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Reframing gangs

Picture the scene.

Scene 1: A group of wildly drunk young men smash a local business to smithereens, systematically destroying every inch, before beating the owner within an inch of his life.

Scene 2: A group of power-crazed men (and one woman), driven by an aggressive culture of hyper-competitiveness, commit economic crime on an epic scale.

Scene 3: A group of bored teenagers, clad in flares, chase another similar group over a bridge to the strains of T-Rex, brandishing knives and machetes.

What unites these images, and what divides them?

The first, and easiest, answer is that they are all scenes from American and British feature films of the last five years: The Riot Club (2014), Margin Call (2011) and Neds: Non Educated Delinquents (2010). The second, and more important, is that each depicts the creation of an insular, competitive, male-oriented subculture that results in horrifying acts of social and economic harm. From Oxford to Glasgow via Wall Street, each scene captures a struggle for status and reputation, brinksmanship and one-upmanship, and the will of the individual being keened towards the strange force of groupthink. A third perhaps less obvious answer is that each scene also demonstrates the way in which individuals become warped and damaged by such hyped-up environments, in the effort to live up to the intangible and mutable norms of the group. In each film, an individual trying hard to become an insider ends up on the outside, hurt and ostracised.

In their own way, each director – Lone Sherfig, J.C. Chandor, and Peter Mullan – is exploring the roots of seemingly senseless crime, and finding them in the ways in which social groups create forms of logic and values that gradually become untethered from, yet remain umbilically linked to, that of the law-abiding majority. At the heart of these very different scenes – spanning the violence of the streets, suites, and elites – we see striking similarities. Processes of group cohesion, masculinity formation and collective identity run like a bright red thread through divisions of class and geography.

‘the gang’ is a screen onto which our fears and prejudices are projected.

What divides these images, however, is not the action itself, but our reaction to them. The group of working-class youths in Mullan’s film are easily labelled – as ‘gang members’, ‘non educated delinquents’, or worse – while those in Sherfig and Chandor’s are less easily categorised. The group-oriented crimes of the students and the traders are no less the product of their environment, and of fundamental social processes, than that of the Glasgow teens; but there are no ready-made descriptors. Street-gangs are seen as a regular threat, while suite-gangs and elite-gangs are an aberration; a fact underscored in both Riot Club and Margin Call as almost all guilty parties escape legal censure. As William Chambliss discovered in his classic study of the Saints and the Roughnecks, those with cultural and economic capital are able to disentangle from the criminal justice system in a way that those labelled ‘gang-members’ cannot.

In a similar way, the academic study of gangs is often narrowly focused on questions of how and why ‘gang members’ differ from mainstream society. Like Officer Krupky in West Side Story, we see explanations roving from social to psychological, familial to environmental, economic to cultural. Such explanations, it seems, are often contingent on the eye of the beholder – ‘the gang’ is a screen onto which our fears and prejudices are projected. In the UK, ‘the gang’ is fast becoming the defining folk devil of the twenty-first century. Rather than casting our academic gaze downwards, however, we might turn it upwards – or, as Dwight Conquergood argues, we might turn it inwards, seeing gangs as ‘magnifying mirrors in which we can see starkly the violence, territoriality and militarism within all of us’.

In reframing the study of gangs, we would do well to engage with these insights – locating the particular forms of gang identity within their social and cultural context while considering the effect of our own academic and cultural ‘scenes’ in shaping responses to gangs.

Featured image: Promotional image from The Riot Club (2014). (c) Film4, HanWay Films, BFI, via The Riot Club Official Website.

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Bessie Smith: the Empress of the Blues

The filming and recent airing of the HBO film Bessie, which stars Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith, serves as a perfect excuse to look back at the music and life of the woman who was accurately billed as the Empress Of The Blues.

When Bessie Smith made her recording debut in 1923, she was not the first blues singer to record. Ma Rainey’s “Crazy Blues” in 1920 had been such a major hit that it began a blues craze with scores of African-American female singers being documented. While many were quickly forgotten, Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter were the biggest discoveries before Smith finally appeared on record. She was also not the first jazz singer to record, being preceded by most notably Cliff Edwards (Ukulele Ike) and Marion Harris. However Bessie Smith soon became widely recognized as the most important female blues and jazz singer of the 1920s, and her impact can still be felt nearly a century later.

A listen to some of Bessie Smith’s recordings from 1923 and early 1924 can be a revelation. The recording quality is primitive and much of her accompaniment, even from such pianists as Fletcher Henderson and Clarence Williams, is barely adequate. And yet Smith ignores everything else and sings with power, sincerity and passion that still communicate very well to today’s listeners. It is not just the volume of her voice or her general sassiness and strength. There is an intensity to her interpretations that lets listeners know that she will not stand for any nonsense, that she is a strong independent woman, and that she is a force to be reckoned with.

Bessie Smith Photographed by Carl Van Vechten. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on 15 April 1894. Not only did she grow up poor and black in the South but she lost both of her parents before her tenth birthday. Smith sang in the streets after school, gaining important experience while raising some money for her family. In 1912 when she was 18, she joined the Moses Stock Troupe as a dancer and an occasional singer. She traveled with the company throughout the South and learned about show business and life from their main vocalist Ma Rainey who is considered the first blues singer. Smith switched her emphasis from popular songs to the blues during this period.

Bessie Smith’s singing talents were very obvious as she entered her twenties and worked with other troupes. Her charismatic performances were often hypnotic not only due to the power of her voice but in the directness and truth of the words that she sang. Although the first wave of the blues craze somehow missed her, in 1923 she had her chance. Her very first released recording, Alberta Hunter’s “Downhearted Blues,” was a major hit that eventually sold 800,000 copies. During 1923-33 Smith recorded 160 songs and those often-timeless recordings are Bessie Smith’s musical legacy.

In her recordings, Bessie Smith (as with virtually all of the singers of the era) did not sing directly about racism. Her label (Columbia) would not have released anything that could offend whites in the South. But while many of her recordings dealt with the ups and downs of romances, she also sang about the difficulties of poverty, being treated poorly by men, and even about a few topical events such as floods (“Backwater Blues”). While she did not mince words, one always felt that she would overcome her difficulties. There were also bits of humor in some of the lyrics along with an occasional more light-hearted and jazz-oriented piece. Among the songs that she turned into classics were “’Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do” (which later on was a hit for both Billie Holiday and Jimmy Witherspoon), “Careless Love,” “Backwater Blues,” “Muddy Water,” “Send Me To The ‘Lectric Chair,” “Mean Old Bed Bug Blues,” “Empty Bed Blues,” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out.” Both the recording quality and the quality of her sidemen improved by 1925. Louis Armstrong on cornet holds his own with Bessie Smith (and vice versa) on “Careless Love” and “St. Louis Blues,” the superb stride pianist James P. Johnson is perfect on a series of late 1920s recordings, and other favorite players included cornetist Joe Smith and trombonist Charlie Green. Smith also starred in the 1929 short film St. Louis Blues, her only movie appearance.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Bessie Smith was able to adapt to changing musical and social conditions. She survived both the end of the blues craze and the Depression although the latter and the collapse of the record industry resulted in her only having one record date after 1931. She musically reinvented herself from a blues singer into a bluesy jazz vocalist, a move that unfortunately was not documented on records. In 1935 Bessie sang at the Apollo Theater and appeared in several shows, gearing herself for what would certainly have been a major comeback during the swing era.

It took the tragic car accident of 26 September 1937, which resulted in her death at the age of 43, to stop her — but nothing, not even the passing of 90 years, lessens the impact of the recordings of the Empress of the Blues.

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All gone to look for America: Mad Men‘s treatment of nostalgia

The popularity of Mad Men has been variously attributed to its highly stylized look, its explication of antiquated gender and racial norms, and nostalgia for a time when drinking and smoking were not sequestered to designated zones but instead celebrated in the workplace as necessary ingredients for a proper professional life. But much of Mad Men’s lasting appeal lay in its complicated relationship with nostalgia. Hollywood fare typically adheres to historian Michael Kammen’s declaration that “nostalgia, with its wistful memories, is essentially history without guilt.” To view Mad Men, though, is to be inundated with uncomfortable truths from America’s past that, too often, linger in the present. There’s no shortage of guilt. The show’s most powerful analytical lens magnifies the construction of our present world—a world increasingly feared as absurd, and no longer tenable or sustainable.

One of Mad Men’s central themes reveals the tensions dominating daily life in postwar modernity, when the nuclear family was fetishized as the source of all social and emotional gratification, marginalizing former sites of community in favor of, as historian Elaine Tyler May describes, the safe haven of the home in the midst of the threatening chaos of the Cold War world. This impossible burden placed on the family meant that it could never really measure up to all of the hopes, dreams, and demands that were placed on it, making it a favorite target for advertisers playing on anxieties that one’s family was not meeting the idealized image put forth in popular television programs like Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet.

The postwar family quickly became a commodified community, and admen, like Mad Men’s Don Draper, amassed cultural power through their mastery of language and symbols employed to produce powerful ads aimed at a yearning to achieve the idyllic community and home that was the stuff of endless dreams that could never quite be reached—but maybe the purchase of just one more product would finally mean fulfillment. (Or — as Theodore White wrote in his series of books on The Making of the President beginning in 1960 that detailed how politicians were increasingly marketed and sold to the public like any other product — maybe the election of just one more president.)

Mad Men suggests to contemporary viewers the disturbing origins of the simulacra of life in a hyper-consumer culture of surfaces, where characters playact a script written and re-written by generations of Don Drapers. One of the most talked about shows in the series is “The Wheel,” the final episode of the first season that finally delves directly into the quandary that by then has been laid bare. “The wheel” of the title refers, most concretely, to the carousel of a Kodak slide projector—so familiar to baby boomers—that is the focus of an advertising campaign created by Draper. He sells the slide carousel as a “time machine” that invites “nostalgia,” which he translates from Greek (incorrectly) as “the pain from an old wound.” The carousel “takes us to a place where we ache to go,” says Draper, “back home again, to a place where we know we’re loved.” But, of course, as Thomas Wolfe had already stated in 1940, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Worse, as Mad Men continually makes plain, that “home,” whether in our individual or collective memories, never actually existed—Don Draper created it. “What you call love was invented by guys like me,” he reminds us, “to sell nylons.”

Thomas Jundt - Mad Men 1
The cast of Mad Men (2011). Image courtesy of AMC.

The “Kodak moments” of life arranged in the slide carousel represent, in those days before Facebook and Instagram, idealized images plucked from lives that are anything but ideal. They are snapshots of those “instants” that most mimic life as it appears in mediated forms in Life magazine, movies, television, and, of course, advertising. Context is erased and forgotten, providing the illusion that all of life once felt like that perfect moment captured on film, and if we could just travel back to that place and time we might once again be happy and loved. But, as Svetlana Boym has stated, “The past for the restorative nostalgic is a value for the present—the past is not a duration but a perfect snapshot.”

Even as Draper is selling the “time machine” ad campaign to Kodak executives, and desperately trying to convince himself that the life projected is the life he’s living, viewers can see that the idyllic family images on the slides are moments from his own family life that, although it appears perfect in pictures, we know to be anything but. Despite appearances that he’s living the postwar suburban American dream, we know that his relationship with his Grace Kelly-esque wife is crumbling, he drinks too much, and he spends too little time with his children. The Kodak moments permit the construction of a life that, in reality, has never existed, and foster the yearning for community in an imagined past free from the complexities, compromises, and disappointments that have always accompanied living. As Paul Simon once sang in his song “Kodachrome” about the popular slides that filled carousels: “They give us those nice bright colors / They give us the greens of summer / Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day.”

The message is clear: our present nostalgia is for a world that exists only in media, advertising, and our imaginations. “There is no big lie. There is no system,” Draper warns a group of sixties counterculture activists, in a statement that captures the failed dreams of a generation. “The universe is indifferent.” That “universe,” in the context of Mad Men, is postwar corporate capitalism. As Simon concluded, “Everything looks worse in black and white.”

Faced with the inadequacy of the family to fulfill all that we seek in community, Americans retreat to their familiar posture of individualism. For Don Draper, this means leaving his family and immersing himself evermore deeply in the masculinity of postwar corporate capitalism. Draper and America increasingly measured manliness in terms of conquering consumer culture, women, and what Playboy founder Hugh Hefner liked to call “the great indoors.” Draper’s linguistic prowess (combined with his dreamy looks) makes him the master of this world, at once perfectly creating and embodying its signifiers. But beneath his surface of masculine perfection remains the reality of a deeply troubled and unhappy life. The impossible burden placed on individuals meant that they could never really measure up to all of the hopes, dreams, and demands that were placed on them.

In Mad Men’s final season, the erstwhile Sterling Cooper & Partners, the ad agency at its heart, is taken over by a monster corporation, and the world increasingly looks uncomfortably like our own. Don flees this indifferent universe. Heading west in his silver Cadillac, he is visited by the ghost of Bert Cooper, who cites Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” Soon after this encounter, Don gives the car away to a small town kid who, like Draper in a previous life, dreams of making it big. But what meaning does a Cadillac hold in an America where, we learn, CEOs now travel in private Lear jets, leaving the rest of us ever further behind? “We’re flawed because we want so much more,” Don Draper once said of Americans, “We’re ruined, because we get these things and wish for what we had.” Many of us who are drawn to Mad Men feel this in our bones, and yearn for an America that might liberate us from our present state of disillusionment, delivering us, finally, to a mythical place of meaning and fulfillment.

Featured image courtesy of AMC.

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What the professor saw on YouTube

The pervasiveness of digital media in contemporary, moving-image culture is transforming the way we make connections of all kinds. The recent rediscovery of the 1903 film Cheese Mites is a perfect example, as the way the film came to light could only have taken place in the last decade. Cheese Mites is a landmark of early cinema, one of the first films ever made for general audiences about a scientific topic. It belonged to a series of films called “The Unseen World” and was made for the Charles Urban Company by F. Martin Duncan, a pioneer of microcinematography. It was a sensation in its day, capitalizing on the creepy fascination with microscopic creatures inhabiting our food and drink. While researching my book on early popular-science films, I had seen the lone surviving shot from Cheese Mites—the microcinematographic view—held in the BFI National Archive. But Urban’s catalogues mentioned another version of the film that contained a shot prior to the view through the microscope.

I am not a film collector; I don’t haunt antique shops, participate in Ebay auctions, frequent yard sales, or do any of the other things that are the bread-and-butter activities of people who seek to acquire physical film prints. Instead, I am an early-career film scholar who has spent a fair amount of time in film archives, is friends with film collectors, and incorporates aspects of film archiving into his teaching. But I would not have guessed that I would ever find a lost film, let alone a film that figured prominently in my own research.

I would not have guessed that I would ever find a lost film.

The story began for me with an email from a friend, Doron Galili, containing a link to a YouTube video. Doron, a fellow cinema-studies student from the University of Chicago, was putting together a ‘wine and cheese’ screening event where actual wine and cheese would be accompanied by films on that theme. In YouTube search using the keyword “cheese,” he came across an old film entitled What the Professor Saw in the Cheese. From our time together in graduate school, he knew that I worked on early popular-science films and wondered if I had seen this one before.

I had not.

Watching it on YouTube, I saw a file of approximately two-and-a-half-minutes consisting of two shots. In the first shot, a man is seated at a table outdoors, reading a newspaper and eating bread and cheese. He uses a magnifying glass to read his newspaper and eventually turns his attention to the cheese. At this point, he does a double-take, and there is a cut to a microcinematographic view of the mites. Surely, I thought, this must be the two-shot version of Cheese Mites. The find was stunning, not least because I recognized that F. Martin Duncan himself played the part of the “gentleman” astonished by the mites on his cheese. Of all the missing films in my book project that I could have wanted to find, this one was at the top of the list.


Locating the source however, took some detective work. The YouTube page offered scant clues. The poster, “Treksintime,” had no internet presence, and I was at a dead end. So I redoubled my efforts, this time watching the other films in “Treksintime”’s channel. One film contained a company name, “Golden Age Publishing, LLC,” which led me to the state of Virginia’s corporate directory, where I finally found a name. The internet also provided an address and a phone number, which I subsequently called.

The owner of the print turned out to be a collector named Robert Quesinberry. He had bought the film, which was on a reel with two other films, from an antique shop in a nearby town. During the course of several fascinating conversations, he described how he had digitized the original print, a 35mm nitrate print. Although in good condition for a film print over one-hundred years old, it was slightly shrunken and brittle. He devised his own ingenious method for making a digital copy using the automated advance feature on a filmstrip projector, a widely used A/V device in American classrooms for the better part of the twentieth century, taking a digital picture of each frame as it was projected on a small screen. Afterwards, he used some software to stitch together the 2251 images and posted it to YouTube.

So, a collector buys a reel of nitrate decades ago. He digitizes the 35mm print via an ingenious contraption of his own design and posts the file to YouTube, where a cinema scholar looking to put together a “wine and cheese” themed screening notices it. And because this person is a friend of mine from graduate school, he thinks to email me about it. Then I use a variety of internet-based search methods to track down the print, which its owner allowed me to purchase (an effort in which fellow science-film scholar Scott Curtis was an enthusiastic and equal partner) and which I then donated to the BFI for permanent preservation.

Image Credit: “Photo Camera Photography Old Retro Film Photo” by PublicDomainPictures. CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) via Pixabay.

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How can we reconstruct history on the silver screen?

A perpetual lament of historians is that so many people get their historical knowledge from either Hollywood or the BBC. The controversies that surrounded Lincoln and Selma will no doubt reappear in other guises with the release of Wolf Hall, based on Hilary Mantel’s popular historical novel. Historical films play an outsize role in collective historical knowledge, and historians rightly bemoan the inaccuracies and misleading emphases of popular film and television; no doubt a generation of viewers believe that the Roman Republic was restored by a dying gladiator.

However, these reactions are somewhat misplaced. The problem with historical films is not so much the historical falsities, as it is the kind of narrative vehicle always deployed. Hollywood has a problem with form, not facts.

Historians, especially popular ones, feel comfortable launching factual critiques rather than formal ones because they themselves generally present their own research in prose narratives that depict the past as a settled issue. As most academic historians will insist, however, the past is a messier business than our clean narratives imply.

Popular historians, just like Hollywood histories, borrow heavily from the rich legacy of realism, especially what Roland Barthes termed the “reality effect” of realist discourse, the network of details and signifiers that are marshaled to give the illusion of immediacy (in the literal sense of “not-mediated”). Historians who tell us just how cold it was when Washington crossed the Delaware are deploying historical facts that perform the same function Austen’s description of a ballroom. No wonder some theorists of history dub mainstream historical narratives as “realist,” and that realist novels translate so well into realist cinema. The Victorian triple-decker maps wonderfully onto a long BBC mini-series, and even more impressively, a realist classic like Austen’s Emma can either work as historical comedy (Emma, 1996) or contemporary comedy (Clueless, 1995).

“Hollywood has a problem with form, not facts.”

Realism in fiction, cinema, and history has been so successful because of the unique pact it offers to readers and viewers. Realism is adept at hiding its own labor, which is why no mode is better at inducing a suspension of disbelief, for example during my binge watchings of Game of Thrones. In terms of history, however, such a pact has social costs: a reader immersed in a impressively rendered account of ancient Rome might feel like they are present at the stabbing of Caesar, but such an illusion implies that the past is a visitable place. It’s not. We can look at its postcards and souvenirs—the documents of a historical archive—but no plane will take us there. History is an affair of the present, a profession and occupation for historians, and a process of reading or watching for the rest of us. For a population raised on historical realism, the dilemma is not so much factual as procedural, as viewers and readers are rarely granted access to the laborious and fractured work of historical reconstruction.

If the mode of realism moves so fluidly between fiction, cinema, and history, but proves socially worrisome for historical transmissions, then we might look to a mode that has not had much success in either film adaptations or historical appropriation: modernism. Why does Austen work so well on the screen, but never Woolf or Proust? For one thing, the plots (but not narratives) of Mrs. Dalloway or Swann’s Way are hopelessly dull: woman goes for walk and buys flowers for a party; boy cries and goes on a walk and then later takes another walk. (The only successful translation of modernism to screen remains Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which demonstrates the extent to which one must violate a work such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.) Historical narrative has also been modernist-averse. Historians have had no trouble borrowing from Balzac or Tolstoy, but leave Joyce and Mann to their experiments.

“Movie Theater” by Sara Robertson. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

What would a work of modernist history even look like? We could list some examples from creative historians, but let’s see what happens in cinema when modernism and history collide. Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People (2002) is a history of the Factory label, which for a brief time made Manchester the world’s music capital. (Some might quibble with my use of the word “history” here, but us Joy Division fans will insist on the gravitas of the material, and that the Factory story is equal to the fall of Rome.) Rather than employing a realist mode, Winterbottom shows us the seams of his work, his-story. British comedian Steve Coogan plays Factory head Tony Wilson, but in one scene Wilson himself has a cameo in which he disagrees with the portrayal of the events of the scene. This is history, but history as argument, not as a settled case. Ir is small wonder that when Winterbottom opted to adapt a work from the English literary canon, the result was Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005), which is a film about the making of a film based on the novel, which is a narrative about constructing a literary narrative. Viewers coming away from Winterbottom, I’ll argue, will have more productive discussions and arguments about history than those watching standard historical recreations. Instead of picking out factual elements that, if just fixed, would provide a perfect history, Winterbottom viewers debate the very process of narrative construction itself. Such a debate is modernism’s great legacy.

Image Credit: “Movie” by Van Ort. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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