I am a cinephile, PhD student, and teaching fellow in the Cinema Studies Department at New York University. My dissertation, “Hollywood’s Ballyhoo Boys and Girls” focuses on the history of Hollywood studio-era promotional departments and strategies. I mostly blog about academic life, movies, and movie marketing campaigns.
Excited to be teaching this 2017 summer course in the Cinema Studies department at New York University.
Disney: Aesthetics, Narratives, and Business Practices:
When Industrial Light and Magic’s VFX team experienced difficulties articulating the Rathtar creature’s multiple limbs for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), they consulted with Pixar’s animators who had struck upon an innovative rigging system to animate Hank the octopus’s tentacles for Finding Dory (2016). This curious case of convergent evolution, ultimately executed through a collaboration across studios, occurred because both Lucasfilm and Pixar Animation share a common parent: The Walt Disney Company.
Somewhat embodying an octopus, Disney’s far reach extends across a vast empire of entertainment and multi-media interests that influence American culture. The company’s deeply entrenched, self-cultivated, and legally regulated image of a benevolent conglomerate means its business model and practices often evade severe scrutiny. Similarly, Disney’s seductively alluring, seemingly innocent movies and the representations they proffer resist critical analysis from adoring audiences.
In this course we will break the spell of Disney’s image and products to address critically both the Corporation, and the narratives it projects. We will also have occasion to examine the changing output and company cultures of Disney’s recent acquisitions, which include: Marvel, Pixar, and Lucasfilm. Screenings and clips will draw from Disney’s and its subsidiaries’ most beloved movies, lesser-seen works, and externally produced films that present critiques of Disney’s global empire.
This week I’m in Chicago!
During my visit to the fabulous Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), I was surprised and delighted to stumble upon a provocative exhibition that in part relates to one of my favorite movies: Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996). The exhibit “Nothing Personal” interrogates the politics of the archive and includes the fictional, photographic archive of Fae Richards (Lisa Marie Bronson), who is an elusive, but central character in Dunye’s movie. For the movie, artist Zoe Leonard created an archive charting Fae Richards’s life. It’s these fabricated documents that are now on display at the AIC.
The Watermelon Woman follows young black, lesbian filmmaker Cheryl (Cheryl Dunye), who works in a video store in Philadelphia with her best friend, and occasional camera assistant, Tamara (Valarie Walker). When she’s not working, Cheryl is making a documentary movie about the deceased Fae Richards, a black actress who featured in Hollywood 1930s movies playing “Mammie” roles and who only ever received credit as the “Watermelon Woman.” Over the course of her research Cheryl discovers that Richards was romantically involved with movie director Martha Page – a type of Dorothy Arzner figure. Cheryl shoots her documentary on video, and the clips from her film are intercut with Cheryl’s confessional video diary, real archival footage, and the faux, fabricated footage from Richards’s movies.
During Cheryl’s quest to make her documentary, the film repeatedly and brilliantly challenges archival practices. Cheryl visits a multitude of sites in pursuit of information about Richards’s life. She first pays a visit to Lee Edwards’s home: Edwards is a black film historian and collector of race movies. While Edwards’s collection is vast, when Cheryl asks him about the Watermelon Woman he tells her “women are not my specialty.” Cheryl and Tamara next visit the public library where at the reference desk they encounter a snooty white male librarian, coded as gay. He tells the women that the library doesn’t hold any reference category on black women in film. A further excursion takes Cheryl to the Center for Lesbian Info and Technology (cheekily referred to as C.L.I.T.). This haphazardly organized, comically bureaucratic archive run by an all-volunteer collective holds a few items on Richards’s life, but Cheryl is forbidden from using them in her film (Many of these photographs appear on exhibition today at AIC). While the movie makes a serious political point about the difficulties of conducting research on history’s most marginalized people and explores a black filmmaker’s complex relationship with America’s exploitative movie heritage, Dunye’s film never loses its sense of cinephilia and fun.
The mise-en-scene of the video store where Cheryl works also resembles something of an archive due to the stacks and stacks of videotapes that loom behind the store’s front desk. In addition to archivists, the clerks perform the roles of film curators, programmers, and reviewers. They order and collect the non-mainstream videos they want to see (many of these are lesbian and pornographic). They also advise customers on what movies they should rent, and in the “two for one video deal” Cheryl suggests movies that will complement each other. The Watermelon Woman is a movie indebted to videotape, but it’s also something of a celebration of video’s aesthetic and the medium itself. In the nineties, the innovations and affordability of the camcorder along with the availability of video rentals permitted a new film culture to flourish and enabled the New Queer Cinema movement. A movement indisputably enriched by Dunye’s contributions.
If you watch The Watermelon Woman today you may be struck by how the movie hasn’t dated, and this seems quite a feat given its relationship to videotape! I could almost believe Cheryl and Tamara are out there right now working in the last video store in Philadelphia. But rather than timelessness, perhaps this is a matter of timeliness given the parallels between The Watermelon Woman and Netflix’s hit show Orange is the New Black (2014-). To draw just one superficial comparison, the relationship and banter that Cheryl and Tamara share in the video store very much resembles the friendship and back-and-forth between Taystee and Poussey, who work together in the library in OITNB. Unsurprisingly, I’m not the first person to have made this connection. Journalists have asked Dunye to comment on the similarities between her work and OITNB, especially since Dunye actually made a movie about a womens’ prison. Thankfully, Dunye’s nineties movies seem to be receiving greater recognition today. As critic Ruby Rich notes about New Queer Cinema – the term she coined – “the movement…was always eleventy-zillion light-years ahead of the mainstream.” It therefore seems about the right time for the AIC to put on this exhibition that partly pays homage to The Watermelon Woman.
You can currently stream The Watermelon Woman on Amazon Prime.
Another highlight of my visit to the AIC was encountering Edward Hopper’s celebrated painting Nighthawks (1947).
What you don’t get a sense of from reproductions of the painting is the luminosity of the yellow. I stood four rooms back and could still see the brightly lit diner glowing in the distance.
By the 1940s Helen Van Upp’s own early film career had largely been eclipsed by that of her daughter’s success – executive producer, Virginia Van Upp. However, Helen had served as head of the reading department at several large studios, worked as an editor, scenarist, script teacher, and for a while she even ran her own production company. She was well known and liked in Hollywood’s small community right up until her death at the age of 93 in 1969. Over the course of her life Helen Van Upp witnessed the rise and fall of Hollywood’s studio system.
So, I’m having a geek moment:
Below is the only piece of film footage I have found featuring Hollywood actress-screenwriter-producer, Virginia Van Upp. While Van Upp appeared in several early films as a child actress, many of these titles are now lost, or only exist as fragments. Although Van Upp was happy to swap acting for writing and producing, it seems she still retained some aspirations to act. She reportedly completed a screen test for one of the movies that she wrote entitled, Honeymoon in Bali (1939). Van Upp also planned to appear as an extra in The Loves of Carmen (1948). In 1983, Van Upp herself was portrayed by actress Jane Hallaren in the television movie Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess.
Note on footage:
In 1949, Van Upp attended Rita Hayworths’s wedding to Prince Aly Khan in Cannes. I noticed Van Upp in the below Pathé newsreel at around: 32 seconds. During the wedding ceremony Van Upp is standing by the wall on the far right, wearing a large, bonkers black hat and black-and-white patterned dress. Van Upp also appears again standing outside the wedding venue. You really get a sense of how petite she was – something reporters would often emphasize.
Hayworth and Van Upp were close friends. Van Upp wrote the screenplay to Cover Girl (1944) and produced and wrote Gilda (1946); both are two of Hayworth’s most memorable movies. For various labor reasons Van Upp did not receive writing credit for Gilda; this greatly angered Columbia Pictures studio boss Harry Cohn, who thought Van Upp more than deserved full credit.
Thanks to Pathé for making the footage accessible to the public!
I had a great time last weekend at the Film and History Conference in Madison, Wisconsin. It was wonderful to meet up with old and new friends. Film and History is often referred to as one of the friendliest and most collegiate conferences in the Untied States and I’ve certainly found this to be the case.
My presentation was on the unique production history of Cover Girl (1944) written by Virginia Van Upp, and starring Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly and Lee Bowman. I’m extremely grateful to the panel organizer Deborah Carmichael and my fellow panelist Philip Sewell, both of whom gave insightful and meticulously researched presentations on local exhibition strategies. I’m also super appreciative for the advice I received in the Q&A session from the scholars who attended our panel. It’s so fabulous to come back from a conference and feel this inspired.
Below are a few of the PowerPoint slides I included in my talk.
I like to think of the below title slide’s background as ‘ironic pink.’ The movie employs the same pink satin background for its titles and credits.
Oh, cruel irony!
I’m excited to be presenting a paper this Friday in Wisconsin on Columbia Pictures Technicolor musical, Cover Girl (1944) starring Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, and Lee Bowman. However, I just found out that MoMA will be screening the restored version of this movie at exactly the same time. The movie will be introduced by Grover Crisp, Executive Vice President of Asset Management, Film Restoration and Digital Mastering, Sony Pictures Entertainment.
At least I’ll get back to New York in time to catch the second screening of the film on Monday, but I’m terribly disappointed to miss Crisp’s talk.
The restoration was screened this summer at the Il Cinema Ritrovato Festival in Italy and by all accounts it is magnificent. David Bordwell described it as the best DCP rendering of Technicolor that he has ever seen.
For my presentation I’ll be employing the teletypes and story conference notes held at the American Heritage Center in Wyoming, to discuss the movie’s unique production history and elaborate nationwide exploitation campaign.
In accordance with the 50th Anniversary of NYU Tisch School of the Arts my colleague and I are researching the history of the School. We’re primarily focusing on locating and preserving audio-visual materials that record early faculty and students’ contributions. So far we’ve made some pretty exciting discoveries!
One portion of the School’s history that is proving particularly intriguing pertains to a series of programs made for a long-term project entitled “University Broadcast Lab.”
Between 1969-81 an extremely productive collaboration existed between the non-commercial, local station WNYC-TV and a 26-week color television course taught by Professors Richard Goggin and Irving Falk. For a number of months a year WNYC-TV would broadcast twice-weekly on Channel 31 the original and imaginative output made by students of this class. The first episode to air was entitled “Feiffer and Friends,” written and featuring -then student – Billy Crystal.
To exemplify the scope, innovation, and ambition of these television programs I’ve included below a random sampling of titles along with their descriptions:
- Chase Newhart’s Beat the Draft (taping date: Jan 14 1970, air date: 10:30 pm, Jan 25 1970). This satiric program is a take-off on the game show format – the winner gets a deferment, the loser is drafted to fight in Vietnam.
- Bob Ackerman and Don Brockway’s Inside Television (air date: Feb 22 1971). This comedy-satire takes the viewer on a tour of the inside of his television set where he will learn about the work of dedicated people (called “Nurns”) who make their homes inside electronic devices. The Nurns explain the gadgets inside the TV set and give their opinions on some of the shows viewers watch.
- Sheva Farkas’s We the People (air date: Mar 15 1971). An original drama about the confusion of ideas and the lack of ability to either compromise or listen to opposite points of view, the program revolves around the issues of racism, radicalism and the war in Vietnam.
- Electa Brown and John Homs’s What? Your Favorite Subject is Math – The Village Charrette (May 24 1971). Miss Brown interviews Patricia Flynn, Chairman of the Greenwich Village Charrette Steering Committee and Charles Patrick Bell, a 7-year-old first grader at P.S. 3 in the Village.
When I’ve given presentations on movie producer Virginia Van Upp, I’ve discussed her 45+ year career in Hollywood as falling into four major phases. In my research I’m discovering that the final phase of Van Upp’s career is proving more complex and surprising than the current official narrative.
“Growing up with Hollywood” (1902-1934)
Before deciding on a career as a screenwriter, Van Upp held a variety of positions within the burgeoning movie industry of Los Angeles. These roles included: child star, director’s assistant, editor, script reader, casting agent, actor’s representative, and secretary to Horace Jackson. The knowledge she gained from these jobs (actor’s agent in particular), would significantly help Van Upp in the next three phases of her career.
“The Paramount Years” (1934-42)
“The Columbia Years” (1942-47)
“The Wilderness Years” (1948-1970)
After leaving Columbia, Van Upp spent several years trying to launch independent movie projects and wrote and produced three documentaries in Germany for the U.S State Dept. She also worked on a number of movies for which she is uncredited. I thought this final phase would be hard to find materials on, but my research to date shows that these years were some of the most interesting, prolific, and creative of Van Upp’s career.
I’m looking forward to visiting USC, UCLA, and Margaret Herrick Library in August and discovering more about Van Upp (and her mother, Hollywood scenarist Helen Van Upp).
Above is Virginia Van Upp meeting with (Italian born) Argentine director Luis César Amadori in 1945 at Columbia Pictures. The two filmmakers shared an interesting discussion about Hollywood cultural stereotypes and women working in the film industry. Upon leaving Columbia, Van Upp would travel extensively in South America and Europe, associating with dignitaries and filmmakers.
You can read more about the fascinating connection between Hollywood and Argentine film during the 1930s and 1940s here.
Shelley Stamp’s Lois Weber in Early Hollywood.