Friday, September 28, 2007

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 the new cultural legitimization drive. Since my own work is on the moment in American cinema (late 1940s) when cultural legitimization of the medium reached a tipping point, I'm struck by the similarity of the process, even given different circumstances and different details... I think the true parallel to today's cultural upgrade strategy is not the Famous Players but Otto Preminger and Stanley Kramer. That of course, entails no prediction about the future direction of televisual legitimization. (Will the "discourse of legitimacy" that Michael argues for define itself against Sopranos-mania in the way the auteurists did against Stanley Kramer?)

On a side note, I was struck by how overwhelming the advertising for television shows was in Los Angeles. Billboards, murals, and busstop ads for the fall shows were everywhere. Of course, much of that may be designed primarily to convince talent and industry players that their shows are being promoted.

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 contradictory in character. Most, like Rocky, Saturday Night Fever, and Flashdance, tend to reinforce the founding values and the legitimating ideology of the class system by approaching class in individualist terms. But that desire to overcome the limited life possibilities which capitalism bestows on its bottom rung potentially threatens the class system.
Where you put the “but” makes a lot of difference. I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this, and it makes me wish I knew a little something about rhetorical forms, or epistemology.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

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 film, that is, provides many of the generic pleasures we now associate with film noir. No film has all of those conventions (here, the enigma of detection is missing), but The Long Night is as accomplished in its style as I've ever seen from Anatole Litvak, with some remarkable cinematography, both deep space...

... and fluid in camera mobility, as in the expressive tracks in on Joe.

I don't know that before this film I was aware of the dual nature of Henry Fonda's star image. I'd mostly been aware of the Midwestern uprightness and "common man" image he'd parlayed in Young Mr. Lincoln and Grapes of Wrath. That's on full display here, but so is an intense
sorrow and psychological torment. (The Fugitive, I realize, was not an anomaly.) Thematically, the film comments on this split personality, with Joann/Bel Geddes' line about Fonda's face being both sad and happy, and a torn teddy bear standing in for the doomed man. Maybe the split was already there. In any case, Bel Geddes is played with and against type, as a Caught heroine who serves as a femme fatale of sorts.

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.

Monday, September 24, 2007

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 up to a point) or assuming a trans-historical essence of independence (as if Cassavetes leads, like a genetic strain passed on, to Jarmusch and Hartley).

As industrial histories are wont to do, AIC seeks economic explanations for the aesthetic and thematic shift in leftfield productions in the early 80s and through the 2000s. At points I worry that the argumentation cannot stand firm interrogation: for instance, did public television funding really cause an ethos of proud marginalization in the American independents? Might not both have sprung from the same social factors? Again, genealogical explanations of historical "inheritance" make me leery. I don't expect a historical study to solve such questions tidily, but "culture" has a way of appearance as explanation of last resort in ways I found unsatisfactory. Still, many of the casual explanations do illuminate the films and the period in American cinema. Now if I can just find the time to read more of the book.

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 scholarly perspective and lay perspective (for lack of a better term). After all, not everyone in 1947 was writing the MPAA to protest racial stereotypes in film or writing reviews arguing for the need of a Marxian view of social causation in narrative. But some were. Some people talked in terms that would be at least familiar to use today, while others are in separate media effects universe (my favorite was a letter worried that Lost Weekend would contribute to alcoholism because it showed people drinking!) There are various methodological approaches one can use to make sense of the overlap between common-day language and scholarly concept (I'm partial to Bourdieu, naturally), but it's a phenomenon I'd like to bookmark for myself since it keeps coming up the more I try to understand how various parties circulated and understood something like a social science discourse in postwar cinema.

Beyond that, I'm also fascinated by preview card summaries. I keep wanting to do something with them, but feel I'm without a satisfactory methodology.

Monday, September 10, 2007

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.

Friday, September 07, 2007

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 implicitly on Hollywood's position in a class hierarchy. It may even be possible, as Tag Gallagher has warned Western historians, that self-reflexivity was there all along.

Yet, it's also important to recognize how this reflexivity gets continually contained. Just a few minutes after the rupture of diegetic absorption, the replaying of the screen kiss - this time as "real" with Peter Lawford substituted in for Montalban - entails a full diegetic absorption of the spectator in a tightly shot, fully sutured screen space:

This switch from long/medium shot to close up is pretty much the same means that a film like Stage Door (to cite a non-reflexive example from the 1930s) uses to signal Katharine Hepburn's "bad" acting from her "real" self in her stage performances. And needless to say, neither film is in the least self-reflexive about the formal means for achieving that effect.

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 it not exhibit any of the off-kilter style that many to take characterize noir, it presents none of the exaggerated narrative enigma that noir inherited from the hardboiled novel. Big Town draws on the frisson of the cultural voyeurism that would be later taken up by the Confidential series of books, yet its moral universe is distinctly Manichaean. Perhaps this is an especial inheritance from radio serials.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


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.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


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.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

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. In fact, at least in Hollywood's studio years, reflexivity seemed to inhere more in the kind of prestige product that gained steam in the postwar years of Hollywood's transformation. A Face in the Crowd invoked two aesthetic distancings which were also social distancings: It was the kind of film geared in part toward people who traditionally didn't like "the movies," who wanted a non-Hollywood Hollywood. Secondarily, it was the product of a film industry suspicious of the role of television in American life. The reflexive media critique in A Face in the Crowd seems to me less a spontaneous textual return of the repressed (I'm not trying to put words in Nicholas's mouth, but simply trying to suggest the non-historical genesis he sees in textual reflexivity) than an assertion of this aesthetic and social difference from television and the masses. Thus the film resonated with the public sphere critique that circulated among postwar elites (someone was reading C. Wright Mills and David Reismann) and diffusely popularized.

Nonetheless, my 1947 viewing is pushing me to partial agreement with Rhombes: a surprising number of these films, and not strictly prestige product, invoked cinema and cinema's history in their narratives. Road to Rio, say, reveals the illusion of cinema and comments on its impact in the spectator's emotional life. I'm not sure that this "unmasking" is nearly as articulated or as the media critique of A Face in the Crowd or any of the other social problem films taking the mass public sphere as the "problem", but it is an interesting phenomenon. The trick is to be open to these phenomena previously overlooked by deductive generalization (and contemporary theoretical concerns can be an excellent driver of this) while not ignoring the fact that contemporary observers did tend to see Face in the Crowd as a different kind of film than Road to Rio.

Finally, there is a history of style claim to be made, on other grounds, that Hollywood's invisibility was never quite invisible (c.f. Jeff Smith on "unheard" film music). But this is different than what we would commonly identify as reflexivity.