Not Just The Clydesdales: Super Bowl 50 & Advertising History

It’s coming. It’s happening in a few days. My neighborhood is going to be full of screaming and cheering and less parking than usual.

 

But my gaze will be fixed on my television in a slightly different manner.

For some time now, I have been focusing my archival energies on the pursuit of preserving commercials and working on the recognition of advertising as something of worth within moving image archiving. While we have officially recognized television, film, home movies, industrial works and other short subjects as worthy of respect, there still seems to be a hard stare around the word “commercial” or “advertising.”

Yes- it is The Man. And yes, it is Corporations. And Consumption. All the “dirty words” that seem to make us uncomfortable and feel like we are somehow disrespecting ourselves and our individuality and relinquishing our rights to choose the things we put on our hair, into our bodies and treat our children with.

But advertising is more complex than this. I believe that there is a highly significant need for better and more extensive preservation (even restoration) of these works because they represent our social, domestic, political and cultural leanings throughout the years.

That said, one of the biggest events for advertising, lying somewhere between the Indy 5000 and the Oscars, is the Super Bowl. In just a few days, all over the United States, bars, homes and facilities of all sorts will be turning their lighted media boxes to the exact same program. There will be enough beer, pizza, nachos, hot wings and other grease and alcohol-slathered snacks to truly make one consider going vegetarian. After all, next to Thanksgiving (the largest eating day of the year) this is the second largest!

So let’s talk food for a second. According to the National Chicken Council‘s 2015 pre-game report, approximately 1.25 billion wings were eaten during last year’s Super Bowl- enough to circle the Grand Canyon 120 times and enough to put 572 wings on each seat in every NFL football stadium. As for pizza, by halftime last year Pizza Hut had broken its digital sales record and had already been named as the #1 food choice for the US during the game. So…score? As for booze, the figure is that 325 million gallons of beer are consumed on Super Bowl Sunday. Many articles say this is overblown and improbable, chalking the number up to the amount that is purchased on the day (not an impossibility). If the number were true, everyone in the US (men, women, AND children- omgz! Not drunk toddlers! They can barely walk anyway!) would have to chug an entire gallon themselves. And while I can certainly see a certain percentage of the folks I have encountered in my life being able to imbibe 10 beers in one sitting (especially light beers), I’m not putting bets on the babies.

So it’s a day of celebration, camaraderie and (it would seem) mild debauchery of some kind. I feel that there is an entirely different post related to this about why advertisers would select a day of drinky/greasy/cheer-ismo as the day to put their best foot forward and place their top ads that they have been working on (and spending the most money on securing spots and time for) but that certainly isn’t the point of this discussion. In fact, what I want to first discuss is who is watching and how.

Super Bowl Statistics

If you think that American Football is a dudes game, you’d be dead wrong. Mirroring the results that I found when I did my research into female fans of professional televised wrestling, the Nielsen demographic data has proven that women are not only active sports consumers, but they are interactive sports consumers. A recent statistic showed that 46% of the viewing audience is female (that’s almost half- guys, did you get that?) and on an even more fascinating level, MORE WOMEN WATCH THE SUPER BOWL THAN THE OSCARS, EMMYS, AND GRAMMYS COMBINED!  To add to this, the social media centered on the Super Bowl has been led strongly by women. As Kat Gordon, founder of the 3% Movement  wrote in AdWeek, “Women watch equally, buy + share in greater #s than men on Super Bowl Sunday. Ads with female appeal = best return on $4 million price-tag.” Of note: Gordon has an annual Super Bowl tweet-up with women creatives that deftly tries to negotiate the historic divide between the way that women consumer/fans are approached by advertisers and the way in which they wish to be approached. Here is the promo video-

The other big adjustment is newer technologies. So Super Bowl 50 (and its advertisers) are making that play to connected-TV devices like Apple-TV, Xbox, Roku and others. Mobile devices and tablets are in high use with the Millennial audiences for viewing sports events year-round, so the Super Bowl programming has made certain that their Jewel in the Crown is no different. But advertising will be a little different depending on the device. As reported in Variety,  CBS required all sponsors to run ads in the digital stream in addition to the straight-up TV broadcast. On the other hand, if you were to utilize a device like Roku or AppleTV, the only ads you would receive would be national spots.

Compared to the 16mm commercial collections that I have been dealing with, thinking about all this is mind-numbing. I have always had a slight interest in American football because they continued to film on 16mm up until 2014 when they went digital. So the discussion of digital outreach and audience visibility through mobile applications is a big step in my mind for the NFL.

So let’s get down to content stats before we go all historical.

The National Retail Federation reports that this year it is likely that there will be a viewing population of approximately 188.9 million folks who will be checking out the Denver Broncos play the Carolina Panthers. About 34.7% (85 million) view the game as the “meat” of the day, while 17.7% (43.4 million) are there to check out the commercials. The other 4.5% (11 million)? They’re just there for the food, man.

Now let’s look at the way these commercials are being watched. Are they being glossed over? Talked through? Is that when you go grab another beer or head to the privy? 78.6% said that they think of the ads as entertainment (whether the definition of “entertainment” deserves a more critical look is another story) and 17.5% of viewers say that they see these commercials as informative. The remaining 10.3% say that the ads definitely influence their desire to purchase a product.

Considering the history of Super Bowl ads, I can definitely understand that 10.3%. I mean, look at this Snickers ad from 2010. Betty White AND Abe Vigoda (RIP)? I’m sold.

If I was old enough to drink wine in 1980, I would most certainly have bought it from a classical music-testifying Orson Welles!

And there is no way you could talk me out of buying a car that is being sold to me through the spirit of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. That would be MADNESS (note: this is from 1969, 2 years after Super Bowl I)

History

Ok. So this year is Super Bowl 50. And it’s being played in San Francisco, making every one of my friends who lives there incredibly frantic. In fact, some have decided to just leave town for the weekend. I don’t blame them. I’m not entirely sure how they plan to fit that many people in a city that small, but good luck to them. Game on, right?

The first game was played in 1967, between the NFL and the AFL (American Football League), and was not called the “Super Bowl” for a few more years. Until 1972, the Super Bowl wasn’t even broadcast nationwide (I KNOW. CAN YOU IMAGINE. AND WE USED ROTARY PHONES THEN TOO). Super Bowls I-IV were blacked out in the host cities, plausibly to force the fans to actually attend in person. A bizarre event happened during the first Super Bowl that some might conjecture foretold of how interrelated the Super Bowl and advertising were to be. As Robert Klara describes it, “Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi threw a fit when the second-half kickoff had to be done over. The reason? NBC held off returning to the game until after it aired a commercial for Winston cigarettes.” Out of the many anecdotes about live television I’ve heard/read, this might be one of my favorite because it was a live sporting event that is now one of the largest in the country. And they re-did the kickoff due to a commercial break. 1967, folks, Winston cigarettes.

This isn’t the ad that they showed (this one is from 1968) but it was too good not to include as an example of a “late 60s Winston ad.”

Advertising changed for the big game when star quarterback Joe Namath appeared in a very steamy Noxzema commercial for the 1973 Super Bowl with a pre-Charlie’s Angels Farrah Fawcett. The Noxell Corporation (also owners of Cover Girl) were at the tail end of a very sexually-charged campaign for Noxzema products that had featured a former Miss Sweden and some highly suggestive language. This ad fits in quite well with that theme and sparked the match that the Super Bowl/advertising industry needed to light their partnership fire.

That same year, another ad ran with an unknown young actor and he (and his leather jacket and “Eyyyy!” attitude) became pretty famous soon thereafter!

Cost

So how much does all this run?

AN INSANE AMOUNT OF MONEY. People say it costs a great deal, you can read the numbers, but it’s beyond what you would think. In fact, the best way to describe how much ad space for the Super Bowl costs is to tell you how much it has cost through the years and do comparisons.

So the year that it began- 1967- a 30-second spot cost $42,000. Twenty years later, in 1987, people were shelling out a hefty $600,000 for :30. For Super Bowl XLI in 2007? It was $2,600,000. At this point, advertisers are currently paying $160,000 A SECOND to advertise on the Super Bowl.

So why is this, aside from everyone loving sports and the Super Bowl becoming a massive National Cultural Event? The Big Kids got involved and they put their money where their mouths were. And, like advertising is, it became a massive competition to see who could do the best and freshest work, produce the most effective product that would get results for their clients. And more clients got involved as time went on. And bigger clients. So instead of smaller ads like this Wild Kingdom bumper from 1969

they garnered much larger ones like the now-famous Clydesdale/Budweiser ads.

It was at this stage in the Super Bowl/Advertising Game that they began to get some very interesting content as well.

I have a personal love for this Xerox commercial from 1976. But it’s incredibly nerdy and so am I.

And of course when you pair up a huge star like Mean Joe Greene with a kid, add some heart to the ad, and put it within the Coca-Cola landscape? Yeah. You have a winner. This is well-remembered as one of the best Super Bowl ads. And it’s held up.

One of the most legendary commercials to run during the Super Bowl is the Apple Commercial directed by Ridley Scott. It aired on January 22, 1984 and (contrary to popular belief) did run more than once but was not a regularly programmed spot by any stretch of the imagination. It is still incredible.

Big clients. Big names. Big money. And the Super Bowl gets bigger and bigger.

And advertising for the Super Bowl gets better and better through the years. I would argue that the thoughts and considerations I have been having on modern American advertising do not seem to apply to the Super Bowl advertising spectrum. Many of today’s standard ads do not seem to carry the same narratives, diversity and engaging fun that is present during the ads of the 70s, 80s and 90s, even up until the early ’00s. But the Super Bowl ads…well, that’s when everyone (literally) brings their A-Game. They all seem to have wit and swagger of some kind.

February 7, 2016

Clearly I am going to watch the Super Bowl mainly for the commercials (as you have probably guessed by now). I am BEYOND excited that Squarespace seems to know that I’m a commercials whore and love comedians Key & Peele, and they are providing me with a way in which to have the best time ever on Sunday, which rocks.

It will probably be me and my cats. I might yell and scream at the TV too, just like any DudeBro, but it’s going to be advertisement related. BECAUSE I’VE SEEN THE TEASER/TRAILERS FOR SUPER BOWL 50 AND THEY’RE WILD.

There are a few ads for Super Bowl 50 that I am really looking forward to based upon seeing the teasers. This is the major one. I love the Snickers ads. They are so clever & they star my favorite people. The #EatASnickers campaign is really great.

This one looks pretty great too…

Also these:

And there are more. Maybe I’ll do a top 10 faves when #SB50 is over.

For now, I’m going to also leave you with a few classic faves because, well, THEY’RE GREAT COMMERCIALS. I hope you enjoyed this piece as much as I enjoyed dorking out about what is pretty much one of the biggest days of the ad year. Have a good one folks!

Legacy Super Bowl Ads – Personal Faves!

Evil Beaver. So much yes. Maybe not as an ad, but I can’t help myself. LOVE.

I still don’t even believe this is real but…it is. “Start living again!”

Oh, Holiday Inn…

CLASSIC.

Magic Mountain appearance!

And you’ll never beat Spuds Mackenzie. Party animal!!!!

 

Losing the Light, Keeping the Inspiration: Vilmos Zsigmond

In January of 2011, I saw 2 films that changed the way that I think about masculinity and cinema: ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE (James William Guercio, 1973) & SCARECROW (Jerry Schatzberg, 1973).
Really, they became two of my favorite films in life. But that is a whole other story.
Looking back, my impetus to attend stemmed from two things: my friend Cathie’s love of the EGIB soundtrack (which we played all the time in the car) and my purchase of the VHS for Jerry Schatzberg’s SCARECROW when I was working at Amoeba in the early ’00s. I remember the cover –
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And I remember thinking: Hackman and Pacino did a movie together?? What???
So that story ends in a rather anti-climactic manner. I never watched the VHS. In fact, I no longer have the damn thing.
But I’m so glad. You can only lose your Movie Virginity for a film once and theatrically is the best way to do it.
This is the second time I’ve written on this screening. It had a heavy impact on me.
The first time, I wrote about ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE for the film noir blogathon. This night was one of the best film memories/screenings of my life. And considering how many movies I’ve seen….THAT’S saying something.
Retracing my steps to 5 years ago. I had originally had plans for the night but they fell through so I did what any normal, red-blooded, cinematically-charged girl would do: I biked over to the LA County Museum of Art and attended the series that I had (sadly) missed most of, entitled “True Grit: The Golden Age of Road Movies.” I had no idea that there was a guest that night. I was there to see these rare films that never screen. And I was really excited about SCARECROW. I knew nothing about it- was it a comedy? Drama? Thriller? Somewhere in between? I had intentionally done no exhaustive research on it because I wanted to go in fresh. To be fair, even now it is rare to find people who are that familiar with the film, even though I feel it is top quality, desert-island material.
My time-memory is not perfect, but considering that the photo I took of my ticket says the double-feature began at 5:00pm, I think that it would make sense that our man Vilmos took the stage post-double feature.
I could lie and say that I was highly educated on the man’s career. But why? I wasn’t. It was more educational and beautiful to be introduced to him in this manner.
It would be absolutely fair, however, to say that yours truly had a decent idea of who he was. While I couldn’t name any film titles off the top of my head, I had seen many by that time.  Mostly, I knew that there was this wonderful bearded signatory of the cinematographic community being welcomed gloriously to the stage, and…I just wanted to give him a hug. He beamed from ear to ear and I’m still not sure if I breathed during the Q&A or just smiled dumbly like I was high on drugs. Vilmos was infectious!!
He laughed and enjoyed the questions and discussion, thought it was funny that people were in such awe of his work. He shrugged so many times. “We just did it,” was his approach. A very classical no-nonsense approach.
He smiled, shook his head, told stories. He thought the whole thing was a gas.
All the things that he spoke about that night, I now treasure- as a professional in the film industry, as an archivist, preservationist, historian and film lover.
He spoke about coming to this country and working with Lazslo Kovacs, and how their relationship and Hungarian”ness” really added a new flavor to what was going on in film at the time.LazloVilmos
He even spoke about working on THE SADIST (James Landis, 1963) a little bit, where he was billed as William Zsigmond. This was pretty thrilling to me because I really love this film.SadistLobbyCard1963
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Vilmos was allowed to talk, mostly uninterrupted, about certain technical and narrative aspects of SCARECROW that he was involved in.
The film relied quite a bit on improvisation (not always a cinematographer’s friend) and yet Zsigmond rolled with it, going so far as to call this work one of the “better of my films.” Even though he admitted that it was quite dark- content-wise and visually, matching many European films at the time as far as lighting went.
An audience member asked about an opening scene in which there were tumbleweeds rolling by as Pacino and Hackman stand at opposite sides of the road. Was this planned out? Did they choreograph the tumbleweeds? Vilmos just laughed. “They were tumbleweeds! They were around. They do what those things do.” No, Virginia, there were no tumbleweed wranglers.
Vilmos Zsigmond spoke about the way the film was shot and their “cinemobile.” He said it was dreadfully hot inside the car and while it was certainly a communal experience, it was a learning opportunity and tough.
I felt like I was going to film school just listening to him reminisce. But it wasn’t in a sad-nostalgia way or “tough-guy-walk-up-the-hill-in-the-snow” way. He treated the audience as though we were friends.
Debra Levine quotes Zsigmond in her review of the evening‘s double feature at LACMA:

[Scarecrow] was a real road movie, made on a very low-budget, $800,000. We went to Bakersfield, we had to shoot in sequence. We were on the road. We sent someone ahead to find locations. There were no sets in the film. We used motel rooms and bars. We had a cinemobile [bus] that held everything, actors, equipment, crew. We had unusual crew, the smallest I ever saw, camera, gaffer, key grip, sound man, dolly man, boom operator. Everyone was helping; the driver of the cinemobile was pulling cables. We were traveling every day. At the beginning, in L.A., we went through the script and agreed on what we were doing. We settled in Denver, but we had no time to rehearse. [On the road] we had no time for rehearsal.

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Al Pacino and Gene Hackman in Jerry Schatzberg’s SCARECROW (1973). Courtesy Warner Bros./Jerry Schatzberg

Vilmos Zsigmond’s eyes sparkled as he spoke, he had passion in his voice and love for his art. But he was a relaxed and centered guy. I never met him one-on-one, but I met his movies. I met him that night when I saw him speak about the film that I have now had the privilege to see twice on a big screen- once at LACMA and once at the Turner Classic Film Festival (TCMFF).
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When you love what you do and you live for what you do, it’s hard to keep it inside. You exude that joy and dedication. That is the only way I can adequately describe Vilmos Zsigmond. He is so inspiring in that sense. Although he has passed away, he will always be inspiring in that regard. This is a man who filmed the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, escaped his homeland, and then shot films as diverse as HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS (Al Adamson, 1970), BLOW OUT (Brian DePalma, 1981) and REAL GENIUS (Martha Coolidge, 1985).
Aside from SCARECROW (obviously), I’m a sucker for BLOW OUT (Brian DePalma, 1981), THE LONG GOODBYE (Robert Altman, 1973), and MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER (Robert Altman, 1971). I consider these films to be part of my family. I will certainly admit to playing favorites on SCARECROW and BLOW OUT, however.
Tonight I will be watching SUMMER CHILDREN (James Bruner, 1965), another film that Zsigmond was credited on as “William Zsigmond” and lit by his pal, Laslo Kovacs. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve never seen it. There is very little written on it and I may pursue this more.
Wish I could see it in a theater, but them’s the brakes.
From what I have found, this film is another interesting addition to his oeuvre. It has been labeled “neo-noir” and American New Wave and all sorts of things. I’m excited because it features Catalina Island- one of my favorite places on the planet.summerchildren1965
I would like to do some more in-depth research on it (especially as to the actual restoration process) but my brief look came up with a reasonable synopsis.
It was thought to be a lost film (although it was finished) but elements (including original camera negatives) were found in the early 2000’s and sound elements were located in other vaults. Apparently (as it goes in a case like this, from my understanding) a restoration was completed using a combination of the best elements that they located from all of these vaults over time, and Zsigmond assisted on the creation of the final product, getting it back to some estimation of what it was to look like.
If you have Amazon Prime, you can watch this tonight as well. I’m greatly looking forward to it.
I consider myself lucky to have been so warmly gifted with his laughter and stories for one night. I am also lucky because I will be able to have his films forever. While I absolutely am not a binary “digital or film or die!” person, I will say this about Zsigmond: he knew how to use the format of film. And I hope that those working with digital instruments today will take that under consideration and experiment, perhaps, with film while it is still around because there is something different there. Not better, not worse, simply different. And it is what digital is based upon. And cinematographers like Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond built that machine. Let us try not to hire the wrecking ball too soon, eh?
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Eric Caidin: Los Angeles Legend, Hollywood Cultural Treasure and My Friend

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Got the stupid phone call earlier today. I had just woken up. My cats hadn’t even switched positions from where we went to sleep the night before.

I did the same thing that I did when I got the phone call that Sherman Torgan died. I was so dead silent that the person on the other end had to check if I was still there. In fact, it was the same person who told me in both cases.

I argued with my friend: “Are you sure? This isn’t a rumor or a mistake?” I knew it wasn’t. “You’re absolutely positive? This CAN’T be true. This is not someone we can afford to lose. We really need him.” Which was a mixture of the oral historian/archivist/scholar in me speaking but the Film Friend saying: I really need him. I’m going to miss this man so fiercely. He changed my life. Who will I see and hug now at film events? Who can I giggle with in that way we did?

My friend on the phone, who had his own extremely intimate relationship with Eric, was good with me. But he assured me that it was not a mistake. I said that maybe we brought it on by talking about people we had lost over the weekend. Was it our fault? “No, Ariel, it’s not our fault. He had a heart attack. We are not responsible.”

I still feel responsible. If I hadn’t brought that topic up last Saturday, would Eric still be with us? I know I’m not responsible. But I also keep wanting to wake up from some stupid nightmare and have this be false information. However, after seeing an article already published in Los Angeles magazine…I guess it’s not somnolence-related.

I wish all of you could have met Eric Caidin. I’m sure many of you did, perhaps for more than 20 years. I can only claim to have been Film Friends with him for 13-14 years. But my first introductions to Grindhouse Cinema were through him. And I had no idea what the term meant. Like zero clue.

Original storefront for Hollywood Book & Poster

Original storefront for Hollywood Book & Poster

Eric Caidin owned and ran Hollywood Book & Poster in the very center of Hollywood for years. In fact, it was only within the last year that it closed (due to raised rents, go figure). The plan was for HB&P to relocate to a highly popular spot in Burbank for themed boutiques, certainly one that would have been well-suited to Caidin’s years of hard work and skilled curation of motion-picture themed collectibles. As a woman who has grown up in this city and watched as places like Book City, C.C. Brown’s and other signature Hollywood Blvd landmarks disappear, this was sad. But I was also excited for their new future since I believed in the “Caidin Touch.”

If you watched Eric at a Convention or at a Q&A, if you had him hand you a flyer for a Kiddee Matinee at the New Beverly or any of the umpteen thousand projects that he did aside from running that shopyou would see something that we are lacking in 2015: THE ULTIMATE SHOWMAN.

Eric in his

Eric in his “milieu” at a convention! Always on & always “on it”!

He didn’t do a little bit of everything, he did a LOT of everything. And he knew about everything. While kids need google now and barely anyone remembers using real encyclopedias or card catalogs, Eric Caidin was a walking encyclopedia. And not just on horror films or exploitation- but on all kinds of cinema/pop culture. And on wrestling?? Expert!! And I. Love. Wrestling. Eric and I had so many conversations about the squared circle. In fact, almost every time I saw him- New Beverly, Noir City, running into him at random film screening- if there was some random wrestling thing (mainly Mexican Wrestling, but a good deal of other stuff too) that he was involved in, he would tell me about it and ask me if I wanted to go. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and I hate that it is, but I am sure as hell sorry that I never watched wrestling with Mr. Eric Caidin.

A favorite personal Eric Story:

Many years ago, I’m down at Comic Con to present on a panel. As usual, I go by the Hollywood Book & Poster table to say hello and chill out and have some laughs with Eric. The day goes on, and Caidin says:

“Hey- you wanna go to Mexico with me tonight and get some wrestling masks and go to a match?”

UM, OBVIOUSLY. So the hall closes, we get into a van, park at the border, get a cab into Mexico. The match was a bust, we spent about an hour driving around TJ with Eric, laughing and listening to him talk to the cabbie, trying to figure out where there might be some Lucha. There was none. We went to a stadium and there were some guys outside who talked to us, told us there was a bullfight? No lucha. We got back in the cab. We returned to the main drag.

“Oh well. So much for that. Got this GREAT place to eat though.” So Eric Caidin took us to a place called “Tacos Not Drugs.” Still the best molé I have ever eaten. I don’t know what happened to the pictures that we took, which is sad. They had a “Tacos Not Drugs” stand-up with places for you to put your face. What a night.

But Eric was a Los Angeles Film Community Raconteur, in the very best sense of the word. Every time I saw him at a film event, I was overjoyed at being in his presence and at getting to bask in his experience and knowledge. Because he was one-of-a-kind and he genuinely loved film.  I spent a few hours at the final party of the Noir City party in 2014 listening to him tell me great stories that just made my jaw drop. And I just kept hugging him and asking him: “How do you even exist? Are you writing these things down? These stories are so fantastic?” And he just shrugged and told me another, while patting his fabulous film-related tie. Another thing- I loved Eric Caidin’s ties. NO ONE COULD EVER ROCK THAT THREE STOOGES TIE LIKE CAIDIN. And no one should ever try. End. Of. Story.

This tie was the best ever. No one could wear this like Caidin.

This tie was the best ever. No one could wear this like Caidin.

We joked about gangster pix and decided to try to take a gangster picture together that night. It didn’t quite work, but we had such a great time.

Eric Caidin- the bandit!

Eric Caidin- the bandit! With another AMAZING Three Stooges tie!

My Film Friend <3

My Film Friend <3

I suppose when you hear of someone close to you dying you need to process it in certain ways, right? I want to remember the times that I had with him and our fabulous personal relationship, but that was personal.

No one reading this will know the singular joy I felt when I saw him at festivals or events. And I don’t get to do that ever again. That’s fucking painful. He gave great hugs. I like good hugs.

I always brightened because I recognized a Fellow Traveler. And by that I mean someone who engaged in the world of cinema for the Right Reason (and yes, there is One Right Reason): because you love and enjoy it and it makes you happy. It entertains you.

Many people knew Eric without “knowing” Eric. He was one of the founders of the Grindhouse Cinema screening series at the New Beverly Theater where he would show up, always wearing that baseball cap and that jacket that he loved (which was probably one of the 10 ugliest pieces of clothing that has ever been invented), and introduced so many forgotten film titles with Brian Quinn. This much-loved film series still continues and was an education for many cinephiles over the years. Before there was Cinefamily and their cult-screenings, before Cinefile even existed with specialized sections, there was Grindhouse night at the New Beverly. The only thing in LA that was comparable was Mondo Video but….that’s a whole other thing and that was a video store.

Grindhouse night at the New Beverly was one of the most flavorful and unique things that Los Angeles repertory theater culture has ever had. Sherman Torgan knew that, Michael Torgan recognized it, and it remains there today, albeit in a slightly changed capacity. But Eric Caidin’s influence on the minds and eyes of so many audiences in the Los Angeles area is hard to gauge. It’s expansive. To give you a slight idea, here are a few images from past calendars:

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Speaking from a media archiving standpoint, Eric Caidin was an exceptional person. He curated ephemera in a remarkable manner for fans and special interest groups for many years and was a specialist in this area. His masterful ability to engage “lost” Hollywood personalities and recenter them within a space that made them feel special was a gift that not everyone has. Because of his own love, admiration and fandom for the work that he was presenting, he was able to show respect for the materials showcased and the people that he interviewed or who came to his booth during the multitude of conventions that he would attend. Whether it was Rowdy Roddy Piper, Vampira or Ann Robinson, Caidin was a scholar and a gentlemen…albeit in a Monsterpalooza baseball cap most of the time.  But really- who is the arbiter of what scholarly or gentlemanly aesthetics should be, anyway? The man was a rock star and we will always remember him as such.

In 2015, when fandoms seem to be more about the “haters” and which fan item is better than another, Eric Caidin never pursued such folly. Thus his cultural power and ability to gain love from us made him legend. This icon who celebrated media so brightly and spent his life sharing that adoration with others is gone. And that sucks.

Men like Eric Caidin don’t “just happen.” He programmed the works posted above and was completely jazzed about the recent slew of Kiddie Matinees that he had going at the New Beverly. He handed me a flier from one of them and talked excitedly about how I had to come. “All in 35mm! You’ll love it, Ariel. It’ll be a great afternoon!” and then started telling me about the other ones that he was planning.

Eric Caidin was the most joyful Talker I’ve ever met not standing on the ballyway.

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Eric Caidin attended the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival this past weekend and passed away after having what I have been told was a lovely meal with some of my other most dear and closest Film Friends. One of the things I have come to cherish about my years with Eric was seeing him at the Festivals- TCM, Noir City, AFI, you name it. We’d dish, talk about what we’d seen, who we thought was good, all the filmy things. It was good to talk to him because there was no ridiculous drama. It was great and I felt like I was talking to an adult. All we talked about was what was important: film content, quality of print, similarity to other films, quality/calibre of performance, things that are so very valuable in a conversation. He would inevitably bring up something I hadn’t heard of. I would inevitably forget it and have to ask him next time what it was that we were talking about the last time we talked. Sometimes he’d remember, sometimes not. But such is life.

Something in me says that “if he was gonna go, at least it was after a fabulous weekend of seeing film noir and Q&As with Norman Lloyd and Jon Polito, and being with loved ones. That’s exactly the way I’d wanna go.” The other part is saying, “dammit, what was the last thing/movie we talked about?” and is terribly sad that there won’t be a “next time” refresher for whatever it was.

Thank you Eric Caidin. I still can’t believe you are gone. This is going to take a while.

Archiving: The Personal, the Professional and the Unknown Experience

I don’t usually use this space for personal entries, but sometimes, in archiving, the personal and the professional mix. While that can be a death sentence on public space and social media (if used incorrectly), there are times when the connection of the two can lead to a fascination rumination on career choices, life choices and philosophies. You can make the decision about what I have done after you complete this entry.

A great many people in my life have inspired me with archiving & preservation. Starting with Laura Rooney​, Kristina Kersels and the AMIA organization, moving forward to the amazing Dennis Doros, the AMAZING Film Noir Foundation and Eddie Muller, and continuing with a list of a zillion people. These days, my amazing conversations that keep me afloat/sane are my Library Ladies, Eunice Y. Liu​, Rachel E. Beattie​ & Stacy Jyl McKenna​. Because they get stupid jokes that might start with “So three catalogers walk into a bar…” I can’t name everyone, but the issue is this: being an independent/freelance archivist is really tough. I have some really tough moments. I am trained. I am passionate. Sometimes those things don’t work well together. I’m well aware. I’m working on it. I’m also not ready to give up. I love what I do too much. And…it’s way too important.

My archive partner and colleague Adam balances me out. He’s my best friend. I’ve never been able to work with someone THIS WELL before. It may be due to the fact that he & I have been through hell & back together, but that’s another story for another time. Let’s just say this: it’s one of the best working relationships I have ever found and he is amazingly supportive of all the things that I get anxious about. Something I really need right now, in this delicate time. I think there’s going to be great things that will happen from this. My gut says so.

BUT….I digress. I have learned something INCREDIBLY important this week. I became an archivist to save moving image history initially. I thought (at first) that I wanted it to be something “larger,” something “big.” I think I was maybe really wrong. Like SERIOUSLY wrong. I may get more rewards from the exact opposite.

This last week I began helping one of my dearest friends for the last 20+ years Margo Stern​ begin to deal with her incredibly talented father’s film collection. What I realized is that this life that I have chosen is actually meaningful to me because it really makes people happy. See, Margo’s dad isn’t doing well.

I desperately desperately wish we could have assessed (& made digitally accessible) this collection when he was. I kept saying to Adam as we were playing and inspecting some of the commercial reels, “Goddamn, I wish we could’ve done this earlier when we could’ve enjoyed this with David (Margo’s dad) and had him tell us the stories behind these advertisements!”

See, much like 16mm educational films (something else that I focus on in my personal work), Adam and I are of the opinion that commercials are in this highly unloved/unappreciated category of film/film-making and should truly be revisited. In this way, David Stern was really a master. He had humor, he had art, he worked with the product, he SOLD it! Man. I was so hungry after some of those commercials!!

I am getting untold glee out of Getting To Know David Stern from his film work (I only spoke to him on the phone once). It means getting to know his daughter better (always awesome, because Margo is one of the most awesome humans on the planet) and it means looking at a space in time on the commercial spectrum in US moving image work (he did primarily commercial work), and so many other things.

Mostly, however, it has meant documenting every little thing, quality & condition, individual reels (some were lab new!!), and looking at a full collection basically in retrospect and finding things that are now considered complete treasures but in the 1970s were simple TV spots. I have learned about products that don’t exist anymore, underwear companies that used to play music for their employees at lunch time and how much time David Stern spent in Texas (a good chunk).

However, the most amazing part of this experience so far has been what I am calling my “Unknown” experience. If you are a film nerd or archive-y geek, you are familiar with the story of the Browning film, THE UNKNOWN and how the print sat for many years in a pile of “unknown” prints simply due to its lovely but rather unfortunately title. It was a lost film…until (luckily) it was found.

It was about 3am. We had completed the inventory of the single commercials and inspected and correctly documented (many of them were totally wrong) everything that was on Stern’s collection of compilations reels. There was one more 16mm film in a grey plastic can and it was simply marked “brazil.” We had initially put it with the stack of home movies in the corner (the “bad” corner, since many of those films are in early stages of vinegar syndrome, but we will be handling that next week! Stay tuned film fans!) but in a different area, since it was not vinegar (this gets complicated- but trust me- I have a large space and plenty of places to put/separate things).

We went to revisit this can since it was the same grey can as the rest of the compilation reels and the home movies were all in metal, so we were a little suspicious anyway. We opened the can and it said “Brazil 66.” Okay. So looking back now? I should have known. I did, in fact, know that there was a band called Brazil 66. But here is the thing: The Stern Family also traveled…A LOT. And the family films are actually labeled, too! And pretty well! But then we saw the soundtrack. And we knew that it couldn’t be one of the family films. So….onto my boyfriend Elmo (my Projector is an ELMO projector, I spend much time with it, thus…my boyfriend) we thread up the reel.

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Adam and I look at each other DUMBFOUNDED. Not only is this gorgeous footage, but it’s famous.

As I wrote to Margo, our initial thoughts on this reel, due to the “Brazil 66” label and due to the other elements in the collection were that this film was going to be:

a) industrial travel film, b) educational film that David collected, or c) ???
Turns out that it was d) OMGWTFTOTALLYAWESOME. This was a reel of Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66. AS IN THE BAND.

And if you would like to see a partial clip of what is on the full reel, some of it is on youtube. Here is the clip:

I immediately contacted Margo to tell her. It was kinda amazing for me. I was beyond myself. I don’t know if this is a “great” archival “find” but for the family it certainly is. Margo’s response was enough. “ARE YOU SURE HE DID THIS?” essentially was what I got back. And I was so so so happy to be able to say, with absolute confidence, “Yes, I am absolutely positive. We have several commercials that he made for Carnation from the Urie company during the same time period, and the Urie tag is on the heads and tails of the Brazil 66 film. Your father, David Stern, made this crazy psychedelic masterpiece of film & music.”

If you look close, Urie is scribed right near the Brazil 66.

If you look close, Urie is scribed right near the Brazil 66.

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So, the thing about the reel is that the song on that clip? “Mas Que Nada”? That’s not the only thing on that lovely bit of 16mm. The reel is about 5-7 minutes. It’s 2 music videos. And to further prove that David Stern created that? We watched the 16mm Turtles music video that he made that is in the Stern collection. Yes, that Turtles.

There are some pretty distinct similarities. Unfortunately, the Youtube version is not that great, but once again…the 16mm looks FABULOUS. Damn, I love film.

Adam has been great in being the neutral archive person for me & the one to assist while I document all of the elements in a central database so that we can sort it out and get it ready for digitizing. Our primary goal in this project is for the Stern Family to be able to enjoy David Stern’s work as we have been able to. If this sounds like it is all fun and games, it isn’t. You do have to watch the same bits and pieces of material sometimes 20 times in an hour (commercials are :30, remember, and not everything that was done for money was great and fun).

But I really love my job and this is best part of it. I do not envy my wonderful friend her situation. She is one of the best people I have ever known in my life and there is no doubt  in my mind that much of that comes from her dad. She’s a smart cookie, and this film work is smart as hell.

Finding a balance between the personal and the professional in a situation like this is very very difficult. There is nothing I can actually say with my mouth to make this family situation better for her. What I can do is try and help her family get some peace by doing what I am trained to do: archive, preserve, appreciate. I am honored to be working on the Stern Family Collection and appreciate this opportunity. It’s a real gift.

I hope that anyone who reads this can start to consider thinking about their own family collections and how they might begin to assess them before it gets to “that point.” Home movies, student films, commercial work, any of those kinds of items are valuable. This is valuable content. And there are many highly-trained and dedicated individuals like myself who find nothing but pleasure in assisting you and your families in the organization of that content into a manageable form. It may seem intimidating now, but, as I always say about film/archival work (and I do always say this, ask anyone) “Anything is possible.”

TCMFF: Socially Leading You To Film Preservation Victory or Where’s the 35mm, yo?

Hello all!

Our beloved TCM film festival starts tomorrow but I thought that I would give you a heads’ up on a few points of interest!

One question that is asked every year is: How many of these films are being shown ON FILM?

To a film archivist and preservationist such as myself, this is a critical question and very important thing to ask. While it is absolutely true that each time a print is shown we lose a generation and the ability to locate prints of many films is not a piece of cake (if it was, you wouldn’t need archivists! TOTAL SHAMELESS PLUG FOR MY PROFESSION), there are so many beautiful prints out there and one of the things that I love the most about TCMFF is how much film, ACTUAL FILM, they project every year.TCM_CFF_Horz_NoYear[2]

 

 

 

 

I really believe that the fabulous programmers and hardworking folks at TCM really make it a point to put as much 35mm and 70mm into the festival as possible and this year is no exception. In fact, if anything, this year is even more exceptioNAL in that sense. There is one session that discusses the birth of Technicolor (something all classic film fans are familiar with but not too many know enough about) and one session where films will be HAND-CRANKED, the way films used ta be, back in the beginning!

And yes- the theme this year is his/her-story according to Hollywood. But they didn’t *have to* include these panels/screenings as part of the festival. Film history didn’t have to be there. There are certainly enough historically-based classic films to have 3 TCM Film Festivals. Trust me, as someone who has programmed before, I can tell you THAT. And anyone who has any familiarity with classic cinema would rightly agree.

In my role as TCM social producer this year, I want to celebrate what they do for film preservation and restoration. By continuing to show 35mm and 70mm prints for features, by showcasing 16mm, 8mm and other small-gauge in the “Home Movies Panel” with Lynne Kirste and Randy Haberkamp, TCMFF supports the fact that this is a format that is worth seeing and loving. In fact, some of the films shown (Too Late for Tears for example) may be projected on brand-new prints! You never know!

In this post, I am going to let you know what films are going to be showing this year at the TCM Film Festival on film. Feel free to tweet at me (@sinaphile) or comment if I have left any titles out. I think this should be pretty full. I feel that, in favor of projectionists everywhere, as audience-folk, always be appreciative of those awesome ladies & gentlemen in the booth. They’re working hard for ya and caring for those reels. Many of these prints come with VERY strict guidelines on how they are to be handled so that they remain in as good of condition as they are and will remain playable for years to come and the folks who are playing them are gonna do their best to make sure that they get shown beautifully. And entirely for our pleasure. HOW SPOILED ARE WE???

So let’s get on with the show!! Also- please note- I would say…screening location is subject to change. So these are based on the schedule as it is today, 3/25/2015. Please rely on the TCMFF schedule routing information as it is given to you and as you are directed by the lovely TCM humans. And be nice to them. They are awesome. And work super hard to make this run smoothly!

Thursday

(d. Rouben Mamoulian, 99m, 35mm) 6:30 PM Chinese Multiplex House 6

(1933, d. Rouben Mamoulian, 99m, 35mm)
6:30 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 6

(d. Byron Haskin, 99m, 35mm) 6:45 PM Chinese Multiplex House 4

(1949, d. Byron Haskin, 99m, 35mm) 6:45 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 4

 

(d. Michael Curtiz, 127m, 35mm)  10:00 PM Chinese Multiplex House 6

(1940, d. Michael Curtiz, 127m, 35mm) 10:00 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 6

 

 (1980, d. Bruce Beresford, 107m, 35mm)  9:45 PM Chinese Multiplex House 4

(d. Bruce Beresford, 107m, 35mm) 9:45 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 4

Friday

(1960, d. Stanley Kramer, 128m, 35mm) 9:00 AM Chinese Multiplex House 6

(1960, d. Stanley Kramer, 128m, 35mm)
9:00 AM
Chinese Multiplex House 6

 

DAWN OF TECHNICOLOR panel/screening – 9:00 am, The Egyptian Theater

(1931, d. Ernst Lubitsch, 93m, 35mm) 9:30 AM Chinese Multiplex House 4

(1931, d. Ernst Lubitsch, 93m, 35mm)
9:30 AM
Chinese Multiplex House 4

 

(1985, d. Woody Allen, 82m, 35mm) 12:15 PM Chinese Multiplex House 6

(1985, d. Woody Allen, 82m, 35mm)
12:15 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 6

 

(1949, d. Anthony Mann, 89m, 35mm)  12:00 PM Chinese Multiplex House 4

(1949, d. Anthony Mann, 89m, 35mm)
12:00 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 4

 

 (1974, d. Bob Fosse, 111m, 35mm) 11:30 AM Egyptian Theatre,  In Attendance: Dustin Hoffman, interviewed by Alec Baldwin.

(1974, d. Bob Fosse, 111m, 35mm) 11:30 AM
Egyptian Theatre, In Attendance: Dustin Hoffman, interviewed by Alec Baldwin.

(1939, d. John Ford, 100m, 35mm)  2:45 PM Chinese Multiplex House 4

(1939, d. John Ford, 100m, 35mm)
2:45 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 4

 

(1965, d. Norman Jewison, 102m, 35mm) 3:15 PM Egyptian Theatre

(1965, d. Norman Jewison, 102m, 35mm)
3:15 PM
Egyptian Theatre

 

(1952, d. Charles Chaplin, 137m, 35mm)   2:30 PM Chinese Multiplex House 6

(1952, d. Charles Chaplin, 137m, 35mm)
2:30 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 6

 

(1931, d. William K. Howard, 35mm) In Attendance: MoMA film curator Anne Morra,  5:30 PM Chinese Multiplex House 4

(1931, d. William K. Howard, 70m, 35mm) In Attendance: MoMA film curator Anne Morra,
5:30 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 4

 

(1933, d. James Whale, 71 m, 35mm) 7:30 PM Chinese Multiplex House 4

(1933, d. James Whale, 71 m, 35mm)
7:30 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 4

 

[A Man For All Seasons] (1966, d. Fred Zinneman, 120m, 35mm) 6:00 PM Chinese Multiplex House 6

[A Man For All Seasons](1966, d. Fred Zinneman, 120m, 35mm)
6:00 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 6

 

(1965, d. Peter Watkins, 48m, 35mm)  In Attendance: Film Author and Professor Emeritus Joseph Gomez. 9:30 PM Chinese Multiplex House 4

(1965, d. Peter Watkins, 48m, 35mm) In Attendance: Film Author and Professor Emeritus Joseph Gomez.
9:30 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 4

 

 

(1940, d. Alfred Hitchcock, 130m, 35mm) 10:00 PM Egyptian Theatre

(1940, d. Alfred Hitchcock, 130m, 35mm)
10:00 PM
Egyptian Theatre

 

 

(1940, d. Edward F. Cline, 72m, 35mm) 9:15 PM Chinese Multiplex House 6

(1940, d. Edward F. Cline, 72m, 35mm)
9:15 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 6

 

(1968, d. Joseph Losey, 110m, 35mm) 12:00 AM Chinese Multiplex House 6

(1968, d. Joseph Losey, 110m, 35mm)
12:00 AM
Chinese Multiplex House 6

 

Saturday

(1937, d. Mervyn LeRoy, 95m, 35mm) 9:00 AM Chinese Multiplex House 4

(1937, d. Mervyn LeRoy, 95m, 35mm)
9:00 AM
Chinese Multiplex House 4

 

(1945, d. John Ford, 135m, 35mm) 9:45 AM Chinese Multiplex House 6

(1945, d. John Ford, 135m, 35mm)
9:45 AM
Chinese Multiplex House 6

 

(1975, d. John Huston, 129m, 35mm) 10:00 AM Egyptian Theatre

(1975, d. John Huston, 129m, 35mm)
10:00 AM
Egyptian Theatre

 

(1948, d. Harold D. Schuster, Hamilton Luske, 79m, 35mm)    11:30 AM Chinese Multiplex House 4

(1948, d. Harold D. Schuster, Hamilton Luske, 79m, 35mm)
11:30 AM
Chinese Multiplex House 4

 

[The Miracle Worker] (1962,  d. Arthur Penn, 106m, 35mm) Arthur Penn, 106m, 35mm)  In attendance: actor Andrew Prine 1:30 PM Chinese Multiplex House 6

[The Miracle Worker] (1962, d. Arthur Penn, 106m, 35mm) Arthur Penn, 106m, 35mm) In attendance: actor Andrew Prine
1:30 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 6

(1992, d. Spike Lee, 202m, 35mm) 1:30 PM Egyptian Theatre

(1992, d. Spike Lee, 202m, 35mm)
1:30 PM
Egyptian Theatre

 

(1932, d. John Ford, 84m, 35mm) 1:45 PM Chinese Multiplex House 4

(1932, d. John Ford, 84m, 35mm)
1:45 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 4

 

(1977, d. John Power, 99m, 35mm) 4:00 PM Chinese Multiplex House 4

(1977, d. John Power, 99m, 35mm)
4:00 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 4

 

(1940, d. Preston Sturges, 67m, 35mm) 4:15 PM Chinese Multiplex House 6

(1940, d. Preston Sturges, 67m, 35mm)
4:15 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 6

Hollywood Home Movies – 6:00 – Club TCM at The Hollywood Roosevelt

>>Highly recommend attending this due to the exciting “behind the scenes” coolness factor! Various formats, various movie folks, various amazing things to see! If you can “Home Movie” it, do it!

(1952, d. Elia Kazan, 113m, 35mm) 6:15 PM Chinese Multiplex House 6

(1952, d. Elia Kazan, 113m, 35mm)
6:15 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 6

 

[The Wind and The Lion]  (1975, d. John Milius, 119m, 35mm)  6:15 PM Egyptian Theatre

[The Wind and The Lion] (1975, d. John Milius, 119m, 35mm)
6:15 PM
Egyptian Theatre

(1943, d. Mervyn LeRoy, 124m, 35mm) In attendance: Nuclear Chemistry Professor Emeritus Darleane C. Hoffman Phd. 6:30 PM Chinese Multiplex House 4

(1943, d. Mervyn LeRoy, 124m, 35mm) In attendance: Nuclear Chemistry Professor Emeritus Darleane C. Hoffman Phd.
6:30 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 4

 

( 1950, d. George Cukor, 101m, 35mm) Note: The film will be preceeded by a 30-minute performance by Greg Proops, which will be recorded for use on his podcast, Greg Proops Film Club. 9:30 PM Egyptian Theatre

(1950, d. George Cukor, 101m, 35mm) Note: The film will be preceeded by a 30-minute performance by Greg Proops, which will be recorded for use on his podcast, Greg Proops Film Club.
9:30 PM
Egyptian Theatre

RETURN OF THE DREAM MACHINE: HAND CRANKED PROJECTOR SHOW (1902-1913) – hand cranked films from the early part of film history!!! You are cheating yourself if you miss out on this one!! Click on the link above for more information. – (d. various, 105m, 35mm) – 9:30 PM, Chinese Multiplex House 6

Old_projector

 

(1965, d. Tony Richardson, 122m, 35mm)  9:30 PM Chinese Multiplex House 4

(1965, d. Tony Richardson, 122m, 35mm)
9:30 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 4

 

 (1984, d. Tom Schiller, 82m, 35mm) 12:00 AM Chinese Multiplex House 6

(1984, d. Tom Schiller, 82m, 35mm)
12:00 AM
Chinese Multiplex House 6

Sunday

(1970, d. Franklin J. Schaffner, 172m, 70mm) 9:00 AM Egyptian Theatre

(1970, d. Franklin J. Schaffner, 172m, 70mm)
9:00 AM
Egyptian Theatre

 

 

(1947, d. Edmund Goulding, 110m, 35mm) 9:45 AM Chinese Multiplex House 6

(1947, d. Edmund Goulding, 110m, 35mm)
9:45 AM
Chinese Multiplex House 6

 

(1963, d. George Stevens, 180m, 35mm) 12:30 PM Chinese Multiplex House 6

(1963, d. George Stevens, 180m, 35mm)
12:30 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 6

 

 (1939, d. George Stevens, 117m, 35mm)  1:00 PM Egyptian Theatre

(1939, d. George Stevens, 117m, 35mm)
1:00 PM
Egyptian Theatre

 

(1961, d. Stanley Kramer, 186m, 35mm) 4:00 PM Chinese Multiplex House 4

(1961, d. Stanley Kramer, 186m, 35mm)
4:00 PM
Chinese Multiplex House 4

 

(1961, d. William Wyler, 107m, 35mm) 4:45 PM Egyptian Theatre

(1961, d. William Wyler, 107m, 35mm)
4:45 PM
Egyptian Theatre

I hope that this list helps all of you who are looking for the “what’s on film” films. As someone who loves handling film and adores film as a format and a way to watch stories being told, I am beyond excited to see so many wonderful narratives being projected this year.

It is absolutely and unquestionably a part of the history of Hollywood therefore it is only right that it should be such a beautiful and magnificent presence at the TCM Film Festival, 2015, as it has been each year.

Please stay tuned for another post that will celebrate the fantastic digital restorations being screened and discuss the importance that they have to our cinematic culture and to the TCM Film Festival as well.

 

Ruminations, Recommendations, and Restorations: TCM Film Festival, 2015

The full schedule is up and we are only a few days away.

Yes, THAT schedule. The one that we have been impatiently waiting for with bated breath since our teary goodbyes and final hugs of “see you next year” last spring.

TCMCFF_2015-Key-Art_Steamboat-Bill-Jr_8513_

TCM FILM FESTIVAL IS ON LIKE TRON.

Last week, just before I left my house to join my colleagues and do some work for the Film Noir Foundation, I was alerted to the fact that the full schedule was up online and mine for the perusal. Getting that alert was Hell. On. Earth. There I was, rushing out the door, pushing my cats out of the way so that I could get on public transportation and make it to the lab on time, all the while knowing that the FULL LIST of films awaited me after my work was completed. But I love what I do and get completely entranced by it, whatever the particular job may be- print consultation, database research, repairing one of my own personal 16mm prints- so I almost forgot about it for that brief sliver of the day.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that film preservation isn’t an amazing gig. It’s the dream of a lifetime, especially working with the Film Noir Foundation. My gig with them is tops. So I got home and opened my computer. A multitude of Facebook “TCMFF 2015-what-I-am-seeing-lists” exploded after the schedule announcement. Some of them full of hard and fast absolutes, and others flexible but still completely booked-up in their calendars and planning their eating methods and what theaters they would be running back and forth from. All within less than 36 hours of the schedule being up online. My good pal (and excellent writer) Mr. Peel of Mr. Peel’s Sardine Liquor asked the reasonable question: “How can you all be so sure so fast?” The short answer for me was that I’m wasn’t. And, I’m still not. So this post, while a rumination on the schedule and a brainstorming, will also serve as a recommendation list. I am going to go through this year’s schedule selectively. I am only going to mention certain films. But I will likely mention more than I will be able to watch during the festival. And I’m going to look at them in a very particular manner. And here is why:

  • Along with several other worthy film fans and professionals, I have been asked by the TCM Film Festival to be part of a new program called the “Social Producers Team.” Each member of the team will be specializing in their own social media-thread or theme based on an aspect of the TCM Film Festival that they have proposed or that they are best at. For example: my theme/thread centers on film restorationpreservation, and rare films/discoveries. I made this my raison d’etre because (duh) I’m a film archivist and my aim (in life as well as at #TCMFF) is to raise more awareness, interest and understanding about film preservation. I hope to “stock up” those TCM social media channels with a better understanding and a great passion for this important part of the film world in addition to fun tidbits of specialized information that I can provide.
  • Due to my career specialization, my film interests and choices may seem a little “off,” even for a classic film fan. While many TCM-ites will jump at the chance to see a movie on its anniversary or a silent picture based upon a live orchestral arrangement (superfragalistically cool, no doubt), I feel that it’s actually my job to see the restorations that are programmed. And that is across the board- on every format, 35mm or DCP. And yes, sometimes that may include a more modern festival presentation like Apollo 13 (I haven’t decided on that though). This is one of the ways I am able to keep myself up to date on what my colleagues are doing, how technology is evolving and what works are being preserved and why. Watching a modern restoration and the work that has been done can assist an archivist’s work in any number of classic film preservations.
Eartha Kitten asks, "Why can't I go to the Film Festival tooooo?"

Eartha Kitten asks, “Why can’t I go to the Film Festival tooooo?”

  • My work as the Nancy Mysel Legacy Project Recipient at the Film Noir Foundation has allowed and given me special training and insight into the restoration and preservation processes of these films as well as a unique advantage as to the discussion of film noir and its cast of characters (both fiction and non-fiction) itself. So in the discussion of these films and recommendations, I will definitely use that training to guide (and suggest) audiences see these films. It is a huge chunk of my life.

Film_Noir_Foundation_logo

So now that we’ve gotten all of that out-of-the-way and you, my lovely reading public, know how I’m going to be recommending and dealing with these films, let’s get on with it, shall we? I’m gonna go by the TCM Festival Schedule if you wish to open that in a separate tab and follow along, and list day by day.

OH! Before I forget! I want to give a few shout-outs to my #TCMFF homies! So my TCMFF bestie is Dennis Cozzalio and if you don’t know him, well you should. His primary writing zone is Sergio Leone & The Infield-Fly Rule but he also has a fab new column called Fear of the Velvet Curtain over at one of my favorite sites ever invented, Trailers From Hell.  While he’s not part of the Social Producers Team, I always get super-stoked to get to go to the movies with him every year.

My pal Peter Avellino- mentioned in the very beginning? Check out Mr. Peel. You won’t be sorry.

Señor Dan Schindel. He makes amazing desserts, kicks ass at Cards Against Humanity, is one of the nicest & smartest humans, and I’m hoping that we can see some movies in the same vicinity. I know he writes for various publications. He tweets at @danschindel.

There’s more, but let’s get on to the movies, eh?

Thursday

3:00pm: The awesome and fantastic Bruce Goldstein from Film Forum in NYC is doing Trivia. If you are unaware, this man is really pretty rad. Guaranteed, he knows more than you do. I’ve seen him at my film archiving conferences and he’s a genuine badass. The time I got to hang out & chat with Norman Lloyd was when we were all at an event together. Am I gonna do trivia because I think I will win? OH HELL NO. I am positive that there are some of you out there who have memorized people’s entire filmographies much more thoroughly than I have. Do I wanna do it because it’s gonna be a hellovalotta fun? YOU BETTER BELIEVE IT. Now accepting offers for teammates…..

5:00pm: TCM PARTY – schmooze! Wheeee!

6:45pm: TOO LATE FOR TEARS: even if I am not there seeing it, watch out for my thread- I will be posting allllll about it. The restoration and the story behind it is MINDBLOWING. If you like film noir and you miss this film, I will question your commitment to sparkle motion. I have seen it 5 times now, never get sick of it. The restoration was nothing short of a miracle and the film content itself is just thrilling. Even my MOM loved it. She said, “I wanna see more films like that!” when I took her to the LA Restoration premiere. DO NOT MISS. 

"Don’t ever change, Tiger. I don’t think I’d like you with a heart. "

“Don’t ever change, Tiger. I don’t think I’d like you with a heart. “

10:00pm: MY MAN GODFREY Pure and simple on this one, I’m a sucker for Powell and Lombard. I highly recommend BREAKER MORANT however, as Beresford is fantastic and seeing it on 35mm is going to be great. Plus, going with the historical theme, I don’t think you could get much better. So I may end up there. But for now, I’m thinking GODFREY.

Friday

First up- THE DAWN OF TECHNICOLOR David Pierce has done a great deal of writing on film preservation, silent film and archival topics. There is NO way I’m missing this. Technicolor is pretty much the coolest thing. You KNOW when you’re seeing Technicolor. This is one of the most thrilling things on the whole weekend for a n3rd like me. And in 35mm *and* HD? DUDE. I’m gonna be in a FRENZY when I get outta there…

glorioustechnicolor

Alternative to g33k lecture of amazingness? THE SMILING LIEUTENANT  Ok, so if I wasn’t going to go do some Technicolor dorking out? I’d go and hang out with Ernst Lubitsch. I programmed this film in grad school as part of the film series I did at the New Beverly Cinema that celebrated archiving and 35mm. It played amazingly well and people loved it.  This falls under “rarities and discoveries” and is a fabulous way to start your day. Highly recommend!

Miriam Hopkins is a goddess.

Miriam Hopkins is a goddess.

The next section is a doozy:

Probably hitting THE PROUDEST REBELThis world-premiere restoration of a very rarely discussed Michael Curtiz film seems to hit a whole bunch of things I wanna check out. I’d like to see how Warner Bros did with this restoration and will be interested to hear David Ladd talk about his dad, Alan. For those of you not joining me there, I will make sure to set up a few notes to go out about REIGN OF TERROR because director Anthony Mann is The MAN. And you just can’t miss Norman Lloyd or John Alton’s cinematography. If you haven’t checked this out before…this is big screen French Revolution Noir. And yes- that *is* a thing.

I’m going to try to hit CHIMES AT MIDNIGHTalthough I feel it may be packed and difficult to get into. I have been wanting to see this since I was in my late teens-ish. So 20 years or so? The main draw for me, of course, aside from Welles, is to look at it critically and see what the visual quality is of this restoration is and perhaps look a little deeper into what elements were used to create this new digital version we are to see. If I do not get into CAM, I’ll go see THE CINCINNATI KID because I’ve never seen it and my grandma’s in it. No-brainer.

I will stomp Hollywood-Blvd-Superhero-people out of my way to make certain that I get to DON’T BET ON WOMENIt’s a restoration (points!!), it’s a rarity (major points!!) annnnnd it has Roland Young in it (OMGZ MAJOR POINTS!!!). It also has Anne Morra from MoMA in New York coming to talk and she’s a rock star curator. Great lady to hear. Edmund-Lowe-Jeanette-MacDonald-Roland-Young-Dont-Bet-On-Women-1931

Film Noir Alternative: RIFIFI – if you have not see this film, and you are looking for something to see during this time slot GO SEE RIFIFI. JUST TRUST ME. You will not be sorry. It needs to be seen on a big screen. It is delicious and exciting and everything that you could possibly want a film to be. It may be one of my very very very very favorite heist films of ever. And that’s saying….A LOT.

I’m going to see THE WAR GAMEI went to University in Kent, England and I would very much like to see how this banned doc looks at the place I went to school in, many years later. Also, my own personal work in 16mm educational films really made this one peak my curiosity as well, considering all the nominations and the subject matter. I think this film is going to be a “TCMFF Sleeper Success.”

And there ain’t NOTHING NO HOW that’s keeping me away from the midnight screening of BOOM!. I mean, come ON!!!

You can't keep me away from a film that has a hairpiece like this. NO WAY.

You can’t keep me away from a film that has a hairpiece like this. NO WAY.

Saturday

I am going to WHY BE GOOD? because I want to see the film of course but also because I *love* the Vitaphone Project and I want to see their restoration work on this! Can you imagine that this film, with Jean Harlow, Andy Devine and Colleen Moore may have never been found let alone restored? *shiver*

I highly recommend that folks go to the World Premiere of Warner Bros’ Restoration of 42ND STREETI love that film, Dick Powell & Ruby Keeler. But I will be likely trying to go for the rarity, SO DEAR TO MY HEART due to a love for Burl Ives, an obsession with Beulah Bondi and a serious interest in seeing what looks like it could be a very unusual work for Disney, even live-action/animation mixed.b70-64661

John Ford. AIR MAILThis was a rough choice due to the fact that I really wanted to go to MALCOLM X  in 35mm or what I believe will be an absolutely REMARKABLE restoration of 1776  done by Sony. I mean, they’re using unseen footage and the restoration is done from the original negative…I’ve always had such a great experience from Sony’s restorations. They really care about the FILM side of things even if it’s a 4K, so I’m a little bummed that the John Ford is up against 1776. But what can you do? Maybe I will change my mind.

You all need to go see THE PICTURE SHOW MAN.

Think of me like a doctor and that is my prescription. I have my own 16mm print of it and a poster of it from Hungary. It’s a GREAT movie. Those of you who do go, FIND ME DURING TCMFF and let me know what you think, okay?

It is at this point that I do a “wacky weird archivist thing” again- I highly advise that any/all/as many of you as possible go and check out the Hollywood Home Movies over at Club TCM at 6:00pm on Saturday. Lynne Kirste, one of the most amazing women that I’ve been lucky enough to get to know over the years in preservation, will be there showing you GREAT stuff. Ever thought about what Alfred Hitchcock did at home with the family? Ever considered what your fave stars might have been filming on vacation or when they had a BBQ? THIS AMAZING SESSION IS FOR YOU. HIGHLY RECOMMEND. And if you meet Lynne or Randy Haberkamp (also a SUPER rockstar!!) tell ’em I sent ya!!

During this next block on Saturday night, TCMFF decided to play three of my very favorite films right up against each other. And not just a teensy bit favorite, take-to-a-desert-island favorite.

So, what I’m saying is…if you wanna just go check out a movie, you can’t go wrong with FRENCH CONNECTION, ADAM’S RIB or THE LOVED ONE. But one a scale of 1 to rare? Go for THE LOVED ONEYou can just never see it enough and it’s goddamn brilliant. Gets more brilliant every time.

But you wanna get SUPER RARE? Like still moo-ing? Like ordering your steak blue??? Then I suggest where I’m going.

I will be smashing myself into a seat to watch hand-cranked films from the early 1900s. If you remember my writing series that I haven’t worked on in a while, I mentioned Lois Weber? They’re playing one of her films. I am SO excited about this one. The theme of history this year is just mind-blowing for me. Every year at #TCMFF has been good, but this one…wow. So yeah. I’ll be at the RETURN OF THE DREAM MACHINE: HAND-CRANKED FILMS FROM 1902-1913 if you need me.

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One of the most awesome people I know in archiving & preservation: Dino Everett, hand-cranking some film!!!

One of the most awesome people I know in archiving & preservation: Dino Everett, hand-cranking some film!!!

I’ve seen NOTHING LASTS FOREVER  on a big screen. But that’s exactly why Imna see it again. See y’all at midnight on Saturday, eh?

Sunday

So there’s a bunch of TBAs on here.

My basic plan is pretty stable. I have to see Patton because, well, 70mm and George C. Scott and I ain’t never seen the dang thing before and I’m a Scott-a-holic. Ever since FIRESTARTER. Yes, you read that correctly. The film I started loving him in was FIRESTARTER. Still like that film.d150-patton

I plan on providing PLENTY OF INFORMATION for everyone about NIGHTMARE ALLEYin my role as Social Producer. I’ve seen that film somewhere between 7-12 times in the theater and it’s one of my top 5 film noirs. If you have not seen it, but feel safe going into a movie blind, I highly recommend that. Tyrone Power has never been like that and the lady-love of my everything, Joan Blondell, is….well, you just gotta see it.

I’m an information specialist. If I don’t go see DESK SETI feel like the data management system gods will strike me dead the next time I try to call on them for help. Plus? I REALLY LOVE THAT FILM SO DAMN MUCH. Why are there no good movies about archivists or librarians anymore? Enough Said with James Gandolfini was pretty good but where are the rest? Representation, man!

Then its magic time. I’m a carnival and magic junkie. I’m hitting up the discovery, HOUDINI with Tony Curtis & Janet Leigh and then, the film I have been waiting for ever since it was announced, it’ll be time for THE GRIM GAME restoration. I am SUPREMELY excited about being able to report on the details, especially noting that this film’s restoration was a combined effort between a private collector and studio efforts. These are very interesting elements in any case but the fact that the film and its restoration became the thing of primary importance is fabulous.

See you in the seats! Check you on the Internetz!

Really excited to be going to TCMFF again this year and even more thrilled to be part of the Social Producers Team.

This is going to be a great year and I’m looking forward to celebrating film preservation, restoration and classic film with all you guys! Check you on the Blvd!

If you want to follow my TCMFF adventures and my Social Producer documentation, you can find me in the following places:

Twitter: @sinaphile

Tumblr: sinaphile.tumblr.com/

Instagram: @littletriggers

And I will have some public posts and pictures on my Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/sinaphile

SECRETARY and Adaptation: The Telephone Theory

Our Story Begins…

So, a long, long, time ago in my academic kingdom far far away (read: somewhere pre-2007), I wrote this paper on the film Secretary (Steven Shainberg, 2002). At the time, my main fascination was in what I was calling “adaptation theory.” I have no idea what it is actually termed. I read all kinds of things about palimpsests, discussed certain films as “cinematic cover songs” and really loved that portion of my academia. Truth be told, I still do. But hell- I love any kind of intertextual work. I believe that it broadens the mind. Tragically, more judgement come from this than anything else as well.i-dont-always-read-the-book-but-when-i-do-its-better-than-the-movieMy belief in this area is an apples and oranges one: both vitamin-filled, different textures, completely different tastes, both fruit, both can be equally enjoyable, no? In any case, I wrote this paper on Secretary and it wasn’t the most popular take. Many people thought it was a “liberating indie film.” Others griped “But it was so sexy, didn’t you see that?” Then again, I’m not sure all of these people read the entirety of my paper or just bits and pieces and my proposal. Oh, media studies grad school.

I am not going to pretend that this is a GREAT paper by any stretch of the imagination or that I don’t have problems with it myself. In fact, were I to write it today, I think I would have written it much differently. I do think that the film is pretty sexy and I think that I am dead wrong in some areas. But I’m not wrong enough to rewrite the whole thing before publishing. I’m wrong in the way that a passionate academic in her early 20’s who has been involved in the S&M scene (which I was) could be. I was young and re-reading it over the last few days (making a few edits, it was a fucking mess y’all) my academic fervor was there but it could have been more focused.

WHY AM I POSTING THIS NOW?

Because, all in all, I know that Secretary is going to be a better film than this 50 Shades crap. That the time I spent with the short story, screenplay and film taught me the process a work goes through to become a film and it taught me how feminism is one of the first things to be discarded in the process from book to screen. And in a film about fabulous beautiful sexy S&M relationships like the one between Spader and Gyllanhaal, that was the ONE thing that should’ve been kept in. I hope you enjoy this piece, creaks and cracks and grad school spiderwebs and all.

-Ariel

WordofMouthMost of us have some kind of memory of sitting around playing the game Telephone. Fidgeting in that pre-adolescent manner, giggling and whispering the given set of terms to our peers, somewhere along the lines hoping that the sentence you told your neighbor would result in something totally different by the time it got to the last person in the circle who would be forced to say the phrase out loud. A message that started out on one end as a completely functional and substantive piece of language, ended up on the other side as a bunch of strange words that bore little to no relation to each other. Perhaps, like many, you might have even tried to manipulate the words yourself, to try to make it “funnier,” or maybe you even whispered it extra softly, so that the person, straining to hear, might not pick all of it up, which, again, would make it “funnier.” As far as games go, Telephone was entertaining and harmless. It taught us about the trials and tribulations of communication.

In my study of the film Secretary, I found that director Steven Shainberg was the last link in a very particular version of Telephone. Author Mary Gaitskill’s original short story was the original “sentence.” This then passed through the hands of screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson and landed in the lap of director Shainberg. The irony of this situation was that it was the final link, Shainberg, who did the most manipulating and seemed to have mangled the meaning of the original “sentence.”

I have struggled with the issues in and around this film. To be honest, I found myself very torn. At first, I thought “Finally! Someone addressed issues of alternative sexuality in a way that does not stigmatize/demonize them! Hooray!” But before I could throw my little “Yay Alternative Sexuality” party, I came to realize, through further inquiry, that the oasis I had found was nothing more than a mirage, and the “positive representation” I had seen, was actually quite damaging.

Lost in Translation(s)

Reading Mary Gaitskill’s short story, it is difficult to see how her clinical and slightly frigid story got turned into a film that was described sweetly as “a gently bent old-fashioned romance.” (Dargis 17). On the other hand, reading Erin Cressida Wilson’s screenplay, it is equally hard to imagine how her piece, which constantly engages the reader in challenging depictions of women’s roles and representations, was translated into a movie that smacks of misogynist archetypes and patriarchal values. I maintain that had this film been made by either the original author or the screenwriter herself the end result would have been strikingly different. That film would have explored alternative forms of sexual expression as well as actively supporting strong female agency. Shainberg’s film takes any previous engagements with feminist ideology and emasculates them, trapping them inside a text that does nothing for women but re-inscribe familiar, patriarchal values.

In order to better elucidate the methodical and intentional distortion of the original text of Secretary, it is integral to give a synopsis of each work. By doing this, we can better see how each successive text gave the original new meaning in addition to creating entirely new texts with Gaitskill’s short story as the skeleton structure.

Published in her anthology, Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill’s “Secretary,” relates the story of Debby Roe, a young woman living at home with her parents and older sister, Donna. Upon graduation from typing school, Debby goes about trying to find a job. After several fruitless interviews, she tries for a position as a secretary in a lawyer’s office. Her interview is strange, but Debby receives a call from the leaving secretary the next day, and she accepts the job.bad-behavior

Work seems fine, until the day Debby makes a typing error. The lawyer comes out of his office, “eyes lit up in a peculiar, stalking way,”(Gaitskill 137) and admonishes her strongly. This happens several times that week, until finally she is called into his office, where she receives a talk about how she should “feel free” to discuss any and all personal problems with him. The next day, Debby makes another typing mistake. But this time she does not receive the same treatment. She goes into his office, and is told to put her elbows and the letter on the desk, and read it out loud. She complies, at which point, the lawyer begins to spank her. Debby does not resist; she lets him continue.

One day, after yet another typing error, and another spanking, Debby is told to pull up her skirt, and pull down her panty hose and underwear. With some hesitation, she submits, and soon realizes that he is masturbating behind her, ejaculating upon her back and hips. The lawyer then tells her to “clean herself up,” and re-type the letter. Debby complies, and finishes the day. Even though this incident (like the others) causes her to be sexually aroused, she does not return to the office. After four days, when she had still not gone to work, her father asks her if she wasn’t “worried about taking so much time off.” She tells him that she’d quit, and she didn’t care because, “that lawyer was an asshole.” A short time later, she receives her last paycheck in the mail, complete with letter of apology and promise of good references, as well as two hundred dollars over what he had owed her. After seeing an article in the newspaper saying that her former employer is running for mayor in the upcoming elections, she receives a phone call. It is a reporter, seeking to ask her some questions. “To put it mildly,” the reporter says, “we think he has no business running for public office…He has an awful reputation, Miss Roe- which may not surprise you.” (Gaitskill 147) Her response is to say she can’t talk, and with that, hangs up the phone, and the story ends.773390edb6ba0496ca1f0e2ba4b1a963

Gaitskill’s text is a unique read. Cold and distant, the protagonist is intentionally removed and unpleasant, and the resolution unsatisfying, Molly Haskell called it one of Gaitskill’s “typically affectless tales of perversity recounted in loser drone monotone.” (Haskell i) From these descriptions, it is indeed hard to see how it ended up being made into a film at all. Retrospectively, however, it reads as a far more challenging work. Within its few pages, Gaitskill addresses sexual harassment, pleasure and discovery, in addition to assertions of power within a structure that seeks to eradicate power. All of these things are highly significant facets of the female experience. Debby’s refusal to return to the workplace signifies a refusal to submit to a situation where her subordinate status is being exploited. Debby also recuperates part of this experience through her own sexual pleasure by her reappropriation of the lawyer’s overt sexual abuse and harassment into a personally fulfilling sexual fantasy. As the phone call shows, she knows that she is really the one in control; with one word she could ruin his life. But she chooses not to, and Gaitskill ends the story there, revealing that sometimes, knowing your own power makes you more powerful than any potential mayoral candidate.

Unlike Gaitskill’s literary subtleties, Erin Cressida Wilson’s screenplay immediately engages the reader with a series of radical representations and dialectical transgressions, and in doing so, ruptures familiar conceptions of gender roles and sexual pleasure. Clearly, the screenplay for Secretary is a structural departure from the short story being that it is a screenplay. Beyond the conspicuously different formats, it is the striking additions and subtractions that Wilson made in her adaptation of Gaitskill’s work that separate these two works. The sequences that were enacted in the move from short story to screenplay do not function to erase Mary Gaitskill’s text, but to enunciate the previously understated feminist discourse. Beyond this, they amplify other elements within the narrative to create an even stronger statement. Wilson teases out the problematic issues and revels in them, something that a work such as Gaitskill’s did not have the luxury to do, perhaps as a result of the abbreviated short story format.419HHpKGkSL

The Gaitskill plotline mirrors Erin Cressida Wilson’s closely. There is a girl, she does go find a job at a lawyer’s office, and he does spank her. However, that is where the convergence in texts grinds to a screeching halt. Firstly, Debby Roe’s name has been updated to Lee Holloway. More critically, Lee does not leave the lawyer’s office after the ejaculation incident. In fact, Lee falls in love with the lawyer, and he with her (though that is not revealed with complete certainty until the last act). In between ejaculation and finale, however, we are made aware of Lee’s psychiatric history in mental institutions (she has a cutting disorder), we follow Lee’s more-than-slightly-ridiculous relationship with her “sort of” boyfriend Peter, and we watch her father’s descent into alcoholism and her mother’s attempts at recovery. Other rather fascinating characters that round out this cast are her super-hot sister Theresa and Theresa’s mousy husband, an assortment of her sister’s friends (most notably a radical-feminist lesbian artist!) and Lee’s doctor who she sees while she is working for the lawyer, and seems to specialize in sado-masochism (and not just discussing it, either).

Lee’s relationship with the lawyer (named E. Edward Grey) goes far beyond that of Gaitskill’s Debby. Wilson exploits the screenplay medium, allowing us emotional access to Grey, humanizing him, and we watch his internal struggles throughout the text. When, ashamed of his own desires, he fires Lee, she refuses to be fired. (“You’re fired!” she snaps back at him). She leaves the office, attempts to seek satisfaction in other “kinky” people, but finds nothing. Eventually, the “boyfriend” Peter asks her to marry him, and she relents. But the day Peter’s mother is fitting her with the wedding gown, she realizes that is really not what she wants. She returns to Mr. Grey’s office, and tells him that she loves him. They argue, until he tells her to sit down at the desk and keep both feet on the floor until he comes back. After several days, and many visits from family and friends (each bringing their own separate discourse on the situation), Grey finally returns, and they are reconciled. She moves in with him, and, finally, they get married, having agreed upon a way of life that is mutually beneficial.

The story changes are integral to this version of Secretary, but it is crucial to look at Wilson’s character portrayals. Wilson imbues her characters with very specific political markings, and designates each one a certain manifest content within their role. It is important here to note that in the discussion of Wilson’s work, the word “role” can be seen in two different capacities. The first is her constant play with ideas about gender or societal role (which I will refer to as “Role”), and the second is in reference to role within the story arc (which will be referred to as “role”). It is Wilson’s character interventions that make the most difference between her screenplay, and Mary Gaitskill’s short story. Thus we have begun phase two of our game of Telephone.

In Wilson’s screenplay, Lee has a history that becomes a large part of her character. Similar to Gaitskill’s short story that utilized first-person structure, Wilson allows us a similar intimacy with Lee, using the trope of the voice-over. Through this, we are aligned with her. However, Lee is most assuredly not Debby. Debby mentions having once seen a psychiatrist. But we don’t experience any part of what she was trying to work through. Lee’s disorder, however, is omnipresent in Wilson’s narrative. Lee has her issues down to a science and is professional enough that she has a “cutting kit” complete with iodine, cuticle scissors, and band-aids that she brings to work. Her self-harm is not exclusive to cutting, as we watch her experiment with hot teakettles and waxing strips.

This trait that Lee has, facilitates a reading that Debby did not possess. Not only does this attribute introduce an exploration of young women’s relationships with their bodies, but it also broaches a taboo ritualistic practice that takes place among many young women, but is rarely discussed. Equally as significant, this character trait puts Lee in direct communication with feminist discourse, as a majority of the work that has been done on self-harm deals with women’s issues [1] as well. The portrayal of Lee, and her physically manifested connection to feminist concerns foregrounds the methodology that Wilson uses to work through her own discussions of feminism within this story.

[1] Women and Self Harm by G. Smith, D. Cox, and J. Saraddjian,Women Living With Self-Injury by Jane Wegshcheider Hyman, and Women Who Hurt Themselves: a Book of Hope and Understanding by Dusty Miller are just three titles amongst many others that explicitly make connections between self-harm and women’s issues.

Lee is to Debby as Theresa is to Donna. Gaitskill’s literary description of the older sister, Donna, as “[having] had a job at a home for retarded people for the past eight years…when she came home, she went up to her room and lay in bed. Every now and then she would come down and joke around or watch TV, but not much,”(Gaitskill 133) Gaitskill’s Donna is a far cry from Wilson’s Theresa, described as “Lee’s attractive and sexy older sister.” Although still maintaining residence at home, Theresa is located in a different space, living with her new husband in a trailer behind the house. Her presence within the screenplay text is also altered. She is positioned as alternately bitchy-older-sister and controlling-wife while still maintaining the Role of the young, sexually strong and dominant woman whose husband cowers and apologizes before being let back into their trailer. Here we find another avenue through which Wilson demonstrates her play of Role and role, within a highly feminized context. Theresa’s role in the story becomes subsumed within her Role in the feminist discourse as an example of a powerful and dominating woman. Her husband, displayed in constant relation to her, flips the familiar representation of women who are displayed in relation to their man on its head.

Mary Gaitskill’s short story only depicts five characters of significance. Wilson’s screenplay gives us those same five but adds on a few more, which, as the screenplay continues, prove to be less about who they are than what they represent. The most significant additional characters are Peter (Lee’s boyfriend) and Allison, Theresa’s friend who then becomes Lee’s friend.

Peter’s role/Role is that of “alternative” to Lee’s “deviant” sexuality, and represents the avenue for the prescribed, socially acceptable, “good girl,” destined for a life in marriage and servitude. In other words, he is exceptionally boring. Alongside the off-hand comments Peter makes regarding marriage and children, his location within the story is in constant dialogue with that of the lawyer, creating a binary with hegemonic ideals on one end (Peter, vanilla and confining) and “rebellion” on the other (E. Edward Gray, sexually exploratory and ultimately freeing). Wilson carefully dissects the options that women are given in standard societal terms, and uses these men as icons to further her critical evaluation.

Playwright and Screenwriter, Erin Cressida Wilson

Playwright and Screenwriter, Erin Cressida Wilson

Allison is a crucial figure within Wilson’s political discourse. Wilson says, of her less-than-ideal feminist experience at Smith College that she “found it a shame that feminism seemed to be dictating what I was allowed to desire.”(Wilson iii) Allison is representative of this kind of feminism, while at the same time opening up alternative avenues of feminist politics for Lee to explore. She asks Lee, “What does it mean to you to be a woman?” Lee’s Role at this point is that of a kind of feminist tabula rasa. She gives Allison a slightly confused response. Allison counters this, by saying:

You see, here it is, the end of the millennium, and supposedly feminism has come so far, but the world is still really run by men and heterosexuality. I mean, we are so far off from EVER having a woman as the President of the United States, it isn’t even funny. But to me, real feminism is FUCK YOU, I can be anything, anything I want. (Wilson 98)

Although she regards Lee’s relationship as “debasing” and “spitting upon everything women have worked for all these decades,” she does espouse valid feminist critique. This remarkable difference in story and screenplay demonstrates the evolution that the “secretary” has made. By constructing Allison’s feminist diatribes around Lee’s own uniquely evolving feminism, Wilson elevates the Role that Lee takes on within this text, of the representative of a new kind of feminism, free from the strict “rules and regulations feminism” that Allison espouses. Allison also brings in positive elements, such as female companionship, and the ability to express oneself in an artistic and feminist context. Allison’s feminist ideologies became part of Lee’s character progression, serving as Wilson’s celebration and critique of the feminist movement.

These characters change Mary Gaitskill’s “drone monotone” into a highly provocative and lively text that instigates as many questions as it answers. The elements added to the Gaitskill original transformed the text, protagonist, and political implications. Debby, the victim, forced to recuperate her power becomes Lee, the physically embodied form of progressive female agency, slightly scarred, but willing to fight for what she wants, even if it isn’t conventionally acceptable.

The final link in our game of Telephone is where the meaning of the Secretary sentence becomes altered. The filmic interpretation is much closer to the screenplay than the screenplay is to the short story, but the significance of what happens to the story within the filmic text is major. Feminism is almost entirely eradicated in this version, and if it does exist within the film, it is almost an afterthought. Ultimately it is Shainberg who changes the message from the whispers of Gaitskill’s short story to the spoken sentences of Wilson’s screenplay and creates a bizarre scream of misogyny by adapting this narrative chain as he heard itImage: On The Phone

In the film, there is no Allison. In the film, the discourse on cutting becomes subsumed into the love story. In the screenplay, Lee’s mother is reading a book about self-mutilation, and continually brings in facts and details about the disorder. The film erases all that in favor of a “gently bent old-fashioned romance.” The human interpretation of E. Edward Grey from the screenplay is collapsed into the representation of a sadistic and self-involved man, who does not seem to have any feelings of love for Lee, until the very end. And, what’s worse, even though we are expected to believe that those feelings are love, they seem very much to be conflated with feelings of lust.

By removing any and all references to politically charged material (the character of Allison, the rhetoric surrounding cutting) this film strips Lee not only of her agency, but reduces her to an object for domination, and a victim of sexual harassment who has “learned to love her captor.” This supposedly “daring” and “quirky” comedy becomes tragic when you see that somewhere in the progression from short story to screenplay to film, a story that had previously challenged hegemonic structures of male superiority and allowed for women’s sexual agency became a vehicle for the glorification of male pleasure at the female’s expense. Without the feminist rhetoric of the screenplay, or the recuperation and repossession of independence and sexual pleasure in the short story, Secretary loses the integrity of the original “sentence of meaning.”

Take It Like a (Wo)man

Manohla Dargis notes, “the best and smartest move director Steven Shainberg makes, beyond his superb casting, is refusing to make a huge deal out of Lee’s pathology.”(Dargis F17) This qualitative analysis begs for its own examination. Contrary to Dargis, I believe that Shainberg’s refusal to “make a huge deal” out of Lee’s disorder makes it an even bigger deal. In a survey conducted by Conterio and Favazza, they found that 97% of all respondents who self-injured were women. (Conterio and Favazza) Considering this correlation between femininity and cutting, why would it be “smart” not to make a big deal out of it? By positioning the female body as damaged, Shainberg establishes a dialectic of the female as a figure in need of “fixing.” Shainberg’s over-simplification of a complex psychological disorder positions Lee as a damsel in distress, ultimately lacking in access to positive representation because she is locked up in the tower marked, “damaged goods.” Dargis’ celebration of Shainberg’s “refusal” to make a big deal out of the cutting disorder maintains hegemonic treatment of women’s medical or psychological issues as “trivial” or “unimportant” next to “real” issues such as Shainberg’s wonderful casting job. Lee’s self-mutilation is not a physical manifestation of psychical distress as much as it is an integral part of a generic story of a woman who needs to be saved, above all, from herself.

In the reviews of Secretary, critics almost uniformly referred to the film’s “fairytale structure,” noting James Spader’s role as E. Edward Grey as the “unlikely White Knight,” and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Lee as a “transformation from frumpy duckling to S&M swan.”(Ansen 70) However, there was also much resistance to Shainberg’s piece. In a highly observant piece in Mental Health Practice, Louise Pembroke allows for the offensive nature of the film. She states:

Personally, I have nothing against sadomasochistic practices and dominant/ submissive role-play. If the film Secretary had been a serious exploration of S&M/ domination/ submission between two adults in an equal relationship that could have been fine, but this film peddles obnoxious stereotypes and ideas about women who self harm. (Pembroke 27)

Pembroke’s virulent dislike of the film stems from the idea, represented in the film (but in none of the previous Secretary iterations) that you can be “liberated” from a lifetime of self-harm through an S&M placebo. Shainberg’s comment about this narrative decision that “Hollywood needs a heroine who overcomes her problems,”(Wiscombe 19) becomes problematized by Pembroke’s own experience as a woman who self harms. She looks at Shainberg’s “heroine” as coming “straight from the ‘all she needs is a good fuck or slap’ school of thinking. Thank you, Hollywood.”(Pembroke 28)

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Lee digging into her leg with the lavender decorated ballerina doll

Pembroke’s extended discussion of the “sexualization and infantilization of women who self harm” is also crucial. Lee’s cutting items and the positioning of Lee is that of a child. She tries to cut herself with a ballerina doll. Her highly organized cutting “kit” is decorated in shades of pink, sequins and ribbons. The item that her mother uses to lock up “all sharp utensils,” to “protect” Lee, is a children’s pink bicycle lock.

Shainberg seems to replace the progressive dialogue in the screenplay about Lee’s disorder with images of childishness and naïveté, so that we, as an audience, are critically aware of her condescended-to status. To link self harm to childishness, is to devalue a significant aspect of Lee’s character, and undermine her existence as an adult woman. After all, Lee Holloway is supposed to be twenty-five years old, not eight.

Lee's self-harm kit

Lee’s self-harm kit

Pembroke was not the only person who noticed this. While Melanie Turpin may have “enjoyed the Gone With the Wind climax,” it was not enough to “win me over to the film’s ideology…as far as romance and gender roles are concerned, it does precisely what its director…knows will be at the forefront of every scrutinizing feminist’s mind: it subordinates its woman protagonist.”(Turpin) She states that the demands of the film to simply substitute one form of abuse for another are “disturbing,” and the film fails to convince us that this switch is “truly healing.” Turpin says, above all, that the film is a failure in its attempts at showing a love relationship between Lee and Mr. Grey.

We have no reason to believe that he, at least, loves her in the traditional sense. He’s never warm; there’s no suggestion that his generous dispensation of pain is meant to please anyone other than himself. Lee informs us, via voice-over narration, that “I know…that he suffers too.” Really? How?…Just because Grey’s a hard-core sadist with an apparently unorthodox notion of love doesn’t mean he should bear no resemblance of a human being. (Turpin)

Turpin’s vigilant critique only supports the conception of a highly unequal relationship in the cinematic portrayal of Lee and Grey. In her text, the adaptation failings in the transition between screenplay and film are underscored. Steven Shainberg notes, “a lot of things that in the script were elaborated got shortened because I think the actors told you something just with their faces and with their bodies…”(“Secretary DVD Commentary”) This omission stripped Mr. Grey of his previously explicit humanity, thus leading to Turpin’s criticism. Through that loss, there is more opportunity to interpret the situation as an emotionless exacting of power (Grey’s over Lee). Align this with the depiction of her character as “damaged” and “child-like” and we have quite a vulgar display of misogynistic fantasy.

Now certainly in cinematic adaptations many details between literature, screenplay and the final filmic product must be reworked for time and other necessities. This is common sense. But the question in this circumstance remains, what do you lose when you alter substantive features of the main protagonists like emotionality and ability to deal with psychic? Much like the game of Telephone, when you lose a noun or mispronounce an adjective it becomes something else.

Cutting edge Feminism

The cutting disorder that Lee exhibits is a major issue within the narrative. As previously shown, it is a controversial topic that has sponsored violent opposition as well as congratulatory discourse on its treatment.  But how does this portion of the filmic text function within its predecessors? How is it utilized and why? Tracing the appearance of the self-harm issue, we find it nowhere within the text of the short story, continually referred to and acted out within the screenplay and available only within the initial first act of the film. Why the disparity?

In Erin Cressida Wilson’s highly feminist text, the cutting disorder that Lee manifests is catalyzed by traditional means (psychically traumatic situations), but its role within the diegesis conforms to Lee’s Role, as the ambassador of a new and daring style of feminism, contrasted greatly to those she is surrounded by. Her sister, also marked by her feminine and beautiful body, participates in beauty rituals (such as waxing) that mirror the cutting and represent a socially acceptable form of self-mutilation. Lee’s mother is depicted as constantly reading from a book about self-mutilation. She regularly makes various comments about how Lady Diana, Johnny Depp and Fiona Apple were all admitted “cutters” and functions to create real discourse (with a historical basis) and bring self-harm out from the secretive shadows.

Within the film, there is no book, no Theresa with her waxing, and when E. Edward Grey finds out that Lee is a cutter, he reprimands her, saying, “You will never do this again.” The result of this interaction? Lee quits. Not only is this unrealistic, but it exemplifies the amount of power that Mr. Grey has been given, a significant departure from either the short story or the screenplay.

Within the narratives of self-admitted cutters, we find a variety of themes. Although many cutters state that they “do not know why they do it,” many of them do have similar catalysts and emotive reasonings. Predominately the motivations are familial discord or peer rejection (many times in tandem) combined with the cutter’s feelings of worthlessness, self-hatred, and depression. Cutting, for a large majority of these young adults (many who trace their cutting all the way back to pre-adolescence), gives them a sense of control that they never had, or a voice that they were never given. “Dreamer,” from Arkansas, states that, “[w]hen I am the one holding the blade, I am in control. No one can tell me what to do or make me do something I don’t want to do…for once I am doing the talking.” Rachel, from Arizona, relates, “for me, it’s about control. With the cutting, I thought I was in control of my self, my pain, my life…” These narratives speak to a sense of personal empowerment. Though not a healthy approach to empowerment, in the lives of victims of sexual and emotional abuse or young adults who experience paralytic depression or traumatic circumstances, it is, at least, some kind of power. Uniformly, they all admit to wanting to “stop” someday, but not knowing how. Many verbalize a desire to seek help, but at the same time, they would rather have no one know, and have it kept as their own, very personal, experience and secret. images

While Lee Holloway does not exhibit the extremities of these young adults’ stories, she is placed within the confines of a household where alcoholism and abuse occur. The part where Shainberg’s film diverges and forms a new, idyllic reality is when Lee submits to Grey’s demand that she stop cutting herself, and the film shows her ridding herself of her “tools” over a bridge. The narratives of most cutters say that it is “like an addiction,” and that they “don’t know if they can stop.” originalThis departure from experiential evidence shows Shainberg’s dedication to “his version” of the story. Wilson’s screenplay shows Lee quit cutting, and disposing of the kit as well, but the discourse on self-mutilation continues, by the constant presence of Lee’s mother, who is carrying the self-mutilation book around with her, reading it at every given opportunity. Wilson’s portrayal of the vast array of different types of self-harm that Lee practices during the script is a more authentic representation, as well as a commentary on the various “socially acceptable” self-mutilations that women, specifically, practice. The verisimilitude of Wilson’s text versus Shainberg’s speaks to her dedication to issues in and around feminism.

More importantly, Wilson’s attention to the fact that cutting is a highly personal and intimate act, more about the relationship to the self than a relationship to another person, is something that is lost within the film, where Lee surrenders the one thing that may have made her feel “in control” to Grey, thus relinquishing her agency to the image of the patriarchal “fix-it” man.

From Anita Hill to Maggie Gyllenhaal

In Jessica Benjamin’s work, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination, she writes,

A major tendency in feminism has constructed the problem of domination as a drama of female vulnerability victimized by male aggression. Even the most sophisticated feminist thinkers frequently shy away from the analysis of submission, for fear that in admitting woman’s participation in the relationship of domination, the onus of responsibility will appear to shift from men to women, and the moral victory from women to men. (Benjamin 5)

Noting this “taboo” for feminists, Mary Gaitskill’s and Erin Cressida Wilson’s texts can be seen as provocative and subversive feminist engagements, as they argue for women’s agency and in favor of fantasies of submission as part of the construction of real feminine desire. Within Gaitskill’s literature, although the political implications lead more towards an overt implication of sexual harassment, Debby’s expressed sexual arousal at situations of domination is not portrayed as being part and parcel of the harassment. It is her own, perhaps catalyzed by the lawyer, but enacted as part of Debby’s real, empowered, feminine desire and fantasy. In other words, it belongs solely to her. Wilson’s Secretary creates an investigative discourse about the multiplicity of dominant and submissive roles that women take on, and discusses the facility with which women claim active agency within each.slaves

Ideas of submission and domination abound not only in discussions about sexual difference and sexuality in general, but in discussions of the workplace. It is no accident that Secretary should take place within the confines of an office; it is where active submission and domination take place on a daily basis. In her excellent article, “Sadomasochism and Sexual Harassment,” Christine L. Williams explores psychological ambivalence, and the effect it has in the rhetoric of women’s reactions to sexual harassment.

Williams defines ambivalence using a psychoanalytic base, referencing the feelings of love and hate that arise in “situations of extreme dependency.” She notes that “when alloyed with eroticism, ambivalence is sometimes expressed in the form of a sadomasochistic relationship, wherein the dominant partner takes pleasure in behaving brutally and callously toward the subordinated one, seemingly with full consent.”(Williams 110) Of course, that “assumed full consent” is a critical part of the patriarchal structures that most workplaces have been founded on since women were “allowed” to seek independent employment.

While Williams notes that erotic domination and workplace structure are connected, she also mentions that few of the women who have actually experienced sexual harassment in the workplace ever “come out” about their experiences, making the entire situation more problematic in the context of feminist application.images-1

Mary Gaitskill’s short story reflects much of what Christine L. Williams discusses. Debby experienced something within the confines of the workplace that would be considered both sadomasochistic and erotic. But she does not “come out” about the fact that her boss took advantage of the employer/employee relationship that they had to anyone. All she says is, “I quit. That lawyer was an asshole.” When a mandatory relationships that produce ambivalence become eroticized by one individual feeling a strong sexual desire and that desire is denied, a sadomasochistic relationship is often the result. The lawyer, in his attraction to Debby, takes advantage of his role as her “superior” within the workplace and exacts his desire upon her (in one scene, quite literally). It is at that point that she removes herself from the situation, breaking the chain of sexual harassment, and aggressively refusing to accept someone else’s desire acted out on her body.

Williams states that both individuals in a “sadomasochistic dynamic” are seeking recognition, but cannot recognize either themselves or their partner because they “cannot accept or even acknowledge their feelings of ambivalence.”(Williams 113) The opposite of a sadomasochistic relationship, she says, is one that consists of mutual recognition. Williams’ description of a mutually recognized relationship is done quite skillfully. She asks the reader to picture a seesaw:

The “at rest” position is one person up; the other down. In contrast, the mutual recognition that occurs when the two partners are “in balance” requires a commitment to constant negotiation and communication. Because sadomasochism is “easier” to achieve than mutual recognition, sexual relationships are always vulnerable to breaking down into subordination and domination. (Williams 114)

The screenplay of Secretary is revolutionary in this respect. Within the final pages of the third act, Wilson reveals (within Lee’s voice-over) that Lee and E. Edward Grey had in fact achieved this mutual recognition. The couple had gone beyond the ambivalence and were, in fact, sitting on that seesaw, perfectly balanced. Lee says, “I moved in and we became a family – in a slow and peaceful way, where we found a happiness and a schedule and a routine, and a definition of living together.”(Wilson 112) Lee’s language in this passage makes it perfectly clear that she has just as much say as he. They have made a new life together. They just happen to like S&M. Lee has maintained personal agency and achieved satisfaction throughout the text of the screenplay, a real rarity for a female character in media these days.

This reading is denied in the produced film. There are many ways in which the baby is thrown out with the bathwater (so to speak) but the most obvious one is the overtly male-gaze oriented nature of the finale. The objectification of Lee posits a certain ambivalence between the viewer, who inhabits a privileged, superior position, informed by male heterosexual desire, and Lee, who in being watched, is predicated as being in the inferior position. In these final scenes of voyeurism, Shainberg constructs his own ambivalent sadomasochistic text of erotic domination.

And They All Whipped Happily Ever After or … What’s the Safe Word?

The finale of the film is what I wish to concentrate on in this section, not only because the visual nature of the produced film is what I feel condemns Secretary to a location of misogynist fantasy masquerading in the form of a film about “female empowerment” but also because of its underlying message in regards to its oft-noted romantic fairytale formula. It is integral here to begin with a textual description of these final moments.Maggie-in-Secretary-maggie-gyllenhaal-736955_1024_576

Lee Holloway has been waiting at the desk in E. Edward Grey’s office for at least a few days. She has not eaten, slept, or moved for the entire time. She has even refused to go to the toilet, preferring instead to urinate where she was. Finally, after reading the article that has been written about her “love vigil” in the newspaper, E. Edward Grey seems to concede defeat. It appears that he, too, has been bitten by the love bug. He returns to his office with a chocolate milkshake, which he tenderly raises to her lips. Lee looks up at him with love and he swoops her up into his arms, bringing her upstairs to an elegantly decorated secret room, complete with bed made of the softest grass, and large brass bathtub.2002_secretary_005

He strips Lee of her clothing and gently bathes her, camera lingering, water rushing over her hair. She sits in the bath, Grey shampooing her hair, blissful expression on her face. Lee then stands, naked, while Grey dries her body and lays her down on the bed. He lies down beside her (fully clothed, I might add) while she shows him each and every one of the scars/marks that she has made upon herself.

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Thank you, internetz. Animated GIF provided by Tumblr.

Grey then extinguishes the candle. The next shot is of Lee, dressed only in white cotton panties, knee socks, and Mary Janes, being covered in sensual kisses by Grey. While I definitely do not mind the worship of Maggie Gyllanhall (believe me, I do not!) what I find curious here is the biased fetishization of the female body. Clearly, we have the male camera seeking out the female body to showcase for (assumingly) a heteronormative audience since what was once a fascinating and seemingly pleasurable and consensual S&M relationship for both parties has now turned into…what? A Hollywood ending? This just reads and feels wrong. Much like Telephone, I want to say “Operator!” incessantly!

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In her highly influential piece, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey writes,

There are three different looks associated with cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third. (Mulvey 68)

Mulvey points out that the traditional display of the woman in the cinema has always been one of complete eroticism. Within a patriarchal society that hinges on the binary of active/male and passive/female, erotic objectification comes as no shock, considering that the very act of watching and receiving pleasure from looking is an active pursuit, and constructed as male (and heterosexual). Through the collapse of the initial two looks of cinema into the third in narrative cinema, woman’s “to-be-looked-at-ness” masquerades as a narrative plot point, not as the disturbing reification of woman as being possessed, or defined by patriarchal society.fhd002STR_James_Spader_004

Mulvey’s discussion of women’s image in the cinema as being determined by a male-gaze is of crucial importance within the final scenes of Secretary. The languid shots of James Spader pouring water of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s head, construct that disruptive erotic female spectacle that “tends to work against the development of a storyline, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” This last section of the film, with its long overtly accentuated focus on Maggie Gyllenhaal’s naked and fetishized body is a disruption, and speaks directly to Mulvey, by functioning intentionally as a series of extended “moments of erotic contemplation.”

Noting Mulvey’s concern with psychoanalytically based notions of scopophilia, the visual text of the final act of Secretary speaks, unapologetically, to the male experience of the primal scene and its resultant feelings of alienation and sense of loss in his “imaginary memory.” The investigative look that is meant to see and “make sure of the private and forbidden” Mulvey says, is “modified by other factors, in particular the constitution of the ego…[and] continues to exist as the erotic basis for pleasure in looking at another person as object.” Mr. Grey’s constant monitoring of Lee from outside the window of his office, is just this kind of scopophilia. He waits, and he watches as she suffers for her love, deriving a certain erotic pleasure from his Peeping Tom-ism. Her lack of knowledge of being watched locates her as simply the erotic object of Grey’s gaze, symbolizing his investigation of the “private and forbidden.” By his reclaiming of power through possession of Lee in his gaze, he is reaffirming her “lack” and, therefore, his “presence” by the dialectic of knowledge; she is unaware she is being watched, he retains full knowledge of the watching. As she starves, pees herself and sits in his office chair, he is getting off on observing her.

While Steven Shainberg may insist that Secretary is not a standard love story following traditional generic conventions (Breskin 144) I would argue that this film is nothing if not structured like the archetypal romance. Tania Modleski writes that within the traditional romantic text, “the heroine…can achieve happiness only by undergoing a complex process of self-subversion, during which she sacrifices her aggressive instincts, her “pride,” and- nearly- her life.”(Modleski 37) As far as the guy is concerned, Modleski notes, “[a]lthough the hero…is not suspected of being insane and murderous, he is more or less brutal…Male brutality comes to be seen as a manifestation not of contempt, but of love.”(Modleski 40) We watch as Lee denies herself sustenance and comfort, sacrificing her self and, as Modleski states, “nearly her life,” while waiting for Grey to come to his senses. The brutality that he has been enacting upon her body and mind throughout the film was “only to show her that he loved her.” As Modleski puts it, “the message is the same one parents sometimes give to little girls who are singled out by a bully: ‘he really has a crush on you.’”(Modleski 43)

female-bully-1Modleski suggests that the female reader of romance novels, through her familiarity with the romantic formula, maintains a certain detachment from the heroine, as well as an emotional identification with her, because she “is intellectually distanced from her and does not have to suffer the heroine’s confusion.”(Modleski 41) However, because of that superior knowledge, the reader is able to translate the brutal tactics of the hero more clearly, and “hold something over” their heroine.

Due to Shainberg’s decision to edit the screenplay as he did, James Spader’s character remains divested of the portions of the text that allow him any reading other than a cold desire to dominate and control, peppered with random scopophilic tendencies. The reader agency that Modleski discusses is actively denied in this context, thus removing Secretary from a feminist reading of the traditional romance thematic.

Modleski maps out a version of the classical romantic narrative as follows:

A young, inexperienced, poor to moderately well-to-do woman encounters and becomes involved with a handsome, strong, experienced, wealthy man, older than herself by ten to fifteen years. The heroine is confused by the hero’s behavior since, though he is obviously interested in her, he is mocking, cynical, contemptuous, often hostile, and even somewhat brutal. By the end, however, all misunderstandings are cleared away, and the hero reveals his love for the heroine, who reciprocates. (Modleski 36)

The above formula, when taken out of the confines of Modleski’s discourse on romance novels, slips fairly smoothly into a synopsis of the filmic text of Secretary. Young and inexperienced Lee Holloway, just out of typing school, goes to work for Mr. Grey, an experienced lawyer who is also quite visibly her senior. Lee interprets Grey’s attentions to her (including those that fall under the humiliating and brutal categories) as a kind of “obvious interest” and is noticeably confused when he fires her, confused by his actions. Lee takes it upon herself to force him to face up to his feelings but he enacts an even more brutal and sadistic punishment upon her. He does finally return in the grand finale, “revealing” his love for her and sweeping her towards happily-ever-after in a fairytale prince-like action.

While the screenplay (as well as the short story) present quite alternative readings by their preoccupation with feminist political concerns, the film ignores those features in favor of the glorification of the damsel-in-distress rescued by the dashing prince/white knight archetype. By combining fairytale ethos with strict classical romance novel structure, Secretary has “conventional love story” written all over it. Just because there’s a little spanking doesn’t mean that the underlying function of the text becomes erased.

Conclusion

In this discussion we find that a film that had advertised itself as a “liberating film for women’s sexuality and desire” did so only in order to keep up the masquerade while it went all-out in fulfilling traditional fantasies of male domination and female submission. While the screenplay and short story display powerful examples of feminist ideology and examine agency in unusual and truly unique ways, this film adaptation works to reinscribe misogynist structures that the short story and the screenplay speak out vehemently against. Through Shainberg’s lens, we are privy to a film that fetishizes and objectifies the female body, making it nothing more than a tabula rasa for dominant patriarchal ideology to inflict its desires and fantasies upon, and recuperate the traumas from the primal scene. This film also serves to reiterate the “helpless female” archetypes of the classical romance narrative and the fairytale, all the while purporting itself as a piece of film that made “alternative sexuality” an available empowering procedure for women. And to me, that ain’t no liberation, that’s just the same ol’ ball-and chain.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ansen, David. “Hostile Work Environment: Typing, Filing, Bondage: This Secretary Aims to Please.” Newsweek. 7 October 2002: 70

Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.

Dargis, Manohla. “In Buoyant Secretary, Romance for Consenting Adults.” Los Angeles Times 20 September 2002, home ed.: F17.

Gaitskill, Mary. “Secretary.” Bad Behavior. New York: Random House Inc., 1989.

Haskell, Molly. Foreword. Secretary: a Screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson. By Wilson, Erin Cressida. New York: Soft Skull Press, Inc., 2003. i-ii.

Modleski, Tania. Loving With a Vengeance. Hamden: The Shoe String Press, Inc., 1982

Pembroke, Louise. “Secretary.” Mental Health Practice 6 (2003): 26-28.

 

Secretary. Dir. Steven Shainberg. Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment, 2002. DVD Commentary Track.

Shainberg, Steven quoted in Wiscombe, Janet. “Consenting Adults at Work.” Workforce 81 (2002): 19.

Shainberg, Steven. Interview. Secretary: a Screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson. New York: Soft Skull Press, Inc., 2003. 139-153.

Turpin, Melanie. “Secretary.” http://www.24framespersecond.com/reactions/reaction.php?reaction=secretary

Williams, Christime L. “Sexual Harassment and Sadomasochism.” Hypatia 17 (2002): 99-117.

Wilson, Erin Cressida. Introduction. Secretary: a Screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson. by Wilson, Erin Cressida. New York: Soft Skull Press, Inc., 2003.

Wilson, Erin Cressida. Secretary: a Screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson. New York: Soft Skull Press, Inc., 2003

[1] Women and Self Harm by G. Smith, D. Cox, and J. Saraddjian, Women Living With Self-Injury by Jane Wegshcheider Hyman, and Women Who Hurt Themselves: a Book of Hope and Understanding by Dusty Miller are just three titles amongst many others that explicitly make the connections between self-harm and women’s issues.

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