Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Documentary Aestheticization

There's a broader debate to be had with the aestheticization of documentary subjects, but I would like to visit the documentaries that signal themselves as aestheticizing, poetic, or otherwise formally rigorous approaches to nonfiction. These, I feel, invite the critique, often on the ground that aestheticized documentary not only resists documentary's Griersonian mission but actively perverts it.

Tom Rosten, for instance, remarks of Oxyana:
The problem arises largely because Oxyana is depicting serious social problems (poverty, drug addiction). And the aestheticization of real social issues can feel like documentary voyeurism or slumming. Some of the more wretched cases (a guy with clear mental impairment) reminded me of fetishistic quality that I’ve seen in the films of Harmony Korine and Larry Clark.
I've not yet seen Oxyana, so let me the example of Detropia. In some ways the film is purposive in its aestheticizing treatment, since one response to postindustrial decline in Detroit has been to reclaim the ruin as a positive. And yet, there is potentially something problematic in ruin porn, both ethically and politically. I happen to like Detropia, since I think it's engaged on more public sphere matters than ruin porn, whereas I gather the film has garnered some negative criticism among Detroiters. Still, I can see how the desire to hold the postindustrial as a perfect aesthetic object can get in the way of more productive engagement with community and social space.

But stepping back from the debate, I find myself interrogating the aestheticization effect. Take Nikolas Geyrhalter's Our Daily Bread (2005), a documentary about the agriculture industry. It's almost a textbook example of a poetic documentary, eschewing exposition, voiceover, and testimony in favor of static, well composed shots of plants, animals, and agri-industrial processes.

Like in this shot: the pigs are being taken to slaughter in a semi-industrial manner, yet the film shoots them in a formal, symmetrical composition and the long take lingers to invite our contemplation of them just as art cinema might a landscape or cityscape. 

And, yet, phenomologically, the spectator does not mistake the aestheticizing treatment for the qualities of the subject matter itself. The frisson of Our Daily Bread is the spectator by and large does not want to see the soulless mechanics of agribusiness as beautiful. We're aware that the reality is not pretty, and aestheticization in fact opens up in that gap the vantage of knowledge and institutional critique. 

I am not holding up the poetic documentary as an inherently superior format in this respect. There are certain disadvantages vis-a-vis issue documentary, just as there are some advantages. But I wish to think more about how spectatorial structures are actually operating in them. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Conferences late 2014 edition

Here is my current list of English-language conferences of interest to those in film studies (and some for TV and media studies). Upcoming conferences are listed in order by date or, for open calls, by abstract due date. Please let me know if I should add anything, and I will update this post. Also, I plan to do an update post in winter 2015.

Closed calls:
Vocal Projections: Documentary and the Voice - University of Surrey, Sept 19, 2014
Flow 2014 - Austin, TX, Sept 11-13, 2014 [website]
Literature/Film Association Conference - University of Montana (Missoula), Oct 2-4, 2014 [website]
Screenwriting Research Conference - Potsdam, Germany, Oct 16-18, 2014 [website]
Film and History conference - Madison, Wisconsin, Oct 29 - Nov 2, 2014 [website]
ASA (American Studies Association) - Los Angeles, Nov 6-9, 2014 [website]
World Picture Conference - ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry, Nov 7-8, 2014 [website]
“Film Festival Cartographies” Symposium - Modena, Italy, Nov 20-21, 2014 [website]
Visible Evidence XXI - New Delhi, Dec 11-14, 2014 [website]
MLA -  Vancouver, Jan 8-11, 2015 [website]
CAA - Chicago, Feb 12-15, 2014 [website]

Current calls:
Due date: Aug 29, 2014 SMCS - Montreal Mar 25-29, 2015  [call]
Due date: Sept 2, 2014 The Colour Fantastic: Chromatic Worlds of Silent Cinema - EYE/University of Amsterdam, March, 29-31 2015 [call]
Due date: Oct 1, 2014 Console-ing Passions - Dublin, Ireland, June 18-20, 2015 [website]
Due date: Oct 31, 2013 BAFTSS 2014 conference Manchester Metropolitan University, Apr 16-18 2015 [call]
Due date: Nov 1, 2014 PCA (Popular Culture Association) - New Orleans, April 1-4, 2015 [website]
Due date: Nov 4, 2013 ICA - San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 21-25, 2014 [website | call]
Due date: Dec 15, 2014 Film and Media in the Classroom - University of Florida, Feb 26-Mar 1, 2015 [call]

Upcoming calls:
The Annual Conference of the Film Studies Association of Canada - May, 2015 [website]
NECS - Łódź, Poland, June 25-28, 2015 [website]
Screen - Univ of Glasgow, late June/early July, 2015 [website]
UFVA - American University, Washington, DC, Aug 4-8, 2015 [website]

Monday, August 18, 2014

Cinematography essay

As regular readers of this blog will now, I've had a long-running interest in Hollywood cinematography, an interest that has grown from my 1947 project and has culminated in what will be a chapter in my book. Happily, too, I've been able to write a wide-view essay about cinematography during the (sound) studio era.

This essay appears in an edited volume on Hollywood cinematography titled simply enough Cinematography. It's one the first volumes in Rutger's Behind the Silver Screen series, a collection of volumes each tackling a different trade in Hollywood filmmaking. It's an overdue idea, in my view, and I'm thrilled to be in such good company.

Thanks to Patrick Keating for including me and for his editorial input. I can definitely say his guidance improved the final essay. Moreover, I've been gaining a lot of insight from my fellow contributors. Hopefully the volume will help make scholars more aware of cinematography as art and practice and will equip them with historical narratives to embark on research projects on the visual style of commercial cinema.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Nicholas Ray volume

I have a couple of items coming out in book form this summer. I'm a little late in noting it, but my essay on Knock on Any Door appears in Steven Rybin and Will Scheibel's edited collection on Nicholas, Lonely Places, Dangerous Ground: Nicholas Ray in American Cinema. It's out from SUNY Press.

The book compiles a series of essay on Ray's work, more or less one essay for each film in his career. The result is an interesting kaleidoscope of critical approaches. Though it was never coordinated, it's interesting to me to see how those writing on Ray's lesser known films make the case for their centrality despite the neat fit with the auteur persona critics have identifies in Ray. For instance, Alexander Doty gives a queer reading of Born to Be Bad and A Woman's Secret. And Tony Williams argues that Ray is doing something more interesting with color in Flying Leathernecks than critics have given credit for.

As for my essay, it's a reading of the discourse of criminology and sociology in Knock on Any Door, Ray's most straightforward example of the social problem film. As such it's a trailer of sorts to my argument about popular sociology in my book-to-come.

In any case, thanks to Steven and Will for their work in putting together a great collection of essays.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Interview with Felipe Pruneda Sentíes

At last year's SCMS conference, one of the best panels I attended was on Film Theory Beyond the Euro-American Canon, a two-part panel that argued for the inclusion of national film theory traditions lost in the focus on France, Germany, and (occasionally) Italy.  In this it dovetailed with some work being done under the auspices of the The Permanent Seminar on Histories of Film Theories' Translation Project.

I suggested on Twitter would be a welcome regular part of SCMS, so I wanted to talk to one of the panel organizers, Felipe Pruneda Sentíes, about the issues the panels raised. He graciously agreed.

What was your goal in organizing or participating in the "Film Theory and Criticism beyond the Euro-American Canon" panels?

On a very basic level, to draw attention to the very presence of non-canonical approaches to theories of film ontology (some present in criticism) and to interrogate if the field has some linguistic and geographic limitations. Even before we get to the complexities and value of those writings, simply insisting that these writings are acknowledged was a central goal for me.... I hoped to highlight the fact that there is a concerted effort to destabilize the canon and to see what we can learn from exploring histories of cinematic theories and criticism that do not follow the most widely available narratives for the dominant centers of the field. The panels were an affirmation of this project as a larger collaboration rather than as relatively isolated studies.

Does work in other national contexts challenge how we value theoretical forms beyond high theory, such as manifestos or journalistic criticism?

I believe so, especially since in many countries, the most insightful and influential writings on cinema might have been produced outside academia, often considered the territory of high theory and in particular classical film theory. I’m put in mind of a great article Adrian Martin wrote in response to David Bordwell’s book Making Meaning. Martin points out that Bordwell’s history of film studies inevitably ends in the university, after a few “freelance heavies” like Bazin and Eisenstein first showed the way. Martin counters with his experience of the “field” (and these are his quotation marks, immediately questioning what we might mean by a “field of knowledge”), in which his mentors in cinema studies often never held professorial positions, and where the most exciting works on the subject did not appear in “theory journals,” but rather in independent magazines without academic credentials. It is necessary to realize that film thought (a term I prefer to “film studies” in this case, for it does not distinguish between theory, criticism, and other forms of inquiry) happens in very different sectors of human activity, and they all hold the potential to develop rich, productive frameworks. The goal is to create dialogues with them that avoid constructing a hierarchy between regimes of knowledge, but that establish links that would make these frameworks available in all their forms – to borrow a few words from Benjamin – in the classroom.

Emilio García Riera, one Mexico’s premiere film historians, once wrote “most of the most interesting work on cinema is written in or translated into English,” expressing his own desire to master that language so he can access some examples of high theory. Even though my own work was inspired by the absence of theories from outside Europe and North America in many survey courses of film theory, it is fueled, perhaps with greater intensity, by how Mexican scholars themselves participate in that absence. I admire efforts by scholars like Lauro Zavala to establish film studies as an academic field in Mexican universities, but some of those efforts admit to a dearth of information on local theories while underscoring the necessity to become familiar with the theories that constitute the existing field.

Should SCMS have an ongoing engagement with non-canonical theory? What form might this take?

The answer to the first question I think is yes, it should, and in some ways it does, if we define non-canonical theory as not just transnational approaches, but also theories of underrepresented perspectives. An overview of panels and workshops tells me that there’s interest in non-canonical classical film theory outside of scholarly groups and caucuses.

But the second question is harder. I once thought that I would not want non-canonical theories of film ontology to become a section or an offshoot of the broader conference, which to me might be a way of keeping non-canonical theory in check by giving it a token legitimacy, a presence that does not spill outside the boundaries of a niche because it feels like an earned acknowledgement. But now I don’t think creating a scholarly interest group or a caucus, for example, always accomplishes a kind of neutralization. Indeed, it would be a great start for gaining traction and attention. But really I would like to see non-canonical theories informing every investigation, producing research that constructs wildly diverging genealogies, so that a canon would at least become a blurry historical entity, a distant, rather than looming, shadow.

What other efforts are going on currently to translate and popularize non-canonical theory and criticism in the field?

I am mostly aware of collections, some in translation, some in their original language, that bring to the table previously unknown or understudied work. Viviane Mahieux collected the works of pioneering Mexican film critic Cube Bonifant in Una pequeña Marquesa de Sade (A Little Marquise de Sade) in 2009, and 2012 saw the release of a mammoth edition of Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s complete works on film. I also know of a great book by Elizabeth Nazarian called The Tenth Muse: Karol Irzykowski and Early Film Theory, which looks at the writings of the Polish intellectual of the title and provides an excellent example of how locate an original contribution to film thought without overemphasizing the historical and geographical context that would anchor her chosen theorist’s work.

And there’s a great collection, Cinema All the Time: An Anthology of Czech Film Theory and Criticism, 1908-1939, edited by Jaroslav Andel and Petr Szczepanik and translated by Kevin B. Johnson. (It’s interesting to see how many of these efforts are also focused on early film criticism, most of them from the beginnings of cinema and contained in the first half of the twentieth century).

What is your personal research in this regard?

Latin American theory is my particular area of interest at this point, more specifically in Mexico, and finding the makings of theoretical ideas within non-institutional forms of film writing. There are two writers in particular whose work I would love to translate: José Revueltas and Jorge Ayala Blanco, the latter of which has an ongoing series of books on Mexican cinema that is a great example of ludic, poetic reflection as a form of creative inquiry into cinema, which is another central concern of mine, alongside how differences in technological availability and production influence the pathways of film theory and criticism.

Are there scholars whose work should be highlighted?

Well, besides our panelists Weihong Bao, Aparna Frank, Naoki Yamamoto, Jason McGrath, Katarina Mihailovic and Masha Salazkina of course, and Mahieux and Nazarian, I would also mention, from within North American film studies, Robert Ray, who offers a good springboard for thinking about issues of theory proliferation in his book How a Film Theory Got Lost. And I think a book like Andrew Klevan and Alex Clayton’s edited volume The Language and Style of Film Criticism is another place to get a sense of meta-critical work that questions what it means to produce knowledge about cinema, and thus begins to open up possibilities for studies of writings outside the academy. There is a piece in there by Adrian Martin that highlights work of three critics that were completely unknown to me: John Flaus, Shigehiko Hasumi and Frieda Grafe. These three were not scholars, so I would also advice to keep an eye on the work of a few non-academic critics. I wish I could mention many many more, but look forward to hearing about more works on this area.

What practices do you wish scholars who don't have area studies-specialization would adopt?

I’m not sure there’s anything specific that scholars who delve into national and transnational film cultures outside global Hollywood or Europe aren’t doing already (at least the ones I’ve read). I think it makes sense to seek the help of area studies scholars. Even though I grew up in Mexico – where I read criticism and some theory in Spanish – my entire academic formation has been squarely into academic film studies in the United States. My own knowledge of area studies has been acquired through dialogues with scholars who work in Latin American Studies, both in English and Spanish, and my own readings of their works. I think film scholars recognize and practice these collaborations and engage in these dialogues.

I do wonder, however, how many scholars make it a point of learning the language of a film culture that sparks their curiosity. How often does this happen? I don’t think you need to master a language to produce great research on a film culture in that language, nor am I saying that multilingualism should be a requirement in our field (some programs that I am aware of enforce it more than others). I know my own bilingualism came more from circumstances rather than only my own conscious work. But how feasible is it to undertake learning and even becoming reasonably fluent in a new language as part of our research projects? How much should we consider that our task? I think it is a good idea. I for one have future plans to work on Portuguese cinema and criticism, particularly after learning of an unfinished, multivolume work on film semiotics that a Portuguese electrical engineer, Fernando Gonçalves dos Santos Ferreira Lavrador, wrote in the eighties. I’m fascinated by the idea that it is an incomplete work from a non-academic perspective, and I believe I could only do it justice by learning its language. And doing so goes a long way in introducing us to concepts in area studies.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

CFP: Velvet Light Trap issue on technological change

Call for Papers: VLT Issue #76 - Case Studies in Technological Change

Submission deadline: August 17, 2014

Submit to:

To paraphrase Robert Allen and Douglas Gomery in Film History: Theory and Practice, media depends on machines. Technology contextualizes industrial and stylistic change, reveals and obscures sites of cultural negotiation and meaning, and enables new modes of media production, circulation, and reception. The significance of technology to media studies has only become more acute with the proliferation of digital technologies, which have changed the methods and tools of our scholarship—to say nothing of the object of that study.

Too often, however, scholarship relegates technology to the background, rendering it less an object of study in and of itself than a cause of, or context for, broader situations. While useful and often necessary, this tendency can have unintended consequences. It risks the assumption that technological changes automatically engender concomitant changes in our “real” object of study, when representations and practices that endure despite technological change offer equally important insight. Similarly, focusing on broader trends may steer us away from failed efforts at technological change, where entrenched structures of cultural or industrial design are exposed and tested, while treating technology as the agent of change can ignore the roles of cultural and industrial demands in technological advancement or stasis.

This issue of The Velvet Light Trap specifically seeks case studies of historical and contemporary technological change that privilege technology itself as the object of study. We wish to focus the issue’s attention on specific technological changes in context rather than theories that explore how technology in broad terms is changing media and culture. We especially welcome studies that reexamine accepted histories of technological change, reveal little-known changes worthy of attention, or show important continuities despite technological change.

Potential topics include, but are by no means limited to:

  • Digital production, distribution, exhibition, transmission, and retail formats
  • Technology in media preservation, archiving, and historiography
  • National cinemas’ transitions to sound, widescreen, and color
  • Technology and marginalized producers or audiences
  • “Invisible” technological intermediaries: labs, servers, antennas, and codecs
  • Processing power, graphical interfaces, software, hardware, hacking, and modding in video and computer gaming
  • New formats, old media, nostalgia: reissues, videotape, and internet video
  • Craft practices, production cultures, labor, new and obsolete professions
  • Experimental and avant-garde media
  • Changing technology and representations of race, class, gender
  • Panchromatic stock, HD, FM: film, television, and radio style
  • Revising assumptions about the workings of technology
  • Failed, obscure, or forgotten technology
  • Technologies of fandom and fandoms of technology

For full call and submission guidelines, see the Velvet Light Trap's website.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Musicals, Frankfurt School edition

An analysis from Leo Lowenthal, as quoted by Martin Jay (Dialectic of Enlightenment 214):
Mass culture is a total conspiracy against love as well as sex. I think you [Horkheimer] have hit the nail on the head by your observation that spectators are continuously betrayed and robbed of real pleasure by sadistic tricks. This sadism has the special function to prevent psychologically and physiologically "Vorlust." Take for example, the ballet scene in Holiday Inn, on of the newest pictures, where a couple starts dancing a minuet, but as soon as this minuet develops to a more amorous situation and one could very well imagine that the dancing partners will end by kissing each other, the sweet and melodious music is suddenly stopped and replaced by jazz which almost verbally castrates the dancers. 
This would be interesting to teach with Dyer's "Entertainment and Utopia" essay.

SCMS2015 calls for papers

Summer is the time for forming SCMS panels, as August 31 is the submission deadline for the 2015 conference in Montreal. Since not everyone in the field (especially abroad) is a current SCMS member or uses the website, I thought I would round up the current calls for papers there. There are too many to include the actual call, but if a topic interests you and you cannot access the website, leave me a comment within the next couple of days and I will post the full call. Deadlines for many are coming up very soon - late July and early August - and some may have even passed already.


African American Film History and Literary Adaptations
Animation and Politics
Animation Theory and Cognition
Approaching the WWE Universe
Asian Comics and Graphic Novels
Authorship in Contemporary Documentary
Autobiography and Writing the Self in Cinema
Between the Lines: On Film Festivals and the Politics of Language
Cinema and Literary Modernism
Cities in the Sky: Public Housing in Global Cinema and Television
Color and Animation
Composite Media
Contemporary Rural Noir
Creatives vs. Suits: Battles for Control over Media Production
Data City: media visualizations of/as urban knowledge
Decolonial Feminism in Film and Media
Digital Film and Media Historiography: Techniques, Theories, Epistemology
Directors Take the Leap: Transitions from Big to Small Screen in the 1950s
Documenting the Different Body
Ecocriticism and Moving Image Archives
Enclaves of the 1%: The Transnational Capitalist Class in Cinema
Excavating Exhibition: Mining the Sites of Media History
 Fashion, Film and Media
Felines of Sight: Cats in Visual Culture
Femininity in Historical and Contemporary TV Dramas
Film-Philosophy: New Horizons for the Inter-discipline
From Historical to New Materialism?
Gender and Genre Through a Post-9/11 Lens
Gesture, Performance, Mediation
Historicizing Music and Transmedia
Hollywood I.T.: Critiquing Big Data in Film Industries
How French Cinema Thinks Through Social History
Imaging Asian/Americans: Screened Identities and Cinematic Exchanges
Imagining Contemporary Political Bodies and Personalities
Impersonating Sovereignty
Informal Media Networks in Global Context
Intermediality in Industry History: The Hollywood Studio Era
Investigating the Theme of Punishment in Crime Films
Jesus/Montreal: The Cinema, the City, and the Sacred
Looking for LGBT Audiences
Media Platforms and Cultural Identities
Media Studies Beyond the Screen
Memory and Medium
Neighboring Cinemas: Intersections between Japanese and Korean Cultures
New Approaches to Marriage, Romance, and Conjugality
New Romanian Cinema
On Subtitles
Podcasting: A Decade into the Life of a “New” Medium
Porn on the Move
Post-secular Adaptation in the Digital Era
Postfeminism Across Media Platforms
Postfeminist (Im)perfections: Aesthetics of Postefeminist Failure
Problematizing Postfeminism
‘Public’ Media Beyond Broadcasting: North American Public Service Media Institutions
Radio Studies
Reading Berlin School Films
Reincarnating the Western
Representations of Female Empowerment and Leadership in Film and Media
Rethinking French Film History From the 1940s
Screen Acting: Beyond Star Studies
Silent Film Realisms
Silent Serial Kings
Soccer, Cinema, Media, and Culture
Staging the Image: Film and Video in Theater
Television, Historicity, Theory
The Auteur in Your Living Room
The Comedy of Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais
The Metrics, revolutions: Audiences, Analytics, and Art
The Politics and Ethics of Remix Video
The Politics of Food in Film and Media
The Transforming Figure: New Histories of Metamorphosis in Animation
Translations, Transformations, & Mutations: The Malleable Superhero
Transnational Hybridity and the Horror Genre Panel
TV: Complexity, Form and Format
Variations on Suburbia: Uncovering Heterogeneous Imagery in Film and TV
What makes Montreal a film festival city?
Women in Film Sound
Women in the Archives
Women's Narratives in War, Conflict and Combat
“Your Bovine Design Was Not Divine. Where’s the Beef?”: The Politics, Perils, and Pleasures of Rupaul’s Drag Race
Youth Culture in Contemporary Media


Animated Media Archives
Film & Media Studies: Careers outside the Academy
Film Festival Pedagogy: Study Away Courses & Campus Film Fests
Foucault and Media Studies
New Approaches to Teaching Genres
Pedagogy Workshop

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Film History Textbook, 2014 update

Unlike the intro textbooks, the film history textbooks have not changed editions since I last reviewed them. However, their prices have gone up, and I have discovered a couple of new books, meriting an update.  Most of all, though, I want to revisit my reviews because of my dissatisfaction using my previous textbook. While I admire the Thompson/Bordwell textbook in many ways, it's just been ungainly from a pedagogical perspective - too much completist coverage and way too little emphasis on which ideas are most important for a student to know and learn. In the fall, I'll be switching to the Oxford History of World Cinema.

A History of Narrative Film, by David Cook. 4th edition. Norton. $113.75.

This book for years was standard and even today is possibly the most commonly used textbook for the history survey. From my understanding, previous editions slanted more to the masterwork approach – this fourth edition has a better balance between masterwork and industrial/contextual historiography. Still, its main difference from the Thompson/Bordwell history is an emphasis on movements and key makers. Citizen Kane gets its own chapter. There are also pleasant surprises – a discussion of women German directors, an overview of Italian exploitation film, or a real engagement with commercial cinema.

PROS: This book may well be the best balance between coverage, disciplinary knowledge, and readability – it does a good job at maintaining a clear narrative for readers amid the detail. Analysis of individual films integrated into the whole; seamless introduction of formal terminology within its historical narrative, at least for readers/classes starting from the beginning of the book. Brief but useful introductions of historical and political context into discussion of the films.
CONS: Long filmographies are included in the body of the text and bog down the reading – they would be better pulled for a list at the chapters' end. Restricted to narrative film - the book acknowledges this, but still its justification that there are other histories devoted to documentary or experimental does not help the instructor wanting to integrate either into a history survey. The organization of non-US cinemas according to national cinema seems to make sense at first blush but in fact highly disrupts chronology and basically begs for ghettoization and exclusion of international cinemas from a survey course.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: this book has by far the best discussion of digital aesthetics (the discussion of three “Pearl Harbor” films is terrific)
WHO SHOULD USE IT: The lower or mid-level film history survey class; general reader looking for a film history introduction; area studies instructors looking for a textbook chapter on a national cinema to excerpt as background for their courses.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Not the most visually stunning book layout. Flimsy paper and cover, but this seems to be the trade off for a voluminous textbook.

Film History: An Introduction, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell. 3rd edition. McGraw-Hill. $175.

I wrote a review of the 2nd edition before. In short: this book is very thorough and wide-ranging. Of the available textbooks, it best embodies how film historians see the history of cinema: take for instance their discussion of Griffith, which sees him as only one part of the American transitional cinema. Refreshing. This and the Cousins book below do the best job of seeing cinema's past as something to revisit and get excited about.

PROS: The scope is impressive. The book stretches beyond the canon and challenges and inspires the reader to curiosity about the entire history of the medium. Terrific and unmatched balance between aesthetic, industrial, and technological understanding of cinema. Non-trivial inclusion of experimental and documentary.
CONS: A dense read, both in terms of the writing style and layout; students (and teachers!) might find detail and coverage excessive – there is the danger of losing a clear picture of film history when inundated. Some instructors may want an approach that highlights canonical works more. Very few survey textbooks deal extensively with ideology and historical context, but the purview here is fairly contained to the medium of film and the film industry, except when ithe topics, like state-run industry or countercinema, gesture explicitly outward.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: Coverage of national cinemas beyond the films commonly known in the field. The discussion of 30s Soviet or 50s French or 70s Third World cinemas is really rich.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Those teaching a comprehensive, two-or-more-term survey course. Those teaching an advanced film history course. Those looking for a good historical background to a national cinema or period.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: As with the authors' intro textbook, the frame enlargements are plenty and well-chosen. Mega-expensive.

A History of Film, by Virginia Wright Wexman. 7th edition (6th edition reviewed here). Pearson. $145.80

This used to be authored by Jack Ellis, and Ellis's original structure still has its fingerprints on the table of contents (i.e. heavy emphasis on periodization/ national cinema combinations). This book markets itself as a concise yet comprehensive history, suitable for the one-semester survey, and indeed it seems to find a sweet spot between coverage and concision.

PROS: Clear writing style. While restricted to a film canon, the selections are fairly wide ranging for such a short history and at the very least correspond to the film-scholarship canon. The fuller discussion of individual films gives some texture to the overall narrative.
CONS: Compact size means that coverage and depth get lost. The coverage of Hollywood ends up being surprisingly synoptic. A heavy emphasis on aesthetic history, conceived strictly in terms of film movements, key genres, and national cinemas; industrial history is presented mostly as background, and social history is pretty much lacking.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: A smooth introduction of basic film-form vocabulary in the opening chapters.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Those teaching an abbreviated, one-term survey course. Those wanting a concise history as background for another film course.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Thankfully photographic stills from earlier editions have been replaced with screen captures. The price tag seems exorbitant for a book this slim.

Flashback: a Brief Film History, by Louis Giannetti and Scott Eyman. Pearson. 6th edition $125.60

This is the most film appreciation-oriented of the history textbooks. It seeks to examine cinema's past in order to evaluate it as a model for film style and practice for future periods. It has an "AFI" kind of feel, and instructors may judge what their own feelings about that are: mine clearly are not positive.

PROS: Very readable style. Chronological contents may aid in syllabus design that looks at international developments concurrently. I have the same problems with the illustrations (film stills, not frame captures) that I did with Gianetti's intro textbook, but they do have the benefit of adding a layer to the historical narrative and piquing the reader's curiosity about individual films.
CONS: The preface promises a "brief" and "bare-bones" film history, and unfortunately coverage does seem sacrificed here. Documentary and experimental lacking. Canonical scope with pat historical narratives. Aesthetic dismissal closes down curiosity about film's past. Language can be too breezy: I try to teach my students not to use colloquial (and empty) phrases like "musical magic" so I don't want a textbook that does. Does not take into account academic scholarship - for example their discussion of sound and Warner Brothers partakes of the mythologies historians have debunked.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: A perspective of how film history aids contemporary film critics. Useful timelines at the start of each chapter (I even wish these had more).
WHO SHOULD USE IT: A history course, say in a production program, with a strong film-appreciation bent.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Decent quality cover and paper, but dated layout. Simply way too expensive for the quality. Why pay 126 dollars for a "bare bones" history when you can get a thorough history for the same price?

Movie History: A Survey, by Douglas Gomery. Routledge $54.95 (usually available $28)

I was excited to find that Gomery had a textbook, given his strengths in studio and exhibition history. And unlike his previous textbooks, this one expands the scope beyond industrial history to cover major film movements.

PROS: Manageable scope. Gives the big-picture of film history in a chapter organization that one could reasonably cover in a semester or two. Strong coverage of studio history and exhibition. Some nice touches like the discussion of "forgotten histories" and 20s British cinema.
CONS: Stronger on US than Europe or the rest of the world. No coverage of experimental or documentary. The aesthetic history seems cut and pasted from Bordwell and Thompson at times and heavily auteurist at other times. I know concision is a selling point here, but the chapters feel too skimpy.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: Integrates social history of cinema into the broader tapestry of studio and aesthetic history.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: General reader looking for a film history introduction or reference.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Nice, glossy paper, with good layout and plenty of color illustrations. Surprisingly, given that it's Routledge we're talking about, it has a reasonable price tag. Available in Kindle format.

The Story of Film, by Mark Cousins. Pavilion. $35 (usually available $20-25)

A companion of sorts to the critics' BBC series on the history of cinema, this volume covers an impressive range of filmmakers without losing sight of broad organizing narratives helpful for a class.

PROS: One of the main projects of the book is to take cinema outside of US and Europe seriously, and it's the only survey book I know not to marginalize these cinemas. Engaging writing style; some of his framing devices are useful for an introductory readership. Strong on world cinema film culture since World War II.
CONS: The chapter organization is not helpful for a class - for instance, the period up to 1945 has only 4 chapters. Some of Cousins' takes are more judgmental and idiosyncratic rather than scholarly. For instance, I can see the point of his resistance to the concept of Hollywood classicism, but his substitute, "closed romantic realism," is a clunky term that appears nowhere else in film scholarship or cinephile writing.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: Considerable and well-integrated coverage of Asian, Latin American, and African cinema.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: The cinephile general reader. Useful for scholars and instructors to gain knowledge and inspiration.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Well illustrated, but reliant on production stills rather than screen grabs. Not a textbook layout (no highlighting of key terms or concepts, no bibliographic section. etc). Reasonably priced. The TV series could be a useful companion. Available in Kindle format.

Oxford History of World Cinema, ed. by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Oxford University Press. $35 (usually available $20-25).

"The definitive history of cinema worldwide"? No, but it is pretty good. This is a cross between textbook and coffee-table book. It is not a single-author text but an encyclopedia-style collection of entries on periods and national cinemas, written by key scholars in each area.

PROS: Better coverage of international and European cinemas without unduly short-changing Hollywood; individual entries go a little more further in exploring ideas; nice balance between general-interest readability and scholarly rigor.
CONS: Heavy emphasis on the aesthetic over other historical aspects. Anthology form and contents organization makes it difficult to adapt to a survey syllabus. Book published in 1998, not updated.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: Pulled one-page biographies of key cinematic figures – not only directors but stars, crew, producers, etc.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: General reader looking for a film history introduction or reference.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Even though it is not an overly illustrated book, the layout is well-designed for readability. Thick, glossy paper. The advantage of lack of updates is that book has become competitively priced compared to the major textbooks. Available in Kindle format.

Specialized textbooks:

American Film: a History, by Jon Lewis. W. W. Norton. $87.50.

This volume is dedicated to American cinema alone, and Hollywood (or major feature-film alternatives) at that. It is as long as some international surveys, meaning it has the space to go into depth discussing individual films and directors.

PROS: Balance between aesthetic, industrial and ideological history of Hollywood. Highly engaging writing style – I cannot imagine any other book doing as good a job to sell early and silent cinema to students leery of older films. Not surprisingly, given Lewis's scholarship, the book is a little stronger on post-1960 Hollywood, a period often given short shrift in the survey textbook.
CONS: Complete absence of documentary and experimental film, begging the question of whether “American film” means simply Hollywood. Highly canonical narrative, with few surprises. I am also not sure of the tendency to discuss classical makers like Busby Berkeley or Max Ophuls as important because modern directors were influenced by them.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: An integrated discussion of politics and ideology of American film. Full consideration of censorship, exploitation movies, and screen sexuality.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Those teaching an American film history class.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Well indexed. Good glossary. Nice cover and layout helps for readability. Unfortunately, promotional stills are not supplemented by frame captures, with the result the illustrations slant to star promotion and iconic moments in films rather than a closer look at style or narrative.

Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies, by Robert Sklar. Revised Edition, 1994. Vintage Books. $22.

This is not a textbook proper, but its historical scope and its accessible writing style leads many courses to adopt it as either a primary or supplemental coursebook.

PROS: A wider look at the role of film in American life, not just a masterworks survey or industrial history (though the book touches on both).
CONS: It lacks the synthesis of a body of scholarship that textbooks do. Material is selected to make the author's arguments rather than as coverage. Readerly approach does not model for students how they can enter the discipline. Only intermittent consideration of film's aesthetic dimension.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: An extended consideration of film's social history.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Those teaching an American film history class. Those wishing to supplement other books with material on the role of film in American culture.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Not a textbook, it lacks the more visual presentation useful for classroom use.

Film History: Theory and Practice, by Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery. McGraw-Hill, 1985. $89/71.

This is not a survey, but a textbook in how to do film history. In that it stands alone in the field, though since it is now long out of print, I imagine the demand for this kind of book ended up being not very high. It is a shame that there has not been an updated edition for the book though to take into account changes and new perspectives in the field. (Thompson and Bordwell's history-of-style approach, for instance, could help this book from treating aesthetic history as a bête noir.)

PROS: Accessible but not dumbed down. Ends each chapter with substantial and useful case studies. Fills niche not met by any other textbook.
CONS: Lacks any survey coverage and downplays the aesthetic. Narrowly American in focus, Case studies could use updating with more contemporary examples. Methodological focus (starting off in Ch. 1 with a philosophy-of-science debate, for instance) may be advanced for some students.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: A sustained discussion of the methodology of film history.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Those teaching advanced film history courses or ones requiring empirical research. Beyond its role in classes, Film History: Theory and Practice is useful for readers beginning to advanced, and scholars might want to visit or revisit the book to approach their intellectual craft anew.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Lack of updated edition. Expensive. Layout is print-heavy and uninspired visually.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Textbook Inflation 2014 edition

I am overdue updating my reviews of intro-to-film textbooks. But I thought I’d take a look at textbook prices. I knew textbook prices have gone up, but seeing the extend of the rise is surprising. Below I’ve listed the traditional textbooks in ascending order of 2014 costs. I’ve listed the nominal inflation since 2006. That figure can’t be taken at face value, since prices have risen almost 20% since then. Some are close to general price-level inflation, but most are considerably higher.

Anatomy of a Film (Bernard F. Dick)
5th edition $41
6th edition $56
37% inflation

Looking at Movies: an Introduction to Film (Richard Barsam)
2nd edition $50
4th edition $92.50
85% inflation

The Film Experience (Tim Corrigan and Patricia White)
1st edition $72
3rd edition $99
25% inflation

Film: An Introduction (William H. Phillips)
3rd edition $72
4th $99
25% inflation

Movies and Meaning: An Introduction to Film (Stephen Prince)
4th edition $80
6th edition $127.80
60% inflation

Understanding Movies (Louis Giannetti)
10th edition $82.20
14th edition $136.87
65% inflation

Film Art: An Introduction (David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson)
8th edition $66
10th edition $143.33
117% inflation

Film: A Critical Introduction (Maria Pramaggiore and Tom Wallis)
1st edition $80
3rd edition $153.80
92% inflation

I will add that there's absolutely no good reason for the Giannetti book to have undergone four edition updates in eight years.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

CFP: Book on Classical Hollywood and Transnational Representations


Edited Volume:
Projecting the World: Classical Hollywood, the ‘Foreign’, and Transnational Representations

The book brings together scholarship that examines classical Hollywood’s representations of foreign spaces and peoples from roughly 1930 to 1965, a period when America was not only at the zenith of its world power but when its vision of power helped secure the uneven transformation of Western colonialism into modern, neoliberal globalization.  Analyzing primarily the film text rather than extra-textual issues such as distribution or production conditions, this book helps expand our understanding of “global Hollywood” by asking how the films themselves represented U.S. global power and America’s role in the world.

We will explore how, just as Said shows of the 19th century British novel, the mid-20th-century Hollywood film must be read as a privileged site for understanding the American metropole’s cultural imaginary of itself and of its neocolonial others. Far from being a secondary concern, the imaginative work of Hollywood cinema should be at the very center of our understanding of America’s complicated international relationships in the mid-century period.  So how did Hollywood envision foreign spaces and the role of the U.S. within these spaces?

We are looking for essays that explore Hollywood’s representations of the ‘foreign’ in a variety of international contexts across this time period.  If you would like to contribute, please let us know by sending along a brief (250 word) proposal for an essay to and by September 30th, 2014.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

NECS conference thoughts

This prior weekend, I attended for the first time the NECS conference (Network for European Cinema and Media Scholars). It was an enjoyable and productive time, and I would certainly recommend the conference for any film scholar, European or not. (Next year’s NECS will be in Lodz, Poland.) There was in fact a good contingent or US- and Canada-based scholars.

I find it valuable to hear how scholars in other national contexts approach their object of study. And one mission of professional organizations like SCMS should be to continually develop bridges to those working outside their national boundaries. Based on my limited sampling of papers, the difference, with some exceptions, is less a separate set of theories and approaches than different emphases.

What SCMS could learn from NECS

- Beginning, Middle, and Ends. It’s partly a matter of size, but SCMS has given up on the idea that there’s any structure to the conference experience and instead has embraced the expectation that attendees will come for a couple of days out of the five. I think a lot gets lost in this change.

- National cinema study still matters. I saw a number of good NECS papers dealing with both historical and contemporary film and film cultures in specific European national contexts. SCMS has gotten much better lately at including panels on non-US cinema. But I think the orientation of the US film scholar is to problematize and question national identity as a construct, to the point of favoring transnationalism over national cinema as a research agenda. Which, arguably, is a luxury one can have if one's national cinema is a global hegemon.

- Embrace the grassroots. SCMS has been experimenting with SIGs, which along with caucuses are taking on a bigger role. But in NECS I understand that the workgroups have a niche in the programming, and there's a real sense of vitality with them.

What NECS could learn from SMCS

- Expand global view. If the value for me was NECS's European focus, it struck me that papers on African, Latin American, and even Asian cinema were fewer than in other conferences I've been to.

-  Discourage panels of presenters all from one institution or from an ongoing research project. SCMS can be clique-y but its policy does encourage new configurations of scholars across institutions.

-  Better publisher’s area. I don’t know if this was a fluke, but the publisher’s area felt marginalized here. However, there is a real value to having attendees milling about the publisher exhibit, browsing new books, and talking to editors.


In her keynote, Janet Wasko praised how many papers took the theme Creative Industries to heart. I had the opposite impression, since a lot of times the "creative" felt tacked on or perfunctory. Which is fine, really. I just think bigger conferences should consider limiting thematic unity to the keynotes and not prioritize papers with the theme in the title. Themes work better when they emerge from specific critical agendas rather than serve as general rubrics.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

CFP: Film Festivals and The “Creative Turn” in Documentary (SCMS 2015)

Film Festivals and The “Creative Turn” in Documentary

Proposed Panel for SCMS 2015 (Montreal)
Organizers: Chris Cagle (Temple Univ.) and Meta Mazaj (Univ. of Pennsylvania)

One of the biggest critical challenges in documentary studies is how to make sense of a rapidly evolving documentary culture. Hybrid and poetic forms are now mainstays of film festivals; they and genres like animated docs, essay films, and found footage films increasingly challenge our notion of what documentary can be. Filmmaker and critic Robert Greene has complained, “Two worlds have emerged: on one side we have an explosion of films, filmmakers and micro-movements that are pushing nonfiction cinematic form, creating immersive, expressive, genre-bending films that bristle with ideas and energy. On the other side, we have a film critic culture, well-versed in fictional narrative art cinema, completely missing the boat.” His complaints have been echoed by Anthony Kaufman's question: “ When will Cannes embrace docs like the world's other major film festivals?”

This panel attempts to historicize the “creative” and “author’s” documentaries by examining their relation to film festivals. Documentary scholars have done important work on the subject -  Stella Bruzzi’s study of New Documentary, for instance, or the theoretical work grappling with films like The Act of Killing or Leviathan. At the same time, film festival studies as a subfield has given a compelling account of the film festival circuit as a distinct cinematic institution that has a formative effect on the films that circulate within it. These two areas of inquiry deserve to be brought into closer dialogue with one another. How do the institutional forms of the film festival generate or constrain new aesthetic voices in documentary? How is the creative documentary either central or marginal to festival aesthetic definition? Does documentary have a privileged role for national, subnational, or regional collectivities in the global cinema market?

In answering these questions, documentary studies and film festival studies approach with two different sensibilities. Documentary scholars and critics have generally taken the creative turn as a good object and treated nonfiction experimentation as a rebellion against established or traditional documentary culture. Film festival studies, on the other hand, tends to see festivals as institutions implicated in film policy and in the cultural politics of their respective national contexts. Rather than adjudicate between these two approaches, we are seeking papers that can think productively through the methodological encounter.

Possible areas for proposed essays:

- Case studies of particular festivals
- Essays examining problems of national or regional cinema
- Aesthetic and theoretical interrogations of the “creative” or experimental documentary in the festival setting
- Contextual readings of particular films or filmmakers
- Reception study of contemporary documentary
- "Creative documentary" and its other: public television, political-activist, or social documentary; political, human-rights, and identity-based festivals
- Festival discourses of documentary authorship

Please send an abstract of no more than 300 words, along with your institutional affiliation and email address to by Sunday, July 6, 2014.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

CFP: Conference on Documentary Culture


Codes and Modes: The Character of Documentary Culture

A Conference at Hunter College, City University of New York
November 7- 9, 2014
abstracts due  June 22nd, 2014

Keynote Speaker: Prof. Brian Winston

Bringing together scholars, makers, graduate students, and curators, this event is an invitation to interrogate the social spaces and the formal and thematic boundaries within which contemporary documentary culture is produced.

Today a flourishing documentary culture finds its home in a variety of spaces of production, exhibition, and discussion: in the cinema, the gallery, the classroom, on youtube and increasingly, embedded in other forms of social and mobile media. Our goal is to promote critical dialogue around how documentary culture is taught, how it is learned, how it is reproduced and what assumptions and possibilities lie in this terrain.

We are pleased to announce a call for presentations of creative work, of modes of production and distribution, of papers, panels and workshops on questions including, but not limited to, the topics listed below.

The conference's keynote presenter will be documentary scholar Brian Winston, who has produced a seminal body of writing on the documentary and documentary ethics over the previous three decades.  In addition we will offer offer an homage to Brazilian documentary filmmaker Eduardo Coutinho with Professor Ivone Margulies.

We are pleased to announce a call for of papers, panels and workshops presentations of work, of modes of production and distribution on questions related to the themes below. Please send an Abstract (between 150 and 300 words in length including an indication of form and, if relevant, an indication as to which of the above categories your proposal might relate to.)  as well as a brief bio (100 words maximum) by June 22nd, 2014 to:   Each proposal should include name(s),  any affiliation, institutional address and email addresses of the author(s).   All those submitting will be informed by July 15, 2014.

HOW DO WE LOOK?: A Documentary Meta-Politics

In our current crises of representative politics, the philosophical issues of truth, witness and the subject and the nature of re-envisioned forms of relation are continually emerging on a meta-level in documentary practice globally.

  • What are the critical implications of producing a culture of documentary? Who has agency? Who gets left out?
  • Is the term “documentary” outdated, or insufficient? what are some alternative ways to describe the work we do and the communities we are engendering?
  • As teachers, producers, and programmers of documentary, how do our own institutional boundaries frame "what counts" as documentary?
  • How do funding mechanisms play into the current apparatus of documentary celebrity, and what are the ways we might foresee and forestall (or enhance) the implications of this tendency?


In some ways the documentary ‘brand’ finds itself overshadowed or sidelined by new social media tools and practices offering interactivity, self-representation, and new distribution platforms. In other ways we see people using notions of documentary to define work on these new platforms

  • How is the meaning of the documentary form in these new contexts, ones where the social is both virtual and technologically malleable, altered, enhanced or otherwise formed?
  • How is inclusion enhanced, harmed or otherwise impacted with the use of social media tools?


“The Network Society” as described by Manuel Castells is a ‘space of flows,’ a precarious moment in time and space in which societies are structured around a battle between the Net (networked communication) and Self (identities actualized). The current politics surrounding immigration, race, gender identity, land use, solidarity, etc., places the documentary form in the unique position of being used as a tool for exploring who we are and who we could become in a period of economic, social and political crisis.

  • What role and power does documentary culture wield in the face of these new hyper migrating forms of capitalistic space?           
  • Our networked communication systems for media and social interaction provide an intricate, flexible and immediate map that enables new capitalism to flourish. Are these same routes as useful for keeping pace with local needs to retain and form community identity? 
  • Can documentary culture continue to provide alternative maps to rabbit holes in the capitalistic networks?
  • How do we ensure learning environments to teach each other these mechanisms most efficiently? 

Conference organizers:  Jason Fox, Martin Lucas, and Kelly Spivey

Monday, May 05, 2014

CFP: World Picture Conference 2014


World Picture Conference
ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry
7-8 November 2014


Keynote lecture: Prof. Laurence Rickels, Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste Karlsruhe

This year’s conference marks the occasion of an exciting collaboration between World Picture and the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry.

The theme of this year’s conference is abandon, a term that encompasses radical renunciation and immersive indulgence in its oscillation between abandonment of and abandonment to, between restraint and luxury, mindfulness and neglect. When we speak of abandonment we indicate a situation in which we take leave of something, or disband a collective entity, or else act in a way that suggests a disaggregation of certain protocols of behaviour, or belonging (as when we “laugh with abandon”). Discourses and scenes of media and politics are generally highly invested in ideas of taking-leave, breaking apart or away, acting with abandon. In the present moment, we believe the term resonates in manifold ways. For instance: with often painful choices between theoretical and political models that have outlasted their effectiveness but to which there seem to be no alternatives; with turns to abandoned objects as new sources of ontologies in which the turn itself is a mode of abandoning an established political-theoretical project; with the obdurate “problem” of pleasure in aesthetics and aesthetic theory as either the obstacle or the medium of the aesthetic’s interface with the political; with the cathexis of the body and its phenomenology as an instrument and medium of political and aesthetic experimentation; with attempts to relinquish the human, and its attendant association with agency, as a category of experience; with contemporary experiences/fantasies of control and resistance to control; with theatricalizations of abjuration and gratification. We invite papers that explore abandon in any number of philosophical, theoretical, artistic, mediatic, generic, and disciplinary contexts.

This year’s conference on abandon supports and feeds into the upcoming ICI Core Project ‘Errans’, which takes the shifting and incompatible meanings of erring as a starting point to explore the critical potentials and risks of embracing error, randomness, failure, and non-teleological temporalities. For further details of that project, please see

Papers to be delivered should be 20 minutes in length. Please email an abstract (250-500 words) and a short bio to by 30 June 2014.  Notifications of acceptance will be sent by mid-July.

Organisers: Manuele Gragnolati (Oxford University/ICI Berlin), Christoph Holzhey (ICI Berlin), Brian Price (co-editor, World Picture/University of Toronto), John David Rhodes (co-editor, World Picture/University of Sussex), and Meghan Sutherland (co-editor, World Picture/University of Toronto)