Showing posts from 2007

The New International Art Film

I don't read online film reviews too often, not because they aren't worth my time, but because I as yet don't have a good mechanism to direct my limited online-reading time to the best use. But I'm glad I read Steven Shaviro's review of Control, in which is embedded this nice pithy genre summary:

There’s a certain international-art-film style that works to convey a sense of desolation through the rigorous avoidance of any interiority. These films are shot mostly in long shots and long takes, with a camera that either remains entirely still, or moves slowly, in order to continually but discreetly reframe. The acting is generally low-affect, or entirely affectless; the plot is sufficiently elliptical, oblique, and estranging, as to prevent us from assigning any motivations, or even emotional qualities, to the characters. There are great films in this style (like the works of Bela Tarr, which make us feel like we are seeing the world in an entirely new way), as well as…

Theory's Empire Event

Back in the day, I participated in a blog-based dialogue that literary-studies group blog The Valve put on to discuss the book Theory's Empire - the discussion was an occasion to debate the larger role of critical theory as literary studies departments in particular understand it. John Holbo announces today that book version of this debate is out. This small-run book, Framing Theory's Empire, includes an entry by yours truly... nothing profound, but I wanted to call attention to film studies' potential contribution to the debate. It's flattering company to be in: Michael Berube, Brad DeLong, Tim Burke, and many others. Anyway, thanks to John for the dogged work in putting it together.

The National Cinema Problem

Recently a colleague asked me for some recommendations for readings on national cinema. He regularly teaches a course on international cinema and felt that a couple of well targeted essays could frame the discussion of national specificity of meaning amid what could otherwise be a kaleidoscopic tour. Immediately came to mind several pieces of scholarship that outline and interrogate that concept of national cinema: Andrew Higson's "Concept of National Cinema," Stephen Crofts, "Reconceptualizing National Cinema/s," and as a good case study, Elsaesser's New German Cinema. These, in fact, I assign in my graduate course, for its week on national cinema. To these I might also add Alan Williams' introduction to Film and Nationalism.

But in discussing these, my colleague and I noticed a problem with these, from a pedagogical perspective at least. These essays did a good job in challenging textual models of national cinema historiography, in suggesting the utili…

PCMS: Andrew Douglas on John Goodman

The Philadelphia Cinema and Media Studies Seminar continues next Friday:

"The Multitalented, Multivalent John Goodman"
Andrew J. Douglas, Bryn Mawr Film Institute

Respondent: Heidi Schlipphacke, Haverford College

When considering that for many years, John Goodman has been the de facto poster boy for obese men in Hollywood, it is interesting to note that he did not begin his career as a particularly overweight man. Indeed, it would appear that Goodman’s weight has risen as his star has, and while a case could be made that this direct relationship is a hindrance to him as well as a help, its existence substantiates the notion that weight is an important facet of an actor’s star text. If the physical fitness of a traditional leading man is typically taken for granted, yet understood to be crucial to his status, so too is the fatness of an obese star—especially one of Goodman’s stature and popularity.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Temple University Center City Campus (TUCC)
Room …


It's easy to see why Anthony Mann has such a following among noir fans. The subjective camera work in Desperate (RKO) is pushed to new expressionist heights and the locked-room intimidation scene has one of the most striking use of pracitcals as main lighting source that I've seen. The narrative - a story of an honest truck driver who gets inadvertantly caught up in a smuggling racket and framed for a policeman's murder - lacks one hallmark of noir, the femme fatale, but shares a fatalistic melodramatic narrative with Detour - Steve Randall seems caught up in a circular movement of escape and return.

Some would see the minimally motivated narrative as a positive attribute - a refusal of the purposive, humanist individualism of classical narrative. Perhaps it is. But it's worth pointing out that here the aporias of narrative causality seem to hinge on the helplessness of the woman. Steve's wife Anne needs protecting from the toughs, but at every point Steve is drive…

New Orleans

Talk about lighting for whiteness...

New Orleans (UA/Jules Levey, Arthur Lubin) is part musical, part sentimental historical film about the birth and spread of jazz. Generically, it has a lot in common with the Fabulous Dorseys; the sense of historicity is somewhat remarkable in these films and something I suspect hasn't been discussed in its positivity. (It's not that commercial films don't understand their narratives historically, but often these choose between reification of History or postmodern evacuation of history; I prefer the more traditional historiographic underpinnings of these 1947s, which is a surprising result.)

Which isn't to say that New Orleans' understanding of the history of jazz isn't problematic. Undoubtedly much of the appeal today (the film got a Kino Video release for some reason) lies in the performances, the on-screen musical domination of both Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. It's to the film's credit that the musical format…

Tokyo prices

Given that SCMS'09 will be in Tokyo and many of us are trying to figure out if budgets will stretch that far, some readers might be interested in the discussion of costs over at Marginal Revolution. The short of it: costs aren't so high as popularly get portrayed and as I feared.

A Double Life

A Double Life (George Cukor, Garson Kanin, in-house for Universal) encapsulates the changes bubbling up in the prestige genre in the late 1940s. On the surface, it seems to belong to the reverential 30s mode of prestige film, with its open and conspicuous citation of High Culture: here, actor Anthony John (Ronald Colman) is a superb thespian whose role as Othello bleeds into his real life. High Art seems merely to become the pretense for a psychological murder drama. And yet, there is an anxiety (and more positively, a vertigionous excitement) over the citation of culture in one medium. As in Mounring Becomes Electra, theater is valued as an autonomous cultural realm separate from cinema: high and low acting styles get contrasted, performances have a duration and "real time" that is not recuperated by an aggressive scene analysis and story space (it would be instructive to contrast A Double Life with a 30s backstage drama, like Stage Door), and, finally, the conceit of the n…

Movie titles

This collection of movie titles is not historically complete, by any stretch, but it's a fascinating view of movie titles in the classical period and some of the historical changes they underwent.

Lone Wolf in London

A later entry in a series of B films Columbia put out in the 1940s, Lone Wolf in London (Leslie Goodwins) is another story of reformed jewel-thief Michael Lanyard who solves crimes. Unlike other unofficial detectives, however, Lanyard often (always?) remains under suspicion as the prime suscpect. The narrative identifications they set up are therefore odd: on one hand, there eventually is no much maintenance of the enigma, as in many noir films, certainly the ones taking their cue from the Hammett and Chandler style of writing. On the other hands, Lone Wolf in London's narration offers little clue that allows the spectator to read Lanyard's integrity or duplicity. I kept thinking of that Cahier essay on Lang ("Two Fictions of Hate") and the dual identification (Nazi/anti-Nazi) that Hangmen Also Die engenders. Not only does Lanyard catch a thief by thinking like a thief, the spectator is put in the position of having to think like a thief in order to root for the thi…

Dick Tracy serials

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesom (RKO, John Rawlins)
Dick Tracy's Dilemma (RKO, John Rawlins)

I had expected more B-movie cheapness from these serials, but found instead well-crafted genre pieces. For those familiar with RKO's 1940s B output (in general a strong showing of horror and noir), the Dick Tracy serials play off the familiar generic conventions and formal devices in unexpected ways. Not produced by Val Lewton, the films seem to be some fond compendium and commentary on Lewton's unit.

The playfulness is evident from the start. The opening of Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, for instance, tracks and cranes from Expressionist style shadow to a noose, then down to the punchline, that it's a spectacular for a bar.

Meanwhile, there are some great lighting effects and camera work. Cameras track out when you normally would expect them to track in. Otherwise pedestrian scenes are shot to give volumetric space. Lighting is both expressionist and unexpected, as when two of the hunchmen f…

Not My Specialization

Can anyone explain the job posting at the SCMS list for an engineer at Russian State Petroleum University?

UPDATE: As of this afternoon, the listing has been removed.

UPDATE 2: As of 6:30 PM, another strange listing is up, from "Fortuna Association." It's official: the SCMS job list has been hit by a spambot.

November Talks at Penn

This month across town:

John L. Jackson. Jr. (Annenberg School, Univ. of Pennsylvania)
The Promised Land: African American Emigration to Southern Israel
Thursday, November 15, 5:30 pm
113 Jaffe Building

Janine Marchessault (Fine Arts, York University)
Fluid Screens: The Future of Expanded Cinema
Tuesday, November 27, 10:30 am
138 Fisher-Bennett Hall

Philip Rosen (Brown University)
In Depth: Film Theory, Illusionism, and Contemporary Media Culture
Thursday, November 29, 5:30 pm

Details at the Penn Cinema Studies website.

RKO B Westerns

Code of the West (William A. Berke)
Wild Horse Mesa (Wallace A. Grimsell)
Under the Tonto Rim (Lew Landers)
Thunder Mountain (Lew Landers)

If anything shows the factory approach to B movies, the series of Westerns that RKO put out during 1947 do. All tout Zane Grey source material, and most star Tim Holt as the upstanding small businessman on the frontier. In each, Richard Martin, plays Chito, a Mexican-Irish simpleton with a good heart and healthy libido. By the film's end, Holt's character (different name each time) has a chaste friendship-romance with a damsel in distress, while Chito has settled down with the saucy woman he's been chasing for the film.

The films are intriguing for their partial conformity to what is now considered the tenets of the Western genre. In Rick Altman's terms, they have Western semantics, but not Western syntax. Its iconography fits comfortably, in its focus on landscape, in the reliance on guns and dusty town jails, even in the trusty low ang…

Journalism as Professional Subculture

Formerly a Boston resident, I was a fan of the local affairs programming and in particular the media criticism round up that WGBH's Greater Boston did weekly. So since my Media and Culture class was covering the sociology of the journalistic field this week, I ended up showing a streamed broadcast from their website. I picked October 12's and couldn't have found a better one-stop shop for the range of journalistic ethics questions: disclosure, credentialing, wall between editorial and publishing, sourcing, etc. Truth is, most any week's episode could function to that end in a classroom.

Evaluative Scholarship

I highly recommend Jason Mittel's latest post on Lost. I'm pretty much on the other side of this debate - between post-semiotics, historical method, and Bourdieusian sociology of taste, I inhabit the very intellectual formation that Jason is attacking - but he pleads a good case.

For starters, I do have to concede that film studies is in a relative state of luxury - we can have our quasi-legitimate aesthetic theories and canons while pursuing scholarship and sometimes pedagogy that sets aside aesthetic judgment as a primary or even secondary mission. So, too, would I have to concede that a lot of film studies sneaks evaluation in the back door.

Mind you, this situation can lead to a couple of responses. The first might be to say that nonevaluative scholarship is an unattainable ideal, therefore not worth pursuing. The other might be to be extra-vigilant, to devise new ways of thinking around our own critical aporia. The unbiased sampling of my 1947 project, while not an original…

PCMS: Magicians and the Magic of Hollywood Cinema

The Philadelphia Cinema and Media Seminar is just now starting up. This Friday is the first of the year:

Matthew Solomon, College of Staten Island, CUNY
“Magicians and the Magic of Hollywood Cinema during the 1920s”

Respondent: Karen Beckman, University of Pennsylvania

Temple University Center City Campus (TUCC) Room 620
Friday, 9 November 2007

The end of stage magic’s “Golden Age” is often attributed to the popularity of cinema and the attendant decline of vaudeville. Rather than treating magic and film as competing industries, this presentation examines the apparent symbiosis that thrived between the two arts during the 1920s, when magicians like Houdini exploited moving pictures and Hollywood studios made a number of movies about magicians. What does the magic profession’s interest in feature filmmaking indicate about how ideas around visual illusionism were changing at this time? Correspondingly, what do films like You Never Know Women (1926), The Last Performance (1929), and …

Mourning Becomes Electra

If there's any film to drive the auteurists and the medium-specificity polemicists into paroxysms, it's Dudley Nichols adaptation of Mourning Becomes Electra (Dudley Nichols, in-house production at RKO). Resolutely faithful adaptation, its running time eventually trimmed by a nervous studio - the DVD version circulating today is a healthy 160m, just 15 min shy of the original. The narration is dialogued based, with almost no attempt to find cinematic and visual equivalents of spoken exposition. Its staging maintains the unity of time and place of the stage set and makes almost no concession to an autonomous, illusionistic story space.

The blocking of action itself reminds me more of Ordet than Classic Hollywood, with actors both in frontal stances...

or with backs to the camera....

Judgments of "talkiness" don't capture the extent to which cinematic narration is organized differently in this film. It's not as if cinematic decisions, like an occasional use of de…

The Rusty Films

For the Love of Rusty (John Sturges, Columbia)
Son of Rusty (Lew Landers, Columbia)

The Rusty films were a series of B films (at least I'm guessing by their production values and 65m running times) that Columbia put out in the latter part of the 1940s. Generically, they're perhaps best summed up as Lassie + Andy Hardy. Rusty is a trusty German Shephard whose owner Danny is often getting in trouble with his judge father. What's remarkable is how Rusty's suffering body is the catalyst for narrative resolution. Rather than simply make the dog an agent in a melodrama about humans, the dog is the melodramatic hero(ine).

Perhaps even more remarkably, Son of Rusty is a social problem film in disguise as sentimental family drama. A shellshocked veteran (shocked by love rather than bombs, it turns out) returns and moves to the small town of the story, only to have the townspeople to immediately suspect him. The final court scene becomes a "case" against intolerance, in …

Syllabi as Intellectual Property?

Yesterday I was talking to a colleague who was lamenting the practice of potential employers who require sample syllabi. The syllabus, particularly a good syllabus, is the product of considerable work and intellectual labor, and as such belongs to the creator. I'm sympathetic to his point: job listings do ask for a lot upfront, given the high probably of a given application ending up in a veritable slush pile. And I know that I spend a lot of time on my syllabi.

However, as regular readers will know, each semester I share my syllabi with any interested readers out in the Internet ether and think it would be better if more scholars did the same. Some reasons:

The intellectual labor of syllabus writing has no direct renumeration: Much like our research, syllabi are loss leaders for the salaried positions we seek or hold. Of course, our feelings about this set up may vary wildly according to our particular material conditions - employment status, pay, position in the academic hierarch…

Give the Elites Some Credit

In the current issus of Flow, Tim Gibson writes about urban gentrification in the contemporary American sitcom:
Indeed, one of the reasons that revitalization guru Richard Florida commands big lecture fees is that he tells city officials exactly what they want to hear. If you want to attract growth and prosperity, he argues, you need to turn your city into the kind of place that “the creative class” enjoys (and by “creative class” Florida means highly-skilled professionals very much like city officials themselves). Once you attract the creative class, Florida argues, high-end employers—who are always searching for deep pools of creative talent—will soon follow.I'm a Florida-sceptic myself and therefore am happy to see resistance and debunking of the creative class thesis. But the implication that city officials only are able to think in class-narcissistic terms ignores the high likelihood that political elites are engaged actively and sincerely in trying to steer the economies and …

Film School, sorted

This blog normally doesn't cover film production or film production education, even though I'm currently teaching in a film and media production program. But it's worth noting that my friend Paul Harrill has drafted up what looks to be the first in a couple of posts on film school, walking prospective film schoolers in how to choose a program and how to apply.

CFP: 2008 Console-ing Passions

Console-ing Passions:
A Conference on Television, Audio, Video, New Media, and Feminism
April 24-26, 2008 - Santa Barbara, California

Founded by a group of feminist media scholars and artists, Console-ing Passions works to create collegial spaces for new work and scholarship on culture and identity in television and related media, with an emphasis on gender and sexuality.

Since the early 1990s, Console-ing Passions conferences have featured new research on feminist perspectives, including race and ethnicity, post-colonialism, queer studies, globalization, national identity, television genres, the social and cultural study of new media, the historical development of media, and an ongoing feminist concern with gender dynamics in the production and consumption of electronic media.

Our consideration of television, digital, and aural media comes at a pivotal moment of political, social, cultural, and technological transformation. Key among our concerns for the 2008 Console-ing Passions confer…

More Media History

This last weekend's conference had me thinking about the rhetorical gambits that papers and questioners alike use, in part because the type of gambits common to this conference seemed to me to differ from those I see in textual study and theory conferences. Of course gambits aren’t wrong necessarily. Knowledge production, at least and especially in the humanities, proceeds by rhetorical means. But a little self-reflexivity about are argumentation never hurts.

First, there's the evidence gambit: Inductive reasoning is (or maybe should be) the bread and butter of what media historians do, so it makes sense that Q&As should proceed with examples, counterexamples, and those stubborn bits of evidence that beg explanation. At the conference, a surprisingly high number of questions were of this nature (what about Cinerama? What about Shirley Temple's star image?)… surprising at least to someone from a theoretical background, where the questions are often based on differences …

Screen Essay

My essay on the prestige film is out in the current issue of Screen (online version, fee or institutional subscription required). Below is the abstract for the essay. Also, since the journal was skittish about including the frame enlargements of Dodsworth and Marty, the two scenes analyzed in the essay, I figured the blog would be as good a place as any to bring them to the light of day.

"Two Modes of Prestige Film"
Chris Cagle
Screen 2007 48(3): 291-311

This essay argues that two modes of prestige film have defined Hollywood’s attempts at “serious” filmmaking. Classically, the prestige film served as a production category for the studios, marshalling resources for elevated production values to match the high culture credentials of the source material and marking films for special exhibition. Alongside this traditional mode, however, prestige film increasingly stressed the film viewer’s ability to recognize quality; in this mode, film artistry lay less in the industry’s treatmen…

Conference Wrap-up

Well, the last panel has wrapped up, and in alll the Media History conference was a rewarding one. I initially worried that too few of the papers were reflecting methodologically, but as the weekend went on, more and more papers not only reflected on film, television and media history but gave attendees a forum to discuss where they see themselves in the evolving disciplines and changing university environments.

One of the bigger shocks I've had is how identified "media history" at this conference has been with Wisconsin and Texas. Good reasons, for that, of course, but as someone doing history yet not emerging from a media history-oriented graduate program, it felt a bit like crashing someone else's party... fun, but a reminder that there is a subfield separate from film theory for largely institutional/subcultural reasons. That said, I've met a surprising number of kindred spirits, and seen some terrific papers.

Media History Today

I'm currently down in Austin for the Media History conference at the University of Texas. (conference schedule | pdf). The conference is subtitled "what are the issues?" and deals with the methodological issues facing film, television, and media historians at this this historical juncture and point in the state of the disciplines. It's a great line up of speakers and presenters, and I'm looking forward to it all. Hopefully I'll have more to report back soon.

October at Penn

There's a bevvy of great TV and film studies talks coming this month at Penn:

Wednesday, October 10, 5:00 pm
231 Fisher Bennett-Hall
Annette Kolodny. "Tropic Trapping in Mel Gibson's Apocalypto and Joseph Nicolar's Life and Traditions of the Red Man"

Thursday, October 11, 10:30 am
138 Fisher-Bennett Hall
Lynn Spigel. "Designing the Smart House: Posthuman Domesticity and Conspicuous Production"

Thursday, October 18, 5:30 pm
113 Jaffe Building
William Boddy ."’Is it TV Yet?’: Visions of the Post-Broadcast Television Audience"

Plus, a number of Werner Herzog events:

Monday, October 22, 6:30 pm
Slought Foundation
"Walking on Ice: Werner Herzog's Metaphysics of Filmmaking"
A public conversation about the work of Werner Herzog. This event will feature Timothy Corrigan, Thomas Y. Levin, Heidi Schlipphacke, and Alan Singer in a conversation introduced by Karen Beckman, and has been jointly organized by Tim Corrigan and Aaron Levy on the occasion of &q…

Library Pointers for Film Study Research

I wrote up the following as a guideline for a research paper I've assigned my students. Some of it is specific to the assignment, but enough touches on the nuts and bolts of film studies research, that I though I'd share, in case any readers find it useful, either for themselves or their students. Any feedback is welcome, and I'll try to revise to a fuller guide when I get time.

Library use for Film and Television Studies

Beginning students often feel understandably overwhelemed by the university library. There are so many resources, yet one does not always find articles or books on one's topic. Research therefore involves practical problems: how do I track down useful material? how do I match these database hits to the assignment? But equally, research involves knowing what you are looking for and why.

Primary research is the research you do as a student historian. We’re talking about the raw material that historical interpretation deals with – documents, news articles, …

Daisy Kenyon

Lately, I've been interested in films which pose the question of both typicality and exceptional quality. Maybe speaks as much to my position as a cinephile who's also interested in non-evaluative historical explanation. And certainly some film scholars, such as Thomas Schatz or Paul Willemen, articulate the paradox in novel ways. Further, as my post on Underworld, suggests, as I expand my viewing I keep seeing good examples.

Daisy Kenyon (Fox, Otto Preminger) is just such a film. On one hand, it is a typical Fox approach to the woman's melodrama, with somber tone, and understated formal choices to match (the studio's understated formal choices are not always better ones, I should add: I much prefer The Lawless to Gentleman's Agreement). On the other hand, it is a Preminger film, when Preminger was arguably at his best. Great cinematography, fluid camerawork, and most of all a deft hand in directing three stars (Crawford, Fonda, and Dana Andrews) who don't natu…


I ended up venturing to the New York Film Fest last night to catch the retrospective showing of Josef von Sternberg's Underworld (1927). I'm glad I did. First, the film itself was just incredible, and particularly beautiful in 35mm. Second, it was a nice reminder how generalization about genre or film history are often predicated on highly selective. As Richard Pena noted in his introduction, so many tropes (visual and thematic) later taken up by the gangster film appear in Underworld. Finally, the film made me realize how little I know about 1920s silent cinema. Like the early sound film applause, it's the sort of film that surprises in defying my expectations of what the period meant. Underworld uses fully realized classical language, but also shows a deft hand at, say, montage editing (the montage sequence has hardly been Hollywood's only use of Eisenstenian montage). I know Underworld may be more exceptional than typical, yet it's a good reminder that Sunrise …

CFP: 2008 Screen Conference

Screen Studies Conference 2008
organised by Screen journal

University of Glasgow, Scotland
4 - 6 July 2008

The 18th international Screen Studies Conference will be programmed by Screen editors Karen Lury and Simon Frith.

Please note that proposals may be on any topic in screen studies. The focus of the plenaries, however, and a key strand within the conference this year, will be Sound and music in film, television and video. Proposals for this strand are welcome on contemporary and historical work; independent and popular representations; and western and non-western contexts.

Proposals and enquiries should be sent to Elizabeth Anderson by e-mail: (mark subject box 'Conference 2008' ) Please send your 200-word proposal to arrive no later than 7 January 2008. Joint submissions of up to three speakers forming a panel are also welcome.

Crisis in Academic Publishing?

I'm one to be cautious in tossing the word "crisis" to describe every turn and imagined disfunction in academic publishing. But this can't be good, can it? "Excess inventory in our U.S.-based warehouses"? How many copies did UC Press print of Barbara Klinger's or Dana Polan's latest books anyhow?

Armchair Sociology, TV edition

Michael Newman has a terrific post up on the cultural legitimization of television. Or rather a post up arguing that television very possibly is not facing a watershed moment of legitimization in quite the way the popular press sees it. He makes the valid point that it's a little odd (if not offensive) to say that TV is only now being talked about, in polite society no less.

I will say in Alessandra Stanley's defense that her observations about the (Northeast Corridor) bourgeoisie's shifting attitude toward television jive with my own anecdotal observations.... that the New York Times' annoying tendency to universalize its narrow class position shouldn't obscure their remarkable capacity for un-self-reflexive social self-diagnosis. Further, my years at Brown convinved me that in some bourgeois circles at least, disdain of television is now seen as a middlebrow attitude.

In any case, I really appreciate Michael's readings of the class (and gender) politics behind …

My Favorite Brunette

Another Bob Hope-Dorothy Lamour entry from Paramount (Hope and Lamour were busy in the late 40s), My Favorite Brunette (d. Elliot Nugent) spoofs the hard-boiled detective (noir) film, with particular nods to The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity. Hope narrates the voiceover narration of the flashback in suitable deadpan tones, while each of the conventions of the genre get replayed and sent up. Peter Lorre even has a prominent role as the bad guy. Perhaps most interestingly, there's a loving focus on the typical noir spaces, like the darkened office building...

... or the suburban spanish-revival mansion...

In all, I personally found this my least favorite among the '47 Hope films, but perhaps not coincidentally, it's the one with the lousiest (public domain) DVD transfer. Video cinephilia can value fussiness for fussiness' sake, but there's a strong argument to be made that the image quality shifts our value judgments in ways we may be aware of, but may not.

Content of the Form

Next week in the Media and Culture class I’m teaching, we’re taking up the debate between ideological reading and (British) cultural studies, using Flashdance as a case study text and reading Michael Ryan/Douglas Kellner and Angela McRobbie. Now there are all sorts of philosophical differences underlying each approach, but I find it remarkable how the difference between the two readings can be determined by the priority they place on the same observations. Ryan and Kellner write,
Working-class films are contradictory in character. Most, like Rocky, Saturday Night Fever, and Flashdance, evidence a desire for transcendence of working-class life that potentially threatens the class system. But that desire to overcome the limited life possibilities which capitalism bestows on its bottom rung is generally limited to individualist forms, which tend to reinforce the founding values and the legitimating ideology of the class system.What if we wrote, instead:
Working-class films are contradictor…

The Long Night

The Long Night (RKO, Anatole Litvak) was a noir remake of Le Jour se Leve, this time featuring the recurring type of the troubled World War II vet (c.f. Boomerang!) as the main character and romantic loser. After a dark enough credit sequence, begins in the pseudodocumentary fashion that we have already seen plenty in the 47/postwar films. The film goes further than others, even, in the extent of its documentary imagery and narration, which could just as easily be taken from The City:

What's interesting, too, is that the class divisions that get taken up by the noir/poetic realist romanticism later in the film are laid out in documentary fashion in the beginning, as a contrast between the bourgeois residential neighborhood and the working class district:

After this intro, the booming voice of God gets replaced by Joe's (Henry Fonda) own voiceover narration, and subsequent flashback, in the middle of which is nested Joann's (Barbara Bel Geddes) voiceovered flashback. The fi…

The Seminar Format

For the pedagogically minded (or stressed), Chris Bertram has a useful post on the problems of leading seminar - useful especially for the comments pouring in.

American Independent Cinema

Yannis Tzioumakis' American Independent Cinema (Rutgers UP, 2006) is out of my period, so scholars closer to the literature on contemporary cinema may or may not see problems with its material (or its novelty?) that went by me. And it's certainly the case that the volume has gotten less attention or visibility than Holmlund and Wyatt, ed.'s Contemporary American Independent Film. However, I found what I've read so far to be an excellent industrial history of American independent film. And Tzioumakis's book serves as a good companion volume to Holmlund/Wyatt's volume and an a useful addition to the emerging scholarship on the field. If anything, it shows the strength of a unified scholarly book: a single explanatory frame applied in logical procession.

What I liked: the book manages to grasp and present the varied and competing definitions of "independence" without either getting bogged down in the definitional questions (they do interest me, but only u…

The Categories Laypeople Use

I have so many posts I've been wanting to write, and none of the time. It's been a good busy, though, especially last week, during which I made a visit to LA to do some more archival research for my ongoing social problem film project and the particular RKO paper I'm giving at the upcoming Media Histories conference at Austin (pdf flier). It was a rewarding and productive time spent in various library special collections, and rewarding too for what I call the "surrender to the emprical," an epistemological shift from deductive argumentation to inductive, from scholarly control to patience, something that's especially important for those, like myself, trained in more theoretical approaches.

Anyway, in face of the various traces of film industry and culture in the late 40s, I'm struck by the extensive use ordinary viewers used concepts that overlap with those in the social sciences or media study. I don't mean that there was no distinction between schola…

Applying for Grad School?

Or even thinking about it? Tim Burke has some great advice on the questions you should ask. See also his primer on whether you should go to grad school. He's addressing a general situation in the humanities. Jason Mittel's comment on Tim's blog raises the question about the specific case of media studies (and I'd add film studies). I tend to agree that the happiest (and most successful?) grad students are the ones who not only love the cinema (or television) but who love the study of film or television, at least in some forms. All else flows from that.

More reflexivity

Let me step out of 1947 (but not far!) with another example of classsical self-reflexivity that I think illustrates some of the limits of popular-genre reflexivity about the movies, at least in the 1940s.

On an Island With You (MGM, Richard Thorpe, 1948) begins with an Esther Williams swimming sequence before her character comes to shore and a kisses Naval officer (Ricardo Montalban). Another woman comes along and the two women start a jealous fight:

The scenes seems like a typical scenario of Hollywood's orientalism and gender politics (think of Vidor's Bird of Paradise), only soon Williams character "forgets her lines" and faces forward. The film then gives the missing reverse field:

The island spectacle ridiculousness isn't real, you see, but only a film shoot.

I don't want to underplay the importance of this self-reflexivity as a phenomenon - as I suggested in Down to Earth, even popular genre films in the late 40s took it upon themselves to comment implicitl…

Big Town After Dark

I was talking with someone over in Temple's intellectual history department who, because of his own dual interest in classical Hollywood and radio drama, was lamenting to me that film studies hasn't fully considered the impact of radio on the screen or the interrelation between the two. Not knowing anything about radio's history or aesthetics, I couldn't do anything but plead guilty, but the Big Town films of the 40s might provide fodder for his argument that the media were in fact related.

Big Town After Dark (Pine-Thomas Productions/dist. Paramount, dir. William C. Thomas) starts with a generic establishing actuality shot of the New York skyline...

... but quickly, the style of the film loses any of the distinctive markers of postwar cinematic vocabulary to take on quickie aesthetic of the B film. Hence the minimal mise-en-scene and extremely centered, static composition of the many interior scenes:

Big Town After Dark is often categorized as a noir, but not only does i…


Cynthia (MGM, Robert Z. Leonard) is another sentimental drama, though with a teen melodrama plot tailored for Elizabeth Taylor. There's a strong political economy reading to be done of Taylor's star image, how her "maturity" was as dependent on free agency as it was on her growing up. When she was under MGM's control, the studio never allowed her more than meek sweetness.

What is unusual (maybe - I can't say for sure) is the darkness of the parent's relationship. Sentimental dramas had a way of diffusing familial conflict, of containing it with a gloss of quaintness. Here, the tension between Cynthia's mother and father seems at points to have an emotional rawness. I wish I could articulate exactly why.


It's no surprise to say that I'm a scholar relatively comfortable with my discipline and with disciplinarity per se. But if I was seeking a quantitative measure of that comfort, my realization this afternoon that I spend at least 90 percent of my library time in the range of six shelves of the stacks (PN1992-PN1998) would be reasonable evidence.

Self-Reflexivity in Classical Cinema

A few weeks back, Nick Rhombes gave a valuable reading of A Face in the Crowd as a film that offers its own (often complicated) theorization of media. I pretty much agree and won't duplicate that reading here, but will only suggest readers take a look at the whole post.

However, Rhombes then goes on to conclude that

In truth, Hollywood's (and television's) "invisible style" was never invisible, but was rather relentlessly exposed in films like this. Film theory emerged, first, in films themselves. In the digital era, as cinema's history is made evermore available, we can come to see that, from its earliest stages, film was about its own deconstruction.

I'm not sure the Baudrillardian hyperbolic argumentation is meant to be taken at face value ("never"?) but I will register both agreement and disagreement. Disagreement first: the existence of self-reflexivity in some films does not mean that film in general was self-reflexive or visible in style. I…

New Semester

Like many, I've been in the throes of prepartion for the upcoming semester, which starts Monday for us. If you're interested in the courses I'm teaching, I've updated my personal homepage with syllabi for Intro to Film, Media and Culture, and the grad Film History and Theory course.

British English

I'm in the throes of proofreading my Screen essay on the prestige film. Don't get me wrong: it's a gratifying thing to see one's writing in a semblance of its eventual layout. But it has raised a troubled question for me: how do I navigate the vastly different stylistic and punctuation rules of British English? It's not merely an issue of cosmetics or comfort: sentences just don't read the way I think they should. Comma splices and run-ons seem to pop of the page with frightening regularity now. I don't want to resist editorial changes or to be a high-maintenance author; at the same time I want the writing to make sense, and to say basically what I'd intended to stay from the start. It's surprisingly tricky.

CFP: Media Spaces and Architectures

I thought this might be useful for those looking at architecture for their SCMS proposals.


The Velvet Light Trap
Call For Papers
#62, Media Spaces and Architectures

As Lev Manovich writes, the construction of space is a defining principle of both cinema and digital media, unifying them not just as audio-visual culture, but as audio-visual-spatial culture (The Language of New Media, 2001). Cinematic works create spaces out of juxtaposed, sequential images, using mise-en-scène, production design, cinematography, editing, and sound to guide spectator navigation through them. Television series and multiplatform franchises generate ongoing diegetic spaces, building identifiable and consumable worlds out of the gradual accumulation of narrative detail. The interactive, programmable nature of digital media allows for the construction of persistent spaces that can be navigated and/or contributed to by users themselves. Representations and constructions of space and place in film…