Monday, June 1, 2009

Have Mercy!: A Semiotic Reading of the Opening Credits of "Full House"

I took my first trip to San Francisco last weekend, where this picture was taken. I was reminded of a paper I wrote a couple years ago on the opening credits of "Full House":

“Whatever happened to predictability?
The milkman, the paperboy, and evening TV?
You miss your old familiar friends
waiting just around the bend…”

These lyrics are how we not only recognize, but also look back on one of, if not the definitive family sitcom of the 1990s, “Full House.” Over its eight-season run (1987-1994), the show became known for promoting conventional family themes and values, despite its unconventional setting: a household with no mother and not one, but three patriarchs. It debunks and upholds traditions – both of the American family and the American sitcom – at the same time, and while adhering to a sense of homogeneity, it puts its own spin on things, which is what makes it stand out from other sitcoms. As evident in the opening credits, each member of the Tanner family is unique, with strongly varying traits and interests, and how these traits and interests play against each other is what adds flavor – and comedy – to the show’s happenings and conflicts. According to Brett Mills, “television situation comedy depends on a set of characters who live and work together, who are strongly differentiated in terms of ‘personality.’ Plots derive from absurd predicaments and good-natured power struggles that result from sharing quarters." "Full House" presents common relatable family themes and issues, and thus unites a large audience across the nation who speak the same semiotic language and uphold the same values as highlighted in the show – most notably family and Americana. At the same time, however, the show’s ability to suspend any disbelief – as well as its unconventional structure featuring three patriarchs – creates a new reality for the viewer. The sitcom’s episodic formula revolves around the three bachelors attempting to raise the three precocious little girls, who often get the best of them. The girls break the rules but admit their mistakes and learn their lesson by the end of the episode, often hugging one of their father figures with touching music playing in the background.

The Season Four (1990-1991) edition of the sitcom’s unforgettable opening credits begins with the theme song’s nostalgic and heartwarming lyrics sung over a shot of Michelle Tanner, played by the very young Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, sitting in between her two “uncles” in a moving red convertible. It is sunny and beautiful out. As the camera zooms out, we see the whole Tanner clan – Danny, DJ, Stephanie, Michelle, Jesse, and Joey; Danny is at the wheel. Dissolve to an aerial shot of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, a classic piece of American iconography. CUT TO: die-hard Elvis fan Uncle Jesse (John Stamos) sitting on a bench under a tree, playing his acoustic guitar, all smiles. CUT TO: neat freak Danny (Bob Saget), standing proudly next to his red convertible, wiping a smudge off of the windshield. CUT TO: comedian Joey Gladstone (Dave Coulier), sitting on a railing by the water, boats visible in the background. He is talking, joking, gesturing, and takes off his sunglasses. CUT TO: oldest sister DJ (Candace Cameron), adjusting her own school picture on the mantle with pride and – of course – a smile. CUT TO: middle child Stephanie (Jodie Sweetin) throwing a Frisbee for her dog Comet, smiling at the camera. CUT TO: adorable little Michelle, jumping on her bed, pigtails bouncing up and down. CUT TO: Rebecca Donaldson (Lori Loughlin), the only older woman figure on the show, smelling flowers just as beautiful as she is, running her fingers through her hair. Then of course we cut to the three patriarchs, sitting on a railing by the dock where we saw Joey before, when Danny looks at his watch, realizes what time it is, and the three of them are off…to the picnic they’ve prepared on the lawn in front of San Francisco’s famous row of Victorian houses, the Painted Ladies (contrary to popular belief, the Tanners don’t actually live in one of these houses).

Much of the meaning we can derive from the credit sequence is in how it compares to other classic sitcom credit sequences. “Full House” is unique (or was at the time) in that the opening sequence did not feature scenes from actual episodes; each main character/cast member is introduced separately, performing an action that is indicative of one or more character traits, until they “notice” the camera and flash a winning smile. These trait-displaying actions emphasize the personality differentiations of the show’s principle characters, yet the opening and closing shots show the whole family together, whether it be riding in the car or working together to set up a picnic that they can all enjoy. The syntagm, or sequencing of signs, in the credits allows us to see the whole family, then breaks it down into its individual parts, and when we see them all together again, we have a better understanding of the family as a whole. In addition to the window into the characters and their collective relationship that the opening credits provide, many of the objects we see – the classic red convertible, the acoustic guitar (alluding to Jesse’s obsession with Elvis Presley), the trolley seen in some versions of the opening sequence – are pieces of classic American iconography. These icons juxtaposed with the character individuality and family unity that are also displayed in the sequence are indicative of what the show is all about. It is a classic modern American family sitcom with an opening sequence that, years in the future, will remind people of the 1990s American family – conventional in values but increasingly unconventional in structure. We are drawn to the Tanner family because they are so relatable and yet so different from other sitcom families.

Brett Mills states that today’s sitcom fathers reflect the diversity that characterizes a society at large. “Full House” presents us with three very different father figures who each have their own way of dealing with the girls. Joey, the comedian and Danny’s best friend, uses humor, voices, and characters to teach the girls. Jesse, the rebel rock ‘n roller and brother of the girls’ deceased mother, often lets the girls get away with things, but his growing experience with them benefits him once he has children of his own. Danny, the cleaning-obsessed talk show host – and the girls’ real father – adheres most closely to the sitcom dad archetype; he is the most protective and strictest of the three, but according to him, “I don’t yell, I guide!” The Season Four credits are significant in that they are the first of the series’ run to feature Rebecca Donaldson – Danny’s cohost on “Wake Up San Francisco”, Jesse’s wife, and the show’s only adult female/mother figure – as a principle character. It is not until halfway through the series that they introduce a mother figure; as the family evolves, so does the show’s opening sequence.

“Full House” takes place in San Francisco but was filmed in Los Angeles; therefore the opening sequence has to do a good job of making its audience believe that the Tanners are in San Francisco even though it is far from the truth. Ellen Seiter states that indexical signs rely on the co-presence of a signifier and its signified. Television tends to place an enormous stress on the connection between an image and its location as it exists in real time and space. All interiors of the opening sequence were shot on set in LA, but most exteriors – the ones that feature identifiable places around San Francisco – had to be shot on location. We can’t tell this from the opening credits – partially due to our suspension of disbelief – and we accept that the Tanners are in San Francisco. This is exactly what people mean when they say that the camera never lies; Umberto Eco states, “Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used to tell at all."

The reason we don’t notice any of this is because of the cognitive compression effect, which is the result of the TV medium presenting in compacted form for time-constrained transmission. Consequently, we barely have time to process topics/implications/meanings contained in the message. The meaning is thus suspended, which is why TV is so easy to watch until we read into it on a theoretical level. On the surface, the Tanner family seems too cheesy to be real, with all of their catchphrases (“Have mercy!”, “How rude!”, “You got it, dude!), their wacky mishaps, and their touching moments enhanced by a sappy soundtrack. But they represent the most defining qualities of the modern American family – both the good and the bad – and they serve the same function: “a stabilizing force, changing slowly if at all, resisting pressures for change outside itself” (Hodge & Kress). We can look to “Full House” as a model for the modern American family – unconventional, yet upholding traditional values – as well as the modern American sitcom. Those of us who have grown up watching this show will look at it with nostalgia and reassurance that…

“Everywhere you look, there’s a heart; a hand to hold onto
everywhere you look, there’s the face of somebody who needs you
when you’re lost out there and you’re all alone
a light is waiting to carry you home…”

Danesi, Marcel. Understanding Media Semiotics. London: Arnold, 2002.
Hodge, Robert, and Gunther Kress. Social Semiotics. Ithaca, New York: Cornell
University Press, 1988.
Mills, Brett. Television Sitcom. London: British Film Institute Publishing, 2005.
Seiter, Ellen. "Semiotics, Structuralism, and Television." Channels of Discourse,
Reassembled. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Gay Vampires?!: Queer Subtext in the Horror Genre

Although it may come as a surprise, a prominent area of focus in queer media studies lies in the horror genre, which is normally pretty heterosexist.....but what defines this genre is that it plays into our fears. The queer community experiences great fear in coming out of the closet and is very familiar with horrors such as AIDS and hate crimes. Like the monsters in horror texts, the queer community is often perceived as destructive to the moral fabric of society. They are often rejected for being who they are and prevented from living a "normal" life. Yet like the protagonists in horror texts, they also fight to overcome an oppressive and destructive evil.

In the 1980s, a decade that was dominated in America by the conservative religious right, horror texts - as well as homosexuality - were considered evil. Filmmakers (especially gay ones) decided to play with this and invert the conventions of traditional horror films. In many examples of queer horror, the villains (especially werewolves and vampires) are not necessarily evil, just misunderstood. These films skillfully and subtly address the cultural anxieties surrounding the gay community.

In A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge, Freddy Krueger possesses Jesse, a teenage boy, in his dreams to continue his murdering in the real world. Critics and viewers alike have noticed a highly evident subtext of Jesse's repressed homosexuality in the film. He is afraid that "something is trying to get inside my body."

Vampires serve as common media representations of the queer community, and for the most part, they embrace this. It depicts them as an elite group that doesn't follow the usual constraints of society. It is also fairly easy to see the connection between bloodsucking and the AIDS virus, which, in the 80s, was largely believed to be a gay disease. Some prominent examples of queer texts concerning vampires include The Lost Boys (1987), directed by Joel Schumacher, who is openly gay. This film deals with a battle between vampires and a group who call themselves "fighters for justice, truth, and the American way." The vampires seduce a teenager into joining them by having him drink blood. In Interview with the Vampire (1994), Tom Cruise seduces Brad Pitt into becoming a vampire (or a member of the queer community), and the two of them essentially become a gay couple raising their "daughter" (a little girl who they vampire-ize), Kirsten Dunst.

The 2001 horror film Jeepers Creepers and its 2003 sequel were directed by Victor Salva, an openly gay man and convicted child molester who confessed to 5 felony counts of sexual relations with a 12-year-old boy in the late 1980s. Unquestionably, themes of homosexuality and pedophilia do come to the surface in Salva's films. The Creepers franchise is a rare horror specimen in that the victims of the villain (the Creeper) are not virginal young girls, but rather young men (in the sequel, a busload of shirtless jocks). In the first film, the Creeper's victim is the boyish Darry, a supposed "closet case." The monster is completely uninterested in Darry's sister, but he rams his shaft-like truck into the trunk of Darry's car. Here is a good review/queer reading of Jeepers Creepers.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a large gay following and is probably the best example of queer horror on television. It features stylish and powerful female characters as well as queer characters, and it makes outsiders cool. Charmed also featured queer themes and characters, as well as lesbian undertones.

Other examples:
- The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a parody of sci-fi and horror movies, whose Dr. Frank N Furter is a "sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania" who creates a blonde, tan man (just like Frankenstein) named Rocky Horror for his own pleasure
- Michael Jackson's Thriller video, in which MJ warns his date that he's "not like other guys" right before he turns into a werewolf

What is it with the connection between horror/the supernatural and sexuality? For more on this topic, click here.

"Sleeper": Allen pays homage to greats of silent film

One of my favorite Woody Allen films is “Sleeper”(1973). Allen is more or less known for his talkier films, which are characterized by intellecual, witty dialogue and satire on modern American culture. However, in “Sleeper,” one of his earlier films, Allen displays a strength for slapstick and physical comedy and pays homage to the silent films of Chaplin, Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. The writing is brilliant, the pacing is fantastic, and the physical comedy is whimsical and spot-on. Allen proves that he has just as much of a gift for physical comedy as he does for verbal comedy (especially in his portrayal of a robot), and he makes very good use of props and sight gags.

Allen has always displayed a love for the Golden Age of Cinema throughout his long career. The opening titles and scores for most of his films serve as homages to silent film. Many of the hilarious, wacky chase sequences in “Sleeper” are underlined by ragtime music. Here's a snippet of an article from Film West, Ireland's Film Quarterly, about the music of Woody Allen's films.

Allen puts a twist on his tribute to silent films like Chaplin's "Modern Times" by setting "Sleeper" 300 years in the future. Although his vision of the future is slightly over-the-top for the sake of comedy, this vision also serves as commentary on the direction he thinks American society is headed. The film was originally about how people in the future are forbidden to talk, which would have provided a perfect premise for a modern silent film. However, Allen has such a talent for witty dialogue that he found writing it hard to resist. Thus, the story turned into that of a man who was cryogenically frozen in 1973 and is awoken two hundred years later. (Sound familiar? "Austin Powers" ripped off of this movie completely.)

In 2173, America is under the control of a fascist regime, people get high by rubbing a metal orb, and sex doesn’t exist anymore but couples have a machine called the “orgazmatron.” Allen even had a meeting with Isaac Asimov to confirm scienfitic feasibility of some of his screenplay ideas, and the influence of the original concept is still present in the physical comedy of the film. "Sleeper" falls into the sci-fi comedy subgenre, of which other examples include "Spaceballs" and "Men In Black" (Here's a list of the highest grossing sci-fi comedies).

Funny Ladies

I thought I’d take a look at some prominent comediennes and comedic actresses of the 1970s, because there are quite a few, and they are all unbelievably talented. The 1970s were a time that saw lots more comedic roles for women – however, there was still progress to be made concerning women in comedy. Like Katharine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby” and Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like it Hot,” Diane Keaton is funny in “Sleeper” because she’s ditzy, a little bit crazy, and not very bright. The brilliant Madeline Kahn also played stereotypical female roles in the comedies of Mel Brooks, and although she had more screen time than any other women in these films, she was only onscreen for less than a handful of scenes. Also, not too surprisingly to me, a Google search of "women in comedy 1970s" proved to be far less than fruitful. However, these talented women paved the way for more three-dimensional, complex female comedic roles in the decades to come.

The 1960s TV variety show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” introduced who would become two of the most talented female comics of the ‘70s: Lily Tomlin and Goldie Hawn. When Hawn won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in the 1969 farce “Cactus Flower,” Time Magazine called her “a natural reactress; her timing is so canny that even her tears run amusingly.” Hawn later made a memorable appearance alongside Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in the 1975 Hal Ashby satire “Shampoo.” Tomlin had memorable roles in the farce "Nine to Five" (1980), "All of Me" with Steve Martin (1984), and two more recent David O. Russell films - "Flirting With Disaster" and "I Heart Huckabees." Watch Russell and Tomlin at each other's throats on set here.

Some other notable 1970s comediennes who came from television were Carol Burnett and Gilda Radner. Lucille Ball was Carol Burnett’s mentor. “The Carol Burnett Show,” a variety program featuring Burnett in countless hilarious and memorable roles, ran from 1967-78 and was a huge hit. Burnett later appeared as the mean Miss Hannigan in the film version of the musical "Annie" (1982). Gilda Radner, one of the original female cast members of “Saturday Night Live,” gave us Roseanna Roseannadanna and Baba Wawa. She met husband Gene Wilder on the set of the 1982 romantic comedy “Hanky Panky,” directed by Sidney Poitier. Another of the many talented female comedic actresses who worked with Gene Wilder was Teri Garr, who appeared in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” (1974), “Oh, God!” (1977), and “Tootsie” (1982), for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Luckily, we are once again experiencing a period ripe with successful women in comedy – Tina Fey (if you don’t watch “30 Rock,” you should – it’s one of the funniest, smartest shows on television right now), Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, Kristen Wigg, Amy Sedaris, and Leslie Mann, to name a few - in both television and film. These women have been hailed for being not just funny, but smart and sexy as well. In Vanity Fair magazine in January 2007, Christopher Hitchens wrote an article called "Why Women Aren't Funny." Obviously, the article caused quite a backlash, and Vanity Fair published a response article by Alessandra Stanley entitled "Who Says Women Aren't Funny?" The cover featured Silverman, Fey, and Poehler copping a feel. However, I agree that the argument of the second article was weak, basically saying "There are a lot of funny women! But in order to be accepted as funny, they have to be hot too." Male comedians don't have to be sexy, but women do, otherwise they are classified by people like Christopher Hitchens as butch, dykes, and Jews. Here is Hitchens' rebuttal to the response to his article: Why Women Still Aren't Funny.

Unfortunately, despite all of these female talents, sexism is still ripe in the comedy genre. Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up" (2007) was hailed for giving comedic actresses, like the very funny Leslie Mann, a chance to shine in larger roles in comedies that weren't considered "chick flicks," but there was still a large response - including that from the star, Katherine Heigl - saying that these roles were sexist. Women in comedy have come a long way since the '50s with the help of many talents, especially those in the '70s, but how long will it be before women can be widely accepted as funny people, not just as funny women?