Thursday, July 31, 2008

Electronic Monographs

I have not kept up with the developments in electronic academic publishing, so I was a little surprise to see a new monograph from Columbia UP, Jennifer Langdon-Teclaw's Caught in the Crossfire: Adrian Scott and the Politics of Americanism in 1940s Hollywood available as an e-monograph. The press's website says a print book is coming down the pike, but list only hardbound. I wonder if this trend will open up more room for (relatively) narrow historical monographs. I think that would be a worthy accomplishment.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

So Well Remembered

So Well Remembered (RKO, Edward Dmytryk) is a social problem film masquerading as a literary drama. The last gasp of Adrian Scott/Dore Schary's tenure at RKO before the blacklist and the Hughes buyout, the film tracks a dynastic melodrama while protesting, variously, poor housing, industrial working conditions, alcoholism, and mental illness. In that regard, it has more in common with a literary/problem cycle of the early 40s (How Green Was My Valley is a clear touchstone), but the RKO production differs from the Fox/MGM quality style in a couple of respects. First, it's embued with the documentary aesthetic inflecting late 40s cinematography generally and copying 30s left documentary specifically (there's a nice Griersonian montage in the factory injury scene). 

Second, the theme yokes together social melodrama with the same anti-Fascist Popular Frontism that marked RKO's Crossfire. The narrative follows George, a Labor MP who marries the industrialist lord's daughter, Olivia. As their marriage progresses, Olivia resents George's lack of upward mobility, while George resents Olivia's lack of morals. Conflict ensues, leading to divorce and estrangement. Years pass and it comes to a head when Olivia's son Charles falls in love with a working class girl, Julie. The final showdown occurs at Mussolini's fall. “We've not seen the last of her yet,” John laments, with clear echos of the Scott/Dmytryk/Paxton concern about latent fascism.

Meanwhile, Olivia's crime is not merely political, but includes her domineering psychological control of Charles. I'm not sure how broadly the film's Lefty Momism reached as a general ideology, but it's pretty remarkable. Olivia is so Manichaean and evil a character and she serves that it's fair to say that the leftism of the film's politics is predicated on the selfish middle-class woman as scapegoat.

(Frame grabs from Hectic House)

70s cinematography cont.

Commenter Josh comes to the rescue and notes that László Kovács claims innovation of the lens flare trend in 70s cinema. I'll accept that but still wonder what ultimately brought about the trend. (a- innovators have a broader context, b - innovators aren't always imitated).

To that end, here's some insight from David Cook: 
Cinematography in the 1970s acquired a distinctive look that was characterized by the use of heavy lens diffusion, the introduction of fast lenses that could register images at very low levels of light, and the practice of "pushing" the film in the lab... The increased use of diffusion was an aesthetic phenomenon, seemingly a reaction to the high-image definition made possily by recent refinements in film stock. (Lost Illusions 355-6).
Now, diffusion is clearly a different effect than flare, but the underlying logic of aesthetic differentiation may be the same. Flare may be a way of both showing off the capabilities of the new fast lenses and processing (the difference between 70s and 60s cinematography registers in part by the ability to shoot existing light). At the same time, it is a way of muddying up an image that seemed too crisp. Mind you, that's hypothesis. We'd need a closer look at how any given DP used flare or how it was received. 

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Making Visible the Apparatus

Again with the 70s cinema... this time I find curious the use of lens flare.

This example's from A Bridge Too Far, though one can see it in other films from the decade. (Klute has my favorite use of it.) I could guess some reasons for this stylistic tic, but truth is, I don't really know what drove the fashion for it. Certainly technological changes in cinematography proceeded rapidly in the decade, but the cinematography of the films in which flare appears is otherwise so controlled and crisp, it's hard for me to imagine it being anything but intentional, or at least built into a conscious aesthetic.

Conference Themes

In all the rush of practical considerations, I'd never stopped to think much about the themes for the SCMS Conference. After last year's conference, I complained that imposing a theme led to an increasing number of papers clearly reverse-fitted into the topic. This time around, whether intentionally or not, the organizers seem to have opted to sidestep the problem with vague language:

“SMCS at 50/Tokyo: Mobilizing the Future/Screening the Past,” and “SCMS at 50/LA: Archiving the Future/Mobilizing the Past.”

Mind you, retrospection or prognostication could serve as a focused theme. But in widening the topic into a rubric anyone can speak to (what historical media scholarship is not about "screening the past"?), the organizers are defeating the purpose of a conference theme to begin with. I do wonder if SCMS even needs annual themes, but if they choose to have them, the themes should derive from current ares of theoretical/methodological/topical interest in the discipline(s).  The Screen conference would be a good model in this regard.

What's more, I don't know exactly what terms like "mobilizing the past" or "archiving the future" mean. They sound neat, but are highly metaphorical, some might argue nonsensical. 

Friday, July 25, 2008


The New York Times article on (Asian) tourism in Japan reminded me that I need to make my decision whether to put my proposal in for SCMS Tokyo soon and that price is going to be the major determinant. Just in time for such a decision, the Economist comes out with their latest Big Mac index. The good news: Japan's currency is relatively weak to the dollar. Whether a lower purchasing power parity makes up for rising airfares is another matter.

Is anyone submitting to the conference? I believe I've heard of only one person so far who has confirmed plans to attend.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

La Mode Retro

I couldn't resist a capture of Jane Fonda dressed up as Hildy/Rosalind Russell:

That's from The Electric Horseman. I have been watching a lot of 70s cinema for a current project and am starting to think I prefer the popularizers over the unreconstructed New American Cinema auteurs. In any case, I'm curious in thinking about the relation between auteur production, genre production, and the interstices.