On my new film/research project and lessons from COMIC BOOK CITY

As I’ve documented before, while “finishing” with Comic Book City, I started work on a new film project, one based on selected writings by J.B. Jackson. Most of the work I’ve done so far has involved going back to Jackson’s essays and drawing out major themes around which to make my film, or films, but as of yesterday I’ve also started to shoot video.

My intention is to use moving images to interpret, comment on and reconsider Jackson’s work. In interpreting his writings, I want to show them in practice, or how landscape looks from the perspective of his essays. In commenting on his work, I want to draw attention to gaps or silences, or unarticulated implications of his writings (one example that I was working with this week while out with the camera was the role of nature or non-human agents in the making of landscape). In reconsidering his ideas about landscape, I want to place his work in contemporary context. I think, for example, that Jackson’s celebration of car culture in the United States bears revisiting in light of how that culture is changing and how the landscapes associated with that culture have also changed in the past 30 years.

I had the idea for basing film and video work on J.B. Jackson’s writings a number of years ago, stemming from my teaching of Landscape in Sight (Yale University Press, 1997) and Everyday America: Cultural Landscape Studies after J.B. Jackson, eds. Chris Wilson and Paul Groth (University of California Press, 2003) in my upper division cultural geography seminar. In particular, I have been thinking about “The abstract world of the hot-rodder” (1958/59) in audio-visual terms for awhile, and also as a work that would be interesting to re-examine in light of changing relationships to modes of transportation in the United States.

Despite this history, I did the work that would become Comic Book City first for a number of reasons, I think. I wanted to do a longer form film, and it still isn’t clear to me what form this film is going to take, or even if it is going to be a film or films. I also wanted my first major academic work in moving images to not only be “feature length”, but also, essentially, straight-forward in terms of design and execution. So, I think, at some level, I understood I probably needed more experience before turning my attention to the J.B. Jackson concept, though I don’t remember making that as a conscious choice.

Whatever the case, I think that the experience of making Comic Book City will be important to my execution of the current project.

First, it helped me to gain confidence in my ability as a filmmaker. Finishing and screening that film, putting my work “out there”, was invaluable in moving me forward to take on what is, I think, a more creatively ambitious work.

Second, I went into making Comic Book City not knowing what I might end up doing with it, especially in terms of peer review, but as a conventional “feature length” film, I at least had a finished product that was simple enough to manage. What I learned from my experience is that working in non-traditional forms like film and video poses challenges for peer review and for publishing, but that it also opens opportunities for connecting across disciplines and that there is a sense of freedom that comes from working outside of traditional formats for scholarly work in geography. In short, ultimately, I was able to do with Comic Book City what I wanted to do, no need to negotiate with publishers about open access or making the film available in other formats. The experience of bringing that film to fruition was liberating, and I think I needed to be set free before returning to thinking about J.B. Jackson.

Third, while I am planning collaborations on the soundtrack, in the field, I am planning to be a one-person crew for most of what I do here. This is mostly question of mobility and being free to work opportunistically, something I wasn’t able to do when conducting interviews and going to specific events for Comic Book City.

Along the same lines, I am not planning on working with human subjects on this project. This will actually make this film more like my non-film work, which has dealt primarily in the interpretation of texts rather than with informants.

I’ve also been thinking about form and how I want to experiment more with “modular” structures. I realized in putting together Comic Book City that the documentary could be broken down into pieces, and I have made many of those pieces available on Vimeo, but that is more incidental than planned. Here I am thinking of an almost fully flexible work, one that could be presented as some kind of a whole, but also as fully realized “modules”. That may change, but editing Comic Book City opened my mind to a number of possibilities that I want to play with more (I am also being more immediately influenced by having taught Jim Jarmusch with my Geography and Film students last Spring).

Most of all, making Comic Book City affirmed for me that, while I still enjoy and want to do traditional forms of writing, film and video are the media I most want to work with, especially in further developing my interests. I don’t think I would be pursuing, for example, insights from Actor Network Theory or notions of affect in papers in the way that I am in film and video. There are many areas of theory in cultural geography that I relate to more meaningfully and creatively in audio visual terms than in words, which is to say, I think I have more of an original contribution to make in my fields as a filmmaker than as a writer.

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Moving Image Geography channel on Vimeo

A few years ago I had the idea to start an online journal devoted to film and video work in/on/about geography, but at different points technological, financial and support issues became barriers to getting the project launched. Recently, I decided to readjust my thinking and reboot the journal as a “channel” on Vimeo, “Moving Image Geography”. You can go to the homepage, and also get content notices via Twitter. If you have relevant interests and qualifications, I am looking for additional moderators. Contact me with inquiries if you’re interested.

In the meantime, here are two of my initial selections:

 

Call for participation: film project on the work of J.B. Jackson

I am starting a new film project, one focused on interpreting the writings of landscape scholar J.B. Jackson. I am interested in using and incorporating audio commentaries from others who work in landscape studies. You can see a more detailed call for participation here. You can also contact me for more information.

My tumblr: small city graffiti and street art

I’ve been meaning to mention here that I’ve started a blog on tumblr, Small City Bomb Report, dedicated to documenting graffiti and street art in smaller cities and towns. Most of the images are from Corvallis, but I’ve also reblogged some pictures from other tumblrs, notably snappingthewalls’ blog, and streets.

A few of the photos you can see with more information at Small City Bomb Report (all graffiti & street art from Corvallis, Oregon, photos by me):

“This is what a house looks like”: contesting the neighborhood

Last week these signs started showing up in our neighborhood, "This is What a House Looks Like"and specifically one block over from where our house is located, across from and adjacent to new housing being built on the site of a tear-down. Since then, the campaign has migrated to other blocks and streets.

Anne-Marie and I have talked on and off about the signs since noticing them last weekend. Lately we have mostly been making jokes about expanding the scope of the effort, putting up signs that say, “This is what a tree looks like”, “This is what a car looks like”, “This is what a dog looks like”; you get the idea.

Those jokes stem from the unease that I, and I think Anne-Marie, have about this campaign. There are a number of possible subtexts to the message on the sign that I am reluctant to support even as I am sympathetic to other purposes embedded in the idea.

As our playing around with alternatives implies, my main concern has to do with the implication that there is only one acceptable way for a house to look, and that look conforms to American white and middle class ideals around the family.

On Corvallis TidBits, an online “community newspaper”, you can view a statement of purpose about the sign campaign. There are two salient points.

One is that the new development contravenes public testimony in opposition to the units, which, according to the statement, takes advantage of a quirk in city law that allows for ‘single attached’ housing to be built across property lines, even where multi-unit housing would be disallowed if built on a single lot.

This is where I am in sympathy with the aims of the campaign. In a city with a reported vacancy rate of less than 1%, and high demand for student housing in particular, developers have substantial leverage to shape development in ways that are expedient for profit-making, but maybe not in the best long-term interests of neighbors, or for the quality of the city’s housing stock. American landscapes are rife with structures built without regard to context, and that can be alienating.

The houses in question appear to be a large in relation to those immediately adjacent, but, as Anne-Marie has observed, the real concern about many of the newest developments in the neighborhood, and nearby, is the layouts, which are maximized for individual living space while minimizing shared living area. The concern here, and as expressed in the TidBits article, is the new housing will only be attractive to students. From a market perspective, that’s where the easy to assess demand lies. Our neighborhood, which today is called “Avery Addition”, is just a few blocks from Oregon State University and a short walk to downtown (from our house we can get to the other side of either campus or downtown in about twenty minutes on foot). As the new 300-unit complex going in behind us suggests, market incentives in this area clearly break in favor of catering to students.

So, yes, the development under dispute does raise questions about democracy and sustainability, and the nature of ownership, or the intersection of private rights and public goods. It is hard for me to argue with the case for a more open and dialogic process where individual, community, city, and developer interests are all given comparable weights and room for articulation.

On the other hand, the statement of purpose for the “This is what a house looks like” signs also claims that Avery Addition is, “a traditional housing neighborhood”.

In one sense, I guess that is another way of making the point about design and layouts, but in another sense that statement encapsulates my uneasiness with the implication of the campaign that only single-family housing is acceptable. Taken in context, I’m not sure that the statement holds up to scrutiny, underscoring my sense that there is a kind of class privilege being exercised through the signs, and underneath the rhetoric and concern for democracy and sustainability.

The neighborhood we live in dates to the 1850s. There is a history here, but the area is not historic in the sense that term is usually used in battles over preservation, which is to signify that a neighborhood has an identifiable and consistent character. There have clearly been distinct periods of development and redevelopment continuing to the present. If you were to take a walk through Avery Addition you would see a variety of house styles – cottages, bungalows, ranches, split-levels – from a variety of eras – nineteenth to twenty-first centuries – and sizes – one, two, and three story. There’s no standard lot size. Some houses have been kept and maintained as single-family structures, while others have been divided into apartments or otherwise adapted for the rental market. Some have been carefully renovated, while others haven’t seen significant work in decades. Even before the new development, the neighborhood was ringed by apartment complexes dating to the 70s, 80s, and 90s (judging by appearances). I think, but have not confirmed, that there are one or two houses near us that are active communes of some kind. Avery Addition is one of the denser and more eclectic neighborhoods in Corvallis in terms of its housing and its residents.

“This is what a house looks like” seems to fly in the face of the area’s history and the neighborhood’s actually existing housing stock. Students are already here in significant numbers, and likely have been for decades. In this light, the sign campaign feels not just conservative but reactionary.

And yet it I also wish that developers would take, or could be compelled to take, a different approach to what is currently being built. The new complex behind us is, essentially, a dorm, even offering individual leases on shared apartments. There is little reason, beyond profiting from the current student-driven housing shortage, for the developments to be so narrowly tailored to one group of market participants.

I am not, however, in principle, opposed to multi-unit housing or density; we chose to move here in part because of the close-in location and the density that implies. I expect to be living next to students and other renters, to people sharing housing, as well as to single-family homeowners, not to mention urban farmers, other academics and white collar professionals, writers and artists, retirees – Avery Addition seems like it has a diversity of housing for people of different needs and backgrounds. I think that’s good and all too rare in the U.S. I don’t think this neighborhood actually does have one kind of house and it certainly has more than one kind of home.

Questions about place and the interpretation of MEEK’S CUTOFF

It’s been a few weeks since we saw Meek’s Cutoff, but one question I keep thinking about is the difference that place, or the context for viewing, might affect how people read the film.

I assume that most people who go to see Meek’s will have some vague notion of “Oregon” and “the Oregon Trail”, or at least “pioneers”, but I think it’s also safe to assume that the high desert landscape and region in which the characters get lost and disoriented will not be familiar to many (it’s interesting to me that even the official summary of the film has only a general description of where it takes place, referring to the setting as “high plain desert”, an oddly imprecise turn of phrase). I also assume that many viewers will have, at most, a fuzzy sense of “the Willamette Valley”, the “Eden” towards which the families are all heading.

I live in the Willamette Valley, and for most of my life I have lived here and in Portland. I saw Meek’s at Salem Cinema right in the middle of the Valley. I see the green and fertile lands promised by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) weekly along 99W and the country roads between Monmouth and Corvallis. I learned Oregon history as a kid, and as an adult I’ve taught courses on Western, Pacific Northwest and Oregon geography. I have a specific frame of reference for understanding where and why the Tetherows, the Gatelys, and the Whites are taking the risks they are in traversing the desert to get over the Cascades. Most importantly, I have a frame for reference for the myths that come from Meek’s mouth when assuring Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan) that their fortune lies just over the mountains.

Meek’s promises of easy and instant wealth are exaggerations and propaganda, but I also know that the landscape he references encourages such mythologizing, makes it persuasive. Settlers like the families in the film would have seen a lush, green lowland seemingly made by God for farming (in fact, it was the Native American use of fire that shaped the landscape in that way, but most white Americans did not comprehend that. David Douglas, for example, was likely typical in seeing Native burning as a sign of savagery on the part of indigenous people). You can still get that impression today, due in part to Oregon’s land use laws which are used to control urban and suburban growth.

(Without digressing into a theoretical discussion of landscape, one way to read the fact that the state’s land use system remains largely unique in the U.S. is as another instance where the land has played a role in how it gets seen. The same qualities that made white settlers in the 19th century see an agricultural Eden worked in the 20th century to persuade people to enact barriers to urban sprawl).

It is easy to see Meek as nothing more than a charlatan, putting on a performance for the Tetherows et al. And no doubt he is, but I wonder how much more complex he seems as a character if you have a specific knowledge of western Oregon and an understanding of the plausibilities in his mythopoetic utterances, and whether that bolsters your impression of other moments of truth from him. For example, I think that there is truth in his rueful account of slaughtering Native Americans. I can see Meek as someone who has just enough real knowledge, even if only about the rhetoric of the Westward journey or the landscape in general, to persuade level-headed people like Emily and Solomon Tetherow (Michelle Williams and Will Patton) that he has a shortcut over the mountains. But maybe viewers without a more detailed frame of reference for the history and geography of the film are more likely to see him as pure con artist, or to think that the families are entirely deluded about what they will find at the end of the Oregon Trail.

The ending of Meek’s Cutoff is notable for its abruptness and deliberate ambiguity. There are a number of ways to read the film’s final shots. A colleague of mine from the history department, who teaches and researches on the Pacific Northwest and American West, and who has a familiarity with the locations of the film, is able to give a compelling reading to aspects of the ending that would be difficult to make without his particular knowledge of place. Of course, maybe Kelly Reichardt and Jon Raymond made the film without meaning for audiences to specifically locate the closing shots, but they did make the film with a pronounced open-endedness, one that invites the multiple interpretations.

In a broader sense, I left the theater thinking about how connected I felt to the characters, from knowing, for example, how oppressive northeastern Oregon can seem even when in a car on the freeway and only a matter of hours from home in the Willamette Valley. Or feeling a kind of kinship with the families for having chosen to live in exactly the place that they are risking life and limb to reach. Oregon is not one of those places, like Los Angeles or Paris or New York, that moviegoers, globally, have some concept of. Meek’s Cutoff reads like a deeply place-based text, but maybe that very assumption is driven by my own experiences. In either case, I am curious as to how people without my connections understand the film, its locations, and characters.

Recommended daily reading – 15 September

A few short items today:

First, the Arsenal.com match report on the Gunners 6-0 thrashing of Sporting Braga in the Champions League today.

Next, a nice feature on Metric by Jer Fairall in PopMatters. An excerpt from the conversation with Emily Haines:

“[New Wave] was just where we were at. That’s what we heard, that’s what we wanted: my synth dreams that will one day come true of truly expressing my inner synth geek one day will happen. It’s not like you make a strategic move, it’s like you do what you wanna do and what feels right to you. I love the garage rock stuff but I wasn’t gonna suddenly just drop what Jimmy and I have been developing, which is this total love of electro and dance music and trying to bring those New Wave sounds and the songwriting and the energy of rock and roll all together. Dance rock is not a new idea now, but it’s hard to try and express that in front of 20 people, it feels kinda stupid, but that’s part of the test. You just keep doing it. I’m glad we didn’t give up. It was hard to make a synth look rock and roll for a minute, but it worked out.”

The article provides a condensed history of the band, with a particular look at Metric’s place in the world of digital music and their recent Hollywood entanglements.

Finally, this from Inhabitat is just cool.