CP 23 Rebooting Feminism
Console-ing Passions International Conference on Television, Video, Audio, New Media and Feminism
June 18-20, 2015
Deadling for Abstracts: October 1, 2014.
Applicants will be notified of acceptance by Jan 31, 2015.
Please submit all proposals to: Console-ingPassions.org
Founded by a group of feminist media scholars and artists in 1989, Console-ing Passions held its first official conference at the University of Iowa in 1992. Since that time, Console-ing Passions has become the leading international scholarly network for feminist research in television, video, audio, and new media.
Twenty-three years after the group’s founding, we find ourselves in a dramatically different media landscape, as well as a world in which the meanings of feminism, postfeminism, and the intersections of feminism with race, sexuality, and class are hotly contested in the academy, in the popular press, and in contemporary media representations. Console-ing Passions 2015 asks, after decades of postfeminist retrenchment, is feminism due for a reboot?
CP23 seeks to bring together papers, panels, screenings, and workshops that investigate both feminism and media studies at a crossroads. We are particularly interested in work that brings together two or more of Console-ing Passions’ driving themes: gender, race and ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, and class. The 2015 conference invites pre-constituted panels and workshops, as well as individual papers that consider the breadth of feminist concerns related to television, digital, video, audio, and new media, as well as mobile and gaming technologies. Pre-constituted panels and workshops are especially encouraged.
Possible topics include considerations of gender in relation to:
*feminism in a “post-racial” moment
*“Rebooting Feminism:” what comes after postfeminism?
*feminism, the economy & austerity
*media production and industries
*media audiences and fans
*gaming and virtual worlds
*masculinities, trans identities, sexualities
*sex work and pornography
*neoliberalism and gender
*transmedia, theories of convergence and their critiques
*transnational cultural flows and “Ex-pat TV”
*social media and digital domains
*feminism and popular music
*feminism and the New Europe
*spiritual belief and practice and media
*feminism and the political right
*new feminist icons (Elizabeth Warren, Wendy Davis, Julia Gillard)
*campaigns for social justice
*stardom and celebrity
*affect and emotion studies
Pre-Constituted Panel Proposals: Panel coordinators should submit a 200-word rationale for the panel as whole. For each contributor, please submit a 250-word abstract, a short bio, and contact information. Panels that include a diversity of panelist affiliations and experience levels are strongly encouraged. Panels should include 3-4 papers.
Individual Papers: Individuals submitting paper proposals should provide an abstract of 250 words, a short bio, and contact information.
Workshop Proposals: We seek workshop ideas that focus on scholarly issues in the field and matters of professionalization. Topics might include: media activism; mentoring; the job market; digital networking; workplace politics; teaching; tenure and promotion; publishing; etc. Prospective coordinators should submit a 350-word rationale (including some discussion of why the topic lends itself to a workshop format), a short bio, and contact information. For each proposed workshop participant, please submit a title, short bio, and contact information. Workshops are intended to encourage discussion; contributors will deliver a series of brief, informal presentations.
Please visit our website for information about events, schedules, travel information, and more. Please direct all questions about the conference and the submission process to: consoleingpassions2015-AT-gmail.com
Follow us on twitter: @CPDublin2015
Find us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ConsoleingPassions2015
Conference Organizers: Maeve Connolly, Kylie Jarrett, Jorie Lagerwey, Diane Negra, Maria Pramaggiore, Emma Radley, and Stephanie Rains
It's easy for critics of jargon to pick out impenetrable phrases. And I do think there's a good case that we as scholars should be on guard for letting words do our thinking for us. If we cannot easily transpose highly metaphorical phrases like "articulation" into something more direct, that's a potential sign there's something intellectually prefabricated about the jargon.
But I want to offer up an example of how I see jargon as functional. The word distanciation in film studies refers to a process by which the film nudges the spectator back from emotional immediacy of narrative, documentary argument, etc. It has a synonym, distance, which is a perfectly simple, ordinary English word that could in fact be used in place of distanciation. After all, one is talking about metaphorical distance. So,
"The scene slowly introduces distanciating sound design"... could read "The scene slowly introduces sound design that metaphorically distances the spectator."
... but that would be less economical.
Even if one could make an economical switch, something gets lost. Distanciation immediately suggests that this process of creating distance will work in similar ways to the many other instances film scholars have pointed out in cinema. Distance does not.
Like any word, jargon contains connotations. I'd probably break down jargon's connotation into stylistic -- certain words feel French or German in their provenance -- and argumentative attributes -- we associate prior arguments with jargon words. Perhaps the worst offenders of jargon are those in which it's harder to point to the denotation than the connotation, but at its best jargon economically synthesizes the two.
Visible Evidence 21--New Delhi
December 11-14, 2014
Visible Evidence, the annual scholarly conference on documentary film, media, culture and politics--interdisciplinary, international and indispensable--is now 21! Inaugurated at Duke University in 1994, Visible Evidence has met annually ever since--in Canada, the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Brazil, Australia, and most recently in Sweden, as well as in the US (eleven times).
This year the conference will be held in New Delhi, India from December 11 to 14, 2014. Co-hosted by Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia, the conference will be held at the India International Centre, Max Mueller Marg, New Delhi. In 2014 we are meeting in Asia for the first time, and for the second time only in the global south.
Visible Evidence 21, as is traditional, will feature a range of panels, workshops, plenary sessions, screenings and special events around documentary, its practices, histories and theories.
Proposals for panels, workshops, presentations, screenings and individual papers are solicited according to the following guidelines and themes.
Proposals may address any aspect of documentary screen cultures, histories and practices by engaging with, but are not restricted to, the following themes (we aim for a broad, diverse and inclusive scope for this first Asian VisEv):
Documentary /Art: Exploring new spaces, narratives, relationships and audiences
Documentary/Social Sciences: Engaging with politics, methodologies, ethics and evidence
Documentary/Selves: Addressing autobiographies, memoirs, home-movies, confessions and self-fashioning
Documentary/Cities: Crowds and communities, onscreen and offscreen.
Documentary/ Pedagogies: Making as teaching, producing as mentorship.
Documentary/Affect: Bodies, sensations, feelings and relationships
Documentary/Trash: Shame, gossip, scandal, exploitation and the sensational
Documentary/Sexuality and Gender: Diversity, dissidence and disclosure
Documentary/Production: Practices and authors; screenings, streamings and (emergent) platforms
Documentary/Economies: Techno-materialities, virtualities, festivals and archives
Documentary/Modes: Fiction, animation, performance, voice and hybridity
Documentary/Violence: Trauma, testimony, index, performance and memory
Documentary/Truths: Analog to digital, cinéma-vérité to docu-menteur, phones and phoneys
Documentary/Transnational: Migrations, transgressions, diasporas, scapes and refugees
Documentary/South Asia: Historicising state, independent, experimental and regional interventions… identifying parallels in other postcolonial traditions.
We invite submissions of pre-constituted panels, pre-constituted workshops and individual paper proposals. Each panel and workshop session is allotted 90 min. Each panel will have three papers of not more than 20 min followed by discussion. Workshops, usually addressing practice-related issues, will feature 4 to 6 opening statements (totalling up to 30 min of prepared material), setting the stage for an exchange of ideas and skills among workshop participants.
Proposed panels and workshops may be pre-constituted either through public calls for submissions, or through individual solicitation by interested convenors. Panel and workshop calls may be posted publicly by interested convenors on the Conference Website (coming soon) until May 1, 2014. Convenors must notify selected participants by May 15, 2014. Convenors of pre-constituted panels and workshops are expected to submit proposals in standard format (see below) both for the event as a whole and for each individual contributions (for example a submission for a pre-constituted may be up to 8 pages in length, and for a workshop up to 14 pages).
Proposals for panel papers and workshop contributions include a descriptive title, an abstract (of 250-300 words), biblio- /filmography (5 or 6 items maximum) and brief bio (150 words maximum). The proposal should not exceed two pages.
In all individual proposals for panel contributions, please indicate whether or not, in the instance that the panel is rejected, you would like your individual proposal to be considered as an open call submission.
Please submit your proposal by the above deadlines as a PDF document to email@example.com.
March 1: Call for papers
April 1: Conference website operative.
May 1: End date for solicitation by interested convenors for participation in pre-constituted panels and workshops.
May 15: Convenors notify participants of pre-constituted panels and workshops.
June 1: Deadline for all submissions of individual paper proposals (open call) and preconstituted panels and workshops.
June 23: Notification of acceptances for Visible Evidence 21.
Jawaharlal Nehru University: Ira Bhaskar, Ranjani Mazumdar, Veena Hariharan, Kaushik Bhaumik
Jamia Millia Islamia: Shohini Ghosh, Sabeena Gadihoke
University of Pittsburgh: Neepa Majumdar
Concordia University: Thomas Waugh.
It's been a slow month blogging, as I've been working on writing. I do have planned a sporadic series of scholar interviews. Sort of modeled after Henry Jenkins impressive interview series, but with more of a film studies focus. It all goes back to the rationale I had when I first started this blog - that scholarship is as much about consumption of ideas as production of ideas. There's so much good work being done and it's worth highlighting.
I hope to interview a range of scholars, both people I personally know and those I don't. I may have a focus on Hollywood histories and documentary studies books that I come across for my research, but I will also take a generalist eye from time to time.
Thanks in advance to all those who are generous with their time for these interviews.
I'm usually not one for crisis-talk, as I think the rhetoric has a way of ignoring the fact that institutions can and do continue on, often with underlying functionality. And when it comes to the SCMS conference, I've always enjoyed the conference so in that sense don't feel anything is urgently wrong with it.
That said, the conference is seeing some growing pains. The discipline grows and so does the conference, now sprawling across five days. I've heard from many people that they find the number of attendees overwhelming (to me less of a problem) and what's worse very little attendance at panels. Some of this may be the law of large conferences, whereby the more people there are the less academic conversation and networking actually occurs. But there seems to be something specific, as SCMS is caught between two stools, no longer the small community it once was but not yet coming to terms with being a large MLA- or CAA-sized convention.
Jason Mittel has been even more frustrated than I have and has written up some suggestions on how to make SCMS a better conference. His whole post is worth reading (as are the comments), but I'll give the bullet point suggestions:
Limit the formal conference to four days
Allow for pre- or post-conference events
Eliminate open-call for papers
Tracking topics by room/programming via scholarly interest group (SIG)
Increasing the number of workshops vis a vis traditional panels
Publish paper, panel, and workshop abstracts online
(and from the comments) Form networks with overseas academic networks like NECS and ASEAC
I wholeheartedly endorse some of these: posting abstracts online, for instance, would improve both the substance of the papers and the conference-going experience. I also support restricting the conference to 4 days, acknowledging there are some tradeoffs there, either fewer papers accepted or more concurrent panels. Either way, there's an economic price to pay, and fees or dues would have to rise.
I don't feel an especial need to increase the proportion of workshops - I have fewer complaints about traditional papers than Jason and have seen too many workshops where each speaker talks on for 20 minutes anyway. And I would argue for the value of open-call. It's not only junior scholars I'm thinking about but also the ability to forge connections across existing networks. I could get behind Jason's compromise of open-call submitted through SIGs.
So there are some points I'm enthusiastic about and some I decidedly don't support. But the trickiest issue for me is the role of official tracks or SIGs. Increasing their role in programming would give clarity about the selection process (where submitters can feel their proposals are discounted on the basis of subject matter or methodology alone) and give a sense of a smaller-conference-within-a-big-conference, which actually is what most of Jason's proposals seem to be about. In all, I think SIG programming/tracking would be beneficial. However, this raises a sticky question: just what would these tracks be? What about the areas that are not currently constituted as SIGs? Let's say we have 20-25 rooms, how do we apportion the SIGs/tracks? That apportionment has great implications.
If we're using MLA as a touchstone here, film studies (I can't speak for TV studies) simply does not have the clearly defined subfields that literary studies has. Maybe we can't continue on as a generalist field and maybe it's time to impose some structure now that the discipline is better established and the medium is over a century old. But I suspect I'm not the only one apprehensive about moving into a more silo-ed conference and discipline.
The proposal for international cooperation is a terrific one. I'm not sure about the logistics, time, or labor that would be required to make that happen.
I have not seen The Millionaire (1931), the Warner Bros film that became the basis for the 1947 remake as That Way With Women (Frederick de Cordova), but it's not hard to imagine which elements were in the original: the enlightened millionaire, the mixup-turns-to-romance plot, and the manichaean politics (a dishonest competitor and a protection racket).
Much of this is here in That Way With Women, in which Dane Clark and Martha Vickers are the unlikely couple from opposite sides of the tracks, and Sidney Greenstreet reprises his avuncular plutocrat role as the automobile magnate who slums as a gas station owner.
Despite plot overlaps, though, That Way With Women is resolutely a postwar film in iconography and ideology. The result is an ideological palimpsest.
Here, modern architecture signals the way forward for business. Capital and labor need to be in a mutual dialogue with one another. The upper class needs to atone for their wartime profiteering sins and its hidebound snobbery. The working class needs to reimagine itself as middle-class.
This is all beneath the surface, but not that far. These class conflicts make this for me a good example of the light comedy: borrowing from 1930s screwball models but less anarchic.
A couple months back IndieWire (hat tip: Full Frame festival) pointed me to a going discussion about whether critics fail to understand documentary films or documentary aesthetics more generally. Robert Greene's polemic seized on a Manohla Dargis review to make the case that "there is a clear bias against discussing documentaries as movies first." I can't do full justice to Greene's argument, which is worth reading in full.
I happen to agree with Greene's fondness of Only the Young, a film I found well-made and affecting. And I do agree with his basic case for a) more discussion of the aesthetic implications of blurred doc-fictions lines; and b) more championing of formally interesting documentary work.
But would push back some against the notion there's a systematic problem with documentary criticism. Film critics do sometimes see things differently than filmmakers; they have different interests, different motivations, and different audiences. Moreover, it's hard for me not to read Greene's critique as a proxy battle for a particular kind of documentary. He's making the case for hybrid and otherwise formally innovative docs. That's great, and I could see how he could be frustrated with New York Times critics. But maybe the problem with mainstream critics is not that they don't understand documentary but that they have a competing notion of what documentary does. In other words, this seems like just an ongoing struggle between the more aesthetically and more journalistically oriented parts of the documentary field.
I do think the whole discussion is (usefully) symptomatic of two deeper issues. First is that those who, broadly speaking, form the core of documentary culture - makers, critics, scholars, film buffs - face a dilemma versus the wider film culture. On the one hand, they don't want documentary to be ghettoized. Tom Roston, blogger at PBS's Doc Soup, for instance, has been militating for inclusion of docs at the Golden Globes and for a recognition of the best documentaries as some of the best films proper. On the other hands, documentary has a distinctive community, canon, and (usually) production process. Ideally, we want film critics accustomed to fiction films to be aware of the documentary traditions. Greene's complaint is twofold: he wants critics like Dargis to be more aware of the specificity of documentary, and at the same time he wants critics to recognize documentary as merely one version of a common cinematic experience, with "documentaries as movies first." I don't mean this as a gotcha statement but rather a paradox we all face in thinking about documentary as either autonomous or integrated with a dominant fiction film culture.
Second, I think Greene's polemic and the discussion around it is a delayed reaction to the proliferation and qualitative change of film criticism on the internet. It's a useful project to see the energy devoted to discussion fiction film and ask for the extension of this meta-critical energy to nonfiction cinema.
Undercover Maisie (MGM, Harry Beaumont) was the last film in the series built around Ann Southern's girl-detective series. I have to admit that I've not seen any of others, and have to presume the earlier films were more famous and perhaps were fresher in their formula. As is, Undercover Maisie is an interesting example of something between B-movie and A-movie aesthetics. As an MGM film, it has decent production values, yet often with simpler setups than more dramatic material. The script is almost episodic, and I kept trying to get a handle on the narrative structure, which is looser than one would expect from a crime genre film.
Of course, Maisie is not entirely a crime film, but a comedy based on Maisie's brash Brooklyn showgirl character (picture Barbara Stanwick's Stella Dallas) becoming an undercover police officer. The fish-out-of-water that seems to be a common trope in 1940s comedy. It's this narrative and the gender twist that keeps this from being what I'd call the light comedy, but I lack a good genre term for it.
The main subplot has to do with a charlatan named Amor, whose racket Maisie is trying to infiltrate. By its iconography, one would see similarities with the orientalism of a Bob Hope movie, but equally interesting are the resonances with noir, and the racket seems like it could belong in a Hammett or Chandler novel, or Nightmare Alley.
And just when I think I'm watching a film without topicality, it turns out there's a returning veteran and housing crisis angle!
I've written in some generality about US documentary culture's provincialism as well as my own critical preferences for documentary. But it's worth fleshing out these broad pronouncements with a discussion of specific films. In particular I've been drawn to a range of recent European documentary work that straddles festival auteur cinema and public sphere-oriented documentary. I can sometimes (not always) see why these can get overlooked, but I do think they should receive more widespread critical engagement, particular in the US, where distribution and even video release remain sparse.
In fact, only one of the titles below has a US home video release. All were released in the last year or two. I've tried to list films that have DVD or streaming sources, but some are not available at all, either still on the festival circuit or caught up without distributors.
This is not a best-of list, but rather a list of works that I think are excellent in some fashion and that show a range of aesthetic approaches, issues, and documentary sensibilities. There's an element of a "genius of the system" behind some of them, and I could easily have picked alternatives in the same style.
And of course, there is still so much to watch, so I welcome viewing suggestions.
Sofia's Last Ambulance (Ilian Metev, Bulgaria / Croatia / Germany, 2012, German-release PAL DVD, theoretically with English subtitles) The film follows a trio of ambulance drivers around Sofia and is an understated portrait of the civil servant. Of all the documentaries I've seen over the last few years, this one has stuck with me and impressed me the most with its formal rigor (framing devices almost akin to structural film) and affective politics.
The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear (Tinatin Gurchiani, Georgia-Germany, 2012, Icarus DVD) This is probably the critical darling of the bunch, partly because of its doc-fiction hybrid conceit. Ultimately, for me, the "casting call" frame device was merely a hook for what's a terrific observational composite of contemporary life in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Camp 14: Total Control Zone (Marc Wiese, Germany, 2012, streaming on Netflix) Since it's a film about the total-control prison camps of North Korea, the intended audience seems to be largely a human-rights-film audience. However, rather than approaching the topic with journalistic instrumentalism, Wiese has a purposive directorial hand, appropriating the now in-vogue use of animation for recollective and historical trauma, and the film teases out thematic layers from its disturbing material and its social actors. There's even a smart critique of human-rights discourse along with a trenchant criticism of the North Korean regime. If anything my second viewing of this was more rewarding than my first.
Work Hard, Play Hard (Carmen Losmann , Germany, 2011, German-release PAL DVD, with English subtitles) By now documentaries about design and planning have become their own subgenre. A study of corporate work spaces in Germany, Work Hard Play Hard, follows in the footsteps of Hustwit's Helvetica in reading design as ideological but goes even further in exploring the power-money-design nexus. If anything, I'm surprised at the access the filmmakers got for the film.
Winter Nomads (Manuel von Stürler, Switzerland, 2012, Swiss-release PAL DVD, with English subtitles). Winter Nomads is probably the closest example I can think of from the observational tradition represented by documentarists like Nicolas Philibert (whose latest I've not seen.) It follows two Swiss shepherds in their annual winter transhumance. Like many recent documentaries, it traces the impact of modernity and globalization, but here the emphasis is equally on the social actors - their personalities and their interactions. It's as much portraiture as observation.
The Grocer (Dimitris Koutsiabasakos, Greece, 2013) is in a similar vein - it's about the decline of rural life in the face of modernity, it's observational in style, and it's structured around the seasons. But where Winter Nomads keeps a directorial distance, The Grocer is a remarkably warm, humanist portrait of mountain village life. It's one of my favorite films from 2013.
My Fathers, My Mother and Me (Paul-Julien Robert, Austria, 2013). It would surprise me if this film does not land a decent theatrical distribution, given its subject matter -- the autobiography of someone who grew up on the Friedrichshof Commune. Of the filmmakers here, I got the sense that Robert is self-taught as a documentarian and not natively a cineaste. That said, it's a smart and surprisingly measured treatment of the subject - a difficult feat for what's ultimately an incredible personal story. I for instance, like the film far more than My Architect and other similar documentaries. And Robert has a lot of primary video footage to work with.
Here... I Mean There (Laura Capatana-Juller, Romania, 2012) A character-driven issue documentary about a Romanian sisters split from their guest-worker parents, this film is probably the least aestheticized of the bunch. That said, it has a wonderful rapport with its subjects and a good hand with editing and structure. The problem is well-known in Romania and elsewhere, but I was unfamiliar before the film. Like many good documentaries the film explores the general through the personal and vice versa.
Two Furnaces For Udarnik Josip Trojko (Goran Dević, Croatia, 2012) A film that has not seen wider distribution and perhaps never will, this documentary about a steelworks plant in Sisak, Croatia succinctly captures so many of the political, economic, and affective issues of the transition from Communism to a liberalized economy. I was impressed how a found-footage and sound montage technique could rise above the cliché and go somewhere else, formally and thematically. And personally, it was the film that first piqued my interest in post-Communist documentary and led me on my current film-watching project.
Image Problem (Simon Baumann and Andreas Pfiffner, Switzerland, 2012, streaming-purchase via Vimeo) I thank Marcy Goldberg for making me aware of this Michael Moore-ish satire of Swiss national identity. Her Visible Evidence paper gave a good reading of the film's politics and argued that it's worth looking at European documentaries beyond the festival styles, even if they're more commercial or "American" in their style. It's a polemic I can get behind and would apply as well to agit-prop docs like Married to the Swiss Franc (Arsen Oremović, Croatia, 2013). Image Problem definitely has some ethical problems and, even though it's aimed for a Swiss audience, airs dirty laundry for the rest of the world. That said, it's a savvy and funny takedown of political consensus.
Snow Crazy (Laila Pakalniņa. Latvia 2012, streaming or download-purchase via Doc Alliance) There are a number of minimalist place-portrait documentaries focusing on abstracted processes of business, places, or institutions, sometimes with their human subjects in the background. There is something about Snow Crazy's subtly ironic tone that made the short film stand out for me.
Abendland (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Austria, 2011, streaming or download-purchase via Doc Alliance). Another poetic rumination on places, this is probably the most aestheticized and least Griersonian of my list, a poetic reflection on nighttime labor across Europe. Like many of the more art cinema-style documentaries, this one has slow editing and a lack of exposition, but it also asks the spectator to connect the actions and spaces it depicts. For me, the sum is greater than its parts.
Sons of the Land (Edouard Bergeon, France, 2012, available streamed online) A gut-wrenching documentary about French farm families, drawing parallels between the filmmaker's father and a young farmer whose life and struggles the film follows. In other words, the character-driven format and the autobiographical genre work as foils to one another.
Praxis (dir. Bruno Moraes Cabral, Portugal, 2011, streaming or download-purchase via DocAlliance Films) Another observational short, about student life at a Portuguese university with a hazing tradition. It's a great example of a simple, focused subject matter with deep allegorical resonance.
Pura Vida/The Ridge (Pablo Iraburu and Migueltxo Molina, Spain, 2012, Spanish-release PAL DVD, with English Subtitles) By far the most commercial and narrative of my list, Pura Vida recounts a mountaineering expedition gone wrong and the multi-national rescue team assembled to save the mountaineers. Within its genre, it's quite effective, and the presence of other films on the same subject matter should ideally not keep this one from being seen.
It's been a great year in documentaries and also a good year in documentary criticism. The number of year-in-review blog posts and best-of lists (and HotDocs has been retweeting many on Twitter) has made me reflect not only on the films that have come out but also on my own critical dispositions. Part of it is my reckoning of why works like The Act of Killing and The Stories We Tell, while worthy films, have moved me less than they have other critics and why the films I have been struck by are either overlooked or face mixed chances of an American release. Paradoxically, my tastes tend to be both canonical and idiosyncratic.
One tendency I do not find helpful is the tendency of critics to impose a very limited notion of what documentaries should do in their critical practice. At the same time, any critic does have preferences and judgments. So in the spirit of walking the line between omnivorism and discernment, I thought I'd lay my cards on the table and specify exactly what I look for in documentaries, both in the sense of what I'm attuned to watching them and in the sense of the judgments I form.
Cinematic form. Formal rigor, beauty, and creativity are not necessarily the same thing, but they are the dimensions that make documentaries aesthetic works in addition to informative, expository or theoretical works. A cinematically interesting approach is not enough to make me like a documentary but a complete lack of rigor or creativity can make me dislike one. In fact, this is probably one reason why I don't consume a certain genre of American left-political documentaries all that much. Fortunately, a number of trends, not least among them the availability of affordable HD video, are leading to more and more documentaries that are enjoyable to watch visually. It's not just pretty pictures, either: the documentary field has increasingly prized formal innovation.
The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear
The public sphere. My preference for formally interesting documentary puts me in good company with filmgoers and critics who like non-traditional, non-Griersonian documentaries. But, equally, I generally value films that engage spectators as civic subjects, and in that sense I'm more Griersonian in my expectations. To me, part of the excitement of a lot of documentaries from post-Communist states is the way they depict personal and institutional stories as occasions for national, collective self-understanding. But you see civic engagement anywhere there's a robust documentary culture (or maybe it's vice versa).
Negotiation of transcultural and specific. Public spheres, however, are nationally specific. Some films - like Disease of the Third Power, an indictment of judicial system corruption in Slovakia - require prior political knowledge and do not provide extensive exposition for non-national spectators. Other films - like Wrong Time, Wrong Place, on the 2011 Norway attacks - downplay national issues in favor of universalist thematics. Each approach has its benefits and drawbacks, but I particularly like films that speak between the two levels - that can engage domestic and international spectators alike and can explore complex relationships between individual and collective.
Wrong Time, Wrong Place
Ethical treatment of the spectator. Public sphere aspirations should not mean an overly didactic or manipulative approach. I do not require political modernism or self-reflexivity and in fact do not think either necessarily lead to a better engagement on the spectator's part. But something about the documentary's argument should be experiential rather than spoon-feeding. And it should trust the spectator to grasp complexity. I think my wordy response to Blackfish boils down to this, since the film does not trust the viewer to deal with the complexities of orca release.
The labor of production. I put a premium on documentaries that take more work to make. Developing and maintaining rapport with a social actor or getting observational footage over a long period of time takes much more effort than lining up experts for talking head interviews, which in turn takes more effort than doing a video diary. The labor involved does not necessarily make observational cinema better than expository or autobiographical documentary, but like good historical or social science research such labor is a contribution that should be encouraged and rewarded. And, simply, it impresses me as a viewer.
One thing I've not specified is entertainment value, and some narrativizing approaches rub me the wrong way because they work against the above goals. But I would be dishonest if I did not admit that showmanship had no effect on me.
These criteria do not all coincide and some films will be stronger in some areas than others. That's fine, and I don't have a prescribed sense of how these aspects should interrelate. Within limits, I try to take documentaries on their own terms, to want to see them successful in their project, all the while I value some projects more than others.
Critical Theory, Film and Media: Where is “Frankfurt” now?
Conference of the Permanent Seminar on Histories of Film Theories
Aug 20-24, 2014
deadline: Feb 28, 2014
With a combination of social philosophy, philosophical aesthetics, political economics and a particular focus on technology the Frankfurt school and its kindred spirits Benjamin and Kracauer have paved the way for film and media studies as a critical discipline.
Now, at a time, when the generational project of 1968, the march through the institutions under the assumption that a revolution in Europe is possible, has largely run its course, it is time to sift through the rubble of history, collect the tools, pick up on unfinished projects and think about new beginnings.
What, then are the analytical instruments that the Frankfurt school provided that will be useful going forward? How did the Frankfurt School of critical theory shape the course of film and media theory in the 20th century, and how will its tools continue to shape the study and critical analysis of media and culture?
„Critical Theory, Film and Media: Where is ‘Frankfurt’ now?“, an international conference organized by the Institut für Sozialforschung and the Institut für Theater-, Film- und Medienwissenschaft in cooperation with the Permanent Seminar on Histories of Film Theories (filmtheories.org), proposes to address these questions through a series of panels, keynote lectures and panel discussions.
Contributions are welcome on various aspects of critical theory, film and media, from the impact of critical theory on the history of film theory and media studies and film and media practice to debates about media and politics and the continuing relevance of critical theory to postcolonial, queer and other recent strands of cultural theory.
In particular, the conference proposes to address, but will not limit itself to, the following areas of study:
From the critique of the culture industry to the “creative industries”
Essayism, Criticism and Critical Theory
Philosophy of History and the History of Media
Critical Theory, Feminist Film Theory and the Politics of Desire
Critical Theory, Artistic Practice and the Category of the Art Work
Critical Theory and the Critique of Institutions
Critical Theory and Gesture as Interruption
Critical Theory and the History of Media Technology
From its title and genre (children's movie), I had assumed that Bush Christmas (Ralph Smart, Smart Productions-Rank-Universal) would be a sentimental holiday movie, and it's true that it's set during the Christmas holidays in Australia. But Christmas figures only marginally in the narrative, partly as a self-consciously local color element in what is ultimately an Australian film geared toward Northern Hemisphere Anglophone audiences.
I do not know much about the history of Australian cinema, at least before the 1970s new wave, so I don't know how this compares to other films made in the country. I can gather that the western had long held a role in the national cinema (c.f. Peter Limbrick, “The Australian Western, or, a Settler Colonial Cinema par excellence” Cinema Journal 46.4), and it's worth thinking about the ways Bush Christmas both conforms to the US genre of the western and ways it's distinctive.
By US genre, I'm referring more to the B western rather than the John Ford-style A western. That is, a melodrama (in the turn-of-the-century sense) between law-abiding property owners on the frontier and a crime racket. In this formula, romance and/or family is played up and thematics of civilizaton v. outlaw freedom are played down or nonexistent. I've come across a few examples already in my 1947 viewing.
Bush Christmas follows a conflict between horse thieves and a middle-class rancher family they've stolen from. But along with the Western/melodrama narrative, the film overlays a children's story narrative. I can't recall reading much about the children's film as a genre, but one staple seems to be a dual misunderstanding: children fail to follow the Law of the parents, but parents fail to understand the emotional fragility of children. In this case, this dual misunderstanding leads the group of children to go into the wild and search for the horse thieves. Throughout, too, animals serve not as a threat but as a double for their rightness and innocence.
Like other Westerns, Bush Christmas prominently features dramatic landscape cinematography, generally of the sort that iconographically stands in for the Australian bush. I would be curious to know how films not geared toward an export market would figure the landscape, differently or not.
The version of The Pretender (Republic/Wilder Productions, W. Lee Wilder) that I watched clearly came from a television 16mm print, so I cannot fully know how it would compare with the theatrical version. And aesthetically, the film embodies both the best (visual panache and narrative economy) and worst (wooden acting and wild narrational shifts) of the Poverty Row B film. But it has a few things to commend it. First, as a curiosity, it was directed by Billy Wilder's brother, and shares some of the Wilder sensibility both in its acerbic view of wealth and stylistic elements borrowed from The Lost Weekend (hyper-subjectivism, for instance, or the theremin scoring).
Perhaps more canonically, the D.P. was John Alton who, while not having free rein as in the Anthony Mann films, does show both the baroque touches in suggesting Albert Dekker's paranoia....
... and the low-light minimalism that he's best known for and that has come to define the Poverty Row noir look, at least in the cinephile imagination.
But maybe what interests me most about the film is the narrative about stock leveraging. Dekker's character is a stock broker whose stock shorting gets him into trouble. In some ways, this is merely a McGuffin, since the narrative ultimately takes a turn. But it's easy to read as allegory about finance capitalism, and in any case I cannot think of many late 40s films dealing with asset leveraging or finance in such an explicit way. They may have anti-business messages or critique owners or profiteers, but I do not recall specificity about finance.
Her Husband's Affairs (Columbia, S. Sylvan Simon) will seem notable to most viewers as a Lucille Ball comedy just a half decade before I Love Lucy made Ball the classical Hollywood star who had best navigated the move from film to television. There are significant differences between Ball's character here and her TV persona, but key elements are already in place: the madcap narrative, the husband-wife tension, and Ball's wide-eyed performance as a smart-but-naïve character.
Much as Ricky and Lucy's relationship figured the ideal of 1950s domesticity (and showed undercurrents of discontent), Her Husband's Affairs deal with the marital tension between a patriarchal yet ineffectual ad man/inventor husband and Ball's supportive but not-too-housewifey character. In this, it was part of a broader late 40s trend of films depicting challenges in marriage. While the trajectory is similar to the divorce-and-reconciliation screwballs, the tone is decidedly different; problems seem more pressing here.
Which brings me to an ongoing point: histories of Hollywood romantic comedy act as if nothing exists between the heyday of 30s screwball and 50s sex comedies, other than the auteur vision of Preston Sturges. But 1940s comedy both continued and adapted the 30s screwball formula. On one hand, Her Husband's Affairs has elements of the screwball, from the overlapping telephone dialogue or courtroom showdown to the Lubitsch-like opening done entirely with visuals.
On the other hand, the film's satire of the ad man and advertising practice goes beyond the 30s equivalent, and is comparable to films like The Hucksters. Similarly, the film sends up postwar industrial science and the culture of invention.
Finally, two small things to note. First, Columbia gives itself a little plug with a Larry Parks cameo.
Seconds, there's a nifty optical printer transition from the courtroom to the newspaper. I'm not sure when or how often this effect was used in other films, but it struck me as novel.
I've been eager to see Ivy (Sam Wood, Universal/Interwood Productions) ever since reading Self-Styled Siren's appreciative review of the film. I agree with the Siren that it's a terrific gothic film and Fontaine star vehicle, and she highlights a lot of the stylistic flourishes that caught me eye as well. But I'd like to focus on some on a couple other stylistic dimensions to the film.
First, I can't complain to be an expert on Sam Wood's output but some critics do discuss him as a kind of non-auteur, a director associated with some big-name and at times successful projects but without an organizing artistic personality. Todd Rainsberger for instance argues, somewhat plausibly, that William Cameron Menzes and James Wong Howe provided the visual style of Kings Row. What's interesting is the Wood replicates much of Kings Row, with brightly exposed arc-light cinematography (thanks to Russell Metty), low angle shooting, and stylized outdoor sets. Menzies is in fact production designer here, as well.
Of course the other referent is Hitchcock. The Siren draws a comparison between Ivy and Fontaine's performance in Suspicion. More broadly, I'm interested in the way that the direction uses the gothic as an occasion to play with narration and highlight character subjectivity. For instance, the music swells in one scene to suggest Ivy's state of mind, in the manner of Hangover Square's score.
But it's worth pointing out that if Hitchcock is a key influence here, the narration is not strictly subjectivist, filtered through Ivy's point of view. Rather, the film straddles the subjectivist and objectivist strains in 1940s cinema. A key example is the scene in which Ivy encounters the poison. The editing at first is pure Hitchcock, with a montage of ever tightening shots of poison and Ivy's reaction...
... before returning to a long shot of both Ivy and the poision (just like the example in Bazin's "Limitations of Montage" essay).
Here the subjectivist montage takes on an objectivist tone, whereby the spectator is denied Ivy's subjectivity just as the lighting performs a highly stylized and subjectivist shift.
.... before returning back to the "objective" lighting.
It's quite a remarkable shot in that it both suggests Ivy's psychological state without actually providing the spectator the key information she/he really wants to know: is Ivy really considering poisoning her husband or is she just being driven by a primal emotion that she her self is not fully aware of? This narrational ambiguity is key to the film's portrayal of a protagonist who is guilty but the nature of whose guilt is open to some interpretation.
As such, Ivy is the kind of film that complicates our understanding of melodrama as a genre. Like other melodramas it presents a character caught in a rigid moral universe that leads to her downfall. Yet the film has a moral complexity that is on the surface - more akin to the prestige drama than the melodrama per se. (Or, perhaps better to say, the relation between the prestige drama and melodrama needs reexamining.) Similarly, the film has some attributes that canonically have been understood as melodramatic (the acting style, the love triangle, the scoring) while the film formally does not fit neatly in that category (too gothic, not cathartic enough).