Thursday, January 31, 2008

Theoretical Pluralism and Theoretical Schools

Staying meta; I've been wondering if there might be a general split characterizing both the theoretical pluralism and the recent (re)turn to theory in the discipline. There are those dissatisfied with traditional aesthetics (I'm thinking of the Anglo-American inheritance from 19th and early 20th century, say Clive Bell or Matthew Arnold) because it does not address the specificity of historical agents. At the other end there are those dissatisfied with traditional aesthetics because neither discussion of formal fundamentals nor interpretation get at the personal, the experiential, or the perceptual of film watching. Yes, I know the Wisconsin school offers its own relation to this question, sometimes fitting in the first camp, sometimes coming up with its unique answers. But for the rest of the field, there has been almost a reverse-dialectical procession of theoretical fashion: in the late 1980s and 1990s, both cultural studies and the renewed historicism (i.e. Gomery, Balio, and company finally, belatedly catching on outside the subfield of film history) reacted against the universalizing implications of 70s and 80s textual reading and spectatorship theory and sought in various degrees to depose Theory; in turn, theorists of the 2000s have turned to a variety of inspirations – classical film theory, Deleuze, Bergson, surrealism, affect psychology – to stake claims that are more universalizing and even less verifiable in empirical example than 70s film theory. Implicitly or explicitly, the new theoretical turn rebukes 90s era historicism. (If I'm reading him correctly, I think this tension is what Jason Sperb is getting at here.)

This narrative is schematic and arguable. But amidst the changes to the field and changes to "theory" that we've seen, I have a larger question about the role of theoretical movements in our pluralistic field. As I've mentioned, I've been researching the Chicago school sociologists and in the process came across this nice bit from Martin Bulmer:
A 'school' in the social sciences may be thought of as akin to the term used in art history to designate a group of contemporaries sharing a certain style, technique, or set of symbolic expressions and having some point of other in time or space a high degree of interaction (e.g. the impressionists, the Bauhaus, etc.). A local example would be the Chicago school of architecture, centered on Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Several ideal-typical characteristics may be seen to distinguish a school of social science. It has a founder-leader and a group of his or her followers, usually ranging in number from one to three dozen members. This leader has a relatively dominating personality. The group is usually drawn together by a set of ideas, beliefs, and normative dispositions, articulated by the founder-leader, which are somewhat at odds with those prevailing in the discipline at the time. (The Chicago School of Sociology 2).
As my usage above indicates, I do think of Wisconsin's program as an institution-based school of thought. There is also a Chicago school for film theory; their faculty's convergence around theories of modernity and a longue duree is remarkable. I know I often get interpellated as a product of a specifically Brown school, in ways I usually live up to, sometimes not. (If I had to articulate the formula, it would be post-Marxist theoretical interest in ideological formations + lingering interest in 70s film theory.) But clearly not all institutions comprise or are dominated by such schools. And not all scholars fit remotely into one.

A few open questions I have: are we currently, genuinely, in a pluralistic field or merely a field of competing schools? Is there a difference? Do schools drive pluralism or has their relative decline since the 80s opened up space of pluralism? Is pluralism a good thing or does it mean a disjointing of scholarly conversations? Does pluralism portend some major shift in the discipline of film studies?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Dyer on Film Studies

I've talked up the Oxford Guide to Film Studies before. Now that I'm revisiting it for my Critical Methods class, I thought it worth calling attention to the opening essay: Richard Dyer's "Introduction to Film Studies." Even if you don't have the time or need for a reference book like the Oxford Guide, this short essay is worth taking a look at. Even the second time around, I find it a useful and brilliantly written statement of what film scholars do and a reflection on what we don't do. It's simply one of those reflections on the field that can help and inspire a scholar.

But there's a specific reason I think this essay written a decade ago is relevant today: the discipline faces foundational issues as television studies gets better footing in the academy and as new media – their media landscapes and the forms themselves – challenge the definition that film studies has of itself. Dyer writes that "the very success of film studies in establishing itself as a discipline may mean that the reasons for establishing itself as a discipline may mean that the reasons for establishing it no longer need asserting of even addressing. This may be short-sighted." (6). Indeed.

Meanwhile, there's something about Dyer's intellectual spirit that I admire. It's not the case that film scholars have covered it all, that at best it's the objects of study rather than the approaches that are left to discover. Nor are the debates from yesterday meaningless. The old guard may be worth arguing with or even deposing, but the key inquiries into the nature of representation, ideological formations, interpretation, and historical explanation are worth keeping at the forefront. Hopefully, we can continue to shine new light onto these matters with the humility that that previous theorists and historians had a lot to say and that we have yet a lot to understand.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Impossible Shot

Rewatching Zodiac, I was struck by this shot:

One of the grad students here at Temple, Ian Markiewicz, pointed my attention to David Fincher's impossible shots, those CGI shots that I'm sure Fincher fans and scholars of contemporary cinema alike are already atuned to. In any case, it strikes me that Fincher exemplifies two primary uses of CGI in non-spectacle-oriented cinema. First, there's the cost-saving or verisimilitude-creating measure for historical/geographic setting; where a classical film would build backlot sets or use glass painting, the CGI film can "create" objects, buildings, and scenery. Second, there's the stylistic flourish. The camera can go places and present things which the spectaror knows to be impossible. What's striking to me about the TransAmerica shot is how it does both. CGI lends historical "veracity" to the period piece in a way impossible before CGI; in that sense, this shot is not too different in function from the use of composites to capture San Francisco neighborhoods now changed. (The hegemonic practice for the historical film is to find locations whose physical appearance holds minimal markers of more modern periods - it made it easier for the makers of Control that residential Manchester probably looks today a lot like it did in the 1970s). But the transamerica shot is different in form: rather than the static visual presence of a historical marker, the film flouts CGI's advantages over previous special effects, "tilting" the camera up and in time lapse no less. Not only does the shot substitute for the fact that cameras weren't there to record a time lapse of the building's construction (at least not in a visual style capable of being subsumed to the overall visual look of the film and its coherent storyworld), to have shot a similar time lapse of the building's actual construction would have taken unbelievable (impossible?) coordination and effort. As a reminder, the shot collapses three time frames: the building's erection, which took about 3 years, the light and weather cycle of a 24-hour day, and the projected cinematic time that it takes to view a tilt of a few second duration.

So we're also in the realm of stylistic flourish. But it's a stylistic flourish for which historicity is important. The shot encapsulates the frisson of the possibilities that CGI presents for the historical film - even more than touchstones like Forrest Gump. I like the way the shot functions as both foreground and background. Its spectatorial meaning may in fact vary by viewer. I presume that the rough historical and geographical placement of the TransAmerica building is common but not universal knowledge. (I myself am too young to have any lived memory of its construction, and in any case did not grow up in the Bay Area, as Fincher and to some extent the interpellated spectator of Zodiac did.) For some viewers, the shot will mean "time passed, even enough time for a skyscraper to be erected, before we heard from the Zodiac again"; for those with more knowledge is more specific: "three years passed, while the TransAmerica building was being built, and it wasn't until after 1972 before the next Zodiac letter arrives." That difference gets at the local color ethos of the film, but also at the contradiction in the use of CGI in the shot.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Spring Syllabi

It's the first week of the semester here, and I have gotten my Spring syllabi to final versions. Links to the intro course and the critical methods class are available from my Temple page.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Book Reviews

In putting together the syllabus for my graduate Critical Methods course, I've been taking a closer look at book reviews because they so often and so directly articulate the constitution of a scholarly field. In the process I'm realizing how much I've tended to undervalue reviews. Not only do they provide introductions to new scholarship and pithy argument summaries, but they also can serve as part of an important conversation about the discipline – our theories and methods.

For instance, Charles Barr's review of Su Holmes' British TV and Film Culture (Screen 48.3) makes this observation:

[T]he strategy of studying press coverage mainly on the basis of files of cuttings collected by the BBC, while understandable, has its disadvantages. Picturegoer and some of the trade papers seem to have been consulted direct, but the others through clippings. This means that important sources are ignored, such as The New Statesman, Sight and Sound, and The Listener, all of which have lively and distinctive perspectives on TV, and on specific programmes, in this decade of intense development. It also means that all the journalism tends to be considered as interchangeable, without a consideration of the stance of a given paper. (408).

Now, some of his critique applies specifically to Holmes' book and object of study. But what a useful summation of the methodological issues in either primary historical documents or reception research. Those approaching reception from the vantage of Foucauldian discursive reading tend not to consider the social and institutional positionality of journalistic sources – the interchangeability of those evoking words, ideas, metaphors, or narrative tropes is almost the point. Sometimes I'm in that boat, but I have been mulling over the problem and have been trying to think of the tools best to think of the relationship between, say mass market journalistic film reviews and the overall journalistic field in the postwar years.

Mind you, it is a little nerve-wracking to read harsh reviews when you're trying to hone and articulate your own argument.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Writing Pitfalls

I've been working on a book chapter, which means in fact revising previous writing I've done. There's nothing to make you aware of your limitations as a writer faster than confront stuff you wrote a year or two years ago, particularly writing which has not yet had a stylistic fine-tooth comb go over it. Anyway, as I write the book manuscript, I have a few goals:

No first person. I keep telling my students that while "I" and an occasional "we" is not wrong per se in formal academic writing, 90 percent of the time, the sentence would be stronger rewritten to avoid 1st person. I'm now trying to practice what I preach. In the process, I realize that writers in our field frequently overuse the 1st person.

A very minimum of process-oriented statements: "in this book," "below," "I will argue," etc. These are particularly part of the convention of the introduction, with its description of what each chapter will do. My goal for the intro is to give much of what is expected from an introduction (i.e. orient the reader to the argument) without merely listing what is to come.

Reduce my reliance on transitional crutches... "still"... "nonetheless"... "on one hand." Obviously these aren't bad in themselves, but my paragraphs start to feel pro forma after a while.

Reduce the number of ordered lists and ordinal adverbs. Reading Habermas and Claus Offe in grad school helped put me in a phase where I strung one numbered list after another. Eventually I realized that what's acceptable in German prose is not in English.

Cut down on repeated metaphors. I have been working on reducing jargon already (though sublation is a really, really handy word!), but what I still indulge in are jargony metaphorical constructions: mechanisms, pulls, transformations, and the like.

No bipartite titles. Well, I'm breaking that rule for one chapter title but so far am clear on the rest.

I don't know how absolute I can be with these goals, but they seem worth keeping.

William Germano, meanwhile, has railed against the evils of two-independent-clause/semicolon constructions. I'm not sure I'm ready to give up that vice.

Table of Contents Notifications

For some reason, I've been slow to jump on the bandwagon with electronic alerts from journals. They're a handy way to know when a new issue is out and what's in it. Many even offer RSS feeds, for those who use this great timesaving tool for internet reading.

Hearing my plight, my friend Diana King, arts librarian at UCLA, sent me this handy list of e-notification services to get me started. She said I could share this with others, so I am.

Project Muse
(E-mail alerts | RSS feeds)
Project Muse is an online publisher of current University Press journals from a number of presses, with an emphasis on the humanities. They offer both e-mail alerts when the latest issue of journals you select is published and RSS feeds.

Journals of interest: Cinema Journal, Discourse, Film & History, Film History, Framework, The Moving Image, PAJ, Velvet Light Trap, GLQ, American Quarterly, Canadian Review of American Studies, boundary 2, Cultural Critique, Postmodern Culture, Technology and Culture, Callaloo, Biography, Arizona Quarterly, Criticism, New Literary History.

Duke University Press Online Journals
(register | list of journals | email news)
Duke participates in Project Muse, but also maintains its own e-journal portal with some exclusive content. If you register with Duke, you can sign up for e-journal content alerts and a personalized"My Favorite Journals"list. To sign up for RSS feeds, click on the title for individual journals to sign up. Finally, Duke also features and"eBuzz"e-mail notification service, which will send you subject-specific information on new books and journals from the Press.

Journals of interest: Camera Obscura, boundary 2, differences, GLQ, Modern Language Quarterly, positions: east asia cultures critique, Public Culture, Social Text

Caliber (University of California e-journals)
(Film Quarterly RSS | email alerts)
Caliber hosts a small set of UC Press journals. The most important/relevant one of these for film studies is Film Quarterly.

Taylor & Francis Online Journals (via Informaworld platform)
(list of journals | email alerts)
T&F is a major online journal and database provider for numerous academic disciplines. The e-journals to which they provide content are now available through a platform called"Informaworld,"which has a huge number of electronic products. To sign up for e-mail alerts to new journal issues from Informaworld, register on their site and select titles from the"Journals"list. It is helpful to browse the titles you want to choose from the T&F website first, since Informaworld tends to display things only in alphabetical order.

Journals of interest: Digital Creativity, Early Popular Visual Culture, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, New Review of Film & Television Studies, Performance Research, Quarterly Review of Film & Video, Text & Performance Quarterly, South Asian Popular Culture, Third Text

Oxford University Press
(list of journals | email alerts)
Oxford provides e-mail delivery for new issues of electronic journals. They also offer RSS feeds for individual journals and a"CiteTrack"service that will search for topics and authors on a recurring basis. You will find all the Alerting Services options on the page for each individual journal.

Journals of interest: Screen, Cambridge Quarterly, Notes and Queries, Review of English Studies, Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Studies, Year's Work in English Studies

Cambridge Journals Online
(List of journals | email alerts | RSS)
Cambridge has a small set of interdisciplinary humanities journals available, which can be sent as either e-mail contents alerts or RSS links.

Journals of interest: Journal of American Studies, Journal of Asian Studies, International Journal of Cultural Property

Sage Journals Online
(list of journals | email alerts)
Sage offers a small set of Communication Studies journals online, and offers both table of contents e-mail alerts and saved searches.

Journals of interest: Communication Research, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies,, European Journal of Communication, Games and Culture, Global Media and Communication, Media, Culture, & Society, New Media & Society, Television

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Unfinished Dance

The Unfinished Dance (Henry Koster) is pretty much the intersection of two specialties of MGM: the integrated musical and the sentimental (melo)drama. The intersection itself appears in other of the studio's output, notably Meet Me in St. Louis. Unfinished Dance shares a star – Margaret O'Brien – with that film but otherwise emphasizes the qualities MGM was known for outside of its musicals: sentimentality, Americana, and the cult of childhood. Even the mise-en-scene immediately communicates the wistful relation to a middle-America that was rapidly receding in the postwar years:
(Photo: The Margaret O'Brien website)
One reason that the sentimental drama has been interesting me more and more is that while the scholarship, feminist and otherwise, on film melodrama certainly outlines why a film like Unfinished Dance is melodramatic, it does not fully capture the nexus of historical past, childhood trauma, and national identity that seems to recurrent in the late 1940s. I don't have an argument about this confluence yet, but the repetitions make me want to dig deeper and explore them.

One trouble is, naturally, that these films are so easily recuperable to camp, aesthetic dismissal, or historical distance. The narrative of Unfinished Dance - a child dance pupil becomes fixated on a ballerina and ends up crippling her rival - is a hairline away from The Bad Seed camp territory. And I've heard the argument that MGM, particularly the Freed Unit, approached their Americana with a camp sensibility to begin with, so we shouldn't necessarily take the sentiment at face value. Yet, presumably many viewers did, or at least the sentiment resonated with them in non-ironic fashion.

As a side note, once again we have a triangulating class ideology (ballet is seen as superior to stage musical dancing, except that it's not) typical to classical Hollywood. But once I say that, I wonder what typical means. Film scholars in humanities usually have nothing to do with content analysis (major exception: Bordwell, who counted romance narratives in his CHC sample). I would like to see a content analysis of class-ideological narrative structures.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

CFP: Visible Evidence XV

Chuck brings my attention to the announcement for the next Visible Evidence conference, this time to be held in England.

Visible Evidence XV brings together scholars, artists, producers, makers and curators who engage in debates on contemporary documentary practices in all media.

Hosted by the Lincoln Chair of Communications with the support of the Grierson Trust, bfi and Wallflower, VISIBLE EVIDENCE XV will take place in one of the UK’s newest universities sited in one of its most ancient cities. As usual, the conference will address all current issues in documentary studies including documentary and history, and fact-based theatre. Screenings will include films from the British National Film and Television Archive specially digitised for the conference as well as recent Grierson prize-winners.

We invite panel and paper proposals on all topics and current issues relating to documentary. As in previous years, the conference program will include pre-constituted panels as well as a number of panels reserved for open call papers. Sessions will last for two hours and be limited to four papers.

Notification of acceptance will follow shortly thereafter. In the event that panel chairs present a full slate of papers, they will then be asked to confirm their panelists by 2 May.

In the event that a topic is accepted but the panel is open, the Lincoln Conference Office will issue a specific further call for papers by 11 April, directing respondents to the panel chairs who will have until 2 May to confirm line-ups.


Final notification of acceptance will follow by 30 April

(Papers may be submitted to both calls. Papers submitted to but rejected by panel chairs may be considered, upon request, until 9 May by the Lincoln Conference Organising Committee. Notification of acceptance will follow shortly thereafter.)

Submissions to bwinston - AT -

Details at the CFP homepage.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Paradine Case

Many people have been amused and bemused by the idea of my 1947 project. I think a lot of it stems from the intuitive sense that 1947 is unmemorable as a film history year. A lot of movies were put out, to be sure, but how many made the lists of greats, whether official or unofficial.

Well, Hitchcock's work is no exception: his 1947 entry, The Paradine Case (Selznick for Warners), gets pretty universally panned, ignored, and qualified with "interesting failure" status. And I would be really hard pressed to pick it over faves like Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, or Strangers on a Train.

But the great thing about watching a bunch of noncanonical works is that you feel free to take them on their own merits. Formally, The Paradine Case may make the case for Hitchcock at his most formalist. There's almost a revelatory glee in his taking everything that the ($2.2M) resources of late 40s Hollywood had to offer and pushing the language of film expressivitiy, even if it never matches the thematic or the affective appeal of the film entirely. At times, it feels cloying, a continuation of the hypertrophies POV shots that Rebecca, Spellbound, and Notorious made famous. At other times, the use of composition, focus and space is breathtaking. The Paradine Case is simply a sustained experiment in the use of compositional depth not to create Wellesian/Wylerian tableaus but to arrest figures in distinct composition planes set in relief against one another. Many have complained about the tedious plotting of the courtroom drama, but it's to the film's credit that the courtroom itself feels like a plastic, cinematic space.

Meanwhile, The Paradine Case interests me historically. Auteur critics point to its failure as an overly thematic film. From my eye, I'm interested in how and why Hitchcock, Selznick, and WB privileged theme over the showmanship usually driving Hollywood projects of this size. Sure, part of the answer is connected to my prestige-film argument. But there's the development of everyday understanding of theme in film that interests me. We take it for granted. And it's not like themes were nowhere to be seen in 1920s and 30s cinema. Hardly. But The Paradine Case seems to strive for the literary field and to take the theatrical ovelap with cinema as theatre proper, with all of the thematic weightiness it could provide.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

New Years Resolutions

Since Jason gets the ball rolling at Dr. Mabuse, I thought I'd reflect on some of my goals for the new year.

1) Finish the book.

2) Watch more silent features. There are plenty of holes in my film historical knowledge, but the noncanonical films of 1920s Hollywood have to rank high among them. Fortunately, TCM regularly shows silent films that otherwise do not see distribution or revival.

3) Keep up better with current scholarship. I started this blog by reading and reviewing recent journal articles and books. That's fallen off a lot.

4) Take more time to read outside the discipline. There are specific areas that I want to explore, other work is worth approaching more serendipitously. Obviously when we specialize, we cannot be jack of all trades or even as well read as we'd like to be, but I also think that disciplinary knowledge is strengthened by contact with other areas.

5) Learn to understand my intellectual foils better. I increasingly subscribe to the belief that the hallmark of a good scholar is the ability to put forth convincingly the case for a position she or he disagrees with.

I may not have had Chuck Tryon levels of productivity, but it's been a good and productive year for me. I only hope to continue to keep the nose to the grindstone.

Furthermore, blogging here at Category D has so far been both enjoyable and good for my work. It would be nice to continue to explore what an academic blog can be and do without, obviously, being too great a distraction from my research and writing. Thanks to all who take the time to read.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Earlier scholarship

Amazing how nearly a month passes while the blog lies dormant. As usual, end of semester rush and the holidays were a serious distraction from my distraction. The nice thing about the extended Christmas break is the time to return full-fledged to my own writing and scholarship. To finish a draft of the book manuscript is my main goal.

In the process - both for one of my chapters and for my SCMS paper - I've been revisiting, this time more in depth, the writing from the Chicago school of sociology - mostly writing from the 1920s. What's amazing is how well written it is - not that it's especially literary or fluid in its style or even a great approach to popularizing in the C. Wright Mills vein, but the scholars nonetheless tend to write expository prose with an enviable clarity. Moreover, it feels modern. I don't know much of what scholarship was like before WWI, but from the 1920s on, you can pick up some writers and read a familiar language with a familiar understanding of what specialized, academic argumentation means.

I don't know how much the Chicago School is useful to film and media scholars, since their ideas are often available second hand in later work. But I'd recommend Herbert Blumer's essay, "Moulding of Mass Behavior Through the Motion Picture" (Publications of the American Sociological Society, Aug. 1935). The title might indicate a reductive media effects approach - and there is some of that - but if we can step beyond a kneejerk rendering of early sociological approaches to mass media as intellectual bad objects (or as mere historical discourse, which is much the same thing), we can see that Blumer is addressing something interesting. His comments on the relationship between the closeup and social distance are interesting. Moreover, his statement that "there is an intimate relation between reverie, awakened disposition, and basic taste" phrases better than I could some of the connections I am hoping to draw between film theory, thematic-ideological reading, and the sociology of taste. Beyond the writing, the ideas strattle antiquated and thoroughly modern.