Susan Doll is a Chicago-based film and pop culture historian. Over the past twenty years she has written numerous books, including the acclaimed recent titles Florida on Film (2007) and Elvis for Dummies (2009). She also teaches film studies at the college level, works as a writer/researcher for Facets Multimedia and writes a weekly film blog at the Turner Classic Movies website. I am proud to say she is also my friend and one of the people who was instrumental in setting me on the path to teaching myself. I recently spoke to Susan about the many hats she wears in Chicago’s cinephile community.
MGS: I’d like to start off by asking you about blogging because your Movie Morlocks blog was one of the inspirations for me to start this crazy blog. The thing I really like about yours is how diverse it is; it seems like you have the freedom to write about whatever the hell you feel like, whether it’s classic films from the golden age of Hollywood or more obscure independent or foreign films. What do you like and dislike most about maintaining a weekly film blog?
SD: The best part about writing for Turner is that I am in such good company. The Morlocks are knowledgeable, passionate cinephiles who are good writers. I have learned so much from them. And, we are an extremely supportive group who frequently comment on each other’s blogs. I also appreciate my readers, some of whom follow me regularly. The readers are mostly film lovers who are passionate and knowledgeable about the subject matter, so their comments are often illuminating. I like the dialogue the blog seems to inspire in readers. The hardest part about posting a blog article each week is thinking of a topic that readers might find interesting. Also difficult is creating a voice or a recognizable perspective about cinema without just relating my personal opinion on everything. No one cares about someone’s personal opinion, though they might be interested in an informed perspective that they can learn something from or compare their own ideas with. It’s a difficult balance to maintain.
MGS: You’ve been a film studies instructor in the Chicago area for more than 20 years. I believe I’ve told you this before but I once attended all of the lectures and screenings of a film noir class you taught at the Art Institute back in the mid-nineties. I remember you pointing out details about the movies that put them in a historical/social context that I found fascinating. For instance, you mentioned that the ankle bracelet worn by Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity was an indication that her character was a little bit trashy. How exactly would you describe your modus operandi as a teacher?
SD: In my experience, people—whether they are college students or average movie viewers—want to know why a film is famous or what it means. This is particularly true of classic films that, on the surface, look so different from today’s movies. (They aren’t always that different, but students don’t see them that way at first.) That’s my m.o.—to relate why a film is important or interesting, what makes it famous, or what subtext it might have that speaks to us. To merely talk about “good acting” or the content of the plot is not enough. And, teachers have to do their homework to really get at “the meat” of a film. We have to know the history of film, the cultural history of our society, the aesthetics of filmmaking (such as editing, mise-en-scene, sound), and it doesn’t hurt to know something of the other arts—literature, painting, music. Movies are complex artistic and social artifacts; I am always in awe of how complex they are. I have studied them for decades, and the more I watch or the harder I study, the more I realize I don’t know enough.
MGS: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Elvis, one of your areas of expertise. I just finished reading Elvis for Dummies and was impressed with the concise way you were able to explain his immense cultural significance. What were your main goals in writing this book?
SD: Despite his level of fame and recognition, Presley is the least understood pop culture icon, largely due to the media’s consistent negative treatment of him and his career. Since he broke into the mainstream in 1956, he was always painted in negative terms, except in the 1960s when he was a movie star. Frankly, it was because he was a poor white kid from the South. The mainstream press has never understood Southern culture—they still don’t. In the 50s, he was made fun of for his Southern background and then attacked because of the degeneracy of rock ‘n’ roll; in the 70s, when rock ‘n’ roll was mainstream, he was criticized for his Vegas-style show that was not innovative rock ‘n’ roll; in death, he was made fun of for the way he died; in the 1980s, his fans were stereotyped and made fun of as fat Southern women who lived in the past; now, he’s a joke because his image is so ubiquitous. With the press, he just couldn’t win. However, the media never explained WHY his music was so amazing, what it meant culturally, or why he is popular among different factions of the public. My goal was to explain those things. The media be damned.
MGS: It seems like the conventional wisdom regarding Elvis’s movie career is summed up in the 1985 movie Heaven Help Us. I don’t know if you’ve seen it but there’s a scene where a young hoodlum played by Kevin Dillon is watching Blue Hawaii in the theater and wonders aloud if someone cut Elvis’s balls off. Tell me why you don’t subscribe to this point of view.
SD: Elvis and his management deliberately and shrewdly changed his image during the early 1960s—from controversial rock ‘n’ roller to Hollywood leading man. At the time, it was a smart move. His fan base expanded tenfold, and he enjoyed the best press of his career. His films fit neatly into a genre that was popular at the time known as the teen musical. As a matter of fact, at the time, his films were considered the most well-crafted movies of that genre. Other rock ‘n’ rollers of Elvis’s generation hit the skids in the early 1960s or self-destructed. Without changing courses, Elvis’s career might have petered out as well. It’s only in retrospect that this change in image/musical style was considered a bad idea. This is because the rebellious rock ‘n’ roll music of the 1950s that Elvis epitomizes has a better reputation than the mainstream, pre-Beatles pop rock of the early 1960s. Also, Elvis himself disparaged his movies after he left Hollywood because he had wanted to become a dramatic actor, and things didn’t work out that way. It’s simply not an accurate view of Elvis’s career to equate his Hollywood era with “cutting his balls off.” And, it assumes that all of his films were weak, bad, or worthless.
MGS: The only Elvis movies I’ve seen are King Creole and The Flaming Star and, being the auteurist that I am, that’s primarily because they were directed by Michael Curtiz and Don Siegel respectively! What Elvis movies would you recommend to cinephiles looking to deepen their appreciation and understanding of the King?
SD: I think Elvis’s most interesting performance is in Follow That Dream. Though there are a handful of Elvis songs in the movie, it is not a teen musical. It’s a satire of modern life, poking great fun at consumerism, pop psychology, the American Dream, etc. Elvis plays the good-looking but simple (maybe even simple-minded) son of a nonconformist who tries to set up squatter’s rights on a beach in Florida. Elvis is like a sexually attractive Forrest Gump, who seems stupid and naïve on the surface but whose perspective on situations generally turns out to be right. He’s very funny in it. Also, every red-blooded American male needs to see Viva Las Vegas because Ann-Margret will knock your socks off, and she and Elvis are so charismatic together.
MGS: You also work at Facets Multimedia as a writer and researcher. Are there any projects you’ve worked on there of which you are especially proud?
SD: I work mostly on the Facets DVD label, and we have released many great films on the Facets label that have really expanded my understanding of international film. I have lots of personal favorites, but that’s not the question you are asking. Of all the titles I have worked on, I am most proud of releasing films by directors who suffered personal consequences for making movies they believed on. For example, during the communist era, Eastern European directors had their films censored or shelved and their careers stalled or detoured when communist authorities were offended by what they saw. Some directors left their countries (Milos Forman; Vojtech Jasny); others stuck it out (Jaromile Jires; Otakar Vavra; Vera Chytilova). But, they took risks under very controlled conditions to make films they believed in. Likewise, Facets has released films from current Iranian filmmakers, especially women, who risk jail and even death to say something in their films they feel needs to be said. Their commitment and courage should make those directors who prostitute themselves to Hollywood studios to make Hangover 2 or Yogi Bear hang their heads in shame.
MGS: I’m always surprised at how many Chicago-area movie buffs are unfamiliar with Facets. How would you explain Facets to them and what would you say to lure them away from, say, Netflix?
SD: Facets is living proof that there is more to cinema than contemporary Hollywood. I am not a cine-snob, and I love most decently crafted Hollywood films that are not fodder for 12-year-old boys, but I also like documentaries, small Hollywood movies, foreign films, classics, and indies that don’t get the same attention. These are the movies that Facets carries in its Rentals dept., releases on DVD, and shows in its theater. But, it’s hard to get the word out about them, because the studios’ mega-marketing machines and the entertainment press flood America with so much hype about the latest Hollywood blockbusters that it drowns out everything else. Anyone who wants to see something more than Hangover 2 and Yogi Bear has to take an active approach and look harder to discover all that’s out there to see. There are so many movies that are clever, fun, meaningful, and entertaining, it’s a shame that they overlooked. And, realistically speaking, I know that Facets isn’t an alternative to Netflix; they are just too big. But, it should be an addition to it. Still Netflix bothers me; it’s corporate approach to cinema is antithetical to the way I think of movies as an artistic and cultural expression. I know Netflix subscribers love it, but there is something about a computer algorhythm suggesting movies to me that makes my skin crawl.
MGS: Finally, because this is a Chicago-centric blog, I’d like to ask you about Chicago movies. What are some of your favorites either in terms of what you feel are the best movies ever filmed here or ones that show off city locations the best?
SD: Hands down, my favorite Chicago movie is Call Northside 777. Shot on location in 1948, it’s a semi-documentary drama (popular in post-WWII) starring Jimmy Stewart as a reporter who investigates a 12-year-old murder based on an ad in the personals of his newspaper. His work helps to free a Polish man falsely accused of the crime because the police rushed to judgment—a storyline still relevant to Chicagoans today. The black-and-white footage of the old Polish neighborhood on Milwaukee Avenue perfectly captures working-class Chicago. Likewise, the shots of the Loop and other parts of downtown are like a step back in time. It’s based on a true story, and the documentary-style location cinematography helps the viewer believe it. Also, Chicagoans should check out Goldstein, Philip Kaufmann’s first film shot on location around the city in the early 1960s. It showcases what was new at the time—Marina Towers—plus chronicles what was about to change—the Back of the Yards neighborhood.
You can read Susan’s blog here.
You can learn more about Facets here.