Thursday, April 10, 2014

Documentary and Political Modernism

I have a feeling I'm going to have more research and thoughts to develop about the legacy of political modernism in documentary. As a child of 1970s film theory, I'm drawn to political modernism as an agenda for film theory, not because of the normative claims that 1970s film theorists made about cinema (I tend to disagree with those) but because they give a continued opportunity to think through the relation of ideology and aesthetics. Documentary has always given political modernist theorists a particular frisson because of its spectatorial experience of the real is such a tempting target for debunking. And yet I have a similar relation to these theories: sympathetic with their agenda but disagree with their normative claims.

Having recently watched Rithy Panh's The Missing Picture, I've been mulling over these issues. Not primarily because the film invokes self-reflexivity in its theme (clay figures capture what images don't, spectator wants to see the real of genocide in dodgy ways, etc). But because the film does a terrific job at having a polemic while understanding its opposite. Colin McCabe's 1970s formulation that realism cannot understand the real as contradictory is apt here.

And yet, it's not merely self-reflexive documentaries that understand the real as contradictory, more traditional ones do - quite frequently in fact. Take as an example another documentary I recently watched, The Other Chelsea: A Story from Donetsk (Jakob Preuss and Radim Procházka, 2010), a German documentary that gives a portrait of a city in Eastern Ukraine and its strong support for the Blue party and by extension Russia. There's nothing radical about the filmmaking, essentially a Europeanized version of the character-driven/issue doc hybrid. And yet, it gives voice to a young Blue Party politician who is able to articulate a view the film and its intended spectator are probably initially not in agreement with. The film is critical, yet it also presents the Real in Ukraine as precisely contradictory. It does so through structure and narration, but also through the relation of documentarist to social actor. And its means of suggesting contradiction are not rare in documentary.

So we have two means of suggesting historical contradiction. The first is to have a voiceover/filmmaker say in essence "the real is contradictory." The second is to have the social actor say it. I'm not sure one approach is inherently superior to the other.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Hegelianism and Historical Poetics

I do find historical poetics useful and enlightening as a method, even though I was not trained in it nor is it the only approach I use. But something I've mentioned before is that there's a common narrative behind its model of historical change: A B A' - or thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Stable aesthetic norms get disrupted by some external event (usually technology), causing disruption, experimentation, then finally recuperation into a new stable norm largely adapted to prior norms. One can see this narrative in works on sound (James Lastra), deep focus (David Bordwell), or Technicolor (Scott Higgins), or in one essay I always enjoy reading and teaching, Paul Ramaeker's account of the split-diopter lens.

There's a good reason this narrative appears often: culture industries, particularly those as capitalized and convention-oriented as Hollywood, place a premium on stability and regularity so filmmakers do a lot of professional work to find stability in an unstable context.

But I keep toying with the possibility that there might be other ways to narrativize stylistic change. Maybe the old stable system was never all that stable (Miriam Hansen), or maybe stylistic genesis does not come primarily from external shocks to the system (what I argue in a forthcoming essay on cinematography). Or maybe things don't re-stabilize, or to borrow a metaphor stabilize only around multiple equilibria. Quite possibly the case of digital cinematography is an instance of this.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

CFP: Documentary and the Voice


Vocal Projections: Documentary and the Voice
University of Surrey (Guildford, UK)
September 19, 2014 

Keynote speaker: Dr. Patrick Sjöberg (Karlstadt University, Sweden)

Despite a renewed scholarly interest in documentary film and television in the last decade, scholars have yet to fully account for the role of sound in documentary and, in particular, the ways in which the human voice figures as a complex and potentially ambiguous element within the audiovisual landscape. Documentary scholarship has tended to focus on the visual, emphasising the importance of the photographic basis of the film image and its indexical relationship with reality. When it is discussed, the human voice has been figured in primarily rhetorical terms as an element that reinforces the visual truth claims of documentary. This symposium seeks to address this gap in documentary scholarship by exploring the connections among the voice, the body, the visual image and issues of rhetoric, affect, politics and performance in documentary.

Proposals are sought for contributions on any aspect related to the human voice in audiovisual documentary, including documentary film, television, video, audio recording, digital media, photography and performance. Topics may include, but are not limited to:
-       Voice and performance
-       The singing voice in documentary
-       The voice actor
-       Voiceover narration in documentary
-       Documentary and the acousmetre
-       Voice as evidence
-       Beyond the voice as rhetoric
-       Voice as cultural marker (e.g. voice and class, race, gender, sexuality)
-       The politics of the voice
-       Vocal fidelity and documentary realism
-       Vocal distortion and masking
-       The voice and the body/ the disembodied voice
-       Documentary genres and the voice (e.g. nature documentary, rockumentary, activist films)
-       Historical perspectives on the voice in audiovisual documentary
-       Impact of technological issues on the documentary voice

Contributions may be in the form of either a panel paper or workshop participation. Panels will consist of 3 speakers, each delivering a 20-minute paper. Workshops will consist of 4-5 speakers who will collectively present for 30 minutes. Workshops emphasise the unstructured exchange of ideas between workshop panellists and audience. Proposals will be accepted for pre-constituted panels and workshops.

Please submit name, affiliation, short bio and 300-word abstracts to by 1 May 2014. We will inform participants by 1st June.

Dr. Bella Honess Roe (Lecturer in Film Studies, University of Surrey, UK)
Dr. Maria Pramaggiore (Professor and Head of Media Studies, NUI Maynooth, Ireland)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

SCMS2014 Reflections

Since yesterday I talked about my live-tweeting experience, I thought I'd focus on the substantive issues of the conference.

Specialist communities: My favorite event of the conference was the Paramount theater reception, hosted by Indiana University Press and the Silent Film SIG. Not only was the venue terrific, there was a palpable sense of scholarly community united around substantive issues in addition to social ties. It made me wish I worked on silent cinema, even. I do think SIGs will take on an increased role in the conference. I wonder how scholars of sound-era classical Hollywood will fit in, since the SIGs are often implicitly defined in reaction against US/classical cinema, which serves as the center in the core-perphery model.

The generalist dilemma: Each year, the conference grows and by now it's just a given that my experience of the conference is just a tiny fraction of the possible panels and papers. I decided this year not to focus narrowly on topics I research; I did go to a couple of documentary panels specifically to match my research interests but otherwise attended a number of national cinema/transnational studies panels and film theory panels. It was invigorating to be exposed to research agendas outside my own particular specialization. At the same time, there are are real drawbacks to a diffuse selection, and part of me thinks I'd be better off taking James Wicks' strategy of choosing panels in a highly focus manner based on my research interests. This dilemma is just a microcosm of the growing pains the conference is experiencing. No one likes the idea of balkanization of SCMS, but in practice, it's near impossible to effectively transcend sub-disciplinary specialization.

Transnational Studies: The transnational panels were well attended and had a particular vitality to them. My initial impression is that the success of transnational film studies has to do not only with the theoretical excitement around transnationality as a concept, but also the fact that transnational studies allows area studies scholars to gain a critical mass. The community of those working on, say, Central European, Latin American, or East Asian cinemas may be limited in size at SCMS, but transnational studies allows these groups to see common areas of inquiry.

Programming: I'd highly recommend the recent Aca-Media podcast for the interviews with Angelo Restivo (Program Committee) and Bruce Brasell (scheduler). Some of the information about conference selection is on the SCMS website, but the interviewees go into fuller detail about submission and scheduling. And there's a good discussion of 4 v. 5 day conference issue the role of SIGs and other key issues.

Workshops/Panel format: I have seen a number of people, often on the media studies side, tout the workshop as a superior format and call for the demise of traditional panels. From my experience as this conference, there was absolutely no consistency in the amount or vitality of discussion based on format. Some panels had more dynamic conversation (though admittedly those with only 3 papers did better on this score) and some workshops had a very panel-y dynamic. And some of the highlights for me were papers read verbatim in that boring, old fashioned way. As Kathleen Newman's excellent talk (on nostalgia for collectivity in recent Chilean cinema) showed, reading a paper is not incompatible with good delivery.  At the same time, Eric Hoyt's dynamic presentation during my workshop was exciting and made me think I need to step my game up in presenting at conferences. (He was a hard act to follow.)

What I Wished I Saw: More panels on film theory; more classical Hollywood papers; a number of documentary papers I missed; about ten panels that were going on during my workshop time slot. I understand why the plenary panel and/or keynote went away, but it would be nice to have a scholarly experience that attendees could have in common. At least if SCMS is going to hold to the ideal that the field cannot be split into subconferences or tracks.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Conference Tweeting

I had a terrific time at SCMS this year. It was busy, but intellectually stimulating, and I'm happy to have seen and met so many great scholars in the four days I was there. The only part that's given me pause is my activity tweeting.

Cinema Journal asked me to participate in their collective live-tweeting at CJSCMSc. My experience was very mixed. On one hand, I'm honored to be asked, and I'm happy to give additional exposure to the papers I saw - the main reason I wanted to do this. Chris Becker did a terrific job setting up the CJ SCMS twitter with a variety of critical voices. (People were carping about segregation of media and film feeds, but there were some practical reasons for the split.) At least on the film side, we had a nice complementarity between our interests.

On the other hand, I've decided I'm not all that enthused by the live-tweeting format. Often I could not think of much to write on short notice and in short format, other than to provide capsule summaries of the argument. At which point, I feel like I'm simply doing the labor of providing an abstract that the author should be writing and that SCMS should be publishing with/alongside the program.

Perhaps a bigger issue is that Twitter is just not all that popular with film studies people, at least those in the areas of film history and film theory I work in. Don't get me wrong: I'm appreciative of all those that followed our feed and retweeted posts. And I don't want to discount the scholars whose posts I found informative. But at times it felt like I was tweeting to the ether. Whereas I see cross discussion and debates among the TV, media, or cultural studies scholars, for the more traditionally film studies side of things, that academic public sphere element can be missing. Honestly, I think the most dynamic public sphere activity was around the SIG-based accounts - perhaps unsurprising.

The best part of the experience was finding scholars on Twitter who I want to follow regularly. I'm sure I'm missing people I should be following.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Just a note that I will be one of those contributing to Cinema Journal's Twitter feed devoted to film panels at the conference: @CJSCMSc. I encourage everyone to subscribe to this and the sister feed for media panels @CJSCMSm. 

I will be participating in a workshop on teaching the film history course in session K Friday at 12:15. I'm excited to be part of the workshop and look forward to the discussion. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Jaimie Baron interview

I am pleased to announce the first of an ongoing series of scholar interviews. Jaimie Baron is assistant professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. Her new book, The Archive Effect (Routledge 2014) fills a gap in the scholarship of the found footage film and the study of archival footage. I asked Jaimie to talk more about her book, about compilation films, and her projects.

Your book concerns what others have called compilation or found footage films and that you, with good cause, label appropriation films. One thing that struck me is how your examples cut across documentary and experimental cinema. What about appropriation cinema is able to apply to both experimental work and not-so-experimental documentaries?

Both documentary and experimental films often use appropriated documents – whether filmic, video, audio, or photographic – but their respective appropriation practices have rarely been examined together, except in terms of a rather simplistic opposition (realist/modernist, nondialectical/dialectical, illustrative/critical). I wanted to understand how we might think about appropriation as a trans-generic practice. Thinking about all films that appropriate preexisting footage as “appropriation films” allows us to see the continuities as well as the differences between these different types of films – especially in terms of the effects their use of appropriated documents may produce. In The Archive Effect, appropriation becomes a lens through which we can find new connections between existing genres.

I'm impressed by the way The Archive Effect takes theoretical strands from poststructuralism, phenomenology, and 1970s film theory and makes them accessible - and ground ideas in the specifics of the genre. How do you approach writing about theory? 

Although I do not directly invoke phenomenological theory, my methodology is fundamentally phenomenological. I am very much influenced by both Don Ihde’s book Experimental Phenomenology in that I seek to precisely describe my object of study (i.e. a film or video), to theorize the experience of that object, and then to bring that object into dialogue with other, related objects. Beyond that, I am willing to bring any theory to bear on my object if I think it illuminates something about it. However, I always begin from the object, not from the theory.

Frequently your argument walks the line between skepticism about truth claims and faith in the ability of cinema to convey some historical truth. How do we find the sweet spot between the two?

Although I am certainly skeptical about truth claims, I also believe that films that make a claim to documentary status – which the use of archival documents often suggests – have a responsibility to attempt to tell the truth as best it can. Even if this attempt is ultimately doomed to failure, we cannot just give up and say there is no truth, because there is a reality out there in which real people live and die, a reality that deserves to be represented as truthfully as possible. A naïve faith in the ability of film or video to “capture” reality is no longer viable, but a self-conscious attempt to engage reality through indexical representation has the potential to help viewers connect with the “real” while simultaneously alerting them to representation’s inevitable partiality and mediation. Archival footage seems to promise the “real” but we must always maintain an awareness of the fact that the archive effect is precisely that – an effect.

Your last chapter, on digital historiography, seems to me to have some useful implications for cultural studies of new media. Do you feel that media studies and film studies are in adequate dialogue about appropriation? 

More scholars have begun writing about appropriation, particularly the kinds of remix videos we find online. However, discussions of experimental found footage film usually remains separated from discussions of popular remix video, which I think of as a problem. Appropriation crosses the boundary between film studies and new media studies, encouraging dialogue between the two.

One part of your discussion of the archive effect that I especially liked was the discussion of the debate over William E. Jones' work. Are there implications for how we do reception study for nonfiction or experimental work? 

I did not expect the Q&A following the Los Angeles Filmforum screening of William E. Jones’ Tearoom to become central to my theorization of the archive effect. In fact, a lot of Q&As are quite dull (i.e. “What kind of editing software did you use?”). However, that Q&A alerted me to the potential value of such discussions for reception studies. One of the challenges of writing The Archive Effect was that writing about viewer experience is extremely difficult since viewers may have all different kinds of reactions. Balancing phenomenological textual analysis with some firsthand observation of real viewers seems to me to be a productive way of confronting this challenge.

Tearoom (William E. Jones)

You've been a founder, curator and promoter of the Festival of (In)appropriation, a festival of found-footage films. Could you talk briefly about the festival and the influence it's had on your research (or vice versa)? 

I founded the Festival of (In)appropriation in 2009 with my colleague Andrew Hall (who has since moved on to other things) under the auspices of Los Angeles Filmforum. Each year, the curators – Lauren Berliner, Greg Cohen, and I – put out a call for entries for recent short experimental films that incorporate some kind of preexisting sound and/or image, and we receive between 200 and 300 entries each year from which we select a 90-minute program. We tend to choose films that appropriate intriguing source material and use it in ways that suggest some kind of concept, very broadly conceived. Although I only wrote about a few of the festival films in The Archive Effect, seeing so many experimental appropriation films each year has given me a broad sense of the range of source materials and filmmaking strategies that filmmakers are using to make their films. In fact, my current book project is based more explicitly on the festival films as well as other contemporary appropriation works, including those found primarily on YouTube.

Could you tell more about your current project?

I am currently working on a new book tentatively entitled “Inappropriation: Found Footage Filmmaking in the Digital Era.” This new project focuses on the way in which contemporary found footage work – both popular and experimental – is demonstrating the malleability of audiovisual meaning and, in doing so, raising many questions about the politics and ethics of appropriation. The notion of “inappropriation” gestures towards the way in which certain appropriation films foreground the viewer’s sense that certain footage is “out of place,” “misused,” and therefore “inappropriate” to its new context. On the one hand, inappropriation has great critical potential but, on the other, it also raises questions about the ethics of certain kinds of “misuse.”

Are there films from your discussion that you particularly think deserve a broader audience? 

Many of the experimental films that I write about have not received the scholarly attention I think they deserve, including the works of Adele Horne, Natalie Bookchin, and William E. Jones. However, I hope that my book will lead other scholars to examine experimental found footage films in relation to other genres like documentary, so that they are not isolated theoretically and confined only to experimental film scholarship. I also hope that the films that have screened in the Festival of (In)appropriation will begin to get more scholarly attention.

Mass Ornament (Natalie Bookchin)

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

CFP: Console-ing Passions 23


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:

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:

*intersectional feminisms
*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:

Follow us on twitter: @CPDublin2015
Find us on Facebook:

Conference Organizers: Maeve Connolly, Kylie Jarrett, Jorie Lagerwey, Diane Negra, Maria Pramaggiore, Emma Radley, and Stephanie Rains

Monday, March 03, 2014

The Uses of Jargon

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.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

CFP: Visible Evidence 21


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/Environment: Interventions, debates, exposures
  • Documentary/Archives: Memory, preservation, restoration, historiography
  • Documentary/Activism: Transformation, mimesis, witness.
  • 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).

Submission Format:

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

Deadline Summary:
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.

Organizing committee:
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.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Interviews Forthcoming

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.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

SCMS Conference at Crossroads?

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.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

That Way With Women

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.

The State of Documentary Criticism

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.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Undercover Maisie

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!