In keeping with Grad/Aperture’s new tradition that dissertation defence reports should be written by a friend or former student of the defendee, read all about (Dr.) Andrée Lafontaine’s successful defence, summarized in glorious and loving detail by our own Papagena Robbins!
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This Friday October 31, 2014 the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema saw its second PhD defence ever, occurring only 30 days after Dru Jefferies exciting inaugural success. Andrée Lafontaine, who (also) began the program in its first year (2008) as a transfer from UQAM’s Semiotics PhD, successfully defended her dissertation, “Sink or Swim in Liquid Modernity: the Chronotope of the Modern Woman in Early 1930s Hollywood,” passing the committee’s examination (again) without revisions.
The examination room was filled with Lafontaine’s supporters, colleagues, professors and family members, in addition to chair, Dr. Genevieve Rail from the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, and the examining committee, thesis supervisor, Martin Lefebvre, internal committee members, Katie Russell and Haidee Wasson, and external-to-the-department committee member, Mary Esteve (English, Concordia). Also present, virtually through Skype, was Lafontaine’s external-to-the-university committee member, Dr. E. Ann Kaplan, a Distinguished Professor of English and Cultural Analysis and Theory at SUNY Stony Brook, and author of numerous books on postmodernism, feminism, and psychoanalysis in film history and theory. Aside from a few problems with volume and screen positioning, Kaplan’s remote participation seemed to easily integrate into the process.
Lafontaine’s presentation started with a clip from the 1934 film Born to Be Bad, a film that depicts its female protagonist in a manner Lafontaine theorizes as the most typical of the modern woman chronotope: she is hard-boiled, successful, able to overcome diversity, but young and svelte, too, of course. Starting from the self-reflexive early research question, “why are the women of pre-Code films so compelling?” Lafontaine found that, in the course of her research, the concepts of liquid modernity and the chronotope, theorized by Zygmunt Bauman and Mikhail Bakhtin, respectively, helped her the most to understand what had captivated her as she considered the temporal anomaly when she began the project. Central to her argument is that the women in these films are less within modernity than they are a metaphor for modernity; the modern women chronotope, which Lafontaine establishes, helps us to see how many of the female protagonists in early 30s Hollywood films embody modernity in all of its ambivalent, shifting, flowing tumult.
After her presentation, Kaplan enthusiastically jumped in to start the first question round, describing Lafontaine’s work as an “impressive,” “ambitious” “tour-de-force” that “impressively,” simultaneously occupied media studies, cultural studies, philosophy and film studies. Kaplan also noted that her archival research, primarily looking into how the term “women’s films” was used at the time, was “beautifully done,” exposing, ultimately, something Kaplan hadn’t considered, that the public reception of this modern woman trope was one of hope. Most of Kaplan’s questions revolved around potential avenues for expansion (a theme in the committee’s question period that day): What might the modern woman chronotope look like if Lafontaine had looked at Paris’ film output and culture within the same period? What happens to the modern women chronotope in the late 30s that makes such a figure less desirable to audiences?
Concordia English professor, Mary Esteve, openly considered Lafontaine’s study from her own disciplinary perspective next, wondering how the wider field of modernity studies, of which Esteve is a part, might be brought to bear on Lafontaine’s conclusions. Esteve remarked on Lafontaine’s idea that the modern women emerges in film in the 1920s, conveying confusion around such a claim, since the qualities Lafontaine points to could equally apply to many late 19th century literary figures (and could even be ascribed to the character of Hester Prynne in Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter from 1850). Lafontaine clarified that she did not think of the modern woman as an entirely new character, but as an evolution of what had come before, and that, in terms of a film historical study, the voice that cinema provided such a figure was quite an important development in the 1920s and 30s. Esteve was a bit dubious that the voices of cinematic characters might be considered substantively different from those in written dialogues. Lafontaine conceded that there was still work to be in the areas of sound, music and even the roles of the actresses and their star quality when it came to identifying the difference that the modern woman’s voice might make to the evolution of the chronotope in the 20th century.
Our department’s own, Haidee Wasson and Katie Russell were up next, both conveying praise specifically around the readability of the work. Wasson began by declaring that she “really enjoyed reading this from beginning to end.” Russell followed similarly, remarking that it was “a really nice read,” and continuing, “You have a clarity of language both with the way you talk about the films and theory; it’s crystal clear. I really like the way you critique the critics. You bring a breathe of fresh air.” (!) Wasson went on to ask about the odd periodization of the research (1929-1934), and the absence of discussion around the Hays Code outside of the initial framing of the study. Lafontaine responded that her initial fascination with “Pre-code” films, with central female characters, had to be framed away from the Code in order for her to consider these figures in their fuller complexity. Moreover, so much work had already been done, in fact the majority of scholarship, on these films in terms of the Code, claimed Lafontaine, which she ultimately found limiting. “They are so much more [than just pre-Code women in movies]!” she exclaimed. Fair enough, but Wasson did think that a fuller summary of the Pre-Code scholarship at the beginning would have helped, and perhaps a lengthier conclusion that didn’t imply the death of the modern woman at the end of the 30s. “Oh!,” Lafontaine didn’t intend to suggest that she is gone, just not as central in popular cinema after 1934. Russell, on the other hand, brought up a different kind of methodological question when she wondered about the acts of retrospectatorship, or legibility, as Walter Benjamin would call it, implicit in the concept of the chronotope, and to what extent unreleased, or marginally released, films could be read in terms of the public discourse of the time. Lafontaine answered that she didn’t write about her own perspective, but clarified that, indeed, the chronotope disappears when it stops resonating, and so her analysis is an important part of its life.
Finally, Lafontaine’s supervisor, Martin Lefebvre did not disappoint, once again, in his demonstrated appreciation of the accumulation of efforts that led to the moment, confessing that he learned a lot from Lafontaine’s journey under his mentorship. One of Lafontaine’s achievements that impressed him the most was her use of the modern woman chronotope as a principle of organization. Rather than organizing her impressive corpus (173 films by Lefebvre’s count!) in terms of the more common classification systems of auteur, genre, decade, or, more related to the specific content in her study, “fallen women films,” he remarked that she worked with “a different sense of continuity, [one] which rearranges our cultural furniture surrounding women, vernacular modernism, and the 1930s,” and that she had accomplished “one of the key tasks of the act of criticism,” which is “to render something perceptible which was not previously.” Eventually, Lefebvre wondered about the synchronous positions in the dissertation narrative, compelling the chair to interject a request that Lafontaine “Try to keep [her] answer shorter than the question, please,” which garnered chuckles from the audience and the committee alike. Lafontaine admitted that she had imposed a framing narrative for her modern woman chronotope (that apparently went from emergence, to containment, to exile) despite the fact that the stages existed synchronously within the corpus, but that she didn’t see this as a problem. She owned her perspective like a champ, and demonstrated what Lefebvre had said earlier in his summary of the work, “It’s a real thesis. [She shows that she’s] not afraid to theorize and interpret.”
After a second round of more specified questions, onlookers were asked to leave the room while the committee deliberated, which didn’t take long. We were are all so relieved and proud to hear the good news. I hope others will join me in wishing Lafontaine luck in the next stage of her academic career as she embarks on a provincially funded post-doc, co-directed by scholars in Montreal and at UCLA.