Saturday, August 30, 2008

Semiotics of Advertising

I have to admit I first relished this post for the snarky comments in the comments section, but it is asking a real question: what do (the designs of) these images say?  There are some savvy responses, including:
Looking at these from a perspective as a documentary film maker, these two pictures fall into two very different photo/film traditions. Obama and Biden are staring off into a vista that the viewer [can't] turn to see hemselves; the idea is to project a shared journey into some presumably hopeful future. The folks in the photo and the folks looking at the photo are supposed to be doing something together; the viewer is with Obama and Biden.

The McCain/Palin image, of course is staring right out at the viewer: the two figures are trying to do something to the viewer more than with him or her: to persuade. It's more immediate than the Obama campaign's approach, which has power. But it is a pure pitch, and as such it runs the risk of falling into the trap of seeming more like a pitch for a product than an introduction to two very important people.
In short, it's very much a Judith Williamson semiotics-of-advertising exercise, one that reveals how important connotation can be to image meaning - yet subjective to the point where the above example is a Rorschach test - and invites us to think of formal determinism of the signified. (At least that deterministic assumption is built into the advertising and design professions.)

I've often considered spending some time in my intro class to read still visual images before hopping into the realm of interpreting moving images and film narratives. The idea of getting students to read a movie poster or ad seems an appealing one. 

FROM THE COMMENTS: Girish directs me to another ad image close reading, by Tucker Teague, and "zunguzungu" brings up an interesting piece by Roger Ebert on still-image movie analysis. Ebert's reading does not strike me as semiotic; instead, he's one part formalism, one part Christopher Alexander-ish belief in visual rules. Though I could see how these distinctions would seem pedantic to some.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Eavesdropping on other fields

Sentence of the day:
I’m starting to think that sociologists’ failure to theorize motivation has caused us to mutate unconsciously into conspiracy theory economists.
That's sociologist Steve Vaisey guest-blogging at org theory, adding his interest in psychology as a discipline that treats motivation seriously. No, I don't have the time and training to follow these discussions as I'd like, but yes, I think they're questions film and media scholars should engage more than they do.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Out of Print Classics

Isn't it about time for another printing of Grierson on Documentary

What out-of-print books do you think deserve a reprise edition? Guback's International Film Industry, Heath/DeLauretis's Cinematic Apparatus, and FIAF's 1900-1906: An Analytical Study would also be high on my list.


Even more than Calcutta, Singapore (Universal, John Brahm) carves out its own mini-genre of the orientalist noir. It's an amalgam of Maltese Falcon (Curt Conway plays a Peter Lorre-like gay underworld figure, Thomas Gomez a low-rent Sydney Greenstreet) , Casablanca (the romance flashback and voiceover narration), the Grahame Greene novels (oblivious American tourists), and the RKO noirs (combination of expressionists visuals and low budget setups).

Christine Gledhill argues that in noir "the heroine's characterization is itself fractured so that it is not evident to the audience whether she fulfills the [femme-fatale] stereotype or not" ("Klute" 18). Singapore fractures the characterization to extremes: Linda Grahame (Ava Gardner) suffers from amnesia and therefore is two different characters in the film. However, this unknowability of character mostly runs parallel to Matt Gordon's (Fred MacMurray) dual search - for a lost love and for stashed pearls. This disconnect means that Singapore is not likely to come across as an ideal-type noir. 

There's plenty to say about the larger ideological formations of the narrative, which is both an orientalist view of Pax Americana in the Far East after World War II, and a figuration of the British-American relationship. But it's two shot sequences I'd like to consider in detail. 

First, in the opening scene, Mr. Bellows (Porter Hall) looks out the plane window, then a cut shows a documentary-like aerial shot of "Singapore, pearl of the east." (The character's words act as voiceover.) The next shot shoes Bellows unconcerned with the outside. In effect, this shot exchange uses the character POV as a pretense for an "objective" view of the "East".  Spectatorship theory tends to privilege the POV shot as suturing the perspective of the viewer into the film's, but if anything the fake POV does a better job at making the "documentary"/ orientalist view the spectator's. It's not just that Bellows is looking then is not looking; it is that the film edits over this change in perspective as if it were not one.

A second scene is also remarkable for an asymmetry in editing relations. In this instance, a conversational exchange between Gordon and the Bellows as they prepare to leave Singapore, shots 1 and 3 have the same setup and looking relations, the internal gaze cueing the inserted reaction shot of shot 2. Shot 2 holds narratively important information: the spectator learns for the first time that Matt is also leaving Singapore and, given the closer frontal shot, can read through his facial expression that he's emotionally torn about doing so. The choice to cut exemplifies classical Hollywood's narrational economy and cutting style (we cut in only to learn and experience something), and the scene economically communicates the complex dynamic of the exchange (some inner dilemma is going on beneath Matt's cool exterior, and the Gordons are oblivious to it).  

It is interesting, and perhaps typical, that the film could not imagine a reverse field or symmetrical shot of the Gordons' expression. Clearly in classical Hollywood, parity of reverse field was common, but the short running time and narrative concision require the Gordons to be supporting characters without true perspective and psychology. The initial decisions get made by the scriptwriter, but they play out in the continuity choices. To my best guest, Singapore probably circulated as a programmer, with a shorter (80m) length that could justify an A or B feature. It certainly had higher production values than many Universal films, but lacked the gloss, care or script that Double Indemnity, Gilda or Out of the Past had.

Monday, August 25, 2008

It Had to be You

Once again, we have the documentary-style opening shots of Manhattan...

In tone, though, It Had to Be You (Columbia, Don Hartman/Rudolph Maté) is despite, Maté's directorial hand, a world away from the new postwar realism or noir expressionism. Except in one dream sequence, which just about compensates for my long-frustrated desire to see psychoanalytic musical Lady in the Dark:

Like Lady in the Dark, It Had to be You is a Ginger Rogers vehicle, centered on Victoria Stafford, a confused single woman who is repeatedly unable to commit at the alter. Eventually, a figure of her imagination, the dashing George McKesson (Cornel Wilde), materializes and soon romantic complications ensue. In many ways, the narrative is typical of the sophisticated/ romantic comedy that evolved from the screwball comedy. One sophisticated comedy touch is the playfulness about advertising and the mass desire, as a billboard ad enters into the dream sequence:

More radically, the imaginary-as-real character poses an interesting narrational question. Many classical films toyed with the fantastic, but in this film by the end the clear lines drawn for the spectator get fudged. 

Geoff King remarks, following Dyer and others, that star narrative trajectories so often center on the star "becoming" herself. It Had to Be You shows the transformation of Ginger Rogers from a confused ditz to the brassy, confident character we expect.

I'm wondering if this genre deserves more attention: the standing assumption that screwball comedy marks a golden age, against which other sophisticated comedies are failed imitators, does not do justice to the change of comedies in the 1940s.

Fall Course Syllabi

As usual, I'm posting the syllabi for my fall courses: Introduction to Film/Video Analysis and Race and Ethnicity in US Film. The syllabi are pretty much in the can, but I still welcome feedback, tips, and suggestions.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Quick Links

Now that I'm getting the blogging pace started up with the rest of the academic term, I wanted to point to a few worthy posts around that I've come across this summer but haven't had the time or blogging energy to write into a proper post. Better late than never?

StickyLulu's Supporting Actress blogging continues with Ethel Waters in Pinky. The post wrestles with the paradox of a strong performance under a representational regime denying black characters agency or depth and cites Waters' "performance is marked by curious moments of stylistic discordance."

Shahn at 6 Martinis and the 7th Art provides the most economical (yet insightful) film analysis I've seen, in this case of The Little Foxes.

Michael Newman hypothesizes the impact of DVD access to formal developments in cult cinema. His suggestion that behind the puzzle film lies a spectatorial practice that manages modernist narration in a new way seems extremely fruitful. My one quibble is that The Limey is a film that for me was actually better the first time,  with the frisson of mismatch intact, when it was perfectly clear in its narration (at least to Resnais fans like myself) but seemed less programmatic than in fact it is. (I still like the film, by the way.) 

Girish on film analyses worth reading. Is there a better or more voracious reader out there?

Thom's Film of the Year site reaches 1949 with a terrific write-up on White Heat, with equally terrific frame captures.

Green Dolphin Street

“It would be an unhappy world if the only love was the love of youth.” Green Dolphin Street (MGM, Victor Saville) foregrounds its status as literary adaptation, from its book cover title to its sprawling narrative development, and it's remarkable when a film delves so far into a literary “tone” yet presents its theme so explicitly in the dialogue. Or perhaps this thematic obviousness was common to the literary prestige films, a distinction from more generic fare.

In any case, Green Dolphin Street is a prime example of the older type of classical Hollywood prestige film that continued alongside a newer, emerging prestige film. The film takes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, with a convent...

period piece and frontier adventure material...

and the spectacles of threatening "natives" and epic earthquake:

How much is in the source material, I do not know, but it seems a clear strategy on MGM's part both to wed the film's spectacular appeal to an "epic" historical scope, while hedging the studio's bets.

The style is safe, too, with an update of the "quality" cinematography that defined the late-30s "golden age" production. See for instance, typically masterful but unobstrusive use of backlighting to separate foreground from a complicated, active background:

Expressionism tends to come in only for highly motivated occasions (the natives get restless), but a couple of tics signal the impact of more adventurous and show-offy style (which I call stylistic mannerism). Take, for instance, the Tollandesque ceiling shot or the Sirkian disarticulation of space through use of mirrors:

Finally, Bob Rehak's work has me looking more at classical effects and process shots, and I can't find a better example of glass painting compositing than the fake Mont St.-Michel-ish convent.

In short, this is hardly the first (or even 30th) 1947 film I'd recommend for viewing enjoyment, but it's precisely the sort of film that I started this project to watch: typical but interesting in the way it follows received practice in a period when filmmaking's changes were starting to hold sway on even the most conservative of studios, projects, and genres.

Documentary Reenactment

Speaking of revisionist documentary studies, I thought I'd give a quick pointer to Jonathan Kahana's latest post at the Columbia University Press blog, on the topic of documentary reenactment. It's a response to Man on Wire and Errol Morris. I particularly appreciated Kahana's point that "A major artistic and pedagogical device in documentary for most of its history, re-enactment got a bad name in the 1960s, with the rise of the cinéma vérité technique that, for better or worse, has come to be identified as the 'most' documentary of styles." What's worth adding is that even other techniques, including expository doc, took on the taboo for reenactment. I'm curious of how and why that happens, and one project I'd like to embark on is a closer history of the industrial and social contours of documentary. In the meantime, I'll give Kahana's book an eager read.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Keeping History Fresh

Perusing Charles Musser's intro to a special issue of Film History devoted to 30's documentary (v. 18), I was struck by this claim: "For the history of any period or any subject to retain its vitality (for instance, the history of documentary in the 1930s), it needs to be rewritten from fresh perspectives and enriched with new sources and kinds of information." Not earthshattering, since he's essentially codifying the logic of the academic field, but a nice statement of my motto nonetheless. I'm convinced that there is much more to be said about postwar Hollywood if we look closely at the period - its films and their contexts. And not simply in that completist Borgesian map sort of way. Rather, in general in our field, the assumptions about the period have remained the same for some time and are due for reexamination. (It's also pleasing me to see documentary studies get that kind of reexamination.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

70s Film Theory Treasure Trove

Reading Catherine Grant's blog (which I've been meaning to link to for some time) I noticed a link to an old Mary Ann Doane article. Following it, I realized that seemingly the entire back run of Cine-tracts is free and available electronically from Brown's library. The journal's a veritable who's who of film scholars from that generation - too many to list - with plenty of psychoanalytic and semiotic theory, but much more as well. A great resource to have online.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

CFP: Media in Transition 6

Media in Transition 6: 
stone and papyrus, storage and transmission

International Conference 
April 24-26, 2009 
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


In his seminal essay "The Bias of Communication" Harold Innis distinguishes between time-based and space-based media. Time-based media such as stone or clay, Innis agues, can be seen as durable, while space-based media such as paper or papyrus can be understood as portable, more fragile than stone but more powerful because capable of transmission, diffusion, connections across space. Speculating on this distinction, Innis develops an account of civilization grounded in the ways in which media forms shape trade, religion, government, economic and social structures, and the arts.

Our current era of prolonged and profound transition is surely as media-driven as the historical cultures Innis describes. His division between the durable and the portable is perhaps problematic in the age of the computer, but similar tensions define our contemporary situation. Digital communications have increased exponentially the speed with which information circulates. Moore's Law continues to hold, and with it a doubling of memory capacity every two years; we are poised to reach transmission speeds of 100 terabits per second, or something akin to transmitting the entire printed contents of the Library of Congress in under five seconds.

Such developments are simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. They profoundly challenge efforts to maintain access to the vast printed and audio-visual inheritance of analog culture as well as efforts to understand and preserve the immense, enlarging universe of text, image and sound available in cyberspace.

What are the implications of these trends for historians who seek to understand the place of media in our own culture?

What challenges confront librarians and archivists who must supervise the migration of print culture to digital formats and who must also find ways to preserve and catalogue the vast and increasing range of words and images generated by new technologies?

How are shifts in distribution and circulation affecting the stories we tell, the art we produce, the social structures and policies we construct?

What are the implications of this tension between storage and transmission for education, for individual and national identities, for notions of what is public and what is private?

We invite papers from scholars, journalists, media creators, teachers, writers and visual artists on these broad themes. 

Abstracts of no more than 500 words or full papers should be sent to Brad Seawell at no later than Friday, Jan. 9, 2009.

The full call at Henry Jenkins' blog.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Photo manipulation

I'm sure this entire discussion may be old hat to many folks, but I found the Errol Morris blog discussion of photographic manipulation terrific, the sort of thing worth assigning to a class and thought-provoking in its own right. One sentence that stuck out for me:
But doctored photographs are the least of our worries. If you want to trick someone with a photograph, there are lots of easy ways to do it. You don’t need Photoshop. You don’t need sophisticated digital photo-manipulation. You don’t need a computer. All you need to do is change the caption.
In some ways, this is a restatement - in another medium - of the central problematic of documentary meaning, namely that actuality footage carries very little of its own meaning but instead relies on montage and the soundtrack to supplement the "pure plenitude" of indexical representation. 

The interview-discussion also touches on the problem of lossy images. Morris asserts that lossiness is the guarantor of authenticity, citing the reality effect of low-resolution documentary and pseudodocumentary filmmaking. However, I'd suggest there's a perceptual difference between low-resolution and lossiness. If we as viewers (and I know I'm being impressionistic here) feel the image failed to capture fully the profilmic (because of distance, obstruction, atmospheric conditions, film stock, etc.), we have a different disposition to the "photographic truth" than if we feel that captured information has been compressed out. This may be a generational difference, though, and certainly digital aesthetics can fetishize the apparatus as much as analog counterparts. But I'd like to suggest that we read the cues of low-res and compression loss differently.

One thing that Morris does not discuss is the political economy of the news industry, which has to be changing its understanding its ability to know photographic provenance.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Blog Blurbs

A Category D first: an excerpt pulled for a film promotional blurb. They're not my words but Elena Gorfinkel's abstract from her Viva talk. Still, it made me wonder how and when blogs are being mined for blurbs or if they will be more in the future.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Conferencegoing 101

x-posted from Dr. Mabuse's Kaleido-scope

Even acknowledging the brute reality that conferencegoing may down this year in our field, at least for junior and apprentice scholars in North America, I thought I'd pass down this list of tips on "how to enjoy a convention." (note: pdf version, scroll to p. 16) It's written by a sociologist, Dan Ryan, himself an intermittant blogger, and some of his more discipline-specific advice might not apply to our field. And SCMS is still not up to MLA/ASA dimensions, though it's getting there. But there's plenty worth reading. Some highlights:
  • Don’t get too turned off by name tag gazing. It is what people do at these things. Yes, people will check yours out, discover that you are nobody and then move on. Some of the folks are real bozos looking for famous people to kiss up to. Don’t sweat it. Don’t let the turkeys get you down.
  • Remember that almost everyone else is feeling like they don’t know anyone too.
  • Recognize and celebrate the fact that the most important and enjoyable pert of the annual meeting is that stuff that occurs OUTSIDE of the sessions.
  • If you’re giving a talk, just tell us what you did, why you thought it was interesting and what we should remember about what you found put or showed. The point of the talk is to help me decide whether I might want to read your work or not.
  • Remember, you are going to spend a few days with 3 or 4 thousand people who are, perhaps, better at analyzing the social world than participating in it. Be kind. We’re all in this together.
There's more in the full article. Tips like these may be useful to those just starting to get their feet wet in the conferencegoing waters. And like many introductory primers, they can be fun and useful fodder for more those with more experience, as well.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Syllabus Plagiarism (cont)

The Chronicle has an op-ed on syllabus plagiarism that cites my blog post on the topic. I should say that I think the piece oversimplifies my position (i.e. I find value in seeing teaching as a collective enterprise in addition to an individual one) and find it odd to ascribe an opinion to me without asking. The author, Jennifer Sinor, has faced having her syllabus copied verbatim by another professor. I concede that some syllabi may be more original than others and remain sympathetic to the author's concerns, but I am unswayed to the main point. 

And the straw man of postmodernism is unhelpful: I don't think that nothing is original, but syllabi often are hybrid affairs. The grant proposal comparison is apt: while one shouldn't copy a proposal, who writes one without another as a close template?

That said, there are some insightful claims in the piece: where one stands on the position may correlate to the teaching-research mix of one's position. 

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Good Old Days

A speedy observation: As the above frame (from This Property is Condemned, 1966) indicates, Classical Hollywood starts to take on a historicity and the patina of nostalgia as the studio system fades. One can read the significance on a number of levels. There's Coppola's script as new movie-literate writer-artist whose sensibility would come to distinguish the Hollywood Renaissance. There's the shift in cultural hierarchy, an earlier phase of which I'd discussed in my prestige film article. There's perhaps an ideological nostalgia going; I think that reading is particularly convincing in the case of the 1970s retro-classicism.

Now, of course, the 1970s is as likely to serve the function that the 1930s and 40s did for the 1960s and 70s.

Friday, August 01, 2008

CFP: Failures, Flops, and False Starts

This sounds like a terrific idea to me. I'm intrigued by a possible theoretical approach t0 the historiography of failure. Unfortunately, my thoughts are only in the beginning stages now, so I'm not sure I could work them up any time soon.

The Velvet Light Trap Call For Papers
#64, Fall 2009—Failures, Flops, and False Starts

Deadline: September 15, 2008

Histories of the moving image tend to highlight financial, critical, and popular successes: films that generated monumental revenues at the box office, television series that were acclaimed by critics and adored by audiences, technologies that revolutionized the ways in which we exhibit and consume narratives and images, etc. Yet, new media, failed or abandoned projects, hardware, institutions, businesses, or content can serve as constructive ways in which to examine oppositional discourses, alternative conceptions, failed visions and botched efforts, as they pertain to the construction, distribution, exhibition, and consumption of the moving image. By examining failures we can get a better sense of the true impact of successful projects and programs, as well as an improved understanding of marginalized or contradictory modes of production, discourse, and reception.

We welcome an inclusive definition of failures, flops, and false starts capable of illustrating not only what was and didn't work, but also what could have been. Projects that lacked funding, artistic movements or business strategies that went nowhere, and programs that never reached fruition can sometimes be more revealing than a finished product and a job well done. The category of brilliant but cancelled—or, conversely, terrible but produced nonetheless—envelopes an untold number of media products and visions, revealing insights to industrial processes of production and promotion, and cultural practices of organized protest, advocacy and activism. The losers of a format, hardware, and programming war (such as HD DVD or Beta) punctuate the economic risks of attempting technological innovation.

For every success, there are innumerable failures. The Velvet Light Trap invites submissions for a special issue on Failures, Flops, and False Starts that helps us to better understand the ways in which unsuccessful film, television, and new media projects, technologies, and strategies can improve our understanding of the haphazard, opposing, and unlikely ways in which media forms, criticism, industries, and practices have developed.