Wednesday, February 27, 2008

1947 Exhibition Snapshot Week 2 (pt 1)

I figured weekly tracking would be too tedious for this project. There are a couple of things to note in interpreting the film listings. First, Philadelphia is not necessarily representative of a national market. Not only is each city different, there was no homogeneous national market as such. Instead the majors carved out regional spheres of dominance in exhibition: Philly seems to have been heavily a Warners theater town.

Second, films in the 40s did not necessarily have a weekly release. Many did, debuting on Wednesday or Friday. Others may have had a shorter release. In general, I am using Variety returns for every other Wednesday, then picking a sample day from the week before (Wed or Fri) to show those films in their respective showings.

Finally, studios in the 40s did not use saturation booking. Philadelphia was not the last city to see films, but it wasn't the first either. Going week by week through the year, it may take some time before I actually get to my 1947 films. In the process, I may discover that imdb lists a film as 47 in its release year when it in fact came out in 46. (Already, I'm seeing that the copyright date I had listed for Nocture is inaccurate.)

For every other week, I will give returns for the downtown palaces, then (occasionally) list films playing in the neighborhood houses. So hear goes...

Week 2
(1/8/47, Variety returns 1/15/47)

Aldine (WB; 1,303; 50-94c): Wicked Lady (Univ.) $18,000
Arcadia (Ind-Sablosky; 700; 50-94c): Return of Monte Cristo (Col.) $6,000 2nd week
Boyd (WB; 2,350; 50-94c): Undercurrent (MGM) $17,500 3d wk
Earle (WB; 2,760; 60-99c): Falcon's Adventure (RKO) $44,000 with live music show
Fox (2,250; 50-94c): Razor's Edge (Fox) $28,000 3d wk
Goldman (Ind; 1,000; 50-94c): Secret Heart (MGM) $29,000
Karlton (Ind-Goldman; 1,000; 50-94c): Rage in Heaven (MGM) $8,500 reissue, 4th wk
Keith's (Ind-Goldman; 1,500; 50-94c): Strange Woman (UA) $7,500 2d run, 2d wk
Mastbaum (WB; 4,350, 50-94c): Time, Place, Girl (WB) $18,000 3rd wk
Pix (Ind-Cummins; 500; $1.95-2.50): Henry V (UA) $11,500 3rd wk
Stanley (WB; 2,950; 50-94c): Blue Skies (Par) $21,500 7th wk
Stanton (WB; 1,475; 50-94c): Nocturne (RKO) $12000 3rd wk

Trans-Lux featured newsreels: this week, Mummer's Parade, Quake in Japan, Erie Plane Crash

Neighborhood house showings to come.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Geography of Cinemagoing, 1947

If you haven't seen it, I'd recommend David Bordwell's post on His Girl Friday. It's a reflection, personal and intellectual, on the cultural life of that film. (Jason Mittell teases out some implications for copyright policy.) I'd add to the film's incorporation into film studies canon attests to the influence of Film Art, which I'd read (3rd edition) in my college intro to film course, where we watched, indeed, His Girl Friday. Moreover, Bordwell includes advertisements and exhibition information from its local (Madison) run.

What a better occasion, then, to debut what I hope will be a regular feature on this blog and its 1947 project. I'd conceived of the project as a way to apprehend, synchronically, Hollywood's productions. It still is that primarily, but particularly at the intellectual provocation of my colleague Dan Friedlaender, I am increasingly curious about the distribution of these films. To that end, I plan to look at 1947 from the grounds-eye view as well, taking snapshots of Philadelphia's exhibition history.

Before diving in to look at what was playing or how much films made here, though, it's worth just noting what Philadelphia's exhibition market looked like in 1947. My roots don't run deep here, so my picture is based on ads in the Philadelphia Bulletin, on the invaluable Cinema Treasures website, and the aid of Google Maps. I'm still mapping, but so far have plotted over 100 theaters in the city limits (click for the Google Map):

Blue represents downtown first run palaces, red and magenta represent subsequent-run neighborhood theaters.

A couple of trends worth noting. First of all, cinemagoing wasn't just more prevalent then than now, its magnitude is hard to fathom. Currently there are 4 non-porn cinemas in Center City; in 1947 there were at least a dozen and a half theaters, many of which held more than 2500 seats. Accordingly, the history of cinema exhibition also gives a trace of the geography of transportation: before the widespread adoption of the automobile, cinemas were well-dispersed across the city, while today many stretches are not served for miles by one. And, too, the theaters' history is also a microcosm of urban change and development. Almost all of the Center City palaces are demolished now (the one still extant is no longer operating). Looking at the Google map, it is surprising how many former theaters in Philly are now desolate urban, post-industrial wastelands.

This mapping is about giving a synchronic snapshot of the exhibition market, but the sense of diachronic change is hard to ignore.

Ballyhoo, 60s Edition

More on how I stumbled on this soon, but I thought I'd share this tidbit of Philly's cinema history:
When [The Cedar Theatre's] policy shifted to adults-only sometime around the mid-'60s, the operators tried the oldest trick in the book: adopting a name that would place them at the beginning of the alphabetical listings in the papers. Thus the Cedar Theatre became the Abbe Art Cinema. Something called the Aarde Cinema knocked the Abbe out of first place in the '70s and VCRs killed off its business in the '80s.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Political Economy of the Starlet

Following on my previous post and its comments, I have a pet hypothesis I'd love to be able to devote some more time to or see someone devote their energy to. At a macro view, it seems that in the 1960s particularly Hollywood rapidly shifted the place of women - both prominent female characters and the centrality of women actors as stars - as it moved from the studio years to the conglomerate/package-unit years. Why? In other words, I crave a political economy explanation for the Molly Haskell argument.

Moreover, I can foresee various shades of political economy explanation and would be particularly interested in models for the studio/producer decisionmaking and how they change under different types of corporate or private governance or different market structures. I often refer to this blog as a diaristic sketchpad, and my interest in explanation in firm behavior is a prime example. It's something I simply don't have time to explore right now but that intellectually I keep coming back to. Morever, it's a side that political economy explanations frequently overlook.

This explanation of course would require bracketing the simpler explanation that there were real (not perceived) audience and market conditions driving this change. My gut instinct tells me it's an explanation worth bracketing, though at some point such instinct needs to be tested against empirical evidence.

One more recent variation of this, by the way, is the pressing question on why male stars in Hollywood get better compensation than female stars. I'll concede I can think of several other explanations, including the global exportability of action genres. Would be curious for any reader thoughts.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Case for Markets

Chuck beat me to the punch, but it's still worth highlighting Henry Jenkin's 2-part interview (pt 1|pt 2) with Alexandra Juhasz on her YouTube pedagogy as well as her blog. I particularly found this bit from the interview interesting:
Furthermore, my students found that the system of user-ranking, or popularity, has the effect where normative or hegemonic ideas rise to the top of YouTube. The society's already accepted opinions about race, or politics, are most highly valued, receive the most hits, and thus are the easiest to see.
Since much of my work involves a) thinking about methodology and b) reflecting on the best way to adequately explain ideological formations/political legitimations, I'm particularly interested in the way that newer media not only challenge traditional market formations of media production and distribution, but how they may suggest that traditional left-theoretical accounts have overstated the distorting/coercive role of market structures. Traditionally, after all, left cultural criticism has offered a portrait of the market as the problem for a politically ideal representation. Either it distorts by subjugation of non-market concerns to the logic of commodification or it distrorts by not actually allowing a true competitive market (eclipsed as it is by oligopoly and lack of entry). Hence, the political economy critique which underscores that markets do not allow for audience demands and that media organizations prove problematic because they intercede with true demand. (Cultural studies sidesteps this question with a "yes, but" rhetorical stance: the market distortion is still a problem, only not a determining one.)

Well, to the extent that Juhasz's and her class's observation is correct - I suspect it is - at least one alternative to firm-market feedback also produces normatively undesirable representation. Markets and market structures, oligopolies especially, can serve as normatively useful intermediaries, just as they can sometimes exacerbate normatively undesirable representations. This is a key insight that economists of culture can add, even if some applications of mainstream economics still seem heterodox for a film and media studies used to political economy critique.

It's not the case that films and television shows participate in hegemonic ideologies (think the rabid proliferation of anti-gay jokes in Hollywood films in the 1980s) simply because the audience demands it, but we could take mainstream economists more as a departure point for understanding markets as translating mechanisms between audience-ideology and industry-ideology: this translation is not perfect, so that mismatches and irrationality themselves can be the basis of study.

Schematic, I know, and this all may go against the political and intellectual impulses of the field. For instance, I would not be surprised if Juhasz takes a different conclusion from her YouTube observations. And I should note that I hardly hold a Panglossian view of markets, firms, and either's impact on culture. But neither do I want to foreclose what economics can tell us about culture, even if ultimately we humanists are looking at culture differently than the economists do.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

16mm Care for Dummies

I was lamenting to Temple's head reference librarian that I needed to learn more about caring for 16mm films. I know the basics, particularly how to handle and project it, but my knowledge is mostly self-taught. She came to rescue by pointing me to a handy guide that the University of Washington has prepared (pdf version). Helpfully, it identifies no-cost preservation, low-cost preservation and ideal preservation as options.

I'm wondering if an explanatory SCMS workshop might be a worthy activity for the Archives committee. I'd certainly attend.

Monday, February 18, 2008

OneFilm Workshops and Discussions

As I mentioned before, I will be talking this next Saturday on Empire of the Sun as part of a city-wide series of public talks, discusssions, and workshops in the OneFilm Philadelphia series. I thought I'd highlight it and a few of the other film/media scholar-led topics on the schedule, as well as some panels of critics and makers.

Saturday, February 23, 3:00 PM

Temple University, Annenberg Hall, Room 3, 2020 N. 13th Street, (215) 204-4812
This discussion, led by Chris Cagle, Lecturer of Film and Media Arts at Temple
University, will examine Empire of the Sun and explore methods by which film
scholars understand cinema’s relationship with the study of history.

Monday, February 25, 6:00 PM

Scribe Video Center, 4212 Chestnut Street, 3rd Floor, (215) 222-4201
Blending special effects and elaborate production designs to create immersive
onscreen worlds, Steven Spielberg is one of the most technically accomplished
filmmakers working today. Led by Bob Rehak, Assistant Professor of Film and
Media Studies at Swarthmore College, this workshop will examine Spielberg’s use
of special effects in Empire of the Sun and other works—including Saving Private
Ryan and War of the Worlds—exploring ways in which film technology, genre, and
authorship come together to produce images and meanings of war.

Wednesday, February 27, 6:00 PM

Free Library of Philadelphia, Philadelphia City Institute
1905 Locust Street, (215) 685-6621
Steven Spielberg has been involved in many copyright disputes, and has also
successfully led the charge to secure special legal protections for film directors
in the United States. In this lecture, Peter Decherney, a Professor of Cinema
Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, will discuss Spielberg’s impact on
copyright law, and the place of the auteur in American culture.

Thursday, February 28, 6:00 PM

Free Library of Philadelphia, Central Library on the Parkway
Skyline Room, 1901 Vine Street, (215) 567-7710
Join local filmmakers and film crew members for an in-depth discussion of
ONE FILM’s inaugural featured selection, Empire of the Sun. Clips from the film
will be screened, and panelists will share behind-the-scenes knowledge of
filmmaking processes in their respective trades. Panelists will include Eugene
Martin (writer/producer/director), Rodney Wittenberg (sound and music
director), Mike Lemon (casting director), Patricia Taggart (location manager),
and special guest Garrett Brown (inventor of the Steadicam). The discussion
will be moderated by Bob Rehak, Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies
at Swarthmore College.

Monday, March 3, 6:00 PM

Free Library of Philadelphia, Walnut Street West Branch
201 S. 40th Street, (215) 685-7671
Many of Steven Spielberg’s films depict figures in exile or center on characters
that have been defined as “other”—foreigners, racial and ethnic minorities,
even artificial life forms. This workshop, led by Homay King, Professor of Film
Studies at Bryn Mawr College, will look at Empire of the Sun and other Spiel-
berg films from a cultural studies perspective, examining depictions of relation-
ships between self and other, and home and elsewhere.

Tuesday, March 4, 7:00 PM

World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut Street, (215) 222-1400
Film critics Carrie Rickey (Philadelphia Inquirer), Sam Adams (Philadelphia City
Paper), Patrick Stoner (WHYY), and Matt Prigge (Philadelphia Weekly) will
share their insights and opinions at this panel discussion of Empire of the Sun.
The discussion will be moderated by Louis Massiah, director of the Academy
Award-nominated documentary Eyes on the Prize (1990) and executive
director of Scribe Video Center

Wednesday, March 5, 6:00 PM

The Black Box at the Prince Music Theater, 2nd Floor
1412 Chestnut Street, 2nd Floor, (215) 569-9700
Lester Friedman, Chair of the Media and Society Program at Hobart and
William Smith Colleges, will give a presentation on the films of Steven
Spielberg—touching on everything from mechanical sharks to flying bikes
to UFOs. Author of Citizen Spielberg, Friedman is a foremost scholar of
Spielberg’s work, and his presentation is sure to enlighten as well as entertain.
Drinks and hors d’oeuvres will be served. Individual tickets to this event are
$10, and are available at the Prince Music Theater Box Office.

Friday, February 15, 2008

PCMS reschedule

The Philadelphia Cinema and Media Seminar talk that was original scheduled for today has been rescheduled for next Friday, February 22. Same time, room TBA. You can get updated details at the PCMS website.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

PCMS: Decherney on Hollywood's Auteurism

This upcoming Friday marks the semester's resumption of the Philadelphia Cinema and Media Seminar:

"Auteurism on Trial: Hollywood’s 'Moral Rights'"

Peter Decherney, University of Pennsylvania
Respondent: Paul Saint-Amour, University of Pennsylvania

Friday, 15 February 2008
Temple University Center City (TUCC)
Room 420, 6:30-8:00 p.m.

From Douglas Fairbanks to Steven Soderberg, the U.S. legal system has treated Hollywood filmmakers as a special category of artist. When feature films have been translated to new media, from two-reel serials to home video, courts have consistently offered filmmakers unusually broad authorial protection for their works. In my presentation, I will consider some of the reasons that filmmakers, and the Directors’ Guild of America, in particular, have been able to achieve special legal status, and I will consider some of the implications of their lofty perch for film on the internet.
Peter Decherney is assistant professor of Cinema Studies and English at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Hollywood and the Culture Elite: How the Movies Became American, and he is currently at work on a history of Hollywood and copyright law.

Paul Saint-Amour works on Victorian and modernist literature, with special interests in the novel, law, trauma, and visual culture studies, at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Copywrights: Intellectual Property and the Literary Imagination. He is currently at work on an edited volume, Modernism and Copyright, and a book-length
project entitled Archive, Bomb, Civilian: Modernism in the Shadow of Total War.


I got around to watch The Red and the White (Miklos Jancso, 1967) this week. I was surprised how much I loved the film, but I have to say it was a little odd to put up with subtitling in an unorthodox font:

One of the grad students here has been writing on the use of subtitles in cinema and as such has drawn my attention to cultural translation I rely heavily on but do not think about enough. There are a fascinating set of theoretical and historical concerns that subtitling raises. At some point, I will need to step a bit into the developing literature on the topic (for instance, the edited volume MIT Press put out a few years back).

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Magic Town

So far, with the 1947 project, I've just been blogging about the films I am watching for the first time. It occurred to me that for the sake of completism, it might be worth including films I've been familiar with already. What better day to start than Super Tuesday, and what better film than Magic Town (RKO, William Wellman)?

I happen to think this is a gem of a film, less aesthetically (it flaunts neither the literary skills of Apley nor the technical virtuosity of Pink Horse or Paradine Case) than historically. A social comedy about social science, the narrative is about Rip Smith, a pollster who stumbles across a "magic town," a statistical bellweather that perfectly predicts public opinion for the nation as a whole (the kind of claims you occasionally hear about Missouri in national elections these days.) He swoops down on the town, but the town's self-consciousness soon ruins it. The story is part "Man Who Corrupted Hadleysburg," part Middletown - Sarah Igo's recent (and excellent) book on the social scientific consturciton of averageness starts with a discussion of this film, and my own chapter on the public sphere undoubtedly will use it as well. For this film is the start of a series of postwar dramas to make the mass public sphere a social problem for the intelligentsia and a middlebrow audience. (as in Face in the Crowd, as I've noted.)

Though Wellman is the director, it feels like a Frank Capra film. The reason is screenwriter Robert Riskin, Capra's writer, who by the postwar years was as likely to be working independently. Reflecting more on the romantic comedy problem, I'd note that rather than saying that today's Hollywood is doomed and unable to make comedies like it used to, I'd venture that something about the story-by-conference-committee can produce certain kinds of projects better than others. It's not merely the collective nature of screenwriting opposed to a more personal, artistic writerly vision. Importantly, the collective screenwriting process can work well in television, and in fact worked well (on a smaller scale) in Hollywood's studio days. What's different is the lack of a continuous team of talent that develops around either a studio or studio unit. It's something TV shows have in common with the Riskin-Capra team of 1930s Columbia and what separates them from the project-driven comedies like Down with Love or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Speculative admittedly, but it may be a start for explanation. At the very least, Charles Maland's historical scholarship on Columbia (in an essay titled "Necessity and Invention") argues that the consistency of talent was important to the fomulation of Capra's "personal genre."

A genre that, in Magic Town was to take on a particularly postwar public sphere in its purview.

Image capture from Feeling Listless, a blog with a good writeup on the film.

One Film Philadelphia

The Free Library's OneFilm Philadelphia initative gets its launching announcement today. The film this year will be Spielberg's Empire of the Sun. I'm sure to talk a little more about OneFilm in the near future, for the very least that I'm slated to speak as part of a city-wide two-week-long event. For now, I'll just point to the schedule which is up online now, and a Philly Inquirer article on the event which quotes Tim Corrigan and yours truly. I know that people interviewed for articles worry about their words getting misquoted, but I have to confess that the reporter, Tirdad Derakhshani, made me sound more articulate than I actually was.

Never Historicize!

I thought I might have been too facile in my characterization of the newest theoretical turn in film studies – and maybe I have been – but yesterday I noticed that Tom Conley agrees:

From 1970 until about 1990 film studies witnessed, first, an explosion of theory. Since then there has tended to be a retraction in favor of extensive work on canons, genres, reception, and origins. A corollary aim for the cartographer of cinema is not to let theory go unattended, to be recanted, or left in the wings of a virtual theater of interpretation. (Cartographic Cinema 5)

To the outside or the neophyte to the field, decoding passages like this may be like reading tea leaves, but for those on the inside the referents of the passage are clear. By "cartographer of cinema" Conley means himself. In contrast, the retraction and recantation of Theory is, for Conley, a bad thing or at least a detour in our understanding of some crucial aspect of the cinema. "Canons, genres, reception, and origins" stand in broadly for both a cultural studies sensibility and an emphasis the discipline placed on film history. Both moved scholarly inquiry away from the generalizable to the particular.

The battle is more than one between subfields of film theory and film history. It's about the kind of argumentation that scholars put forth. At some point in the 1990's, even theorists followed Jameson's dictum "always historicize!" Today, they are just as likely to refuse historicization. To the historically minded, that's a problem of course, but to the new theorists, this refusal is necessary to get at some greater experiential quality of cinema – or, as I read Conley as claiming, to get past an ideological and illusory mastery of knowledge that historical explanation provides.

Finally, it's important to note that "theory" is not one thing. As scholarly practice, the generalizing claims of film theorists diverge from the explanatory claims of film historians. But historians have their own theory too (i.e. historiography), and the theorists' generalizing claims range considerably in type, scope, and underlying assumptions.

My stance is not a secret, but I'm also trying increasingly to think productively and charitably about this battle or schism in the discipline. At the very least, I think self-awareness about our underlying claims of knowledge production is healthy.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Romantic Comedy malaise

I don't normally put my prescriptive, evaluative hat on, but since A. O. Scott laments the sad state of romantic comedies today, let me say that I'm inclined to agree with him - and I say this as someone favorably disposed to the genre. What's more, Scott is asking the quesiton I've been wondering: why has the genre not been able to find an aesthetic verve where other genre films and filmmakers find inspiration in the genre dialectic of variation and repetition? "How did this genre fall so far," he writes, "from one that reliably deployed the talents of the movie industry’s best writers, top directors and biggest stars to a source of lazy commercial fodder?" I don't fully agree with any of his answers but I'm hard pressed to offer my own.

In related inquiry, I wonder why Sex and the City seems to have spawned uninventive ripoffs, where The Sopranos and Six Feet Under got copied by shows highlighting comparable inventiveness as the basis of comparison. Is all does seem tied into gender expectations of art's relation to genre film - whether on the industry's side or the reception side.