Ambivalent Fictions: Youth, Irony and Affect in American Smart Film

Deborah Thomas (2009). Ambivalent Fictions: Youth, Irony and Affect in American Smart Film PhD Thesis, School of English, Media Studies and Art History, The University of Queensland.

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Author Deborah Thomas
Thesis Title Ambivalent Fictions: Youth, Irony and Affect in American Smart Film
School, Centre or Institute School of English, Media Studies and Art History
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2009-04
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Dr. Jane Stadler
Dr. Frances Bonner
Total pages 226
Total colour pages 25
Total black and white pages 201
Subjects 19 Studies in Creative Arts and Writing
Abstract/Summary Smart film, a term coined by Jeffrey Sconce in his 2002 Screen article, “Irony, Nihilism and the New American ‘Smart’ Film”, refers to a wave of controversial, contemporary American films characterised by irony, quirky black humour, deadpan performance and an observational, blank style. Apart from Sconce, there has been little theorisation on smart cinema within the field of American screen studies. This thesis redresses this gap by providing the first extended study on smart film. It draws on, and adds to, the framework provided by Sconce, via the examination of a particular ‘subset’ of smart films concerned with the representation of youth and adolescence. These specifically target a more adult, ‘smart’ niche audience, who derive pleasure from their ironic ‘cleverness’, and ‘arty’ sensibility. In particular, this project focuses on the way these films are differentiated from more mainstream narrative cinema by their generic, affective and ethical structures. Following Sconce, this thesis analyses the constituents of the ‘art of the smart’—of the aesthetic strategies that differentiate the smart youth film, and the modes of address that may encourage, or discourage, particular experiences of affectivity and ethical engagement in the films’ portrayals of their youthful, anti-heroic protagonists. This includes a discussion of their cinematic origins, their production contexts with specific reference to institutional shifts in American independent cinema, and the way their reception is particularly aligned to the cultural tastes and consumption patterns of ‘Generation X.’ This thesis argues that smart film necessitates the development of more far-reaching ways of theorising the intersection between cinema, genre and youth. It extends the current theorisation on melodrama and the teenpic by arguing that smart film incorporates stylistic and thematic features, which both intersect with these established generic modes for representing youth and the family, and, at the same time, reflect a paradigm shift away from them as a result of their emphasis on irony and black comedy. It explores the cultural significance of their representations of youth, and their familial relationships, and the way this relates to social and cinematic constructions of youth and the family over time. This draws particular attention to their engagement with more serious, socially relevant, and taboo acts of sexual transgression, and how this is problematically mediated by what may appear as an ‘inappropriate’ aesthetic of black comedy. Much of the distinction of smart youth films lies in the way they challenge normative modes of cinematic representation via their portrayals of youth, which combine psychological realism with blank, ironic affect. This has specific implications in terms of their spectatorship and reception, and leads to a central concern in this thesis to determine the ways in which irony and distanciation create ambivalent modes of engagement in these films. This is specifically examined in relation to character, drawing on the cognitive framework provided by Murray Smith’s “structure of sympathy”, and the analysis of their ironic, anti-naturalistic strategies of performance, which complicate a realist construction of character subjectivity, authenticity, and allegiance. However, this thesis also argues that an astute examination of smart film’s formal content and narrative construction often reveals key moments of sincerity, character authenticity, and avenues of empathy that may allow for a momentary emotional connection with character and the filmic world. The final chapter focuses on the ethical dimension of these films, their relationship with nihilism, and the question of whether youth films have a responsibility to offer positive role models and ethical guidance. It discusses the way that irony functions as a strategic gesture, which can offer incisive moral and social criticisms, but is complicated by the lack of cues for how to morally judge, or emotionally relate to, characters and their actions. Overall, smart films’ ambivalence suggests that the spectator may be required to extend their paradigms of response, particularly in the way these films articulate their ‘taboo’ content. This necessitates an examination of the dialogic, intersubjective process of the way the materiality of the film intersects with the socialised, contextual body of the spectator to embrace the possibility of a more active, intellectual spectatorship. Specifically, this incorporates an evaluation of the social cognitions, epistemology, and pleasures derived from the contemporary circulation and comprehension of irony, and how this can generate an understanding of smart film in relation to their affective and ethical regimes. Finally, this thesis concludes with an examination of the influence of smart film on television and current post-ironic trends in American cinema.
Keyword smart film, youth, teenpics, genre, irony, affect, ethics, nihilism, spectatorship, post-irony
Additional Notes 35,36,52,56,57,58,59,118,121,122,123,124,125,127,132,137,138,139,141,144,147,171,178,181,185

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Created: Thu, 10 Dec 2009, 18:12:18 EST by Ms Deborah Thomas on behalf of Library - Information Access Service