I’m currently sitting in departures at Heathrow Terminal 5 having spent the last few days at Royal Holloway, University of London attending the Childhood and Nation in World Cinemas: Borders and Encounters since 1980 conference. With plenty time to kill before my flight, now seems as good a time as any to write up my experience of the conference – which, in short, was one of, if not the best conference I’ve been to in my academic career so far.
So today marks two weeks since the start of #AcWriMo 2015 and the halfway point of the initiative. This is the first time I’ve engaged in #AcWriMo – short for Academic Writing Month – despite following the trend on Twitter for the past few years. I signed up for it on a bit of a whim in the last week of October, thinking that I didn’t have much on the go. November has conversely turned out to be an extremely busy month for me work-wise: I’m checking page proofs of a co-edited book on the avant-garde which will be published in Spring 2016; I’m participating in a Pecha Kucha event next week at the Belmont Cinema in Aberdeen; I’ve a book review due in at the end of the month; I’ve an abstract for a journal article due mid-December; not to mention all the other various publication projects I’ve currently got on the go in relation to my PhD thesis! I also work part-time (three full days a week) which limits the time I have to work on academic stuff. So signing up for #AcWriMo and pledging to produce the first draft of an article that I’ve not yet done a whole lot of research for was perhaps not the smartest move I’ve ever made.
This is the third in a series of posts (you can read the first two here and here) about the viva. In this entry, I’m going to list the bibliography of resources I used, the list of questions I came up with to ask myself as practice questions, a handy checklist of equipment you might need and my final hints and tips, in the hope that it might prove useful!
While my last post focused on viva survival from the perspective of preparation, in this post I deal with my experience of the event itself. As I mentioned in my earlier entry, every viva is unique. So while I anticipate this personal account might not be of much use to others, I think it’s important to share our stories – as Dr Nathan Ryder encourages in his “Viva Survivor” podcast series – about the examination in order to debunk some of the myths that surround the whole experience.
My viva took place at 10am on a Monday morning, which, for me, was ideal. I am a morning person. I work better in the mornings than in the afternoon/evenings. I’m most productive and alert in the morning. And I was also extremely nervous on the day of the examination, so knowing that it would be taking place first thing was definitely a plus for me. In terms of nerves, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so nervous. Prior to the viva I had been fortunate enough to have been interviewed for a few academic jobs, which had stirred similar feelings of anxiety. However, the interview feels like less of an unknown, given that there is a host of material online about how to approach academic interviews, the sorts of questions you might be asked and so on. The viva felt like much more of a mystery to me.
“As those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, earlier this year I successfully defended my PhD thesis on the topic of childhood, performance and immigration in post-Franco Spanish cinema. Since then, I’ve been meaning to write a post or two about this, including my experience of the viva, how I prepared for it and a list of handy resources for those yet to face the dreaded examination. My thought had initially been that writing these posts immediately after the viva would be favourable, given that the whole experience would be fresh in my mind. Life, inevitably, got in the way so here I am writing these posts nearly five months after the event. Taking inspiration from both Gloria Gaynor and Dr Nathan Ryder’s superb podcast and workshop series “Viva Survivors”, I’ve titled the posts ‘“I Will Survive” (The Viva)’. In this post, I concentrate on how I prepared for the viva.
To a certain extent, viva preparation is shrouded in mystery. It is something I genuinely did not spend time thinking about prior to the submission of the thesis (other than way back in 2011 when I “helped” a friend prep for her viva – and all I succeeded in doing was freaking myself out that I would never be able to produce a piece of work THAT BIG!). In addition, the viva was not discussed in any capacity within an institutional framework, other than a brief chat with my supervisor about prospective examiners. I do not say this to sound critical, but rather to highlight that the impetus tends to rest with the production of the manuscript of the thesis rather than on what follows.
The other curious aspect of viva preparation is that it, like theses and viva examinations, varies from candidate to candidate. Just as each candidate, thesis, viva examiner and viva examination are distinct, so too is the preparation that each candidate undertakes. This can make approaching viva preparation extremely daunting. Where do I start? What should I do? How should I divide my time? None of these questions have easy answers. I make this point not to intimidate, but rather to encourage those still to sit their viva that they should have the confidence, power and authority to shape their viva preparation as they see fit.
That said, there can be a lot of crossovers amongst approaches to the viva both within and across disciplines and fields. With this in mind, I’m sharing here the ways in which I prepared for the viva.
Last week, one image dominated most media outlets: that of three-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi. The image first appeared on my Twitter timeline on Wednesday night. On Thursday morning, I went to work (I work in a supermarket) to see that the image had been printed on the majority of that day’s newspapers including The Guardian and The Daily Mail. It was Friday before I saw any mention of the young boy’s name on Twitter. Subsequent images have appeared reappropriating the original photograph, including a cartoon and a sand sculpture (neither of which I am prepared to upload or link to here).
This image has provoked awareness of the gravity of the situation in Syria and what now seems to be being referred to as the ‘global migration crisis’, as well as outrage in the form of demands for political accountability and for the provision of aid and assistance for those caught up in the crisis. This is of course a welcome change given the prominence of narrow-minded and xenophobic attitudes towards migrants and migration often championed in some media outlets (Daily Mail, I’m looking at you). However, I am struggling with the politics and ethics of printing and/or sharing this image. I will try to articulate my reasons here, hopefully with some degree of success. I appreciate that this is an emotive topic and that not everyone will agree with my position. But my contention is that the image of the dead child is not only unethical, but also politically-charged and highly manipulative.
As those of you who follow me on Twitter may know, I recently passed my viva voce examination with minor corrections. I completed these corrections a couple of weeks ago and, all being well, I should be submitting the final revised version of my thesis this week. Since reaching this milestone, I have been asked a series of similar questions by several (uncountable) people including ‘So what are you doing now?’ and ‘Any luck on the job front?’. These questions are difficult to answer.
In terms of what I’m doing now, I explain that despite being “finished” with the thesis, I’m not really finished. I’m keen to publish the material I’ve produced throughout my doctoral research and I’m busy working away on various different projects connected to this goal. I’ve got a couple of articles on the go – one on childhood temporalities, earlier versions of which you can read here and here, and one on seascapes and immigration, partly inspired by an earlier post on immigration and death which you can read here. I’m also working simultaneously on a postdoctoral research application and a book project that will develop one of the chapters of my thesis on performance in post-Franco Spanish cinema, which I’ve previously written about on this blog (see here).
Screams and gasps accompany a dark, black and white image of a gun fading into focus. A shot is fired and a paper explosion escapes from the barrel of the gun, which is not a lethal weapon but rather a prop in an artistic performance (Figure 1). This is the opening image of Noviembre(2003), a relatively little-known and under-studied Spanish film directed by Achero Mañas. (The film is available to view here). Though extremely brief, this pre-credits scene microcosmically embodies the key themes and ideas of the film as a whole, which include the intermingling of performance and everyday life as well as the relationship between representation and reality. Noviembre is one of the films I am currently working on as part of a book proposal based on one of my thesis chapters and this post constitutes a starting point for me to think about the film in more detail. In what follows, I address the legacy of performance to which Noviembre alludes as well as the film’s reflection on the politics of spectatorship. Beyond this post, I am interested in further unpacking the ethics of spectatorship, and its therapeutic potential, in this film and I am keen to analyse the sequences involving death in this regard. Please feel free to leave feedback through the comments function below if you have any thoughts you would like to share on these or other related matters; you’ll also find me on Twitter (@FionaFNoble). More than a film, Noviembre is an artistic manifesto that produces a potent political statement about the radical potential of the arts, not just in the context of twenty-first century Spain but also more broadly in our contemporary globalised world.
A middle-aged man opens his birthday gifts surrounded by his family. He receives a sports top from his adolescent daughter and a stopwatch from his mother. From his youngest son, he receives a pipe. His reaction to this last gift is one of anger. He irritably accuses his son of screwing everything up, of being an idiot: ‘¿De dónde ha salido este idiota? ¿Por qué no sabe que no fumo?’ (‘Where did you find this idiot? Why does he not know that I don’t smoke?’). His wife urges him to calm down, noting that he is upsetting his son who apologetically declares that he loves his father. ‘Pues no me lo creo’ (‘Well I don’t believe it’), he responds, adding that ‘Yo no quería un hijo gordo […] ni con gafas’ (‘I did not want a fat son […] nor one with glasses’).
The first feature-length film of Spanish socio-realist filmmaker Fernando León de Aranoa, the critically-acclaimed Familia (1996) focuses on Santiago, a middle-aged man so lonely, he hires a troupe of actors to perform the role of his family on his birthday. Like many of León de Aranoa’s subsequent works, Familia takes the heteronormative family unit as its starting point and gradually reveals its dysfunctionality over the course of the film. Performance and representation constitute key themes of this work, epitomised by the unwanted birthday gift of the pipe. Recalling Magritte’s pipe which is not a pipe, the family in Familia is not a family but rather a representation of a family. In this post, I discuss the opening credits of the film in terms of the ways that they immediately signal the relationship between reality and representation as one of the film’s central concerns.
From its opening credits, Familia addresses the relationship between reality and representation. The film begins with a series of extreme close-ups detailing the various characters upon whom the film will focus. These extreme close-ups all form part of a family photograph, which is revealed in its entirety along with the title of the film (Figure 1). The extreme close-ups concentrate primarily on the faces of the individuals as well as on their hands (Figure 2). Rather than remaining static, the camera zooms into and pans across the photograph, enacting a scrutinising gaze that is unable to penetrate – at least at this point in the film – the performance that masquerades the underlying reality of this family portrait. Transitions between shots typically take the form of dissolves, combining the distinct individuals together (Figure 3). While initially this appears to emphasise the familial union of and relations amongst the distinct generations depicted in this family photograph, these fusing dissolves read retrospectively as highly ironic. As actors performing roles, both diegetically and non-diegetically, the connections amongst these individuals are not familial but are rather wholly fictional.
A second aspect of the opening credits that highlights the relationship between reality and representation lies in the figure of the photographer responsible for creating this family portrait. As Figure 1 (above) shows, the photograph includes the photographer through the use of a mirror that incorporates the individual responsible for taking the photograph by means of their reflection. The implied presence of the photographer, of the person who facilitates photographic representation, is made manifest in this image through the mirror, which can itself be understood as a means of visual representation. Through this incorporative gesture, the family photograph in Familia recalls Diego Velázquez’s infamous royal portrait Las Meninas (1656) (Figure 4), an image which plays with perspective and representation and which exposes the gulf between representation and reality.
The pairing of image and word in the credits of Familia constitutes a third dimension of the interaction between reality and representation. Following the listing of the principal cast and the revelation of the film’s title (see Figure 1 above), the sequence proceeds with the pairing of technical credits with appropriate images. As an example, the title of ‘ayudante de producción’ (‘production assistant’), fulfilled by José Luis Gago, appears superimposed over an image of the grandmother’s hands clasped tightly together (Figure 5). The image of two hands intertwined appeals to the notion of assistance. Further examples include the superimposition of the title of ‘maquilladora’ (‘make-up artist’) (Milu Cabrer) over an image of one of the women’s lips and of ‘vestuario’ (‘wardrobe’) (Maiki Marin) over an image of one of the men’s suit jackets. In this way, Familia self-consciously draws attention to its status as a constructed image, a representation fostered by a host of individuals and not just those present in the image.
As this brief analysis demonstrates, Familia immediately foregrounds the relationship between reality and representation as one of the film’s primary concerns. This film is one I want to work on in more detail moving forward with my research and I’m still processing my thoughts and ideas on this work. I’m currently preparing a book proposal for a monograph on the films of León de Aranoa which features a chapter on this film. I’m also considering including Familia as a case study for a monograph focused on performance in contemporary Spanish cinema, which will in part be based on my doctoral research. With that in mind, any feedback on the ideas I’ve presented here would be most welcome! Please feel free to leave comments below or to contact me on Twitter (@FionaFNoble).
Thoughts on Spanish cinema, academia and other related things