There may be academic couples luckier than N.C. State University film professors Marsha and Devin Orgeron, but there probably aren't many.
It's not just that they've both had professional success but that they've managed to hit their professional landmarks together. The two met as undergraduates at the University of California-Riverside; they were accepted into the same graduate program at the University of Maryland; they got tenure-track jobs at the same college; their books have both been released this year; and they've both just received tenure at N.C. State.
It's been a good year for the busy couple, well-known in movie-love circles in Raleigh. In addition to their teaching and research, they make frequent introductions to films at the N.C. Museum of Art and have helped organize such events as filmSpark and Home Movie Day.
"We think about it all the time, because it doesn't always work out that way," Marsha tells me during a conversation in the couple's home in Raleigh. "We must have done something good in a past life."
"Or we're being primed to do something good in the future," Devin adds.
"I think that if for one of us, the book worked out, the other one, it didn't work out, we'd probably be having a different conversation. But because it worked out. ..."
"It's kind of just 'Success for Team Orgeron,'" Devin jumps in.
"Right—Team Orgeron wins again!"
From the way they finish each other's sentences, you can tell the extent to which the Orgerons have perfected the art of collaboration. To the disbelief of many of their friends and colleagues, they've even managed to accomplish the bulk of their professional work while working in the same room, slowly honing the academic dissertations they defended in 2001 and 2002 into books suitable for a more general audience. Contrary to the usual stereotype of a hermetic academic cloistered away in a locked monastic chamber, the Orgerons' close partnership somehow works. "It's kind of nice," Devin says. "We both had an in-house cheerleader and editor. I would get sick of doing my old thing, and knowing that there was this other thing—"
"—that was always there..."
"In a really weird way, Marsha's book became a relief from my own. I found it easier to return to my own work, and editing myself better, after reading hers. You have to sharpen your reading skills—reading your own work over and over again, nothing stands out as being correct or incorrect, it just becomes a blur of your own rambling."
"The thing that happens when you're revising something is you get so inside it you can't see it anymore," Marsha says. "You can read a paragraph only so many times in close proximity, and the words don't register the way they should. It's helpful to have something else to turn to that you have to focus on."
This partnership worked on another trajectory as well. "There really is a kind of team spirit we wound up having through the process," Marsha says. "We would set these goals for ourselves: OK, if we finish this, we can go for a picnic. ... We would be motivated to meet them because if we didn't, then the other person would be stuck doing the thing too.
"You have to set rewards for yourself," she continues. "Otherwise you're just a miserable recluse for the whole period. We like to have lives, too—get out into the world."
But at the same time, she can't help but admit the level of obsession it takes to complete projects like these. "It would shock you how many times I said, 'Please, one more time—this is the last time I will ask you to read this.'"
In some ways the books they ultimately produced couldn't be more different. Marsha's book, Hollywood Ambitions: Celebrity in the Movie Age, is a journey through the Hollywood of the early 20th century, exploring what it was that attracted such diverse celebrities as Wyatt Earp, Jack London and Gertrude Stein to seek additional fame and audiences on the silver screen. Devin's Road Movies: From Muybridge and Méliès to Lynch and Kiarostami is a book about exactly that: a look at cinema's attachment to the myth of the road from Jean-Luc Godard to David Lynch.
All those years living and talking together about their work have clearly resulted in some cross-pollination. Marsha's chapter on actress/ director Ida Lupino and The Hitch-Hiker takes her into Devin's world, while Devin's chapter on Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers becomes a rumination on how celebrity spurs criminality in our mass-media age. That spirit of collaboration trickles down to the level of the sentence, even the word. "Because you're so intimately familiar with how every word was extracted," Devin says, "there are parts of it where I now say, 'Yeah, that was Marsha's suggestion.'"
In the coming months they'll take their spirit of cooperation in a new direction, co-editing a reader with New York University's Dan Streible on educational films of the '50s and '60s. Most recently, they've been named co-editors of The Moving Image, a journal for movie archivists. "Our skills really do complement each other in a way that make that time of co-writing really natural," Devin says. "We've developed something that works."
It's clear, too, that part of the Orgerons' success has been their ability to seal off their professional lives from their private lives. "I don't think we ever said, 'Here's a rule,' but when we weren't working on our projects, we didn't talk about them," Marsha explains. "When we would go out at night, have dinner, see friends, these books weren't our whole lives. We're not going to go sit and have dinner and talk about what we did in Chapter Three over a bottle of wine. That's not going to happen."
"Not over a bottle of wine, no," Devin adds.
"That's more of a martini thing. But we try to avoid that. The conversation—not the martini."
Still, being in the same line of work, coming out with books in the same year: Has a spirit of competition ever entered into the relationship? Have they compared reviews or Amazon sales ranks? How do they keep competition from poisoning their marriage?
Devin was quicker. "It's easy—you just keep winning."
"Ooh," Marsha says, smarting. "Why didn't I say that first?"