Monday, May 26, 2008

Deep Valley

1947 seemed marked by two complementary gender tropes. On one side was a masculinity crisis figured by the maladjusting veteran, prone to violence, depression, or anti-social behavior. (C.f. The Long Night, or Son of Rusty.) On the other side was femininity under masculine seige to the point of frigidity. (C.f. Possessed, or 1948's Snake Pit). Each flowed from deep-seeded though narratively resolvable psychological troubles.

Deep Valley (WB, Jean Negulesco) presents both characters. Libby (Ida Lupino) is a young woman who, having witnessed her father hit her mother years back, remains emotionally stunted, tethered to an invalid mother, and afflicted with a stutter. Barry (Dane Clark) is a misunderstood convict who has had authority issues since his battle years. Barry escapes from the work gang and stumbles across Libby's hideaway forest shed. The two fall in love. Ideologically, meanwhile, the film pointedly questions the death penalty and abuse of justice, suggesting both how the problem film impulse informed films across a wide swath of genre and also how much had changed in Warners' output in the 40s: Deep Valley was essentially another iteration of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, only cast in psychoanalytic terms.

It is also a Negulesco film. In my current film history class, I have a section devoted to Hollywood Mannerism. It occurred to me after making the syllabus that this description is based in a simile and probably not self-evident in its meaning. Essentially, a number of directors in the late 1930s and the 1940s, pushed by the growth in prestige production, foregrounded style and a narrational distance on the material.

To my eye, the stylistic verve of directors like Welles, Wyler, Preminger, Hitchcock, Stevens, and Ophuls - and Negulesco - relied on an aesthetics of exaggeration. This exaggeration supplemented the invisible storytelling yet did not become outright expressionism. Thus while the shots above suggest the diagonal, low-angle compositions or subjective camerawork of noir (the second shot is a POV shot through smudged glass), the visual style uses shadow for nonexpressionistic ends and shows a gradation of shadow even in the starkest chiaroscuro effects:

And then there's the valley, as it and the surrounding wilds form the overarching motif of the narrative. In typical classical fashion, the theme of nature is developed to the point of obviousness, yet the film offers a neat symmetry between the high angle of the opening shot (which gains significance by later revelation that it's from the vantage of Libby's home away from home) and the closing shot.

The ambiguity of the ending and that last shot is remarkable: has Jeff Barker (Wayne Morris) replaced Barry, or is something else going on? For such a pat narrative, the quiet radicalism of the narrative is remarkable.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Quantitative Snapshot

Harry Tuttle does the work of compiling a few sources of global statistics on cinema production and exhibition. Lots of fodder for thinking about national cinema and political economy both.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Compilation and Mashup Montage

Chuck Tryon has a noteworthy post up titled "A You-Tube Theory of Montage," assessing some of the art-world uses of YouTube for compilation films. His conclusions hinge on how the artists deploy (or don't deploy) YouTube's medium specificity, but I have a more basic, literal question: does You Tube employ a different type of montage?

After all, in my film analysis classes, I've been trying to articulate, specify, and even categorize the ways that edits convey intellectual relationships between images. And to begin with, the compilation (found footage) film often relies on intellectual connection of a second order: here, montage's meaning less likely states an intellectual relationship between images than an intellectual dimension to representation itself (or the implied author's position). Two examples from Report (Bruce Conner 67) illustrate the difference. In the first,

the word "wish" (in a whimsical sans-serif font connoting both children's cartoons and advertising) ironizes what follows. The exact message is hardly programmatic: the New Frontier might be an untenable fantasy sold to the American people as yet another consumer good; the public's charismatic attachment to politics might be what perished in 1963; or maybe the wish fulfillment lies in the retroactive construction of Camelot out of a particular figure of political power. Nonetheless, in some capacity, the edit presents Kennedy's administration as a wish.

Compare with the second example...

Any of these images might individually have thematic resonance with other parts of the film, but as a montage unit, they do not connect in a logical chain (the detective has no semantic bearing on explosions and battle). Instead, they signify "inundation of movies." Armed with some of the montage from the rest of the film, we can further read these three shots as suggesting that movies define American life as much as (or more than) its political reality, but that nonetheless popular culture reveals a secret key to the American psyche.

The second-order montage is even relatively restrained in Report, which stands out among Conner's oeuvre for the seriousness of its tone. The found footage film would play up the meta-level of signification more.

But what of YouTube? Possibly, second-order compilation montage has found a significant place on it. Another type of montage, though, seems prominent. Andy Borowitz's mashup of a Hillary Clinton Speech and a Tyra Banks Next Top Model flipout exemplifies it. The humor and frisson of the piece is a very particular belief/disbelief: the spectator knows the shots are disparate times/places cut together, yet the shots nonetheless synthesize into a new, seamless reality show. The same logic subtends the humor and power of the Shining trailer or the whole genre of fake and recut trailers. It's a different kind of belief/disbelief than Metz's two types of voyeurism - psychoanlaytic precepts might not be the best way to explain it. It, too, is a second order montage, saying as much about the disparity (and commonality) between official politics and reality television. It's both more audacious and less challenging than cinematic intellectual montage.

Monday, May 19, 2008

CFP: Revisiting Film Melodrama

Interdisciplinary and Transnational Aspects, Stylistic Issues, and Contemporary Extensions

27-30 November 2008
Université Libre de Bruxelles
Belgian Film Archive

Languages: Bilingual in French and English

Though addressed in Anglo-Saxon studies since the 1970s with diversified approaches ranging from auteurist perspectives, readings as a feminist sub-genre to diachronic studies, francophone research on the melodrama genre has been very fragmentary and predominantly thematic. The study of melodrama’s stylistic construction has not been taken up, several isolated initiatives notwithstanding. This situation to some extent reflects preconceived notions of the genre, but also the absence of a coherent definition.

Misunderstood, minimalized and dismissed since its cinema débuts, the term became pejoratively applied to a “melodramatic mode” that limited the genre to those films that manipulated the emotions of the public. There also is a problem with the multiple and sometimes contradictory usages of the word, resulting in a veritable semantic gulf. The first sense of the term connects elaborate spectacle and feeling, confrontations with moral issues and rhetorical figures of excess; later usage highlights the psychology of sacrifice and pathos. Confusion also stems from the fact that the term might refer both to the effects produced on the spectators and the means by which the effects are produced. While the sources of Classic Theatrical Melodrama are delimited and defined, those of film melodrama, by contrast, are diverse. Theoreticians attribute the origins variously to Greek tragedy, the sentimental bourgeois novel, Italian opera or Victorian theatrical melodrama.

Approaches to melodrama in current publishing, conferences and festivals are almost exclusively based on monographic studies and retrospectives. These privileged approaches are not conducive to developing new lines of research. Furthermore, when film melodrama itself is addressed, it is envisioned within very narrow limits, notably those set by emblematic directors in the genre. The goal of this international conference is to open the field to new historical perspectives, to revisit the most viable ones, and to calibrate those lines of theory with theories of cognition and emotion, philosophical investigations of suffering and pathos, the mythic dimensions of the genre, etc.

These new research lines should be conceived as systematically redefining the topoï of the genre, with special consideration of interdisciplinary dimensions in order to avoid clichés and stereotypes. While studies and research often have focused on literary and theatrical theories, those from opera, music, painting and other art forms have been neglected, despite their pertinence. Moreover, to move beyond the historical, that is, passéist, dimension, it will be necessary to relate melodrama to contemporary issues of the genre—television, dance, installations, multimedia work, etc.

Presentations will be 30 minutes long, including film clips, slides or other AV support. Proposals must be submitted before 1 May 2008 and will include a working title, an abstract of about 250 words, the writer’s title and institutional affiliation (with address, e-mail and telephone number), and a brief curriculum vitae (about 100 words). Proposals and questions should be submitted to

Full call for papers and conference information available at the conference website.

NOTE: Deadline extended to May 30.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Whither Queer Cinema?

StinkyLulu has a running discussion on the state of independent queer cinema, and asks: "One: what's the most tedious trend in gay film? Two: what work does independent queer cinema have left to do? In short, what do you hate and what do you most yet hope to see?"

The first question is easiest for me to answer, at least with respect to the ideal-type gay indie flick: the simultaneous hyper moralist take on sexual libertinism, urban gay culture, body culture, and "the bar scene" with a shameless soft-core use of those very things to sell the film. My particular take on the genre aside, it's remarkable how this ideology is not all that different from Klute (which I just showed in intro) or, changing a few things, of classical Hollywood. To my eye, this is the best argument for a demand-side approach to ideological analysis.

Thinking more broadly, the Screen conference last summer saw a reinvigorated interrogation of queer cinema - what it meant, how to define the early 1990s moment, etc. I wasn't always in thrall with the answers provided: too much disdain of popular gay and lesbian genre production, universalizing what I see as particular sociologically-inflected taste and political preferences. But one interesting response: queer cinema is emerging most forcefully in a wide spectrum of European, Asian and other international contexts. The work of a new wave of scholarship, then, has grappled with gay liberation, queer politics and gay/lesbian visibility in national contexts beyond the Anglo-American axis that's dominated many discussions of gayness and gay cinema.

But writing as an only mildly cosmopolitan American gay man, with my own sociologically-inflected tastes and preferences, I'd say what I'd like to see is more credible syntheses of local color realism and romantic melodrama. To my eye, no gay representations have captured my imagination and identification since the British Queer as Folk.** Which is a long time to go ventriloquizing spectatorship.

**Brothers and Sisters comes close, Sex and the City is arguably not a gay representation, and the films I've seen have not delivered the generic pleasures and complexity that television has. Am I missing anything?

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Film History Survey

As one semester winds down, I'm getting ready my syllabus for a summer course, in this instance, a history of narrative film. It's tough of course to condense the history of all narrative film to 6 weeks. While every course requires some consideration of a disciplinary field, something about the history survey brings up the nature of the discipline most acutely. After all, the survey is predicated on selection and narrativization. I see at least a few principles at odds: canonical selection vs. counter-canons vs. the "typical"; cinema as a global enterprise vs. cinema as hegemonic enterprise; narrative as schematic vs. narrative as dispute; the emphasis on formal developments and movements vs. industrial and social factors explaining cinema's development; nationally-specific contextualization vs. wide sampling of national contexts. My answer, certainly one among many, has been to seek an 9imperfect) balance by giving some contour of an aesthetically defined canon while interrogating how the typical might be understood. In general, I tend to side wiith clear conceptual narratives that might be worth questioning on some levels of scholarly practice.

In that spirit, I've uploaded the draft of my syllabus for History of Narrative. Any suggestions or comments are welcome, especially now that I'm in the middle of nailing down a final syllabus for the course. The textbook I've chosen - and has been taught in the course here at Temple before - is Thompson and Bordwell's Film History. I hope to write more on film history textbooks soon.

PCMS: Elena Gorfinkel

May Philadelphia Cinema and Media Seminar

Elena Gorfinkel, Bryn Mawr College
"'Dated Sexuality:' Anna Biller’s VIVA (2006) and the Retrospective Life
of Sixties Sexploitation Cinema"

Friday, 9 May 2008

American sexploitation cinema of the 1960s and early 1970s has gained a second life in the past two decades through a boom in video and DVD distribution and re-release, and consequently a new, generationally distinct audience, who plumb the depths of the films for their political and aesthetic transgressions. This presentation proposes that what appeals to cult audiences in the present about the “impoverished” tableaus of sexploitation films, a genre that unfurls melodramatic male fantasies about women’s erotic agency in the 1960s, is precisely the shunted melancholia of obsolescence. This is an obsolescence that inheres not only in the strivings of the films’ politically retrograde plots, but also in their erotic content, in the material evidence of their mise-en-scène, and in the extra-textual residues of their embattled mode of production.

Sexploitation films maintain a hold on contemporary viewers precisely through the films’ constriction by history, by their seeming containment within their own historical moment and inability to transcend it - as if “time capsules” without a destination. An exemplar of the penchant for “dated sexuality,” filmmaker Anna Biller re-stages the pro-filmic universe of the sexploitation oeuvre in her film VIVA (2006). A Far from Heaven of sorts for the sexploitation cineaste, VIVA’s narrative of two women’s “entrance” into the sexual revolution and its meticulous reconstruction of the genre evokes both Radley Metzger’s lush soft-core films as well as the commodified landscape of the late 60s and early 70s, embodying itself as a time capsule constructed in retrospect. Biller’s vintage mise-en-scène exhibits a collector sensibility that indulges in a productive form of historical fetishism. In “the big lighting, the plethora of negligées, and the delirious assortment of Salvation Army ashtrays, lamps, fabrics, and bric-a-brac,” the film stages the archive of the 1960s and early 1970s as a diorama or an art installation, a space which Biller (as central character Barbi/Viva) enters and inhabits. VIVA, in its indulgence in the artifacts, shoddy conventions and “outdated” precepts of the genre, encourages a historiographic reconsideration of the sexploitation form, particularly in how it speaks to the spectatorial experiences of women, the “undesignated” audience of the genre, as well as to public memories of the sexual revolution. Professor Gorfinkel argues that Biller’s relay of her own spectatorship of the sexploitation genre represents a way of imagining female spectatorship as a form of cinephile wandering through the historical frame – and through a cathexis on the world of forgotten bodies and discarded objects, both material and cinematic.

Respondent: Patricia White, Swarthmore College

Temple University Center City Campus (TUCC) Room 420