Cultural Announcement: Reflections on an “Academic Blogging” Journey

This has never exactly been a personal blog—while Cultural Learnings started in 2007 as a broadly conceptualized space for personal expression, it quickly morphed toward television and other media, and at some point or another I eradicated whatever markers of personal blogging were left over from the early days.

But, at the same time, any blog is ultimately personal, regardless of the specific topic of discussion, and this is particularly true given how the personal and the professional converge around the space of critical studies of media in my case when I started work as a PhD student in Media and Cultural Studies in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And so it feels right to use this as a space to discuss a professional (and personal) development, which is that having defended my dissertation earlier this month, I will begin a tenure-track position as Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia this fall.

First and foremost, I need to acknowledge the fortune of this opportunity. Within the space of academia, jobs—and especially tenure-track jobs—are in short supply, both due to a surplus of qualified candidates and the increased (and problematic) reliance on part-time adjunct positions, and I am incredibly lucky to be in this position. This was made possible by the guidance of advisors (both formal and informal), the support of family, and the confidence of friends and colleagues, yes—but it also depends on right jobs at right times, and chips falling in the right places, all of which are more difficult to control. To say that luck was involved is not to self depreciate the work I did, or the support I received at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (and Acadia University before that), but rather to acknowledge that even with all of the hard work and support in the world, there are still people who don’t get jobs. And so the fact that I have this opportunity has put into perspective the various individuals whose generosity, wisdom, and in some cases timing led to the series of events that made this opportunity possible. I give thanks for it all.

But I want to take a moment to reflect specifically on the role that this blog played in this process, given how interconnected it is with all of the above. Although this was not designed as an “academic blog” initially given that I was still an undergrad when I started it, it evolved into one when I became a graduate student, and has transformed in ways that have made it a significant part of my professional identity. There is much debate in academia regarding the role of blogs and other social media in how grad students and junior scholars develop their place within the field, and I knew entering the job market that my output in this space was something that could set me apart for better—“he’s written a lot, on a lot of topics, for a diverse audience!”—or for worse—“why was he writing blog posts when he could have been publishing peer-reviewed journal articles?”

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Handicapping Hannibal’s Future: Netflix, Amazon, and Gaumont’s Unknown Design

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NBC did not “cancel” Hannibal.

Well, okay, that’s maybe a bit confusing. NBC did in fact announce that Season 3 would be the end of the show’s run on the network, following a slide from “problematic” to “abysmal” demographic ratings this summer. But while the rhetoric of cancellation was perhaps logically used to describe this decision, the simple fact is that NBC does not have the authority to cancel Hannibal. They are, in this case, one licensee of an international co-production, who Entertainment Weekly has revealed is paying only $185,000—this is absurdly low for a broadcast series, even in summer—in order to air season three of the show produced by Gaumont International Television. And so what’s really happening here is that Gaumont and its other producing partners—including Sony Pictures Television, who distributes the series and co-produces through its AXN international cable network—are losing their U.S. distributor. [I talked a little bit more about this in a Periscope broadcast you can watch if you’re more connected to nascent social media platforms than I am]

This type of inside knowledge regarding the show’s production is, admittedly, not going to be something your average fan knows. But it’s something fans should know as they make efforts to save the series, because finding a U.S. distributor is very different from finding the show a new home more broadly. They are not asking someone to “save” a show from outright cancellation—they are asking a streaming service or cable channel to step in as a licensee (and potentially production partner) as part of a pre-existing cocktail of financial interests, which shifts the show’s value in significant ways. And so the below is an effort to handicap how this reality shifts the logic by which different parties would be interested in the series.

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Season Finale: Game of Thrones – “Mother’s Mercy”


“Mother’s Mercy”

June 7, 2015

As noted earlier this year, my reviews of Game of Thrones have shifted to The A.V. Club, but I will continue to link them here for regular readers, concluding with this finale. Warning: These are reviews intended for book readers, so if you want to know absolutely no small details about the story as told in the books, you may want to steer clear.

Game of Thrones – “Mother’s Mercy” [The A.V. Club]

This fifth season of the show was, for me, defined by the convergence of trust. It was the season where both readers and non-readers had spent considerable time with the show and the characters, each with a firm grasp on the rules of this world, and each with their own opinions of how that world should be handled. And, because of the divergences from—and in some cases expansions beyond—the books, there were large swaths of storytelling in which reader and non-reader were on the same page judging the producers’ plans for these characters.

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Anatomy of a [Not] Green Screen Scene: Orange is the New Black [UPDATED]


UPDATE (06/16): So I wrote this post in an attempt to understand why this particular set of shots from Orange is the New Black‘s third season looked so weird, presuming that the culprit was to do with a form of composite imaging. It was the most logical explanation, and one that seemed to be supported when breaking down some of the other differences between this shot and the others.

Here’s the thing, though: I had the chance to chat briefly with the show’s post-production producer, who let me know that there is no visual effects work in this sequence. There was no green screen. This shot, like the others in the scene, was shot entirely on location. And so my presumption was wrong, and so I must give thanks for the clarification, and apologies for the erroneous claim (which was based solely on textual evidence).

Unfortunately, there is no further light on why the scene looks so weird despite this, which has turned this into a much larger mystery (if you’re me and in way too deep at this point). Did those who also identified it as green screen—myself included—respond to something particular about the way it was lit or colored? Were those who saw the image I posted on Twitter and agreed that it looked like a case of composite work simply suffering from false confirmation bias from my initial identification, and would they have reached the same conclusion on their own? Were the show’s other uses of green screen—the Afghanistan sequence, the driving plates, etc.—pushing us to see green screen where there was none? Were the other issues with the scene—lighting continuity, blocking continuity—pushing us to look for a reason where no reason exists?

We may never know. In the meantime, let the below remain for posterity as evidence of the time I got so deep into understanding why something looked weird that the rabbit hole nearly swallowed me whole. Apologies again for the error, and for dragging you into what is now a larger question of visual perception that we may never solve—if anyone has any suggestions on what happened here, please let me know.

UPDATE 2: A few Twitter suggestions as to why the shot might look off, diving into more technical details of filming. My thanks to them, and keep ’em coming.

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Refresh, Not Reboot: Thoughts on Jurassic World


When Zach and Gray, two brothers from Wisconsin, arrive to Jurassic World, they briefly check into their hotel room. They’re VIPs, there at the behest of their aunt Claire, and her assistant gives them something important—wristbands, to signal their VIP status.

Although the film never actually explores this, my mind immediately turned to Disney’s MagicBand system, a new way for offering a more personal experience at DisneyParks. Your MagicBand opens your hotel room, pays for your meals, and at some restaurants it can even inform the host that you’re the person walking up to the podium, and inform them where you’ve been seated for that particular meal.

It’s unlikely that the MagicBand system was operational enough during the production of Jurassic World for it to be integrated directly into the film, but it’s a perfect technology for understanding its strategy. The MagicBand system has a complicated relationship with control: by giving the park guest a greater ease of control over their experience—fewer keys, no need to carry cash, fast pass access, etc.—it also gives Disney the data necessarily to control the park as a whole. They know how you move between rides, they know what type of people spend in what patterns, and they can design the parks in ways that support this.

In the film itself, this is how Jurassic World tracks and controls its dinosaurs, but that particular comparison is a dead end. Instead, watching the film I was struck by how much it feels like the result of the filmmakers tapping into market research from people of my generation who grew up with Jurassic Park as a formative filmgoing experience. We are the “visitors” to Jurassic World, and Colin Trevorrow’s film never lets us forget it—there is no hiding the line drawn between theme park guests and moviegoers, and of the need to create “new attractions” because we’re just not satisfied with what we had before. It’s a toothless critique given that the effects-laden film in front of us fully gives into the evolution of blockbuster filmmaking, but it is nonetheless a potent one in how it works overtime to tell us not to get distracted by the shiny objects. It takes the things for which we are—purportedly—nostalgic, wraps them up in things that are shiny and new, and then systematically pushes us to wish they could just be back to normal again.

And, at least for me and much of the audience I saw it with, it worked like a charm.

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Game of Thrones – “The Dance of Dragons”


“The Dance of Dragons”

June 7, 2015

As noted earlier this year, my reviews of Game of Thrones have shifted to The A.V. Club, but I will continue to link them here for regular readers. Warning: These are reviews intended for book readers, so if you want to know absolutely no small details about the story as told in the books, you may want to steer clear.

Game of Thrones – “The Dance of Dragons” [The A.V. Club]

This question will be answered in the finale and in the seasons to come, but it echoes also in the other goal of “The Dance Of Dragons,” which is to pull the season’s most problematic storylines into thematic alignment. Stannis and Dany’s decisions are legible and offer clear consequences that pay off the dramatic stakes therein—both land as clear pivot points that set their characters on paths heading into the finale, and both are well-executed and engaging. But although there are similar stories playing out in King’s Landing and Winterfell, we spend our time here in Dorne and Braavos, which have struggled to connect this season for two separate reasons.

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Game of Thrones – “Hardhome”



May 31, 2015

As noted last week, my reviews of Game of Thrones have shifted to The A.V. Club, but I will continue to link them here for regular readers. Warning: These are reviews intended for book readers, so if you want to know absolutely no small details about the story as told in the books, you may want to steer clear.

Game of Thrones – “Hardhome” [The A.V. Club]

These partnerships and alliances—one of them long anticipated—all speak to Game Of Thrones’ interest in making a larger point about humanity. Sam argues to Olly—who does not seem convinced, we’ll get to that later—that the Wildlings are humans too, and that’s admittedly a bit facile. But what Sam is doing is going back to a basic level of human life, an idea that works to break down the “wheel” of power in Westeros that Daenerys seeks to destroy. Cycles of human conflict are what Game Of Thrones was first predicated on, but the only true, unadulterated evil in this world was the very first evil we saw in the series’ prologue—those who are no longer living.


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