Saturday, January 27, 2007

Color Noir

There has been enough scholarship challenging the idee fixe of film noir* that another challenge to the way it has been constituted as a genre and object of study may be beside the point. Still, I wonder what to make of color noir, and how it challenges generic, even stylistic, definitions of noir that film scholars use and that cinephiles circulate. I'm not referring to neo-noir that has been popular since the 1970s, but, rather, features Hollywood made in the 1950s in color (and usually CinemaScope) that corresponded generically to key narrative tropes of noir. For ages, I'd considered Henry Hathaway's Niagara the only true color noir, but that judgment reflected the impoverishment of my film historical knowledge. I'm starting to suspect that the practice was more widespread than I'd initially thought. At the very least, Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo provides a nice example, with all the iconography we expect from noir, particularly in the final shootout:

A few questions I have:
  • What stylistic accommodation did makers allow in shooting noir generic material in color? How did they distinguish these productions from more high-key (metaphorically speaking) material?

  • Was Fox the locus of these productions, or did other studios get into the act?

  • How did studios understand the generic development of these films?

At the very least, these questions provide me a reminder of how much I need to expand my own historical knowledge of the 1950s cinema. And, too, I suspect that there remain plenty of assumptions within the field about how a period that everyone thinks they already know actually was more complex than we sometimes allow.

* Marc Vernet's essay "Film Noir on the Edge of Doom" is a good start.

Monday, January 22, 2007

CFP: African Film Conference

OK, this is not my field, but it sounds like a great conference.


Call for Papers
African Film Conference
Fall 2007

Abstract submission deadline: May 31, 2007
Conference date: November 9-10, 2007
Place: Center for African Studies
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

The African film conference in Urbana-Champaign will explore how an appreciation of films as mode of expression and form can be combined with an understanding of their content. Cinema has a more pronounced public dimension than some of the other arts; it creates an audience and depends on it for its survival, and filmmaking itself can be situated within the history, economy, politics, and broader cultural trends of postcolonial Africa. The conference will aim to foster a dialogue between film scholars, critics, and the social science interpreters, users, and enthusiasts of African films, and will try to achieve, among other things, a greater sensibility for film as a medium among the latter. We seek abstracts from scholars and writers interested in participating in this project.

We invite contributions on thematic and stylistic development in African filmmaking and on the way the films reflect and feed upon urban popular culture. A subset of related themes involve the connections to international film making styles or to the ethnographic and documentary film traditions, including considerations of emerging regional and national styles within Africa. We would like to see sober and carefully documented studies of continuity with older African verbal, dramatic, and visual arts, or of the emergence in film of new expressive manners breaking away from them. Film music and soundtracks, the use of traditional and popular musical genres in the films, the influence of international film scores, and a documentation of the impetus that films give to national musical composition could enrich our reflection on modern Africa. Who the domestic audiences of these films are, the reactions of these audiences to the films, and the training and careers of African directors and actors can as well bear more sustained attention. Of particular interest to us are the popular film and video industries on which relatively little gets written, for example the one in Nigeria. Finally, our understanding of the subject matter and the style of African films can be deepened by an understanding of the broader political economy of the African film industries, the role of public and private financing from home and abroad, the share in revenue of domestic and export markets, the initiatives for co-production or the sharing of post-production facilities, among African countries and between them and the countries of the north.

Please send abstracts of 250-300 words to either of the organizers, by e-mail or by post:

Mahir Saul
Department of Anthropology
University of Illinois
Davenport Hall
607 S. Mathews Ave.
Urbana, IL 61801

Ralph Austen
Department of History
University of Chicago
Pick Hall 214
5828 S. University Avenue
Chicago IL 60637

Saturday, January 20, 2007

PCMS talk: Public Sphere and the Problem Film

Thanks to the organizing work and encouragement of Oliver Gaycken, I will be giving a talk this upcoming Friday as part of the Philadelphia Cinema and Media Studies seminar. Any interested readers in the area are welcome to come. And check out the rest of the PCMS scehdule for the semester. It's flattering to be presenting in such good company.


Chris Cagle
“Message Cinema and The Public Sphere”

Respondent: Tom Jacobson

Friday, 26 January 2007
Temple University Center City Campus (TUCC) Room 207

In the latter half of the 1940s, a cycle of social problem films made by Hollywood’s studios – films like Gentleman’s Agreement, The Snake Pit, and Crossfire - performed extraordinarily well in the box office and garnered sufficient recognition to make the genre postwar Hollywood’s foremost prestige genre. This cycle both drew on earlier examples and marked a new direction for the studios. This paper examines one cultural shift central to the genre: the address to a mass public sphere. While narrative cinema often took on a role as “mere” entertainment, the social problem film sought to act on the public sphere and conversely was understood increasingly in the social scientific terms of public opinion measurement. Whether in their narrative references, their formal tendencies, or their industrial and discursive contexts, these films understood the “public” in new ways. As such, they suggest a utility in J├╝rgen Habermas's model of structural transformation that film scholars often prematurely discount.

Still from The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945)

Chris Cagle is a Lecturer in Film and Media Arts at Temple University. His research examines the industrial and social history of postwar Hollywood, with an eye to issues of sociology of taste and forms of national legitimation. He is currently working on a book on Hollywood's social problem film genre.

Tom Jacobson is Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the School of Communications and Theater at Temple University. His research focuses on social change in developing nations, political participation, and new information technologies.

Still from Gentleman's Agreement (Elia Kazan, 1947)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Eastern European Cinemablogging

Thanks to the eagle RSS eye of Green Cine Daily, I notice that Steven Shaviro is blogging along with his course on Eastern European cinema, which is also utilizing blogged screening journals. The area, however, is one in which my knowledge is especially weak, so I'll have to add a few films to the DVD rental list.

Oxford Guide to Film Studies

In the category of "why didn't I read this before?" is a helpful guide that colleagues have told me about, but that I never used until I was looking for a text for the graduate critical methods class I'm teaching this term. I'm referring to the Oxford Guide to Film Studies. I've sometimes overlooked guides of this sort because a) they're really expensive and b) they tend to fall between two stools, not actually a useful introduction for novices and not self-sufficient scholarship either. And indeed, I wouldn't recommend the Oxford guide as an introductory book. But for those who are familiar with film studies scholarship but want a good summary of an area or subfield, this is the book for you. You want learn everything you need to know about semiotics or genre theory or postcoloniality here, but you will have a scholar summing up the field and pointing you to readings, both foundational and more current.

Of course, it's not perfect: Not all the chapters are of equal quality. The focus tends toward the field as constituted in the UK, and some currents (cognitivism, say) are missing. And the pricetag is hefty. But if you're studying for exams, boning up on areas you've long forgotten, or just want a nice bibliographic resource, the guide is excellent. Similarly, undergraduates who have enjoyed their film classes but aren't sure whether grad school is for them - or are just starting to articulate the kind of work they want to do in grad school - will find value in the summaries contained in this book.

Physiognamy and Star Image

Having screened Wyler's Dead End in a class the other night, I was left wondering... why not one, but two (to my knowledge), movies in which Bogart plays a man who has gotten plastic surgery to make him unrecognizable. Dead End...

and Dark Passage:

It seems to be (if the internet is to be believed) that Bogart had a Navy-time injury to his upper lip, which not only left his trademark tough, unemoting visage, but also led him to seek corrective plastic surgery.

In another turn of the screw, there's a 1980 film called The Man With Bogart's Face, about a cop who gets plastic surgery to make him look exactly like the movie star.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

New Semester

I have updated my homepage, with syllabi for my course, including Intro and Documentary Fictions. Also, today marks the debut of a blog created specifically for the Doc Fictions class. I'll have a couple of posts up soon to get the ball rolling.

Monday, January 08, 2007


I'm going to have to mull over the questions of genre I brought up yesterday a little more. But there's a longstanding generic question I have: has anyone defined what propaganda is in a satisfactory manner? I mean, I know that film scholars pride themselves on the maxim that all cinema is propaganda and that distinguishing propaganda from "normal" cinema is both commonplace and ideological. Yet, granting that, is there not something about certain films that leads one to call them propaganda? To return to my distinction, propaganda may not have objective coherence as a genre, but it has subjective meaning for film viewers. What if we start by the idea that there is some distinction to diagnose, even if we don't agree with it?

I'm going to throw my aphoristic definition out there, culled from the chapter I'm currently polishing up on the public sphere and the problem film: "The dividing line between propaganda and problem film in fact may lie simply with the relative distance of the producer from institutions of the official public sphere." Something like Traffic is a drama rather than propaganda, not because it avoids didacticism or polemicism (it doesn't) but because it still circulates as in a general cultural marketplace based either on status as cultural commodity (the culture industry) or sequestered off in a cultural autonomy from the official field of power (the documentary and avant-garde communities, the festival circuit).

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Television Genre/Film Genre

I have come across Jason Mittel's excellent TV studies blog, which I've added to the slowly-developing blogroll here. He brings up an issue I've thought about more in relation to film than television specifically, but one which is applicable to either: to what extent are critical-textual readings of genre in fact readings supplanted onto a primarily receptive-social definition-making? Forgive me if I miscategorize someone's position here, as I've not read Mittel's book on television genre. But let me start off with his response to a critique from Chandler Harriss:

I have no problem with Harriss using Propp to show how House is structured like a cop show... But I would not call such an argument a work of genre analysis - it's a study of narrative structure drawing from textual traditions tied to specific genre categories.

Am I just mincing words to police a boundary here? Perhaps. But I try to lay out this distinction on pp. 18-19 of my book: there is a crucial difference between studying genre categories and genre texts. Analyzing the genre category is to understand the meanings and assumptions linked to the genre, considering issues like perceived core attributes, cultural functions, target audiences, and social worth.

I would hardly argue for a Proppian textual analysis, but I wonder if the kinds of textual readings that scholars have typically performed on genre texts don't start from a different epistemological vantage than historical, industrial and receptive constitutions of a genre as object of study. Mittel is certainly right (if I'm reading him correctly) that textual scholars don't start with a blank slate. When Joyce Nelson proposes a reading of Mildred Pierce as overdetermined by the competing stuctures of film noir and women's melodrama in the text, she activates a prior notion of what film noir and the women's film are. And yet... neither film noir nor the women's film were genres that circulated in any self-conscious way among audience at the time: at best we can say the industry worked with some proto-generic understanding (often with different labels and categories, as Steve Neale has shown so well with melodrama) of how formulas were to be put in place depending on subject matter. It has been the work of critics to read retroactively into bodies of texts, to unearth structured meaning, to find regularized conventions out of the industry's formulas, to make genres out of cycles.

Of course that is not all that scholars do. We also look, in objectivist fashion, at the industrial history of cycles and generic terms or, in subjectivist fashion, at the way viewers themselves understood and made sense of generic categories, So I'm not extactly disagreeing with Mittel: what I do in my own research is to trace out the historically situated circulation of social problem films as "social problem films". But I'm wondering if retroactive critical practice might not be seen as a more separate activity than more widespread genrefication. And do a genre's core attributes ever clash with perceived core attributes? It's a genuine, not rhetorical, question I have.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

House Style

Since I resolved to bring in more discussion of actual films, let me start with an issue that's basic and hardly an original observation, yet one which seems to me to illustrate the methodological distance between industrial and ideological-textual scholarship. I'm refering to the circulation of house styles among the studios. Whereas textual critics have a tendency to read the style of a given film as idiosyncratic or auteurist, historians often locate these in particular moments (as David Bordwell does) or in particular studios' preferences. My own work on the social problem film is assessing just how 20th Century Fox took on a particular brand of realism in the postwar years.

But for now I'd like to look at an earlier example from Warner Brothers. It's widely remarked how the studio carved out a niche for "social consciousness" films in the 1930s, often with explicitly Rooseveltian politics and a starker visual style. Even its prestige products like Life of Emile Zola wedded the liberal-left politics of the social problem dramas with the production values and thematic seriousness of the historical and biographical films. One scene in Zola, for instance, replays Germinal as a scene from Black Fury. What's remarkable in this upgrade is how high-key the lighting style is for much of the film. The opening shot, in Zola and Gaugin's studio, and the scene in Nana's apartment both show a scenographic space that's remarkably well-lit:

Here, the bohemian or subproletarian milieu are meant to be marked by set design more than cinematography. (It would be an interesting point of comparison to contrast this with the opening tenement in Christ in Concrete/Give us This Day.) The one exception to this high-key cinematography comes with Zola's first revelation of social injustice. He comes across the homeless sleeping along the river:

Here, the camera gains the spontaneous mobility it showed in Wild Boys of the Road, and the sparse visual register of the early 30s Warners features. Even the fadeout on Paul Muni recalls the last shot of I Am a Fugitive. On one hand, the idiosyncratic qualities of the text allow us to read this use of a studio house style in a specific way: the revelation gains more dramatic weight to this revelation and signals the "realness" of the poor's suffering. On the other hand, the subtext is one of studio self-referentiality. Zola represent Warners' (successful) attempt to make it on the terms of quality that other studios would recognize, and in doing so, it created a narrative linking their lower-budget productions to the prestige productions of the biopics. Zola, in fact, is a transparent stand-in for Warners crusading image and self-image.

I happen to think more work needs to be done on prestige films, to understand studios' specific interests in showing themselves for a community of makers as well as for a public of consumers.


A correction is due readers. In characterizing what I found a weakness in Film Art as an textbook for use in courses meaning to introduce film studies as a discipline, I'd mischaracterized David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's work. They are not "refusing" to interpret films. I'll let Bordwell's words about Making Meaning in Film Criticism (27.3/Winter-Spring 93), clarify his position:

Note that this is not a call for an end to intepreting films. It is not asserting that interpretation is always and utterly unenlightening... I do not deny, however, that MM suggests that within the profession, filjm interpretation has become routinized. One can quicken undergraduates' interest with critical moves that are long-practiced, but one's students are not one's professional peers. I find most interpretations offered up right now intellectually unexciting. MM tries to suggest some reasons for holding this view, and some readers have quietly agreed with them, but I have no illusions that I can persuade many. My view is and always will be a minority position in the humanities. But dissatisfaction with one mode of discourse can spur one to explore others, and this is my hope in making a polemical case in MM.

In short, I'd misunderstood and mischaracterized what Bordwell was arguing in Making Meaning. I'll try to articulate more clearly my own take on Bordwell's polemic here - I still can find textual interpretations exciting, even as my own work does not really emphasize the sort of interpretation I think central enough to the discipline that I have a hard time imagining an undergraduate intro-to-film-studies course not engaging with it.

Perhaps a good analogy I can point to is the status of qualitative survey analysis in sociology. I'm hardly up on the contemporary discipline, yet my impression is that much of the professionally and exciting directions in sociology are promised in new(ish) quantitative tools that are being applied to questions previously approached more qualitatively. Yet, analysis of survey and interview material can still provide an exciting and illuminating understanding of the social world, even as the methodology is breaking no new ground - Peter Bearman's Doormen will attest to this. I see textual analysis - the well-practice moves of film interpretation inherited from semiotics and literary study - as one useful tool in understanding film meaning. I'm glad the toolbox has been expanded from the 1970s and 80s, and that it continues to expand. But I'm not (yet?) willing to discard the well-worn tools entirely.