Ernest Mathijs


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Theses completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest theses.

Not a flaw, but a feature: the language, aesthetics, and value of bad cinema (2020)

The goals of academic film scholarship can be vaguely defined as the desire to better understand cinema as a medium through different critical frameworks. Among these include the aesthetic devices film uses to communicate or how the medium is engaged with by audiences. Bad movies, an easily recognizable mode of cinema with no clear definition, have rarely been considered a practical area for study in this discipline, and this is in part due to the language used to describe them. Colloquial traditions refer to bad cinema with terminology that is highly evaluative, nonspecific in its definition, and dismissive of the mode of cinema as being essentially a waste of time. These casual methods of describing bad cinema influence the language used to describe it in scholarship, making it difficult to present analysis of bad movies in the rare event that said analysis is even performed. It is often assumed that because bad films by definition lack aesthetic value it would be unnecessary to engage with them in a scholarly context, yet by some accounts a significant portion of the texts that make up film as a medium would be considered “bad”.This arguably leaves a significant segment of this medium understudied, but I argue this is not merely the result of an oversight. Film scholarship is limited by flawed language designed primarily for the communication of value-judgments among casual viewers, a language that is unable to speak to the role badness can play in shaping the text of a film. Therefore, in this thesis I unpack and critique the scholarly language used to define badness in cinema to problematize the assumptions created through this language. I follow this by proposing a new set of descriptors to articulate ‘bad’ as not holding a single fixed meaning but instead as the conflation of eight distinct aesthetic properties or patterns of reception. This thesis endeavours to encourage the development of and carve a space for the study of bad cinema in a scholarly context.

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Just Another Fan of Yours: Renegotiating Judy Garland's Star Status and Contemporary Fandom (2016)

In popular culture, Judy Garland is most commonly known for her role as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (Fleming 1939). She is also concurrently associated with the tragedies of her life, untimely death, and her status as a gay icon. These two labels, “tragic” and “gay icon,” have described Garland’s star status for nearly fifty years in newspaper articles, tertiary texts, and scholarly research. While they are grounded in reputable studies and historical evidence, the labels are seemingly no longer applicable upon observing the types of fans Garland continues to attract posthumously. This thesis aims to uncover the multi-faceted, multi-generational fandom of Garland through an audience reception study of her present fans. Through an exploration of their devoutness, I have discovered key terms involving emotional depth, authentic feelings, and empathy that supplement the publications on Garland from scholars such as Richard Dyer, Janet Staiger, Steven Cohan, and Ann Pellegrini. Ultimately, through the analysis of Garland’s star status and contemporary fandom, this thesis will prove that stars of bygone eras that remain fixtures in popular culture (and by means of a cult following) function as texts that are worthy of analysis as time and culture progresses.

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Sublime Cinema: Experiential Excess and Embodied Spectatorship in Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi Trilogy (2015)

Certain aesthetic experiences resonate so profoundly that they can trigger extreme psychophysiological and emotional responses in the spectator. In this thesis I will explore how Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi (2002) exemplify that the stylistic excess of non-verbal cinema can produce a sublime degree of experiential response by way of embodied spectatorship. I will use the observable elements of special effects, cinematography, and music in each film to locate sublime responses as palpable points of affective rupture where audiovisual stimuli results in psychophysiological emotional responses (visual hapticity, synesthesia, kinesthesia). The broader goal of defining “sublime cinema” is to a) reify how this mode of filmmaking relates to aspects of the Digital Age we are all a part of, and b) work towards an analytical methodology that might be applied to other experimental films in order to gauge at which point audiovisual content becomes fully embodied experience. First I will sketch out the genealogy of Reggio’s filmmaking style, reevaluate Kristin Thompson’s conceptualization of excess in relation to non-narrative cinema, integrate Vivian Sobchack’s research on embodied spectatorship, and unpack the sublime in order to define it cinematically. Second, I will focus on how special effects and cinematographic techniques (slow motion, time lapse, digital manipulation, and camera movement) activate the sublime aspect of an image. Third, I will hone in on the sonic aspect of sublime cinema, and how Philip Glass’ scores propel the image with the aid of biomusicological phenomena (rhythmic entrainment and chills). Lastly, I will discuss how Reggio’s most recent film Visitors (2013) expands on the architecture of sublime cinema by focusing on the reciprocated gaze of its filmed subjects.

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The Visual Language of Authenticity: Mediation and Musical Performance in the Films of the Beatles (2015)

In the context of scholarship surrounding the areas of mediation, performance, and authenticity, evidence of the media object is frequently blamed for distancing audiences from their musical idols. This thesis, which uses the films of the Beatles and as its main subjects, considers the contradiction born from the fact that while the Beatles were constantly exposed to forces of mediation - when they were not being photographed by journalists, they were in front of a television or film camera – this has not affected audiences’ willingness to interpret the band’s plethora of on-screen performances as authentic. If technology impedes authenticity, I ask why the highly stylized performance sequences in A Hard Day’s Night, for example, are still able to contribute to the Beatles’ authentic image. I contend that the representational strategies employed in the films of the Beatles creates a visual language that is an essential part of the process of authentication, and that this process transcends the boundaries usually created by the politics and aesthetic strategies associated with particular filmic modes. I have chosen five of the Beatles’ feature-length films as subject matter for this thesis, which span a variety of filmic modes ranging from the documentary to the fictional, studio-financed narrative film. After a review of pertinent criticism in Chapter One, Chapter Two explores the Beatles’ film of 1964, including The Beatles! The First U.S. Visit (Albert and David Maysles, 1964), The Making of The Beatles! The First U.S. Visit (Smeaton, 2003), and A Hard Day’s Night (Lester, 1964). Chapter Three investigates the films of the following year, using Help! (Lester, 1965) and The Beatles at Shea Stadium (Bob Precht for ABC, 1965). Using the work of Philip Auslander, Michael Brendan Baker, Thomas Cohen, Simon Frith, Theodore Gracyk, and Jonathan Romney, I explore the ways in which the films of the Beatles deliver contemporary audiences positive insight into technology’s capacity to provide viewers with a sense of immediacy, unpredictability, and “liveness”.

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Eschato-Horror Films (2014)

This thesis studies American studio feature films whose narratives are inspired by the Bible’s Book of Revelation. I identify these films as belonging to a subgenre of supernatural horror I have named ‘eschato-horror’. American eschato-horror films reflect Christian eschatology and its violent visions of cosmic war between divine and satanic forces. While supernatural horror films exploit our fear of death and evil, American Eschato-horror ups the cultural stakes through its representations of pseudo Catholic and other Christian ritual, scripture, and iconography in its mission to frighten the viewer. Other national cinemas produce their own eschatology inspired films, but the American rendering of the genre as produced and exported by major Hollywood studios and distribution companies dominates screens world-wide.In order to better understand the cultural importance and usefulness of American Eschato-horror for film fans as well as self-identifying American Christian audiences, this thesis will study three examples of the genre, Constantine (Lawrence, 2005), Knowing (Proyas, 2009) and Legion (Stewart, 2010), all of which were produced by or for major American motion picture companies and distributors. Demonstrating that the version of eschatology found in their narratives reflects an identifiable American Protestant Christianity will be accomplished though an historical overview tracing Christianity from its roots as the marginalized, millennially-inspired “Jesus Cult,” to its evolution into one of the most powerful forces shaping American history and culture. The narrative elements associated with eschato-horror (monstrous women, self-sacrificing heroes, faithless priests, etc.), will be seen to be as much an expression of our collective fear of death and evil – forces James Carse associates with religion – as the Biblical illiteracy and confused understanding of Christianity identified by Stephen Prothero and Richard T. Hughes so central to contemporary America’s view of itself as being “a Christian Nation.” The reception of American Eschato-horror films as seen on film fan and Christian websites, especially in light of discourse similarities identified in film fan cults and religious cults, will be considered through the work of Matt Hills, Ernest Mathijs, Jamie Sexton and Jeff Hunter.

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With Great Power Comes No Responsibility: Reflexive Ideology through Spectacle-Violence in the Superhero Films of Marvel Studios (2014)

This work critically interrogates the superhero films of Marvel Studios and their textual treatment of, and the ideological function of, violent action spectacle. In Chapter One, I trace a chronology of superhero films and their corresponding treatment of violence, up to the onset of Marvel Studios, and the release of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man in 2008. I argue that Marvel superhero films respond to the genre’s previously tenuous treatment of spectacle-violence in the face of 9/11 and other instances of sociopolitical violence. Instead, Marvel Studios reappropriates action-violence interludes as ‘safe’ sites for audience enjoyment, undiminished by sociopolitical reflection. In doing so, Marvel crafts a brand identity of ‘reflexive wit,’ further integrating comedy into action sequences, and foregrounding provocative, yet superficial, sociopolitical commentary. In doing so, the Marvel films discourage audience preoccupation with the politics or ethical ramifications of spectacle violence. The films court the sense that, through such reflexivity, no further reflection is necessary, allowing audiences to unrepentantly enjoy the action violence. In Chapter Two, I explore the narrative techniques employed in Marvel films to foster viewer connection with their superheroes. I argue that the Marvel films draw upon a blend of comic book textual references, mythic intertexts, and pathos and humour, to court a dichotomy of ‘mythic accessibility,’ coding their heroes as sympathetic, valorized, sanctioned, ‘acceptable’ agents of violence. As such, Marvel utilizes violent action spectacle to mediate dominant cultural ideologies. In Chapter Three, I discuss the resonance of this support for the heroic protagonist, arguing the Marvel films thematically perpetuate textual ideologies of deference and unquestioned subservience. Such ideological resonance extends not only to exceptional superheroes, but to the political superstructures they are affiliated with, which are, by proxy, equally valorized (namely, the United States military and NSA, by means of surrogate entity, ‘S.H.I.E.L.D.’). Ultimately, I argue that the Marvel films purportedly privilege an active audience, but subliminally endorse a passive, unreflective one. This allows for textual amplification not only in regards to the scope and intensity of spectacle violence and action combat, but the political intertexts ideologically mediated through said action sequences, rebranded as unreflective ‘fun.’

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Ambivalent Ambulation: fan pilgrimage and the itinerantextual cult film (2012)

Peripatetic by nature yet polymorphous in form, the topic of fan pilgrimage expresses a significant dearth in cult film and media scholarship. Whilst the concept of pilgrimage has been classically linked to religious duty and moral obligation, its ability to straddle both traditionalist and secularist rationales amidst increased globalisation makes such ambiguous mobility ripe for closer analysis. In this thesis, I will theorise fan pilgrimage using a series of itinerant fan taxonomies to recontextualise the role of the pilgrim and its function within select fan groups. Utilising the critical literature of Zygmunt Bauman, Victor Turner, and Roger C. Aden, respectively, Chapter 1 reevaluates ideas of community and reconfigures the spatiotemporal theories of performance articulated by Richard Schechner through fan pilgrimage and performative communitas. Chapter 2 explores how theories of play and everyday life create my first fan taxonomy: the ludic pilgrim. Via the play theory of Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois as well as the theories of everyday life held by Erving Goffman, I argue for a correlation between play and costume through the case study of the otaku – i.e. fans of Japanese anime and manga. Chapter 3 employs fashion theory to subcultural style and reconsiders the value of the goth subculture and female vampire fandom by way of my second fan taxonomy: the subsartorial pilgrim. In Chapter 4, The Rocky Horror Picture Show serves as my main case study to theorise subcultural liveness during screenings of Rocky Horror and highlight my third fan taxonomy: the performative pilgrim. Examining the pilgrim as tourist through concepts such as fan tourism and flâneurism and by way of case studies such as Blade Runner, Disney theme parks, and The Lord of the Rings blockbuster trilogy, Chapter 5 unpacks my fourth fan taxonomy: the postmodern pilgrim. Finally, Chapter 6 recasts The Big Lebowski as a cult film that is primarily consumed by fans via Lebowski Fest. This chapter will elucidate how narrative, replay culture, and the documentary film The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans all reshape the meaning of Lebowski and spotlight its classification as an itinerantextual cult film.

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Macbeth as Avatar: Fandom in British Romantic Theatre Audiences (2012)

This study aims to place two previously disconnected areas of academic inquiry, Romantic theatre studies and fandom studies, in dialogue with one another, to the mutual benefit of both fields. Towards this end, I focus on a particular manifestation of fan behavior, the deployment of popular iconography and mythology as a protest strategy – a mode of fandom recently codified as “Avatar activism” by Henry Jenkins, a leading fan scholar – and look for its existence in a specific moment in time in Romantic London: the 1809 Old Price Riots. Fandom studies, as a discipline, looks at active media audiences, and the ways in which they build upon source media texts. In the first chapter, I give an overview as to the history of this relatively young branch of scholarship, which brings us to the current moment, in which Avatar activism can be considered a mode of fan behavior. Following that, I focus on the Romantic period for the remainder of the thesis. In the second chapter, I choose three various case studies of engaged audiences – Sarah Siddons as celebrity icon; hippodrama and genre fandom; and intertextuality, transmedia, and what David A. Brewer has called “imaginative expansion” - which set the stage for the idea that fan behavior was alive and well in the early nineteenth century. In the final chapter, I focus on the Old Price Riots, and the rioters’ use of Shakespeare-as-icon and Shakespearean mythology as a Romantic manifestation of Avatar activism. With this study, I aim to provide a larger historical context for modern conceptions of fandom, as well as to offer greater insight into audience/text dynamics that existed in Romantic London.

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VHS 2.0: Amateur archiving on the internet and the nostalgic reclamation of retro media (2012)

The archiving of retro media on the internet has become one of the more prolific examples of amateur archiving in recent years. Using various case studies, I argue for a new understanding of how this orphaned and obsolete media preserves important nostalgic and cultural histories. Not only this, but the preservation of niche film and television programming deserves recognition for the intricate and complex work of amateur archivists, in the aims of validating their work and viewing the sharing of this material as more than simple file sharing. Often providing the only means by which to access material, these archival sites preserve history through its media output, and I provide a glimpse into the motivations and machinations of their inner workings. In need of protection from legal prosecution, and lacking a clear understanding of their place amongst contemporary media in the mainstream, I argue for a nostalgic reclamation of this material, that can co-exist alongside other media with little to no harm.

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"Necessary Contempt" : an analysis of Martin McDonagh's Aran Island trilogy (2011)

In a narrative sense, how does a point of view create imaginable space in Martin McDonagh’s Aran Island Trilogy? And what role does bricolage, selective intertextuality, and postmodern pastiche play in the construction of imaginable space? McDonagh’s Aran Island Trilogy is a complex postmodern construction. It is not simply an appropriation of an iconic location, even though that is part of it, but something more of a subjective response which depends for its strength on a conviction that representation on stage is a form of truth. My research utilizes scholarship on the Aran Islands in conjunction with poets, filmmakers, and playwrights who engaged with these particular islands imaginatively. I illustrate how their diverse points of view created imaginable space that builds from a special place in western Irish imagery, a place that owes much to the late nineteenth century. Also, my examination focuses on McDonagh’s Aran Island Trilogy. These plays represent a new mix of messages, symbols, and cultures that reflect the postmodern condition. I employ two important postmodern thinkers to analyse McDonagh’s work through a postmodern filter: Umberto Eco for his theory of intertextuality, and Charles Jencks’ argument that postmodernism involves double coding the representation of modernism with something else----some Other. My research makes use of Robert Warshow and Carol Clover’s analysis of film genres: the Western and the slasher film. Also, I interrogate John Waters’ evaluation of McDonagh as a punk rock playwright in conjunction with the punk rock aesthetics of Shane MacGowan and the Pogues. These studies offer a methodological framework for my analysis of McDonagh’s style of representation: I argue that McDonagh’s punk-inspired mockery hollows out the primitivist representation of the Aran Islands and fills it with a postmodern plurality. Furthermore, the unsettling effect in McDonagh’s Aran Island Trilogy is due largely to the fact that he yokes the screen to the stage, and he fuses elements from the classical canon of Irish drama with popular genres from American cinema.

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Pixarticulation: The voice in contemporary animated cinema (2010)

Since releasing the first animated feature film Toy Story in 1995, Pixar has radically altered contemporary animated filmmaking/viewing practices. Yet, inasmuch as Pixar’s popularization of digital rendering technologies has had a profound impact on the visual aesthetics of animation, the studio’s use of the voice—on both a narrative and extratextual level—is also at the forefront of a profound aesthetic and economic reshaping of the aural, and more precisely, vocal landscape of contemporary animated cinema. Whereas Pixar’s parent corporation, The Walt Disney Company, is a critical focal point in animation studies, as Chapter One outlines, Pixar has remained largely absent from scholarly discourses on animation. As a corrective to this critical lacuna, Chapter Two proposes a triangulation of animation/Disney criticism, psychoanalysis, and media theory, for thinking Pixar’s use of the voice. Chapter Three contextualizes this analysis, providing a critical overview of American animation history, emphasizing Mike Budd, Max Kirsch, and Janet Wasko’s writing on Disney’s corporate and artistic practices. Moving towards a theory of Pixar animation’s relationship to the voice, Chapter Four outlines the studio’s history and relevance to contemporary animation.Drawing from Michel Chion and Mladen Dolar’s psychoanalytic theories of the voice (and cinema), Chapters Five and Six present two case studies that elucidate the textual dimensions of Pixar’s voices. The first of these centres on Toy Story and Toy Story 2, both of which feature a complex mix of mechanical, acousmatic and ventriloquial voices, while the second case study focuses on Monsters, Inc. and its interrogation of the symbolic, linguistic and cultural functions of the scream and laughter. Finally, Chapter Seven examines the extratextual use of the voice as a part of Pixar’s promotional discourses, intensive, synergistic branding strategies, and cultivation of a broad audience demographic. This chapter calls upon Barbara Klinger and Martin Barker’s respective discussions of the role that promotional materials play in influencing a text’s reception, and Noël Carroll’s writing on intertextuality, proposing that the use of the voice in Pixar’s marketing campaigns structures an intertextual, multi-tiered mode of reception for reading its films—a process which I here term ‘Pixarticulation.’

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Repetition with Revisions: Suzan-Lori Parks' 365 Days/365 Plays and the New Theatre Festival (2010)

In November of 2002, Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks began her largest writing project to date: writing a play a day for a full year. Four years later, with the assistance of producer Bonnie Metzgar, Parks’ plays were divided into individual weeklong cycles and distributed between nearly eight hundred theatre artists and companies across North America. The international panoptic premiere of Parks’ 365 Days/365 Plays was the largest theatrical premiere to date and nearly two years after the cycle has come to a close, its expansive temporal and geographical scope remains unparalleled. Like many of her other works, Parks’ 365 creates opportunity for discourse and with the cycle’s completion, theatre scholars have written extensive literary and dramaturgical analyses of the project. Still, scholars continue to contest exactly what constitutes Parks’ unique project and identify its implications for American stages. In reviewing the relevant literature surrounding the project, the term “festival” is continually applied to 365 by both artists (including the playwright) and scholars alike. In working to define 365 however, these respective scholars and practitioners have evoked a complex theatrical framework with its own criteria and inferences. Largely missing from their respective analysis of the project however is a detailed performative and theoretical evaluation of the festival itself. Thus, lingering questions regarding this specific performative framework and whether Parks’ project can and does indeed function within its parameters remain. Are scholars correct in their assumption of 365 as a festival? What are the respective limitations in evoking this term (if any) to describe Parks’ project? Through a detailed literary analysis of the scholarship surrounding Parks’ project I aim to interrogate both the performative and theoretical significance of this term as it is applied to 365 Days/365 Plays to determine not only whether we can rightly refer to Parks’ project as such, but to also recognize the efficacy of the term as scholars move forward in their analysis of the cycle.

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