Showing posts from August, 2008

Semiotics of Advertising

I have to admit I first relished this post for the snarky comments in the comments section, but it is asking a real question: what do (the designs of) these images say?  There are some savvy responses, including:Looking at these from a perspective as a documentary film maker, these two pictures fall into two very different photo/film traditions. Obama and Biden are staring off into a vista that the viewer [can't] turn to see hemselves; the idea is to project a shared journey into some presumably hopeful future. The folks in the photo and the folks looking at the photo are supposed to be doing something together; the viewer is with Obama and Biden.

The McCain/Palin image, of course is staring right out at the viewer: the two figures are trying to do something to the viewer more than with him or her: to persuade. It's more immediate than the Obama campaign's approach, which has power. But it is a pure pitch, and as such it runs the risk of falling into the trap of seeming mor…

Eavesdropping on other fields

Sentence of the day:
I’m starting to think that sociologists’ failure to theorize motivation has caused us to mutate unconsciously into conspiracy theory economists. That's sociologist Steve Vaisey guest-blogging at org theory, adding his interest in psychology as a discipline that treats motivation seriously. No, I don't have the time and training to follow these discussions as I'd like, but yes, I think they're questions film and media scholars should engage more than they do.

Out of Print Classics

Isn't it about time for another printing of Grierson on Documentary? 
What out-of-print books do you think deserve a reprise edition? Guback's International Film Industry, Heath/DeLauretis's Cinematic Apparatus, and FIAF's 1900-1906: An Analytical Study would also be high on my list.


Even more than Calcutta, Singapore (Universal, John Brahm) carves out its own mini-genre of the orientalist noir. It's an amalgam of Maltese Falcon (Curt Conway plays a Peter Lorre-like gay underworld figure, Thomas Gomez a low-rent Sydney Greenstreet) , Casablanca (the romance flashback and voiceover narration), the Grahame Greene novels (oblivious American tourists), and the RKO noirs (combination of expressionists visuals and low budget setups).

Christine Gledhill argues that in noir "the heroine's characterization is itself fractured so that it is not evident to the audience whether she fulfills the [femme-fatale] stereotype or not" ("Klute" 18). Singapore fractures the characterization to extremes: Linda Grahame (Ava Gardner) suffers from amnesia and therefore is two different characters in the film. However, this unknowability of character mostly runs parallel to Matt Gordon's (Fred MacMurray) dual search - for a lost love and for stashed pearls. T…

It Had to be You

Once again, we have the documentary-style opening shots of Manhattan...

In tone, though, It Had to Be You (Columbia, Don Hartman/Rudolph Maté) is despite, Maté's directorial hand, a world away from the new postwar realism or noir expressionism. Except in one dream sequence, which just about compensates for my long-frustrated desire to see psychoanalytic musical Lady in the Dark:
Like Lady in the Dark, It Had to be You is a Ginger Rogers vehicle, centered on Victoria Stafford, a confused single woman who is repeatedly unable to commit at the alter. Eventually, a figure of her imagination, the dashing George McKesson (Cornel Wilde), materializes and soon romantic complications ensue. In many ways, the narrative is typical of the sophisticated/ romantic comedy that evolved from the screwball comedy. One sophisticated comedy touch is the playfulness about advertising and the mass desire, as a billboard ad enters into the dream sequence:

More radically, the imaginary-as-real character pos…

Fall Course Syllabi

As usual, I'm posting the syllabi for my fall courses: Introduction to Film/Video Analysis and Race and Ethnicity in US Film. The syllabi are pretty much in the can, but I still welcome feedback, tips, and suggestions.

Quick Links

Now that I'm getting the blogging pace started up with the rest of the academic term, I wanted to point to a few worthy posts around that I've come across this summer but haven't had the time or blogging energy to write into a proper post. Better late than never?
StickyLulu's Supporting Actress blogging continues with Ethel Waters in Pinky. The post wrestles with the paradox of a strong performance under a representational regime denying black characters agency or depth and cites Waters' "performance is marked by curious moments of stylistic discordance."
Shahn at 6 Martinis and the 7th Art provides the most economical (yet insightful) film analysis I've seen, in this case of The Little Foxes.
Michael Newman hypothesizes the impact of DVD access to formal developments in cult cinema. His suggestion that behind the puzzle film lies a spectatorial practice that manages modernist narration in a new way seems extremely fruitful. My one quibble is that The Li…

Green Dolphin Street

“It would be an unhappy world if the only love was the love of youth.” Green Dolphin Street (MGM, Victor Saville) foregrounds its status as literary adaptation, from its book cover title to its sprawling narrative development, and it's remarkable when a film delves so far into a literary “tone” yet presents its theme so explicitly in the dialogue. Or perhaps this thematic obviousness was common to the literary prestige films, a distinction from more generic fare.

In any case, Green Dolphin Street is a prime example of the older type of classical Hollywood prestige film that continued alongside a newer, emerging prestige film. The film takes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, with a convent...

period piece and frontier adventure material...

and the spectacles of threatening "natives" and epic earthquake:

How much is in the source material, I do not know, but it seems a clear strategy on MGM's part both to wed the film's spectacular appeal to an "epic&qu…

Documentary Reenactment

Speaking of revisionist documentary studies, I thought I'd give a quick pointer to Jonathan Kahana's latest post at the Columbia University Press blog, on the topic of documentary reenactment. It's a response to Man on Wire and Errol Morris. I particularly appreciated Kahana's point that "A major artistic and pedagogical device in documentary for most of its history, re-enactment got a bad name in the 1960s, with the rise of the cinéma vérité technique that, for better or worse, has come to be identified as the 'most' documentary of styles." What's worth adding is that even other techniques, including expository doc, took on the taboo for reenactment. I'm curious of how and why that happens, and one project I'd like to embark on is a closer history of the industrial and social contours of documentary. In the meantime, I'll give Kahana's book an eager read.

Keeping History Fresh

Perusing Charles Musser's intro to a special issue of Film History devoted to 30's documentary (v. 18), I was struck by this claim: "For the history of any period or any subject to retain its vitality (for instance, the history of documentary in the 1930s), it needs to be rewritten from fresh perspectives and enriched with new sources and kinds of information." Not earthshattering, since he's essentially codifying the logic of the academic field, but a nice statement of my motto nonetheless. I'm convinced that there is much more to be said about postwar Hollywood if we look closely at the period - its films and their contexts. And not simply in that completist Borgesian map sort of way. Rather, in general in our field, the assumptions about the period have remained the same for some time and are due for reexamination. (It's also pleasing me to see documentary studies get that kind of reexamination.)

70s Film Theory Treasure Trove

Reading Catherine Grant's blog (which I've been meaning to link to for some time) I noticed a link to an old Mary Ann Doane article. Following it, I realized that seemingly the entire back run of Cine-tracts is free and available electronically from Brown's library. The journal's a veritable who's who of film scholars from that generation - too many to list - with plenty of psychoanalytic and semiotic theory, but much more as well. A great resource to have online.

CFP: Media in Transition 6

Media in Transition 6: stone and papyrus, storage and transmission

International Conference  April 24-26, 2009  Massachusetts Institute of Technology


In his seminal essay "The Bias of Communication" Harold Innis distinguishes between time-based and space-based media. Time-based media such as stone or clay, Innis agues, can be seen as durable, while space-based media such as paper or papyrus can be understood as portable, more fragile than stone but more powerful because capable of transmission, diffusion, connections across space. Speculating on this distinction, Innis develops an account of civilization grounded in the ways in which media forms shape trade, religion, government, economic and social structures, and the arts.

Our current era of prolonged and profound transition is surely as media-driven as the historical cultures Innis describes. His division between the durable and the portable is perhaps problematic in the age of the computer, but similar tensions…

Photo manipulation

I'm sure this entire discussion may be old hat to many folks, but I found the Errol Morris blog discussion of photographic manipulation terrific, the sort of thing worth assigning to a class and thought-provoking in its own right. One sentence that stuck out for me:But doctored photographs are the least of our worries. If you want to trick someone with a photograph, there are lots of easy ways to do it. You don’t need Photoshop. You don’t need sophisticated digital photo-manipulation. You don’t need a computer. All you need to do is change the caption.In some ways, this is a restatement - in another medium - of the central problematic of documentary meaning, namely that actuality footage carries very little of its own meaning but instead relies on montage and the soundtrack to supplement the "pure plenitude" of indexical representation. 
The interview-discussion also touches on the problem of lossy images. Morris asserts that lossiness is the guarantor of authenticity, ci…

Blog Blurbs

A Category D first: an excerpt pulled for a film promotional blurb. They're not my words but Elena Gorfinkel's abstract from her Viva talk. Still, it made me wonder how and when blogs are being mined for blurbs or if they will be more in the future.

Conferencegoing 101

x-posted from Dr. Mabuse's Kaleido-scope
Even acknowledging the brute reality that conferencegoing may down this year in our field, at least for junior and apprentice scholars in North America, I thought I'd pass down this list of tips on "how to enjoy a convention." (note: pdf version, scroll to p. 16) It's written by a sociologist, Dan Ryan, himself an intermittant blogger, and some of his more discipline-specific advice might not apply to our field. And SCMS is still not up to MLA/ASA dimensions, though it's getting there. But there's plenty worth reading. Some highlights:Don’t get too turned off by name tag gazing. It is what people do at these things. Yes, people will check yours out, discover that you are nobody and then move on. Some of the folks are real bozos looking for famous people to kiss up to. Don’t sweat it. Don’t let the turkeys get you down.Remember that almost everyone else is feeling like they don’t know anyone too.Recognize and celebra…

Syllabus Plagiarism (cont)

The Chronicle has an op-ed on syllabus plagiarism that cites my blog post on the topic. I should say that I think the piece oversimplifies my position (i.e. I find value in seeing teaching as a collective enterprise in addition to an individual one) and find it odd to ascribe an opinion to me without asking. The author, Jennifer Sinor, has faced having her syllabus copied verbatim by another professor. I concede that some syllabi may be more original than others and remain sympathetic to the author's concerns, but I am unswayed to the main point. 
And the straw man of postmodernism is unhelpful: I don't think that nothing is original, but syllabi often are hybrid affairs. The grant proposal comparison is apt: while one shouldn't copy a proposal, who writes one without another as a close template?
That said, there are some insightful claims in the piece: where one stands on the position may correlate to the teaching-research mix of one's position.

The Good Old Days

A speedy observation: As the above frame (from This Property is Condemned, 1966) indicates, Classical Hollywood starts to take on a historicity and the patina of nostalgia as the studio system fades. One can read the significance on a number of levels. There's Coppola's script as new movie-literate writer-artist whose sensibility would come to distinguish the Hollywood Renaissance. There's the shift in cultural hierarchy, an earlier phase of which I'd discussed in my prestige film article. There's perhaps an ideological nostalgia going; I think that reading is particularly convincing in the case of the 1970s retro-classicism.

Now, of course, the 1970s is as likely to serve the function that the 1930s and 40s did for the 1960s and 70s.

CFP: Failures, Flops, and False Starts

This sounds like a terrific idea to me. I'm intrigued by a possible theoretical approach t0 the historiography of failure. Unfortunately, my thoughts are only in the beginning stages now, so I'm not sure I could work them up any time soon.
The Velvet Light Trap Call For Papers
#64, Fall 2009—Failures, Flops, and False Starts

Deadline: September 15, 2008
Histories of the moving image tend to highlight financial, critical, and popular successes: films that generated monumental revenues at the box office, television series that were acclaimed by critics and adored by audiences, technologies that revolutionized the ways in which we exhibit and consume narratives and images, etc. Yet, new media, failed or abandoned projects, hardware, institutions, businesses, or content can serve as constructive ways in which to examine oppositional discourses, alternative conceptions, failed visions and botched efforts, as they pertain to the construction, distribution, exhibition, and consumption of…