Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Scholarly Humility

Quote of the day, this time from a Janet Staiger essay I stumbled upon:
Having studies film history for little more than five years, my first tendency, like so many youth in any field, is to presume that the older histories are wrong. Revisionist history has, I am usre, as much to do with the Oedipal complex as it has to do with changing ideological conditions which position those of us in more recent times to see facts in new ways. Of interest, to me is that the more I study US film history, the more I realize that the older histories are less wrong than I used to believe they were. ("Seeing Stars" in Stardom: Industry of Desire, ed. Gledhill 1991)
Staiger articulates (articulated, since her words are approaching two decades in vintage) a sentiment I'm increasingly feeling. Of course if I felt I had nothing to contribute to film historical or theoretical knowledge, I'd just pack it all in and call it a day, but working on 1940s Hollywood, one also has to reckon with the fact that a lot of scholarship has been written on the period, much of it quite detailed and thorough. There is a value in reinventing the wheel - if new scholars and new students don't revisit the period, then the knowledge no longer is embodied, so to speak - but I also need to stake out new arguments while maintaining a good deal of humility in face of previous work.

Monday, April 21, 2008

PCMS: Suzanne Gauch on Tunisian Cinema

April Philadelphia Cinema and Media Seminar

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

Friday, 25 April 2008

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

Respondent: Jessica Winegar, Temple University

Temple University Center City Campus (TUCC) Room 420,

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Gentleman's Agreement

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

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

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

This realist trope is but part of a continued sociological gaze of the narrative. 20th Fox's prestige films in general were set in a solidly white collar milieu. Gentleman's Agreement moreover makes its problem film about "country club" anti-Semitism, where literally about resorts...

... or more generally about the various haute bourgeois and white collar locales of prejudice. (Notably, Phil Green passes as Jewish as part of his investigative journalism.) My book-in-progress is exploring, among other things, the ways that the film signals locale in sociologically specific ways, from the parkside residence to the more modest apartment building befitting a newspaper writer.

The point, of course, is not that these are fully verisimilar, denotiig spaces as actually inhabited by their social types. (In general, Hollywood set design prefers flat surface, regardless of context). But the specificity does strike me a change from a generalized creation of "city," "rich," or "poor" in 30s set design.

Alongside the realist tropes, the camera style marks the prestige filmmaking. One good example is a shot during a party scene. Phil talks to vampish fashion editor Ann Detrie (Celeste Holme). Simple, yet complex, the take lasts 1m15sec and tracks three times left to reframe the characters as they take in the buffet. The staging is similar to a following shot in today's film/TV, but here the classical planning is controlled and evidenct. It's striking in its unobtrustiveness, since the tracking shot does not serve stylistic flourish or even emotional emphasis, but rather serves almost as a secondary marker to distinguish 20th's prestige filmmaking from lesser, more pedestrian stagings that Hollywood might normally do of this scene.

It's worth noting that the film was pretty much Fox's biggest success story of 47, bringing critical praise, Academy awards, and strong box office receipts on a decent but reasonable A budget of c. $2M. For reference, The Late George Apley, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and Nightmare Alley all cost about that much.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Variety Reviews

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

Moreover, questions of this sort keep circling around my head as I try to deal with trade press reviews and popular press reviews in their social specificity. It's become a truism of reception study and historical method that reviews do not give transparent insight into any audience mentality. But if we can build their social genesis into the model, so to speak, that might help us read them better.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Dear Ruth

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

The conflict begins when an Air Force Lieutenant, Bill Seacroft (played by a dreamy eyed, ever-smiling William Holden) comes to woo the small-town girl Ruth (Joan Caulfield), who had written him letters overseas. Only Ruth did not write the letters; it was her political activist high-school sister Miriam. You can imagine where things take off from there.

I'm wondering if 1947 serves as a watershed year, the last time that World War II so dominated the American screen. I'll have to watch more late 40s/early 50s films to know for sure (Twelve O'Clock High, for instance comes 2 years later in 1949), but it's remarkable that the war is pretty much told in present tense here, much as it is in Voice of the Turtle.

The mammy figure of Dora (Marietta Canty) would be unremarkable, perhaps, were the narration not so blatant in marginalizing her. I am not the most naive viewer, but even I was shocked at the tracking shot that completely forgets about Dora's existence.

Of course, this is a tough heritage to face in studying/teaching classic Hollywood. The whiteness and marginalization/trivialization of African-American characters is omnipresent and egregious. I happen to think the films are still valuable to watch on a number of levels - as aesthetic experience, as historical index, and as model for what the medium can do. And there's a case to be made that in other areas the 1940s have political possibilities later shut down. (Miriam, for instance, represents a radical Eleanor Rooseveltian politics that are often glossed over by cultural memory of the period as homogenous.) That said, I can empathize with those who would prefer to spend their time with less offensive racial representations.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


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

Neale [Alan Ladd] and Pedro [William Bendix] fly cargo between Chungking and Calcutta. When their buddy Bill is murdered they investigate. Neale meets Bill's fiancée Virginia [Gail Russell] and becomes suspicious of a deeper plot while also falling for her charms.

Paramount seems to have specialized in this material: their 1943 Night Plane from Chungking was itself a remake of their Shanghai Express. I'll have more to say about this orientalism when I write up Universal's Singapore, but in some respects Calcutta muddles Eastern geography further, combining India, Burma, and China in some strange unspecified cultural imaginary that's both incidental (the main characters are white and American) and not (the noir sense of enigma draws metonymically from the "enigma" of the East).
The film, too, exemplifies a workhorse classicism, neither loose nor flourishing in its style. The blocking, for instance, anticipates character movement as a series of distinct compositions.

I have not done the research, but the style strikes me as a well-made B, an intermediary programmer (A or B), or at best low-A film. The narrative is not as fully developed, nor the production values as high as Paramount's more prestigious A pictures.

Finally, while like many noirs, the femme fatale is drawn in full unknowability, the lighting obsessively distinguishes a harsh, dark light on Ladd from a glowing bright light on Russell.

I find Ladd's star image fascinating. I think there's a real study to be done to explain its dimensions and appeal, historically. There's a case to be made that he marked a new style of American screen masculinity (hat tip to Marc Vernet for his observations along these lines - "Film Noir on the Edge of Doom"). And perhaps more than stars whose images seem immediate, something about Ladd's image resists semiology: what's most important in it is an apparent spectatorial desire for sadistic, suave patriarch.

What the... ?

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

It's funny: film scholars and even humanities-based TV scholars have so rarely been consulted as pundits on any meaningful scale that the ethical issues of punditry seem novel. But given that I myself was quoted in a Philly Inquirer article recently means I should probably start thinking more about these things.

ADDENDUM: Jason Mittell offers his own experiences as TV studies pundit for NPR, reminding us of how soundbites get taken out of context.

For what it's worth, I was well aware that Miller's appearance was highly excerpted and recontextualized. It's the nonjournalistic context that raised my eyebrows - but that could be my fussy, pre-postmodern sensibility. But should I be forgiving of the narrativizing that professional journalism does?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Film of the Month Club

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

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Value of Mannheim

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

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Dishonored Lady

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

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

The mystery is both transparent construct and the element that keeps unpredictable generic elements (noir, women's picture, courtroom drama) in balance.

Stylistically, the film is a good typical example of a fully-formed classical style that avoids stylistic panache. It is, in other words, a good exemplification of a "genius of the system." A series of three connected expressive tracking shots in the courtoom scene, for instance, lack the stylistic verve of The Paradine Case but nonetheless connote the emotional impact of the scene without spelling it out...

.... while the staging of the climax is more complex in shifting between 1st and 3rd person than contemporary viewers might expect from the material.

Less complex is the final scene, where the paternal gaze of the pscyhiatrist looks on the reuniting of the couple:

The film is surprising in its equation of psychiatry with the patriarchal "truth". Yes, I know other films do this, but Dishonored Lady provides little fodder for against-the-grain reading. Little counters the suggestion that Madeleine's "dishonor" comes from a psychological neurosis.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Invisible Wall

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

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

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

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

As for the economic ideology, the motif of gambling runs throughout, with a none-too-subtextual Force-of-Evil-ish equation of legitimate and illegitimate business.