Thursday, October 02, 2014

Joshua Malitsky Interview

I would like to thank Joshua Malitsky for agreeing to talk about his work and his book, Post-Revolution Nonfiction Film: Building the Soviet and Cuban Nations, out recently from Indiana University Press. I've found it a valuable book, not only for its examination of both canonical and non-canonical films but also for its willingness to think beyond the documentary/newsreel divide that often structures the field of documentary studies. I asked him about the book and its methodology.

Could you talk a little about the genesis of the book? How did you land on the topic and choose these national cinemas?

This book began as my dissertation project at Northwestern.  It came out of two projects on which I’d been working.  I had been looking into nonfiction films made in Ghana during the period of Kwame Nkrumah’s rule—during and immediately following independence.  I’d been in contact with a filmmaker who worked closely with Nkrumah who told me that he had stashed in London a lot of the films that were presumed to have been lost.  There was a time I thought this would be my dissertation project.

At the same time I started thinking a lot about Shub’s compilation trilogy—not just in terms of her role in film history but how her work can help us to think about the development of or transitions within avant-garde movements.  I was dissatisfied with the way the transition from the experimentalism in the 1920s to (the imposition of) Socialist Realism in the 1930s was characterized.  It didn’t seem to me that movements operate that way—that there are internal dynamics that such a story doesn’t account for, that artists often try to adjust their choices so as to align with state goals in subtle ways, and that movements often die out or transition pretty dramatically on their own accord.  I found Ian Christie’s work on the 1930s and the transition to it to be a much more convincing account and I wanted to think about how that functioned for nonfiction film.  The piece that inspired me to do so more than any other was Mikhail Iampol’ski’s short but really rich essay “Reality at Second Hand.”

I realized while working on the Ghanaian project that the questions I was asking were much more documentary and nonfiction film driven than nation or area studies-driven.  It was then that I decided to do the comparative project.  It was to be a comparative Soviet, Cuban, and Ghanaian nonfiction film project.

The Ghana part ended up dropping out because it just became unmanageable.  It was going to require raising lots of money, spending lots of time in London working with the High Commission and coordinating that activity with the people in Accra, and working with Reuters, who had come to own many of the film rights.  It moved me too far from the critical project that really drove my interest.

How did you come to the book's organization? I found the alternating chapters on Russia and Cuba to be an effective conceit that maintains the specificity of each nation while creating the through-threads of your conceptual framework.

At various points I was contemplating a more thematic-driven structure.  But I decided on the alternating chapters for three reasons.  First, there is so much historical detail that needs to be covered in terms of artists, institutions, players, topics, etc… that I thought it would be asking too much for people to keep it all straight.  And I think that historical detail matters.  Second, I wanted people coming at the book from an area studies perspective to be able to isolate the sections that would be useful to them.  And third, I wanted to highlight the interconnectedness between newsreels and documentaries at a given moment so that they could be understood as part of project.

Some of the films you analyze will be familiar to those who know Russian or Cuban cinema. But for those who are less familiar, is there a film you'd particularly recommend that scholars or cinephiles watch? 

In terms of the Soviet example, I find A Sixth Part of the World to be a tour de force and The Eleventh Year (not a film I focus on in the book) to be provocative and innovative, a film about which there is so much more to say.

The Eleventh Year (Vertov, 1928)

In terms of the Cuban films, Alvarez exhibits such a range of styles and approaches in his films.  I find 79 Primaveras to be incredibly moving and politically astute whereas I find LBJ needs more attention.

It seems that "nonfiction" is an operative word in your title, since the book reads newsreel and documentary in relation to one another. Do you see larger implications for how documentary studies as a field treats newsreels?

It’s an interesting and important question.  Brian Winston and I had a recent exchange about this, noting that of all the nonfiction genres it’s newsreels that are never subsumed under the “documentary” tradition.  Educational films, science films, and industrial films, for example, are all at times considered subsets of the documentary tradition.  So what is it about newsreels?  Brian thinks is starts with Grierson’s dismissal of them as “just a speedy snip-snap” and a “series of catastrophes ended by a fashion show” but we both agree that he was wrong and that the traditions need consideration.

In terms of documentary studies, I believe strongly that historical, theoretical, and critical considerations of various nonfiction forms is one of the key future directions.  As you know, there’s been so much great work on nontheatrical film in the past decade.  Scholars have demonstrated how educational films, industrial films, science films and other “useful” cinemas have communicated new ideas, shaped subjectivities, and been employed by institutions for both public and private purposes.  And we know that these questions align with those that scholars have long asked in studies of documentary, a field that also takes into account a range of institutional contexts (for funding, distribution, and exhibition), purposes, production models, and audience constituencies.  But there’s still some methodological and conceptual divergences between those who see themselves as part of a community that focuses on nontheatrical films (goes to Domitor and Orphans) and those who see themselves as part of this growing field of documentary studies.  To be sure, there are many who overlap sub-fields but I do think that each area would benefit from teasing out the conceptual and historical convergences and divergences, which would help us to create a vocabulary and space for a larger umbrella.    

There's an extended and nuanced argument about documentary "objectivity" in your book, but would you mind speaking a little more to this aspect? How do we need to adjust our conception of objectivity?

This is an issue I’d been wrestling with for a while and which emanated from my thinking about Shub.  I was trying to work through what I saw as nuanced shifts in aspects of documentary production methods and aesthetics that gets privileged or celebrated within a movement or period of time.  Shub was trying to lessen her own directorial influence but not doing so with any naivete about her role.  And that involved a host of choices about materials (found), process of working with them, and formal choices (longer takes, stiller views).  It struck me that she was trying to make the films more “objective” (removing aspects of the self) than works like Vertov’s A Sixth Part of the World and Stride Soviet! while still accounting for her own role.  But the way we discussed objectivity and subjectivity in reference to documentary was by locating them as singular and pure concepts.  I wanted to highlight the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity as well as point to a more historicized and multifaceted notion of objectivity.  Historians of Science were useful in working through such thorny territory (as well as in the related topic of realism).

There's clearly a lot of research behind this book. What was involved? Did you see most of the films in archives? 

I did.  For the Soviet case I was fortunate to have obtained copies of Vertov’s kino-nedelia and kino-pravda newsreel series, his early documentaries that are available, his feature films, and Shub’s films.  I first saw the full runs at Pordenone in I think 2004 when Yuri Tsivian programmed them.  Yuri then gave me access to a number of the features and some of the newsreels for the writing of the dissertation.  I spent time researching at the Austrian Filmmuseum, which has an incredible collection of Vertov’s papers and films and Shub’s features as well, for the book research.

The Cuban example was, as you’d anticipate, more of a challenge.  I made multiple trips to Havana.  During that time I had access to Alvarez’ materials and documentaries at ICAIC (and conversations with his widow, those who worked with him, Cuban film scholars).  Some of those I was able to obtain copies of, some I wasn’t.  Colleagues in Havana made me copies of a number of documentaries by other Cuban directors of the 1960s—Sara Gomez, Nicolasito Guillen, Octavio Cortazar to name a few.  For the newsreels, I was able to watch about 6 per year.  They wouldn’t let me select topics.  I decided that I would watch 6 consecutive issues, figuring that would give me a sense of how they approached a news story across issues and would give me the opportunity to have a keener awareness of what might appear to be subtle changes.  I obtained copies of a handful of those but I was not always confident of the issue # they gave me.

The good news is that UNESCO announced that all existing negatives of the newsreel series would be preserved and digitized as part of its “Memory of the World” register.  Cuba and France have been working together to make this happen.  I hope and suspect that this will generate lots of great work.

One aspect of the book I really love is its ability and willingness to take seriously films that others dismiss, such as Alvarez's De America Soy Hijo. Are there general areas you feel that prior studies have overlooked? 

Conceiving of these projects as bodies of post-revolutionary nonfiction films required attending to films that don’t necessarily highlight what’s unique about an individual “auteur’s” work or about the singularity of this context formally and/or ideologically.  I understood why people chose to celebrate certain Cuban newsreels, for example, as distinct from the established newsreel tradition and as artistically valuable.  But those examples often feel cherry-picked and don’t exemplify the tradition as a whole.  So I had different criteria.  But in the process, in being open to different kinds of efforts, I hope I was able to point to works that are aesthetically and politically interesting even if they don’t appear that way at first glance.  

De America Soy Hijo (Santiago Alvarez, 1972)

You've been active as an organizer for Visible Evidence, a long-running documentary conference and scholarly community.  Speaking for yourself, what do you see as the some of the major institutional or disciplinary challenges for documentary studies?

Another great and large question.  As you know, Visible Evidence and Documentary Studies as a sub-field of Film and Media Studies are really growing.  What I really want to see (and I’m sure this will come as no surprise) is an increased attention on the study of nonfiction media from both a historical and theoretical perspective.  I would like us to draw more early cinema folks working on nonfiction film projects and grow in that direction.  At the same time, I want documentary studies to maintain its connection to artists and activists.  It’s one of the things that makes VE and working on documentary exciting and somewhat distinct in the humanities.

The other direction I see opening up for studies of documentary involves much more trans-disciplinary work.  There’s been a real growth in university (and non-university) degree programs, centers, and institutes related to documentary or “reality-based” media.  We’re hoping to do something at IU.  Along with two colleagues (a law professor and a historian), I am in the process of proposing a Center for Documentary Research and Practice (CDRP).  Our working board consists of filmmakers, historians, film archivists, anthropologists, lawyers, and hard scientists, as well as film and media scholars.  The goal of the Center is to bring together scholars and artists from across the university to explore how we express ourselves, critically and creatively, when we speak about, and with, the lived world.  And we will do so by studying how some of the most innovative historical and contemporary documentary filmmakers have approached the multiple challenges inherent in documentary work, as an art and as scholarship.  So we’ll be working closely with IU archives and IU Cinema.  We hope to have post-docs and visiting filmmakers.  It’s an exciting opportunity and I’m very hopeful we will be able to procure funding.

Are there any other scholars' work you've found particularly useful or inspirational lately - on documentary or otherwise?

Right now I’m knee-deep in Yugoslavian and Balkan history, preparing to do archival work in Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro starting in a couple of weeks.  I’m also reading some documentary (and film history) anthologies, seeing how they are organized and conceived, as Malin Wahlberg and I have agreed to co-edit a Blackwell Companion to Documentary History.

In terms of work I’ve found inspirational lately, I’d point to three examples: Devin Fore’s Realism After Modernism, in which he rethinks the politics and aesthetics of interwar realism in film, painting, and literature; Masha Salazkina’s work on transnationalism, film theory, and institutional film cultures, focusing on the Soviet Union, Italy, and Cuba; and Lee Grieveson’s work with Colin MacCabe on the Empire and Film collection as well as his own work on how states promoted liberal economic views through nonfiction film projects throughout the century.

Joshua Malitsky is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

CFP: Music in European Postwar Cinema

Music in European Postwar Cinema
Call-for-papers for an essay collection

Over the last few decades a well-established theoretical framework for Hollywood and post-Hollywood cinema has emerged, while music in the European cinema has not been given the same scholarly attention. Except for a small number of disparate and unrelated articles, several monographs and one anthology, there is no published scholarly study available which puts forward a theory for music in European cinema. One reason why the void exists is because of the varied and diverse aesthetic approaches to film music in Europe over the last century, as well as the different genres and different production formats, from experimental and art, to mainstream and commercial cinema. The objective of the book project is to bring together the numerous threads and create a theoretical model for the music in European cinema within a well-defined historical period, the postwar years up to the fall of the Berlin wall (1946–1989). The anthology would contain contributions on the music in

  •       Italian Neorealism
  •       Italian cinema from the 1950s to the 1980s
  •       French mainstream cinema of the 1950s
  •       French New Wave cinema
  •       French art and mainstream cinema from the 1960s to the 1980s
  •       Neues Deutsches Kino
  •       West German mainstream cinema from the 1950s to the 1980s
  •       Cinema in the GDR
  •       British Cinema from the 1950s to the 1980s
  •       New British Cinema
  •       Dutch and Belgian cinema
  •       Spanish cinema during the Franco regime
  •       Spanish post-Franco cinema
  •       Scandinavian cinema from Bergman to Trier
  •       Czech, Polish and Hungarian cinema (in particular of the 1960s and 1970s)
  •       Cinema of the Balkans
  •       Greek cinema
  •       Soviet cinema from Stalin to Glasnost

The music in films from these countries and stylistic periods should be ideally analyzed by expanding the horizon of music in cinema to include the following historical, social, political and cultural topics particularly relevant to the life in postwar Europe:

  •       Memory, trauma and the (recent) past
  •       History, politics and cultural identity
  •       Migration, diaspora, displacement and crossing borders
  •       Political repression and self-censorship, dissent and stagnation
  •       Nationalism and “postnationalism”
  •       Images and identity of the self and the other
  •       Human relationships, sexuality, and gender representations

The collection will be edited by Ewelina Boczkowska (Youngstown State University) and Michael Baumgartner (Cleveland State University).  Please submit a 300-word abstract and/or a max. 5,000-word essay or any inquiries to and before October 15th, 2014.

CFP: Orson Welles: A Centennial Celebration and Symposium

Orson Welles: A Centennial Celebration and Symposium
Indiana University
April 29-May 2, 2015

proposal due date: November 15, 2014

Indiana University plans an academic symposium welcoming scholars, archivists, filmmakers, and others interested in celebrating the centennial of Orson Welles’s birth. The event will be held April 29-May 2, 2015 on the beautiful Bloomington, Indiana campus and hosted by Indiana University’s newly established Media School; the Indiana University Libraries (including the Lilly Library, home of the Orson Welles Papers, and the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive); and Indiana University Cinema, which has earned an international reputation for the high quality of its facilities and programming.

Accompanying the symposium will be a series of Welles films and an exhibition featuring rare and unique items from the Welles collection. Renowned Wellesian scholars such as James Naremore, Joseph McBride, Patrick McGilligan, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, along with filmmakers who have worked with Welles or made films about Welles, are expected to give talks, introduce films, and appear in Q&A sessions following screenings.

Interested participants are invited to submit paper proposals on any aspect of Orson Welles’s work in cinema, theater, radio, television, or journalism. As this will be the inaugural symposium of the IU Media School, the theme of Welles as a pioneer or innovator in media is a welcome topic. However, papers need not be limited to any particular critical, theoretical, historical, or political subject or method. We hope to receive proposals that deal with previously unexplored issues, but we are also interested in proposals that offer fresh approaches to much-discussed work.

Proposals should be limited to 300 words in length and consist of a brief description of the paper’s theme or focus, plus a one-page vita. Proposals may be submitted for individual papers or for sessions featuring two or three panelists. Proposals for panels should be submitted as a group by the organizer, along with a short explanation of the unifying theme. In addition, each panel proposal should consist of individual paper descriptions (limited to 300 words in length), names of panelists and their vitae.

Please email your proposals to Jon Vickers, Director of the IU Cinema, at by November 15, 2014. The Symposium Program Committee will evaluate all submissions and notify all candidates of the results by December 15, 2014. We look forward to your proposals, and to celebrating Orson Welles’s 100th Birthday in style.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

CFP: NECSUS journal on Vintage

NECSUS, The European Journal of Media Studies, has announced the next topic, "Vintage," for its Autumn 2015 edition

Abstracts of 300 words, 3-5 bibliographic references, and a short biography of 100 words due by 10 October 2014.   On the basis of selected abstracts writers will be invited to submit full manuscripts (5000-7000 words) which will subsequently go through a blind peer review process.

Few issues are as pertinent today as the relationship between old and new, past and present, obsolescence and progress. Paradoxically, as the obsession with the new in contemporary society intensifies, so too does our interest in older technologies, styles, and artefacts. Advertising and marketing in particular have tapped into the selling potential of nostalgia and references to the past permeate just about every cultural domain from film, television, art, and music, to fashion, food, tourism, and interior design. Terms such as ‘retro’ and ‘vintage’ have become commonplace, both frequent appendages to item searches on Ebay and other shopping sites/outlets. How do we define and distinguish these terms, and how might they be unpacked to shed light on the processes by which history is evaluated, appropriated, and consumed?

Unlike retro and nostalgia, vintage has received little critical attention despite its ubiquity in the fields of fashion and furniture. The complexity of the term derives from its relationship to taste and value and rituals of acquisition and exchange. Situated somewhere between retro irony and antique sobriety, vintage carries a host of connotations that shift in relation to contextual and historical markers. From the ragpickers of flea markets and car boot sales to the affluent consumers of highly-priced rarities, vintage traverses disparate spaces, identities, and practices, encompassing both mainstream and alternative attitudes and ethics.

A host of historical and philosophical commentators, from Benjamin to Baudrillard, have grappled with our relationship to history through modes of representation and ways of seeing. Whilst for Benjamin an engagement with the past can mean redemption in the present, Baudrillard sees our cultural obsession with history as emptied of meaning – a reflection of the postmodernist decline of the real. How to consolidate these different positions within a theory of vintage? What can a study of vintage with its shifting meanings, its complications and contradictions, reveal about our attachment to the past and its significance in the present? What is the relationship between vintage and practices of remembering, both personal and collective, and how might these practices be activated in ways that go beyond consumerism? Notable here are recent studies of media and nostalgia – Amy Holdsworth’s Television, Memory and Nostalgia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), Lucas Hilderbrand’s Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright (Duke University Press, 2009), and Katharina Niemeyer’s edited collection Media and Nostalgia: Yearning for the Past, Present and Future (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). How do we negotiate the fine line between nostalgic reification (Baudrillard) and critical interrogation (Benjamin)? How does vintage connect with popular culture and what Simon Reynolds has termed ‘retromania’ in his book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (Faber & Faber, 2011)?

This NECSUS special section aims to answer some of these questions, building a theory of vintage that stretches across different media. It will bring together a wide range of new perspectives on and critical approaches to the theme of vintage, opening up the topic to related fields of enquiry and making connections across disciplines and theoretical paradigms.

A full call and submission details available at the journal's website.

Monday, September 22, 2014

CFP: Film Festival Origins and Trajectories

Special issue of the peer-reviewed journal New Review of Film and Television Studies
Guest-edited by Lydia Papadimitriou and Jeffrey Ruoff

Oct. 1, 2014 deadline for submission of proposals
(For accepted proposals, the deadline for completed 6,000-9,000 word essays is December 15, 2014.)

This special issue of NRFTS explores the genesis of festivals, in different countries, to trace the distances festivals have travelled from their origins, how changes are sometimes intentional and at other times the results of socio-political and economic transformations. The guest editors are interested in proposals that break new historical, methodological, and theoretical grounds and, with certain regions already represented in the issue, are especially interested in proposals about festivals in Latin America, underrepresented areas of Asia, as well as North Africa and the Middle East.

Email an abstract of 100-200 words and a 50-word bio to  and no later than Oct. 1, 2014.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Documentary Aestheticization

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Conferences late 2014 edition

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 18, 2014

Cinematography essay

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Nicholas Ray volume

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 11, 2014

Interview with Felipe Pruneda Sentíes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your personal research in this regard?

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

Are there scholars whose work should be highlighted?

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 10, 2014

CFP: Velvet Light Trap issue on technological change

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

Submission deadline: August 17, 2014

Submit to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Musicals, Frankfurt School edition

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

SCMS2015 calls for papers

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


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


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

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Film History Textbook, 2014 update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specialized textbooks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Textbook Inflation 2014 edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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