Thursday, September 28, 2006

Confessions of an Auteurist

Sorry for the tease post headline, but I couldn't resist. No I'm not becoming an out-and-out auteurist, but for the intro class I've been rereading (first time in years) Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema. Even if one doesn't ascribe to his grand methodological pronouncements (I don't), the books still is impressive with the subtlety of argument lurking beneath the polemicism. A lot of people either misrepresent Sarris or treat him as straw man. I can think of no worse way to spend an afternoon than to peruse Sarris for his almost castaway insights that are worthy of full-fledged scholarly inquiry....

on Dreyer: "The late Robert Warshow treated Carl Dreyer as a solitary artist and Leo McCarey as a social agent, but we know now that there were cultural influences in Denmark operating on Dreyer. Day of Wrath is superior by any standard to My Son John, but Dreyer is not that much freer an artist than McCarey. His chains are merely less visible from our vantage point..." (36)

on Ford: "The Left has always been puritanical, but never more so than in the thirties when Hollywood's boy-girl theology threatened to paralyze the class stuggle. In such an epoch, even an Irish-Catholic conservative like Ford could be mistaken for a progressive force." (45)

on Zinneman: "Fred Zinneman's career reflects the rise and fall of the realist aesthetic in Hollywood." (168)

Like other such grand pronouncements, these are less the final word on the subject than a spark of rhetoric that puts in motion a question that film scholars would be well to answer - or to figure out best how to answer.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The History Problem

Lately, I've been reading James Morrison's Passport to Hollywood: Hollywood Films, European Directors (SUNY UP, 1998). Partly because I once had the pleasure of being on an SCMS panel with him and was impressed by his work (then on Orphans of the Storm) and partly because research paths have directed me back to the question of European talent working in Hollywood. Anyway, it's been a fun and thought-provoking read.

First off, let me say that this is not an historical account of one main question I'm interested in: to what extent "Europeanness" adheres to the emigre director/cinematographer/writer, etc. and to what it extent it's a production imperative caught up in the social field the film industry is caught in.

Rather, Morrison is interested in reading larger socio-cultural formations (high culture, the art film, modernism) in certain key films, which if not representative moments are at least moments pregnant with significance. Murnau's Sunrise, Renoir's This is Our Land, Lang's Scarlet Street, Losey's M, Lester's Petulia and Foreman's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest are all multi-layered texts which bespeak an intersection, collision even, of "American" and "European" discourses. I haven't read all the analyses for the simple reason I've not seen all the films, but where I have, his knack for textual reading and erudition are on full display. Sometimes it leads to unexpected but convincing readings - New American Cinema as homosexual panic - while at other times the book offers fascinating tidbits of cinema heritage. (I had no idea that there was a Hollywood remake of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in the 1960s!)

Still, I wanted history. Not simply because that's what I do, but because the project itself cries out for some. If we are talking about sociocultural formations, why not have fuller consideration? Morrison, instead, seems dismissive:
Recent approaches in film study to issues relevant to this book have frequently implied that 'empirical' research is the most valuable avenue to understanding, say, the formations of national culture. The critical approach of this project registers my disagreement. Indeed, this book attempts to define ineffable, distinctive features of these films' textuality - their schismatic attitudes, their stylistic complexities, their ideological structures, their emotional textures - that empirical research cannot comprehend (25).
It will come as no surprise that I disagree vigorously to the relegation of the empirical to scare quotes any more than the textual or any other intellectual method. Besides, I honestly don't understand the hostility to empirical work. Clearly Morrison thinks there's some truth status
to certain historical claims. Empirical study of those claims assures a) that they adequately capture reality, e.g. that they're not mythological remembering of how things actually happened (Donald Crafton's reception study of The Jazz Singer illustrates this boldly); b) that texts and various textual proliferations such as reviews, polemics, etc. are understood in their proper representativeness (who shared Losey's take on Europeanness and Americanness? - this seems to matter a great deal); and c) that normative claims about culture's ideological dispositions are in fact sensical (is capital accumulation or globalization in fact the best way to make sense of economic activity?). It's not that I don't think that textual reading provides insight or contributes some crucial pieces of the puzzle, but increasingly I'm interested in the methodology we use to ground textual reading, particularly when our goals are to perform the kind of historically, socially and ideologically inflected readings that call attention to History's importance.

Now, I know it's unfair to expect a different kind of book than the one written, especially when that book does so much well, but at the very least the History problem is worth reflection as film studies sees more and more competing claims from "theory" and "history" and more attempts at broad-scale synthetic analysis.

Friday, September 15, 2006

CFP: Cosmopolitanism

Cosmopolitanism: Thinking Beyond the Nation

February 1-4, 2007
Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida

In his introduction to Cosmopolitics, Pheng Cheah writes, "The main purpose is to explore the feasibility of cosmopolitanism as an alternative to nationalism." Indeed, ever since Kant, the concept of cosmopolitanism has been central to thinking about social relations, culture, and the problem of war outside of the relations of the nation-state. As the nation-state has organized the fields of literary and cinema studies as well as the broader field of culture, questioning such categorization is crucial, as it opens up new ways of thinking about literary and filmic production as part of a larger context of interaction. It can also account for novel ways of describing the field of contemporary knowledge and experience.

The question of the nation seems particularly important now because of two main transformations on the world scene: (1) economic globalization, in which the category of the nation-state is only one among many of possible identifications and sites of transaction, and (2) the growing inevitability of perpetual war (what Kant called "perpetual peace") and the endless expansion of global militarisms. Is cosmopolitanism just another form of elitism that re-inscribes social hierarchies, or does it provide an opening for new alliances? What new cultural formations, social networks, and institutional structures have arisen, both now and historically, in response to what Bruce Robbins called "the moral and cultural existence of non-citizens"? What resistances to global capitalism and global warfare might fall outside of such liberal solutions as the nationalized welfare state, nativism, or local communitarianism? In what ways do the current circulations of language systems, aesthetic orders, semiotic codes, national identities, and genres in film and literature transcend economics and politics formerly envisioned in national terms?

The deadline for submissions is October 15, 2006.

[more details]

Thursday, September 14, 2006

CFP: Europe and Its Others conference

from the wires...

An International Interdisciplinary Conference

6-8 JULY 2007


‘Europe and its Others’ is an international conference in the area of literary, film and media studies, covering the main European languages (English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish). It sets decipherers of Europe’s cultural traditions in interdisciplinary dialogue with historians, political scientists, social anthropologists, culture theorists, and international relationists. Through the mirroring representations of Europe’s cultural production, we aim to explore a nexus of particularly rich and complex self-and-other relationships: diverse in space, multiple in its scenes, actors, dimensions, and evolving in time. We wish to understand something about how the Other-encounters, perceptions and relationships of Europe function - a ‘poetics’ of collective, culturally formed and informed ‘identities’.

We welcome proposals for papers (a 300-word abstract) to be submitted to the Convenors of the 10 symposia that are being organised by [b]29 September 2006. [more details]

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Wittgenstein and Media Studies

Before I go too far down the slippery slope of snarkiness, with that last post, let me elevate the discourse a bit and say that one essay I've always found helpful in thinking through these issues is Maxime Chastaing's "Wittgenstein et le probleme de la connaissance d'autrui" - originally in Revue Philosophique de la France et de l'Etranger (1960), but translated in part and included in Bourdieu and Passeron's Craft of Sociology. Chastaing illustrates several of Wittgenstein's observations by demonstrating how certain philosophers' word games end up mistakenly positing a logical connection between unrelated phenomona. The Media and Culture journal is just an extreme instance of forcing two different concepts together because of the same word: jam as "preserves" and jam as "wedge into a tight space" or "gum up the works" have nothing in common other than the tendency of the English language, like French and many other languages, to assign multiple meanings to the same word, dependent on context.

It seems to me that Wittgenstein doesn't get enough play in the humanities, including film studies (though Rick Altman's Film/Genre (BFI, 2000) has an interesting Wittgensteinian discussion of genre labels). Myself, I clearly need to revisit Philosophical Investigations, which is such a productive, provoking book, but one whose non-expository, nonlinear nature makes it difficult to read and absorb. I would love to find a reading group to devote ourselves to working through the text. Perhaps a project or goal for next summer?

Monday, September 11, 2006

From the Department of Self-Parody

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - 5 September 2006

M/C - Media and Culture
is calling for contributors to the 'jam' issue of

M/C Journal

Call for Papers: 'jam'
Edited by Lawrence English & Jo Tacchi

What is Jam? How can we understand this cultural and culinary condiment? How does it exist on its own right? Can it exist without attachment, without some form of boundary giving this amorphous blob some understood form and shape?

As a condiment, the notion of jam exists attached to a more solid form - wedged between two pieces of bread or contained within a jar. Its creation (via various processes and transformations from raw material into something consumable, even desirable), housing, marketing and consumption all shape our understanding of this widely used, yet somewhat 'formless' term. Is it through this series of conditions (and many more not noted above) that we understand the ideas of 'jam' - that is, by association? Equally, the term applies to a variety of artistic procedures and situations - from work with sound and visual arts to online applications and a broader 'cultural' application. These are the experiences and conditions of 'jam' and
'jamming' that this issue aims to uncover and explore. Is jamming always underprepared and underdefined in advance? Ironically, if one 'preserves'it, can it still be considered 'jam'?

Is there still a currency for this term? Have the popular uses of 'jam' in a cultural, musical and art setting rendered it less effective? How might it be reinvigorated and where does the future path of jam potentially lie? Submit your essays of 1000-1500 words in length to the editors at

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Screening on 16mm

[Cross-posted at Dr. Mabuse's Kaleidoscope.]

The current Cinema Journal (45.3) has an interesting and valuable forum on the death of 16mm. The problem is a familiar one: DVD has allowed vastly improved availability of film texts, both for personal research and classroom screening, but it has also given departments and university administrations the excuse to curtail their screenings in 16mm. There are partly nostalgic reasons to bemoan 16mm's demise, but some better ones, too: 16mm remains the primary gauge for distribution of experimental work; it gives students more than approximation of the formal characteristics of the photographic image itself; and it sets the tone for a more theatrical filmwatching experience rather than the distractedness of the home video setting.

Currently, I'm in an in-between situation. Thanks to lab/screening fees, Temple does have (modest) money that I can use for 16mm rental, for which I'm thankful, though as a rule they tend to prefer investment in a library of DVDs that can be used in subsequent semesters. Like many film schools, they have a (modest) collection of 16mm prints, a couple of which I'm screening in my intro class, but there exists no archivist, librarian or support staffperson to coordinate these holdings for classroom screening in a centralized fashion for the university, much less to aquire new material or arrange for rentals. Classrooms, including the lecture hall I'm in for intro, do seem to be set up for 16mm projection, often with decent equipment, yet the lack of culture around 16mm screening means that any instructor wanting to do 16 is the difficult exception and must take the initiative and work to do test runs and projection her or himself. In other words, for someone insisting on 16mm (and I do, especially for at least a couple of films for intro), I could be in a far worse environment, but I'm still saddened and even frustrated that more is not shown on film here these days.

I'd be curious to hear others' experiences. Do people have it better - or worse - than me? Do people have resources or strategies they'd suggest to continue to use 16mm? I've not tried interlibrary loans yet, or the smaller soon-to-go-out-of-business distributors.


Since I'm currently trying to finish a paper on 1960s pseudodocumentary, my research has led me to some of the current scholarship on mockumentary and other documentary/fiction hybrid forms. There's not a lot out there yet, though I imagine there will be more. Docufictions (Macfarland Publications, 2006) scores points by being the first volume, to my knowledge, to consider hybrid forms in a systematic way. Its essays are eclectic, ranging widely in methodology and rigor, but the volume probably succeeds on its terms: it establishes docu-fiction as an object of study worth consideration against the tendency of narrative and documentary scholars each to consider hybrid forms outside her/his purview; the hybrids have become too popular and widespread to treat them as mere exceptions. At the same time, the book has the historical scope to suggest that much nonfiction filmmaking of the past - including examples of the documentary canon - are productively understood in the context of hybrid form.

Beyond the admirable interventions, however, I found myself a little disappointed with some of the actual scholarship in the book. Sometimes the methodology seemed too on-the-surface for my taste, not removed enough from the kinds of smart observations that a journalist or eductated viewer might make on her own. Gerd Bayer's essay on mockumentary, for instance, is structured around an untheorized notion of artifice; among other problems, this leads him to the conclusion (problematic in my view) that A Mighty Wind "proceeds without overt stylistic references to the genre of documentary film making and its claims of veracity." Jared Green's essay on Flaherty's ethnographic gaze seems more theoretically sophisticated at first pass, but at the end seems to want to second Trinh Minh-ha's "there is no such thing as documentary" and the poststructuralist critique of objective cinematic representation while at the same time ascribing truth value to written expository material. (If claims of objectivity always misrepresent the "Other," why are written accounts free of that problem?) And Mark Bould's essay jumps from science fiction, city symphonies and actuality without spelling out why these genres are being considered together. Even the most suggestive of the essays - John Parris Springer's contribution on early cinema and Donald Levin's on the industrial film - share scholarly ground with previous work.

This volume is strongest in getting us to look at historical texts in new light. Flaherty, the city symphonies, and (Louisiana Story, an excerpt of which I'm showing in intro next week, is ripe for reconsideration, by the way.) And for all its obviousness, I'd overlooked the example of Citizen Kane in my own thinking of the topic. Docufictions is a worthy starting point, but one that suggests there's still a lot of valuable work to be done in explaining and explicating documentary-fictional forms.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Pedagogical Films

I have never relied much on pedagogical films, i.e. films which themselves lecture on film studies. However, designing my syllabus this time around, a colleague had reminded me of a Noel Burch film/TV series, Correction Please, which really is a wonderful explanation of the development of narrative storytelling in cinema. Unfortunately, the film has never had a video release and only a smattering of university archives, departments and libraries have a closely-held copy. So far, I've been unable to obtain a copy anywhere.

The larger question I have is: what other useful pedagogical films might I be missing. Burch may well be an unusual case, as theorist and filmmaker who also took on the mantle of popularizing an genre overlooked in the larger film culture.

For that matter, are there any useful multimedia educational materials worth using? For all of the supposed media savvy and literacy of pop culture scholars, there's some pretty dire stuff I've seen. Then again, things can change a lot in a short time.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Search Engine Ideological Analysis

Can anyone tell me why a search for "John F. Kennedy" at the A&E website pulls up tons of Avengers videos?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

On the Shoulders of Giants

In anticipation for a week of the grad seminar dealing with the transition to sound, I've been taking a closer look at Donald Crafton's The Talkies. Not to color what my students might take away from it, but I found it an impressive work of scholarship. I've used a number of the other volumes of the History of American Cinema series, most of all Tino Balio's Grand Design. (Thomas Schatz's Boom and Bust, oddly enough, wasn't as helpful for the dissertation as Balio's book.) But the narrow historical period and topic allow Crafton to organize the history around a more emphatic argument about sound historiography - that is to say, of the volumes in the series that I've read, The Talkies works the best as a stand-alone book.

His argument? Namely that a) there is a disparity between the popular understanding of the coming of sound and the historical scholarship on it; and b) that in correcting the popular understanding, film historians like Douglas Gomery may have themselves erred by presenting an Alfred Chandler-esque version of business history that sees studio decisions as planned. In the process Crafton might get a few things wrong (I noticed him using "macroeconomic" when he was referring to microeconomic conditions), but the historiographical sophistication of his argument is a welcome intervention. It's both a testiment to the strength of Gomery and Balio's scholarship and a suggestion of further avenue of inquiry and critique of the "revisionist" film historians.

The biggest problem with the volume might be its awkward organization. Crafton opts not to present material chronologically, instead focusing on developments and issues by chapter. This is fine as it goes, but makes a sense of timing hard for the reader to piece together and means that films, developments and even quotes repeat throughout the book. But even the introductory chapter provides a nice resource for those without the time to delve into the depth of historical detail the rest of the book offers.

Finally, I have to lament that so many of the films Crafton discusses are unavailable for general screening. Though it looks like Applause has a Kino Video release, so I will have to watch that soon.

Classical bias

I have my departmental webpage up and running. Included are syllabi for my courses, Introduction to Film and Video Analysis and the graduate Film History and Theory seminar. As you can see, there were a lot of changes I'd made to my initial draft for the intro class, largely to scale down the screening and lecture time to match the schedule here at Temple.

Chuck Tryon offers his thoughts on the Intro course. Like him, I find myself wondering if the emphasis on classical Hollywood is a good thing, and like him, I've decided to go ahead with it. There are simply too many useful concepts in film studies formulated in reference to Hollywood in its classical period for me not to gravitate toward examples like Stagecoach or Casablanca. This is particularly exacerbated by the need I feel to use articles and readings to supplement the Bordwell and Thompson text; the best of these readings tend to deal with a finite subset of films. I'm always looking for suggestions of new articles to consider, however.

I have tried to mix up the film selection a bit, though, with some uncoventional choices - and some non-Western films - here and there.