Category: McCoy 432 Spring 2018

La Vie Bohème

In class, the word bohemian was used to describe New Orleans’ red light district, the origin of the venerated Baby Dolls tradition. The word choice felt a little bit off in context of today’s meaning of bohemian, but historically, this has not been the case.

Part of my discomfort with the use of bohemian in that context comes from my experience working at the mall over the summer. When it came to clothes, we had three “trends” for women: sporty, pretty, and boho. So, I spent my entire summer trying to label people’s style as bohemian or one of the other two. In my mind, bohemian became associated with flowy clothes, floral patterns, and musical festivals.

However, my classmate was right to use bohemian in the context of Storyville in New Orleans. Only recently has bohemian come to have the connotations of young 20-somethings going to Coachella, fairy lights and tapestries in dorms, and a certain style of dress.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (I know it is a cliché to quote dictionaries, but bear with me), bohemian means vagabond, wanderer, especially a gypsy, or a person (such as a writer or an artist) living an unconventional life, usually in a colony with others. The labeling of a certain type of clothes as bohemian seems particularly ironic once faced with the dictionary definition, as someone who is unconventional should, by all reason, not want to buy any particular style, especially those labeled boho by a large corporation, but I digress.

Moving on to the etymology of bohemian, I once again find myself faced with Roach’s idea of performance, particularly the conscription of people into roles that they did not sign up for. The word bohemian originally meant someone that comes from the region of Bohemia, located in the present day Czech Republic. Mistakenly, the French thought that the Roma came from that region, possibly because another group was forced to leave their homeland in Bohemia around the same time the Roma first appeared in western Europe.

The Roma, because of their nomadic lifestyle, were conscripted into a sort of performance: the romanticization of their lifestyle while at the same time being persecuted by pretty much all groups in Europe. They were expected to play the happy nomads, the kind you see in any novel involving “g*psies” (which I have censored because it is now considered a slur by the Roma). Because of this romanticization of what is considered an unconventional lifestyle, bohemian came to mean any lifestyle out of the societal norm.

Undoubtedly, this was exacerbated by the French artists in the Latin Quarter of Paris that called themselves bohemian, vividly portrayed in La Bohème by Puccini (on which the musical Rent is based). This definition best fits Storyville. From there, it is easy to see how the word was commercialized and romanticized until it means what it does today.

Through a simple idea offered by Professor McCoy, to write a blog post about the etymology of bohemian, I did not expect to find Roach, but I did. Through geographical and historical errors and the conscripting the Roma into a stereotyped performance, bohemian means what it does today.

Beer, Civilization, and Hurricanes

There was a portion in When the Levees Broke that really stuck out to me: one of the Katrina survivors was talking about when he was watching as people left to drink soda and beer in an attempt to hydrate themselves; water, the very thing that had brought destruction to New Orleans, was, paradoxically, just as necessary to the survival of its people, but they were unable to attain it. Yet the usage of beer reminded me of a point earlier in the semester when Beth made note of the consumption of beer in the wake of Katrina, which made me stop and think about beer’s presence there.

My first thoughts went to a book that I read in the summer before my sophomore year of high school, A History of the World In 6 Glasses by Tom Standage. In the novel he charts the history of civilization through the lens of beverage, moving chronologically from beer to wine to liquor to coffee to tea to Coke. However, what I honed in on for this topic was beer and it’s presence at the onset of human civilization. According to Standage’s research, beer was one of the first major inventions of ancient civilizations, and it held a role both secular and sacred in society. In Egypt, beer was a salary for the slaves as they built the pyramids, a beverage which provided purification of the Nile’s filthy water as well as nutrition akin to that of bread, and in Mesopotamia it was a drink to be shared at celebration feasts in honor of the gods. In short, beer was an important part of their society, and it was with this in mind that I considered its presence in the wake of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

According to Roach, “[an effigy] consist[s] of a set of actions that hold open a place in memory into which many different people may step according to circumstances and occasions. I argue that effigies – those fabricated from human bodies and the associations they evoke – provide communities with a method of perpetuating themselves through specially nominated mediums or surrogates” (36). In the context of human civilization, beer can be seen as an effigy of celebration and happiness, and its presence from society’s inception and continued usage throughout history speaks to its state a a method of perpetuation. People make toasts and share drinks in celebration of major achievements and events, but they also use it as an escape, which is still a method of societal perpetuation; rather than using the beverage to celebrate the achievements of a person and perpetuate society in that way, beer is instead used to omit and forget the failures or troubles of a person, perpetuating the society through omission instead of celebration.

New Orleans has a tradition of perpetuation through celebration in the form of Mardi Gras, and I feel that the opposite, perpetuation through omission of memory, was practiced in the consumption of beer in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Some residents of New Orleans were in need of an escape to deal with the storm, so they turned to beer to cope. In order to get through the day and begin the rebuilding of the city in the coming days, they omitted the moment they found themselves in through drink, even if only briefly. By escaping the current memories through alcohol, some survivors of Katrina were able to prepare themselves for the rebuilding of the city of New Orleans, a literal perpetuation of their society, and those citizens who drank also communed with the early civilizations history through the effigy of beer, as both groups used the alcoholic beverage to perpetuate their societies, albeit in different ways.

Wake, Wake, Wake

I’ve been milling among the ideas circulating in my mind about what I would concentrate on for my second blog post, and to be honest, it has been slightly disorientating. I believe that I was getting lost in the emotional minefields that kept popping up for me after enduring our continual viewings of When The Levees Broke, similarly to how Erin articulated her feelings on this turbulent documentary in her post. I instead took a step back after today’s class and decided to focus on the word “wake” that Beth brought up as the subject of a potential blog post. What I initially thought was going to be a fairly straight-forward post led me down a new strain of thinkING regarding etymologies and the many varying performances of individual words.

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Ostracized and Undervalued

Roach in our class reading of “Echoes in the Bones” discussed how performers are thrown into the roles of effigies, often becoming “alternatively ostracized and overvalued.” After bringing up celebrity names such as Kim Kardashian, Angelina Jolie, Tom Hanks, etc., I started thinking about public figures that throw themselves into the roles of effigies and how this differs from what Roach brings up. The first example of this that came into my mind was Beyoncé and her Super Bowl 50 performance.

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Comparing Movie Introductions (Feat. Roach)

From the very first moments of When the Levees Broke, I was struck by the contrasting imagery shown in its introduction. The introduction to this film in the place of our class serves to transition us from from the fictional apocalypse of The Day After Tomorrow to a documentary about true devastation in When the Levees Broke. Beth, in her careful planning of the course, decided to have us watch these two movies back-to-back in class while slowly working through Joseph Roach’s chapter “Echoes In The Bone,” so as students we should be asking ourselves why this juxtaposition is important.

I want to focus on the introductions to these two movies, analyzing how the types of footage and styles of cinematics compare between and within the two movies, the importance they have inside their respective movies, and how this relates to Roach and our class. Read more

Some Sunday thoughts on effigies and bodies

After completing my first blog post with relative ease, I found myself slipping into a state of acute stress regarding my impending second post. I, much like Jenna explains in this post, was worried that whatever I had to say wasn’t going to be significant enough, or worth a reader’s time. The content in this class seems TOO significant for me to put into words in a single blog post. Yet, I’m going to keep trying.

So, there’s my disclaimer: I can’t solve the world’s problems on the blog, as much as I may want to. Now that that’s out of the way and I can write without feeling like I need to do something revolutionary, Roach’s definition of effigies and his explorations of the implications of dead bodies in propinquity (hopefully, I used that term right) to the living have all been circling around my brain. These thoughts were only heightened with watching When The Levees Broke in class.

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White People Whitewash, Again!

On first seeing When the Levees Broke on our syllabus for Metropolis, my mind immediately went to one of my favorite songs, “When the Levee Breaks” by the classic English rock and blues band, Led Zeppelin. Given the bands propensity for sexual innuendo, I always skimmed the lyrics and assumed that the song was just about sexual tension building and exploding based on the two main hooks: “If it keeps on rainin’ levee’s goin’ break… All last night sat on the levee and moaned…”
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“The Dead Stay Dead”

In his book Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, Joseph Roach titles a chapter “Echoes in the Bone.” Roach himself acknowledges the title as a nod to a play by Jamaican playwright Dennis Scott entitled An Echo in the Bone. The allusion is fitting for the chapter in Roach’s book that deals primarily with remembering, forgetting, and the deceased, as Scott’s play is centered around a Nine-Night Ceremony. The Nine-Night Ceremony, according to Roach, “welcomes the spirit of a deceased person back into his or her home on the ninth night after death has occurred.” It is a ceremony that engages in the wider, cross-cultural discourse on the remembering and forgetting of the dead. Read more

The Paradox of Disaster Movies

I’ve seen The Day After Tomorrow more times than I’d like to admit. At least four separate occasions, possibly five. After the third viewing, it sort of blends together into blurry mess, and my impressions of the movie become far less potent with each subsequent screening.

I can understand when someone repeatedly re-watches their favorite movie. Some are just so packed with fine details that it feels like a new experience each time. Unfortunately, The Day After Tomorrow is not my favorite movie. I wouldn’t even consider it a good movie, and my opinion of it has become even less flattering over time. So, why, exactlyhas this movie been repeatedly drilled into my brain?

The answer lies within its nature. The Day After Tomorrow is categorized, quite neatly, as a disaster movie. It fits right in with the likes of Deep Impact, Twister, 2012, and Dante’s Peak, and even alongside some of the sillier films in the genre, such as The Core and Armageddon. Most of these movies, to some degree, follow a pretty standard format: A researcher in a niche field of natural sciences gives an ominous warning of the dangers that he discovers from his research. His warnings are quickly cast aside by rivals, deniers, or greedy politicians. Suddenly, a disastrous situations erupts that is conveniently relevant to the researcher’s area of expertise. Now the viewers must hold on to their seats as our hero traverses the volatile results of this disaster to either “solve” the problem or save as many people as he can. Throw in some child bystanders and a montage of cities being consumed by rampant special effects and you’ve got yourself a movie!

The “nature” of these movies lies within their appeal. Yes, some viewers might enjoy the suspenseful or interpersonal struggles of the protagonist in the midst of his predicament. Yes, many are suckers for the “destruction porn” provided by the blob of special effects crashing into an urban environment. Sometimes these movies have comedic or romantic elements that can keep people entertained. However, the thing that keeps people coming back has a lot more in common with that of horror flicks: Audiences crave the adrenaline from fear. They’re addicted to projecting themselves into terrible situations that would stimulate their primal urges for danger and excitement.

The requirement for these movies to achieve this exact thrill is that they must be remotely grounded in reality; if they break the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, then the thrill, and subsequently the appeal, dissipates. Because of this, most disaster movies have concepts (usually loosely) based in science, bringing forth and exaggerating familiar concepts such as storms, earthquakes, and meteors. The success of these movies hinge on people’s natural fears of these phenomena. In order to ramp up the excitement even further, many disaster movies brand their plots as “warnings” in attempts to convince their audiences that these events are realand it could happen to you! 

The reason I’ve seen The Day After Tomorrow so many times is because the “warning” it gives has been relevant to a number of courses I’ve taken throughout high school and college. In eighth grade I took a low-stress extracurricular class on alternative energies, and the teacher showed The Day After Tomorrow to demonstrate their necessities. In ninth grade I took earth science, and as a treat after a test the teacher decided to show a movie. That movie? The Day After Tomorrow. In twelfth grade I took an environmental studies class. Needless to say, we watched The Day After Tomorrow. Now, deep into my college career, I’ve found myself watching The Day After Tomorrow once again.

Some may say that the popularity of these movies are a good thing. It would be logical to assume that people who are more aware of the consequences of global warming from this movie would be more conscious of their carbon footprint. Or that those that watch Twister would know how to protect themselves and their families from tornadoes. Or even that the viewers of Deep Impact would advocate for better preparation in the case of a major asteroid collision. However, these movies are more likely to cause more problems than good.

The problem with disaster movies is that, while they present the audience with extreme examples of theoretical disasters, they undermine the actual consequences of natural disasters that happen every year. A disaster movie isn’t going to show a family hopelessly watch the California wildfires slowly approach their home, or an elderly couple being stranded on their roof for three days after the flooding of Hurricane Katrina, or a Kenyan village gradually starving because the annual average temperature rising six degrees Celsius killed their crops. While tragic, real-life disasters would be considered “boring” to the typical disaster movie audience. People familiar with disaster movies are less likely to care about the victims of a real disaster because it wasn’t as “flashy” as what they see in the movies, like how a suburb being flooded by five feet of water isn’t as emotionally impactful as the entirety of New York City getting leveled by a giant tidal wave.

Disaster movies set up an impossible expectation for disasters to be large, sudden, and exciting. People often don’t realize that they simply aren’t so extreme. Many actual disasters are small (relative to what’s seen in the movies) with the real dangers being the long battle of endurance rather than flying debris or giant fireballs instantly killing people. When someone tunes in to the fallout of a natural disaster but is “disappointed” by the severity, how would that affect their sympathy towards the victims, or their willingness to help? While disaster movies certainly give the impressions of being omens of the future to come or inspirations for the resilience of the human spirit (also usually tugging at the watcher’s emotions by destroying beloved national landmarks), the over-the-top display of natural forces delusions people to what it means for others to experience danger and tragedy.

It should remembered that movies, despite how realistic they claim to be, should never be taken seriously. The film industry is, after all, a for-profit industry, and is more than willing to stretch the truth to increase drama or justify having crazier special effects. It may be difficult for common audiences to disassociate disaster movies with actual disasters, but if that is ever achieved we would certainly end up with a more socially and environmentally aware society.

(As a side note, it should be pointed out how problematic the ending of The Day After Tomorrow is for people who might take it seriously. The movie doesn’t do anything to offer a solution for people to pursue, then goes on to depict the storm dissipating on its own, as if to say “Even if this did happen, don’t worry! The problem will fix itself soon enough.” What a great lesson to teach your children.)