Anita Wohlmann, Aged Young Adults: Age Readings of Contemporary American Novels and Films (Bielefeld: transcript, 2014), 280 pp.
Feb18

Anita Wohlmann, Aged Young Adults: Age Readings of Contemporary American Novels and Films (Bielefeld: transcript, 2014), 280 pp.

Anita Wohlmann, Aged Young Adults: Age Readings of Contemporary American Novels and Films (Bielefeld: transcript, 2014), 280 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   Anita Wohlmann’s insightful study on “aged young adults” brings together the concepts of age/aging and youth in a very productive way, and by so doing adds a new dimension to age studies. In five thematically clustered chapters, the author closely examines seven contemporary (2001-2011) American narratives—four novels and three films—via an approach that she terms “age readings.” An age reading reveals references to age in fictional narratives to be more than simply descriptive, and examines their metaphorical function that often revolves around “norms, ideals, and expectations” (70). Aged Young Adults is grounded in a solid theoretical basis of age/aging studies and profits from drawing on theories by eminent age scholars. Wohlmann’s reading of her primary material combines analyses of the fictional material with approaches from cultural studies, sociology, and developmental psychology. Consequently, individual chapters follow a “dialogic organization” (76) that illustrates the reciprocal influence between fictional narratives and “the socio-cultural environment” (30). Thus, analytical observations about the fictional narratives prompt theoretical reflections, which in turn actuate further critical examinations. Chapter one, “Age and Aging in Theory and Practice,” lays out the theoretical background and basis for the age readings that follow in the next four chapters. The first analytic cluster, chapter two, entitled “Conflicts of Timing,” examines Joel Zwick’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) and Sam Mendes’s Away We Go (2009). The two works are connected by their focus on the characters’ age crises, as well as on the “disciplinary function of age discourses” (91). Chapter three, entitled “Living Across the Life Course,” analyzes Tom Perrotta’s Little Children (2006) and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2002). This chapter’s focus lies on age as a flexible marker and the “shifting meanings of adulthood” that are presented by the works, as well as on the role of age norms and how they affect imaginaries of the life course. “Mental Health and Age,” chapter four, offers an examination of the various links between mental health, consumer culture, age/aging, and entrepreneurial selves in Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision (2005) and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (2003). The last analytic chapter, chapter five, entitled “Positive Age Metaphors,” examines Miranda July’s The Future (2011) and It Chooses You (2011), emphasizing particularly the aspects that unfold possibilities to reevaluate “notions of time, the future, [and] age or aging” (249). As can be seen from her selection of works, the novelty of Wohlmann’s approach, in the ever rapidly expanding multi-disciplinary field of age/aging studies, lies in the fact that her study focuses on chronologically young characters between the...

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Walter Benn Michaels, The Beauty of a Social Problem: Photography, Autonomy, Economy (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2015), Hb. Xiii, 230 pp., 8 color plates, 28 halftones, 4 line drawings.
Feb18

Walter Benn Michaels, The Beauty of a Social Problem: Photography, Autonomy, Economy (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2015), Hb. Xiii, 230 pp., 8 color plates, 28 halftones, 4 line drawings.

Walter Benn Michaels, The Beauty of a Social Problem: Photography, Autonomy, Economy (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2015), Hb. Xiii, 230 pp., 8 color plates, 28 halftones, 4 line drawings. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   Walter Benn Michaels’s new book, The Beauty of a Social Problem, is dedicated to the work of a generation of younger photographers and visual artists—most  of them born after 1965—and  in particular to these artists’ shared belief in the autonomy of the work of art. At first glance, Michaels’s own interest in this notion of autonomy does not seem primarily theoretical, though theory does play a major role in his book, but also and in fact ultimately political. One of the central ideas behind his book is that the “separation” of the work of art “from the world” (xii)—from its subject and from its reader or beholder—might function as “an emblem of the relation between classes and also of the escape from that relation, of the possibility of a world without classes” (ibid.). This is a bold claim, to be sure, although The Beauty of a Social Problem is everything but a practical political manifesto (and Michaels never claims that he wanted to write one); rather, it is a prolonged theoretical meditation on the possibilities of thinking about the connection between the art world, on the one hand, and the social world on the other. For Michaels, contemporary photographic art and art theory present a particularly promising field to do so. Given the conceptual scope of the book, readers of The Beauty of a Social Problem will come across a number of political arguments and theoretical claims about the function of art and literature that Michaels has pursued throughout his career (for example, intentionality and meaning; the critique of the reader/beholder; social inequality vs. cultural diversity). But they will also come across a series of careful and often surprisingly unexpected close-readings of both contemporary artists (including, amongst others, Jeff Wall, Brian Urich, Arthur Ou, and Viktoria Binschtok) and classics in the history of photography (Walker Evans, August Sander, Paul Strand) that notably extend, and in many cases complicate, the range of arguments Michaels has become notorious for making, one of them being the relationship between photography and literature itself, and Michaels’s tendency to prioritize the former over the latter as his object of inquiry. The Beauty of a Social Problem consists of five main chapters: four lengthy pieces on the theory and history of photography and the visual arts (larger portions of which were previously published in journals) and a shorter final chapter, “Never Again, or Nevermore,”—at first sight somewhat inconsistent with the rest—focused...

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Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith, eds., Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (Durham: Duke UP, 2012), 400 pp.
Feb18

Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith, eds., Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (Durham: Duke UP, 2012), 400 pp.

Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith, eds., Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (Durham: Duke UP, 2012), 400 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   To scholars considering Afro-Pessimism as seriously as Sebastian Weier recently proposed in Amerikastudien/American Studies, a collection of essays titled Pictures and Progress will seem surprising.[1] Editors Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith announce their volume as an exploration of the ways “African Americans adopted and utilized photography in all its cultural forms to represent a new people, a new period, and new modes of black thought” (9-10). Instead of focusing on “structural white enslavism” (Weier 430), Pictures and Progress reminds its readers of the liberating potential of nineteenth-century photography. Its authors study a medium that produced authority, individuality, and micro-narratives of citizenship. Eleven substantial essays examine African American visual culture, cultural history, and literature. In between, four highly useful mini-chapters (“snapshots”) focus on the lives and oeuvres of early black photographers Augustus Washington, Thomas Askew, A.P. Bedou, and J.P. Ball. Wallace and Smith’s compelling introduction argues that the camera “helped to define the ethos of the era as well as direct the path of African American advancement” (15). Following Frederick Douglass’s explicitly optimistic thoughts on pictorial practices, the editors and most of their contributors imagine a “much more autonomous African American viewer” than the one Du Bois’s theories of “double consciousness” imply. They outline consumers “seeking progress and improvement through a study of the self objectified as image” (8).  Laura Wexler, for instance, concentrates on Douglass’s performances in his photographic portraits. She reads this “string of images” as expressions of Douglass’s determination to “insert himself” into the nation’s future (37). Ginger Hill explores Douglass’s theories of selfhood and the camera. In her essay, Douglass’s writings appear as “struggles with representation” (72) and as attempts to establish “iconicity […] in the face of the tragic” (71). Building on this foundation, the collected essays examine key literary and photographic texts of the African American nineteenth century. Augusta Rohrbach contributes a piece on Sojourner Truth’s negotiations with “shadow and substance.” Michael Chaney discusses Linda Brent’s “camera tactics.” These, Chaney finds, operate in a field where “the camera and the mulatta come together to form a composite machine for sustaining power relations through acts of seeing and being seen” (128). Along similar lines, Gabrielle Forman speculates on “mulatta genealogies” in the framework of slavery, freedom, and photographic culture. Smith discusses DuBois’s photographs for the 1900 Paris World’s Fair; she finds images “denaturalizing the assumed privilege of whiteness” (292) and “pushing subjectivity past the color line” (293). Wallace contributes a fascinating essay...

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Kathleen Loock and Constantine Verevis, eds., Film Remakes, Adaptations and Fan Productions: Remake/Remodel (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 272 pp.
Feb18

Kathleen Loock and Constantine Verevis, eds., Film Remakes, Adaptations and Fan Productions: Remake/Remodel (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 272 pp.

Kathleen Loock and Constantine Verevis, eds., Film Remakes, Adaptations and Fan Productions: Remake/Remodel (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 272 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   In Storytelling in Film and Television, Kristin Thompson describes remakes, adaptations, and sequels as both “the recycling and expansion of existing narratives.”[1] In other words, and contrary to critical voices that reduce processes of cultural reproduction to commercially-driven acts of copying, Thompson points out how these cinematic forms are characterized by serial patterns of repetition and variation. This serial understanding of cultural reproduction is also emphasized in Film Remakes, Adaptations and Fan Productions. The volume, a collection of papers originally held at a conference at the University of Göttingen in 2010, provides a variety of critical perspectives on remakes and adaptations that “contest the idea that the remake is a debased copy of some superior original” (2). As the editors point out in their introduction, the twelve contributions seek to get a grasp on “these diverse and yet similar processes of cultural reproduction and the positive potential of ‘retromania’ in our contemporary media climate” (12). Combining the interdisciplinary perspectives of American Studies, film and television studies, as well as fan studies, the volume approaches the phenomenon from three different angles, which also make up its thematic sections: Filmic adaptations of canonical literary texts (“Adapt”), remakes of cinematic classics (“Remake”), and fan-made video productions (“Remodel”). Frank Kelleter’s “‘Toto, I Think We’re in Oz Again’ (and Again and Again): Remakes and Popular Seriality” is not only the first essay in this section, but also an excellent starting point for the entire volume. Combining textual analysis and theoretical overview, Kelleter reads the series of transmedial Oz adaptations against the backdrop of twentieth-century American popular culture and within the context of what he calls “popular seriality.” Instead of treating the different Oz-versions in terms of “original and adaptation,” Kelleter argues that “we find opportune serializations across different artistic channels” (23). Therefore, rather than reading L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel as the “original” Oz-text, Kelleter treats The Wonderful Wizard of Oz already as a “retelling” of traditional fairy tales and thus as one of many instances in the larger (serial) field of popular culture (19). Kelleter explores various facets of the popular series, but also uses his analysis of the countless Oz narratives to call for a more complex academic understanding of adaptations and remakes in general. Rather than merely asking “how a given serial text reflects the cultural situation and intentional structures of its time,” Kelleter proposes an understanding of remakes that emphasizes the agency of a given popular series “in enabling its own cultural realities and intentional follow-ups”...

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Cornelia Klecker, Spoiler Alert!: Mind-Tricking Narratives in Contemporary Hollywood Film (Heidelberg: Winter, 2015), 172 pp.
Feb18

Cornelia Klecker, Spoiler Alert!: Mind-Tricking Narratives in Contemporary Hollywood Film (Heidelberg: Winter, 2015), 172 pp.

Cornelia Klecker, Spoiler Alert!: Mind-Tricking Narratives in Contemporary Hollywood Film (Heidelberg: Winter, 2015), 172 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   The book, originally conceived as a dissertation, is dedicated to the exploration of a phenomenon that has become a staple of popularity in contemporary Hollywood film since the 1990s and that has provoked critical commentary by a variety of scholars for the last ten years.[1] Klecker’s stated goal in the introduction to salvage Hollywood film from accusations of solely producing dumb, flat, one-dimensional entertainment by pointing out the narrative sophistication and intellectual stimulation of what she calls mind-tricking narratives may therefore seem unwarranted. In her words, “mainstream phenomena are well worthwhile an in-depth academic discussion” (15). This should go without saying and should therefore not necessarily be the objective but the basis for analysis. Nonetheless, it is this obvious desire to convince the reader of the artistic value of the films she analyzes that animates the author’s attempts to describe and categorize the elements and qualities that characterize mind-tricking films and by which they enrich the narrative possibilities of the medium. While the resulting observations are eminently worthwhile, what seems to be missing occasionally is a consideration of the cultural function that mind-tricking narratives fulfill. Beyond pointing out how “intricate and demanding” (15) these films are, one could interrogate what the films’ flattering of viewer sophistication is used for.      In the second chapter of the book, Klecker is at pains to establish the uniqueness of mind-tricking narratives in comparison to standard Hollywood fare. Following Bordwell, she argues that, just like art cinema, they violate an essential quality of classical narrative films, namely the emphasis on the clarity of causality. Mind-tricking narratives are radical in featuring resolutions that completely undermine the viewers’ assumptions about what they have seen so far by withholding crucial information. Klecker defines this essential characteristic as “an extreme case of a surprise gap that causes a radical correction of hypotheses that occurs once the gap is disclosed in the end of the film” (27). Examples include The Sixth Sense (1999), Fight Club (1999), Memento (2000), Identity (2003), or Shutter Island (2010). She acknowledges that every narrative, film or otherwise, works on the principle of withholding and releasing narrative information. Hence, her insistence on the radicalness of mind-tricking narratives is first and foremost a question of degree rather than an absolute. Despite relying on Bordwell’s observations on film narratology, she also has to acknowledge his skepticism of the subversive or innovative potential of mind-tricking narratives. Bordwell sees them as basically conforming to the tenets of classical cinema. He writes about one of the “genre’s” essential representatives, Christopher...

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Martin Holtz, American Cinema in Transition: The Western in New Hollywood and Hollywood Now (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2011), 539 pp.
Feb18

Martin Holtz, American Cinema in Transition: The Western in New Hollywood and Hollywood Now (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2011), 539 pp.

Martin Holtz, American Cinema in Transition: The Western in New Hollywood and Hollywood Now (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2011), 539 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   The Western was never dead. Few movie genres have been such popular targets for critical obituaries and then have been found, upon closer inspection, to be very much alive, albeit in qualitatively quite diverse manifestations. Not only is there a continuous outpour of Westerns, there is also a continuous critical reception thereof. And although the monograph under review here does not initially stand out—it is neither transnational, transdifferent, transmedial nor of any other prefixed conviction—but appears rather conventional, it has a lot to commend it. The starting point is not the Western, but Hollywood. The underlying research interest of Holtz’s book is “the transition that Hollywood has undergone over the last forty years” (2), or more precisely, the changes and continuities from New Hollywood (which he dates 1967-1976) to what he calls Hollywood Now (which for him begins 2001 with the caesura of 9/11). “For an evaluation of ‘Hollywood Now,’” Holtz argues, “it thus seems to be beneficial to compare it with its formative years, which are regarded as so different in character yet already anticipated much of what has happened since” (3). For this comparison, he continues, a genre-theoretical approach is most useful because “genres are by nature transitional, paradigmatically mirroring the developments of Hollywood as a whole” (4), especially one of its most fundamental ambivalences: “American cinema has always clung to established formulas, eager to build on successes of the past” (4), yet realizing that renewal is inevitable in order to remain successful and economically viable. Hollywood’s development, in other words, is characterized by the same dialectic that characterizes genre development: difference and repetition. According to Holtz, then, the Western is simply the best genre for this comparison because it is prototypical, perennial, and, most importantly, negotiates a “national mythology” (4). For Holtz, the history of the Western is the “history of Hollywood in general” (4). This ambitious research interest is guided by three overarching arguments: first, that “the historical development of genres is influenced by a complex set of factors which transcends the simplicity of a single theoretical model” (5); second, that “the development of the American cinema from New Hollywood to Hollywood Now is marked by a consistency in terms of artistic inventiveness and ideological ambiguity despite changing historical backgrounds, industrial structures, artistic profiles, and audience compositions” (5); and third, that “the Westerns continue to be an eminently relevant form of cultural expression which paradigmatically reflect the complexities of American cinema” (5). Of these three, the second is...

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