Monday, May 23, 2016

CFP: Production Cultures


The Velvet Light Trap
Issue #80 - "Production Cultures"
Submission deadline: August 15, 2016
Submit to:

In the introduction to their edited book on production studies, Vicki Mayer, Miranda Banks, and John T. Caldwell argue that “the off-screen production of media is itself a cultural production, mythologized and branded much like the onscreen textual culture that media industries produce.” This has never been more true than in the current moment.

The production process – aided by the proliferation of social media – has become increasingly visible. Long before movies, games, comic book issues, or television series are released, audiences have already been exposed to, and have opined over, casting choices, false starts, locations, script drafts, and various other aspects of the production process. Additionally, the development of cinematic universes has caused the cultures of production to become increasingly complex, resulting in productions that are both more global and transmedia-minded. This raises new questions about power and labor as new relationships are forged between production capitals, and workers who have traditionally functioned independently of each other must come together to create transmedia stories. In addition, the newly-heightened visibility of the production process, and the consolidation of the production studies field, emphasizes the need to reexamine and evaluate production cultures of the past.

This issue of The Velvet Light Trap seeks historical and contemporary studies of media production. Submissions should engage with the above issues of increased complexity, visibility, and ubiquity, in addition to new questions. We invite scholars to submit work that not only deepens our current understanding of production studies, but also challenges our assumptions about what production cultures are, and the types of questions that should be asked about them. We would also ask scholars to consider how issues of gender, race, and sexuality function beyond the screen and contextualize these issues within the production process.

Topics may include but are not limited to:

  • Relationships between producers and consumers
  • Negotiating professional identity
  • Evolution of production
  • Production communities
  • Creative hierarchies within cinematic universes
  • Industry lore related to specific productions
  • Issues of gender, race, sexuality, and/or disability
  • Labor relations, unions, and guilds
  • Below-the-line labor
  • Failed productions/Fired producers
  • Disputes between producers and creators
  • Unpaid labor and intern culture
  • Contracts and other legal issues
  • Labor of practical effects
  • Genre-specific work identities
  • Video game production cultures
  • Stunt work
  • Production and publicity of star texts
  • Gender and exploitation in music cultures
  • Production of user-generated media
  • Cultures of documentary film production
  • Cultures of live production (sports, news, live musicals)

 More submission guidelines available at the journal website.

Monday, May 02, 2016

The Auteur Bias of History Textbooks

I will need to update my reviews of film history textbooks, but now that I'm wrapping up a semester of teaching a film history survey, I would like to circle back to two general complaints I've had about film history textbooks. First, they are often too completist and not well suited for many undergraduate pedagogical contexts. Second, they are often too auteur-oriented, listing major director after major director.

The good news is that I've been fairly happy with the book I've been using this semester, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon's A Short History of Film, which seems to have the right balance of coverage and concision. But even here, I can point to an example of the limitations of the auteur bias in textbooks.

I'm setting aside the bigger debates about auteurism here. What I mean is that the granularity of film lists and auteur profiles gets in the way of the bigger picture that a good film history survey can provide. In their discussion of New German Cinema, Foster and Dixon profile major auteurs (Fassbinder, Wenders, Herzog, and Straub/Huillet) and mention a few others (Schlöndorff, von Trotta, Syberberg, Kluge). However, missing is any generalization about what New German Cinema meant as a movement. Yes, it's a heterogeneous movement, but there are important aspects: the critical self-examination of German history and contemporary West German politics, the synthesis of Brecht and Hollywood-style narrative, and the importance of television and government subsidy.

I understand that one function of a film history textbook is introduce students to the canon, by listing films and directors they should consider watching. But ultimately, the bigger picture is more useful to students than a list of auteurs and, I would argue, is central to the tough work of asking students to think about film historically.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Other Archive Effect

dir. Jonathan Perel, 2015, Argentina
Genre: Poetic; experimental documentary

In her book, The Archive Effect, Jaimie Baron argues that appropriated nonfiction footage, i.e. archival footage, relies on and invokes an archive effect, a spectatorial experience of presentness in relation to the cinematic past.

Here, as in the general use of the term “archive footage,” the archive is in fact any collection of older moving-image or audio-visual footage accessible. But watching Jonathan Perel’s Toponomy, I wondered about the other kind of archive, namely an official repository of documents in which a knowledge system provides an archival context for the documents’ meaning.  It’s not a hard and fast distinction, but in comparsion to the more official kinds of archiving, the loose invocation of the "archive" to refer to a totality of older moving-image material is different than localized archiving of such material.

Toponomy is structured in four segments, each corresponding to a quarter of a planned town in Argentina, designed during the dictatorship to replace the existing indigenous community after a political uprising. The film's structure presents four with a shows the sameness of modernist urban design's symmetry and by implication the rigidity of the forced urban planning.

The places are either evacuated of people or play off a dynamic of populated/evacuated, as in two shots (seen right) - the first an emtpy basketball court layered with walla sounds of children playing and talking, the second a shot that starts off depopulated until a human figure enters the frame.

The segments of poetic-observational footage of the town are bracketed each by a prologue of documents from the government - aerial photographs, city plans, and executive orders creating the new cities. 

I would divide the common practices of archival footage in documentary into three broad approaches. The most traditional is the use of a range of moving-image footage from multiple sources, both as an index of the topic and to give a fictive life to the nonfiction argument. Eyes on the Prize, for instance, has an amazing amount of televisual recording of Civil Rights events. Combined with the editing, structure, and voiceover narration, these provide a composite historical account of the movement.  

The second approach, that spans from experimental doc to newer more mainstream features, would be a single-source archival film, such as Our Nixon or Black Power Mixtape or the work of Peter Forgacs. The raison d'etre of these films is the unearthing of a single collection of audiovisual material and compilation into a new cinematic experience. 

Toponymy, in my eye, uses a third approach, which understands the archival document for its role in a non-cinematic archive. The segment prologues have such an impact because they are not merely older footage or historical in nature or part of a collection of cinematic/televisual footage. They shift the register of referent, to the governmental or juridicial. Mainstream docs can do this, too (see the legal procedural documentary's fetish of court documents) but the editing of Toponymy makes legible and interrogates the document-ness of the document.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Classical Hollywood SIG at SCMS Atlanta

This year will be the first for a new scholarly interest group (SIG) devoted to Classical Hollywood studies in SCMS. The following is information on the activities and meeting planned for the upcoming 2016 SMCS Conference in Atlanta.


The Atlanta conference will be the occasion of our first SIG meeting, on Saturday, April 2, 5:00pm, currently planned for Room 410. Given the packed schedule, it was impossible to avoid conflicts, but I tried to pick a day and time that most members would be able to make. The meeting will give a chance for members to meet in person and discuss the group's key business:

- Election of Co-chairs and a graduate student representative

- SIG priorities for 2016-17

- Social media presence

- Professional alliances

- Classical Hollywood scholarship news and announcements

After our annual meeting (6pm-ish), will have an informal happy hour gathering for those interested in sticking around. Gibney's Pub should be a convenient option, a block west of the Hilton:


The bylaws specify two Co-Chairs and a volunteer Graduate Representative. The Co-Chairs serve staggered terms of three years each, but since the Co-Chairs are to be elected at the Group’s first meeting, the initial Co-Chair terms will stagger, and one member will run for a three-year term and the second will run for a two-year term. All subsequent terms will be for three years.

The Graduate Representative position is filled by self-nomination at the Group’s conference meeting, for a term of 2 to 3 years.  If more than one graduate student member is interested in serving, the group will choose the representative by vote.

Please feel free to submit self-nominations for these positions to me at Nominations will also be accepted at the meeting. I should stress that while I have been acting as chair on a temporary basis, I encourage anyone interested to step forward.


On Thursday night, the Classical Hollywood SIG is co-sponsoring a screening of Thom Anderson's latest film, The Thoughts That Once We Had (2015, NR, Documentary, 108m). I'm sure many of you are familiar with Andersen's work — his essay film style blends an exploration of film history with political and theoretical reflection. Andersen will be in attendance for a Q&A discussion with D.N. Rodowick.

The screening takes place at the Plaza Theatre on Ponce De Leon Ave. (not downtown) on Thursday, March 31, at 7:30pm. Tickets can be reserved ahead of time at the SCMS conference on-site registration desk, and will be available on a first-come, first-served basis at the theatre, with SCMS conference badge.

We are cosponsoring the affiliate event with the Film Philosophy SIG, The Atlanta Film Festival and the Host Committee.


The Classical Hollywood SIG is sponsoring eight panels, the maximum we are able to sponsor. This is in addition to a good number of other panels and papers related to classical Hollywood studies at the conference.


J19 Women Working behind the Scenes in World War II and Postwar Hollywood
CHAIR Therese Grisham (Oakton Community College)
Sheri Chinen Biesen (Rowan University), “Virginia Van Upp and Women behind the Scenes in ‘Musical’ Jazz Film Noir”
Christina Lane (University of Miami), “Producing Joan Harrison: Work, Feminism, Politics, and the Postwar Era”
Therese Grisham (Oakton Community College (and Julie Grossman (Le Moyne College), “Ida
Lupino’s Creative Diplomacy and Off-screen Roleplaying”
Helen Hanson (University of Exeter), “Behind the Scenes, Below the Line: Female Sound Technicians, Creative Labor, and Constraints in Hollywood’s Studio System”

K4 Hollywood Stardom and Transnationalism, 1920–1960
CHAIR Scott Balcerzak (Northern Illinois University)
Lucy Fischer (University of Pittsburgh), “Nazimova: Art Film Star of the 1920s”
Maureen Turim (Universiy of Florida), “From Bara to Garbo: The Pose and Timing of Female Desire”
Mark Gallagher (University of Nottingham), “Beyond Caligari and Casablanca: Conrad Veidt’s Global
Scott Balcerzak (Northern Illinois University), “Kowalski via Stanislavski: Marlon Brando, Stella Adler, and Soviet Performance”

L5 Hollywood Confidential: Gossip, Politics, and Lifestyle, 1945–1967
CHAIR Jon Lewis (Oregon State University)
Nora Gilbert (University of North Texas), “Hedda Hopper’s Housewives: A Conservative Defense of a Progressive Cause”
Catherine Russell (Concordia University), “Barbara Stanwyck as the Bad Mother”
Jon Lewis (Oregon State University), “Fly Straight and Live Right (Fly Right and Live Straight): Westbrook Pegler and the Politics of Gossip”
Ken Feil (Emerson College), “Jacqueline Susann’s Gossip Girls: Valley of the Dolls, Star Scandal Narratives, and New Hollywood”
RESPONDENT Thomas Doherty (Brandeis University)

M5 Magazines about the Movies: Fans, Trades, and More
CHAIR Tamar Jeffers McDonald (University of Kent)
Gregory Waller (Indiana University), “Beyond Fan Magazines and Trade Journals: Motion Picture Discourse in Periodicals of the 1910s”
Michael Cowan (St Andrews University), “Trade Journals and the Logic of Professions”
Tamar Jeffers McDonald (University of Kent), “Reviewing ‘Reviewing the Fan Mags’”
Eric Hoyt (University of Wisconsin-Madison), “Martin Quigley’s Failed Monopoly and the Triumph of American Cinema’s Trade Press”

P5 The System beyond the Studios: The Industrial Geography of Hollywood
CHAIR Luci Marzola (University of Southern California)
Luci Marzola (University of Southern California), “‘Maintained Solely for Your Benefit’: Building the Hollywood Service Corridor”
Charlie Keil (University of Toronto (and Denise McKenna (University of Southern California), “Building a Unique Industry: The Discourses of Early Hollywood”
Paul Monticone (University of Texas at Austin), “The Hollywood Office of the MPPDA and the Bicoastal Geography of the Film Industry”
RESPONDENT Brian Jacobson (University of Toronto

Q5 The Politics of the Blacklist
CHAIR Chuck Maland (University of Tennessee)
Thomas Doherty (Brandeis University), “The Hollywood Eleventh and Twelfth: Bertolt Brecht and
Emmett Lavery before the House Committee on Un- American Activities”
Chuck Maland (University of Tennessee), “‘I Am What You Call a Peacemonger:’ Chaplin, Government Investigation, and the Blacklist 1947–1952”
Cynthia Meyers (College of Mount Saint Vincent), “Blacklisting as an Advertising Strategy: J. Walter Thompson, Television Sponsors, and Anticommunist Activists, 1951–1955”
RESPONDENT Brian Neve (University of Bath)

T3 Chasing Paper: Studio Planning, Support Departments, and Hollywood Production
CHAIR Erin Hill (University of California, Los Angeles)
Aaron Rich (University of Southern California), “Bible Building, World Building: Studio Research Libraries and the Creation of Realism”
Erin Hill (University of California, Los Angeles), “Weeders, Readers, and ‘D-Girls’: Feminized Labor in the Story Department”
Dawn Fratini (Chapman University), “Tracing Technological Transformation in the 1950s: The Long and Wide Paper Trail of the Motion Picture Research Council”
Daniel Steinhart (University of Oregon), “The Learning Curves and Trade Knowledge of Hollywood’s Postwar ‘Runaway’ Productions”

U3 Tracking Sound: On Film Music, Aesthetics, and Narrative
CHAIR Paula Musegades (Brandeis University)
Paula Musegades (Brandeis University), “Communism, Propaganda, and Music: Aaron Copland’s Film Score for Lewis Milestone’s The North Star (1943)”
Kevin John Bozelka (Bronx Community College), “Music Is Heard, Not Seen: Grand Rights and the Visualization of Song in Hollywood Cinema”
Hannah Lewis (University of Texas at Austin), “Love Me Tonight (1932) and the Development of the Integrated Film Musical”
Matthew McDonald (Northeastern University), “Behind the Whirring Machinery: Narrative Levels in the Coen Brothers’ Films”


D8 How Does Lubitsch Do It?: Reconsidering the Vital Importance of (Being) Ernst Lubitsch
CHAIR Kathryn Wardell (University of North Alabama)
Richard McCormick (University of Minnesota), “‘Sophistication,’ Screwball, and Censorship: Lubitsch in the 1930s”
Noa Merkin (University of Chicago), “Lubitsch and the Objects of Love”
Kathryn Wardell (University of North Alabama), “Jazz Up Your Lingerie, Just like a Melody: Sensuality and Sound in the Ernst Lubitsch Musical”

E7 Cultural Critique in Classical Hollywood
CHAIR Michael Slowik (San Diego State University)
Michael Slowik (San Diego State University), “‘What’s the Matter with Bigamy?’: Evading the Production Code in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”
Lauren Davine (Ryerson University), “Motherly Love: Maternal Lovers and Childish Men in Postwar Malecentered Melodrama”
Kathaleen Boche (Independent Scholar), “‘I Like Myself’: Dance and Cold War Self-affirmations in Hollywood Musicals, 1955–1957”

G9 Star Maps: Publicity, Authorship, and Hollywood Stars
CHAIR Milan Hain (Palacky University)
Michael Williams (University of Southampton), “’Above Everything?’: Icons and Idolatry in Mata Hari (George Fitzmaurice, 1931)”
Milan Hain (Palacky University), “Courting Europe: David O. Selznick and His Transnational Stars”
Kelsey Moore (University of Southern California), “‘A Story Only Life Itself Could Have Inspired’: Publicity, Subjectivity, and A Star is Born”
R. Colin Tait (Texas Christian University), “The King of Comedy in the Archive: What the Robert De Niro Papers Tell Us about the Actor’s Authorial Stamp"

G16 Expanded Horizons: New Approaches to CinemaScope Aesthetics
CHAIRS Sam Roggen (University of Antwerp) and  Anthony Coman (University of Florida
Sam Roggen (University of Antwerp), “The End of Montage?: A Systematic Formal Analysis of Editing Style in Early CinemaScope”
Marshall Deutelbaum (Purdue University), “Graphic Continuity and Set Design in the CinemaScope Composition of The Tender Trap”
Anthony Coman (University of Florida), “‘Out of the Inner Moment Comes the Whole’: Organic Continuity in Wright, Ray, and Perkins”
Nathaniel Deyo (University of Florida), “Toward a Non-bourgeois Use of CinemaScope: Notes on Contempt”

I1 Gone with the Wind: Interracial Crossings
CHAIR Matthew H. Bernstein (Emory University
Steve Wilson (University of Texas at Austin), “The Slave ‘Hopefuls’: Casting Gone with the Wind”
Douglas Kern (University of Maryland), “Lending Body and Voice: Investigating Hattie McDaniel’s Performances of White-authored Texts”
Charlene Regester (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), “White Fascination with Blackness: Racial Masquerades in Gone With the Wind”
Matthew H. Bernstein (Emory University), “Gone with the Wind in Black Theaters: The Distribution Plan”

I3 Color II: Perception, Address and Space
CHAIR Tyler Schroeder (University of Chicago
Hannah Garibaldi (Chapman University), “Natalie Kalmus: ‘Conscious’ Chromatic Cinema”
Junko Yamazaki (University of Chicago), “Between Black and Dark: Matsumoto Toshio’s Pandemonium (1971)”
Tyler Schroeder (University of Chicago), “Marginal Habitability: Sourcing Colored Light in All That Heaven Allows (1955)”
RESPONDENT Kirsten Moana Thompson (University of

L15 Hollywood Women in Transition: Rediscovery and Reconfiguration from Stage and Screen to Television
CHAIR Vera Dika (New Jersey City University)
Vera Dika (New Jersey City University), “Remaking the Serpentine Dance and the Skin Light: Edison, the Lumières, and Stephanie Wuertz”
Desiree Garcia (Arizona State University), “You Can’t Keep a Good Girl Down: Marilyn Miller, Stardom, and Early Musicals”
J. E. Smyth (University of Warwick), “Refusing the Feminist Frame: A Struggle over Hollywood’s Women in the 1930s and 1970s”
Cynthia Lucia (Rider University), “Big Screen/Small Screen: Natalie Wood’s Quest for the New Hollywood”

M6 Remapping the Hollywood Western Landscape
CHAIR Matt Hauske (University of Chicago)
Jennifer Peterson (University of Colorado Boulder), “Landscape and Ecology on The Big Trail”
Richard Grusin (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), “Landscape, Diegesis, and Music in the Westerns of John Ford, Anthony Mann, and Budd Boetticher”
Matt Hauske (University of Chicago), “You’ve Gotta Know the Territory: Maps, Landscapes, and Physical Reality in Action Cinema”
Joshua Gleich (University of Arizona), “Coogan’s Bluff: Transposing Western and Urban Frontiers”

O13 Sex, Class, and Stardom in Postwar Hollywood
CHAIR Amanda Konkle (University of Kentucky)
Adrienne L. McLean (University of Texas at Dallas), “‘Can Allure Be Mature?’: Stardom and Age in Latestudio Hollywood”
Lucy Bolton (Queen Mary University of London), “’Well, I'll Take the Lower, Every Time’: Sex, Class, and Princess Grace Kelly”
Amanda Konkle (University of Kentucky), “‘An Unacceptable Suggestive Flavor’: Marilyn Monroe’s Films, Class, and the Weakening of the Hollywood Production Code”
Andrea Press (University of Virginia (and Marjorie Rosen (Lehman College, CUNY), “Sex, Class, and Trash: The Gold Diggers and Femmes Fatales of Postwar Hollywood”

P2 Postwar Hollywood: Containing Female Agency in the Workplace
CHAIR Alan Nadel (University of Kentucky)
Alan Nadel (University of Kentucky), “It’s All About Eve: Margo Channing, Norma Desmond, Lina Lamont and the Abjection of Female Stars”
Mary Desjardins (Dartmouth College), “‘One Good Idea into the Mainstream of American Life’: Hollywood Stardom under the Sign of Postwar Catholicism”
Steven Cohan (Syracuse University), “Paris Loves Lovers and Americans Loved Paris: Gender, Work, and Modernity in the Postwar Hollywood Musical”
RESPONDENT Lucy Fischer (University of Pittsburgh

T18 Hitchcock Adapted: Constructing and Reconstructing an Auteur
CHAIR Matthew Bolton (Concordia College New York)
Sidney Gottlieb (Sacred Heart University), “Truffaut Adapts Hitchcock”
Donna Kornhaber (University of Texas at Austin), “Alfred Hitchcock Presents Alfred Hitchcock: Brand,
Media, and Directorial Identity”
John Hellmann (Ohio State University), “Petzold’s Hitchcock”
Matthew Bolton (Concordia College New York •
“Hitch Out-Hitches Hitch: Consolidation of a Romantic Style in The Man Who Knew Too Much”


A12 Geoff Lealand (University of Waikato), “We’re Going to Be Sent to Hollywood: Shirley Temple ‘Double’ Competitions in 1930s New Zealand"
A15 Guy Barefoot (University of Leicester), “Researching Seriality, Continued: Children, Adults, the Film Serial and Film History”
A15 Nathaniel Brennan (New York University), "“Execs Nix Pix Crix” or, Film Criticism According to Hollywood:
“Useless” Film Critics, Studio Publicity Campaigns, and the Daily Press, 1926-1942"
B5 Steven A. Carr (Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne), “Remnants of The Search (MGM, 1948): Postwar Testimony
B14 Philip Sewell (Independent Scholar), "“Are You a Victim of Habiphobia?”: A Regional Theater Circuit Reacts
to the Post-WWII Decline in Texas Movie-Going"
D3 Pamela Krayenbuhl (Northwestern University •
“With Cartoons, on the Ceiling, with Shadows: Innovating Dancefilm Movement in the Golden Age Hollywood Musical
D11 Anna Siomopoulos (Bentley University), “‘They Do Not Get to Take My Marriage’: The Whistleblower Couple in Hollywood Film”
D17 Joanna Rapf (University of Oklahoma), “Polly Moran: A Bassoon in Hollywood’s ‘Symphony of Sweet-Tuned Violins’”
E10 Staci Stutsman (Syracuse University), “Pre-Code Stanwyck: The Sass, the Stare, and the Scream”
E10 Will Scheibel (Syracuse University), “Gene Tierney and Laura: Wartime Fantasies of Inconspicuous Consumption”
E14 Robert Miklitsch (Ohio University), “Odds for Tomorrow: Race, Melo-policier, and the Trope of Oriental Inscrutability in Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono”
E14 Zeke Saber (University of Southern California), “Film Noir and the Submission of Cinema to Literature”
F6 Ila Tyagi (Yale University), “Blood Moon: Infrared Cinematography in Early Wartime Hollywood”
F10 Lies Lanckman (University of Kent), “Brickbats, Bouquets, and Bytes: Classic Hollywood Fandom in the Twenty-first Century”
F23 Sandra Annett (Wilfrid Laurier University), “Dance the Body Electric: Re-animating Classical Hollywood in
Electroswing Music Videos”
G3 Ellen Scott (University of California, Los Angeles), “‘The So-called Third Degree Method’: Police Brutality and
Race in Classical Hollywood Cinema
I7 Michael Lawrence (University of Sussex), “‘The Grammar School Girls’ Laurence Olivier’: Steven Muller, a ‘British’ German Jewish Juvenile Actor in 1940s Hollywood”
J16 Yannis Tzioumakis (University of Liverpool), “In the Shadow of The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle, and
Rebel Without a Cause: Rock Around the Clock and Its Independent Look at the Youth of the 1950s
K14 David Lugowski (Manhattanville College), “Authorship, Britishness, Chronotopes, and the Depression: The ABCD’s of Masters and Servants in James Whale’s Films”
L20 Melanie Kohnen (Coventry University), “Nonnormative Scholarship for Non-normative Media: A Videographic Exploration of Classical Hollywood Cinema’s Queer Tropes”
L21 Patrick Keating (Trinity University), “Theorizing Light: Henri Alekan and Vittorio Storaro”
L21 Clifford Galiher (University of Southern California), “Getting the Impossible Shot: Virtual Cinematography at RKO”
N12 Tamas Nagypal (York University), “Hollywood’s Sovereign Exception: On Film Noir’s Masculine Biopolitics”
O16 Nitin Govil (University of Southern California), “Technique, Travel, and Translation: Film Technology between Hollywood and Bombay”
P20 Shota Ogawa (University of North Carolina at Charlotte), “On-location Adventures at the Fringes of Technicolor (1927–1934)”
Q4 Hannah Frank (University of Chicago), “The Draughtsman’s Imagination: Deep-focus Cinematography in Walt Disney’s Cinderella (1950)”
Q11 Nolwenn Mingant (University of Nantes), “Hollywood vs. France?: Coopetition in the North African Market (1910s–1960s)”
R4 Amos Stailey-Young (University of Iowa), “Finding the View: Classical Hollywood Location Shooting and the Indexing of Nature”
Q11 Kaveh Askari (Northwestern University in Qatar), “Relaying American Films in Iran after WWII
S9 Claudia Calhoun (Skidmore College), “A City without Boundaries: Elia Kazan’s New Orleans in Panic in the Streets (1950)”
S9 Jacqueline Pinkowitz (University of Texas at Austin •
“Whiteness Undercover: Detecting Black Southern Oppression in Black Like Me (1964)”
S15 Eric Herhuth (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), “Reconsidering Corporate Art: Critical Aestheticism and Studio Authorship”
S15 John Bruns (College of Charleston), “Showtime!: Under the Spell of Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success”
T16 Emily Carman (Chapman University), “Hard Bargainer: Constance Bennett as Star-turned-producer in Postwar Hollywood”
T16 Ross Melnick (University of California, Santa Barbara), “Warner Worldwide: Warner Bros. Theater Circuits and the Global Marketplace, 1938–2013”
U7 Hiaw Khim Tan (University of Chicago), “From Augustus Egg to King Vidor: Rediscovering the Emblem Form in Hollywood Visual Style of the Studio Period”

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Visible Evidence CFP: Sound Design in the Feature Documentary

I am pulling together a panel on sound design for Visible Evidence XXIII, to take place in Bozeman, MT , August 11-14, 2016. I encourage anyone interested to let me know!

Panel Proposal/Call for Papers

Sound Design in the Feature Documentary

One of the focus themes for the 2016 Visible Evidence Conference is “Sonic Frontiers,” acknowledging the increasing (and long overdue) critical attention to documentary sound. In this move, documentary studies is responding to sonic experiments in contemporary documentary. By substituting source sound with electronic scoring (Rebecca Baron) or foley sound (Loznitsa, Ujica, Voignier, and Mansky), and by exploring the aesthetics of silence, contemporary nonfiction filmmakers challenge the notion of sound as a transparent conduit of information. Similarly, the boom in scholarship on the essay film has underscored the importance of the sound track as a crucial aesthetic and intellectual component of the nonfiction film.

As important as essay films and more experimental documentary soundtracks are, though, the critical attention on anti-realist practice obscures a parallel revolution in sound design among more mainstream documentaries. Enabled by affordable digital technologies and inspired by developments in fiction film sound, feature documentaries are developing richer soundtracks. 

This proposed panel will explore the sonic aesthetics of contemporary documentary. Theoretical papers, close readings, or historical case studies are welcome on any aspect of sound practice, including recording, sound mixing, and foley sound. While the panel will be open to a range of canonical and noncanonical documentary—from theatrical feature to public broadcast television to the creative documentary—the emphasis will be on documentary in its less experimental, more hegemonic forms.

Conference submission deadline is Jan 15. Please email me by Jan. 10 if you are interested in participating:

Monday, December 21, 2015

CFP: Rethinking Popular Documentary (anthology)


Rethinking Popular Documentary

The renewal of documentary over the past two decades has taken place across significant social, environmental, cultural, technological and geopolitical climate changes.  More than ever, in a time of proliferating voices, documentary may be said to function as a global commodity, its distribution enabled by the rise of digital and video technologies, the dramatic increase in “specialty” cable channel programming (Discovery/History/Biography Channel, Animal Planet, etc.), social media and, of course, the Internet.  Apart from a few notable exceptions, critical attention to “popular” documentary is relatively underdeveloped in the burgeoning field of documentary studies.  When media studies, film studies and cultural studies have expanded their objects of analyses so widely and productively, why have documentary studies scholars tended to ignore popular documentary in favor of films that are (arguably) more formally innovative, ideologically/politically complex and/or intellectually engaging? Does this lacuna relate to the relative lack of coordinated attention to spectatorial pleasure and reception in documentary film scholarship?  What does the florescence of certain popular subject areas or subgenres in documentary (e.g. wildlife, “charismatic mega-fauna”, food, water, oil and other ecodocumentaries) tell us about contemporary culture? How does the explosion of popular documentary trouble or enliven existing theories and critical methodologies for understanding and evaluating documentary?

Possible topics might include:

  • The relationship between documentary and entertainment
  • Popular documentary and/as genre
  • Interrogation of the popular in documentary
  • Popular documentary and popular music, or the documentary soundtrack
  • Social media, networked distribution, and/or web docs
  • The convergence of popular documentary and fiction techniques
  • Popular documentary and emotion (or affect)
  • Humor, irony or satire in popular documentary
  • Witness and intervention in popular documentary
  • Performativity, performance and/or reenactment
  • The documentary auteur and cult of personality
  • Popular documentary and the docu film festival circuit
  • Made-for-television documentaries: formats, constraints, ideologies
  • Netflix and other digital documentary databases
  • Neoliberalism and popular “committed” documentary
  • Popular documentary and the public sphere
  • New technology, delivery and production systems and their relationship to popular documentary
Please submit proposals to by February 1, 2016. Submissions should consist of an abstract (350-500 words), a bibliography (4-6 sources) and brief bio (100 words). If accepted, we will then request a 7,000-8,000 word essay.  Date: TBA.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Conferences Winter 2015-16 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.  I will update this post throughout the winter. (The NECS call should be online soon.)

Closed calls:
MLA - Austin, Texas, Jan 7-10, 2016 [website]
SCMS - Atlanta, Mar 30-Apr 3, 2016 [website]
ICA - Fukuoka, Japan June 9-13, 2016 [website]

Current calls:
due date: Dec 15, 2015 Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Images (SCSMI) Cornell Univ, Ithica, NY, June 1st – 4th, 2016 [website | call]
due date: Dec 15, 2015 The Annual Conference of the Film Studies Association of Canada May 31 -June 2, 2016 the University of Calgary, Theme: “Energizing Communities” [website | call]
due date: Jan 10, 2016 Screen - Univ of Glasgow, June 24-26, 2016 [call]
due date: Jan 15, 2016 Visible Evidence XXIII - Bozeman, Montana, Aug 11-14, 2016 Theme: "New Frontiers in Documentary" [website | call]

Upcoming calls:
NECS - Potsdam, Germany, July, 28-30, 2016 [website]
UFVA - Las Vegas, August 1-4, 2016 [website]
MLA - Philadelphia, January 5-8, 2017 

CFP: Visible Evidence XXIII


Visible Evidence XXIII
Bozeman, MT
August 11-14, 2016

[website | call]

Visible Evidence, the international conference on documentary film and media, now in its 23rd year, will convene August 11-14, 2016 in Bozeman, MT. Hosted by the School of Film and Photography at Montana State University, Visible Evidence XXIII will address the history, theory, and practice of documentary and non-fiction cinema, television, video, audio recording, digital media, photography, and performance, in a wide range of panels, workshops, plenary sessions, screenings, and special events. Drawing inspiration from our Montana setting, we challenge participants to think about new frontiers in documentary theory and practice. While panels, presentations and screenings may address any aspect of documentary screen cultures, histories and practices, proposals related to the following themes are especially encouraged: Environmental Frontiers, Political Frontiers, Social Frontiers and Experimental Frontiers.

Submission Deadlines (by 5:00 pm MST):

Pre-Constituted Panels and Workshops: January 15, 2016

Individual Papers and Screenings: January 15, 2016

The Programming Committee will respond to all proposals by March 31, 2016.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Meta Ethical Documentary

Field Niggas
dir. Khalik Allah, 2014
Genre: Poetic/observational
currently showing theatrically in New York

I need to watch and reflect more widely, but I am not sure I've seen all that many documentaries aligned with portraiture photography. There are certainly portrait docs, both as a genre and as a mode, I would argue, but I am referring to documentaries that intersect with the operational aesthetics of still portraiture photography. They exist, certainly, but the examples elude me.

Field Niggas inhabits this intersection. The director Khalik Allah is a still photographer extending his street photography into cinema with gorgeous HD videography. Of course, high-definition digital cameras can make lovely images easy to capture, but even though I've gotten used to the proliferation of aestheticizing shooting in documentary, the work in Field Niggas is stunning. 

But the portraiture aesthetic is more than prettiness. I am thinking too of the photographer-subject rapport (important in documentary but crucial to the portrait photographer) and the spectator-subject relation, which since Diane Arbus at least often implicates the middle-class spectator in an uncomfortable social position of viewing subproletarian or outsider subjects.

Field Niggas takes on a similar project of photographing what might be ultimate outsiders - the mostly African-American, mostly homeless inhabitants of a Harlem street corner in New York, who spend the evening congregating, drinking, smoking synthetic marijuana, and arguing with themselves and with police officers.

Much could be said in a fuller essay about how the film negotiates the ethical dilemma of its project, but in general it seems to be use a twin strategy of aestheticization and metacritique. The former because it wants to show people commonly ignored or treated as an urban blight as full of a profound humanity. The latter because the film seems aware of the ethical pitfalls that aestheticizing can have. The structural devices from the sound-image disjunction, slow motion, and filmmaker's appearance all play a role in commenting on the image making and image perception of the documentary that we, the spectators are watching.

For me personally, it's an approach that could backfire but it worked quite well. The meta ethical critique felt organic, tied to the experience of the documentary, rather than told to me.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Fake Inductive Structure

The Search for General Tso
dir. Ian Cheney, 2014
Genre: Quirkumentary/Cultural documentary
Streaming on Netflix, available on instant video

For some reason it is hard for me to pinpoint the genre of The Search for General Tso, even though it is similar to many mainstream feature documentaries and even though the film fits pretty neatly with what I call postclassical documentary narration. The film, a cultural history of the Chinese-American restaurant staple, is a mix of expert testimony, interviews, B-roll, and illustrative animation graphics. In this sense, it is a formally safe rather than innovative doc, but is pitched as such, to a general interest audience. On these terms, the documentary does a terrific job of seeing the big picture in the small, by using culinary history as a hook for an exploration of Chinese diaspora, US immigration policy, and a series of secondary issues. 

The film presents itself as a detective story (the search for origins) and unlike some investigative documentaries, this one does not filter it through a 1st person persona (The Jinx) but rather moves the investigative narrative onto an objective narrative structure. The decision pays benefits, as when the an initial framing of General Tso Chicken as (inauthentically) Chinese-American starts with juxtapositions of the U.S. and Hunan province.

Eventually, though, the film confounds a one-note critique of inauthenticity, and the structure subverts spectator expectation.

The 3rd person nature of the investigation does highlight the artifice of the detective story hook to begin with. The documentary withholds information that the filmmaker very likely would have had at the beginning in order to create the enigma and the clues for solving it. One could see this as a MacGuffin (The Search for General Tso is not the most engaging mystery, though I found the cultural history fascinating). But I see a larger principle at stake, namely the false-inductive structure of postclassical documentary. The film positions the spectator to have an experiential relation to the revelation of information when in fact the revelation has been overdetermined from the outset of either filming or editing.

The stakes of this fake-inductive form varies considerably from the two modalities of postclassical doc: character-driven (observational) or expository. The Search for General Tso is the latter and therefore does not "breathe" as much as something like The Overnighters does. But a similar backward plotting is involved.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Medium Term Scales of Innovation

Costa da Morte
dir. Lois Patiño, 2013
Genre: poetic documentary
Not currently in wide distribution

There is currently an excitement that generates a lot of documentary work that is in a similar vein. Static shots, locked down camera, often in telephoto or at least long shot, digital cinematography, and sound design done in "close up." I thought of these when watching Costa da Morte, a poetic documentary about the Galician coast and the villagers' relation to their landscape. I do think that Lois Patiño has a distinctive eye and that Costa da Morte activates the tropes of contemporary poetic doc for interesting thematic ends. And at times (such as the passage of the seasons), it departed from a strictly contemplative pace. But in so many ways, it feels like one example of a larger genre and hews fairly closely to that genre.

Which makes me wonder about the time-scale of aesthetic innovation. I still think the poetic approach seems fresh, in part because so many technological and narratological developments are interacting in various permutations. But at some point, maybe soon, maybe in the medium term, these tropes will likely seem like cliché.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Documentary Taste Formations

dir. Sergei Loznitsa, 2014
Genre: experimental/observational
on home video from Cinema Guild, via VOD, and on Netflix (US)

I have been reflecting a lot of just what I am trying to do with documentary criticism, both in my research project and on this blog. I am not a documentary critic and am not trying to be one, strictly speaking. I write as a scholar, with a scholar's perspective. At the same time, film studies has reenergized by a dialogue with film criticism, and it's something I've been mulling over. And most of all, the documentaries themselves are driving my interest, and I want to grapple seriously with what they do, and that's a process that's not too different than film criticism.

I still don't have a full answer, but I think one difference is that I have a different relationship to the evaluative than film critics do. I have judgments and they inform what I do, but I am trying not to be invested in what I see as sometimes narrow polemics of what documentary should do. As I wrote in an earlier post, I seek to walk the line between omnivorism (loving all documentaries for the sake of their nonfiction-ness) and discernment (loving only a narrow and particular kind of nonfiction practice). To be honest, I see this as not too different than some of the discussions that goes on in TV studies, between those invested in a historically far-reaching TV canon and those champion contemporary long-form prestige TV.

I had this in mind watching Maidan, the poetic-observational portrait of the Euromaidan, a series of protests and police action in Independence Square, Kiev. Loznitsa works in a range of styles but the hallmark perhaps has been the importation of certain experimental techniques (for instance structural filmmaking) into documentary. Maidan works in this structural vein, featuring a series of long-takes that have the immediacy of capturing the protests but are clinically detached from them.

The film was a fairly big festival and critical hit, so at first glance it doesn't need any defenders. But it is a difficult film, in large part because of the gap between the current events hook (Maidan gives a close-up look missed by many journalists) and the minimal, even evasive narration. The film consists mostly of static, (very) long takes. Beyond some basic intertitles, the film gives the spectator no indication of any particular political meaning of the shots.

Of course it's the minimalism that endears it to critics. After all, a less minimal approach can pose easy answers to to complex political problems. But it also poses problems. If there is an opportunity to illuminate the events of Euromaidan, not simply phenomenologically but politically, historically, and analytically, Maidan's structural approach does not allow it. The disadvantage of poetic and experimental documentary can be its refusal to analyze.

So I can imagine two sides of a polemical debate, or really two documentary taste formations. My impulse is to value both formations without taking sides. Though to do so without losing the sense of critical perspective on the film or on doc aesthetics.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Personal Documentary and the Collective Subject

Do I Sound Gay? 
dir. David Thorpe, 2015, US
Genre: Personal, issue documentary
currently in theaters in the US; available cable on-demand (US)

After watching Do I Sound Gay? I wondered if I saw the same film that Clayton Dillard did for his Slant Magazine review. On a literal level, yes, but I had a very different take than this impression:
Do I Sound Gay? is another link in an increasingly tiresome chain of navel-gazing think pieces posing as personal documentary.... Thorpe's approach is less historical or experimental than staid and solipsistic, as his own biography, which includes growing up in South Carolina and not acknowledging his own homosexuality until reaching college, is dutifully presented as a series of facts and tidbits which are meant to substantiate the film's interest in cultural norms regarding homosexual behavior and self-acceptance. 
Part of me understands where the review is coming from. I'm not always fond of personal documentaries and for instance dislike ones like My Architect where the more broadly interesting subject matter is deflected toward personal emotional therapy of the filmmaker. And like or dislike the genre, there's a real aesthetic dilemma in the choice to make the filmmaker a character: is the showmanship and box office hook of a personal story worth losing some of the objectivist dimensions (or just aesthetic evocativeness) that documentary can excel at?

But the other part of me has to ask: who are you calling solipsistic? The plural of anecdote is data, but Do I Sound Gay? has as a reasonable a claim as any personal or portrait documentary that its main subject represents something broader, much broader. The very point of the film is that the personal is political. Falling back on "critical, scholarly, or journalistic investigation" would be interesting (one can imagine any number of ways of making a documentary) but would not capture the subjective experience that gay men have of their voice. It's not an essential gay experience - not all gay men identify their voice as an issue -  but it's a common one. The experience, I would argue, and the film argues, is a collective one. 

To put my cards on the table, I too have had similar ambivalence about my own gay voice and mannerisms. So perhaps I'm the target demographic. And perhaps I prefer "communal confirmation over more rigorous, troubled grapplings." But I would argue it's bigger than me or Thorpe. With the gay marriage victory in the US legal system, gay rights has had a success that arguably gay liberation has not. It's a real crisis of sorts for the queer left, and it also poses an issue even for more assimilated gay culture. Are there still structures of oppression that (objectively) police gay people and (subjectively) act as self-oppression? These are not legal questions, and I think the documentary is timely to raise them.

Certainly, the documentary form is conventional and the narration cloying at times. But even here, voiceover narration serves the role of reminding the spectator of the sexuality of voice. It's not political modernism, yet there is some interesting work on the signifier going on. 

I do agree with Dillard that the conflict resolution is too tidy, or at least it feels like an imposition of the character-driven three-act structure on historical reality, which in fact offers no real resolution. Oe problem is that a film that does not adopt this narrative structure has a hard time for broad documentary distribution. But more charitably, I see the film in the tradition of feminist and gay liberation consciousness-raising, or a collective catharsis that's about connecting personal experience to social structures. Perhaps with that comes a desire for a progress narrative.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Conspiracy Documentary as Puzzle Films

The Forecaster
dir. Marcus Vetter, Karin Steinberger, 2014, Germany
Genre: Issue documentary
available German DVD ( and on VOD (for $50!)

I've been following the Greek crisis as it unfolds, and since the US news outlets have been frankly doing a miserable job at covering other than in the business press, this means a few overseas websites and lots of Twitter. One thing that is striking is how the situation seems to illustrate ideology in Mannheim's sense - a scattershot of versions of reality based in social situatedness. And, broadly speaking, there is the oddness of witnessing this from overseas. On one hand the crisis has brought out international alignment of right and left sentiment along the battle lines of austerity and anti-austerity. On the other hand 

I bring this up because I keep thinking back to the screening of the Forecaster that I attended at Transilvania Film Fest. The documentary is about financier Martin Armstrong, a fund manager who was convicted of running a Ponzi scheme in the 1990s. Armstrong in turn claims that it’s the financial system that is a Ponzi scheme and he is being persecuted for being a Cassandra and for his forecasting models. He presents the claim on the basis of both a “common sense” stance and a secret computer model based on cycles of the number Pi.

I am reminded of the Marxist economist Kondrateieff and his cycles (Amstrong seems influenced by him) but mostly, from my American vantage, this all seems like trumped up Ron Paul-ism, and in fact Paul has a new informercial peddling this very type of economic apocalypse. (I'm not the only one cynical about the film.) But the largely Romanian and presumably left-leaning audience I saw the film responded very well to its message. And I have to guess that it's inclusion in film festivals, including IDFA, speaks to the way its polemic speaks to the European left's suspicions about global capital and the US government. It's not that those suspicions are absent in the U.S. but they're tempered by the libertarian hard right's mobilization of anti-monestarism.

So, there is often a tendency for transnational ideological sympathy: those on the left in one country identify with depictions of political struggle in another. But sometimes, the nationally specific context changes this identification.

But I think there's something about the film itself and its documentary genre that's at play. Formally, The Forecaster is not a straightforward issue documentary and in fact would not be getting much play if it were. Rather something about the narration introduces both suspense and surprise. In their book on the puzzle film, Warren Buckland refer to “mind fuck” movies and Thomas Elsaesser refers to the genre as “mind game” movies. The analogy to the puzzle film is not perfect, but this film does rely on revelations of surprise information that is meant to retroactively provide the answer key for the enigmas of the film. 

By now we have witnessed a cycle of lefty conspiracy documentaries that have some variant on this technique. Art of the Steal comes to mind. I can see the appeal to filmmakers, since the genre provides an entertainment hook to otherwise dry material and a moral political clarity to what otherwise might be confusing or arcane economics. But the genre also imposes its own politics and own problems. I'm reminded of 1970s film theory's take on the matter - say, John Hill's reading of the conspiracy film. If anything, the conspiracy documentary is an even better example.

cited: John Hill (1997) ‘Finding a form: politics and aesthetics in Fatherland, Hidden Agenda and Riff-Raff‘ in George McKnight (ed), Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach 

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Touristic Gaze of Festival Documentary

The Domino Effect (Efekt Domina)
dir. Elwira Niewiera, Piotr Rosołowski, 2014, Germany/Poland 
Genre: Character-Driven

There are so many critiques that festival documentaries can and do face, and my impulse as a scholar is to take seriously these critiques but also think if there can be fresh ways to frame the aesthetic and political problems at stake. An overriding criticism of these documentaries is that they compromise their politics for a global (privileged) spectator, yet I think there is not a sufficient case to be made for the complexity of transnational spectatorship. I don't have a workable theory of this idea, but the answer may lie in the “touristic” shot common to documentaries.

The Domino Effect is a good example. It is a character-driven documentary about a mixed-nationality couple in the breakaway region of Abkhazia - not recognized as an independent country but not functionally integrated with Russia, either. The protagonists, Natasha and Rafael, feel the strain in their relationship as is unable to fit into Abkhazian society and is unwilling to give up his pro-bono efforts to build a national profile. 

The film opens with a series of shots of the beach and many of the former Black Sea resort architecture now in a state of decay. Although not typically pretty, the treatment of the imagery falls into what Alina Predescu discusses as the picturesque in documentary. These shots stand in for the otherness of place and spectator. Even if the viewer is Abkhazian, she understands a hypothetical gaze from outside, appraising the country for its beauty. 

These are all limiting things, which might be corroborated by the dripping condescension of HotDoc’s program blurb (though in fairness some of it is lifted from the promotional material):
In Abkhazia, an unrecognized “country” in Russia’s Caucasus, patriotism runs rather deep. In this Black Sea black comedy, its self-appointed sports minister must choose between his foreign wife and a bizarre tournament that will surely put them on the map.
And, yet, the touristic gaze is sometimes a useful hook for spectatorial engagement. The touristic shots figure the ideal spectator epistemology, since we are to balance socially objectifying knowledge (Abkhazia has insurmountable problems) and humanistic empathy (cross-cultural connection is a tough thing to maintain). And The Domino Effect does thematically present the shoreline as a space that is experiences with local in addition to touristic meaning. In fact, the Sea is one of the few resources Abkhazia has its disposal.

Establishing shots are frequently overdetermined in their meaning. But they are also part of a stable narrational disposition that can be a way of engage spectator’s attention without the traditional crutches of documentary features (expository voiceover, titles, talking head expertise). The recent festival documentaries make a strong turn toward art cinema style minimalism but the tradeoff is that they rely on underlying stable representational tropes to anchor the spectator's experience.