Thursday, December 14, 2006

Classroom blogging

I've never been a utopian or even a huge booster when it comes to technology in the classroom. Too often it's never explained why we need blogging in the classroom or why tradition formats of learning and student scholarship are inadequate.

Still, I've decided to set up a group blog for my special topics course in Documentary Fictions next semester. For starters, it's a writing-intensive course, which means significant practice in informal writing as a way to practice and brainstorm for more formal assignments. I saw the weblog format as a useful and equally functional (more functional, in fact) equivalent of printed informal writing.

Moreover, since hybrid forms and questions of documentary authenticity seem to be capturing the attention and imagination of a number of viewers, critics and observers these days, the weblog format should allow for discussion to grow organically over the semester to diagnose what, exactly, makes fake documentary seem so much part of the zeitgeist. It will also give students (and me) a chance to reflect on the array of films we're watching, from staged actuality to the present. I'm looking forward to what could be a really dynamic discussion.

If readers have used weblogs in classroom setting before, I'd be eager to hear your experiences.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Well, the SCMS conference program is out in preliminary form. My first reaction is, wow, that's a lot of panels and papers. Far more than I remember before. It's going to be tough choosing which to attend.

Second, certain topics seem to be popular but the most overwhelming theoretical approach seems to be the public sphere. A few panels are specifically about the topic, and a good couple dozen papers seem to be on it. This oversaturation of work on the public sphere might curb my enthusiasm for making it a tenet of my current book project, except that I still feel that scholarship hasn't adequately addressed the means that Hollywood (and those who watched feature films) came to understand cinema's intervention in the mass public sphere. Let me hope, though, that "public sphere" fatigue doesn't set in soon.

UPDATE: Idiot me: I'd blanked out on the fact that "Media in the Public Sphere" is the theme of this year's conference.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Film Criticism as Subfield

Andy Horbal is hosting a blog-a-thon on film criticism, which seems to be enlisting a wide and engaging variety of participant posts. Most of them talk about journalistic or other nonacademic critics, but I started thinking about film criticism as an academic practice. From what I understand, there used to be a recognizable division of the discipline of film studies into three distinct subfields: film theory, film history, and film criticism. The latter took place in (naturally enough) Film Criticism, Literature Film Quarterly, and oftentimes Film Form, Jump Cut, or Film Quarterly. Whereas film theory used specific textual study to reflect more broadly on representation, society, and culture, film criticism, at least it was thought, was a distinct practice of textual interpretation.

Something changed, of course. The tripartate distinction only held while textual study - based on models of literary study - was the predominant model for what film studies did. As cultural studies, industrial history, and reception theory have challenged textual-interpretive assumptions and as television, film culture, and new media formats have suggested supertexts that defy discrete interpretation, the disciplinary division of labor itself has shifted. Film Criticism continues on, of course, and university curricula still include courses in Film Criticism. And occasional edited volumes, such as Peter Lehman's Close Viewings or John Gibbs and Douglas Pye's Style and Meaning, try to champion close reading as a middle-level critical practice. But I'm not sure that the discipline still sees criticism as an ongoing concern in the way it once did.

What does remain is film criticism done in nonacademic and quasiacademic contexts by amateurs and professionals alike. On one hand, journalistic critics have become even more professionalized and aligned with academic film studies (in some form) than ever before. On the other hand, the internet has encouraged many to challenge the monopoly : let a thousand film critics bloom!

But as we are speeding forth to a new cultural configuration placing film criticism, I keep looking back, hoping for a solid historical study of film criticism as cultural practice in the twentieth century. When writing my dissertation - and trying to explain the place of popular critics of the social problem film - I had to rely on a couple of dusty Scarecrow press books (Myron Loundsbury's history of early criticism and Frank Beaver's book on Bosley Crowther), both of which are dated at best, and on Raymond Haberski's It's Only a Movie! which still doesn't do the full social history of journalistic criticism that I would like.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Textbook extras

I've made some modifications and additions to my textbook comparison post. I know it's against blog ettiquette to keep modifying a past post, but given the topic, it makes sense to keep my textbook comments centralized.

Now, publishers are starting to bundle supplementary material. Actually, of the exam copies I received only two had extras:

Film Art (Bordwell/Thompson). Comes with a CD-ROM and Film Viewer's Guide. The CD-ROM is at best perfunctory - it's Flash-based, with a small image window. Essentially it compiles clips that Bordwell and Thompson's text glosses. Honestly I don't see any advantage over just showing the clips separately. The Film Viewer's Guide is more useful, but even here I wanted more. Bordwell is such a sharp reader of form that you wish he could more clearly effectively communicate to students how to watch attentively and take notes. And I have the same complaint about the writing model here as I do about the sample readings in the text itself: analysis in the Film Art world refuses interpretation.

Looking at Movies (Richard Barsam). I had some reservations that kept me from adopting the textbook itself, but the extras - two DVDs and a writer's guide - almost made me change my mind. First, the illustrative DVD, created by Dave Monahan, lives up to the multimedia promise that never gets delivered in textbook extras; the lessons illustrate concepts like the Kuleshov effect, the 180-degree rule and the actuality film with a clarity impossible in a written text. Second, the writer's guide is excellent. It guides students through the process of discovery as they move from general impressions to well-honed thesis.

One obvious impediment to fuller multimedia pedagogical tools is copyright. Film Art gets permission from studios, presumably by making images playable only in lossy, small format. Looking at Movies gets around restrictions by relying on still images rather than moving ones.