Showing posts from July, 2006

The Happy Ending

This weekend I got around to watching Hell is a City (1960, Val Guest), a British crime drama I'd been keen on seeing after reading Andrew Spicer's essays. The film features Stanley Baker as an unhappily married police officer, Harry Martineau, whose professional travails against an escaped convict serve as counterpart for his marital challenges (in short, a frigid, petit bourgeois wife who doesn't want children). Toward the end of the film, there's a remarkable dissolve that pushes the half-spoken, half-unspeakable extramarital romance into the nebulous visibilty of the cinematic ellipsis. In a two shot, the other woman, Lucky, has just offered herself to Martineau, urging him to come by after his shift.

As the scene dissolves to the next, there's a slight but perceptible motion: Martineau's hand comes up and embraces Lucky's arm as he leans in for a kiss. The action is interrupted before it is completed, of course, leading me to two likely explanations: 1…

Dr. Mabuse

No, not the movie, though that's had a DVD release lately. Instead, I've been meaning to mention a newish and growing group blog of film scholars, Dr. Mabuse's Kaleidoscope. I've been invited to join, so will be posting material over there occasionally. Currently, I have a mini-review up of Thomas Doherty's Cold War, Cool Medium.

Aspect Ratios and Social Class

I was remarking the other day how radical a transformation in screen aesthetics has sneaked up on us. In the span of basically six years or so, televisual aspect ratios have moved decidedly from Academy ratio to variable widescreen formats. Whether through propsed HD standards, through letterboxing of advertising and programming alike, or through hardware-initiated stretching of the television image, the new aspect ratios undoubtedly will mean a change in television form as wide-ranging as the change in cinematic form in the 1950s. That is, not everything will be different, but spatiality of the television image itself may change.

Alongside the aesthetic dimension, however, there's the question of how and why this change happened so quickly. On one hand we have a tipping point in the nexus of technological development, regulatory shifts, and consumer electronics industrial factors. On the other hand, demand in the form of consumer preferences has pushed the technological changes in…

The Chronicle on Publishing

I don't find that the Chronicle of Higher Ed's articles on film and media studies are all that enlightening - they're more about communicating news of the disciplines to a general academic audience. But currently there are a couple of articles on academic publishing worth looking at.

First is the news of what Chuck Tryon and others have already been talking about: the formation of Media Commons, an electronic publishing platform that Kathleen Fitzpatrick started for media studies work. Frankly, I don't foresee multimedia publication really working for film scholarship just because of tight copyright issues - and presumably that other old medium, television, will face similar hurdles - but I'll be curious to see what direction the new venture takes, and I wish it success.

Second is a decent advice article on what editors are looking for in publishing academic books. Geared toward the first-book author, it's probably not all that different from what you've hear…

Neorealism and African Cinema

Continuing with the theme of reassessing national cinema historiography, I came across an interesting essay by Rachel Gabara ("'A Poetics of Refusals': Neorealism from Italy to Africa" QRFV 23.3 [2006]) challenging the hermetic notions of African filmmaking practice. Tracing a lineage of Italian Neorealism to Africa and reading the works of African filmmakers (notably Ousmane Sembene) against neorealism's aesthetic traditions, the author notes from the outset,

Scholars have tended to write about African film as if it existed in an odd sort of isolation, only reacting against and rejecting the themes and styles of colonial and neocolonial European cinema rather than participating in international cinematic traditions (201).Is that possible? Not to doubt Gabara too much on this – after all, she has done the scholarship review that I have not – but something seems odd about the statement. For one thing, Gabara later criticizes critics who limit "the terms of dis…

Dubbing and Coproduction

On a colleague's recommendation, I took a belated look at a 2001 essay by Mark Betz on the topic of film dubbing. ("The Name above the (Sub)Title: Internationalism, Coproduction and Polyglot European Art Cinema" - Camera Obscura 46.16) I'm glad I did. It's a superb essay and one that confirms in the best way my belief that film studies has entered a renewed period of methodological self-confidence as a discipline.

Like many of the new theoretically-informed historians – or historically-informed theorists – Betz begins by revisiting and challenging a stubborn, unacknowledged assumption of film scholarship, in this case the assumption that film dubbing represents an abasement of the true, original film text. Part of this is an intervention in the cinephile preference for subtitles over dubbing, and Betz makes note of the

traditional impatience British and American viewers demonstrate when confronted with poor sync, an impatience that is the product of both lack of ex…

Vernacular Modernism Revisited

One of my central projects is to argue that the work of Pierre Bourdieu has considerable, yet-untapped value for film scholars, and I'm always keeping an eye out for the way film scholars deploy Bourdieu's concepts, like cultural capital and field of cultural production. So it was with interest that I came across a recent essay in Film Criticism (30.2, Winter 05/06) by Andrew Spicer called "Creativity and the B Feature: Terence Fisher's Crime Films," which at the outset places the genre in the context of the field of cultural production. Essentially, Spicer argues that the director of B crime dramas had a limited range of expressive possibility compared to the screenwriter and in face of industrial constraints (time and budget) but that nonetheless the noir-ification of the British crime drama opened up space for innovation.

Oddly enough, Bourdieu here seems merely an afterthought to an auteurist reading. At best, Spicer seems to use the notion of a cultural produ…


Is there any concept so deceptively simple as mise-en-scène? At least, as I've been revising those Jim Hillier edited volumes of Cahiers du Cinema from the 1950s and 60s, I've been noticing that a) there's no good clear explanation of the concept as it was deployed by the French critics, and certainly not from the critics themselves, and b) that I'm even a little fuzzier than I'd like to be on its meaning.

To be sure, there's a simple definition posed by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's introductory text, Film Art, namely, everything involving the profilmic. The advantage of this definition, undoubtedly one dovetailing with their pedagogical mission in and their tendency toward discrete categorization, is that it keeps mise-en-scène distinct from cinematography. Given this clarity and the role of Film Art in many of our initial film educations, mine included, this definition holds increasing sway over younger scholars.

The disadvantages of the Bordwell/T…

Mass Camp

Not having time lately for tackling books outside my specific area of study, I've resorted to the old intro + 1 approach. My latest read has been Ken Feil's Dying for a Laugh: Disaster Movies and the Camp Imagination (Wesleyan UP, 2005). It's an engaging study of a genre that I don't think has been given full, proper assessment before: the high concept camp film. Feil makes a convincing case that 1980s films like Ghostbusters salvaged the bad object of 1970s disaster films by introducing generic parody and a general ironic stance toward narrative conventions. These set the stage for a full-fledged "mass camp" disaster cylce in the 1990s, typified perhaps by Independence Day or Mars Attacks. As the author sums up his project, "It is one of my arguments that the advent of high concept in the late 1970s leads to the standardization of mass camp. This is not to say that every high concept film becomes campy, but that camp inflections become available, routin…

CFP: European Cinema in Postwar America (SCMS)

My collague Karl and I are putting out a call for papers for this next year's Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference. Contributions and queries welcome. Though note that deadlines - for this and other SCMS panels - are approaching. Presenters will need to be SCMS members by time of submission. *********************************SCMS 2007 Conference Proposed Panel
Organizers: Karl Schoonover and Chris CagleEuropean Cinema in Postwar AmericaIncreasingly, film historical scholarship argues against conceiving of national cinemas as self-contained entities, focusing instead on transnational influence and international imbrication. This panel aims to juxtapose and unite different approaches to understanding the industrial, social and political impact of European cinema on U.S. movie-going and filmmaking from roughly 1945 to 1965. It is broadly accepted that the distribution of European films in the United States at the end of the Second World War heralded a new era of interest in…

Advice Books

Now that I'm at the stage of reformulating my dissertation into a book project (a process that's been moved from back burner to front this week for me), I find myself strangely drawn to advice books on the topic. The best I've come across, and probably the best known, are:

Beth Luey, ed. Revising Your Dissertation (UC Press, 2004)
Sometimes the authors get more caught up in prescriptive ruminations on writing style than on nuts-and-bolts advice, but I haven't found a better first step introduction to the process of revising for an academic manuscript.

William Germano. Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books. (Univ of Chicago, 2001)
The how-to of submitting a manuscript - and the whys of academic publishing - laid out in an engaging, readible writing style. Will guide you from inquiry letter through contract and proofing.

It's not that how-to books provide flawless advice; in fact they tend to contradict each other on key po…

Uncovering the Holocaust

I'm currently finishing up a book review of Uncovering the Holocaust: the International Reception of Night and Fog (Wallflower Press, 2006). Edited by Ewout van der Knaap, the volume is pretty much what it says, a reception study in six national contexts (French, German, Israeli, Dutch, British and American) of Resnais's documentary on Nazi concentration camps. I don't want to repeat my review here, but it probably won't see the light of day til 2007, so let me just say the book is definitely worth at least a cursory read. I found the book undertheorized and the opening chapter not terribly useful, but the individual case studies have a wealth of fascinating detail that spurred my thinking about film reception. And for those only casually interested in documentary or reception studies might find them useful material in teaching. It's sometimes difficult to get across the idea, without students thinking that you're advocating nihilism, that the "truth"…

Academic Journal Publishing Trends

What's a blog for if you can't recommend your friends' blogs? Particularly when they're so useful. Causeway Film and Video Forum, written in part by my friend Diana King, a librarian at UC-Davis specializing in film studies and archival issues, is a site
This blog is dedicated to seeking out quality film & video history, viewing options, library/archive issues & commentary based in (but not limited to) California's Central Valley region...
I think one has to spend only an afternoon in a library, personal papers repository, or archive to recognize the significant role that information science and archiving/preservation play in the direction of film and media scholarship. (Think of the importance of print and video availability for the renaissance in early cinema schoalrship.) It makes me all the more appreciative of a resource to keep track of news and developments in those arenas.

Currently, King has an interesting post up about the state of academic journal p…

Gray Market Video

Given how difficult it can be to track down video copies of texts for study, I thought I'd mention, for those not already aware of it, the gray market DVD and video providers. I don't want to encourage piracy, but these companies exploit what they argue is an open area in copyright law to provide video material not distributed in this country. (See this article for an explanation.) Since our scholarship has a bona fide fair use impetus, the gray marketeers may well be a resource worth considering.

A friend had recommend Super Happy Fun and indeed I can say that they are reliable and their quality ratings useful. From there, you can follow the links to other gray market video companies, none of which I've yet ordered from. There are some downsides; the selection is generally driven by cult fandom rather than scholastic needs. Still, gray market companies offer a wide range of foreign and out of print films and television material. Subterranean Cinema, for instance, lists cop…

Backdoor Canonization

Speaking of Category E films, there's an article in Slate on The Searchers that blames academic film studies for the popularization of Ford and his film:
[I]t is Ford's status, and even more so Wayne's, as troubling anachronisms that help levitate the reputation of The Searchers. For everything in The Searchers can be said to be "problematized," that favored term of art for film and culture studies, starting with the old standbys race and gender but moving on quickly to Wayne and Ford themselves. ..The argument that Ford, and by extension Wayne, set about in the mid-'50s to "subvert" (another film-studies byword) their own meticulously constructed personas as defenders of a heroic code of the unsettled West was first floated in the early days of film studies, and has been catnip to the institutional critic ever since.
The author, Stephen Metcalf, doesn't cite which academics or which readings he talking about. Not knowing the scholarship on the f…

CFP: Documentary Conference

Also coming up are the deadlines for panel submissions for the 2006 Film & History conference, on the topic of The Documentary Tradition. A list of calls for papers is up, and most require response by the latter part of July. In contrast to SCMS, in documentary studies apparently, the classics are in with a vengeance.

Since I've been working on a paper on 1960s pseudodocumentaries, I may fit that into one of the conference's rubrics. I still have to decide if I can commit the cash for travel to Dallas in the fall. I already demurred on the Frameworks conference for that reason.

SCMS Conference Bulletin Board

Kudos to SCMS for opening up their call for papers up with the new bulletin board. They should have gone further in opening it up. There's no good reason one should have a submission form for an informal announcement board, especially when the alternative is the organization of panels through networks outside of the SCMS website. However they're organized, panels still need to go through the submission process.

There's a range of interesting material in the bulletin board, though it slants presentist in its research areas, at least too contemporary in orientation to match my research interests. I will say, too, that some really sound like paper topics rather than panel topics. Or maybe I'd just be far more interested in a paper on Rollergirls as part of a panel on cable televsion practices or contemporary fictional programming trends than to see a whole Rollergirls panel. There's a place for the case study, but not everyone finds your text(s) as self-evidently fasci…

TV Studies and The Barricades

A recent Cinema Journal (v. 45, no.1) turned its forum to the state of television studies. By far the most engaging essay, partly because of the force of his writing, was Toby Miller's "Turn Off TV Studies!" - a polemic against separating out a text-based humanities-defined TV studies discipline. It's worth reading alone for a nice pithy summary of the major currents in TV studies, as well as an interesting argument about the American misreading of British cultural studies. (What forms in response to state-run oligopoly does not apply to a private broadcast system.) What I might take issue with are harsh words for cinema studies and the implication that a studies of television freed of discipline will necessarily be progressive and meaningful:
I think that U.S. and British television studies are in danger of making the same mistake that has condemned cinema studies to irrelevancy in the public sphere of popular criticism, state and private policy, social-movement crit…

Ten Questions

What is "Category D"?

I'm sure plenty of you got the reference to the Cahiers du Cinema essay "Cinema/Ideology/Criticism." It's funny, but no one seems to care about anything other than the Category E any more. Reflecting on the straightforward – and thoroughly conventional – discourse that is my writing style, I thought Category D (political films with conventional form) captured the spirit of this site best. That, and I guess I wanted to signal both a fondness for the project of 1970s film theory and a sense of its limitations, i.e. not accepting political modernism as the only acceptable and politically worthwhile cultural production.

Why couldn't you come up with a clever blog name instead?

For starters, I'm not all that imaginative. Also, I wanted a dowdy, analytic title in the face of the Allure of the Cool that sometimes infects film and media studies. To point fingers…I didn't want sexy.

Who are you?

Chris Cagle, currently unaffiliated academ…

Demand Side Economics

It's been my belief for some time that there needs to be a blog, and ultimately many blogs, devoted to academic film and media studies. There is no shortage of websites devoted to film, television, popular culture, or new media. And a few of them are written by scholars teachers, mediamakers or other educated critics: see the blogroll for some of these. But to my eyes, few of them are fully devoted to discussing and promoting the discipline as a discipline. This is where Category D steps in.

Why blog? I think most scholars would recognize that while the value of scholarship is measured in formal, peer-reviewed outlets, so much of our education, inspiration and insight comes from interaction with other scholars. I think back to my graduate school days and the role my colleagues had in challenging and encouraging me, in introducing me to ideas I'd not encountered. I think, too, of the academic conferences I've attended showcasing the variety and sharpness of work being done b…