Monday, July 31, 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) much like1940s screenwriters packing screenplays with all sorts of Freudian in jokes (c.f. Gilda), the filmmakers here wanted to suggest the extramarital liaison through subtext that would be perhaps unnoticeable on casual viewing; and 2) the filmmakers filmed the kiss as coverage in case the preferred direction of the screenplay were taken, only to have a decision post-production to cut the film to make Martineau's extramarital longing unconsummated.

The two explanations aren't mutually exclusive but perhaps even as casual observers we have reason to believe the latter was operative. The DVD release, fortuitously, includes an alternate ending, this time which veers away from the cynicism of the original toward the "happy" ending. To take the final (at least in British cinemas) ending, Martineau walks into the city by himself as his fellow officers remark:

- There goes a lonely man.
- I thought he was married.
- He is. But you don't have to be by yourself to be alone.
Like the American noirs it was modeled on, then, the final ending balances a fallen woman's unrequited love for the protagonist with the existential solitude of the protagonist himself.

The alternate ending is similar to the original, only with a reconciliation with Martineau's wife Julia. He bursts into her bedroom in a fit of anger, then Julia decides suddenly to try for children. Val Guest, in the voiceover commentary, denies having directed this scene, and the visuals bear him out. Not only is the camerawork sloppy (the camera's shadow moves along the bed), but the cinematographic choices are pedestrian, in contrast to the deliberate and composed cinematography of the feature.

What the alternate ending suggests is that the film's producers were unsure about the commercial viability of the project, with its cynical thematics and violation of sexual mores. The happy ending – or in this case lack thereof – bespeaks the risk-adverse interests of the producer's impulse over the formula-adverse interests of the creative talent. Without a close production history, we won't know for sure, but it's an explanation that makes sense of the contradictions registered in the text itself.

I do think there's something to the Sirkian system argument – that there's some conscious exploitation of textual contradictions initiated by Sirk as directorial agent – but I wonder if Category E textual contradictions were increasingly engendered by the divergent pull of aesthetic expectations on the Classical cinematic text in its Rococo phase. (Or, as Tag Gallagher suggests, these contradictory forces were in place by the late1930s even.) In other words, what Sirk as auteur put in motion was simply an exaggerated expression of an industrial practice bound to happen anyway.

C.f. Paul Willemen, "The Sirkian System"; Tag Gallageher, "Shoot-Out at the Genre Corral"

Friday, July 28, 2006

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.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

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 certain directions rather than others. It seems apparent to me that some version of class emulation was at play, whereby television upscales itself by adopting the aspect ratios prefered by cinephiles, particular those devoted to New American Cinema auteurs - a preference ensconsed in the DVD format.

Well, helpfully, James Kendrick chips away at this problem in a useful essay in Velvet Light Trap (Fall'05, no. 56) called "Aspect Ratios and Joe Six-Packs: Home Theater Enthusiasts' Battle to Legitimize the DVD Experience." In it, Kendrick looks at a consumer internet forum devoted to home theatre hardware and software and reads the discourse as a classed struggle, in Bourdieusian terms to assert cultural legitimacy in the consumption of DVDs. At first I was leary of the reading of internet chatrooms (call me old-fashioned), but it was a useful connection of the small picture to the big. As usual, my quibble is in his use of Bourdieu: I happen to think that rather than Distinction, Photography might have been a more appropriate model. While the technophile auteurists are making claims of legitimacy, they are less grand bourgeois autodidacts and more the modern day equivalent of the petit bourgeois photoclubs that fetishized the apparatus over the aesthetics of photographic practice. I don't mean that as a putdown, but as a reminder that class legitimacy is more than a high/low division, but often involves middle positions that are just as important in the grander class picture.

For the vertical files, too, Causeway Film & Video Forum has been following the Criterion Collection letterboxing controversy.

Monday, July 24, 2006

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 heard before, but since I mentioned advice books on the topic before, you'd be almost as well off reading the Chronicle piece and saving the purchase price for Revising Your Dissertation.

Now, I just need to stay away from the cesspool of loathing and self-doubt that is their Careers forum.

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 discussion to the vocabulary of the European canon" (209). Perhaps fair criticism, but the problem then would be seeing too ardently Sembene participating in international traditions, no? More to the point, it seems so clear that Black Girl appeared in and circulated among the same cinematic discourse of, say, Gillo Pontecorvo's films that it's hard to imagine that no one has remarked on it.

What Gabara adds is to trace the importance of neorealist practice and theory to the Latin American Third Cinema polemicists. It's a useful synopsis of the connection, and the bibliography is a good one-stop-shopping starting point for those interested in reading up on Third Cinema. As she notes, it's a twisted route, but her account is convincing.

I'm open to her broader point – that Sembene and some of the newer African reflexive documentarists employ neorealist stylistic tropes in their film language – but I really would have liked more fleshing out of the thesis. Sometimes, realism seems undertheorized, as when the term simply has a commonplace meaning of showing things as they "really are" (209). At other times, the textual analysis is suggestive but too brief. Nonetheless, I found her use of Jurji Lotman's "poetics of refusals" a productive way to approach the filmmaking choices of Sembene and others. It's an interesting project and one that might get fuller treatment in Gabara's promised forthcoming book on Francophone autobiography in literature and film.

Finally, Gabara's essay left me with a couple of questions, which I think would be fruitful avenues to explore.

1) Riffing off of Mark Betz's essay, what impact did coproduction have on the direction of African cinema? Is it possible to read the difference between a (relatively) Europeanized Black Girl and a (relatively) Africanized Ceddo as a shift in industrial practice?

2) I'm not up on my African cinema, but clearly there's a gap we're talking about... the post-Sembene filmmakers who wed high production values, the narrational ambiguity and pacing appropriate to the international art film, and elements of the fantastic or mythical. I'm thinking of films like Yeelen or Wend Kuuni. These don't seem to me to be operating in any neorealist capacity. I'm actually interested in their poetics of refusal... are they reacting against Sembene and the representational politics of anticolonial struggle? Are the newer, second generation of African filmmakers in turn reacting against the previous aesthetic? Maybe a lot has been written on this, I simply haven't read the literature.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

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 exposure to dubbed films (as they live in an English-language culture and cultural marketplace) and a fetishistic attachment to the idea of the "authentic" cut of film, an attachment dubbing disturbs (32).
But more than questioning Anglo-American cinephile practice, Betz is targeting Anglo-American film historiography for its refusal to take account of the related facts of cinematic coproduction and soundtrack dubbing in most European cinema. While much scholarship has been done on the utility of the concept of national cinema, he points out, very little national-cinema historiography actually deals with the polyglot nature of financing, crews and casts, particularly among the features of France and Italy from the late 1950s to the 1970s.

Indeed, some of the prototypically "French" and "Italian" art films of the period directed by the most celebrated auteurs were in fact the products of French and Italian (and West German and British and Portuguese and Swedish and Spanish) partnerships: Louis Malle's Zazie dans le métro and The Fire Within; Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel, and La Guerre est finie; Francois Truffaut's La Peau douce, The Bride Wore Black, and Mississippi Mermaid; all of the films of Antonioni's tetralogy starring Monica Vitta; all of Luchino Visconti's films from The Stranger through the Innocent; all of Fellini's films from Il Bidone through Satyricon; and most of the 1960s films directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Vittorio De Sica, and Bernardo Bertolucci (24).
Sorry to quote as such length (I left out countries and years), but the scope of coproduction is rather the point. It's an observation so simple, yet somehow one that no one had truly remarked on before. Betz extends, somewhat seamlessly, the analysis from the textual and theoretical concerns to the analysis of historical, industrial and regulatory trends defining European national cinemas. Now, I have to say, I await to see his forthcoming book on European cinema.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

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 production field in not to dissimilar a manner that Lea Jacobs uses cultural capital in discussing the B film: it's simply a fancier way of noting that cultural value judgments saw A films as superior to B films. What ended up interesting me in the Spicer essay was less his use of Bourdieu - or his main argument even - and instead the conention put forth in the beginning but never fully developed that

the 'B' feature crime film was undergoing a significant change in this period, discarding the older murder mystery tradition and embracing film noir... a change that enabled it to register the profound disruption that the Second World War had on the social fabric in Britain and on male psychology (24-5).
Fortunately this idea gets fuller treatment in a 1999 essay, "The Emergence of the British tough guy," that Spicer contributed to the Steve Chibnall/Robert Murphy edited volume British Crime Cinema (Routledge). To me, partly because I'm working on similar concerns of reading the ideological formation across industry and reception, it's a fascinating look at the Americanization of masculinity in crime films and the class dynamics they tap into. Essentially, the petit bourgeoisie's prominence in the British cinema audience wanes in the postwar years while the more affluent of the working class increases in importance. This shift drives a break in the representational tropes and genre conventions. What's more, Spicer draws on a fascinating-sounding Herbert Gans study of cinemagoing in Britain to tie an argument about sociology of taste to the textual, industrial and interpretive questions he's looking at. (Open question: how much does the rigid class structure in Britain allow academics to get away with generalization along class lines that would raise objections in the U.S. for valid or ideological reasons?)

Throughout, I kept thinking of Miriam Hansen's work on vernacular modernsim and on the counterpublic sphere. The Negt/Kluge model of a commodity-based, nonrational public sphere seems abstruse, but the illustration comes into relief in scenarios that Spicer describes, in which the pleasures of the commodity form provide a real space of collective experience that runs parallel and counter to the official culture of rational debate. Hansen has focused a lot on applying Kluge's class-oriented definition to the experience of gender and sexuality; Spicer's work may provide a good illustration of the original.

***********

C.f. Miriam Hansen, "The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism." Modernism / Modernity 6.2 (April 1999): 59-77; also in: Linda Williams and Christine Gledhill, eds., Reinventing Film Studies (London: Edward Arnold, 2000); and "Fallen Women, Rising Stars, New Horizons: Shanghai Silent Film as Vernacular Modernism." Film Quarterly 54.1 (Fall 2000): 10-22.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Mise-en-Scène

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/Thompson one are several, though. Pedagogically, it's very hard to communicate to students the difference between arrangement of the profilmic with the profilmic objects themselves. I'm sure we all have stories of "mise-en-scene" analyses that simply lists props, sets, and actors. About the fifth one of these you receive, you start to blame the textbook.

In a related vein, once you settle for an "everything in front of the camera" definition, it can all become too broad and you lose sight of the aesthetic, critical and hermeneutic aspect the term should have.

Finally, there is a strong critical tradition in film studies in which mise-en-scène includes camera movement as much a part of blocking as set design. In Bazin, for instance, mise-en-scène is a practice opposed to montage. Framing, camera movement and blocking within the profilmic space all achieve the ends of montage through other means.

From what I can gather, mise-en-scène held such importance for the auteurists because under the classical studio systems, directors didn't have creative control over editing, script or even always storyboarding. Mise-en-scène was a polemic to read the authorship of the auteur in the control of the putting in place of the elements of filming. And that's something that gets lost in our post-Hollywood Renaissance notion of the auteur (i.e. Scorcese is an auteur because he does have creative control over most aspects of his work). It gets lost, too, in mise-en-scène's less prescriptive definitions.

Friday, July 14, 2006

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, routine aesthetic choices for Hollywood filmmakers." (162)

On a gut level, I'm less convinced of his readings of camp, just because the multivalence of classic camp humor seems far more than mere pastiche or parody; what made/makes the disaster film such fodder for gay camp isn't simply that they're cheesy but rather because they allow the viewer to wallow in and resignify pathos (think of the affective identification with Shelley Winters' turn in Poseidon Adventure, doubling the pathos of her character with Winters as has-been actress). That seems to be something missing in the mass camp films and their reception. To his credit, though, Feil distinguishes between queer camp and mass camp, and I wouldn't be surprised to see this book popularize this framework.

The strength of the study is a unity of scope and purpose, uniting textuality, reception and industrial history. Its analysis is strong on reception study - which interests me - though sometimes the author doesn't make clear enough why he is turning to reception; particularly when drifting through every popular critic's evaluation of the films under consideration, the reader deserves a broader framework: is Feil arguing that while academic? Or, conversely is he arguing that popular critics don't understand how these texts work? From the people he quotes, you could read it either way.

So, too, did I want a bit more from the textual and industrial analysis. A section in the Ghostbusters chapter is subtitled, "The Formal Qualities of 1980s Mass Camp," yet surprisingly doesn't deal with cinematic form, dealing with a superficial discussion instead of narrative structure, generic similarities and content. Industrially, the model is clearly Justin Wyatt's work, and Feil provides some consideration of trade press coverage of industrial trends. Might there be more? I know that getting an inside view of studio records may be nigh impossible for films made in the 1990s, but I would like a little more assurance (and this may well be my incomplete reading) that arguments about the industry aren't simply reading backward from the texts themselves. Hopefully I can tackle another chapter or two (say, the one on The Sum of All Fears as a post-9/11 disaster film) to see if my criticism isn't premature.

I don't want to be too harsh, after all. The book is the sort that made me think of a group of contemporary films in a new light, and that's a worthwhile achievement.

UPDATE: Thank to GreenCine for the link. Reading over their post, I realize that my review sniped around the edges. (After all, I'm wrestling with similar methodological issues so am attuned to them.) For any of the book's shortcomings, I still found it to be a thoughtful, engaging reading of a film cycle rarely analyzed, as well as a solid piece of scholarship. I don't think that came across enough.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

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 Cagle

European Cinema in Postwar America

Increasingly, 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 international cinema here, but beyond box office how do we measure the influence of these imports upon the social field of American cinema?

We invite approaches to this problem. Papers may be readings of individual texts or directors or may offer broader studies of genres, national cinemas or industrial practices. Ideally, panel participants will use the textual and historical studies to touch on broader theoretical issues, though the avenues of inquiry are open. Such issues may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Hollywood imitations of European genres, styles and movements (Neorealism, the Rank Studios "quality" film, French New Wave, kitchen sink drama, the exploitation-art film)
  • Effects of the American market on European films and production
  • Distributor or exhibitor marketing practices
  • Art cinema as place: exhibitor strategies or local film cultures
  • Co-production as an industrial practice before 1965
  • The relation between art cinema and "low" genres
  • The place of imported films or foreign production companies in the U.S. film industry
  • National quotas, trade policy, or international regulation
  • Cosmopolitan taste and the rise of the critic
  • Stateside discursive or industrial conception of "Europeanness"

By contributing to the growing historiography that attends to the industrial and aesthetic details of this transatlantic exchange, we aim to revisit and interrogate the social and political assumptions that accompany the concept of art cinema. We hope to enrich our understanding of a period of transnational influence that is often acknowledged but rarely explored in depth.

Send a brief abstract or any queries to Chris Cagle (Chris UNDERSCORE Cagle AT mindspring DOT com). DEADLINE FOR ABSTRACTS: August 8.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

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 points. And obviously, one's advisors and colleagues can provide guidance on the expectations of the discipline better than any book. Still, the books offer the advantage of being written by academic editors themselves, revealing what they are looking for.

I'd be curious what any readers think of advice guides, or if they'd have any suggestions to offer.

By the way if you're earlier in graduate school career, it's not too early to spend a summer afternoon reading these books. No, I don't think third-year grad students should be plotting their first book already, but it's worth knowing as you enter in the long dissertation process what's going to be expected when you pop out at the other end.

Finally, I should point out a resource many readers are undoubtedly familiary with,

Kristin Thompson, "Fair Usage Publication of Film Stills" Cinema Journal 32.2 (Winter 1993), 3–20, available at SCMS website.

Thompson provides a good summary of fair use considerations, though this article sees the legal issues as more complicated and points to anecdotal evidence contradicting Thompson. I've yet to navigate the tricky terrain of copyright in academic publishing. Success and horror stories welcome.

Monday, July 10, 2006

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" of media texts lies in no small part in the cultural context. The case study format of Uncovering the Holocaust works well to defamiliarize the commonplace notion that documentaries simply convey historical truth without, on the other extreme, pretending as if there isn't a more intimate relation between Night and Fog and the historical real than in some other modes of filmmaking.

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 publishing. The short version: more and more journals are being published, while library budgets for humanities journals are (at best) stagnant or (more likely) shrinking.

This state of affairs should bode well for younger scholars like myself (more outlets for our work), but it smells of an unsupportable mismatch between supply and demand.

Friday, July 07, 2006

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 copies of An American Family.

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 film, I can't say how accurate his assessment is. It does seem like a caricature, partly because film scholars are now less inclined to those Category E sorts of readings than they were in the 1980s and 1990s, partly because there not all Category E readings serve auteurist impulses, the "Sirkian system" notwithstanding. To my knowledge, plenty of scholars find Ford and Wayne thoroughly racist but find enough contradictions around racial and gender politics in the film to make interpretation of its multivalence an appealing project.

Perhaps that distinction gets to the heart of an interesting issue: is it a problem when presumably nonhierarchical theoretical paradigms end up recreating a canon? Do contradictory, reflexive, and otherwise illustrative texts get to the front of the line when we create our syllabi and write articles - in the same way that films conforming to high modernism did in the 1960s and 70s?

Of course, not every one is as resolutely committed as I am to the evacuation of questions of evaulation from film studies (i.e. they like traditional canon-making). And others go further than I in resisting canonicity, particularly in the pedagocial situation. I happen to think you need to teach students the canon while also modeling scholarship that's non-evaluative. Students need to learn somehow the way film has been conceived as an art (by some) while it functions as popular culture (by most). Other scholars, perhaps, disagree, preferring to either emphasize film-as-popular culture or else push the notion of film art in directions other than with the interpretive communities that historically have defined it.

So, in short, my take on the matter is "canons OK, evaluative scholarship something to avoid." Also, depending on what one is researching, an anti-canonical approach may be necessary. Bordwell, Thompson and Staiger's statistical sample in Classic Hollywood Cinema (Columbia UP, 1985) is partly gimmick (they happily will choose another film if it suits their purpose) but works well as a first step in constituting an object of study, an "epistemological break" as Bourdieu would call it. It's a spirit in intellectual inquiry that could be emulated more, I think.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

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 fascinating as you do. At least I'm keenly aware that people find social problem films dull.

Anyway, the deadline for posting is approach (July 15), so keep that in mind. I'm still not sure what I'm planning for the conference, though I will be attending it this year.

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 critique and union issues. That mistake was to set up a series of nostra early on about what counted as knowledge and then to police the borders. This is a standard disciplinary tactic.

The particular cinema studies donnees barely need rehearsal: psychoanalysis good, psychology bad. Spectatorship fascinating, audience boring. Archive good, laboratory bad. Criticism good, ethnography bad. Author interesting, wonk dull. Textual analysis good, content analysis bad...

In the United States today, literally millions of people are petitioning the Federal Communications Commission about TV ownership, control, access, and content and their impact on democracy. When I attend events run by our vibrant media-reform and media-justice movements, I see virtually no one from U.S. TV studies and can discern no influence from U.S. TV studies in these deliberations.

Urm, how many straw men can we fit into a single paragraph? Let me start with the digs on film studies. Yes, scholars close off avenues of inquiry they shouldn't. But over the last two decades, film scholars have opened up their area of concerns. Industrial and social history, political economy, cognitive studies. Yes, there's still resistance for this approach or that (I've read content analysis of film with an open mind and have been flatly unimpressed), but give some credit where it's due.

More to the point, you can fault scholars for not trying to be relevant, but you can't fault them for irrelevance itself. It takes someone listening and persuadable for policy studies to have an impact. Even social science scholars with the greatest policy influence imaginable - economists - probably aren't going to have much of a dent with their signed statement in support of immigration.

For those interested in a contrasting perspective, I highly recommend Aniko Bodrokhozy's reflections on Robert McChesney in Flow. Bodrokhozy is grappling with some of the same issues that Miller is, only from the other angle:

But the 1990s was the time when McChesney's voice cried out in the wilderness that we cultural studies/Postmodernist scholars of television and media were blind--bewitched by carnivalesque trifles and simulacral silliness. Most media scholars are ready to concede, of course, the intellectual shallowness and "banality" (in Meaghan Morris's terminology) of the mania for finding "resistive" or "oppositional" activity everywhere in the pop culture environment. That moment does seem to be "oh so 90s" and over. The 1990s also saw the entrenchment of media deregulation that has ushered in the frighteningly concentrated industry we find ourselves with today....

I am struggling to find an answer. I'm not ready to junk my own approach to television study (which has always tried to account for lines of power, dialogue, resistance, and incorporation across industry, text, and audience formations within specific historical contexts). On the other hand, to analyze contemporary television and media and not take account of the massive concentration of ownership of all
sectors of media into a small handful of conglomerate behemoths with more power
than many nation-states seems intellectually decadent.

The point is an excellent one: Fiske is waning, McChesney is ascending, and humanities television studies is doing some of what Miller wants them to. They are engaging with political economy as much as with textuality.

I, too, have misgivings. We all want our work to be important, and those of us trained to think of the political nature of the mass media, including the cinema, would be thrilled to think of having some larger political efficacy than talking to a closed audience of fellow academics. But humanities scholarship will never work well as policy study. And, in a country lacking the strong intellectual orientation of a grand bourgeoisie (as in France), we'll even have a hard time fashioning influential public intellectuals out of our humanists. On one hand, I'm sympathetic to Miller's rallying cry: we can push cinema and media studies in new, interdisciplinary directions. On the other hand, humanities scholarship has value whether it mans the barricades or not. It's worth solving the piece of the puzzle a few pieces at a time - contributing knowledge about the racial politics of early cinema or the structure of the French film industry in the 1930s or the technological determinants of film projection - regardless of whether it impacts the grand political battles of the day. Perhaps that's self-important or narcissistic of me, but the alternative seems anti-intellectual at heart.

But, say I'm wrong and cinema studies could have been, should be manning the barricades. What would that look like? It's a sincere question.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

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 academically and living in Boston. I received my Ph.D. in English from Brown University in 2005, working mostly in the Modern Culture Media Department. My dissertation was a social and industrial history of the Hollywood social problem film.

Is there just one author?

For now. If any other film or media scholars like the project of this site and are interested in writing, please contact me at Chris UNDERSCORE Cagle AT mindspring DOT com. I'd welcome other contributors.

How often will you write?

I've blogged in other fora before, so I realize that consistency and frequency is the hallmark of a good blog. Unfortunately, I don't know how much time I'll have for this, so we'll just have to see how frequently this site gets updated. If other contributors jump on board, that changes everything of course.

Why do you distinguish an academic film/media studies blog from other film and media blogs?
A couple of reasons, but the main distinction boils down to analysis over evaluation. It's fun to talk about one's favorite films or write at length about popular culture, but scholarship means more than cinephilia or fandom. Or, to put it more charitably, in other contexts I'm eager to encouarge film culture and consume popular culture, but here I'm eager to encourage the consumption of scholarship.

Does this mean you wont be highlighting individual films and television shows?

Of course there's room for analysis of texts here. And perhaps DVD release news or similar information may be noteworthy. Perhaps some lighter fare will slip in from time to time. But throughout the emphasis will be on scholarship of film and media.

Why have you tacked on "and media"? Is that some sort of tokenism?

Yes and no. I'm primarily a film scholar, and I work mostly on matters of film history. That emphasis will show here. That said, the discipline does inform television and media studies and in turn, cinema studies is being pushed in new directions by the insights from media studies scholars. And I've certainly learned from what modest training I've had in television history and aesthetics.

I have a film, television or media specific site. Will you link to me?

Probably, just drop me a note. I do want to keep the blogroll as focused on academic side of things as much as the content here, so I reserve the right not to link to sites dominated by personal reflection, politics, favorite film lists, what have you.

Are you advancing a theoretical agenda?

I'll have opinions, certainly, and won't be shy in expressing them. My goal here, though really is a positive one: to engage with and encourage others to engage with existing and new scholarship in productive ways.

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 by other film and media scholars. What academic blogging can do is extend these kinds of informal conversation beyond the confines of the geographical and institutional limits we all face. As someone currently without institutional affiliation, I'm particularly keen on making connections with other media scholars. Unlike the folks at the Valve, I don't see it as a way to work around the discipline; I see it as a way bolster the kinds of conversation that disciplinarity should, at its best, rely on.

There is increasing talk of a crisis in academic publishing, with Cinema Journal weighing in with a forum a couple issues back and the Modern Language Association drafting guideliness calling for changes in tenure review and requirements. Not to take away from the structural factors at play in academic employment, I'd say the crisis in not merely one of production but of consumption. Too many scholars are chasing too few readers. I don't have any profound way to address the overly harsh gatekeeping that results from the overproduction of PhD's (especially since I currently do not have an academic job), but I think we, as a community of scholars can do a better job of serving as a receptive audience for each others' work. It's not something I've always been great at, particularly in the process of specialization that the dissertation required. But this blog will, as time permits, look at the books coming out and journals articles of interest. It will also compile news for conferences, calls for papers and other academic ventures. Hopefully, too, it will be able to participate in full dialogue with other blogs and online discussion out there.

I know a lot of people are more upset than me about the policing role of academic disciplines, and some in particular have gripes about the way film studies constitutes its object of study. But, having gone through a doctoral program and come out on the other side of the process, I appreciate the insight that the discipline has enabled me to have. I value the sophistication of our models and scholarship, which I believe compare favorably to those in other humanities disciplines. I have always enjoyed our conferences - SCMS, Screen and the more topical ones - and fear that we might become more and more like the MLA, a giant sea of young scholars giving papers to the ether while preprofessionalism paralyzes intellectual dialogue. This site is a small measure to combat that fear.