on the seller and not the buyer.

By contradistinction, Jessica Harper's Cathy Cake arrives on-set with her mobster pal Big Mac (Hoskins) only "to watch" the proceedings; but, her prurient interest is a thin guise over her ambitious self-interest and rampant desire. She represents the "other" taboo: the woman who initiates; the woman who wants it. And yet by her very agency she sets into motion the reason why Boy Wonder's stag film doesn't have a cum shot and—at the same time in a parting glance between them—confirms that for the two of them making a stag film together offered a momentary sense of creating meaningful art.

At the very least, she gets Boy Wonder's rope to rise (though at first she feigns naïvete: "What does that mean 'rope to rise'? Do you have a magic act?"). And oddly enough—and reason enough for an "X" rating, I guess—his erection redeems an impotent creativity and, more broadly, an abandoned community of artists who still struggle to create something, even if it is nowhere near the peak of their previous careers, lapsing from the licit into the illicit. Just as the initiatory and socializing aspects of misogyny utilize pornography to serve a masculinist culture, impotence is likewise an important informing factor. In his seminal lecture on pornography ("Pink Madness: Why Does Aphrodite Drive Us Crazy With Pornography?"), Jungian theorist James Hillman suggested impotence as the ground for the erotic imagination and its compensatory fantasies. You see Boy Wonder come "alive" while shooting the strangulation-rape scene in a kind of frenzied joy that is offset by his gentler, more genuine joy when he comes "alive" making love to Miss—"please call me Cathy"—Cake. Their final exchanged glance is bittersweet with their shared hunger for a genuine life and the momentary satisfaction that perhaps only artifice can provide.

Finally, let's get back to that homo actor and his role in all of this. By, once again, inserting homosexuality into an allegedly heterosexual enterprise, suggestion is made of the homosocial continuum vital to American culture at the time, and the important role homosexuals played in helping heterosexual men hold onto their vulnerable self-definition. I can't help but quote Fran Lebowitz, who quipped: "If you removed all of the homosexuals and homosexual influence from what is generally regarded as American culture, you would pretty much be left with Let's Make a Deal."

Waugh goes on in his research to explore the shift from stag films to gay physique films—which, naturally, exceeds the scope of this review—but suffice it to say that he argues that "like the stags, the physique films were made by men for men about men, and thus they, too, center around the specularization of masculinity, and fall along the spectrum of homosociality." They overlap "mostly in the homosocial codes and formulas: rivalry and sharing, display and specularization, trickery and triangles, crescendo and release. And the logic of surrogacy, fetish, and tongue-in-cheek coding—from frenzied wrestling as a knowing simulacrum of fucking to fun with spears and guns and boots." I could readily cite the arousing scene between Rupert (Alan Bates) and Gerald (Oliver Reed) in Ken Russell's Women In Love (1969) as an example of the first surrogacy, and all the Men's adventure magazines of the fifties and sixties (and their illustrated pulp covers) as an example of the second, or even the now well-documented gun rivalry between Montgomery Clift and John Ireland in Howard Hawks' Red River (1948).

Waugh concludes: "Comparing, then, the stag corpus and its physique underbelly, one is overwhelmed by how much social status and audience infrastructure differently determine the iconographies of desire. But, in fact, the two genres were moving in similar directions at the beginning of the sexual revolution in the fifties, both of them poised nervously on the same homosocial continuum of desire. Both were also eagerly embracing new technologies, 16mm, 8mm, soon super-8, and eventually that electronic panacea that was still a gleam in the producers' eyes in 1968, home video. Thanks to these technologies, both traditions penetrated the domestic sphere, the physique films through aboveground mail order, the stag films through under-the-counter sales (the days of the itinerant projectionists had passed). Both stags and physiques in mutated form would also erupt into the hard-core features of tenderloin theatrical circuits in the late sixties and early seventies—the entrenchment of homosocial male eroticism in the marketplace of the commodified sexual revolution. These two interrelated corpuses, these mosaics of homosociality, ... thus reentered the public patriarchal sphere together, arm in arm, pricks in hand."


Gagnon, John H., and William Simon. Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality. Chicago: Aldine, 1973: 266.

Hillman, James. "Pink Madness: Why Does Aphrodite Drive Us Crazy With Pornography?" Spring audio, 1995.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985:2.

Waugh, Thomas. Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from their Beginnings to Stonewall. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996: 309-311.

Waugh, Thomas. "Homosociality in the Classical American Stag Film: Off-Screen, On-Screen." In Porn Studies, ed. Linda Williams. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004: 127-141.