Showing posts from January, 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…

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 fr…

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 …

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 cha…

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.

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.


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 wi…

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 crucia…

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 L…


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,…