Monday, April 30, 2007

Sarris, Film History Sage

More nuggets of insight from Andrew Sarris: I was rereading American Cinema this weekend for the intro course and found a couple more great quotes. The first ("this suggests the classic highbrow gambit of elevating lowbrow art at the expense of highbrow art") pithily expresses what took me many more words to do.

The second in some way articulates the reasoning behind my 1947 project:
Film history is both films in history and the history of films... For every I Was a Fugitive From the Chain Gang and Our Daily Bread, there were a score of "Thou Swell" romances in which money was no object. Yet the escapism of the thirties was as much a reflection of the Great Depression as any topical film on unemployment.
By now, thanks in large part to auteurism, the situation has changed: the Thou Swell romances may still be forgotten, but even the topical dramas are overlooked in favor of more canonical, auteur-directed genre films. The experience of the late 40s shows that for every Out of the Past or Best Years of Our Lives are dozens of forgotten - or I should say near-forgotten, since there are film buffs out there who have seen them - genre pictures. While I do deem topical filmmaking an interesting and significant development of the postwar years in particular, I want to see what exactly the "times" were - both the history of films and the films in history.

In our haste to make Sarris a straw man we overlook the wonderfully inductive thinking behind his project. It seems worth rethinking how central a film historical project is in the heart of auteurist criticism.

Sunday, April 29, 2007


If for nothing else, I'm going to appreciate this project for the range of fonts in the titles. Here, Tycoon (RKO, Richard Wallace) is established from the start as one half historical drama (diagonal line, slight ballooning), one half Western (blocky serifs). Well, it's not a literal Western - it's set in South America - but it's a John Wayne vehicle and transposes the settlement theme into a narrative about railroad construction. In many respects it's the typical dual-focus narrative that Rick Altman identifies, reminiscent of adventure films like Only Angels Have Wings. Wayne is having to construct a railroad tunnel while evil tycoon Alexander (Cedric Hardwicke) is skimping on materials. Meanwhile, Alexander's daughter (Laraine Day) falls for Wayne, and must come to terms with the class and lifestyle differences. I'm continually fascinated by the strange cross-identification of class politics in films like this. The film presents (presumably for its female viewers) a spectatorial identification with the aristocratic woman whose battle against aristocratic strictures stands in for the viewer's dissatisfaction with actual social and sexual mores (think Jezebel). In turn, the protagonist's choice of the rugged working man as an object of desire validates the working class as more authentic. Sexual difference plays as class difference.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Fugitive

The Fugitive (Argosy Films/RKO, dir. John Ford) is such a fascinating historical relic that I wish I knew more about it. The opening voice-of-God narration, intoned squarely in between the styles of How Green Was My Valley and the postwar pseudodocumentaries, pronounces that
The following photoplay is timeless. The story is a true story. It is also a very old story that was told in the Bible. It is timeless and topical, and is still being played in many parts of the world. This picture was made in our neighboring republic, Mexico, at the kind invitation of the Mexican government and the Mexican film industry. The locale is fictional It is merely a small state, a thousand miles north or south of the equator. Who knows?
I'm not sure in what capacity the Mexican industry was involved, but director Emilio Fernandez and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, whose work is perhaps best known in the seminal Mexican melodrama Maria Candelaria, worked on The Fugitive as assistant director and cinematographer. The grafting on of the melodramatic form here is palpable.

A little more inscrutable are the films’ political leanings. Adapted from Graham Greene, the film retains some of the author’s central thematic explorations of religion and political struggle. Another layer of America in 1947 gets added on top of this, though, and the result is an anti-Stalinist allegory that sits uneasily aside a film that wants to champion the poor as a political mass. The Americans for Democratic Actions mentality clashes with the Good Neighbor policy espoused by the film.

The cinematography is both stunning and formally unexpected. This shot/reverse shot pattern, for instance, is abstracted into distinct spatial planes in order to highlight the religious iconography of their compositions:

The film has some nice Wellesian touches, too, like organ grinder whose music downs out all the dialogue. It’s fascinating to see how the Orson Welles/Carol Reed/Graham Greene mini-genre proliferated internationally.

I apologize for the lo-fi telecine-style captures from VHS. I'll have to see if I can get a better setup for this sort of thing. I'm grateful, at least, that local video stores - here Beaux Arts Video on 10th and Spruce - keep a good stock of out-of-print VHS tapes.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Down to Earth

Imagine Xanadu, only without roller skates and with Rita Hayworth in the Olivia Netwon-John part. Down To Earth (Columbia, dir. Alexander Hall) itself was a sequel to a Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). Danny Miller (Larry Parks) is putting on a Broadway show about Greek muses who fall in love with American aviators. Terpsichore (Hayworth) is watching from heaven and gets upset at the characterization of the lead in the musical. She comes to earth to change the musical to something more edifying. Hijinks ensue.

Rudolph Mate's Technicolor cinematography is vibrant and saturated, and part of the pleasure is just the vitality of color in the mise-en-scene:

But the real entertainment value lies in Hayworth's performance. It's not a meaty role (Terpsichore frankly is a ditz), but Hayworth has a star presence which is knowing, immediate, yet aloof. I kept thinking of Richard Dyer's essay on Gilda and Hayworth's "resistance through charisma." Throughout, her dancing style exudes sensuality and exceeds the regimented choreography of the other characters.

The bit parts are fun, too. Geogre Macready reprises his Ballon character from Gilda (also a Columbia pic) as Mannion, the ruthless casino owner who walks about with his cane.

For my scholarly purposes, I'm fascinated by the thematic self-consciousness of cinematic taste formations. Much as Sullivan's Travels sent up Capra and Vidor, Down to Earth is a sly putdown of the Powell-Pressberger and Rank Studio films.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


I decided to start off my 1947 Project with a pseudodocumentary that's been on my to-see list for some time, Elia Kazan's Boomerang! (20th Century-Fox). Although the pseudodocumentary cycle (or "semi-documentary" in contemporary parlance) included a few entries from independent producers or other studios, Fox - Darryl Zanuck, Louis de Rochemont and director Henry Hathaway - developed the template with House on 92nd Street and made about a half-dozen features in the vein.

Like the other examples, Boomerang! starts with typewriter-serif font and a title averring that story content and locations are based in fact. (Although the actual town of Bridgeport was changed for a generic Connecticut everytown.) Also, like other examples, the film combines what is at times radical documentary narration (organization of shots and formal elements according to the logic of argument) with a more conventional fictional narration and noir style. Boomerang! points further toward the noir side of the equation (what Zanuck called showmanship), yet it, too, sees a tension between the documentary narration and the suspense fictional narration. Take the opening three shots. In the first, a remarkable 360 degree pan sweeps the center square of Stamford, where the film was shot:

These harken back to what Tom Gunning and Andre Gaudreault have called the monstrating element in early cinema. In actuality film, this monstration took the form of a pan, the first widely used camera movement. (Think of Edison'sSearching the Broadway for Dead Bodies, Galveston, or Burning of Durland Academy). Now, forty-plus years later, the monstration signals a rupture in classical practice.

Shot 2 frames a clock (the time will be important later on), tilts down to frame a minister (who will be the victim) walking toward the foreground, then pans left to frame him more tightly and obscure the space frame right.

Shot 3 is tighter, and the close-up eventually serves to obscure the identity of the killer. (This use of close-up repeats in other Fox pseudodocs.) In these two shots, narration guides spectator expectations, narrative priorities, and the enigma of the plot. Rigorous narration sits side by side the radical monstration.

This formal tension gets replicated by an impossible narration. Throughout the spectator knows who the murderer (likely) is, but the voiceover to the end intones the official doubt of the case. Sarah Kotzloff has argued that The Naked City develops an ironic voiceover narration that undermines its own authority. Here, the undermining effect seems to go further. I'm inclined to read this narrational effect against and with the thematic message of the film. I don't think it's a stretch to claim some Sirkian system at play in a film that has to repress its leftist politics, only to eat at its own truth systems from the inside out.

ADDENDUM: Sharp eyes will note the the movie theater marquee behind the minister advertises Smoky, which was indeed another Fox picture. In the comments, Paul asks about the 40s psuedodoc cycle, and I try to answer him.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

CFP: Anglo-French Cinematic Relations Conference

Sometime area-studies conferences fall off my radar, but this one sounds like an interesting and valuable one. The deadline for this is fast approaching.

Anglo-French cinematic relations since 1930

Department of Film Studies, University of Southampton
September 14-16 2007

Call for papers: deadline 30 April 2007

Despite the close geographical, political and cultural links between France and Britain, the dynamics of Anglo-French cinematic relations remain critically understudied. While numerous Anglophone studies have been written on French film - and indeed Francophone studies on British film - rarely do these works account for the dialectical interplay between the two at the levels of production, distribution, exhibition and reception. In order to redress this balance, this conference is aimed at an examination of the two-way flow of cinematic traffic between France and Britain from 1930 to the present day, filling significant gaps in our knowledge of British and French film and film personnel in transit, and what this reveals about the respective cultures. The conference will hopefully also have implications for the study of Anglo-French relations more generally, and the study of European cinema as a whole, as it moves away from the Hollywood / Europe axis which has dominated studies of cross-cultural traffic, replacing it with an engagement with inter-European exchange.

The event will run in conjunction with a special exhibition, ‘French Cinema in Britain, 1930-present’ and a series of screenings, to take place at the Harbour Lights Cinema, Southampton. Keynote addresses will be given by Pam Cook, Sarah Street, Robert Tombs, and Ginette Vincendeau. The conference will also feature a panel of industry experts who will discuss contemporary issues in the distribution, exhibition and promotion of French cinema in the UK.

Proposals for papers covering any aspect of Anglo-French cinematic relations since 1930 will be considered, but the organisers would particularly welcome papers exploring the following areas:
  • Representations: In what ways is each country and its culture represented by the other’s film and television production, and vice versa? How does this correspond with or compare to each country’s self-representations? Are Anglo-French social, political and personal relationships represented on screen?
  • Production Contexts: What implications does the increased frequency of co-productions have on Anglo-French cinematic relations? What can be said about the trend for multi-lingual works such as L’Auberge espagnole (Cédric Klapisch, 2002)? What role does the national exchange of personnel from the two countries play in French and British cinema?
  • Distribution and Exhibition: What are the principal distribution channels for French cinema in Britain, and vice-versa? What is the contribution of specialist distributors such as Artificial Eye in the UK and MK2 Diffusion in France? Of art cinemas and cinématheques? Of film festivals and film societies? Of television? How do dubbing and subtitling strategies feed into questions of exhibition and reception?
  • Institutional Discourses: What are the roles of various cinematic and non-cinematic institutions (for example, The UK Film Council, Le CNC, L’Institut français du Royaume-Uni, the British Council in France) in producing films, promoting and disseminating information about their national products abroad? Or promoting foreign products to a domestic market? What role do television companies such as the BBC and Film4 play in terms of both exhibition and production? What can be said about relationship of censorship boards such as the BBFC to foreign film?
  • Promotion: Who are the audiences for French films in Britain, and British films in France? In what ways are French films ‘pitched’ to British audiences, and vice versa? How does their marketing and promotion rely on particular perceptions of nationality and national cinema? Does this vary according to social / political / historical context?
  • Stars and Auteurs: What roles do stars and auteurs play in Anglo-French cinematic relations? Do some stars and directors travel better than others? Are some received differently across the channel than at home, and if so, why is this? What do foreign stars represent to national audiences in terms of identification and desire?
  • Receptions and Perceptions: Which films export best from one country to another and why? How can we account for those that do not cross the channel well? How do responses between domestic and foreign audiences vary?
  • Criticism and Theory: What is the relationship between French and British film criticism? To what extent does the domestic criticism of a film influence its reception abroad? What refractions take place as British films pass through the lens of French criticism, and vice-versa?
Please send a proposal of 200 - 300 words for a paper of approx. 20 minutes, together with your contact details and a brief biographical note by April 30th 2007 to the conference organisers, Lucy Mazdon ( and Catherine Wheatley (

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Shades of Middlebrow

Jason Sperb has an excellent and thorough review of Barbara Klinger's Beyond the Multiplex; I have started my way through the book and while I may have more to say about it at some point, I'll agree that it's a valuable and fascinating read. But this passage raised my eyebrows in critical suspicion:
Both genres [women's film and chick flick]...have been accused of delivering indulgent romantic fantasies and cheap emotional thrills. Their various associations with things feminine, from protagonists and plots to viewers, have often wrongly consigned them to a low aesthetic status.

This is a claim you often hear at least about the women's film, but is it true? Moreover, does it apply to the chick flick? On one level, it depends on what means by the qualifier "often." But if we take at face value some claim for representativeness, then the higher-brow reading formations (journalistic critics and the more consecrated slice of film culture) are actually kinder to chick flicks than they are the male-flick counterpart, the action film. Now it's true that each can have its lowbrow and highbrow entries (Down With Love vs. The Hours; Armageddon vs. The Matrix), but if you look at critics' favorites or Oscar nominated films or whatever "official" film-culture benchmark you choose, you are likely to see a valuing of the story and character development that chick flicks trade in. If Four Weddings and a Funeral does not make the pantheon of the contemporary canon, neither does it signal trash in the way that Norbitt or Fast and Furious do. Which is not to say that aesthetic judgments aren't gendered in any way, but it is to assert that high:low::male:female does not map nearly as easily as Klinger suggests here.

I will grant that film scholars pay far less attention to the chick flick than action films or even blockbuster low comedy (in Klinger's words, "the chick flick continues to fly under the aesthetic radar"), but in some ways this is the result of scholars' populism, a championing of lowerbrow cultural forms as socially meaningful, politically valid, and even aesthetically interesting. What that kind of populism cannot make much sense of is the range of middlebrow tastes, whose class pedigree does not allow a simple championing. It's one reason I'm interested in the social problem film: talk about a genre that no one wants to champion aesthetically. Ultimately, I suspect that this constraint of populism leads Klinger to read a high/low divide where in fact there is a high/middle/low terrain.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

CFP: Visible Evidence XIV

Visible Evidence XIV
Bochum, Germany
December 18-22, 2007

Hosted by the Krupp professorship for the history and theory of documentary forms at the University of Bochum, together with the Haus des Dokumentarfilms Stuttgart, and dokumentarfilminitiative NRW, Visible Evidence XIV marks the first time that the conference takes place in Germany.

Bochum is home to one of Germany’s main research universities. Since 2004, the media studies department at the Ruhr University houses the Krupp professorship for the history and theory of documentary forms. With a particular focus on the study of images of industry, the Krupp professorship puts a strong emphasis on research in new areas of the study of documentary.

This year’s conference will address current issues in documentary filmmaking as well as questions of documentary and history, documentary images in museums and art contexts, and documentary images and science (among others).

We invite panel and paper proposals on all topics and current issues relating to documentary film and filmmaking.

As in previous years, the conference program will include preconstituted panels as well as a number of panels reserved for open call papers. Panel proposals should be submitted by May 15. Notification of acceptance will follow shortly thereafter. Panel chairs will then be asked to convene their panels through individual calls for papers until June 30. Calls for papers for accepted panels will be distributed through the Visible Evidence mailing list by the conference organizers. Open call paper proposals should be submitted by June 30. Final notification of acceptance will follow in the first week of July.

Please submit proposals by e-mail to .

PCMS: Paul McEwan

April's Philadelphia Cinema and Media Seminar is this Friday:

Paul McEwan (Muhlenberg College)
"Courts, Critics, and Censors: New Research on The Birth of a Nation Controversy"
This talk is a presentation of recent work toward a book on the reception of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic The Birth of a Nation. The reception of this film is one of the few stories in film history that everyone seems to know, but archival research greatly complicates the picture.

Part of this talk will focus on Griffith’s battles with the censor boards in Ohio, where the film was banned until the 1950s, the only place where censorship of the film managed to stick. The ongoing legal battles give us a sense of what the censorship of the film meant to Griffith and Epoch productions beyond Griffith’s high-minded statements about free speech and “witch burners.” This was a battle fought in courtrooms around the country by a company with significant financial resources. Among the interesting documents unearthed are an annotated bibliography of the film, new letters from prominent citizens defending it, and hints of Griffith’s correspondence with the Klan in the 1920s.

The second part will focus on recent research on the available prints in the collection of the Library of Congress, many of which have not been thoroughly catalogued. Recent finds have included censored material, alternate takes of some scenes, and heavily revised intertitles that suggest that Griffith may have been adapting his film to the criticism it received.
Respondent: Jennifer Horne (Bryn Mawr College)

Friday, 13 April 2007

Temple University Center City Campus (TUCC)

Room 208, 6:30-8pm

Friday, April 06, 2007

Dwyer on Indian Cinema

I thought I'd pass along information on an upcoming talk here at Temple:

Rachel Dwyer, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
"Screen Goddesses: Female Dieties in Indian Cinema"

Thursday, April 12, 4-6PM
Russell Weigley Room, 914 Gladfelter Hall
Temple Univerisity

Dr. Dwyer’s talk will examine depictions of goddesses in Indian cinema, seeking to explain the relative lack of popularity of the Devi in comparison to Sita. She will look at mythological films, where the goddess appears as one of the film’s characters, and at the social genre, where an image of the goddess is efficacious. She will also discuss films that refer to mythological stories of the goddesses to draw comparisons with human characters.

Rachel Dwyer teaches courses in Indian literature and cinema, as well as the Gujarati and Sanskrit languages at SOAS in London. Her main research interest is in Hindi cinema where she has published on film magazines and popular fiction; consumerism and the new middle classes; love and eroticism; visual culture; and religion and secularism.

Presented by the New India Seminar at Temple

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Reality TV and Legitimation Crisis

I was just ready to post some breezy suggestion that we might read the obsession with voting on reality TV shows as symptomatic of a deeper legitimation crisis when Allessandra Stanley beats me to the punch (sort of) and Michael Newman in turn denounces such a claim as a "baggy zeitgeist reading".

I won't argue too much with Michael's judgment; methodologically, the claims underlying ideological, discursive, and symptomatic reading could use a lot more shoring up in their mobilization of evidence. But since I, like many, was trained in doing such ideological readings, I'd at least like to suggest there might be a smarter version of Stanley's contention that voting rights concerns lead to the popularity of American Idol. Namely, we might see the causation question to be secondary and to connect the widespread proliferation of "voting" as a symptom of a political culture in which the importance, efficacy, and significance of voting faces widespread and high-profile suspicion. (c.f. the "they're all bastards" tone of Joe Klein's editorials in Time.) At the very least, this reading does allow for the "large number of Idol voters who don't feel guilty about 2000 because they were too young to vote or because they never vote and don't care." That very lack of caring - more than liberal-left anger over the Electoral college or voting rights shenanigans - strikes me as a far more likely and prominent component of the political substratum of these shows.

Beyond that I have a question for a field I pay far little attention to these days: how common in television studies are ideological readings of American television programming these days? How common do these ideological readings deal with nonfiction program and precise issues of legitimation? When I watch Katie Couric's "What's Right with America," I pine for some good ol' Glasgow Media Group-style analysis. The good work at In Media Res points that direction, but I'm not sure it's doing exactly the same thing.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Philadelphia Film Festival

Locals probably know that there's a film festival going on in Philly starting the end of this week. I'm impressed with the range and caliber of screenings.