Response to Upstream Color from Jess O’Kane (Exepose Screen)

Jess O’Kane, who is studying English at Exeter, Editor of Exepose Screen, came to our Screen Talks events on Upstream Color on Monday 7th October. Jess has written a guest blog post for us, reflecting on her responses to the film:

I have a terrible habit of leaving things to the last minute, when I’m usually spurred on by a waning jar of peanut butter.  Since leaving the cinema a few hours ago, however, I’ve felt an overwhelming need to solidify some thoughts on Upstream Color, I think mostly for fear that it’ll vanish as quickly and vividly as it appeared.

I wish I could tell you that, like Matt, I can contextualise Upstream Color so far as to call it “posthuman” or “mythic”. It’s probably both those things, but for my part, I can only offer an instinctive reaction – which is, I think, precisely what Carruth intended.

For really, the film may as well have been silent. That’s not to disparage it; only to point out the uniqueness of its direction. Scenes meld into one, faces blur, time comes and goes in a swerving trajectory. It’s both stunningly beautiful and at times welcomingly mundane. It’s no surprise that Carruth’s style has been most often compared to Terrence Malick, with whom he shares a hypersensory palette.

Also like Malick, Carruth’s second feature is largely preoccupied with nature. Not nature in the German-bloke-on-misty-rock Romantic way, nor human nature, but “nature” meaning the endless relations and cycles that form and dissolve us and everything. At its heart is a story of disease and rebirth – a cycle that starts with a shady thief, peaks with parasitic madness, and ends with the harvesting of beautiful blue orchids. And yet for Carruth’s protagonists this proves a kind of paralysis, a state between knowing and self-knowledge. As the parasite begins to take over, self-identification becomes increasingly difficult, and their memories join and fragment. (Was it my childhood friend who tried to drown me in the indoor pool? Or yours?)

Most interestingly, this doubt affects a need for self-legislation. Kris and Jeff begin to fall back on the rituals that the thief taught them – Jeff creates paper chains absent-mindedly, Kris endlessly recites Thoreau’s Walden, a motif to which we’ll return later. These kinds of patterns are ones we’ve come to recognise as fearful, as signifying control and a loss of agency. Yet in Upstream Color, there is also a comfort in repetition, as if each action reaffirms a cycle of its own, and the ability of the protagonists to act at all.

This connective impulse is, I think, key to having the foggiest about the film. Why, after all, does the film centre on a romance? Take the enigmatic sampler, a man who seems omnipresent and irrelevant all at once, who’s pictured obsessively trying to measure a rhythm of life only he seems to understand. Stones drop, feet rub, wood chafes. All of these actions taken alone make little sense, but taken together, they seem closer to a dialect – a kind of mediation between nature and the self.

It’s perhaps unsurprising then, that Carruth’s emblem of choice is Thoreau. Thoreau’s Transcendentalism led him to immerse himself entirely in nature, living in a simple cabin on the edge of Walden Pond in Massachussetts. On the one hand, the significance of this seems fairly straightforward; here are two people whose ability to connect with the world around them has been compromised by exterior forces. Give them life, give them Thoreau, and surely they will restore.

And yet at the same time, the text is a third party; the text is not life. Literature acts as a stimulant insofar as it causes the protagonists to recall the world around them, a fact clearly displayed at the end of the film when Kris and Jeff send the book to other survivors in order to call them to arms. But it does so by cementing the relationship between self and mediator; text, parasite, orchid. In other words, Upstream Color is not quite transcendent, or at least it doesn’t appear to be. Though the cycle of parasite-pig-orchid is broken, the cycle between protagonist-mediator-reality is merely reformulated.

That said, it’s a hopeful film. It has faith in beauty and a humanistic heart unbecoming to an out-an-out sci-fi. Carruth, like Thoreau, seems to operate in that space between paralysis and salvation, never quite committing to one truth or even expecting it, but nonetheless knowing it’s there. His direction has something microscopic about it, as if he’s trying to tune into nature through colour, shape and sound. And his protagonists are willing, in the end, to bend to this new form – conscious, apparently, of something better round the corner.

Those were my instincts. All I can say is that you’d be a fool not to see for yourself.

A Posthuman Mythology: thoughts on Upstream Color

Our first Screen Talks event of the Autumn Term will be on Monday 7th October at Exeter Picturehouse. Dr Matt Hayler (Lecturer, Dept of English) at the University of Exeter) will introduce Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013)

Join the event on Facebook and find out more here.

Booking Information: Book online, call the Box Office 0871 902 5730 or buy tickets on the door (half price for students on Mondays).

Dr Matt Hayler has written a guest blog-post for us on the film and the ways in which it challenges us as viewers with a vision of life forms and cycles which does not put the human at the centre:


I can remember exactly where I was when I realized that Upstream Color was probably the most hauntingly beautiful science fiction film that I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t watching it on a TV in my front room, running an imported region 1 disc through an Xbox within weeks of its release because I loved Shane Caruth’s first movie, Primer, so goddamn much I couldn’t wait for a UK screening. It wasn’t in a cinema, with a decent screen and comfy seats and barely tasted popcorn as I focused, silently, intently, on the colours and the images and the few scant words of this posthuman fairytale – that’s a treat I’ll get for the first time on Monday at Exeter’s Picture House. Somewhat embarrassingly, I worked it out about thirty seconds into this trailer, which I watched maybe ten minutes after my first viewing as I devoured any and all information about what I’d just seen, and which basically amounts to a stream of fairly comprehensive spoilers, but only if you’ve watched the movie that it’s meant to advertise. That trailer tells you nearly everything about the story, or helps you work it through, but it does so by using words and images from the film in order to articulate things that that film just somehow made you feel.

And by now you’ve probably worked out that I don’t know how to talk about this thing. At least, not much anyway. If you haven’t seen it yet I’m guessing that you’ll probably come out of the cinema a bit baffled, hopefully impressed with some of the things that you’ve seen on screen, but wondering what’s gone on, what exactly happened in that last 90 minutes or so. I’d also guess that at that point you know, but maybe not in words yet. Upstream Color possesses the remarkable ability of telling you a story without words (nothing new) and making you comprehend it somewhere muscular, and visceral, and bloodied (something rare). After a couple of viewings and some reading I can pretty much tell you what goes on, but it’s that sense impression that lingers, is maybe stronger than what I’d try and articulate if you pressed me to discuss the plot. My body, and that bit at the back of my brain that connects me and some ancient lizard, remembers that Upstream Color is a movie about shared memories; knowledge passing across the barriers of species; the fears of reproducing; the fear of losing yourself, of losing your barriers, of schizophrenic openings up. And it remembers the colours and the pigs and the takings of places in cycles.

I’ve already used the word “posthuman” and that, alongside this bodily response, is what links this movie to my work, at least in some oblique way. I’m interested in how technologies affect us to such an extent that they interfere, often productively, with our pre-linguistic experience of the world – I wonder if the lifeforms in this movie could be considered to be technologies in some sense, extenders of agency, interruptions between actor and environment? And is that what makes it science fiction rather than fantasy (it certainly feels right to call it that)? This is certainly a film about unspeakable action and unsaid sensation.

Posthumanism, at least by one definition, is a philosophical outlook which doesn’t see humans as the centre of experience, or aesthetics, or meaning, and doesn’t see “humanity” as a fixed and coherent thing from which there might be deviation, but instead sees the human as always-already malleable, plastic. When I write about new technologies, and our intimate experience of becoming experts with new things, I start to think about posthuman ideas, about the changing status of humanity. The evolution of the biosciences promises to make the question more and more pressing over the course of this century – what will humans look like by its close? Upstream Color offers us a posthuman mythology, where characters dissolve into the world, everything can be as beautiful, or more, as love, and individuals are surpassed by cycles. The trajectories of parasites and viruses, their effects on behaviour, take on near religious significance here, but military interest in toxoplasmosis’ potential for mitigating human risk aversion lends another technological edge to the emergent behaviours of the film’s cast of flowers, grubs, pigs, and human vectors – we’ll probably be using nature’s natural hacks to intentionally change ourselves before long. Upstream Color offers, at times, a beatific vision of that work; at its heart it offers us the potential of communion in a whole host of forms.

Matt lectures in contemporary literature, theory and culture at the University of Exeter.  He researches the interactions of technologies and users, and the place of the body in processes of reading and understanding.  Find out more about Matt’s research here, and on his blog here.



Autumn 2013 – New Season of Screen Talks begins Mon 7th Oct

Screen Talks is back with a great new season of films at Exeter Picturehouse.  Between now and Christmas we have some fantastic and thought provoking films chosen by experts in Film, Literature, History and Culture to share and discuss.  Each screening includes a brief introduction to the film and time for informal discussion afterwards in the Picturehouse bar.

Picturehouse are offering a year’s FREE membership for Freshers, and great deals on student membership too.  Click here to find out more

We are organising the films broadly under three themes: ‘Beyond the Page’ offering classic and new films drawn from the vibrant category of adaptation,  ‘European Cinema’s Hidden Classics’ bringing key films and filmmakers into the light, and ‘Sickness on the Screen’ highlighting the treatment of health and medicine in film.

Our first film will be the enigmatic Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013), which will be introduced by Dr Matt Hayler (English), who researches technology, embodiment and questions of the human.  Check back here soon for Matt’s guest blog post on the film.

The film has been widely critically acclaimed since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013.  The film stars Carruth and Amy Seimetz, and it is a film with complex themes and structure, prompting audiences to ask questions about forms and cycles of life, and it will give us great material to discuss.  As Jonathan Romney notes:  “Upstream Color works its spell on us in some ways that we may feel impelled to analyse, and also in other ways that we may never consciously ‘get’.”(Sight & Sound, Sept 2013, 52)

Also coming soon to Screen Talks:

Mon 21st October, A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011) introduced by Dr Jana Funke (Sickness on Screen theme)

Mon 4th November, Plein Soleil (Rene Clement, 1960), a renowned adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s crime novel The Talented Mr Ripley (European Cinema’s Hidden Classics theme)

Mon 18th November, Oliver Twist (David Lean, 1948) introduced by Prof John Plunkett (Beyond the Page theme)

Mon 2nd December, Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard, 2012) introduced by Ryan Sweet (Sickens on the Screen theme)

Mon 16th December, Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013) introduced by Dr Will Higbee (European Cinema’s Hidden Classics theme)


Gatsby, What Gatsby?

Our Screen Talks event for The Great Gatsby brought over 100 audience members to Exeter Picturehouse and almost as many different reactions to the film. The process of adaptation was a key element in Dr Sinéad Moynihan’s introduction to the film, and a big debating point afterward. This blog brings a different perspective to the film – the reaction of a Screen Talks audience member who had not read the book. This special guest post by University of Exeter’s Zoe Bulaitis (Department of English, Arts & Culture) follows below.

Source: Picturehouse Cinemas.

Before watching Luhrmann’s film, I knew nothing about The Great Gatsby. Despite the fact it is regarded as one of the strongest contenders for the “Great American Novel”, regardless of its status as being a frequent choice for curricular Literature Studies and adapted into four films prior to this most recent attempt – I have not read a page nor harboured any facts about the novel at all. Actually, that statement is not wholly correct. In all honesty, I knew it was an American novel (this I had deducted from the fact it was written by Fitzgerald) and I had presumed at some point of the story (probably of relative importance to the plot) there would be a character called Gatsby, who may or may not turn out to be great. These are the skills of deduction that a BA in English Literature provide you with when faced with the situation of predicting information about a text that you have not read.

When I encountered the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s latest film for the first time, unsuspecting of the extreme sensory invasion, I was compelled to shut my eyes and ears off from the spectacle playing before me at the words “Gatsby, What Gatsby?”. Only thirty seconds into the extensive trailer, it was actress Cary Mulligan’s dainty inquiry that confirmed what I had already begun to guess: there’s a book adaptation movie coming.

My BA in English was prefaced by a childhood spent reading extensively; I have a comprehensive (albeit surface-level in places) understanding of most ultra-famous literary works. I have loved, and will continue to love reading “The Classics” of the literary canon. The feeling of sitting down with a book which has been valorised by generations of readers provides you with a sense of contentedness – a guarantee that the pages before you are set to be worthwhile and profound. This is a feeling, from my experience, that I have not found to be replicated in filmic adaptation of such texts. While Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet may be a success in the realm of cinema, it is unfaithful in conveying the original sentiments of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Certainly both book and film end with the star-crossed suicides of the titular characters, however, the route to this climax and the style in which is portrayed is entirely different. Shakespeare’s original cites parental pressures, the close knit Verona communities and the ignorance of an old apothecary while Luhrmann’s adaptation utilizes police helicopters, lad culture and Para-Ordnance P-13 pistols. I argue that the film adaptation is a different product entirely, and therefore my review of The Great Gatsby will not seek to draw comparisons to the text (which I have not and will not be reading in the near future). Instead I ask whether the film is good enough as a film.

I would like to clarify in reference to Romeo and Juliet above that I prefer a film adaptation that seeks to do something radical with a literary text than to tip-toe around trying to re-invent the same wheel. Isn’t it better to initiate something new, than imitate something already brilliant? For this reason I greatly admire Baz Luhrmann’s efforts in adaptation. His unique style accentuates what is of interest to his directorial tastes. In the trailer to the movie Luhrmann’s name is emblazoned in an Art Deco gilded gold frame. His authorial status is celebrated and is a major draw for the film. His name precedes the celebrity cast of actors. The fact that the film is adapted from a popular story is perhaps less significant than the gravitas of Luhrmann’s method of storytelling.

To briefly contextualize, it remains an undisputable fact that the majority of people like to watch literary adaptations. Since the Academy Awards began in 1927-8, ‘more than three fourths of the awards for “best picture” have gone to adaptations . . . [and that] the all-time box-office successes favour novels even more’ . Over the past year, some of the highest grossing box office sales in the United Kingdom were Les Miserables (January 2013), The Hobbit (December 2012 – January 2013) and Oz the Great and Powerful (March 2013) all adapted from novels. Since literary adaptations began there have been discussions of fidelity. Such conversations can be a little tiresome and repetitive – especially when you haven’t read the original, or think that the film version is less boring for the non-specialist reader (wading through 1500 pages of French-English translation of the 1862 writing of Victor Hugo is definitely a most arduous activity than the recent sing-a-long with Hugh Jackman and Amanda Seyfried). Wouldn’t it be fun to accept that the differences of medium limit the fidelity to the original text, but also offer new potentialities of storytelling?

Michael Klein and Gillian Parker posit an interesting suggestion that there are three kinds of adaptation:

“First, ‘fidelity to the main thrust of the narrative’; second, the approach which ‘retains the core of the structure of the narrative while significantly reinterpreting or, in some cases, deconstructing the source text’; and, third, regarding ‘the source merely as raw material, as simply the occasion for an original work’

I personally prefer the third option –the closer a director sticks to a text, the more frustrating the tiniest of neglects and nuanced differences become. Previously, I have not taken well to the cherished classics that I have read being adapted into blockbuster movies. I left the cinema halfway through the 2009 attempt at A Picture of Dorian Gray appalled at the sub-standard CGI and the weird temporal leap to WW1 in a story set in the Victorian era. As appealing as Colin Firth is in that white shirt, I still prefer Pride and Prejudice as Jane Austen penned it. So maybe, as Klein and Parker suggest, the classics are better off if they are allowed to become mere “raw materials” for the creative talent of the filmmaker. If you want to see a version utterly faithful to the original – why don’t you just read the book again?

The Great Gatsby (2013) was a visual treat. The actors and actresses looked superb in their 20s couture, and I will not be lead to believe that a written description of a lavish party could top Luhrmann’s filmic spectacle. Never have I seen a party more decadent on the big screen, nor could I imagine how it could be exceeded. The atmosphere of sheer extravagance and the imagination of Luhrmann is a match to the expectations of Gatsby in terms of brilliance. Luhrmann thrives on these energetic scenes, and whilst the dialogue and romances may appear a little unbelievable (and at times pathetic) throughout the film, there is little doubt in the authentic wonder of the lucky party-goers.

Luhrmann’s sense of speed and activity is successfully contrasted with the deaths of Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the car-crash victim Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) whose deaths are among the most striking moments of the film. Taking a breath right at the moment when life is extinguished, the two characters that die in the novel (Gatsby and car-crash victim Myrtle Wilson) both meet their end in slow motion. Death, like the vibrancy of a party is equally difficult to capture within the literary text. To confirm my suspicions that it is easier to die on screen than in a novel, I skimmed through the end of novel to compare the death scenes: for Myrtle Wilson only: “the business was over” is recorded and for Gatsby: “the chauffeur heard the shots”. For both Myrtle and Gatsby there is no written record of the moment of death. In the film, there is a blow-by-blow detailing of the event. Talking to a friend who has read the book, after having seen the film, she commented that in the book the deaths don’t really seem to carry much significance – the true betrayal and tragedy of the story occurs before the death of Gatsby. However, in Luhrmann’s film it is certainly the finale. What interests me is not the comparing the film to the book, but to analyze Luhrmann’s persistent drive and obsession with the death of the star throughout his filmic career. Romeo and Juliet is perhaps a bad example, as from page one of the play and the opening of the film alike, you know that the stars are destined to “take their life”. However, in Moulin Rouge Satine’s (Nicole Kidman) death is unexpected in the carnivalesque madhouse that the rest of the film consists of. Her death comes at the final curtain and much like Gatsby is dramatic and cinematically stunning.

I want to emphasize that I am not naturally morbid – the death-scenes are just one example of why I enjoyed watching this film. But I have chosen them as my example as they are something that I expected Luhrmann to do well as Luhrmann, in no relation to whatever the original was like. I suppose I would prefer it is we compared like with like, a good film with a bad film (or another good film), a good directorial style and a bad one (or a bad director in a moment of brilliance). Judging a film by a book seems to me to be unfair and unproductive in the process of creative storytelling.

Melodrama and Memory in Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver (2006), Mon 17 June, 6.30pm.

Our next Screen Talks event will be the last before we take a break for the summer.  The Screen Talks programme will resume in early October with more great films and great debates.  In the meantime, keep in touch with us on Twitter: @ExeScreen_Talks, via our Facebook group:, or drop us an email () to join our mailing list.

On Monday 17th June at Exeter Picturehouse. Prof Sally Faulkner (Associate Professor in Hispanic Studies in the Dept of Modern Languages  at the University of Exeter) will introduce Volver (Pedro Almodovar, 2006)

Join the event on Facebook and find out more here.

Booking Information: Book online, call the Box Office 0871 902 5730 or buy tickets on the door (half price for students on Mondays).

Prof Sally Faulkner has written a guest blog post for us about the ways in which Pedro Almodovar’s film deals with issues of memory:

Pedro Almodóvar’s 16th film takes its title from a 1935 Argentine tango by Carlos Gardel and Alfredo de Pera, the performance of which occurs mid-way through the film to provide a narrative turning point. ‘Volver’ means to return, and many critics have focussed on the ‘returns’ staged by Almodóvar in this 2006 film. After the male-focussed Bad Education (2004), Volver is a return to the familiar terrain of a narrative about strong women, told through the genre that the director has made his own: melodrama. The film was also Almodóvar’s return to actress Carmen Maura – the memorable heroine of What Have I Done to Deserve This!? (1984) and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) – and to Penelope Cruz, who had played the sacrificial nun in the Oscar-winning All About My Mother (1999). Those three titles in fact tell us a great deal about Almodóvar’s concerns in Volver.  The question posed by the 1984 film title might be one asked by Cruz’s Raimunda – who has a lazy, abusive husband and a low-paid job as a cleaner at Madrid’s flashy Barajas airport – and the twists and turns of Almodóvar’s complex plot (he was sole scriptwriter) take her to the ‘verge of a nervous breakdown’. But Almodóvar’s vision in Volver is one of rescue and redemption; the film might be said to be all about her mother Irene, played by Maura, as she brings Raimunda back from this verge.

However, Volver, which achieved the holy grail of being a runaway success with both Spanish and international audiences, and a critical success with a fist of a prizes both inside and outside Spain, is so much more than these ‘returns’.  Made in the traumatic aftermath of Al-Qaeda’s bombing of commuter trains in Madrid in March 2004 (Almodóvar postponed the première of Bad Education out of respect for the almost 200 who lost their lives), Volver may also be seen as a response to the controversy over the memory of the traumas of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and dictatorship (1939-75), that culminated in Spain’s passing of the controversial Law of Historical Memory in 2007. During the years Volver was written and shot, the Spanish parliament and media exhaustively debated how to honour the trauma suffered by Spaniards during the war and its aftermath. Almodóvar’s brilliant response is not to make a ‘historical’ film (‘histórico’ is the adjective used in Spanish to describe both films with period settings as well as heritage films), with a Civil War or dictatorship setting, or a protagonist that explicitly remembers this period. Rather, he indirectly explores these current anxieties by staging trauma, recovery, loss and retribution in a film about the resilience of women and the support they give one another – as daughters, mothers, sisters, aunts and friends. As such, Volver also ‘returns’ to some of the masterpieces of Italian Neorealism, like Vittorio de Sica’s Two Women (1960), with Sophia Loren’s character and performance an explicit model for Cruz. Almodóvar thus recasts De Sica’s exploration of the trauma of World War Two for a 2006 audience and a post-Civil war Spain.

Sally Faulkner is Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies and Film at the University of Exeter, where she teaches courses on Spanish and European film, Spanish literature and Spanish language. She has written on Almodóvar and melodrama in her most recent book, A History of Spanish Film: Cinema and Society 1910-2010 (2013)


Imagining Cancer: Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 (2011)

The next Screen Talks event will be on Monday 3rd June at Exeter Picturehouse. Alanna Skuse (Centre for Medical History and Dept of English, University of Exeter) will introduce 50/50 (Jonathan Levine, 2011).

Join the event on Facebook and find out more here.

Booking Information: Book online in the week leading up to the film, call the Box Office 0871 902 5730 or buy tickets on the door (half price for students on Mondays).

Alanna Skuse has written a guest blog-post for us on the language that surrounds cancer and its history:

On 3rd June I will be introducing 50/50, a movie that tells the story of a young man diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and his experience of that disease. In many ways, however, this film is less about cancer in a clinical sense and more about people’s reactions to it, and how being a cancer patient can alter your life in more than the obvious ways. In this blog post, I want to think about the persistence of some particular ways of thinking about cancer by comparing modern rhetoric around the disease with that found in texts dealing with cancer in the seventeenth century.

Only a few weeks ago, Cancer Research UK released a new fundraising appeal, across a number of different media. The slogan is ‘Oi cancer’. In the TV advertisement, people ‘tell’ cancer, “I’m not afraid of you” or “I’m coming to get you”. The website,, invites us to contribute our own ‘message to cancer’. Cancer Research’s advertising strategy is interesting because it locates a relationship with cancer that is quite different to that we have with any other disease. In the UK, heart disease and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease account for a similar number of years of life lost as breast of lung cancer.[1] Would a campaign which asserted “we’re coming to get you, COPD” be as effective? Almost certainly not, because despite the fact that it is, crudely speaking, a disease of our own mutated cells, we imagine cancer as something other; a disease which is in some way wilfully hostile to the body. That seeming agency is what makes cancer a disease that can be, even if only in rhetorical terms, ‘sent a message’.

This illusion may seem like a modern phenomenon, of the same order as claims that ‘positive thinking’ can diminish tumours. In reality, however, it is a pattern of thought that has persisted for hundreds of years. The very word ‘cancer’ comes from an ancient Greek term, karkinos, or crab. Medical practitioners in the early modern period took it as obvious that cancerous tumours were named after this creature because they were round and red, like a crab, with darkened veins surrounding the tumour which looked like legs. In addition, they noted that ‘the tumour is so rooted in the Glands of the Breast, that ’tis no more possible to extirpate it, than force a Crab to quit what he has grasped betwixt his griping Claws’.[2]

Furthermore, many physicians saw cancerous tumours increasing as the patient visibly diminished and came to the natural conclusion that the disease was literally ‘eating’ the body. From the medieval period to the eighteenth century, practitioners of various kinds claimed to have seen worms in cancerous ulcers. In 1714, one ‘empiric’, or unlicensed practitioner, even claimed to have seen a wolf poking its head out from a cancerous ulcer.[3] So invested were early modern physicians and their audiences in the idea of cancer as purposefully intractable that the very word ‘malignant’ meant more than simply ‘prone to spread’. ‘Malignant’ encapsulated a whole range of qualities including resistance to cure, painfulness and the ability to ‘break out’ into painful ulcers. More than a clinical term, this was evidence of cancer’s ‘evil’ nature.

In the twenty-first century, most of us agree that the idea of cancer as an independent, hostile entity within the body is a rhetorical one, psychologically useful rather than literally true. In the language of ‘battling’, ‘fighting’, or saying ‘Oi’ to cancer, however, we can see that historical influences on our conceptualisation of this disease are far from extinct.



[2] Pierre Dionis, A course of chirurgical operations, demonstrated in the Royal Garden at Paris (London: 1710), p.248.

[3] Daniel Turner, De Morbis Cutaneis: Diseases Incident to the Skin (1714), p.76.


The Great Gatsby: Adapting and Passing in America

The next Screen Talks event will be on Monday 20th May at Exeter Picturehouse. Dr Sinead Moynihan  (Lecturer in American Culture, Dept of English) at the University of Exeter) will introduce The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, 2013)

Join the event on Facebook and find out more here.

Booking Information: Book online, call the Box Office 0871 902 5730 or buy tickets on the door (half price for students on Mondays).

Dr Sinead Moynihan has written a guest blog-post for us on Baz Luhrmann’s film version of Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, and how it deals with questions of identity:

On 20th May, I will be discussing the latest adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), one of the most widely-read and taught novels of the twentieth century.  I will be mainly concerned with three interrelated issues 1) the challenges of adaptation generally 2) the specific challenges of adapting Fitzgerald’s novel for the screen and 3) how we might think about this most recent adaptation in relation to earlier adaptations of the work, notably the 1974 version featuring Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan.

For this blog, I’d like to discuss briefly my own interests in the novel, which relate to the particular historical context in which it was written.  I have an article forthcoming in African American Review on the relationship of the novel to a subsequent novella, Passing (1929), by an African American writer, Nella Larsen.  As such, my article contributes to a relatively recent body of work which contextualises The Great Gatsby in relation to debates on immigration, race and ethnicity contemporaneous with the publication of the novel. Critics have pointed out, for example, the significance of the fact that the novel appeared just a year after the passage of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924.  As the U.S. State Department tells us, this Act “limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota.  The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. It completely excluded immigrants from Asia.”  In other words, Gatsby appeared at a historical moment during which the U.S. was battening down the hatches against immigrants and anxiously questioning the white credentials of some immigrants over others.

Also around this time, white supremacist writers Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard were producing works such as The Passing of the Great Race (1916) and The Rising Tide of Color Against White-World Supremacy (1920), in which they excoriated the encroachment of immigrants considered less-than-white in Anglo-America.  In Tom Buchanan, as several critics have noted, Fitzgerald creates a mouthpiece for the ideas of Lothrop Stoddard, especially those articulated in The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy (1920), thinly disguised in The Great Gatsby as “The Rise of the Coloured Empires by this man Goddard.”

What concerns me and these other critics is the idea that Gatsby is not a suitable partner for Daisy, a Southern belle who speaks nostalgically of her “beautiful white girlhood” because of a complex mixture of both class and race.  For Walter Benn Michaels, for example, “Gatsby (né Gatz, with his Wolfshiem ‘gonnegtion’) isn’t quite white, and Tom’s identification of him as in some sense black suggests the power of the expanded notion of the alien” (Michaels 25).  It is more or less accepted now that Jay Gatsby, born James Gatz, was probably Jewish and the combination of his working-class background and Jewish ancestry account for his cruel treatment by the East Egg elite.  In 2000, a scholar named Carlyle Van Thompson made national news in the United States when he delivered a paper at a conference in Charleston, South Carolina, entitled “The Tragic Black ‘Buck’: Jay Gatsby’s passing in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.”  In his subsequent full-length study of passing fiction, Van Thompson offers comprehensive, though not always persuasive, evidence that Gatsby may be a light-skinned African American passing as white.

In my introduction to Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013), I will talk a little about the casting of Gatsby across various adaptations, given these larger conversations about race and ethnicity in relation to the novel.  What does it mean, for example, to cast a very WASP-ish Robert Redford as Gatsby in Jack Clayton’s 1974 version? In the Baz Luhrmann version, the part is played by Leonardo diCaprio.  How might we think about these more famous adaptations in relation to the lesser-known film G (dir. Christopher Scott Cherot, 2002) which is loosely based on the novel and features an all-African American cast? I look forward to discussing these issues in a bit more detail on 20 May.

Sinead has written extensively about ‘passing’ and identity in American Literature.  Find out more about Sinead’s research here.

Resistance and Heroism: Jacques Audiard’s A Self-Made Hero (1996), Mon 6th May, 6.30 pm

The next Screen Talks event will be on Monday 6th May at Exeter Picturehouse. Dr Will Higee (Senior Lecturer in Film Studies, Dept of Modern Languages) at the University of Exeter) will introduce A Self-Made Hero (Jacques Audiard, 1996)

Join the event on Facebook and find out more here.

Booking Information: Book online, call the Box Office 0871 902 5730 or buy tickets on the door (half price for students on Mondays).

 Dr Will Higbee has written a guest blog-post for us on Jacques Audiard’s film which explores the myths around the resistance in French culture:

The next installment of the hidden classics of European cinema focuses on Jacques Audiard’s Un héros très discret / A Self-Made Hero (1996). Audiard is now a well-established figure both in French cinema and internationally, with a range of awards, Oscar nomination and box-office success for films such as A Prophet (2009) and Rust and Bone (2012). However, at the time of the release of his second fearure, A Self-Made Hero, he was perhaps best known for being the son of the celebrated French screenwirter Michel Audiard. This screening at the Picture House offers a rare chance to see the film brought Audiard to the attention of a wider audience both in France and internationally on the big screen. A Self-Made Hero is also a notable film due to the casting of the enfant terrible of French cinema of the 1990s, director and actor Mathieu Kassovitz. To the surprise of many crticis and spectators, Kassovitz carried the starring role with aplomb. A Self-made hero confirmed Kassovitz’s status as an screen actor of considerbale subtlty and quality – a fact that continues to be overlooked in France today.

A Self-Made Hero tells the story of Albert Dehousse, a young man exempted from military service and oblivious to the resistance activities of his wife during the occupation. After the war has ended, Dehousse decides to leave his home and family for Paris in order to fabricate a heroic past for himself as a resistance activist – a past the strangers and authorities around him, desperate to invest in myth of national resistance under Nazi occupation, are only to keen to validate.  Audiard’s exploration of the ‘great lie’ of France as a war resister was hardly a new departure, having been dealt with by historians as well as filmmakers since at least the early-1970s. However, the film offers a significant commentary on the selective process of memorializing history and the construction of a collective past that continued to take place in France during the 1990s.  Moreover, A Self-Made Hero’s treatment of the myth of France as a nation united in its resistance to Nazi Occupation during the Second World War remained highly topical at the time of release given revelations im France during the 1990s relating to outgoing French President Mitterrand’s links to the Vichy government during the occupation, as well as the trial a year after the film’s release of former Paris police chief, Maurice Papon, for his involvement in the deportation of French Jews to Nazi concentration camps.

As interesting as the film’s exploration of French history past may be, A Self-Made hero offers, above all, a beautifully crafted screenplay (where heritage film meets melodrama and political thriller) combined with assured direction from Audiard that draws excellent performances from the film’s cast. A Self-made hero provides a subtle and engaging exploration of deception and myth-making: considering the extent that an individual will go to create a new life and heroic identity for himself and the extent to which, when it feels that it needs to, society is only too willing to accept the lie that it is being sold.

Dr Will Higbee has written about Matthieu Kassovitz, and about contemporary French cinema and identity.  Read more about Will’s research here.


Savants and Stereotypes: Barry Levinson’s Rain Man (1988), Mon 22nd April, 6.30pm

The next Screen Talks event will be on Monday 22nd April at Exeter Picturehouse. Dr Ginny Russell (Research Fellow at Egenis at the University of Exeter) will introduce Rain Man (Barry Levinson, 1988)

Join the event on Facebook and find out more here.

Booking Information: Book online, call the Box Office 0871 902 5730 or buy tickets on the door (half price for students on Mondays).

Dr Ginny Russell has written a guest blog post for us, outlining the film’s influence on the ways that autism is understood:

Rain Man was released in 1988 to overwhelmingly positive reviews. It is the story of yuppie Charlie Babbitt, played by Tom Cruise, and his estranged brother Raymond, played by Dustin Hoffman. Raymond is an autistic savant; his character was modelled on a person named Kim Peek, although not autistic, did have a developmental disability with similarities to autism. He was also a savant with an eidetic memory. Researching the movie, producers referred to the diagnostic criteria for autism to develop the characterisation.

Hoffman’s performance as Raymond is compelling and the character has enormous screen presence in the sense that you never know what he is going to do next. Rain Man won Best Film Oscar in 1988 as well as Best Actor for Hoffman. Despite his limitations, the audience is drawn to Babbet because in his case, normal rules do not apply. In this way, Babbet displays classic symptoms of autism: normal social rules are not easily understood or adhered to. Rain Man’s autistic-hero is a cinematic archetype with a long tradition: Zen, star of the Thai film Chocolate. Peter Seller’s idiot savant in Being There, and Tom Hank’s Forrest Gump are all heroes with limited intellectual and social capabilities who unwittingly conquer their worlds. It is the quality of innocence that draws us to these characters and to Raymond. Raymond is as naive as his brother is scheming and worldly, yet it is Raymond himself who eventually offers his brother the possibility of redemption: an emotional connection that transcends material gain.

For the autism community today, Rain Man had two important consequences. First it raised awareness of the condition, and in its wake has come a flood of popular autistic autobiographies: Temple Grandin, Daniel Tammet and Donna Williams notable amongst them. Autism’s increasingly high profile is most certainly partially responsible for the spectacular rising prevalence of the condition since Rain Man’s release. Such high profile media coverage has led to far greater recognition and application of the diagnostic label. The question of whether the rising prevalence of autism is entirely an artefact of changing diagnostic practice or whether there really are more children with autism today is the subject of my own research.

The second unintended effect of Rain Man was to inadvertently encourage a stereotype that autism equals special abilities. In fact, such savant skills occur rarely in autistic individuals, in about 1-10% of the population with autism according to Darold Treffert, the primary researcher in this field. Savant skills are known as islets of ability and a particular skill, maybe rote memory, artistic ability, or musical talent, is highly developed compared to other skills. Oliver Sacks has written beautifully about his experiences of such cases in his book An Anthropologist on Mars. The problem with the public notion of the autistic savant is it promotes an unhelpful stereotype of what is often a profoundly disabling condition. Most children with autism are profoundly affected, have no special talent, struggle with everyday tasks, and in many cases do not develop speech at all.

Rain Man is often cited by members of the emerging Neurodiversity movement who argue that autism should not be viewed as a sickness but an alternative and valid way of being. Autistic self-advocates frequently refer to Raymond Babbet and other autistic heroes in literature and documentary when they describe their own experience of autism. The philosopher Ian Hacking has suggested that such portrayals themselves shape and feedback into how the disorder is experienced and understood. In this way Rain Man provides a neat illustration of a representation of sickness on screen that has itself influenced understandings of diagnostic criteria as well as vice versa .

Dr Ginny Russell has written extensively about autism and how it is understood and diagnosed. Read more about Ginny’s research here.

Nation and Culture: Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, Mon 8th April, 6.30pm

The next Screen Talks event will be on Monday 8th April, 6.30 pm at Exeter Picturehouse. Dr Jennifer Barnes will introduce Richard III (Laurence Olivier, 1955). Join the event on Facebook and find out more here.

Booking Information:  Book online, call the Box Office 0871 902 5730 or buy tickets on the door (half price for students on Mondays).

Dr Jennifer Barnes has written a guest blog post for us, outlining Laurence Olivier’s contribution as director and star and the film’s place in British national culture of the 1950s:

 Richard III (1955) is the third and final Shakespearean feature film in which Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) both starred and directed. It follows the patriotic Henry V in 1944 and the internationally renowned Hamlet in 1948. There is much of interest in the film for those interested in Olivier as an actor-director, for those fascinated with Shakespeare on screen, and for those intrigued by the ways in which Shakespeare is adapted to speak to different cultural moments.


To watch Richard III is to be immersed in the national culture of 1950s Britain following the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. With its emphasis on colour, spectacle and monarchical imagery, Richard III continually looks back to the Coronation of 1953 and the film offers an extravagant celebration of Britain’s national past and present. Showcasing Richard as the ultimate hero-villain and a “legend of the crown of England,” Olivier’s screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s play revels in a glorification of the national image and of the high cultural values associated with Britain’s national poet. Remembering Britain’s theatrical past through the cinematic present, Richard III draws an explicit parallel between the so-called Golden Age of Elizabeth I and the new Elizabethan age, a parallel that is further cemented by the way in which Richard III continually cites the Technicolor documentary film of Elizabeth’s Coronation, A Queen is Crowned. As the distribution poster announces, the instantly recognisable voice of Laurence Olivier narrates A Queen is Crowned and the mood of national celebration and renewal that it captures is evoked throughout Richard III. Accordingly, the film begins not with Richard’s famous opening soliloquy (“Now is the winter of our discontent…”) but with a fantastic Technicolor Coronation.


My research into the background of the project reveals that Richard III was designed as a prestige production, one that was intended to shore up the reputation of the beleaguered British film industry at home and abroad. Conceived of as a project of both national and international importance, it became the first feature film to be premiered on US television simultaneously with its release in cinemas, reaching an audience of millions. With this in mind it is perhaps no surprise that Olivier’s performance as Richard III is so clearly embedded in cultural memory. The apparently indelible mark left on the role by Olivier has informed incarnations of Shakespeare’s Richard ever since. Anthony Sher, struggling to come to terms with the ghost of Olivier’s Richard whilst preparing to play the part himself, described Olivier’s delivery in the 1955 film as “imprinted on those words like teeth marks.”

Richard III certainly represented an important milestone in Olivier’s career. Six months before the film’s premiere in London, critic John Barber wrote a particularly vituperative article for the Daily Express that accused Olivier of preferring Hollywood to Britain and privileging the screen over the stage. Olivier, said Barber, had “lost his way.” Barber must have particularly enjoyed Richard III. The film presents Laurence Olivier at the helm of a British performance tradition that encompasses other famous actors celebrated for their performances as Shakespeare’s “bottled spider.” Indeed, Richard III includes, amongst others, references to Richard Burbage (1567-1619), Edmund Kean (1787-1833) and Henry Irving (1838-1905). When, in the opening scene, we watch Olivier’s Richard slowly lower a coronet onto his head, we are watching Olivier reassuming what the Financial Times described in 1955 as “that crown of heroic British acting which is his by rights.”

Find out more about Jennifer Barnes’s research here: