Sunday, March 30, 2008

Paul Arthur

I learn from the New York Times today the sad news that film scholar Paul Arthur has died. I have no personal connection to Arthur - in fact, he's one of the many scholars whose work I admire but whom I've never seen in person. His essay "Jargons of Authenticity" is one of the smartest things I've read on documentary, valuable equally for the side detours through art, politics, and ideological formations as it is for its core argument. I've just dipped my toe into waters of his most recent book A Line of Sight, but found it equally rewarding.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

PCMS time change

Friday's talk has been moved up an hour to start at 5:30.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Voice of the Turtle

Feminist criticism of classical Hollywood often, understandably, divides its attention between hegemonic representations of gender and sexuality and those whose contradictions lead to a complexity worth reading against the grain. Between Category A and Category E, in Cahiers's taxonomy. For instance, there are so many narratives of the "good" girl who's a foil for the "bad" girl that scholars seized upon melodramas or women's pictures that show the pathos of the "good" girl who's gone wrong and reveals the choice as bound up in social dilemmas.

Voice of the Turtle (aka One for the Book, Irving Rapper, WB) exemplifies the prevalence, often forgotten, of something in between. Mousy, neurotic actress Sally (Eleanor Parker) has just broken off a casual affair with a man who was not in love with her. She swears off men, but her vampish, smart-cookie girlfriend Olive (Eve Arden in a very Eve Arden-y role) dumps Bill (Ronald Reagan), a GI she doesn't want to date, on her. Given the hotel shortage, she ends up letting Bill stay in her apartment and both romance and complications ensue. More the Merrier meets It Happened One Night, so to speak.

A dichotomy between Sally and Olive as split sides of the female psyche suggests a gender-regressive ideology at play. After all, Sally's frigidity with Bill and Bill's nearly asexual chivalry with her are shown to be desirable behavior. At the same time, both Olive and Sally have sex out of wedlock, and their difference is painted in their scheming or sincere character. A "wartime exception" to traditional sexual mores brought new represntational challenges and reflects in characters' reactions: her producer explicitly asserts his understanding with Sally's supposed sexual relationship with a GI. In general, Voice of the Turtle was not the only film as frank in its depiction of unwed sexuality, but it did mark a new wartime and postwar forthrightness. Arden's star turn, too, deserves mention as a mitigating factor in the ideology of the script; her charisma changes the tenor of the character.

In the background of all this is the war. I'm wondering if 1947 was a pivot year in the representations of the war, as a society and industry got used to peacetime (for a short while anyway).

1947 Exhibition Snapshot Week 4

Week 4
(1/8/47, Variety returns 1/29/47)

Aldine (WB; 1,303; 50-94c): Temptation (Univ.) $18,000
Arcadia (Ind-Sablosky; 700; 50-94c): Time, Place Girl (WB) $6,500
Boyd (WB; 2,350; 50-94c): Man I Love (WB) $25,500
Earle (WB; 2,760; 60-99c): That Brennan Girl (Repub) $21,000 with live music show
Fox (2,250; 50-94c): Razor's Edge (Fox) $16,500 5th wk
Goldman (Ind; 1,000; 50-94c): Secret Heart (MGM) $21,000 3rd wk
Karlton (Ind-Goldman; 1,000; 50-94c): Show-off(MGM) $18,000
Keith's (Ind-Goldman; 1,500; 50-94c): Undercurrent (MGM) $7,000 2d run
Mastbaum (WB; 4,350, 50-94c): Till the Clouds Roll By (MGM) $44,000 2nd wk
Pix (Ind-Cummins; 500; $1.95-2.50): Henry V (UA) $11,500 5th wk ("snapping back with morning shows for schoolkids")
Stanley (WB; 2,950; 50-94c): Blue Skies (Par) $17,000 9th wk
Stanton (WB; 1,475; 50-94c): Beast with Five Fingers (WB) $17,500

CFP: Contemporary Film Form and Criticism

The deadline for this is rapidly approaching - and it's not the most convenient scheduling for American scholars - but it looks like a great conference.


Continuity and Innovation:
Contemporary Film Form and Film Criticism

University of Reading Film Conference
5th – 7th September 2008

Contemporary film displays both its debt to the established forms and practices of narrative cinema, and to international developments in aesthetic practice and in new technologies that subtly shift the boundaries of cinema’s aural and visual field.

At the same time, contemporary film criticism negotiates a shifting relationship with its own histories and present – its histories of textual analysis and film theory, and its present landscape of concerns with identity, new delivery and reception contexts, digital remediation, and so on, explored against the backdrop of a volatile socio-historical moment.

This conference seeks to consider the critical challenges contemporary film form poses for us as film critics and theorists, in an approach rooted in the detail of the film text itself. In addition, the conference wishes to reflect and engage with the diversity of contemporary aesthetic choices and filmmaking practices. On the one hand, the conference will explore the continuities and innovations in contemporary film style, to move towards an account of contemporary cinema’s aesthetic practice and the ways in which these formal elements shape the production of meaning. On the other hand, the conference will provide an important opportunity to explore and extend the continuities and innovations possible in contemporary film criticism.

Keynote speakers include Douglas Pye and Adrian Martin. In addition, film practitioners will be discussing their work.

We invite papers that attempt to meet these interpretative, analytical and critical challenges through direct engagement with contemporary films. In addition to the familiar pattern of panel discussions and plenaries, the conference will include workshops in which speakers will present frameworks for analysis of the detail of a movie, as an introduction to discussion. Titles of films to be discussed at the conference will be circulated in advance.

Proposals for three kinds of presentation are invited:

• Close readings grounded in detailed analysis (20 minute papers).
• Discussion of historical, theoretical or critical issues related to the interpretation of contemporary film style (20 minute papers).
• Workshop introductions, designed to open up issues about a sequence (or sequences), as a prelude to extended debate (workshops will last 90 minutes).

The deadline for proposals is 1st April 2008. Please send your 200-word proposal and brief biography by email to Enquiries should be directed to the conference organisers Lisa Purse and John Gibbs at the same email address.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Romance of Rosy Ridge

It's funny: I started off this project with my eyes ultimately on 20th Century-Fox, a studio I think (and will argue) ushered in much of a distinct postwar sensibility in Hollywood. Along the way, I've become more fascinated by MGM and the sentimental Americana it honed. The combination of nostalgia and national imagining is particular, and worth unpacking. It's inspired me to take the sentimental drama up as a project soon.

The Romance of Rosy Ridge (Ray Rowland) exemplifies what interests me in this cycle: a feel-good, hayseed melodrama with history bubbling beneath the surface (and a complicated historicity collapsing past and present). The opening literalizes this rupture, with expository titles and a post-Civil War-era map giving way to fire and a KKK-like vigilante group.

It turns out the KKK-ish group is a political red herring - they, in Scooby Doo fashion, are trying to drive down land prices, not trying to intimidate African-Americans and white Yankees - but it's a red herring that actually brings the spectre of racism, of Jim Crow, and of Southern resistence into the narrative. A stranger to town (Van Johnson) tries to unite ex-Confederate and ex-Union factions of the town for the common good. In a surprising genre location, Romance of Rosy Ridge is a racial-tolerance message film and a film of national political reconciliation (was MGM especially invested in this, economically?), with much of the thematic weight hinging on Johnson's character, his star image, and his performance.

Finally, it's hard not to notice the eroticized matinee-idol treatment of Johnson here, in visual terms that equal or exceed Janet Leigh's to-be-looked-at-ness.

This is not a new argument - Richard Dyer and Jackie Byers have made it in other contexts. What I need to figure out is why MGM.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Temple Talk: Rey Chow

Mid-semester, and so it's the season for talks. I was alerted to an upcoming talk (next week) by Rey Chow.

Rey Chow, Brown University
"Translator, Traitor; Translator, Mourner (or, Dreaming of Intercultural Equivalence)."

Thursday, March 27, 5:30 p.m.
Temple University, Tuttleman room 101

Rey Chow is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Brown University, where she teaches in the Departments of Comparative Literature and Modern Culture and Media. She is the author of seven books, including The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Columbia UP, 2002), The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory, and Comparative Work (Duke UP, 2006), and Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films: Attachment in the Age of Global Visibility, (Columbia UP, 2007), and over seventy articles. Her work has been widely translated and anthologized.

I'm looking forward to seeing what she's currently working on.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

PCMS: Bob Rehak on Effects and Apparatus Theory

Next Friday is the next Philadelphia Cinema and Media Seminar, with Bob Rehak from Swarthmore and of Graphic Engine fame speaking on special effects and apparatus theory. I'll be responding.

Bob Rehak, Swarthmore College
"Revisiting Apparatus Theory in a Transmedia Age"

Friday, March 28, 2008
6:30-8pm 5:30-7pm

Apparatus theory of the 1970s emphasized ideological effects of the cinematic "machine," in particular the elision of labor through the concealment of moviemaking's technical base. But in the contemporary world of transmedia franchises and convergence culture, technologies of image manufacture, distribution, and even storytelling itself have become spectacularized and monetized as sources of additional "content," providing an ever-expanding universe of paratextual information and cross-platform branding of entertainment properties. As media texts multiply and every consumer potentially becomes a producer, what happens to ideological critique at the level of the media apparatus? What new forms of invisibility attend transmedia's engines of visualization and behind-the-scenes information? How are we constituted as subjects in and by a sea of seriality, narrative expansion, and other aspects of what Jim Collins has termed the "architecture of excess"? Finally, how might these questions illuminate continuities between classical Hollywood cinema and its digitalized, narrowcast descendents?

Respondent: Chris Cagle, Temple University

Temple University Center City Campus
Room 420

The PCMS listing has more, including directions.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Penn talks: Shiel and Mulvey

Upcoming talks, courtesy Penn's Cinema Studies program, this week and the following month:
Mark Shiel
"Mapping Early Hollywood"

A talk about the geography and architecture of the early film studios
in Los Angeles.

Wednesday, March 19, 5:30 pm
401 Fisher Bennett-Hall
3440 Walnut Street
University of Pennsylvania

Laura Mulvey

Discussion on Death 24x a Second

Wednesday, March 26, 2:00 pm
244 Fisher Bennett-Hall
3440 Walnut Street

Lecture on City Girls, Flappers, and Feminist Film Theory

Monday, March 31, 5:30 pm
Slought Foundation
4017 Walnut Street

Fourth Annual Film and Pedagogy Colloquium

Laura Mulvey on Teaching Formal Film Analysis
William Boddy on Teaching Television Studies

Wednesday, April 2, 5:00 pm
401 Fisher Bennett-Hall
3440 Walnut Street

Dana Polan
"The Role of Genre in Television Studies: The Case of the Cooking Show"

Using the example of Julia Child's THE FRENCH CHEF TV show from the 1960s, this presentation will examine the role of genre in television and in television studies. We will address such questions as: Does "food TV" constitute a genre or set of genres? What is its place within a popular pedagogy of "do-it-yourself" shows? How does the evolution of food TV speak to changes in gender relations in America? What does the spectacle of food on the TV screen say about leisure culture and its history? The presentation sets out to examine the evolution of "food TV" and its implications for both television history in particular and U. S. cultural history and everyday life more generally

Thursday, April 10, 10:30 am
401 Fisher-Bennett Hall
3340 Walnut Street
Plenty more, including other Mulvey events, so check out the CinemaStudies homepage.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Blog as Intellectual Craftsmanship

Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your blogs and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself either how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape. The blog also helps you build up the habit of writing. You cannot “keep your hand in” if you do not write something at least every week. In developing the blog, you can experiment as a writer and thus, as they say, develop your powers of expression.…

But how is this blog – which so far must seem to you more like a curious sort of “literary” journal – used in intellectual production? The maintenance of such a blog is intellectual production. It is a continually growing store of facts and ideas, from the most vague to the most finished. … I do not know the full social conditions of the best intellectual workmanship, but certainly surrounding oneself by a circle of people who will listen and talk – and at times they have to be imaginary characters – is one of them.

That's C. Wright Mills, after Kieran Healy did a find and replace of "diary" with "blog." There's more to the excerpt, and Kieran's whole post is worth a read as well.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Let 1000 Projects Bloom

I'm certainly honored to be listed as the inspiration for A.P.'s new Donald Duck project. More to the point, I'm eager to see what she or he will unearth and eager to learn more about animation, a weak spot for me.

Though I stumbled on the inductive-through-arbitrary-means project format fortuitously, I've become convinced it's an ideal focus for academic blogging, lying somewhere between the conceit-driven journalistic mode and the argument-driven academic mode. I've certainly found '47 blogging productive beyond my expectations. It would be exciting to see the projects that others might dream up.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

CFP: World Picture Conference

For those (like me), looking for a smaller conference but feeling the pinch of a low dollar and high airfares:

The World Picture Conference on

The Popular

October 24 and 25, 2008
Oklahoma State University

Keynote Speakers: Ernesto Laclau and Lauren Berlant

The World Picture conference is an annual meeting devoted to theory that takes place in the intimate setting of Stillwater, Oklahoma. This year's meeting will gather theorists from around the world, and from across disciplines, to address questions of the popular. We are accepting proposals for papers that address this issue in any number of ways. Some possible topics might include, but are not limited to:

Styles of the Popular
The Unpopular
Hegemony and Style
Metaphor and the Masses
The Public and the Popular

Proposals (including a brief bio) should be sent to Brian Price (brian.price - at - by June 2.

The conference is connected to the launch of World Picture, a "new online journal of experimental theory." It's edited and run by some of the scholars behind Frameworks: even more explicitly than that journal, World Picture is bearing the standard for the New Theoretical Turn. The first issue, for instance is a defense of jargon. What better way to epater les historiens than with pieces on "The Jouissance of Jargon"?!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

1947 Project Update

People keep on asking me how my 1947 viewing has been going. It's a reasonable question, and I'm glad for the interest, but I never have a pithy answer. Numerically, I've watched about a third of the features the 8 major studios produced/released (in New York) in 1947. That figure captures how much I still have yet to go, but doesn't adequately suggest what I've done. Here's the tally so far:

The most immediate thing to notice is that except for RKO, the big five put out significantly fewer films than the little three - these reflect in large part the relative weight of B pictures, which tend to be less accessible and less likely to face DVD or even VHS release. (By 47 the majors, other than RKO, had seriously curtailed their B units.) Factoring only the big five, It turns out I've done much better, nearly half of the features.

But there's a larger point than my progress to make: the fate of what we study depends so much on the particularity of DVD release (and the rights-ownership reasons for it). RKO and Fox have both had a decent number of their films released on DVD; one can attribute part of this to the longevity of films marketable as noir - a label less immediately accessible to many of MGM or Paramount releases. And from what I gather, Paramount has been sitting on their library, while Universal is only slowly opening theirs up. I'm just trying to figure out the paltry DVD showing of the 47 Warners' films, given their noir series - the year is hardly the studio's heyday, but a couple of titles at least seem home-video market-ready.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The High Wall

Image thanks to Wikipedia

When I last taught The Naked City I was surprised that the students found nothing remarkable about the location shooting. Used to the conventionalized world of studio lots and sound stages, I still get a frisson of the real watching it. Similarly, the shock of watching High Wall (Curtis Bernhardt) for me is to see a taut, expressionistic Dead Reckoning-ish noir coming from MGM.

In this of course, it is not without precedent. I hope to write on Lady in the Lake soon, but suffice for now to say it preceded High Wall. The two films shared the same cinematographer, Paul Vogel, and the continuity shows in the remarkable subjective tracking shots, put to better effect here than Lady. Also, subjective effects in the blackout and dream montages are worthwhile. Beyond that, the camerawork relies extensively on harsh contrast, angular composition, and surprising use of low-key lighting - it could fit well in a Fox or Warners noir.

Meanwhile, part of the fascination (for me at least) lies in two areas. First, we have another returning vet story. Protagonist Steve Kenet returns from Burma to find his war bride has been cheating on him. I'm increasingly convinced of the neat gendered symmetry between the historical rupture negotiated by the sentimental drama and that figured by the displaced veteran.

Second, The High Wall continues a 40s cycle of films dealing with psychiatry. Steve has faced head trauma, surgery, and consequently mild mental illness. He has to undergo surgery and sodium pentathol to recover his memories and discover his innocence. In contrast to the more psychoanalysis-based versions of psychological treatment, the film presents a more medical psychology of recovering self.

One of these days I will have to track down Lady in the Dark, which combines psychoanalysis and the musical. Incidentally, I'm curious about the fondness for titles with "lady" in them. Or for that matter, titles with only tenuous connections to the narrative. The High Wall is downright Zanuckian in its metaphorical suggestiveness.

Documentary Reception Studies

I'd mentioned it way back, but now my Scope book review of Uncovering the Holocaust: the International Reception of Night and Fog is up online. There's the typical book review hat trick of making the review about the book, but also about something larger. In this case, I'm arguing for the need for documentary reception study, and documentary film historiography more generally.

Monday, March 10, 2008

SCMS 08 Wrap-up

Well, another SCMS conference is over, and most everyone in town attending has gone home or is speedily on their way to the airport. Overall I enjoyed the conference. Having it in one's own town made it all the more enjoyable. My biggest regret was not being able to attend much of the panels, since I didn't cancel my classes last week and in addition had a number of other conference-related obligations. So I can't comment on the substance of the presentations as much as I would like, other than to do a content reading of the program or to forward along others' observations. That said, here are some general thoughts:

Trends: I was happy to see feminism make a strong return after its relative absence last year. The intersection between Installation and film seemed to be popular as a topic this time, as was experimental film in the underground cinema mold. As Oliver Gaycken noted at the special screening Friday night, nontheatrical cinema is a growth field for new work and new approaches. Exhibition microhistory carried across a number of panels. Ditto sound. Missing was the depth of range of historical work, especially on Western European cinemas. There were a number of panels on classical Hollywood but to my eye fewer than before. I'm not sure about this, but I believe there were fewer general film theory or cultural theory panels/papers advertised. Also, while newer documetary got its due, I didn't see as much on historical and canonical documentary.

Scheduling: I wish the program committee would not overpack the schedule. Panels ran from 8AM to 7PM and often did not stop for lunch. The thinking, obviously, is that attendees can pick and choose what they attend. True enough, but the result is a more disconnected, distracted conferencegoing experience for everyone, and more panels with 2 people in the audience. It's great that SCMS is growing as an organization and a conference, but the danger of the large-conference MLA model is that it becomes a sea of presenters without audience or community. That result is worth fighting, even it means a trade-off in fewer accepted papers or in higher costs.

Theme: Can we dispense with the thematic organization of the conference? I liked the architecture idea - one paper I saw even managed to talk about architecture with some sort of specificity - but mostly it led to papers where architecture was tacked on in the most metaphorical and superfluous way. If a theme is merely going to be an exercise in scholars retrofitting their research topics into a given rubric, it's not serving any useful function.

Workshops: I heard several complaints that some workshops weren't really workshops. Presenters ended up giving small (or long) papers and leaving little room for discussion. It's always easy to go over time as a presenter, but it's especially important to be brief in a workshop.

Ambition: The papers I managed to see were noticeably more consistent in quality than those I saw in Chicago last year. At several points, I craved more ambition from the papers. There's always a tension between the grand theoretical/methodological gesture and the modest, workmanlike contribution to an overall body of knowledge. It's not an easily tension to reconcile, but this time around, I felt the latter held sway. I go to panels to learn about new subjects, to be sure, and to gain historical depth on areas proximate to my research, but I also want papers to push me to think about our study in new ways.

Social life: There's a criticism to be made that SCMS is not enough about substance and too much about socializing, cliquishness and parties. I make that criticism myself sometimes. Nonetheless, I really enjoy the opportunity to reconnect with past colleagues, see acquaintances from past conferences, put faces to the names of scholars I admire, hang out with Philly-area folks and meet new scholars in the field. In fact, I don't fully know how valuable the social dimension of the conference is til it's over and the anticlimactic letdown sets in.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Things are ramping up for this year's Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, taking place this week here in Philly. To be specific, I'm working to finish up my paper before the conference starts. For those attending, I'm presenting on Dead End and the Chicago School of Sociology. The panel, on gentrification and the city, is in the very last time slot, but someone has to go last.

It should be a good conference. Just flipping cursorily through the preliminary schedule (it's long!), I see lots of panels I'm interested in, though many are outside my period and specialty area. Which is mostly good.

Hope to see many of you there.

Sylvia Sidney and Joel McCrea in Dead End

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Golden Earrings

There's a danger in reifying historical periodization of Hollywood, since perioidization is useful to make sense of a wide range of empirical detail but has no real existence on its own.

Nonetheless, the late 40s do show a rapid shift in the style and sensibility of Hollywood films. To me, that's what makes the period so interesting. And it's what makes a film like Golden Earrings (Paramount, Mitchell Leisen) so fascinating. Generically, it's a hodge-podge: part espionage film, part fanciful Bob Hope-esque picaresque, and part romance. The plot involves a British agent (Ray Milland) in pre-War Nazi Germany who meets a Gypsy (Marlene Dietrich) who in turn helps him escape detection as he carries out his mission. The two star images - Milland's and Dietrich's - not only diverge but seem to belong to different aesthetic universes. Stylistically, it's schizophrenic. The credit scene (above) could just as easily belong to Intruder in the Dust: location photograph instead of pictorial glass plate painting, sans serif font instead of fanciful script, stark tonal range instead of softness. The opening scene, however, is back to the sound stage studio style, an ahistorical romanticized London:

This juxtaposes plays out in the variation throughout the film, as it shifts from location shooting, sound-stage idea of gypsy settlement, and noir treatment of the Gestapo:

For all the stylistic changes, the film is still definitely a classical narrative at heart: a dual focus melodrama is premised on the complimentarity of male and female protagonist personal journey. Even the remarkable use of obie lights on the stars' eyes register the epiphany of Milland's character, as he comes to realize that he is now "part gypsy" and is lit in a manner similar to Deitrich.

I have not encountered too many Paramount productions of 47 yet (the Bob Hope films are a prominent touchstone), but it seems to me that Golden Earrings might be a useful dramatization of the studio's unsure path after World War II. David Thomson remarks that the studio didn't know what to do with Milland after Lost Weekend. They don't seem to know what to do with Dietrich, either, of Leisen for that matter. I certainly want to explore the studio's particular position in the postwar studio division of labor.