Published April 4, 2022
Veronica Fitzpatrick is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Modern Culture and Media and the Cogut Institute for the Humanities. She earned her Ph.D. in English and film and media studies at the University of Pittsburgh and holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Notre Dame. Her current research is a book-length close reading of The Bachelor franchise’s trademark language. She is a co-editor of World Picture and editor-at-large at Bright Wall/Dark Room, where she regularly contributes criticism.
Your work embraces materials from a broad range of media and genres, including cinema classics, art movies, Hollywood blockbusters, documentaries, and television shows. Many are embedded in everyday consumer life, often unexamined and unquestioned. What was the trigger that prompted you to shift from spectator to scholar?
I’m not sure everyday media consumption is so acquiescent! But if there is a fixed distance between spectatorial and scholarly modes of engagement, that medial zone is where I work. When I was in school for poetry, I envied the doctoral students in my courses — of what appeared to be a deeper reservoir of access, funding, time. I was reading a lot of film theory for pleasure (Rudolf Arnheim and Gilles Deleuze’s cinema books, stuff that resembles or benefits from reading like poetry) and my professor Pam Wojcik asked whether I’d be interested in assisting her introductory film course. That invitation effectively rerouted my career, but sustained contemplation and research were always hallmarks of my spectatorship. Those are the muscles I try to activate and condition in my teaching, advancing from the idea that students, too, are already savvy and curious.
[S]ustained contemplation and research were always hallmarks of my spectatorship. Those are the muscles I try to activate and condition in my teaching, advancing from the idea that students, too, are already savvy and curious.
Writing about a classic movie such as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, a TV show like The Bachelor, or the multifaceted career of an actor like Nicolas Cage, you explore the boundaries and exchanges between art and industrial production, what once would have been described as “high” and “low” culture. How do you conceive of these two spheres, and why is their polarity interesting to you?
The prospect of that polarity is only interesting to me insofar as it dramatizes the way a well-oiled analytical imagination can meaningfully revolve around any object, considering its industrial or artistic legitimacy as a product of dynamic, historically situated forces, rather than fixed criteria for aesthetic judgments that indicate or fortify “taste.” Generally, I experience the high/low disparity as pretty flattened — by cultural studies, by the democratizing engine of the internet, etc. — but I appreciate these distinctions retain a kind of anecdotal charge even for those of us who want to think deeply about ostensibly shallow texts. If all art is produced and circulated in contexts that merit analysis, and all industrial “products” can be read as artistic compositions, then everything interesting is eligible.
“What if,” you ask in your study of Polanski’s Repulsion, “we understand as horror’s most potent capacity not transgression, but revelation?” Is it possible to draw a comparison between the revelation of horror and the catharsis of ancient tragedy? Most of all, if horror is revelation, what does it reveal?
I do think horror has a purgative function. Most interesting to me is the ambivalence of release: gleeful screaming, or laughter without amusement. In that essay (on Repulsion), I’m thinking about the way horror — and specifically what I call domestic horror, where the home is a privileged site for confrontations with submerged trauma — is authoritative when it comes to how scary the world actually is, more so for some than others. So “reveal” is kind of a feint. What horror shows the spectator is something that vulnerable populations already know (e.g., monstrosity may be real, fears may be warranted); what it reveals is a self-awareness not limited to its generic history and conventions, whereby the genuinely threatening prospects of violation, cruelty, obliteration, and so on are acknowledged as part of what structures everyday life, not forces that temporarily threaten its coherence from without.
What horror […] reveals is a self-awareness not limited to its generic history and conventions, whereby the genuinely threatening prospects of violation, cruelty, obliteration, and so on are acknowledged as part of what structures everyday life, not forces that temporarily threaten its coherence from without.
What does it mean for you to read an image? You often draw comparisons between a sequence, an image, or even a detail in an image on the one hand and the broader structure of a work on the other. Rather than go from the part to the whole or from the whole to the part, your focus seems to lie somewhere between the two: on the symmetries between the structure and syntax of a work and the semantics of individual scenes. Does this description resonate with your own sense of your method?
Thank you, that’s such a generous characterization. I do take particular pleasure in observing the logic that governs a text, which I attempt to see not only as a list of its defining features, but something closer to genetic information, or what shapes how a film appears and moves and operates at molecular as well as organizational levels.
For me, to read an image is a theoretically as well as aesthetically generative process: beautifully and sometimes frustratingly inexhaustible, and inextricable from care even when the motor for study is closer to exasperation (with the limited conventions of scholarly writing, with a hurry away from textual specificity toward preset conclusions, etc.). I once heard MIT film scholar Eugenie Brinkema [’10 Ph.D., Brown Modern Culture and Media] — whose method I admire very much — say in a Q&A discussion something like (here I’m paraphrasing), “you can make that argument, but you have to make it.” That’s stayed with me. Close reading isn’t just the comb that sifts for legible units of claim-substantiation. It’s more elemental to discovering — and thus “making” — the argument. It’s important to me that close reading respects the peculiarity of moving image media versus other forms, and enriches our sense of what counts (e.g., description as well as persuasion) as argumentative discourse.
For me, to read an image is a theoretically as well as aesthetically generative process: beautifully and sometimes frustratingly inexhaustible, and inextricable from care even when the motor for study is closer to exasperation […]
A recurring theme in your research is the question of authenticity: whether in regards to an element of an actor’s technique, a directorial style, or a component in a television show’s narrative, authenticity seems to be a ubiquitous concern in the materials you study. What does this word mean in the context of the media that you are concerned with, and why is it relevant?
In Tim O’Brien’s story “Good Form,” he confesses to the reader that some of the events and details of his book (The Things They Carried) are elaborated to the point of invention. “It’s not a game,” he writes. “It’s a form.” He further differentiates the facticity of “happening-truth” from the immediacy and affective resonance of “story-truth.” As a genre scholar who studies horror, romance, and melodrama, I’m very interested in the craft decisions that simultaneously ferry the spectator away from naturalism or fidelity yet approach a credibility of emotion or sensation. So authenticity is less relevant in terms of, for example, historical accuracy — for me, imperatives of “accuracy” are like the red tape of film criticism — than as a supple quality that may survive the composed, collaborative process of creating films and TV, and even elude its authors, but be detected by, and deeply affect, the spectator.
[A]uthenticity is less relevant in terms of, for example, historical accuracy […] than as a supple quality that may survive the composed, collaborative process of creating films and TV, and even elude its authors, but be detected by, and deeply affect, the spectator.
In your most recent project you are concerned with the way intimacy is construed and represented in dating television shows. Your analysis deploys both etymology and ordinary language philosophy, two levels of interpretation that could seem at odds: one is concerned with the past of our words, their history, while the other focuses on their present, the way we use them now. How do these two modes of reading illuminate intimacy on reality TV?
My argument is more like, reality TV illuminates intimacy, and does so by curating and inventing a kind of idiomatic mutant language that has seeped, for better and worse, into ordinary parlance (“offscreen,” if you like). To take a big example, The Bachelor franchise’s extensive trademark language works not only industrially, to signpost the structure of each season’s “journey” toward love, but also conceptually, building a pervasive managerial discourse around heterosexual desire, romantic fulfillment, and the couple. So phrases like “the right reasons” derive productive tension not only from their vernacular usage — which less and less requires even a passing familiarity with the origin series — but also how they resonate literarily, philosophically, etymologically. That the project takes up Roland Barthes’ decentered fragmentary form — rather than a more conventional monograph structure — is designed to let the analysis itself be aphoristic and accumulative, not unlike the texts with which I’m thinking.