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Christof Decker and Astrid Böger, eds. Transnational Mediations: Negotiating Popular Culture between Europe and the United States

Theodora D. Patrona

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1Christof Decker and Astrid Böger, eds. Transnational Mediations: Negotiating Popular Culture between Europe and the United States

2American Studies-A Monograph Series, Volume 261. Heidelberg, Germany: Universitätsverlag Winter GmbH, 2015. Pp. 271ISBN 978-3-8253-6370-3 (hardback).

3Theodora D. Patrona

4Independent Scholar

5Transnationalism seems to be the word of the day in the publishing world. Focused on transnationalism in popular culture, editors Christof Decker and Astrid Böger have worked on this collective volume, the result of an international conference held at the University of Munich. Their aim “to make a contribution to [the] debate by focusing on questions of transnational mediations in the realms of visual media and popular culture and by tracing these mediations through encounters and exchanges between Europe and the United States” (7) is on the whole achieved. Up to a certain point, their volume offers insightful readings of the field examined with some enlightened scholars producing innovative works. However, as it so happens with collective works, a number of the essays fail to keep the desired standards of high quality, either due to their limited topics or their insufficient depth of analysis.

6The first part of the book is dedicated to visual artifacts. William Uricchio’s chapter titled “Conditions of Production and the Transatlantic Divide” projects the tension between two different conceptions of culture: the American as a commodity and the European as “an exception,” all the more complicated by the authors’ rights and a basic right to privacy. Uricchio reminds the reader of the demonization of Hollywood cultural dominance neglecting other parameters like taste and class. The author highlights globalization in capitals and corporations as well as the Internet as parameters that urge an integrated cultural production with the necessary adjustments made and new values introduced. Towards the end, Uricchio brings attention to the role of treaties and institutions to protect the essence of the European cultural sphere.

7Frank Mehring’s chapter, refreshing in topic and approach, centers around the use of silhouettes in the digital Age and advertising. To illustrate the malleable nature of the silhouette, Mehring traces its origins in the 1920s, the struggle to enhance African American self-respect, and their incorporation within popular mass culture and expressionist films. Moreover, he considers the use of the silhouette for racial type studies through photography, based on questionable criteria. Meticulous and eloquent, Mehring moves to the Harlem Renaissance, and the connection of the silhouette with the rootless and disconnected African American migrant, to express “a spiritual connection to nature” (46). The author stresses the appeal of the silhouette aesthetics all the more successful through its associations with film, jazz and dance, “a stylized reference to African American coolness, self-empowerment” (50). Mehring concludes this intriguing and interdisciplinary chapter by commenting on the silhouettes in the iPod ad, placing African American culture at the center of American pop culture.

8Still in the area of visual arts, Astrid Böger’s chapter envisages global photography through a major photographic event of the mid-20th century “The Family of Man.” Seen by 10m people and having travelled to 38 countries for eight years, this exhibition is revisited by Böger, beyond all the negative criticism it received, in an attempt to reassess its importance. With 503 pictures of average people from 68 countries, and influenced by the documentary movement, “The Family of Man” aimed “to reach beyond national borders and bring people together” (59). The author records the criticism the exhibition received for its a-historicity and a-temporality, as “an assertion of American values declared universal and exported” (62), a mere expression of cultural imperialism. On its defense, Böger recalls the recent positive comments concerning the event’s “extraordinary affective power” (62). She affirms its success to connect the individual with the universal, becoming a hymn to humanity and experience. Established as a permanent exhibition in Luxemburg “The Family of Man” is now a “permanent site of global memory” (69).

9The last chapter of this first part revolves around the topic of jeans and their transnational angle. Its authors, Anneke Smelik and Maaike Feitsma, unearth the history of jeans linked to the romanticized image of the Wild West and the blooming film industry of the 1920s. As the authors state, the 1950s and 1960s brought rebellious and hippie connotations to this item of clothing, while the 1970s saw its entrance into high fashion catwalks and its symbolic use for American identity. The authors argue for a globalized perception of jeans and ponder over the emerging fashion myth of the Dutch denim, “with the aim of promoting the local and national creative economy” (80).This identification between what is typically American and typically Dutch in the denim culture is seen by the two authors as placing emphasis on “the mobile and shifting relationship between the national and transnational through imitation, reception and appropriation” (84).

10Juan. A Suàrez initiates the part of the volume on film with an important essay on the dialogic relationship between the artistic influences across the Atlantic, what he calls “a looped dialogue” (94). In a thought provoking chapter, the author resorts to the example of the filmmaker Sidney Peterson for cultural exchanges and re-processings of trends to reflect on this “import-export traffic” (94). The author follows Peterson’s works analyzing the latter’s involvement in comedic surrealism, based on American physical comedy and experimental cinema. With the Surrealist elements of disintegration and absurdity, dismemberment and mechanical gestures as the prominent filmic characteristics of his work, the unacknowledged Peterson has had a significant impact on other filmmakers. As Suarez’s strong argumentation proves, Peterson serves as a wonderful example of transnational mediations since he produced films which were “the result of a complex transnational mediation in which cultural practices and products […] crisscrossed national boundaries and became differently inflected in diverse locations” (108).

11Hilaria Loyo’s fascinating chapter titled “Contested Referents: Hollywood Cinema and Spanish Modernity in the 1930s” sheds light on this particular film industry using Miriam Hansen’s theorization on “vernacular modernism,” “a cultural counterpart and response to technological, economic and social modernity” (113-114). From Loyo’s interdisciplinary perspective, the Spanish cinema of this period is seen as a case in point of transnationalism, with traditional Spanish stage and literary sources combined with Hollywood style and techniques. In her discussion of vernacular modernism, the author is interested in the images of life in Spain caught on film: infrastructure, contemporary technology, affluent lifestyle and cosmopolitanism of Madrid, and stardom as a means to upward mobility. The author reflects on the conflict between modern living conditions and gender roles, a clash she ably recognizes in diverse Hollywood genres imported, as well as in female roles and figures projected in the Spanish cinema. Of special interest for gender studies are both the white Gypsy woman as well as the Hollywood peroxide blonde, regarded as reconfigurations of contemporary Spanish femininity.

12Gilles Menegaldo’s ensuing chapter is an account of the cultural and critical border crossings between France and the U.S.A. as regards the fantastic/horror genre. Menegaldo states the past disinterestedness of American scholarship as regards French cinema and the horror genre contrasting it to the French preoccupation with the modes of expression of the fantastic. He highlights the American dominance in genre theory, and the lack of French speaking critics, while he mentions the ample references of French critics to American bibliography, psychoanalysis, literature and philosophy. The author adds that Americans have recently overcome their initial engrossment with cultural and gender studies as opposed to the French aesthetics approach. He feels that critics from both sides of the Atlantic seem to be evolving with a “gradual convergence of critical discourse” (143) and the monstrous body at the center of their research. Other topics of common interest, according to Menegaldo, are the representation of fantastic otherness, the zombie, and manifestations of philosophy, psychoanalysis and social sciences.

13Delving deeper into the zombie through the transnational lens, Agnieszka Soltysic Monnet’s well-written chapter unearths the zombie origins and its course of development from the Caribbean to the States and Europe. Linked to the slavery tradition and trauma, this initial Haitian tradition was as the author declares “a figure of enslavement, entailing the loss of one’s will and agency to another” (153). As the author asserts, the first two cultural texts that introduced the zombie into Western cultural imagination were the ones that connected it to colonialism (154). Monnet closely follows the transnational development of the zombie with cannibalism added in the States and the resurrection of the Caribbean origins in Europe. Monnet discerns the repercussions of 9/11 on the zombie with speed and viciousness as its new characteristics. The author separates the spatial limitations of the contemporary zombie with the European inhabiting the urban apartment while the American counterpart roams the streets. Monnet’s concise and informative chapter ends with her thoughts on three recent European zombie films which she rightly sees as exemplary of the popular anxieties and fears: the fear of being reduced to bare life, poverty, immigration, marginalization and contagion, all nightmares of an insecure and fast changing world.

14The ninth chapter investigates the topic of masculinities in the New Turkish Cinema. After a sufficient sketch of this controversial term and its most well-known production Yilmaz Güney’s Yol (1982), the author Ralph J. Poole provides a close reading of four films to examine the projection of masculinities and their transnational affiliations. In the first pair of films, Yeşim Ustaoğlu Günese Yolculuk (1999) sheds light on ethnic and gender identification in urban and rural Turkey. Its antipode, Serdar Akar’s Kurtlar Vadisi-Irak (2006) is heavily influenced by the American action movie narratives and becomes a hymn to the traditional macho Turkish patriot. Poole’s powerful contrast between the two films successfully depicts a cinematic trend that deals with the major issues of ethnic and political conflict which haunt Turkey. Still displaying strong influences of the American filmic narratives, these two films are enriched with multiethnic, migratory and gender identity perspectives. The second part of the chapter revolves around the German-Turkish director Fatih Akin and his filmic representations of the precarious Turkish immigrant subjectivity using Gegen die Wand (2004) as a case in point. At this point, the author additionally proffers an account of Kutluğ Ataman’s Lola +Bilikid (1999) underlining the emergence of “sexual and cultural liminality, and revealing ‘the instability of all categories’” (180) through the director’s interest in “transness” and the American New Queer Cinema. With fragmented, displaced and liminal males as their protagonists, these two films are engaged in a transnational dialogue crossing the Turkish national and cultural borders.

15Philip Schlesinger’s chapter titled “Transnational Framings of British Film Policy: The Case of the UK Film Council” utilizes the story of the national film agency to talk about cinema and its transnational dimensions. The author examines transnational exchange in an unchartered area confuting the enclosure of national space and “methodological nationalism.” He illuminates the transnational context of British national film policy: its location, its competition with Hollywood, the relations with the EU and its employment of Hollywood trained executives and technology. The author’s argumentation is clear and convincing composing a well-written chapter.

16From the film institution, the volume moves to the film legends: the next chapter is about the diverse reactions reviewers had when they watched Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947) in three countries, the U.S., Britain and France. Well-documented and phrased, the chapter embarks on an ambitious journey. Anthologizing the reviews of the 1940s, the author Melvyn Stokes outpours a gamut of negative reactions Chaplin’s American reviewers had, heavily influenced by the scandals in his private life and his communist beliefs. As the author highlights in Britain, Chaplin’s birth country, his film was more appreciated. Contrary to the U.S., French critics, mostly saw his latest work as proof of his artistic development, beyond all allegations about the actor’s political and private life. Stokes’s comparative examination of the impact the film had is true to the volume’s title. It comes as a significant attempt to demonstrate the complex ways through which “transnational media are negotiated and understood across national boundaries” (222).

17The penultimate chapter, written by the editor Christof Decker, brings to the fore the screening of the mini-series Holocaust in West Germany in 1979 and focuses on the three levels of negotiating cultural meaning. On the level of presentation, Decker distinguishes alterations that had to be made to adjust the series to contemporary culture and turn its character from commercial to educational. The series, as the author proves, dramatically changed the processes of traumatic identification and remembrance in the German culture. It also had a strong emotional appeal though it was based on melodrama and oversimplifications of “obscure” historical events. Following the author, its importance lies on the fact that it also “established a new model for teaching the Holocaust” (237) through victim identification. Probably the strongest point of this thought-provoking chapter is found in the topic of victim cultures it unravels. Pointing towards compassion and affective outlets, the author rightly claims that the mini-series failed to show the way to historical truth, depicting a victim culture that often led the viewers baffled as to the real causes of the Jewish suffering and the true roots of the problem. On their defense, Decker stresses, the American creators of the series made crystal clear the melodramatic character of the series and never aimed for a “notion of ‘conservable history’” (243). Through an American TV series Germans, Decker concludes, reconsidered their historical self-images and placed themselves within their own victim culture, henceforth involved in more transnational negotiations of history and remembrance.

18The last chapter of the book notes the changing meaning and perception of the American Media and Cultural Products in the Czech Lands from the 1960s to the present. Recognizing the vastness of the topic and the lack of space, the author Tomas Pospíšil admits that this essay constitutes more of a personal account, based on “memory, experience and observation as well as research”(251). In this sense, the essay, lively and intriguing though it is, it often borrows elements from the memoir with a confessional, anecdotal tone. Pospíšil presents the special aura that the U.S was imbued with for his compatriots, an inaccessible entity one could only experience through cinema, music and literature. Either conceived as a “cultural and imperial Big Brother” (254) or the place where all dreams came true (254), the author maintains that the promotion and consumption of American cultural products were usually seen as acts of defiance against the status quo. Among the parameters he opts to present are the crucial influence of Austrian television on himself as a young man growing up, and the role of American literature. On the latter, the author adds the crucial part of American high-brow books that were widely translated, contrasting it with the late twentieth century impact and the visibility of individual works now decreasing. Pospíšil comments on the availability of Hollywood films and the alterations that had to be made as well as American music that was “far less available” (261). This led to the formation of a black market and the ritualization of obtaining a tape or a record. At the end of this chapter, Pospíšil leaves no doubt as to the complete dominion of American culture upon the Czech lands.

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Theodora D. Patrona, « Christof Decker and Astrid Böger, eds. Transnational Mediations: Negotiating Popular Culture between Europe and the United States », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2017-2, document 4, Online since 01 August 2017, connection on 18 November 2017. URL : http://ejas.revues.org/12168

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