Exploring Europe: Fall 2017 Mixtape

1208426974_fNow that we’re finally wrapping that big fancy bow around the Fall 2017 semester and placing it under the tree, I’m glad to sit down and put this list together. I would like to do this for every semester I teach The Geography of Europe, Exploring Europe, or however my current department may name a course over-viewing European geography.

I could easily re-use many of these songs and videos to show off their respective countries and nations, but I’ll try to challenge myself and repeat as few of them as possible (Track 1 notwithstanding, for reasons you may understand).

  1. Der Tourist (feat. Friedrich Leichtenstein) – “Supergeil” VIDEO
    I already wrote extensively about this song’s viral, every-man-has-his-price adaptation for Edeka Supermarkets, but here is the original work. Since I don’t speak German or know much about Der Tourist, I can’t tell if it’s tongue-in-cheek level is quite as high as it’s advert counterpart, but it’s still quite catchy and Friedrich is a charisma machine.
  2. Can – “Vitamin C” VIDEO
    Jaki Leibezeit and Holger Czukay both passed away this year, which made this snippet of Can playing what may be my favorite song of theirs especially timely. I believe I read a blurb on Pitchfork once that called this “the funkiest thing to ever come out of Europe.” I don’t know about that, but you’d be hard pressed to find a catchier bass line than certain ones that Czukay spent decades churning out. True genius. Wait until I make the students sit through “Cool in the Pool” this Spring!
  3. Blind Cinema – “Objetos Ennegrecidos” VIDEO
    The worst thunderstorm that hit campus this fall (during daylight, at least) passed by around 10:30 – 11:30 am on a Tuesday or Thursday in early September. During that span, I had to run over 100 yards between buildings with no raincoat or umbrella to get from my prior class to this one in time. As I took off my shoes and dried off my socks, I put this song on for the half-soaked class to absorb, and lo and behold this may be my new favorite rainy-day music. Catalán jazz for the people.
  4. Cornershop – “Brimful of Asha” VIDEO
    Twenty years ago, SPIN magazine named When I was Born for the 7th Time their #1 album of the year, which played well with impressionable teenage me. The longtime collaboration between Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres had finally broken through in the states, which in retrospect was kind of surprising, even on the heels of Britpop madness (more on that in five tracks). To me, Cornershop were (and still are) one of the most quintessentially British bands of their era: multicultural, dance-worthy, and reeeaaaaally into drugs. As great as “Good Shit” and their cover of “Norwegian Wood” were (bonus points to the latter for being in Punjabi and infuriating future ‘Leave’ voters), “Brimful of Asha” was always my favorite track on this album. The video edit takes out Singh’s punjabi spiel that opens the album version, but otherwise it’s a classic video. Also,  I said it in class and I’ll write it here: the Norman Cook remix that ravaged the charts? Like 99% of remixes, garbage.
  5. Refused – “New Noise” VIDEO
    I’m losing track on which number cycle of love/backlash Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come is on currently, but I loved the record when I was 15, and I still love it today. This is hardly the best song from that record, but it was the closest thing they had to a “hit,” and through use on shows like Friday Night Lights, it probably still pays some of their bills. One of  my students remembered them fondly as ‘that band playing in the octagon.’   I mentioned that Refused originated in Umeå, which opened up a brief discussion about the prodigious output of metal from Northern Sweden and created a good talking point to revisit later (five tracks down).
  6. LiLiPUT – “Hitchhiking” VIDEO
    Like the crossroads that Switzerland occupies atop its Alpine perch between Italy, Germany, France, and Austria, it also sits in a weird position in pop music history. During the post-punk era, Kleenex/LiLiPUT (their recorded output, repackaged retrospectively, permanently straddles the two names) seemed to be everyone’s favorite Swiss band, kind of how their fellow countrymen Coroner would become within the metal universe a decade later. At any rate, this is my favorite song from the Kleenex/LiLiPUT catalog, and the video here is culled from a 1960’s Italian ‘shockumentary’ La Donna Nel Mondo.
  7. Bérurier Noir – “Vivre Libre ou Mourir” VIDEO
    The day after the French election this year, I posted a video on social media of Bérurier Noir playing “La Jeunesse Emmerde le Front National” in honor of the time-honored tradition the French have of pushing back against far-right intolerance. A friend from Paris commented with cautious optimism, saying that they’re happy that Le Pen lost, but that Macron is still an asshole. Then, he signed off with “PORCHERIE!” – a reference to the BN song that critically calls France a pigsty.  Anyway, BN is the punkest band ever to emerge from France and maybe the punkest band of all time, vying for that arbitrary title with The Bananas (Sacramento) and Chumbawamba (UK). Few bands of their stature have garnered such universal respect from French punks (at least, the ones I connected with for my fieldwork in 2015), and “Live Free or Die” may be one of the catchiest political punk songs ever written – and with a click track, at that!
  8. Yr Anhrefn – “Rhedeg i Paris” VIDEO
    I wanted to a music video that showed off Welsh language and culture, so I searched my memory banks for a Super Furry Animals track from their all-Welsh record, but instead came up with this. I had never heard of Yr Anhrefn, but the song is incredibly catchy and even features footage of the band playing in the Basque Country, thanking the crowd (in Basque) after wrapping their set. According to the translation offered by a Google User on the video, the title translates to “Running to Paris,” and the lyrics are about the desire to get out of Wales and see the world, but being unable to resist being drawn back to your homeland. It’s pretty powerful and somewhat universal stuff.
  9. Blur – “Coffee & TV” VIDEO
    Of all of these artists, Blur probably have the deepest catalog through which I could dig to find a video to start off my Britpop lecture. I just couldn’t resist using this one, because it may be the best music video ever made. It didn’t break in America quite as profoundly as “Song 2” had in 1997, but it was good enough for a follow-up semi-hit in the states, in spite of Graham Coxon’s dour vocals and melancholy subject matter. If you have a chance, check out the No Distance Left to Run documentary for an intimate look at a brutal time in the band’s history. Then, go out and buy everything the band ever released.
  10. Jens Lekman – “I Know What Love Isn’t” VIDEO
    Like Blur’s catalog, Sweden’s selection of indie pop videos is ostensibly a bottomless pit. I had a great time presenting a unit on Sweden’s pop music industry, drawing heavily from my friend Ola Johannsen’s work on ‘The Swedish Music Miracle.’ Other than Sondre Lerche (who is Norwegian), I can’t think of a more charming chanson singer that isn’t French or Belgian.
  11. Chisu – “Kohtalon Oma” VIDEO
    I discovered Chisu thanks to a special series that One Week // One Band ran a couple years ago called ‘Stop Making Sense,’ where contributors submitted an essay about a song in a language they didn’t understand. One writer included this painfully catchy jam from Finland, which hooked me in with not only a language I’d never heard in a pop song before, but also a captivating video. From what I can tell, Chisu is like Finland’s answer to Katy Perry or Carly Rae Jepsen: harmless pop songstresses carrying more of their respective country’s national identity than they seem to acknowledge.
  12. Pinkshinyultrablast – “Umi” VIDEO
    Shoegaze and dream pop are genres that are very easy to create but very challenging to do well. Pinkshinyultrablast, the lone Russian group featured here, have managed to become the forerunners of Eastern European noise pop. I remember when their first EP appeared seemingly out of nowhere in 2009; I think I found it on a Brazilian shoegazing blog that kept on getting shut down. Anyway, from what I’ve read, the band has had a rotating cast of members, led by singer Lyubov, who like so many artistically inclined Russians, lives in L.A. now.
  13. Frustration – “Assassination” VIDEO
    For a city I do love, I spend a lot of time discussing the dark underbelly of Paris in my coursework. This video is a fantastic, noirish slice of life where everyone’s a killer. Because I’m not French, I have difficulty explaining just what position Frustration occupies within Parisian culture (see Track 7). What I can tell you is that they are a hard ticket to get whenever they play a mid-size hometown show. Their drummer, Mark Adolf, runs the successful punk record shop and label Born Bad, a concern responsible for some of the most irresistible compilations of French underground music ever pressed.
  14. Los Nikis – “El Imperio Contraataca” VIDEO
    Until I saw their video for this song, which I think first broadcast in 1986, Los Nikis seemed like one of the many Spanish Ramones-worshippers on whom I had missed the boat. I saw that they opened for Airbag’s 15th anniversary gig in Madrid (more on that, two tracks down), but I haven’t really sat down and watched their set, which was very courteously included as a bonus feature on a DVD I had to go to Madrid to get. Now, I’m paying more attention and beginning the slow burn of obtaining all of Los Nikis’ releases, because this song simply kicks ass. Reflective of my focus lecture on Spain’s identity crisis, they even laugh at their country’s colonial mythology in the video. How perfect.
  15. Radio Futura – “Enamorado de la Moda Juvenil” VIDEO
    I saw a poorly transferred version of a video this group shot for this song sometime at the beginning of the 1980’s, then promptly forgot the band’s name. One day a few months ago, I spent nearly an hour trying to find the song, even messaging a friend in Spain who loves power-pop. Eventually, this ultra-catchy single found its way back to my brain via YouTube auto-play suggestions. So, I guess it’s not a completely bad thing. Anyway, as far as I can tell, there were a few Radio Futura bands (or, one core group with a couple of dramatic lineup and sound alterations over the course of the 1980s). This era, in which they appeared to be Spain’s answer to Blondie, The Knack, The Jags, and other skinny tie/skinnier microphone groups of the time. I can’t stop thinking of Alex Winter in character as Bill Preston, Esq. whenever I see that blonde vocalist here.
  16. Airbag – “Trailer” VIDEO
    From what I remember, I discovered Airbag off an Italian pop-punk blog called Ramone to the Bone sometime during my DC days and was hooked immediately. They’re an Andalucian trio who record catchy songs about science fiction, comic books, record collecting, and heartbreak. They’ve been a band for two decades and, despite a growing international fan base, they’ve only recorded a small handful of songs in English. From what I’m told, they’re the only group in Southern Spain playing music in this style. That’s surprising,that they haven’t spawned legions of imitators after being around and keeping their music quintessentially Spanish for so long. It’s not their fault it isn’t 1994 anymore.
  17. Stereolab – “Lo Boob Oscillator” VIDEO
    What could be more European than a British band with a French singer (singing in French) while trying to sound German? I’ll leave it at that.
  18. Manic Street Preachers – “A Design for Life”
    I understand that “Hen Wlad Fy Naudau” probably isn’t going anywhere, but I can’t imagine a better unofficial national anthem (for any country) than this song would be for Wales^. Not only did the Manics elevate Wales in the international pop music discourse at the end of the 1980’s, but they did it by essentially weaponizing art.  One of the most challenging books I read this past year was Simon Price’s tome Everything about the band, written at the end of their 90s supremacy. It may be the longest book I’ve read in some time, because not enough can be written about all that this band meant to their fans and to British pop music. Around that time, the group recorded their triumphant show at the Manchester NYNEX arena, and the video of them closing their set with this signature song made a perfect coda for the class on our last day. It makes you want to go and conquer the world, really, and isn’t that the message every professor wants to leave his students with? No? That’s fair.


^ Though I realize we can’t do much about “The Star Spangled Banner,” I do believe that “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians would be a much better, and more fitting, national anthem for the United States. Without giving too much away, I’m looking forward to premiering my ‘National Anthem’ project in GEOG/AMST 423: American Popular Culture this Spring…

I’ll see about putting a Spotify playlist together. First, I have to get on Spotify.

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Courses I’ll Be Teaching: Spring 2018

It’s November, meaning that for the undergrads, it’s registration time! Nothing quite like making students plot out their next round of classes right at the moment when they are at wits’ end with their current round. Fortunately, I’ve been enjoying my four classes this semester, and from my mid-semester evaluations and individual conversations, so have most of my students. This is fortunate, because I happen to be teaching four more courses in the Spring.

Whether or not I’ve had the pleasure of having you in one of my classes this semester, last Fall, or in my 101 sections in 2014-2015, take a look at these options for the Spring.

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GEOG 101 – World Regional Geography

This will be my fifth time teaching this introductory course (fourth time at the University of Tennessee). It takes a humanities-oriented look at the globe and how we are all increasingly connected, taking time out to focus on all of the major World Regions. The list of case studies I use here is too long to write out here and consistently increasing, but today I discussed the geographic birth of the American Indian Movement and my colleague Emma did a guest-lecture about the Westward expansion of the US within our National Park system.


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That’s not me, but my friend Eric Dawson from the East TN History Center speaking to my GEOG 320 class last fall.

GEOG 320 – Cultural Geography: Core Concepts

This course overviews the building blocks for approaching and understanding the very broad concept of Cultural Geography. It includes lessons about the perpetually-growing subject of ‘sense of place,’ gender, the battle of space v. place, as well as case studies in film geography, music, sports, and possibly anything else that ‘makes’ culture. This will be my third time teaching this course, and I always look forward to building on it.


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Somewhere outside Segovia, Spain

GEOG 371 – Exploring Europe

One of my favorite quotes by Eddie Izzard was a throwaway line in Dress to Kill (1998): “I grew up in Europe – where the history comes from!” This class unpacks that phrase by taking a critical look at the geographic processes that have made Europe into Earth’s ostensible mission control center for the past 500 years despite being a rattling agglomeration of devolving nation-states all grappling for some semblance of identity. We look at the heavy-hitters as well as the bench players of the continent, complete with a hand-picked soundtrack from all over the map.


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GEOG 423 – American Popular Culture

This course will examine the relationship between the cultural geography of the United States and the amazing breadth of art, icons, and legends that have sprung from her soil. I’m not prepared to deliver a full syllabus just yet, but some of the topics we may have on tap include literature, popular music, television, Music Television, sports, food/drink, death, Vaudeville, and architecture. This course will be cross-listed with AMST 423 (American Studies), so I’m looking forward to meeting some folks from that department who may not have taken a Geography class yet.

…Supergeil

In August 2015, I left Paris after a month of fieldwork to do some travelling in the low countries. One of my best college friends and her husband, who was in the German Air Force, were living in Bedburg-Hau, a pastoral Rhineland community outside Kleve. I had a couple of days to spend out in the country with them before returning to Amsterdam to fly back to the States. This turned out, by the way, to be a wonderful coda for a month of work abroad, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

In order to get to Kleve (where my friend’s husband, whom I had never met, was planning to pick me up, I needed to take one train from Amsterdam to Nijmegen, then quickly transfer to a bus that crossed the border, rode through some suburbs and into Kleve’s small bus depot. Because I had no cell phone service outside of France, and there were no evident sources of WiFi in the plaza where this stranger had apparently (hopefully) been dispatched to pick me and my bags up, I stood around on the curb next to Kleve’s quiet railroad depot. I debated going into a bar full of elderly locals to try to get a WiFi signal or use their phone to call my friend, but I didn’t speak any German and I was worried my ride would roll by, not see me, and return home to the countryside. So, I waited there, occasionally pacing around the traffic entry, naively hoping that every car that approached was the one sent to get me. I don’t remember how much time passed, but it felt like an eternity. ‘This is how our parents used to travel,’ I figured, wondering how many hours people whittled away waiting for rides in foreign countries in the twentieth century.

I eventually got restless and wandered over to the opposite side of the street, trying to get a read on whether this bar was worth trying to drag myself and my massively heavy suitcase into, hoping someone wouldn’t start yelling at me in German. As I would find out later, this pocket of the Rhineland had little use for English. They didn’t entertain many tourists from the UK or USA. Right as I was about to step inside, I saw a car roll up with a young man in a Red Sox cap on. “Are you Tyler?”

We got acquainted on the drive over to pick my friend up from her new job (the reason she had to send her husband to come pick me up). My friend and I shared a big hug and the predictable platitudes about how many years it had been since we had last hung out in Boston or Syracuse or wherever our paths had last crossed (probably Syracuse). We excitedly caught up as we got back to their gorgeous duplex house in Bedburg-Hau, both of them telling me about the sleepy life in the Rhineland. I asked my friend how she had adjusted to German life, and what was so different from that of the US.

What happened next is up for debate, as I don’t remember exactly how it happened. The important element was that it happened.

My friend’s husband interjected, “you should show him the video!”

My friend lit up; “Oh god, the video! Ty, have you ever seen ‘Supergeil?'” I hadn’t. Apparently, ‘supergeil’ is German slang for cool/hip/fun/etc. We sat down in their living room, they turned on their TV, and this was what happened next:

After the commercial ended (and I had taken a moment to compose myself), I told my friends “If I ever get to teach a class on the Geography of Europe, that’s what I’m going to start with on Day One.” Last week, I got to make good on this promise to a class of 40+ at the University of Tennessee, and now I have shared this with you. YOU’RE WELCOME.

If you’re interested in the story/demystifying what you just saw, you can read up on Friedrich Leichtenstein here.

My Courses this Fall at UT Knoxville

With less than three weeks until classes begin, Fall 2017 course prep is in full swing right now. Now that I’m officially a full-time lecturer at the University of Tennessee for this year, I’ll post the four courses that I’ll be teaching with a little commentary on each. If you or an undergrad you know is interested in any of these classes, let me know!

From what I understand, none of these classes have any prerequisites or co-requisites. None are restricted to Geography students, either. Students in Anthropology, Sociology, History, Global Studies, Film or Media studies are all encouraged to enroll.


GEOG 101: World Regional Geography

MWF 10:05 – 11:00 AM / BEES 266

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(classicwines.com)

This will be my fourth time teaching the nuts-and-bolts Geography course (my third time at UTK). This has a bit of overlap with the Introduction to Physical Geography course (GEOG 131), but mainly focuses on a broad introduction to Human Geography, focusing on various world regions. It’s hard enough to exhaustively cover a single place in one semester much less the entire globe, but this class gives students a better understanding of what Geography actually is and equips them to move forward with the discipline and the countless others that it touches.


GEOG 320: Core Concepts in Cultural Geography

MWF 2:30 – 3:25 PM / HBB 136

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We added this course to the catalog late, so we have plenty of spaces available. Please feel free to share this flyer with anyone who may be interested.

I had the rare privilege of teaching this course for the first time last Fall while I was still a PhD candidate. Fortunately, I had a great multidisciplinary group of students from departments as diverse as Anthropology, Chemistry, and Business. We took a field trip to the East Tennessee History Center to visit the ‘Come to Make Records’ exhibit about the St. James Hotel recording sessions and the early history of Country music in Knoxville. We compiled a pretty great list of things that make the South ‘the South,’ including a few that I’d never really considered. We also experimented with alternative formats for the final project, giving the students a chance to use more creativity than traditional research papers usually allow. I’m looking forward to teaching it for the second time.


GEOG 344: Population Geography

T/Th 9:40 – 10:55 AM / HSS 064

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Earth’s population is at a point now where it’s (1) impossible to ignore the effects of the Anthropocene and (2) at a general tipping point in terms of humanity, resources, and our role as active agents in the Earth’s reproduction. Also, to phrase it less academically, 7 BILLION PEOPLE DEAR GOD HOW DID THIS HAPPEN!? This class effectively answers that question and discusses this crucial crossroads at which the human race has found itself. We will be discussing population science and why humans do the crazy things they do just to survive depending on their place in the world.


GEOG 371: Exploring Europe

T/Th 11:10 AM – 12:25 PM / BGB 101
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I’m going to write something soon as a more expansive preview of what’s to come in this class, but I couldn’t be more excited to have the chance to teach this. Europe has been, in one form or another, the engine of Globalism, the crossroads of “East” and “West” and worthy of outsider fascination for centuries, even millennia. For now, I’m excited to begin the class with this quote by one of the best English philosopher-historians, and go from there: “I’m from Europe; where the history comes from!” – Eddie Izzard.

My contact information will go on all of my syllabi, but just in case, people can reach me at tsonnich [at] utk [dot] edu and in my office in Burchfiel Geography Building 309, or on the phone at 865-974-6033.

San Francisco, ‘The Room,’ and Teaching Geography with Bad Movies

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MARK: You guys are too much. Hey, are you running Bay to Breakers this year?
JOHNNY: I am, sure.
PETER: Not doing it this year.
JOHNNY: Hehe, chicken, Peter, you’re just a little chicken. Cheep cheep cheeeeeep [unidentifiable high-pitched noises]
PETER: Who you calling a chicken? I just don’t like all the weirdos. There’s… too many weirdos there.

I transcribed the above dialogue as accurately as possible from one scene from Tommy Wiseau’s self-produced 2003 film The Room.  In it, two of the film’s main characters, Mark (Greg Sestero) and Johnny (Wiseau) share a moment with their psychologist(?) friend Peter (Kyle Vogt) in Johnny’s living room. Wiseau, who also wrote the script and directed the film, seems to have little grasp on (1) how “guys” talk when they hang out or (2) editing. The script goes out of its way to mention the Bay to Breakers run, a San Francisco institution that began in 1912, throwing yet another local-ism onto a haphazard pile of ways through which Wiseau “places” his film.

The Room is, by some measures, up there with Vertigo (1958), The Rock (1996), and Homeward Bound 2: Lost in San Francisco (1996) as quintessential ‘San Francisco’ films, which is ironic for multiple reasons. Most obviously, outside of Hitchcock’s masterpiece, none of those films are regarded as AFI-level cases of cinematic genius. The Rock, for one, is a loud, stupid and incredibly fun Bay/Bruckheimer film that reinvented Alcatraz and gave us the greatest piece Elton John-related dialogue in cinema history. The Homeward Bound films were family-friendly crowd-pleasers that starred adorable, wisecracking pets. The Room, however, is its own beast. Despite being, by many measures, one of the worst (or at least surreally stupid) films ever made, it demonstrates how valuable poorly-made films can be in understanding representation of urban landscape.

Film and Urban Geography

Cities provide ample inspiration to artists of all media, and in turn become drawn, filmed, sang about, and ultimately interpreted based upon their art. This phenomenon has been well-documented among cultural geographers. In film, Chris Lukinbeal has published numerous pieces about the multi-faceted geographies of the film industry, both part and parcel of Los Angeles and how other landscapes are interpreted through cinema. Many geographers have expounded upon the relationship between music and place, and Lily Kong wrapped many early examples into her 1995 call for greater involvement of music in geography. Steve Hoelscher has dedicated much of his recent work to the Magnum photography archive and even examined the effect of photography on historical urban geopolitics. Creating a comprehensive catalog of literature here would be a herculean task.

Back to The Room. Like most who attempt to break down its threadbare plot, pointless characters, and insanely counter-intuitive production values, I struggle at explaining just how bad it is. Cult audiences equally celebrate its awfulness as the worst film ever made as they do flock at a chance to see it in a communal (often intoxicated) environment and engage in a culturally-circulated set of practices that go with the screening. Audience members scream along with silly lines of dialogue, shadow-cast questionably useful scenes with the main characters tossing footballs to one another, and even shower the screen with plastic spoons at various specific cues. Film scholars like Matt Foy have gone into great detail about these sub-cultural rituals, even in cases, succinctly (as possible) explaining what the movie is about:

In addition to Johnny, Lisa, and Mark, the key players include Denny (Philip Haldiman), a good-natured but awkward man-child who lives next to Johnny (Johnny pays his college tuition) and seems to lack basic social skills (early in the film, he joins Johnny and Lisa in bed pre-coitus to “watch them” but seems unaware of the sensitive nature of his request), and Claudette (Carolyn Minnott), Lisa’s mother who simultaneously praises Johnny while encouraging Lisa to exploit him financially because she cannot support herself. Other characters meander in and out without affecting the plot, mostly as foils to establish Johnny’s pristine character or Lisa’s manipulative heartlessness. The result is a film so earnest yet strange that it attracts audiences through morbid revulsion (Foy 2012, 5).

I’ve written previously (for a course on Global Soundtracks) about how The Room reinforces the importance of bad movies in the conversation on film music. Where great films with iconic and/or Oscar-winning scores have been teaching young filmmakers and cinema scholars the “do’s” of film music, bad films could be equally valuable in teaching the “don’ts.” This dynamic applies equally in understanding how films reflect and represent urban spaces, particularly in the United States, and even more particularly in San Francisco. Where Vertigo demonstrated how Hollywood films can work with, and flourish through, urban iconography, The Room provides a beacon of trying too hard to do so, and looking silly in the process.

Tommy Wiseau’s San Francisco

Though Los Angeles is well regarded as “the world’s most photographed city” (cf. Thom Anderson’s brilliant Los Angeles Plays Itself), San Francisco is definitely among the top runners-up in that category, as well as among the most mythologized and laid-bare in its iconography. The Golden Gate is probably North America’s most iconic and grandiose bridge outside of Brooklyn, Alcatraz is among her most storied and infamous small islands (and prisons), and the Painted Ladies row of houses has embedded itself into our national subconscious both through films featuring Robin Williams in drag and through sitcoms featuring Bob Saget working clean. Rice-a-Roni commercials carved such a hegemony in the 1980s and 1990s that cable car operators could not avoid mentioning it to over-zealous, jingle-singing tourists on their routes.

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It is through these cinematic representations of his adopted hometown that Tommy Wiseau weaves his overbearing establishing shots. Where most filmmakers implement one or two establishing landscape shots of the city setting, Wiseau inserts at least twenty. The first two minutes of the film become a veritable catalog of cliche’d imagery of the Bay Area. The viewer sees, interspersed with the opening credits, a wide shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, a bucolic fishing dock on the North Bay, another wide shot of Alcatraz Island, a shot that tilts up from the Bay to a San Francisco skyline silhouetted through fog, a (slightly) tighter shot of a cruise boat passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, a shot that slowly pans across the Palace of Fine Arts (the site of a dramatic scene in The Rock), a shot that tilts down Nob Hill, a shot that tilts down with the Painted Ladies houses in the background of Alamo Square Park, a shot of a cable car (with our hero on it… a true man of the people) passing in front of the Grace Cathedral, and ultimately, the often-recycled exterior shot of Johnny’s condo.

To the Western viewer, any one of those shots might be sufficient in establishing where the movie takes place, but Tommy Wiseau doesn’t know the meaning of cinematic restraint. (Seriously, he may literally not know the meaning of the term). He removes any doubt whatsoever of where we are, and despite having an ‘insider’ knowledge of San Francisco, he runs lovingly into the arms of cinematic cliche and reinforces the most mainstream, ‘outsider’ perspectives of that city’s icons.

Taken as a whole, these are examples of how filmmakers (both talented and less so) conflate the “real” with the “reel.” The “real” here is the fully extant city of San Francisco, which is a living, functioning, and constantly changing city that millions of people pass through each day. The “reel” in this case is a socially accepted and publicly ascribed cinematic landscape that completely disregard’s the city’s hinterland and even most of its forward-facing public sphere. In real life, Tommy Wiseau grew a minor clothing empire, accumulating enough independent wealth to purchase a building not far from the tourist Mecca of the Marina District and Pier 39. In reel life, Johnny (no apparent last name) makes good money working some nondescript job in a bank and lives in a nondescript condominium.

Wiseau’s script (the incongruity of which could probably formulate its own MFA thesis) often conflates the real and reel. For example, in another selection from the inane dialogue bullpen, Mark tells Johnny about a girl he knew who had been abused to the point of winding up “in a hospital on Guerrero Street.” Wiseau, for reasons only known to him, either used this line as a cute way to work Guerrero Street into the script, or he just could not think of any other street than the ones he had previously lived on. In the real San Francisco, there has never been a hospital anywhere on Guerrero Street, but because of Wiseau, there is one in reel San Francisco.

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HA HA HA, What a connection, Tyler!

As with this apocryphal hospital and the superfluous conversation about Bay to Breakers, Wiseau takes special care to “place” his film in San Francisco, going out of the way with incorporating verbal/contextual representations of the city as much as he does with tired visual representations. Where the common mantra implores artists to “show, not tell,” Wiseau has managed, with his city, to show AND tell in a manner that is as overbearing as much as lacking in self-awareness. Granted, his motivation to do so renders these indiscretions marginally understandable.

The “Roof” and a Distorted Skyline

As the story (specifically, Sestero’s believable version) goes, the duo met in an acting class in the late 1990’s. Wiseau decided that he wanted to break into Hollywood, so he wrote The Room and decided to shoot it himself when he (for some reason) couldn’t find a major studio to produce it. They did all the principal filming in Los Angeles between a sound stage that played their condo, one that played a basketball court, and a couple of exterior shots in an alley near the lot where their camp set up. A number of the movie’s most popular scenes (e.g. the “WHAT KIND OF MONEY?” scene involving Denny’s near-deadly run-in with completely incongruous Armenian-American gangster Chris-R; the aforementioned Guerrero Street conversation; a stoned Mark nearly throwing Peter to his death when confronted about his affair with Lisa) took place on the condo’s roof.

This “roof” was actually played by a ground-level scene set built in front of a poorly-lit outdoor green-screen that, as Sestero explained, rendered these scenes with an otherworldly, unsettling glow. The San Francisco skyline digitally placed behind the actors, manipulated liberally, may constitute one of the film’s greatest “crimes against geography.” Though these rooftop scenes purported to “place” the film among the San Francisco skyline, they only confuse the viewer trying to obtain some sense of the condo’s location (real or reel). If this were a real location, either the building would have had to rotate or the buildings would have had to flip locations around them. Perceiving the reel location, however, accounts for the appropriate suspension of disbelief.

“That’s Meeee”: Forays into the Real San Francisco

Once the principal filming in Los Angeles had wrapped, a skeleton crew including Wiseau and Sestero (who also line-produced the movie, because why not) went up to the Bay to shoot these scenes that would reinforce the viewers’ imagined geography of The Room. These included all of the establishing shots from the beginning of the film as well as those used for scene transitions, many of which were filmed at varying levels of legality. Three of these scenes included dialogue between Johnny and Mark, two of which are both deeply carved into the “best worst movie” canon.

One of these three only features cursory, dubbed dialogue of the two running together around Golden Gate park, ultimately tossing a football and tackling one another homo-erotically. The two others include one confusing scene (“anyway, how’s your sex life?”) filmed in a cafe and another filmed in a Flower shop. Before I discuss the Flower Shop scene, please take a 6-minute break to listen to this amazing excerpt of Greg Sestero reading his account of how the scene came to be, and then watch it here:

I’ve gone on record saying that one could probably write a whole peer-reviewed academic paper about everything that’s wrong with this scene (my favorite assessment being Roadtrippers’ dubbing it a “black hole of human interaction” on their page of The Room locations). That being said, the Flower Shop scene provides one of few moments throughout the movie where the reel and real converge.

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While the scene exists primarily to reinforce Wiseau’s narrative that Johnny is a perfect person (he is the florist’s favorite customer, after all), the location coheres both inside the shop and outside at the establishing shot on the corner of 16th and Dehon Street. While the Flower Shop scene may be one of the most terribly crafted scenes in one of the most terribly crafted narrative movies, it is the most geographically honest moment in The Room. The exterior shot was real, the interior of the shop was the real interior, the owners were the real proprietors, and that old pug on the counter (“Hi, doggie!”) was an authentic fixture of the shop as well. Only the skeleton crew’s makeup artist (seen looking at cards near the register) and Wiseau are pure fabrications of the reel.

Concluding Thoughts

Despite the film’s shocking $6 Million budget, The Room‘s stripped-down construction of place is a great tool for teaching these fundamental aspects of cinematic geography. Whereas other movies like Homeward Bound: Lost in San Francisco (much of which was filmed in Vancouver, a city known for playing everywhere but itself in Hollywood films) provide a cursory glance at the discrepancy between the reel and the real, Wiseau’s inept production hits you over the head with this contrast. The establishing iconic landscape shots, while themselves intended as a manifestation of Wiseau’s love of San Francisco, are so overdone, cult screening audiences often take to call-and-response screaming of “WHERE ARE WE? / SAN FRANCISCO!” and “GO! GO! GO!” as the camera slowly and clumsily pans across the Golden Gate Bridge.

None of this, of course, fazes Wiseau.  As Sestero wrote in his book’s introduction:

The magic of The Room derives from one thing: no one interprets the world the way Tommy Wiseau does. He is the key to The Room’s mystery as well as the engine of its success. Tommy had always predicted his film would become a classic, embraced worldwide – a notion that could not have seemed less likely. Yet he was right. The Room became every bit the blockbuster that Tommy had envisioned, though not, of course, in the way he envisioned… Tommy continues to believe that his is the greatest film of all time” (2013, xv).

Similarly, this relationship between this great terrible movie and San Francisco only reinforces my enjoyment of The Room. Throughout my last two years living in Washington, DC, my friends and I would attend monthly midnight screenings at E Street Cinema, often dragging unsuspecting friends into the fold. The first time I went to see it, I invited a friend who had just been through a rough time in her life. Within months, she was organizing outings to the screening, even celebrating her following birthday at a screening. In July 2010, Wiseau and Sestero visited a screening there. Two of my friends, both wondering what the hell was going on, wound up sitting next to each other. They exchanged numbers, and six years later, are newly married. It does take a certain kind of appreciation of the surreal and the absurd to enjoy this movie, and the people I grew to enjoy it alongside became some of my best friends from my life in DC. Now, as I begin a career teaching cultural geography, I’ve found surprisingly relevant ways through which this great horrible movie has informed my research. Though Stefan Popescu (2013) may be correct that “the best worst movie” craze may not be sustainable, but as a singularly charming flagship of that movement to the media scholar, The Room is Tommy Wiseau’s demented gift that keeps on giving.

 

Study Abroad in Oslo and London (Summer 2017)

One of my first pieces of advice for anyone in college is, if the opportunity presents itself to study abroad, GO. Don’t even deliberate; just go. Travelling abroad freely is a rare opportunity that most people you meet (if you aren’t wealthy) may never have. To do it as part of a degree program, which may give you access to myriad places and experiences you’d never have otherwise, is an even rarer treat. Here is an opportunity to spend quality time in two major European cities and contribute to a vital program on immigration with Dr. Micheline van Riemsdijk. The last one was a big success, so if you’re looking for a summer program in geography or international relations, definitely contact Dr. van Riemsdijk. – Tyler

P.S. The hyperlink on Brixton is mine, but you could probably guess that.


Grensen Looking Toward Oslo Domkirke

Explore current and historical migration issues in Oslo and London, two global cities that house a large number of immigrants. We will spend extended time in both cities, studying their immigration histories and current migration issues through guided field trips and small field assignments. In Oslo, students will learn about the legacies of the Viking explorations and the more recent migrations of Somalis, Pakistanis, Poles, and Swedes into Oslo. In London, guided tours will explore migrant settlement in three historic neighborhoods: Brixton, Brick Lane, and Kilbury.

The course will be held online June 1-6, 2017, followed by a stay in Oslo and London from June 8 to July 2nd 2017. More information PDF here.

For more information, please  contact Dr. van Riemsdijk at vanriems [at] utk [dot] edu.