Saturday, March 31, 2007

Los Angeles and the Noir Mystique

I guess I should really Google my project ideas before I go forward. It turns out there is already a 1947 project, only it seems to be a kind of forgotten history amateur historiography of crime journalism and Los Angeles urban geography, not a film specific venture.

I do find it telling that all of the film links at 1947 Project are noir films. Since their project in fact conceived of in noir terms, that makes sense. But it speaks to a larger dominance of noir in popular and even academic memory of postwar film history. Don't get me wrong - I love noir and its mythology as much as anyone. Also if it weren't for noir fandom, I wouldn't have potential access to nearly the number of video titles from 1947 as I do. It's just that noir is not the whole history of postwar decade, whose A and even B features were just as likely to be sentimental dramas, musicals, or comedies. The film historian is in the odd position of being able to get video access to PRC crime films more easily than MGM's historical dramas.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Museum Movies

There seems to be a new strain in scholarship addressing the social history of cinema through a detailed institutional historiography. I’d reviewed Peter Decherney’s Hollywood and the Cultural Elite already, and have wanted to highlight Haidee Wasson’s Museum Movies (University of California Press) for some time here. Wasson’s work is a valuable, thorough study of the Museum of Modern Art’s film library; she places its genesis in the discursive and ideological shifts in ideals of art and museology in the 1920s and 30s, as well as the specific institutional struggles among key parties in the Museum, and between the Museum and foundations and film studios. As she writes in the introduction,
This book frames MoMA’s film department as an institution of exhibition, one that was shaped by archival and museological structures… I therefore seek to build on the assertions made by a range of scholars that film exhibition is an important category for thinking about the unfolding significance of cinema as a mediated cultural site, wherein the contests of class, gender, and race are being perpetually played out. I seek to conjoin this basic insight with the recent work of those seeking to analyze the politics of leisure and moral reforms as elaborated through debates about cinema, museums, and urban life. (27).
Indeed the book does balance these two impulses. Institutional history – which unearths and interprets the records, memos, publications, and speeches of Iris Barry, John Abbott and MoMA directors or trustees – is followed by a look at the actual programs of the museum’s circulating film programs. It is often difficult to argue persuasively for a paradigmatic shift in cultural perception and in the notion of art - shifts like that are easy to overgeneralize and overstate - but Museum Movies is persuasive in just that task.

1947 Project

This is the time of semester when teaching and research commitments take all of my time. But given that summer is around the corner, I've been planning my writing and research docket for the time away from the classroom. Getting the book manuscript (a history of the social problem film in Hollywood) in shape is top priority, but I also plan to embark on a project that dovetails with my research on Hollywood as a social field and will undoubtedly generate new insights.

My goal is to watch every feature film that I can get my hands on that was released by a major American studio in 1947. Only 15% of the features distributed by the 8 majors are currently available on an authorized DVD release, so my work is going to be cut out for me tracking the rest down. There about 260 titles total; I figure if I can watch half that number, I'll be excited.

Essentially, my aim is twofold. First, I want to address the sampling problem in writing film history of the period. Since so few films are available on video, and since only a small minority of those approaches anything like canonical status, I suspect that the period of the late 1940s is ripe for reexamination despite the general sense that we know Hollywood's history well. Second, while diachronic analysis is important to historical argumentation, I wanted to get a better picture - at least for myself, hopefully for incorporation into original research - of the synchronic dimension of postwar Hollywood: the whole relational universe of postwar commercial cinema, the kinds of genres made, and the true A-B distinctions.

Oh, and why 1947? Since my project is on the postwar social problem film, 1947 looms large as a key year in the cycle (Gentleman's Agreement and Crossfire). It also should allow a study of a studio system adjusting to postwar market changes and on the cusp of divorcement. Besides, I had to limit the historical scope somehow, even if arbitrarily.

I have to thank those who have already provided valuable suggestions - here at Temple Dan Friedlaender and Dan Kremer. Any input from readers on video sourcing, archival resources, etc. is most welcome.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Penn Humanities Forum: Reel Travel

A week from this Friday, Penn is hosting a one-day symposium on the topic of travel in cinema. It looks like a great event, not least because my colleague Rod Coover is giving a paper on new media refractions of cinematic travel narratives. Note that registration, while free, is required.

Reel Travel
Displacements of Film
Penn Humanities Forum
3619 Locust Walk, Penn campus

Friday, 6 April, 2007
9:00 am - 5:30 pm

Cosponsored by the Penn Humanities Forum in association with Penn's Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures and Cinema Studies Program
Event free and open to the public. (registration required)

In 1976, Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road redefined the road film, and in the thirty years since, cinema and travel have existed in continuous dialogue. What energies, fantasies, and anxieties are released when film crosses a border or hits the road? How do movies respond to tourism, exile, migration, flight? How are ideas of "nation" and "foreignness" shaped by cinema and what part does it play in globalism?

Documents in Disorder (9:10a)
•Katie Trumpner (Yale), The Journey to Poland: Helke Misselwitz's Foreign Oder and the Posterity of GDR Documentary
•David Kazanjian (Penn), Handwork: Beyond Egoyan's Ararat

Displacement (11:15a)
•Short Videos and Conversation with Conceptual Artist Kinga Araya

Travels with Michael Haneke (1:15p)
•Imke Meyer (Bryn Mawr), Empire's Remains: Displacement and Historical Memory in Michael Haneke's Le Temps du loup
•Fatima Naqvi (Rutgers), Hiding Places: Migration and Space in Michael Haneke's Films

In the Course of Time: Travel, Cinema, Media (3:20p)
•Gerd Gemunden (Dartmouth), Wenders Revisited
•Rod Coover (Temple), Characters, Paths, and Panoramas; New Media Tools and the Displacements of the Cinematic Journey

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Legacy of Political Modernism

Michael Newman and Ira Wagman have some useful questions while reading Henry Jenkins' Convergence Culture. Michael writes,
Jenkins's examples are all of spectators becoming active in the co-creation of media. I too am excited by this activity, but I am not totally comfortable with the unambiguous positive moral valence this is given. It suggests that the comparative passivity of non-co-creating viewers is a less worthy mode of engagement and prescribes a certain kind of viewing activity as preferable. I'm sure Jenkins doesn't mean to be prescriptive in this way, but this is the implication I draw from the way he stakes his position.
I wonder in turn how much of the positive moral valence owes to strains of political modernism which did make explicit and implicit prescriptive claims about which kinds of spectatorship were preferable.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Why I'm Not Sold on Affect (Yet)

Let me be clear: I'm not categorically opposed to film theory - far from it. My worries about the "return of Theory" at SCMS, such as they were in fact worries, had to do with the conditions of its return. Most immediately, the range of theory seems strangely limited, with the same few theorists getting bandied about, the same concepts repeated.

And, too, there's the difference between film theory (which I take to be any broad reflection on the medium and its representational practices) and Theory (which seeks a philosophy of film experience). Whether or not you subscribe to David Bordwell's polemic against Grand Theory, the warning of C. Wright Mills in his Sociological Imagination (which Bordwell is riffing off on) is useful: theorists have a propensity to fetishize concepts, rather than to use concepts to illuminate an object of study.

Let me take up one concept that seems to be in danger of that trap: affect. I'm open to finding this a valuable concept and heuristic device, but so far am unsure. I don't have a fully developed critique or intervention, but wanted to provide a place holder for thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head. Perhaps at some point I can articulate a more sustained response to affect theory, or perhaps readers invested in the concept can point out what I'm overlooking or what readings I should consult.

1) Affect is pretty much a synonym for emotion, yet presumably as a theoretical concept it would mean something more abstract, in distinction to the everyday understanding of emotional response to cinema. But uses aren't always clear on how affect differs from everyday emotion. Or, if everyday emotion is what's at stake, why use the fancier word?

1b) What emotions are we talking about anyway?

2) Affect seems to dovetail with arguments about spectatorial excess, say Miriam Hansen's notion of vernacular modern or Linda Williams' model of body genre, only the path of argument seems to be reversed. Where Hansen or Williams start with observations about historical spectators (fans who swoon at Valentino, women who cry at Beaches) then proceed to speculation about general spectatorial relations, the new spectatorship theorists often start from general speculation about what spectators necessarily experience when they watch movies.

3) Following from #2: How does one assess what emotions people feel when they watch movies? Is some protocol of evidence necessary to assess how viewers actually emote? (And simply relying on personal response does not sidestep this methodological problem.) It's not that affect theorists never provide evidence for their claims, just that scholars with radically opposed expectations of evidence end up rallying around the same critical concept.

4) Even if the move to affect/emotion - and the move to a subjectivist understanding of film spectatorship - is valuable, there seems to be little methodological reflection on what subjectivism entails. For example, the point of subjectivism in social science at least isn't really that objectivist understandings of the world are wrong, so much as that the construction of the object of study determines the kind of meaning - "close-up" study produces a sociology radically different in kind than sociology "from above." How does affect's subjectivism depart usefully from the subjectivism inherent in British Cultural studies (whose proponents were fans of Garfinkel and Goffman) or reception studies (who have the closest thing to qualitative social science research in humanities film scholarship)? It matters a great deal whether we think affect/viewer emotion/spectatorial excess is a supplement to spectatorship studies and textual models or a replacement for those models. Oddly, a number of affect proponents don't think they need to answer that question.

5) Affect is often understood as a discursive construct, in which the scholars treat references to emotion or emotions as a text to be read symptomatically. Yet it's not clear when this discursive formation reflects a true difference in spectatorial relations and when it is merely discursive.

6) At some point, circa 1990, the discipline decided that the 1970s film theory project - generalizing spectatorship as a point of cinematic address - was too ahistorical in that it did not take into account how actual viewers (or at least their group identity) made sense of films. Affect, as a strain of film theory suited to ths post-cultural studies moment, would seem to open space for multiplicity of responses to film. And it does, since spectatorial relations are no longer understood as mechanical textual effects. But there lies a potential problem. Forget the Early Cinema/Late Cinema thesis: affect theorists can and do find the emotional excess of film experience everywhere, in every genre, in every historical period. If the kind of emotional responses to contemporary action films end up being not all that different from the emotional responses to 1930s Chinese cinema, then we've snuck ahistoricism in through the back door. Conversely, if we're content with a methodology that allows for armchair (i.e. nonempricial) speculation about spectatorial relations, why must the 1970s project remain such a bad object?

I realize these thoughts are scattered and come perilously close to the straw man arguments which bash trends without specific examples. So any examples or counterexamples are most welcome.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

CFP: Media History

Media History: What are the Issues?

University of Texas at Austin
October 11-13, 2007

Autodidacts produced the first histories of film and television; academicians contributed tomes from the 1960s on, with waves of fact-philia and empiricism-phobia following. Now, after 100 years of writing media histories, it seems opportune both to take stock and to move forward, perhaps optimistically.

This conference seeks to ask: Where are we now? What are the issues today in writing media history and histories? What have we accomplished? Where might we go? For whom and why? Papers may present historical work in progress but should indicate a metahistorical or historiographical contribution. Papers may deal with a single medium or the problems of writing multi-media or convergent histories. Papers may consider a "single" production/reception space (e.g., Bollywood, Hong Kong, the Kayapo, Ingmar Bergman, Al Jazeera, MySpace, YOUTUBE, the ColbertNation) or cultural flows.

Confirmed keynote speakers are:
Michele Hilmes, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Hamid Naficy, Northwestern University
Kathleen Newman, University of Iowa
Chon Noriega, University of California at Los Angeles
Gaylyn Studlar, University of Michigan
Abstracts of no more than 750 words and author biographies of no more than 150 words should be sent to Janet Staiger ( by May 1, 2007. Notification of acceptances will be sent by June 1, 2007. We may consider creating an anthology of the papers; thus, we request right of first publication if we accept your proposal for the conference. Notification regarding the anthology will be made no later than January 1, 2008.

UT Organizing Committee: Katie Arens, James Buhler, Jennifer Fuller, Lalitha Gopalan, Sabine Hake, H-B. Moeller, David Neumeyer, Charles Ramirez Berg, Joe Straubhaar, Janet Staiger, and Lynn Wilkinson.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

SCMS 2007 Reflections

This year's SCMS conference is officially over, and I'm finally catching my breath enough from a hectic weekend to post something. In all, the most striking fact of the conference this year is its size. There was simply too much going on to think one had even half a handle on the papers being presented. Obviously the size brings both blessings and curses.

I don't think it was just me, but it was hard not to be disatisfied with the median quality of the papers and panels. Mind you, I could have attended more than I did (I made about half the time slots, which means about 1/40 of the papers delivered). And I made a conscious decision not to simply choose panels overlapping with my research or those with big names. So I easily could have seen an unrepresentative sample. But for every good paper I saw, there was a hohum or downright lousy one. And I came away with a more magmanimous opinion than some other folks I talked to.

Anyway, some general thoughts:

1) The return of Theory. Theory is back. By which I mean an invigorated hegemony of what I might call post-spectatorship theory (affect and Deleuze-inflected mediations on film experience) and revisionist reclamations of Classical Film Theory (Kracauer + Bazin). There were some solid history panels, to be sure, but the main historical alternative to Theory were what Bordwell calls the culturalist approach.

2) Methodology is out. Not entirely, of course. But the trend seemed to be asserting one's reading or historical claim without examining concepts or epistemology of those concepts. Or, to be charitable, maybe I'm not as used to reading oblique methodological discussion embedded in Theoretical rumination.

3) Best panel that I saw: my Temple colleague Oliver Gaycken organized a panel on scientific and instructional films that was the most solid and coherent of any I saw at the conference.

4) Best paper I saw: I'm thoroughly biased, by my friend Rosalind Galt's paper on the Pretty in film aesthetics was work whose progress I'd heard about but which I hadn't head before. It made me get over my grumpiness at the Theoretical thermidorian reaction (see #1), and start dusting off my Theory of Film copy.

5) Best moment: Christine Gledhill narrating The Last Seduction due to a sound glitch.

As always, the quality of the papers aside, I value the conference as a snapshot of the discipline that's hard to get otherwise, and an opportunity to reconnect with friends and colleagues and to make new ones. Kudos to Jason and Scott of Mabuse for organizing a blogger get-together at the conference.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Chicago Bound

The doledrums here lately have been the product of my teaching schedule and my preparation for the SCMS conference. But I plan to post from Chicago. Also, check out Dr. Mabuse's Kaleidoscope for a round up for the various conference blogging going on.