Thursday, November 29, 2007

The National Cinema Problem

Recently a colleague asked me for some recommendations for readings on national cinema. He regularly teaches a course on international cinema and felt that a couple of well targeted essays could frame the discussion of national specificity of meaning amid what could otherwise be a kaleidoscopic tour. Immediately came to mind several pieces of scholarship that outline and interrogate that concept of national cinema: Andrew Higson's "Concept of National Cinema," Stephen Crofts, "Reconceptualizing National Cinema/s," and as a good case study, Elsaesser's New German Cinema. These, in fact, I assign in my graduate course, for its week on national cinema. To these I might also add Alan Williams' introduction to Film and Nationalism.

But in discussing these, my colleague and I noticed a problem with these, from a pedagogical perspective at least. These essays did a good job in challenging textual models of national cinema historiography, in suggesting the utility of industrial and reception approaches to national cinema, and in drawing on and complicating the notion of cultural imperialism. What they did not do was really grapple with textual approaches to national cinema itself. Certain scholars have used specific national-cinema case studies to illuminate these issues (New German Cinema, say, or Pierre Sorlin's overlooked Film and History), and other scholars (Elsaesser, or Phil Rosen) have presented valuable theoretical discussions out of range for most introductory undergraduate education. But the only scholarship devoted to explaining what national cinema is, absent a narrow particular case study, seems to be committed to deconstructing the notion of national cinema.

Higson does outline a textual model of national cinema:
[T]here is the possibility of a text-based approach to national cinema. Here the key questions become: What are these films about? Do they share a common style or world view? What sort of projections of the national character do they ofer? To what extent are they engaged in 'exploring, questioning and constructing a notion of nation hood in the films themselves and in the consciousness of the viewer' [quote: Susan Barrowclough]"
Nonetheless, Higson's polemic is against text-based understanding of national cinema. Meanwhile, area studies still continue and still find value in reading nation-specific cultural content and context in films. Others look to the way films construct a public, national culture. Yet, as I mentioned in my intro-textbook review, the concept of national cinema gets little, if any, consideration in American textbooks.

Am I overlooking something here? Suggestions for articles or books are welcome: I am not an a specialist in national cinema or even an area-study cinema. At stake are a couple of issues. The first, as I suggest, is pedagogical: what excites us as scholars may leave the dots unconnected in a classroom. Sometimes the simplified version is worth teaching (and learning) before complications are brought - indeed so the complications and newer intellectual models make sense. The second, however, is scholarly: as valuable as they, I cannot help but feel the national cinema-skeptics are overstating the case. If certain types of generalization about national ideology and aesthetics are problematic, it is still worth reflecting on which approaches and generalizations produce a better understanding of text-context relations - just sidestepping by saying that context is the only thing that matters will not answer the question.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

PCMS: Andrew Douglas on John Goodman

The Philadelphia Cinema and Media Studies Seminar continues next Friday:

"The Multitalented, Multivalent John Goodman"
Andrew J. Douglas, Bryn Mawr Film Institute

Respondent: Heidi Schlipphacke, Haverford College

When considering that for many years, John Goodman has been the de facto poster boy for obese men in Hollywood, it is interesting to note that he did not begin his career as a particularly overweight man. Indeed, it would appear that Goodman’s weight has risen as his star has, and while a case could be made that this direct relationship is a hindrance to him as well as a help, its existence substantiates the notion that weight is an important facet of an actor’s star text. If the physical fitness of a traditional leading man is typically taken for granted, yet understood to be crucial to his status, so too is the fatness of an obese star—especially one of Goodman’s stature and popularity.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Temple University Center City Campus (TUCC)
Room 620

Sunday, November 25, 2007


It's easy to see why Anthony Mann has such a following among noir fans. The subjective camera work in Desperate (RKO) is pushed to new expressionist heights and the locked-room intimidation scene has one of the most striking use of pracitcals as main lighting source that I've seen. The narrative - a story of an honest truck driver who gets inadvertantly caught up in a smuggling racket and framed for a policeman's murder - lacks one hallmark of noir, the femme fatale, but shares a fatalistic melodramatic narrative with Detour - Steve Randall seems caught up in a circular movement of escape and return.

Some would see the minimally motivated narrative as a positive attribute - a refusal of the purposive, humanist individualism of classical narrative. Perhaps it is. But it's worth pointing out that here the aporias of narrative causality seem to hinge on the helplessness of the woman. Steve's wife Anne needs protecting from the toughs, but at every point Steve is driven to action driven by the assumption (which the narrative does not show up as assumption) that Anne is unable to comprehend what really happened and unable to go into hiding on her own. In other words, even in comparison to the gender politics of 1947 Hollywood, Desperate seems especially regressive. Where the prestige films were at least making female subjectivity a problematic (The Late George Apley), the femme fatale trope in noirs, for all its problems, at least complicated the fixity of Wife as Blank Slate ideal.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

New Orleans

Talk about lighting for whiteness...

New Orleans (UA/Jules Levey, Arthur Lubin) is part musical, part sentimental historical film about the birth and spread of jazz. Generically, it has a lot in common with the Fabulous Dorseys; the sense of historicity is somewhat remarkable in these films and something I suspect hasn't been discussed in its positivity. (It's not that commercial films don't understand their narratives historically, but often these choose between reification of History or postmodern evacuation of history; I prefer the more traditional historiographic underpinnings of these 1947s, which is a surprising result.)

Which isn't to say that New Orleans' understanding of the history of jazz isn't problematic. Undoubtedly much of the appeal today (the film got a Kino Video release for some reason) lies in the performances, the on-screen musical domination of both Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. It's to the film's credit that the musical format allows them uninterrupted screen time. I'm not sure this fully compensates for the pain and sadness that I experience watching Holiday in Butterfly McQueen drag as a maid character.

The next shot reveals a motif in the film.

Throughout, the film dissolves from a jazz/blues/black performance to a chamber music/operatic/white performance.

The theme, that is, is also about whiteness, and gives a variation on the vernacular modernism narrative (modernity and modern culture break the shackles of traditional social arrangements and sexual strictures). Here, black musical culture becomes the site of white intergenerational rupture and of female agency.

This all has me thinking about the way vernacular modernism has operated in other national contexts, the way Andrew Higson and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith have persuasively argued that in the British context, American cinema triangulated as a third term introduced into a rigid two-term class structure and gender role-assignment. Nowell-Smith credits Hollywood's incorporation of an immigrant public into its rhetorical structure. Indeed, but it's worth noting that the triangulation structure internal to American culture is present in the films. The ease of transatlantic triangulation may stem from the the black-white relations and narratives of sexual emancipation already built into the films.

Finally, since regular readers will know my ongoing documentation of city documentary imagery in these films, I have to say that such imagery appears only in one shot, oddly enough not of New Orleans, but Chicago:

Monday, November 19, 2007

Tokyo prices

Given that SCMS'09 will be in Tokyo and many of us are trying to figure out if budgets will stretch that far, some readers might be interested in the discussion of costs over at Marginal Revolution. The short of it: costs aren't so high as popularly get portrayed and as I feared.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Double Life

A Double Life (George Cukor, Garson Kanin, in-house for Universal) encapsulates the changes bubbling up in the prestige genre in the late 1940s. On the surface, it seems to belong to the reverential 30s mode of prestige film, with its open and conspicuous citation of High Culture: here, actor Anthony John (Ronald Colman) is a superb thespian whose role as Othello bleeds into his real life. High Art seems merely to become the pretense for a psychological murder drama. And yet, there is an anxiety (and more positively, a vertigionous excitement) over the citation of culture in one medium. As in Mounring Becomes Electra, theater is valued as an autonomous cultural realm separate from cinema: high and low acting styles get contrasted, performances have a duration and "real time" that is not recuperated by an aggressive scene analysis and story space (it would be instructive to contrast A Double Life with a 30s backstage drama, like Stage Door), and, finally, the conceit of the narrative becomes a self-reflexive device. A Double Life, simply put, is a film almost unimaginable without the impact of Olivier's Henry V.

There is also the shock of seeing Cukor make an un-Cukor film, with pseudodocumentary opening shots of New York, with aggressive sound subjectivity, and flourishes of montage editing. It's a film as much of its time as of its auteur.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Movie titles

This collection of movie titles is not historically complete, by any stretch, but it's a fascinating view of movie titles in the classical period and some of the historical changes they underwent.

Lone Wolf in London

A later entry in a series of B films Columbia put out in the 1940s, Lone Wolf in London (Leslie Goodwins) is another story of reformed jewel-thief Michael Lanyard who solves crimes. Unlike other unofficial detectives, however, Lanyard often (always?) remains under suspicion as the prime suscpect. The narrative identifications they set up are therefore odd: on one hand, there eventually is no much maintenance of the enigma, as in many noir films, certainly the ones taking their cue from the Hammett and Chandler style of writing. On the other hands, Lone Wolf in London's narration offers little clue that allows the spectator to read Lanyard's integrity or duplicity. I kept thinking of that Cahier essay on Lang ("Two Fictions of Hate") and the dual identification (Nazi/anti-Nazi) that Hangmen Also Die engenders. Not only does Lanyard catch a thief by thinking like a thief, the spectator is put in the position of having to think like a thief in order to root for the thief's capture.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Dick Tracy serials

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesom (RKO, John Rawlins)
Dick Tracy's Dilemma (RKO, John Rawlins)

I had expected more B-movie cheapness from these serials, but found instead well-crafted genre pieces. For those familiar with RKO's 1940s B output (in general a strong showing of horror and noir), the Dick Tracy serials play off the familiar generic conventions and formal devices in unexpected ways. Not produced by Val Lewton, the films seem to be some fond compendium and commentary on Lewton's unit.

The playfulness is evident from the start. The opening of Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, for instance, tracks and cranes from Expressionist style shadow to a noose, then down to the punchline, that it's a spectacular for a bar.

Meanwhile, there are some great lighting effects and camera work. Cameras track out when you normally would expect them to track in. Otherwise pedestrian scenes are shot to give volumetric space. Lighting is both expressionist and unexpected, as when two of the hunchmen find "the Claw" passed out in a car.

Now I feel I need to revisit the 1990 Dick Tracy.

Not My Specialization

Can anyone explain the job posting at the SCMS list for an engineer at Russian State Petroleum University?

UPDATE: As of this afternoon, the listing has been removed.

UPDATE 2: As of 6:30 PM, another strange listing is up, from "Fortuna Association." It's official: the SCMS job list has been hit by a spambot.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

November Talks at Penn

This month across town:

John L. Jackson. Jr. (Annenberg School, Univ. of Pennsylvania)
The Promised Land: African American Emigration to Southern Israel
Thursday, November 15, 5:30 pm
113 Jaffe Building

Janine Marchessault (Fine Arts, York University)
Fluid Screens: The Future of Expanded Cinema
Tuesday, November 27, 10:30 am
138 Fisher-Bennett Hall

Philip Rosen (Brown University)
In Depth: Film Theory, Illusionism, and Contemporary Media Culture
Thursday, November 29, 5:30 pm

Details at the Penn Cinema Studies website.

RKO B Westerns

Code of the West (William A. Berke)
Wild Horse Mesa (Wallace A. Grimsell)
Under the Tonto Rim (Lew Landers)
Thunder Mountain (Lew Landers)

If anything shows the factory approach to B movies, the series of Westerns that RKO put out during 1947 do. All tout Zane Grey source material, and most star Tim Holt as the upstanding small businessman on the frontier. In each, Richard Martin, plays Chito, a Mexican-Irish simpleton with a good heart and healthy libido. By the film's end, Holt's character (different name each time) has a chaste friendship-romance with a damsel in distress, while Chito has settled down with the saucy woman he's been chasing for the film.

The films are intriguing for their partial conformity to what is now considered the tenets of the Western genre. In Rick Altman's terms, they have Western semantics, but not Western syntax. Its iconography fits comfortably, in its focus on landscape, in the reliance on guns and dusty town jails, even in the trusty low angle compositions of horse and frontiersman against sky:

However, the narratives draw more from the (urban) Victorian melodrama, with its populist pitting of the small man against malign and corrupt trust. Though violence is crucial to the restoration of the forces of good, this is more likely to take the form of a chase and fist fight as a shootout. And the Tim Holt is squarely the good character, with no hint of outlaw hero status. Roberrt Warshow mythology does not apply here.

There are some moments of formally interesting composition, such as this use of deep space from Thunder Mountain

but in general these hourlong Bs feel like Bs, with basic setups and a frontal, centered quality that would later be exploited by television.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Journalism as Professional Subculture

Formerly a Boston resident, I was a fan of the local affairs programming and in particular the media criticism round up that WGBH's Greater Boston did weekly. So since my Media and Culture class was covering the sociology of the journalistic field this week, I ended up showing a streamed broadcast from their website. I picked October 12's and couldn't have found a better one-stop shop for the range of journalistic ethics questions: disclosure, credentialing, wall between editorial and publishing, sourcing, etc. Truth is, most any week's episode could function to that end in a classroom.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Evaluative Scholarship

I highly recommend Jason Mittel's latest post on Lost. I'm pretty much on the other side of this debate - between post-semiotics, historical method, and Bourdieusian sociology of taste, I inhabit the very intellectual formation that Jason is attacking - but he pleads a good case.

For starters, I do have to concede that film studies is in a relative state of luxury - we can have our quasi-legitimate aesthetic theories and canons while pursuing scholarship and sometimes pedagogy that sets aside aesthetic judgment as a primary or even secondary mission. So, too, would I have to concede that a lot of film studies sneaks evaluation in the back door.

Mind you, this situation can lead to a couple of responses. The first might be to say that nonevaluative scholarship is an unattainable ideal, therefore not worth pursuing. The other might be to be extra-vigilant, to devise new ways of thinking around our own critical aporia. The unbiased sampling of my 1947 project, while not an original strategy, is at least one attempt to get around my own narrowness in conceiving my object of study.

Or one path might be some form of hermeneutics, which can understand legitimate (or legitimizing) aesthetic judgment but also bracket it as one particular reading formation.... in fact, Bourdieu is presenting a similar understanding of value judgment as much as he is taking down aesthetics (I don't think this is Jason's misrepresentation of Bourdieu , if it is a mispresentation- he adequate summarizes how media studies appropriates Bourdieu). Jason veers toward the hermeneutic when he asks, "Might we benefit from understanding why ‘the people’ discern between choices that might otherwise seem identically awful to outsiders?" I would answer his question in the affirmative, but I'm trying to square this project with the expertise (a good knowledge of television history plus an awareness of the formal elements of audio-visual expression?) that Jason touts as the basis of a new evaluative aesthetics. It's not that I'm taking the populist stance - it's that I wonder if two different scholarly goals are in place.

All that said, Jason's recourse to vernacular categories in trying to foster a popular aesthetics that's fundamentally different from cinema's popular aesthetics is a really interesting and potentially truly valuable project.

SIDE NOTE: If there's anything strange about academic blogging, it is the unsureness one feels in refering to another scholar: first or last name? The rule of thumb seems to be last if they are in print, first if they are another blogger, particularly one you have had contact with.

Monday, November 05, 2007

PCMS: Magicians and the Magic of Hollywood Cinema

The Philadelphia Cinema and Media Seminar is just now starting up. This Friday is the first of the year:

Matthew Solomon, College of Staten Island, CUNY
“Magicians and the Magic of Hollywood Cinema during the 1920s”

Respondent: Karen Beckman, University of Pennsylvania

Temple University Center City Campus (TUCC) Room 620
Friday, 9 November 2007

The end of stage magic’s “Golden Age” is often attributed to the popularity of cinema and the attendant decline of vaudeville. Rather than treating magic and film as competing industries, this presentation examines the apparent symbiosis that thrived between the two arts during the 1920s, when magicians like Houdini exploited moving pictures and Hollywood studios made a number of movies about magicians. What does the magic profession’s interest in feature filmmaking indicate about how ideas around visual illusionism were changing at this time? Correspondingly, what do films like You Never Know Women (1926), The Last Performance (1929), and Illusion (1929) suggest about the “magic” of Hollywood cinema during the silent period?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Mourning Becomes Electra

If there's any film to drive the auteurists and the medium-specificity polemicists into paroxysms, it's Dudley Nichols adaptation of Mourning Becomes Electra (Dudley Nichols, in-house production at RKO). Resolutely faithful adaptation, its running time eventually trimmed by a nervous studio - the DVD version circulating today is a healthy 160m, just 15 min shy of the original. The narration is dialogued based, with almost no attempt to find cinematic and visual equivalents of spoken exposition. Its staging maintains the unity of time and place of the stage set and makes almost no concession to an autonomous, illusionistic story space.

The blocking of action itself reminds me more of Ordet than Classic Hollywood, with actors both in frontal stances...

or with backs to the camera....

Judgments of "talkiness" don't capture the extent to which cinematic narration is organized differently in this film. It's not as if cinematic decisions, like an occasional use of deep focus, don't enter the aesthetic equation:

I highlight the issues of cinematic adaptation not to set up an evaluative judgment - personally I found the cine-staging of the play gripping enough - but to recognize that there was something distinctive, radically new, in this new type adaptation. In my Screen article on the prestife film, I highlight how the classical adaptation prominent in the 1930s used source material in mostly superficial ways, at the very least as raw material that cinema would manipulate to drastically different aesthetic ends. Too, in the 1940s, this approach continued: witness William Wyler's adaptation of Washington Square, The Heiress, in which the original Jamesian aesthetic is mostly missing. But here, Nichols takes the aesthetic mission of experiential subtitution (watching the film as an experience of the play) seriously. It's a curiously staunch highbrow voice in a cinema that previously had not spoken very much to highbrow sensibility. The aesthetic castigations of its project can blind us to the extent that, much like Lady in the Lake, its purported failed experiment has a lot to say to us about cinema and its changing form in the postwar years.

The Rusty Films

For the Love of Rusty (John Sturges, Columbia)
Son of Rusty (Lew Landers, Columbia)

The Rusty films were a series of B films (at least I'm guessing by their production values and 65m running times) that Columbia put out in the latter part of the 1940s. Generically, they're perhaps best summed up as Lassie + Andy Hardy. Rusty is a trusty German Shephard whose owner Danny is often getting in trouble with his judge father. What's remarkable is how Rusty's suffering body is the catalyst for narrative resolution. Rather than simply make the dog an agent in a melodrama about humans, the dog is the melodramatic hero(ine).

Perhaps even more remarkably, Son of Rusty is a social problem film in disguise as sentimental family drama. A shellshocked veteran (shocked by love rather than bombs, it turns out) returns and moves to the small town of the story, only to have the townspeople to immediately suspect him. The final court scene becomes a "case" against intolerance, in much the same way the investigation in Crossfire becomes an investigation of hate. Meanwhile, the no-count rabble rouser espouses reactionary rhetoric about taxation and elites. The sudden shift to topicality and social didacticism in the third of this series, for me, begs closer inspection.