Monday, September 14, 2015

Fatal Femme: Bruno Antony and Hitchcock’s Film Noir

Though director - and cinema icon - Alfred Hitchcock’s expert craftsmanship is the epitome of the Classical Hollywood paradigm, he often destabilizes socially normative behavior via the characters of his suspense films.  Strangers on a Train (1951) is a bold and meticulously constructed crime film based on the debut novel from Patricia Highsmith.  It centers on the relationship that develops between two men – the titular strangers - whose paths cross on a train.  Guy Haines is a seemingly straight-and-narrow tennis player with lofty political ambitions. Bruno Antony is the amoral psychopath with a diabolical plan.  When Bruno chillingly murders Guy’s estranged wife, unbeknownst to Guy, he sets in motion a chain of events that implicates the film’s protagonist in her death.  Bruno then stalks Guy, pressuring him to complete his end of the bargain which is a request for Guy to kill Bruno’s father.    Here, Hitchcock subverts the values of 1950s America crafting a masterpiece of visual style; a tale brimming with violence, death, and sexuality.  Utilizing aspects of queer theory, scholar Robert J. Corber has previously decoded Bruno Antony as homosexual.  He posits that Hitchcock synthesizes a homoerotic bond between the film’s two male characters.  Building further upon this, I wish to contend that one can codify Bruno Antony within a femme-fatale archetype.  This, in combination with the film’s atmospheric visual style and its narrative conventions permit a new classification for the film.  Rarely viewed as a director working within the film noir genre, I contend that Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train deserves consideration as a uniquely challenging entry in the noir cannon.

Before it can be argued that Strangers on a Train is Hitchcock’s stirring twist on the genre of film noir, it is important to define the boundaries for film noir classification.  Unlike other genres such as the western or the musical, critics and theorists have struggled to succinctly define film noir.  James Naremore chronicles this difficulty in categorizing the genre in his seminal essay American Film Noir: the History of an Idea.  In it, he notes that “it has always been easier to recognize a film noir than to define the term” (Naremore 12).  He further advises that many see film noir as a genre defined by its visual aesthetic through motifs such as low-key lighting design, men in sharp suits, and eroticized women with legs concealing pistols.  Others see film noir as a set of familiar narrative conventions built around male protagonists investigating a seedy underworld, double-crossing femme-fatales, the fight between good and evil for one man’s soul.  And still there are those who categorize film noir by its moody and nihilistic atmosphere and a cloud of wickedness and immorality.  Film theorist Gaylyn Studlar collects many of these disparate views and has argued that film noir is an archetypal demonstration of all those traits that came to the foreground in post-World War II Hollywood crime melodramas: highly stylized low-key lighting, circular or convoluted narrative, and an atmosphere of corruption in which violence, paranoia, and obsessive desire hold sway...[all in all] a more morally ambiguous, structurally complex and sexually bold American crime film” (Studlar 381). 

Chiaroscuro lighting, having emerged during the silent era through German Expressionism and segueing into Hollywood gangster films of the 1930s, evolved into the low-key lighting patterns of the film noir genre.  This visual style, aided by a mise-en-scene emphasizing dark claustrophobia, aims to manifest the nihilistic attitudes of the genre’s morally-torn protagonists.  The film noir protagonist, an active male agent, is commonly matched with a femme fatale who utilizes cunning sexuality to further her own gains.  Thus, the success of the male protagonist often depends upon his ability to withstand the siren song of the femme fatale.  Strangers on a Train exemplifies many of the traits found in the film noir cycle.  In addition, the screenplay is credited to Raymond Chandler, an enormously successfully writer of hardboiled fiction, who also wrote the screenplay for 1944’s landmark film noir Double Indemnity.  These hallmarks: a distinct visual style, melodramatic crime-centered narrative, and the femme-fatale all signal the genre of film noir. 

If the first criterion of film noir is borne out of its visual patterns, it behooves us to begin an analysis of Strangers on a Train’s mise-en-scene, especially its use of light and shadow.  Hitchcock borrows many of the same visual cues that factor into other more commonly recognized film noirs.  Shadows from Venetian blinds sweep across Bruno’s face (a motif borrowed from Double Indemnity) as he details his plans for murder early in the film.  Additional patterns of low-key lighting invade many of the film’s most memorable sequences including the fairground and tunnel of love where Bruno murders Guy’s wife; outside of Guy’s home when Bruno confesses the crime from behind the symbolic shadows of a wrought-iron fence; within Bruno’s own home the night Guy visits to warn Bruno’s father of his son’s intentions.  Hitchcock’s mastery of the mise-en-scene reflects the visual patterns so often ascribed to film noir. 

Halfway through Strangers on a Train, Guy Haines concocts a plan to sneak into Bruno’s house – with a key Bruno provided – and corner Bruno’s father to alert him of his son’s diabolical plans.  In this sequence of crackling suspense, Guy Haines ascends the staircase of the estate and creeps towards a far bedroom down the hall.  Once inside, Hitchcock jolts the audience through surprise when Bruno is revealed to be waiting for Guy in his father’s bed.  Guy stands his ground telling Bruno he won’t go through with the plan and attempts to leave.  Bruno draws a pistol on Guy and follows him down the hall.  Guy carefully descends back down the stairs, unsure if Bruno will pull the trigger at any moment.  Wrapped in darkness, one figure holding a gun to another, viewers are treated to a sequence that would not be out of place in Tourneur’s Out of the Past or Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. 

In addition to the film’s visual aesthetic, the narrative - concerning such low-brow themes as swapping murders - also fits this pattern.  Bruno Antony will emerge as Strangers version of Phyllis Dietrichson or Cora Smith from film noir staples Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice respectively.  Those films concern a femme fatale luring a male protagonist to commit murder in exchange for their wild sexuality.  As noted by Richard Schickel in his analysis of Double Indemnity: these films tend to be “dramas about light, about a man lured out of the sunshine and into the shadows” (Schickel 10).  In fact, during a pivotal moment when offered the opportunity to confess to nearby police officers, Guy literally joins Bruno in the shadows of a wrought iron fence crossing into a mode of criminality himself. 

Throughout Strangers on a Train, Guy Haines lies to the police and schemes every which way to get out from under the weight of Bruno’s devious plans.  Noir’s narrative device of a femme-fatale luring an inherently good man into a world that vies for his soul is what demarcates the genre’s subtext with a penchant for exploring vulnerable American masculinity in the context of a new post-war culture.  And it is the femme-fatale which serves as the seemingly missing link in attributing Strangers on a Train to the film noir cannon.  But one must apply the lens of Queer Theory to look beneath the polished veneer of Hitchcock’s narrative to find it.

It is in regards to this element, the femme fatale, which proves to elude the casual viewer.  As indicated by film writers Benshoff and Griffen, film noir’s femme fatales were “women who lured men into their sphere of influence and would just as easily murder a man as marry him…[the femme fatale] pursued her own desires (sexual and otherwise) instead of passively supporting the male lead” (223).   Having already established two of the three criteria for situating Strangers on a Train as film noir (dark, expressionistic visual motifs and a melodramatic crime narrative centered around wounded American masculinity), I wish to argue that the character of Bruno Antony is Hitchcock’s transgressive version of a femme-fatale, a character (stereotypically female), who utilizes sexuality at the expense of the male protagonist for personal gain and pleasure. 

In Strangers on a Train largely follows that of Highsmith’s novel although several deviations from the source material curiously alter the reading of Bruno’s character.  In the novel Bruno is actually named Charles Anthony Bruno and during the initial meeting on the train the novel offers additional clues to Bruno’s sexual orientation.  Throughout this scene, in both the novel and film adaptation, Bruno liberally asserts himself into Guy’s life with great familiarity.  In the introductory meeting on the titular train, Bruno invites Guy to return to his cabin to dine.  Here, in the privacy of Bruno’s cabin, is where he spills the details on his murderous plan.  Bruno’s body language is relaxed and inviting, his feet up, lounging like a pin-up model.  Bruno’s mannerisms suggest certain femininity.  However, in Highsmith’s novel, Bruno goes so far as to also suggest that he and Guy vacation together in Santa Fe (Highsmith 48).  I believe that Hitchcock cinematically encodes Bruno as a homosexual character through a working knowledge of Freudian psychosexual theory which equates his villainous madness to aberrant sexual behaviors.  It is no secret that Hitchcock was familiar with Freudian theory as his films are rife with characters affected with misplaced psychic energy.  Examples include the transgendered (Psycho), voyeurism (Rear Window), trauma (Marnie), manic depression (The Wrong Man), and masquerading (Vertigo).  In addition, Hitchcock had indeed already worked with themes of homosexuality in the 1948 film Rope (with Farley Granger who plays Guy Haines in Strangers) based loosely upon the real-life Leopold and Loeb murder case. 

It is important to establish a link between the cinema of Hitchcock and the psychoanalytic work of Freud (and later Lacan) which established homosexuality as an abnormal psychological disorder.  When diagnosing homosexuality, Freud himself noted, “In all our male homosexual cases the subjects had had a very intense erotic attachment to a female person, as a rule their mother, during the first period of childhood” (Freud 462).  Freud continues to argue that homosexuality is in essence a consequence initiated by misplaced psychic energy rooted in a failed mastery of the Oedipal complex.  This failure in psychosexual development certainly ties back into the plot of Strangers on a Train in which Bruno, a character with a very close attachment to his mother, cunningly plots to have his own father executed.  This storyline is essentially a reworking of the Oedipal journey that Freud states all men must conquer; externalized in Bruno’s desires.  Bruno Antony, though an adult male, still lives at home, shirks work, and has a vicious hatred of his father.  The first scene in Bruno’s home begins with the image of Bruno’s mother filing his nails for him and milks the visual posturing of the character as a not-so-subtle symbol:

“The pampered and indolent Bruno, with his flamboyant clothing – silk pinstripe suit, saddle shoes, outlandish lobster necktie – and purring, aggressively insinuating manner, is…a regression by Hitchcock to the homophobic stereotype, the feminine gay man…[and the result of] a psychological abnormality, the result of an unresolved oedipal complex” (Carringer 372). 

In an archival audio interview with filmmaker and historian Peter Bogdanovich, Hitchcock himself was asked if Bruno was homosexual.  Hitchcock’s reply: “I would think so” (Hitchcock).  Homosexuality, like any variety of threat to American mores in the 1950s classifies Bruno as The Other based upon the abnormality of his psychosexual development.

This notion of homosexuality as a threat to American masculinity intensified in the 1950s in the wake of McCarthyism.  Theorists Robert J. Corber – and later Robert Carringer – explore this period of American history as laying the foundation for the ideology explored symptomatically within Strangers on a Train Strangers on a Train should in turn be viewed through the context of socio-cultural events of the 1950s.  For instance a summary of congressional events during this period reveals:

“The cold war paranoia that engulfed Washington beginning in 1950 and…subsequent inquir[ies] by moral zealots in the Senate disclosed that several hundred ‘moral perverts’ were in the employ of the State Department…Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government, a subcommittee report heavily influenced by medical and psychiatric testimony, declares categorically that [homosexuals] are morally and emotionally unstable, as well as security risks” (Carringer 371). 

Corber contends that Hitchcock, in preparation during the pre-production phase of Strangers on a Train, made strategic changes to Highsmith’s novel to situate Haines in the political world of the US Senate and to explore the homoerotic bond between he and Bruno as a potential threat poised to destabilize normative masculinity.  Lastly, it is again important to note that this was not new territory for Hitchcock.  In a discussion of a previous film Rope, it has been written that

“[Hitchcock’s] interest in the homosexual mind [was] well documented…Significant in this regard [was] that the homosexual characters place[d] themselves outside the law…and provided a vehicle for the discussion of several pertinent topics including the wariness of the ‘other’” (Mangin 58). 

Hitchcock utilizes homosexuality as one aspect of classifying Bruno Antony as The Other for the purposes of creating a stronger villain.  Bruno Antony symbolizes a very-real threat to the normative values of 1950s America by offering the possibility of alternative lifestyles that clashed with those dictated by ideological institutions.  Corber has remarked that Hitchcock’s film

represents the achievement of a fixed heterosexual identity as virtually impossible…this paranoia is directly related to Cold War fears that ‘the homosexual’ was indistinguishable from ‘the heterosexual’ and had infiltrated all levels of American Society (Corber 61). 

If a film’s protagonist is the spectator’s surrogate for identification then the threat Bruno represents to Guy is a threat represented to the viewer as well. 

 Suspense in Strangers on a Train is derived by placing the spectator in Guy’s shoes in a battle with Bruno Antony rife with homoeroticism.  It’s no surprise that, as brilliantly portrayed by Robert Walker, Bruno is an alarmingly attractive and sensational figure who tends to sweep the viewer off their feet with grace and humor.  When Bruno drops the incriminating cigarette lighter down the storm drain towards the end of the picture the audience is left with bated breath in hopes that he’ll be able to retrieve it in time.  By the end of the picture Guy, as well as the spectator, have somewhat been seduced by the allure of Bruno’s Otherness.  Hitchcock’s use of Freud instills his psychotic villain with the “aberrance” of his sexual orientation. 

Acknowledging Bruno Antony as a homosexual character does not in-and-of-itself equate him to a femme fatale, yet.  There is an antagonism between Guy and Bruno that can be read as Guy’s reluctance to acknowledge his own homosexual feelings in response to Bruno.  Guy and Bruno are certainly two halves of a greater whole: the ego and the id, darkness and light, good and evil.  Guy is a model citizen and Bruno is his evil doppelganger, a man who encompasses the darkness that society and civility do not permit successful adult men to acknowledge.   On the outside however both men look strikingly similar: youthful and attractive white American males, clean-cut in suits, especially when inhabited by Granger and Walker; actors with a shared physicality.  The femme-fatale is a character that uses a venomous sexuality to further her own gains.  Barring the gender-specific pronoun, this sums up Bruno Antony quite well.

The realization that Strangers on a Train is a film about an everyman American male overcoming the seduction of a malicious homosexual threat creates the basis of an argument for Bruno inhabiting the role of femme fatale.  But what is to be gained by relegating Bruno to such a position?  I’d argue that Hitchcock’s subversion offers us a unique reworking of the masquerade: Bruno is a homosexual character whose sexuality, manifest through attempted seduction, permits a degree of femininity which in turn permits a masquerade, typical for the femme fatale, in obtaining the role of the phallus.  In the introduction to Screens compendium on feminist film theory the author indicates that the role of the femme fatale “was almost always positioned as phallic in so far as she sought to take the place of the male, to become the phallus herself” (Screen 8).  Exploring the function of this play on established roles in film noir creates interesting new implications on traditional models of spectatorship.

To call Bruno, a male character, a femme-fatale may seem like a farfetched idea until the argument is viewed through the lens of the masquerade.  The masquerade as established by Mary Ann Doane notes that “Womanliness is a mask which can be worn or removed.  [Its] resistance to patriarchal positioning would therefore lie in its denial of the production of femininity as closeness, as presence-to-itself, as, precisely, imagistic” (Doane 235).  Of course Strangers on a Train doesn’t overtly present us with an imagistic femininity but I’d argue that reading Guy as entangled in a homoerotic relationship with Bruno substitutes for this mask of womanliness on the character of Bruno Antony.  Doane continues to argue that this form of masquerade is not simply for females in the audience but for female characters on screen.  She adds that, “this type of masquerade, an excess of femininity, is aligned with the femme fatale...[and is] necessarily regarded by men as evil incarnate” (235).  Throughout the film, Bruno attempts to woo Guy into his diabolical plan much in the same way a lover may try to woo a partner.  This relationship goes so far as to include a scene where Bruno offers Guy the key to his home.  In addition to events on the narrative level that support this reading, every time we leave Guy’s point-of-view and switch to Bruno’s, we are adopting this position and rooting for his success.  It is humorous when Bruno pops the young boy’s balloon at the fair.  It is nerve-wracking when Bruno drops the cigarette lighter down the storm drain.  This ability of Bruno to at once inspire simultaneous fear and awe is both a credit to Walker’s performance and the film’s careful construction of a masquerading villain.

 If Hitchcock plays with classical Hollywood cinema to construct charming male characters with fluid, amorphous boundaries of sexuality - generally considered abnormal and even deviant by the ideology of the period - then was he actively working to destabilize how a spectator can receive pleasure through processes of identification?  Steve Neale’s pioneering work in positioning masculinity as spectacle raises some interesting points, even if the films he examines put the male body on display for the spectator’s gaze much more readily than Hitchcock is prepared to do in Strangers on a Train.  Neale indicates that when film presents us with the male body it is typically “heavily mediated by the looks of the characters involved.  And those looks are marked not by desire, but rather by fear, or hatred, or aggression…[they seem to] minimize and displace the eroticism they each tend to involve, to disavow any explicitly erotic look at the male body” (Neale 18).  Nevertheless, unlike Neale’s filmic examples, the patterns of looks from Guy onto Bruno do not justify a minimization and displacement of eroticism.  Occasionally, the camera does in fact position Walker’s Bruno in pieces for consumption whether it’s his lounging body in the train car at the beginning of the film, Bruno relaxing in his silk robe at home, or the consistent motif of his hands in close-up that symbolize both aggression and power.  When Guy, and in turn spectators who perform the act of identification through Guy, observers Bruno it is often a seesawing mix of emotions running the gamut from stimulated to horrified.  Within the narrative, Guy receives several honest opportunities to confess Bruno’s scheme to authorities and clear his name but always errs on the side of continuation.  Is it because Guy doesn’t wish the fantasy to end?  Is it because he masochistically enjoys the domination Bruno exerts during the heights of his power plays?

The effect of this subversion at the level of representation is intriguing as the repercussions seem unique to this particular film rather than a cinematic movement as a whole.  There is a dangerous quality to Hitchcock’s cavalier attitudes which seem poised to destroy the notions of gender norms and patriarchal ideology at any moment.  As Judith Butler has noted, “the loss of gender norms would have the effect of proliferating gender configuration, destabilizing substantive identity and depriving the naturalizing narrative of compulsory heterosexuality of the central protagonists: “Man” and “Woman” (Butler 146).  Since Guy Haines successfully clears his name and brings about the demise of Bruno Antony, normative American masculinity has won.  Not only is the threat that Bruno represents quelled but so too are the possibilities of alternative representation Hitchcock was hinting at.  As the narrative of film noir often boils down to whether or not the male protagonist can withstand the advances of the femme fatale, so too Strangers on a Train posits the same dilemma.  This may be why the film is often overlooked as a powerful film noir in its own right.  It doesn’t seem to languish in the nihilism or despair attributed to more traditional films of the genre.

Concluding the argument for Bruno Antony as Hitchcock’s homosexual femme fatale yields interesting avenues in representation and spectatorial relationships.  It is still important to consider the fundamental differences between Highsmith’s original novel and Hitchcock’s filmic adaptation.  The disconnect between layers of homoerotic undercurrents within Highsmith’s novel and a filmic adaptation were explored by theorist Chris Straayer in regards to another of Highsmith’s works, The Talented Mr. Ripley, where it is noted that

[the works’] divergent endings are the result of contradictory attitudes toward identity..two texts in relation to masculinity, homosexuality, and… in these realms the novel, unlike the film, endorses a freedom from determination and fixity that is compatible with both existentialism of the 1950s and contemporary poststructuralism (Straayer 115). 

This notion of what was acceptable reflects requirements of censorship and strict codes of behavior governing Classical Hollywood cinema.  Further evidence of this is provided by the fact that the American version of Strangers on a Train has been cut to de-emphasize any overtly homoerotic flirtation between Guy and Bruno as compared to the British release.  Or, it may be by design that Hitchcock simply wanted Guy Haines to be less-vulnerable to the advances of a homosexual femme-fatale and more of a heroic bastion of American masculinity fighting off the Cold War advances of an enemy among us

I return to my argument: Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train should be considered amongst the greats of the film noir cycle.  It exudes the visual cues, the immoral narrative, and centers on the plight of a typical American male protagonist torn between good and evil as manifest in the good woman: Anne Morton; daughter of a senator and Guy’s soon-to-be fiancé or the femme-fatale: Bruno Antony; a homosexual villain obsessed with the destruction and manipulation of Guy Haines for his own personal perversion.  Carringer notes, “The homoerotic relationship is now being negotiated through the exchange of a woman” (Carringer 373).  It is James Naremore who summed up noir best when he wrote, “for all its romanticism, [film noir] was a challenge to Hollywood conventions: it used unorthodox narration; it resisted sentiment and censorship; it reveled in the ‘social fantastic’; it demonstrated the ambiguity of human motives” (Naremore 24).  While Hitchcock’s film ends with good triumphing over evil and the eradication of any implied threat of to traditional masculine norms, the journey was one that tested Hollywood conventions, reveled in the fantastic, and showcased characters with dubious human motives.  If spectators are willing to adopt a Queer Theory reading of Strangers on a Train, it becomes quite easy to view the film as an ideal candidate of that indistinct genre termed film noir.

Works Cited

Benshoff, Harry M. and Sean Griffin.  America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender,
and Sexuality at the Movies.  Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Butler, Judith.  Gender Trouble.  New York: Routledge, 1990.
Carringer, Robert L.  “Collaboration and Concepts of Authorship.”  PMLA, vol 116, no 2,


Corber, Robert J.  In the Name of National Security: Hitchcock, Homophobia, and the
Political Construction of Gender in Postwar America.  Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Doane, Mary Ann.  “Film and the Masquerade.”  The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in
Sexuality.  New York: Routledge, 1996.

Freud, Sigmund.  “Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood.”  The Freud
Reader. Ed. Peter Gay.  New York: Norton, 1995.

Highsmith, Patricia.  Strangers on a Train.  New York: Norton, 2001.

Hitchcock, Alfred.  Interview.  Peter Bogdanovich.  1963.

Mangin, Daniel.  “College Course File: The History of Lesbians and Gays on Film.”
Journal of Film and Video, vol 41, no 3, 1989.

Naremore, James.  “American Film Noir: The History of an Idea.”  Film Quarterly, Vol

49,No 2,1995.

Neale, Steve.  “Masculinity as Spectacle.”  Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in
Hollywood Cinema.  Ed. Steven Cohan & Ine Rae Hark.  Routledge: New York,

Robinson, Mj.  “The Poetics of Camp in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock.”  Rocky Mountain
Review of Language and Literature, vol 54, no 1, 2000.

Screen.  The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality.  New York: Routledge, 1996.

Schickel, Richard.  Double Indemnity.  Britain: British Film Institute, 1992.

Straayer, Chris.  “The Talented Poststructuralist: Heteromasculinity, Gay Artifice, and Class

Passing.”  Masculinity: Bodies, Movies, Culture.  Ed. Peter Lehman.  New York: Routledge, 2001.

Studlar, Gaylyn.  “Double Indemnity: Hard-Boiled Film Nor.”  Film Analysis: A Norton
Reader.Ed. Jeffrey Geiger & R.L. Rutsky.  New York: Norton, 2005.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Semiotics and the Confederate Flag Controversy

I am concerned over the heated rhetoric exchanged of late in regards to the Confederate Flag’s removal from government grounds in South Carolina. At the national level, public figures such as Bobby Jindal are claiming a violation of heritage. At a personal level, I see Facebook profile pictures being replaced with images of the Confederate Flag and long, rambling posts decrying the removal of the flag as an infringement on rights; another cowardly cessation to the Political Correctness movement. In either case, there are a lot of arguments from both sides regarding the true meaning of the Confederate Flag. Each side cites meaning in their positioning – and here we stand in gridlock.

What we’re really talking about is Semiotics, study of visual representation, of signs and their signifiers. Semiotics explores relationships between images and their encoding of ideology. It infers no separation between intention in the medium and greater symptomatic meaning. Essentially, the viewing of an image (i.e. a painting, a film, a flag) cannot be isolated to the original intention of said image but must consider all relationships forged between image and spectator across time.

For example, the 1930s saw unprecedented atrocities strike the Western Civilized world as Nazi Germany brought genocide and war in an attempt to harbor Eugenics for the creation of a Master Race. The hatred borne out of this movement cursed a number of icons associated with it. No longer can men grow the delightful Charlie Chaplin “Tramp” mustache. No longer does the once-common German name Adolph (or its permutations Adolphe in France or Adolfo in Italy) sit amongst the “most popular boy’s name” rankings as it had pre-WWII. No longer can the swastika, originally a popular international symbol for “good luck,” ever divorce itself from the Nazi party. Today it is not seen as an act of rebellion to tattoo a swastika on one’s person; it is a defiant claim of racism.

The Confederate Flag’s many signifiers must be considered in this debate. Unfortunately, any potential additional meanings the flag may have are subjugated to the taint of hatred and prejudice the flag has attained during its history. In the 1860's, the Stars and Bars (an original version of the Confederate Flag; not the popularized design of today) was created to represent the Confederacy. During the Civil War, the flag was encoded with the ideology behind the Confederacy: a refusal to acknowledge abolitionism and emancipation. This flag saw many permutations and design changes over the next 100 years, reaching well-beyond the end of the Civil War and extending into the Civil Rights movement. Regardless of the many intended meanings of the Confederate Flag, past and present, the fact is that it has been co-opted in the hearts and minds of many in possessing ghastly implications about race and inequality.

Many have previously, and are now currently, attempting to re-claim the Confederate Flag as a symbol of heritage, of rebellion, of Southern Pride - to honor those lost during the Civil War. All of those things may be true; an image can hold many meanings simultaneously. But the Confederate Flag will never be divorced from flying as an emblem of inequality and racism. That is now part of the icon’s DNA. Those who refuse to accept that meaning are ignorance personified. This great nation is a melting pot of race and ethnicity; a country forged by immigration and differences. Our shared national history has some black-eyes (to put it mildly) and it is important to remember this when considering taking a stance on an image as loaded as the Confederate Flag. To many (especially non-white minorities), the flag symbolizes little more than exclusivity, inequality, and occasionally corporeal danger. No one who is a legal citizen of this country should be made to be reminded of this on a daily basis by our government institutions. If it is heritage one is trying to celebrate, focus on the pre-amble to the Constitution. Adopt a new icon, one that is less loaded, to demonstrate Southern pride. If it is rebellion one is trying to conjure, fly the image of Arthur Fonzarelli. That’s an icon we can all get behind.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Binge-Watching is Bad for your Health!

While driving the other day, I heard an opinion piece on NPR’s Fresh Air by guest contributor and award-winning television critic David Bianculli in regards to how the shift towards binge-watching has altered the television viewing landscape (link to this story here).

By definition, binge-watching is the act of consuming large quantities of television shows in immediate succession rather than adhering to a typical weekly viewing schedule. Bianculli remarked on how binge-watching cultivates disconnected viewers who consume media at their own pace rather than on a specific schedule ordained by a network. This shift really started 20 years ago when you father would program the VCR to tape NBC’s Must See TV lineup but not at the scale we see today. More recently, the true cultural phenomenon of Binge-watching was brought about by the advent of Digital Video Recorders (DVRs) and has since been fueled immensely by the emergence of video streaming applications such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime in recent years.

The radical propulsion of binge-watching, in my opinion, is due to two distinct elements: the technology permitting streaming of video to myriad electronic devices and to the aforementioned streaming services creating their own content.

Shows developed specifically for online streaming such as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black (Netflix) or Transparent (Amazon) are not only gaining traction commercially but also critically where the latter recently won the prestigious award for Best Drama at this year’s Golden Globes. The important aspect of these shows is they never had a pre-ordained network schedule. They were simply dropped, in bulk, onto the Internet one day with no rules or stipulations as to how much to watch or when.

Bianculli’s argument is a fascinating one: In an age where technology is permitting exciting, well-written television shows to find niche audiences and succeed, is our shared collective viewing experience – what we’d call “water cooler” television – disappearing? It was easy to gather at work Fridays and discuss the previous night’s episode of Seinfeld. Can we discuss Orange is the New Black without any sociocultural marker as to how quickly/often a viewer should be consuming their season? Binge-watching has spurred islands of viewers where each is afraid to discuss their progress for fear of spoilers or ruining the experience. Gone are the days of lengthy heated discussions regarding the content of a show. Now, the conversation is simply, “are you caught up yet?”

So how did Netflix, et al get us to this place? How has the dominant model of viewership, in place for the past 75 years, suddenly been upended? Using Bianculli’s essay as a jumping off point, I want to explore how technology, specifically, has permitted this seismic shift in our cultural viewing habits. To do so, I will focus specifically on the technological innovations of Netflix as a case study in shifting art and media culture.
In an article entitled, “How Netflix Works,” authors Tracy Wilson and Stephanie Crawford break down the complex infrastructure driving Netflix. Netflix is an interesting company that used technological innovations to pioneer disruptive technologies, putting the nail in the coffin of Blockbuster Video stores (and its ilk) and promoting declining DVD and Blu-Ray sales (Lang). From a Corporate Strategy standpoint, Netflix is a fascinating beast to study.

Even with the death of video stores, Netflix’s model has surprisingly increased the landscape of smaller independent/art-house films. As noted in the peer-reviewed journal, Film Quarterly, “feature- length independent and art films ha[d] become almost impossible to finance in the U.S., and distributing such films for theatrical release has become a nearly outmoded business model as marketing costs can frequently outstrip box-office grosses [which now requires digital streaming distribution to survive]” (Hilderbrand, 2010, pg. 24). The selections of offer from Netflix are nearly 500,000 as compared to the infinitely smaller crop of films available at your old Blockbuster location.

There is simply too much to discuss with Netflix as a corporation. Therefore, in the interest of brevity, I will ignore the inner-working of major aspects of Netflix such as their DVD-by-Mail service and simply draw attention to three major technological initiatives – all of which solidify Netflix as a major entity-of-choice for mainstream content viewing.

The first topic for discussion is the Netflix website ( The Netflix website was the introduction for many to streaming commercial video. Netflix began utilizing their website as the main customer interface for both online and DVD-by-Mail services. Their site is an aesthetically pleasing interface for customers to search, sort, rank, and (most importantly) view movies all built on complex databases storing massive amounts of information for hungry movie fanatics looking for their next fix. The Netflix site, similar to e-retailers, offers massive amounts of information regarding the products on their site. “When you hold your mouse pointer over a selection, the site pulls a lengthier description from a database and displays it on the screen…including information about the movie’s plot, cast, MPAA rating, [and much more]” (Wilson & Crawford). The real-time access to massive quantities of information spurs cineastes and casual film browsers alike to navigate the site for hours building their library and hunting for their next favorite flick.

The second major piece of Information Technology driving the success of Netflix is their recommendation system. This system subverts what many would typically view as impossible to quantify: artistic taste. Netflix somehow creates a scarily good engine for providing movie recommendations. This recommendation service is built on a complex algorithm. Originally, this algorithm was developed by Netflix, called CineMatch, but in an effort to improve their customer experience, Netflix opened their source code to the public creating a contest to improve its recommendation accuracy. Three years later, 7 developers claimed the $1 million dollar reward and Netflix now has a killer, unrivaled taste-maker to drive their site. This mathematical equation alone is credited with shifting film subscriber’s consumption habits as the New York Times has noted, “it has given independent releases and films that did not succeed at the box office a wider distribution” (Wilson & Crawford).

The final piece of technology I wish to cover is Netflix’s spearheading of video streaming. Originally relegated to their website in 2008 when the service began, Netflix abandoned their Microsoft partnership in 2010 and embraced HTML5 to permit a wide range of mobile devices and television sets to stream its content. This has led to many people canceling cable and staying in for a “Netflix Night.” But how does Streaming Video and Audio work?

In order to facilitate the video streaming over the Internet, videos must also be significantly compressed. Raw video footage is far too large in size but the tools for video compression have advanced to the point of maintaining high quality streaming in small data packages. Finally, complementary innovations such as Smart TVs or Web-enabled devices like a Roku or Apple TV permit television sets to receive and display Netflix’s (and others’) content. All of this traveling digital content has required internet technology drastically shift to meet this increased demand. As noted, “YouTube…and Netflix…represent 50% of total Internet traffic. Such an amount of traffic “magically” bypasses the core of the Internet, [through complex innovations called CDNs] enabling the de-congestion of the network [and] leading us to a mesh model in which all ISPs want to increase their interconnections” (Palacin, Oliver, Infante, Oechsner & Bikfalvi, 2013, pg 322).

These technological evolutions are not limited to Netflix alone, of course, but Netflix has become the iconic face (or dare I say iconic Red Envelope?) of digital streaming because of its reach and because it was a pioneer in so many of these markets. For these technological innovations alone, Netflix is an entity worth discussing. But there’s something much bigger they’ve accomplished.Most recently, the biggest shift Netflix has made is in the arena of content creation.

In an age where streaming sites are hungrily competing for existing content, Netflix once again separated itself from the pack by creating its own brand of exciting, unique shows. Their approach to releasing shows however flies in the face of the traditional Television model. Rather than scheduling a show for a season across weeks lasting many months, Netflix releases an entire season of episodes at once allowing viewers to consume at their own pace. This choice is what has ignited the craze of binge-watching as many rabid fans will devote an entire weekend to viewing an entire season at once.

NPR has an interesting article on the psychological effects of binge-watching. The article followed researchers who wanted to test whether binge-watching had similar effects to binge-eating and binge-drinking. Their findings: in coming off of binge-watching, “you get this response that’s very similar to the response from giving up food or substances…the feeling of needing it all the time is [there]” (Rutsch). Additionally, as noted by Time Magazine, the sedentary consumption style of binge-watching creates potential health hazards such as increased risk for diabetes and other negative health effects (Park).

So what does all of this mean? It means as we continue to evaluate the success of firms in their quest for competitive advantage, we cannot ignore the necessity to innovate with IT. It means that companies should not simply settle for offering a novel product or service but should strive to change the culture. Netflix is a fascinating organization that continues to use technology as a vehicle for attaining competitive advantage. Through its disruptive technologies it has doomed other businesses, changed the cultural media landscape, and made movie-lovers out of all of us. And ultimately, there is a moral of the story: Netflix is an amazing case study of how consistently novel improvements on existing IT practices can not only impact the business world…it can shape it.

Bianculli, D. (2015, March 17). Forget Binge Watching: Great Television Happens When Networks Pace Shows. Retrieved March 27, 2015, from

Crawford, S., & Wilson, T. (n.d.). How Netflix Works - HowStuffWorks. Retrieved March 27, 2015, from

Hildebrand, L. (2010). The art of distribution: video on demand. Film Quarterly, Vol 64, No 2, pp 24-28.

Lang, B. (2014, June 4). Digital Home Entertainment to Exceed Physical by 2016, Study Finds. Retrieved
March 27, 2015, from

Palacin, M., Oliver, M., Infante, J., Oechsner, S. & Bikfalvi, A. (2013). The impact of content delivery
networks on the internet ecosystem. Journal of Information Policy, Vol 3, pp. 304-330.

Park, A. (2015, April 1). This is What Binge Watching TV Does to Your Health. Retrieved April 15, 2015,

Rutsch, P. (2015, February 4). Does Binge-Watching Make Us Depressed? Good Question. Retrieved
March 27, 2015, from watching-make-us-depressed-good-question

Wilson, T. (n.d.). How Streaming Video and Audio Work - HowStuffWorks. Retrieved March 27, 2015,

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Essay in Short Film Studies

Intellect Ltd. are esteemed publishers of many peer-reviewed academic journals.  I am proud to announce that my recent essay The Perfect Human: An avant-garde rebellion against Classical Hollywood style appears in the latest issue of their journal Short Film Studies (volume 5, issue 2).  

Abstract: This article seeks to position Jørgen Leth’s The Perfect Human as an avant-garde challenge to Classical Hollywood film style as well as mine the film’s abstract appeal in its invention of new methodologies to generate meaning.

To purchase your copy of this issue, please visit:,id=19273/