Tag Archives: American Studies

The Lady Americanist on Late Night.

Me and Jimmy Fallon, 2008.
                 Me and Jimmy Fallon, 2008.

In my dissertation, one of the iconic aspects of NBC that I investigate is late night television, particularly the influence of Lorne Michaels on the post-11:30 pm programming.  He made Saturday nights appointment viewing, and he has completely changed the face of NBC’s talk shows as well.  Following the lead of the New York Times‘ Bill Carter, I also have to keep an eye on the offerings on the other networks, especially NBC’s perpetual late night rival, CBS.

So the news of last week definitely changes the game.  Letterman appealed to younger, more acidic audiences.  He wasn’t afraid to be a little meaner than Leno, and he did it well.  As has been said numerous times in the past two weeks, Letterman inspired two generations of comics, first from Late Night on NBC, then from Late Show with David Letterman on CBS.  As Stephen Colbert pointed out, his first year in college marked Letterman’s first year at Late Night.  Letterman begat comics like Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien.

I’m a big fan of Colbert, and I have enjoyed his work long before The Colbert Report, including Strangers with Candy and The Daily Show.  However, many express concern that he will not be as popular when he drops his Report persona and moves on to being the real Colbert.  I call foul on this line of thinking. Colbert is not a one-trick-pony.  He is smart, well-trained in comedy (including time at The Second City), and has the potential to be a great interviewer.  Consider Fallon.  We never saw the “real” Fallon prior to his time on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.  He was always playing a character (and usually laughing while doing so), and thus, who knew what kind of successor to Conan* he would be.  Fallon has proved to be warm, affable, and very likable during his time on the late night shows.  I even met Fallon once prior to his ascension to Late Night.  I liked him, but was annoyed as his tendency to break on SNL.  I had no idea what NBC was thinking (but who did during that period).  When I met Fallon at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, he noticed that I kept looking at him.  I was trying to figure out if it was him, or just a guy who looked a lot like him.  He waved to me and motioned me over.  We talked for probably a solid 5 minutes, mainly with him asking me questions about myself.  He was genuinely nice, and from that point, I knew he would succeed on Late Night.

There has been a distinct generational switch in late night.  The old guard is really moving out, while those comedians who have put in their time are finally getting some mainstream recognition.  I will be watching these new trends closely, and hopefully I’ll have something more profound to say as it all develops.

– The Lady Americanist.

*Side note: I am a Conan O’Brien devotee.  Team Coco for life.

The Lady Americanist at the ASA.

Over the last four days, hundreds of American studies scholars descended on the Washington Hilton to convene the annual conference of the American Studies Association.  And for the first time, I was among them.  I have been part of the field of American studies for nine years now, but this year was the first year I had an opportunity to attend. It is difficult to have a paper accepted, and my research is still in its infancy, so I did not submit a presentation, but I did sign up to speak at the Students’ Committee Lightning Talks.  I was ready to network and learn the trends of the discipline.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Me at Lightning Talk

First, the experiences I had with the Students’ Committee were awesome.  There was a very productive roundtable about teaching, a spirited discussion about student labor, and an eclectic set of lightning talks.  I received some excellent feedback on my own dissertation plans, as well as an offer of collaboration on future research from a colleague from Yale.  I also won five books through Students’ Committee give-aways, so I obviously enjoyed that.
As the weekend continued, the energy of the conference began to center on a proposed boycott of Israeli universities by the ASA.  Perhaps this would have escaped my radar, but a few of my professors were deeply involved in opposing the boycott.  Therefore, we were keeping an eye on the new information about the discussion.  A few of us even attended the town hall meeting to hear some of our professors speak and to hear others speak on the issue.  Never before had I been in a room where the energy was so tense.  My personal feelings stem from my own curiosity about how much good a boycott would do.  Yes, it would punish Israeli institutions (and therefore those associated with them), which is the goal for some; but would it actually help Palestinians?  It flies in the face of academic freedom and would not effect any real change on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.  Most of their complaints seemed to be with the State Department or with their home institutions anyway.  I’d rather see more concrete action being taken to help mediate between Israelis and Palestinians.
The boycott, along with the subjects of many of the panels, made me wonder what conference I had attended.  I felt I could talk shop with my professors and other students, but the panels seemed to be outside my understanding of American studies.  Perhaps, even at 27, I’m old-fashioned in my perception of the discipline.  Why do we have to be anti-American to be critical of American culture and history?  It was all very confusing.
On the practical side of things, we had a lovely trip overall.  We all bought way too many books, and we struggled getting them home.  We all overpacked (story of our lives), and one of my friends / colleagues and I got to experience the Newseum.  What an incredible place!  Our visit was far more emotional than I expected.  I was especially touched at the Berlin Wall (my own family was separated by the Iron Curtain), the 9/11 exhibit (including the antenna from the North Tower), and the JFK assassination exhibit.  I would go back again in a heartbeat, this time equipped with more downtime and more tissues.
Finally, my interest in Presidents was piqued when a book seller informed me that our hotel was the site of the assassination attempt on President Reagan (also the basis for the attempt on President Bartlett’s life on The West Wing).  My roommates and I studied the newsreel footage and managed to find what we think was the spot.
Washington Hilton
Who knows if I’ll ever attend the ASA again?  I would have to see both where my research goes and where the association goes.

The Lady Academic on the Academic Summer.

At an Independence Day party yesterday, some of my parents’ friends were asking me how I was spending my summer.  “Do you get the summers off?” one well-meaning friend inquired.  It made me realize to those outside the academy, it might appear that professors and students have a few months off from school, since they are mostly not going into the office.  

To give an idea of what an academic spends the summer doing, here is a sample of my activities: 
 – I am taking one class about consumer culture, which has me doing some dissertation related research, as well as ethnographic research and reading.  It’s nice to be in the classroom and keep myself focused.
 – I am working on a preliminary literature review for my dissertation.  Not only does that include writing, but also reading and understanding new texts.
 – I am fortunate enough to be writing three articles for an online scholarly encyclopedia, which will not only give me experience doing so, but also provide a few publication credits.  I will be writing about youth television, celtic youth groups, and Catholic schools.  
 – I am preparing to teach a new class (for me) in the fall, so I have spent the summer choosing texts, creating a syllabus, and making lesson plans.  
 – Finally, I am the president of our student association, so the other officers and I have been meeting to discuss conferences and other activities for the club this year. We have a lot of fun things in the works, both academic and social.  
So, I might not be going into the office, but I am certainly not “off” for the summer.  I do get to spend significantly more time with my family and friends, and I have found time to recharge, but my mind is never far from the work I’m doing.  

The Lady Americanist on Transnational Hollywood.

Star Trek: Into Darkness; Monsters University; Fast and Furious 6; Despicable Me 2.

A curious trend has been sweeping the American film industry.  Well, perhaps not that curious once one investigates further.  While art-house film buffs and critics have bemoaned the end of American film for quite a while, the average movie-goer is also starting to wonder if the end isn’t near for the artistic side of the movie experience.  It seems as if every movie at the multiplex is part of a larger franchise.

Has Hollywood run out of ideas?  Doubtful.  Certain filmmakers are still creating fantastic new worlds and weaving nuanced narratives that engage and excite.  Woody Allen still produces an average of one film a year; Wes Anderson takes his time to sketch complex characters who live in deliberately-designed environments, right down to the perfect soundtrack.  The only thing these directors are missing is the massive profits of their sequel-driven counterparts.
In May of 2012, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, one of his best received films, made over $66 million worldwide on a budget of $16 million.  Not bad.  It profited and recouped its budget a few times over.  It even tapped into some of the more elusive audiences, appealing to families with older children and teens.  Earlier that same month, the superhero superband film The Avengers came to theaters all over the country. On it’s budget of $220 million, The Avengers made $1.5 billion worldwide.  Billion.  With a “B.”  What did The Avengers have going for it?  Big stars?  Well, while The Avengers had Robert Downey Jr., Chris Helmsworth, and Scarlett Johansson, Moonrise Kingdom had Bill Murray, Edward Norton, and Bruce Willis, who have all been attached to some huge movies in their careers.  Big name director?  Both Joss Whedon and Wes Anderson are pretty well-respected auteurs of creative films.  Awards season fanfare?  Both films were nominated for just one Academy Award, but won other industry honors.
The big difference between The Avengers and Moonrise Kingdom is how they translate abroad.  If a film has nuanced dialogue that is difficult to translate (both in word and emotion), its worldwide appeal drops.  Movies like The Avengers don’t rely on dialogue, but on impressive special effects, action-packed sequences, and characters with notoriety.  The characters of The Avengers are already well-known, requiring no introduction.  The Avengers is also essentially a giant sequel for about six franchises.  Abroad, sequels are keeping Hollywood afloat.
Recently, on NPR’s All Things Considered, Hollywood producer Linda Obst discussed her new book, Sleepless in Hollywood.  She has a lot of tales to tell, but she spent much of the interview discussing “the new abnormal.”  As DVD sales have dropped off, a industry that used to comprise 50% of film revenue, Hollywood has shifted its attention to the profitable international market, which now makes up 80% of the market.  Sequels are especially lucrative: While the profits on the Ice Age films stayed the same with each release (still impressive), each sequel doubled upon the last internationally.  As Obst put it, studio heads certainly understand the “business” part of “show business,” but they have lost the “show.”
Obst does not leave us without solutions.  She suggests making one less “tentpole film,” or films that are guaranteed moneymakers such as the superhero movies or Harry Potter that support the industry financially, and using that $200 million to make a few more small films that attract more ignored audiences.
I would suggest using our consumer power to speak out, but only being 20% of the intended audience puts Americans at a disadvantage in that respect.  Movie theaters and distributers need to re-democratize the movie-going experience as well.  The World War Z $50 ticket is a move in the opposite direction of what most movie-goers want or can afford.  As ticket prices decrease, theaters will see increased audience numbers.  Simple as that.  Theaters should also bring back matinee, student, and other specialty pricing.  Tap into the audiences that have the free time to see films with lower prices.  Audiences will still come in large numbers to evening showings because that is when the average working American has the opportunity to see movies.  That will not change.  Additionally, with lower ticket prices, theaters will see increased activity at the concession stand.
Take, for instance, our local West Shore Theater.  It is a rehabbed 1940s one-screen theater that is packed most evenings.  It only shows two movies a night, one at 7 and one at 9 or 9:30.  Ticket prices are a reasonable $3.50, and concessions are just as inexpensive. I took my mother to see The Hunger Games last summer for less than $10, including a drink and popcorn.  In Philadelphia, its difficult to even get into the theater alone for less than $11.  The West Shore Theater shows late / last run movies.  For example, it is showing Iron Man 3 and The Great Gatsby this weekend, and The Muppets (2011) for a charity fundraiser.  The theater is attempting to raise funds for a digital projector, as most studios are converting to an all-digital format.  The large numbers at the West Shore are evidence enough of what lowered prices will do for attendance.
Sequel-itis is just a symptom of a larger issue in Hollywood.  There is no room in Tinseltown to be a risk-taker; if it isn’t a guaranteed profit maker, especially in the international sector, studios are reluctant.  Even most of the art-films are helmed with veteren directors (Allen, Anderson, Mann, Coppola), so they have something of a built-in audience.  Hopefully profits won’t bury one of America’s most important art forms, allowing creativity and quality to rule the day once more.
Additional Reading:

A Slice of American Studies.

Welcome to my professional online portfolio!  Here, you can view my CV, work experience, presentations, and some of my pieces of research.  This was created within the confines of a Ph.D. course, but it extends far beyond that.  For more American Studies scholarship from all over the web, you can check out my Tumblr page dedicated to American Studies, which will feature articles and images on a weekly basis.

To learn more about me, or about the discipline (or counter-discipline!) of American Studies, check out the tabs above.