Things I Like: The work of Jeanine Basinger

Jeanine Basinger is a film historian and professor at Wesleyan University. I haven’t read all of her books discussing film, but the ones I have read I have loved.

In particular, I love A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960. Here’s the opening line:

When I was a child, powers of observation were needed, because no one told you anything.

I love that line, and this book, because it seems is how I felt about my own childhood. I’m not saying that’s an accurate representation of my childhood, I’m just saying that’s how I felt. People did things and it was almost always a surprise to me. What they did, why they did it, what they expected from me, and why what I did in response was atypical, unexpected, or wrong — these were mysteries of the universe.

Like Basinger, I attempted to derive meaning from fiction. As a young child I interpreted the world through Oz and Narnia and Susan Cooper. When I got a bit older I added in Lois Duncan, MTV, Stephen King, X-Men, and the whole host of movies on basic cable.

The thing about fiction is, it tells you why people do what they do. People in real life are often not so forthcoming, and when they do, they are often wrong about themselves. In fiction, when people lie or are mistaken, the story tells you. And it tells you what is more accurate.

Basinger’s book understands this. It, and she, understand that while fiction — movies in particular — offer one script and meaning, the audience supplies additional interpretations. We take what we are given and we make it our own.

I think about Basinger’s work when I read comics. I love comics. Yet comics do not consistently give me the stories and characters I want. That’s okay. I make my own meaning, my own stories, in the cracks and crevices, between the panels. In A Woman’s View Basinger does the same, delineating how the women’s pictures allowed women the space to create their own narratives of power and autonomy inside the overt narratives of compliance and dependence.

As William Gibson’s short story “Burning Chrome” puts it, “the street finds its own uses for things.” That includes narrative, that includes film, that includes story. Jeanine Basinger knows this, and is happy to tell you how and why.

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