Showing posts from April, 2008

Scholarly Humility

Quote of the day, this time from a Janet Staiger essay I stumbled upon:
Having studies film history for little more than five years, my first tendency, like so many youth in any field, is to presume that the older histories are wrong. Revisionist history has, I am usre, as much to do with the Oedipal complex as it has to do with changing ideological conditions which position those of us in more recent times to see facts in new ways. Of interest, to me is that the more I study US film history, the more I realize that the older histories are less wrong than I used to believe they were. ("Seeing Stars" in Stardom: Industry of Desire, ed. Gledhill 1991)
Staiger articulates (articulated, since her words are approaching two decades in vintage) a sentiment I'm increasingly feeling. Of course if I felt I had nothing to contribute to film historical or theoretical knowledge, I'd just pack it all in and call it a day, but working on 1940s Hollywood, one also has to reckon with t…

PCMS: Suzanne Gauch on Tunisian Cinema

April Philadelphia Cinema and Media Seminar

Suzanne Gauch, Temple University
"Cultural Politics, Women’s Rights, and Recent Tunisian Film"

Friday, 25 April 2008

Often highlighting women’s issues, internationally-distributed Tunisian films contribute integrally to Tunisia’s cultural politics both at home and abroad. This talk explores the transnational discourses that enable many recent Tunisian films to promote the post-independence Tunisian government’s exemplary women’s rights record while simultaneously offering a critique of Tunisian society. It further focuses on two recent films,
VHS Kahloucha and Bedwin Hacker, that begin to move beyond entrenched cultural politics to broader criticisms of social, political, and economic policies while simultaneously addressing the lingering Orientalisms that make these same cultural politics possible—and necessary—in the international arena.

Respondent: Jessica Winegar, Temple University

Temple University Center City Campus (TUC…

Gentleman's Agreement

As promised, I'll be posting more 1947 films I've seen before starting the project. Of those, none exemplify the qualities of postwar Hollywood I'm so interested in more than Gentleman's Agreement (Elia Kazan, 20th Century-Fox). A social problem film par excellence, the film represents the directions of the postwar prestige film, particularly the house style of 20th-Fox. This style comprised two qualities.

First a pseudodocumentary impulse and its integration into the fictional narration. The opening shot starts off like many of the 47 films:

The camera pans left and tilts down, with a narrational emphasis, signalling that the story we are about to see is one of many going on in New York City (The Naked City will make this conceit explicity). The next shot fulfills the expectation with Phil Green (Gregory Peck) and son (Dean Stockwell) strolling in midtown.

This realist trope is but part of a continued sociological gaze of the narrative. 20th Fox's prestige films in …

Variety Reviews

Via the Boston Globe's Ty Burr, I came across a caustic Variety review of 88 Minutes. It's entertaining enough for those who like snark (I sometimes do), but for me it raised a larger question: when (and why) did trade press reviews start sounding like their counterparts in the popular press? At the very least, I've read a number of Variety reviews from the 40s and 50s and then there was a distinct sensibility for each. In short, the trade press made its judgments on a film quality with an eye to how it expected it to play to audiences. The reviews were a service to exhibitors planning their bookings and an indicator for Hollywood studios to assess the viable prospects of competing studios. A lot, of course, has changed then: saturated releases have made films and film exhibition more genuinely national, the studio system has dissolved in favor of producer and/or agent package projects, and, oddly enough, distibution is more oligopolized than it was under the studio years.…

Dear Ruth

If Calcutta represents Paramount's more quotidian style reserved for action films, Dear Ruth (William D. Russell) represents the quintessential Paramount A picture: high production values, well-honed, theatrical-quality script, and generic appeal. In this case, the film is a satirical comedy, part of a strain of wisecracking comedies emerging from the 30s screwball comedy but shifting in its class milieu and referents. It might even be said to be a personal subgenre of writer Norman Krasna. To my eye, it's the best argument that what drove romantic comedy success in old Hollywood was not a particular gender role configuration (helpful that might be) but a means of nurturing and using a talent pool of writers riffing off one another. Rather than a culturalist account of the screwball comedy, I'd give an industrial account.

The conflict begins when an Air Force Lieutenant, Bill Seacroft (played by a dreamy eyed, ever-smiling William Holden) comes to woo the small-town girl Ru…


Part of the effect of an extended project seeing a lot of similar films is that the repetitions bear noting even at danger of retreading familiar ground. To that end, Calcutta (John Farrow, Paramount) is typical on a number of fronts. For starters, it represents a vein of Hollywood Orientalism that sometimes colored all aspects of narrative, music, and mise-en-scene but particularly marked subgenres of "exotic" locale. From the imdb plot summary:

Neale [Alan Ladd] and Pedro [William Bendix] fly cargo between Chungking and Calcutta. When their buddy Bill is murdered they investigate. Neale meets Bill's fiancée Virginia [Gail Russell] and becomes suspicious of a deeper plot while also falling for her charms.
Paramount seems to have specialized in this material: their 1943 Night Plane from Chungking was itself a remake of their Shanghai Express. I'll have more to say about this orientalism when I write up Universal's Singapore, but in some respects Calcutta muddles Ea…

What the... ?

I was flipping through the channels in those pre-primetime Sunday evening doledrums when I stumbled across a particularly shameless Food Network self-promotional puff piece, and who was the talking head extolling the network's power and reach but Toby Miller! I will say I'm happy that someone besides Robert Thompson is getting TV studies punditry gigs. And I'm normally not terribly judgmental about what academics do in their off time. But it felt a little weird to see a preeminent scholar lend gravitas to a marketing strategy already built on selling the channel's sociocultural importance. What do others think? Is there anything wrong with such appearances? What practices should scholars follow in punditing for the media, particularly in an age where pseudojournalistic forms and promotional programming change the equation? Is it our role even to ask or judge?

It's funny: film scholars and even humanities-based TV scholars have so rarely been consulted as pundits on …

Film of the Month Club

Yes, I know the last thing I need to be doing is starting another blog. But Girish's post on old and new cinephilia - and the comments to it - inspired me with the idea of an online movie forum: Film of the Month Club. Take a look at the introductory post, and drop me a line if you're interested in joining.

The Value of Mannheim

In preparing my lecture tomorrow on ideology, I've been dusting off, logically enough, Karl Mannheim. In the process I'm wondering why I have spent so many hours reading film and cultural studies arguments that act as if there's a simplistic false-consciousness Marxist model and a complex, nuanced, or what-have-you Althusserian model without ever once reckoning with Mannheim as an intermediary that, whatever you have to say about his work, is not simplistic. Clearly, many in the field are reading and have read Mannheim; it's not as if we're talking about an obscure figure.

Dishonored Lady

Frequently, I've been making the case that the gender representations of the 1940s films are complicated, interesting, and worth interrograting. I wouldn't say that Dishonored Lady (Robert Stevenson, UA/Hunt Stromberg) isn't worth interrogating, but it has to be the most straightforward manifestation of hegemonic gender ideology and clearest example of what 1980s feminist film theory diagnosed and critiqued: the class and psychological containment of the career and sexually liberated woman. Madeleine (Hedy Lamarr) is a successful art editor who sleeps around, until she cannot take the dishonor any more and decides to start a new life - and new "real" romance. (The narrative relies some on implication, but not much: subtext has become text.)

Lamarr's star image gets the usual exoticist treatment here, whether in costume or in von Sternbergian soft-focus closeups:

The mystery is both transparent construct and the element that keeps unpredictable generic elements…

Invisible Wall

So far I've kept Povery Row out of my purview of the 47 viewing, with the result that B films are underrepresented in my yearly sample, since by the late 40s, the major studios were retrenching their B outputs in favor of A films. Invisible Wall (Eugene Forde, Sol Wurtzel/20th Fox) is an interesting example of an spin-off independent production company allied with Fox. It's neither quite a true Fox B unit feature nor a Poverty Row release - at least to my understanding.

Stylistically, the film starts off in typical B style with basic coverage. The heavy reliance on medium long shot, for instance, fits the need for maximum narrative information with minimum setups.

After the first plot point, though, more typical noir stylistics come into play, with a series of deep focus, angular, or low-key compositions.

These correspond, of course, to the unraveling of enigma and of the unreadable woman.

As for the economic ideology, the motif of gambling runs throughout, with a none-too-subte…