Dustin HixenbaughYou have reached my (Dusty’s) home page at the Digital Writing and Research Lab at UT Austin. I use the site to collect all sorts of digital things that are scattered across the web, including materials for my classes on rhetoric and composition.

Sites for classes that I teach:

Most of the content on these sites is authored by my students. However, I also contribute occasional posts and articles. Here are a few of the pieces that I wrote for the Country Music Project site:

#HMWYBS: Nine to Five (1980)

Nine1Nathaniel claims to have selected Nine to Five (1980) for this week’s #HMWYBS because it stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, who have reunited for a new Netflix series. With all due respect to Fonda and Tomlin (neither of whom is doing her best work in this particular film), I will point out the obvious: The real and abiding reason to revisit the movie is that it also stars Dolly Parton as the tormented secretary Doralee Rhodes, in one of the greatest comedy performances by a country singer making her film debut of all time. (Don’t act like it isn’t.)


Nine to Five is one of a few films that I watched over and over again as a child (the others include Mary Poppins and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh), and I honestly couldn’t tell you how many times I have seen it. A hundred? A thousand? Seriously, it is like counting the number of times I have eaten macaroni and cheese.

I knew when it came time to select a “best shot” that I would do the Internet the service of selecting something featuring Dolly Parton. The only real question I have had to ask myself is… which one?

Nine2Is it when she threatens to turn Mr. Hart from a rooster into a hen in one shot? (Don’t think she won’t!)

Nine3When she turns the tables on Mr. Hart in one of the movie’s better executed boob jokes?

Nine4Or when she toasts Fonda and Tomlin in the movie’s memorable final scene?

My Best Shot

Finally, I settled on a shot from the scene when our heroines flee the hospital with what they think is Mr. Hart’s dead body in the trunk of Violet’s car. People tend to remember these three characters as best friends, but scenes like this one remind us that their friendship is actually young and not invulnerable to the kinds of disagreeing and finger-pointing that plague us all. Whose fault is it that Mr. Hart is dead? What will they do with the body?


The shot arranges the characters from the least to the most implicated in the murder, which also means the least to the most fed up with their job. Judy and Doralee face each other, debating how they might rationalize their involvement in Mr. Hart’s death, while Violet stares forward with her steely resolve to dispose of the body. The street lights illuminating their faces and shoulders evoke a kind of noir aesthetic that conveys the characters’ anxieties while also allowing the director, Colin Higgins, to gently play on the conventions of the thriller.

One thing I admire about Nine to Five is that it gives each of its leads a roughly equal chance to shine. Double Oscar winner Fonda organized the movie, but she takes the least memorable role, virtually daring Tomlin and Parton to steal the film out from under her. (Parton succeeds.) The three actresses share a number of shots, but this one does a particularly good job of letting them act beside, rather than on top of, one another. In this respect, I think it offers some helpful insight into what makes the overall film work as well as it does. Imagine folding this image into thirds. Fonda’s naive housewife, Parton’s lasso-throwing secretary, and Tomlin’s hard-working widow would each get their own section. They are all doing their own thing, existing at times in their own movies, but at Nine to Five‘s brightest moments they come harmoniously together, their characters distinct and all in clear focus.

But still, it is Dolly sitting squarely in the middle of the frame.


#HMWYBS: Taxi Driver (1976)

TaxiDriver1Don’t be fooled by the setting. For all its images of cars running the streets of New York, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is a western. Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), the film’s loner antihero, struts into town wearing cowboy boots and a button-down flannel shirt. He challenges one of the town’s bullies to a showdown, rescues a whore with a heart of gold, and by the film’s end has become a hero. The cab is his steed.

What I would argue sets Taxi Driver apart from My Darling Clementine (1946) and the classic westerns is not its setting, but rather the unclear lines it draws between right and wrong. Travis’s moral compass is compromised from serving his country in a dishonorable war (Vietnam). Though he knows there are villains in his midst, he can’t see them clearly through the exhaust of the taxi and the glare of the television screen. Had he successfully killed his first target (an aspiring politician) the newspapers would not have celebrated him as a hero — they would have branded him a lunatic and assassin. To resort to the terms that you used in your middle school English class, is Taxi Driver about a man vs another man or a man vs the world? Travis seems to be deciding.

366418_35740685-tsrms118_pmAs iconic as DeNiro’s mohawk and the “Are you lookin’ at me?” scene (pictured above) have become, it might be surprising to learn that the man most responsible for capturing them — cinematographer Michael Chapman — did not earn one of the four Oscar nominations the film received in 1976.

The snub probably had something to do with the fact that Taxi Driver is not pretty in the way that the films the Academy recognizes usually are. In fact, the only thing arguably “pretty” about the movie is Betsy, played by Cybill Shepherd in her best film role this side of The Last Picture Show (1973). Shepherd enjoys a classic Hollywood entrance, emerging from a flurry of pedestrians and wearing a flowing white dress. The shot confirms the words that DeNiro is saying in voiceover — that Betsy looks like angel in contrast to the “filthy mass” surrounding her.

TaxiDriver3It doesn’t take long for Travis to decide that Betsy is not the angel he thought she was. She is a tireless campaigner for the Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), who is running for President on the typical platform of telling voters exactly what they want to hear. At first, she is intrigued by Travis’s forwardness and bravado, but when he takes her on a date to an adult movie theater, she is offended and stops taking his calls.

The scene of Betsy storming out of the movie theater replays the earlier one introducing us to the girl prostitute Iris, who is played by a very young Jodie Foster. In the earlier scene, Iris is pulled out of Travis’s cab by her pimp boyfriend (Harvey Keitel). In the later scene, Travis — now in the unenviable position of the pimp — finds himself shouting at a woman getting into a taxi in order to escape what she perceives as his dangerous sexuality. Strictly speaking, Betsy is not a prostitute, but the film establishes a number of connections between Iris’s work as a prostitute and Betsy’s campaigning for Palantine (her pimp). If Iris is the whore with a heart of gold that Travis eventually rescues, then Betsy is the whore with a heart of slate that does not want to be rescued.

TaxiDriver2My best shot (above) is not one of DeNiro’s famous gun or mohawk scenes. It arrives in the film’s last minutes and does the important work of wrapping up the narrative threads still lingering after Travis’s shootout at the whorehouse/hotel. Specifically, it offers a kind of resolution to the relationship between Travis and Betsy, whose last meeting at the Palantine headquarters had escalated into a heated argument.

Travis, the taxi driver, spends much of the film looking through windows at other people. As humans, we’re wired to interpret looking as longing, and that is certainly true of the many times that Travis gazes into the office at Betsy working. This shot returns Betsy to the same angelic white she had been wearing the first time that Travis saw her, but this time she is the one doing the looking and the longing. She is not seeing the man who strapped firearms all over his body and attempted to murder her boss/pimp. She is seeing the man she has read about in the newspaper — the man whose intentions and actions have been blurred to the point that he has been celebrated as a vigilante who took down a mob boss and child prostitution ring all on his own.

What does it mean that Travis (who so often looks right into the camera) refuses to meet Betsy’s eyes? Has he moved on? Has he decided that Betsy is beyond his help? Does he still plan to liberate her from Palantine the way he had liberated Iris from the pimp? Even for us Travis’s plans and intentions are blurred beyond sight. He’s like any movie cowboy who’s worth the price of his belt buckle — his bravado is impenetrable.

#HMWYBS: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1963)

Yesterday 2

I am headed to a conference in Seattle the day after tomorrow and striving desperately to catch up on things before I go (I am behind on every imaginable project). So thank goodness that for this week’s #HMWYBS Nathaniel selected a package feature — Vittorio De Sica’s Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1963). Since I was in a hurry, I screened only the short middle film, “Anna,” but I loved it and am looking forward to seeing how it works with the other segments when I have the chance to watch them.

The majority of the movie takes place in Anna (Sophia Loren)’s Rolls-Royce. She is the bored wife of a wealthy businessman, and she takes pleasure in using the supremely expensive car to punish men for not living up to her expectations. The husband is out of town, so she takes it to fetch her lover, Renzo (Marcello Mastroianni), for a jaunt around town. When Renzo swerves the car into a tractor and reveals that he isn’t “man” enough to get it going again, she uses the accident (and Renzo’s incompetence) to hook literally the next man (Armando Trovajoli) that drives by. Anna is a terrible driver, nearly running over every person in sight and deliberately crashing into a number of bumpers. She is Cruella De Ville but more interested in skinning men than puppies.

The whole film is lovely, and I screen-grabbed several shots of the two lovers driving around town. Giuseppe Rotuno’s camera roams around the car, sometimes sitting in the backseat, sometimes looking in from the exterior, but always contributing to the film’s tension and excitement. I particularly admired the shots utilizing the car’s windows either to signal the disconnect between the characters’ points of view (see the image below) or to lend a dreamy/cloudy quality to the fantasy Anna concocts about running away from her wealthy husband to live a life of relative poverty and simplicity with the Mastroianni character (see the image at the top of this post).

Yesterday 1

But my “best” post from the sequence is the last one. Anna and the man she eventually runs away with have talked cars throughout the previous scene, but to Renzo, who has been looking on from the other side of the road, it is abundantly clear that he is being traded in (like a car — get it?). After Anna drives off on the other man’s luxury wheels, speeding by him with her hand out the window in a dismissive gesture, Renzo buys a bouquet of flowers and heads back into town. The colors are gorgeous, with the white lines created by the guardrail and the painted median converging on the wrecked vehicle in the background. Whatever dreams Renzo has had of running off with Anna are smoldering behind him, but his dejected frown releases into a boyish grin. Suddenly, it dawns on all of us that his is a happy ending. The crash behind him is a mere scrape compared to the pain that would have awaited him in an even longer relationship with the feisty socialite Anna.

Yesterday 3

#HMWYBS: The Quiet Man (1952)

Quiet Man 1Maureen O’Hara couldn’t possibly look lovelier than she does in John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952). Cinematographer Winton Hoch, who picked up an Oscar for his efforts, emphasizes her fiery red hair and hourglass figure every time she appears. Virtually any shot containing her would make a great poster because they’re all so unique and beautiful. The trouble is that they are embedded in a film that does O’Hara’s character, Mary Kate Danaher, a lot of violence that I cannot in good conscience condone.

Here is how I might summarize the movie: A physically intimidating American man (John Wayne) buys a house in a small Irish town because he was born there and has enough money (the privilege of being American) to do whatever he wants. He falls in love with an opinionated spinster (O’Hara) who calculates her own value by the contents of her dowry. Romance and marriage follow, but eventually she leaves him because she is embarrassed of marrying a man that will not fight her brother (Victor McLagen) for the money she thinks she is worth. The man proves his valor by pulling her off a train and dragging her by the collar for several miles back into town, receiving encouragement from the meddling townsfolk who are glad to see the mysterious stranger reconnected with his masculinity. He wins her heart by throwing her at her brother’s feet and demanding he take her back.

There is no question that the O’Hara scenes are masterfully lit and composed. But the beauty and sensuality they convey serve to glorify the Wayne character for his violent outbursts, including the kiss he steals in the cottage–

Quiet Man 2

–and that terrible march from the train back into town.

Quiet Man 3

The worst thing about all this abuse is that we are supposed to enjoy it. We are supposed to believe that even Mary Kate is enjoying it despite ample evidence to the contrary. Take a close look at the shot above. Can’t you see how proud she is that her husband is dragging her shoeless across a rocky field in front of all the people she has ever met in her life? Can’t you tell what a great time she is having?

In the end, the shot that I liked the best is the close-up of Wayne’s sweaty face when he realizes that he has killed his opponent in a boxing match.

Quiet Man 4

The shot comes from an excellently executed flashback sequence that explains without any words what the “quiet man” is trying to escape by returning to the hometown he has not seen since he was a child. The shot is pretty standard for boxing movies like Rocky (1975), but it is unlike anything else in this particular film. It is the closest shot of any character’s face, and it is not complicated with multiple characters, lush emerald landscapes, or livestock. It also underlines what is undoubtedly the film’s best quality–the hurting, haunting performance by John Wayne that somehow made it impossible for me to hate his character no matter how much the film reveled in watching him beat up on the beautiful redheaded spinster. The things those eyes have seen!

#HMWYBS: Paris Is Burning (1990)

I had seen Paris Is Burning (1990) once before, but since I watched it as homework for a class on “Black Subjectivity” (whatever that means), I was mostly interested in it as a piece of ethnography. Rewatching it for this week’s #HMWYBS challenge with an eye for cinematography helped me appreciate how well-constructed it is, and how crucial such things as lighting and camera angle are for even a nonfiction film with a miniscule budget.

The movie profiles the drag balls that were popular among queer people of color in New York City, many of them very poor, through the 1980s. The shot that I want to highlight (below) appears when the discussion turns to the categories in which the ball’s participants are able to compete. One category rewards performers for looking “real”—that is, for persuasively concealing their sexual difference by dressing and strutting as though they were straight biological men or women. I found this segment heart-wrenching because I spent some of the best years of my life believing that if I acted manly/straight I might convince myself that I was. From my vantage point several years later, it feels clear that by hiding their difference in order to satisfy society’s desire to lump them into legible gender identities these performers are suppressing what is most unique and valuable about them.

Paris Is Burning 1The cinematography underscores the triumph and tragedy of being named the “most real.” After collecting their trophies, the winners step down from the stage, struggling with all their might not to let their joy disrupt the continuity of their performances. The camera points upward, capturing an intimate look at their facial expressions but also reinforcing the self-confidence the category seems designed to recognize. The whole scene is reminiscent of an Oscars ceremony, which is appropriate given the number of times the balls’ participants share their admiration for (white) Hollywood beauties such as Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe. Of course, I don’t think many actual “Hollywood beauties” would stand for being filmed at this up-the-skirt angle.

The camera understands that at these competitions “most real” actually means “most fake.” I mentioned that the upward angle reveals the winners’ faces, but it also captures a close look at the parts of the body that we might suppose have been tucked away or added onto for the sake of the competition. Other shots from this sequence linger on the contestants’ breasts (below), but in the one that I have selected the focal point is clearly the pelvis. The line created by the performer’s right hand plus the stage lights passing right behind her* rear end leads our eyes directly to her crotch. Even the spacing of the lights conspires in forcing us to look up the woman’s shorts: Red bulbs flash on either side of her thighs, and the one equally distant on the line between them is in exactly the same position as her groin. Placing the pelvis front and center surely reinforces the celebrated “realness” of this individual’s performance as a biological woman because it dares us to inspect the area for erroneous anatomy. But demanding that we admire the crotch for irregularities also confirms what Judith Butler was calling the “performativity” of gender around the same time that the movie was produced. It invites us to revel in what looks like a perfect deception–but a deception nonetheless.

Paris Is Burning 3

Honorable Mention: Before closing, I want to share that I also *loved* how some of the film’s interview segments were shot. Most documentaries have their subjects look right at the camera as if they were defendants or witnesses in a trial and the audience a judge or jury with the right to determine the veracity of their testimony. Not so with Paris Is Burning. Here, several people being interviewed carry on with their preparation for the ball, stitching garments, applying makeup, etc. This results in intimacy, since we feel that these people have let us into one of their most private moments, but also a kind of defiance: If we’re making judgments about their lives or appearance, well, they’re too busy doing more important things to care or even notice.

Paris Is Burning 2My favorite of the interview shots is the one honoring the Best Movie Ever Made–a.k.a. All About Eve (1950). Dorian Corey, like Margot Channing, feels the pressure of young legends-to-be nipping at his heels but seems to understand that his best strategy for keeping his real insecurities hidden is to look confident in other states of expected vulnerability. The composition of this shot is spectacular, framing Corey with the tools of the trade, so to speak, while also lending depth to what is probably very tight quarters. The shot includes the pharaoh that brings exotic gold surfaces to various scenes. In this case, the statue also foreshadows the actual mummy that would be discovered among Corey’s possessions at the time of his death in 1993 (RIP).

*In this post, I have attempted to use pronouns reflecting the gender identity the person in question seems to be performing. I will readily admit that it’s an imperfect approach and apologize in advance for using them wrong.

#HMWYBS: The Sound of Music (1965)

I ran into two troubles while determining a favorite shot from Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music (1965). The first trouble is that some of the film’s best shots—Maria raising her arms to the hills, etc.—are already so iconic they’re ubiquitous, and I wanted to profile something a little less obvious. The second trouble is that the movie is seriously long, and I never schedule myself nearly enough time to get things done. I resolved this second problem by accepting that I would have to select a shot from the first half of the movie and leave the second half to the better organized people also participating in the Film Experience’s #HMWYBS challenge.

I nearly went with a frame from the “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” number, where the lightning glinting off the glass gazebo creates a tension that is somehow romantic, exciting, beautiful, and ominous all at once. But in the end I settled on Captain von Trapp turning down Maria’s offer to play the guitar, which arrives at about 1:24:35.

SOM1The composition of the shot exemplifies two of the things The Sound of Music does really well: It acknowledges that Julie Andrews is the film’s unquestionable star (her blue dress cuts the frame and its mostly neutral palette in half), without making her the focal point of every single frame (it had to have been tempting), and it conveys several characters’ responses to the same set of events. Maria, Max, the Baroness, and the children all have their eyes on the Captain but are seeking answers to very different questions.

The shot also bears the weight of wrapping up the tensions between characters that define the first half of the movie while also introducing subplots that will become important in the second half. Sensing Captain von Trapp’s feelings for Maria, the Baroness will remove herself from the emerging love triangle and leave him to his children and governess-wife. And confirming the Captain’s pride in his children’s harmonizing, “Cousin” Max will press even harder to feature the family in his upcoming folk performance.

With his hand in the air, von Trapp walks from his position in this frame to the other side of the room. He seems to be fleeing Maria’s guitar and his insisting children, but when Maria, the guitar, and the children follow him there, we realize that it is Max and the Baroness that have been left behind.

SOM2When Maria again offers the guitar–and he accepts–it is as if she has passed him a torch and the responsibility for resolving the family’s problems have shifted from her shoulders to his. He then sings his emotional rendition of “Eidelweiss,” and if The Sound of Music were simply a story about reopening a wounded father’s heart to love and his admiring progeny, it could end here. But alas, the Nazis…