Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Philadelphia Movie Palaces

I've put my 1947 exhibition tracking on serious hold for now, as I have too many projects on the plate. But an article on the Jumbo movie palace in today's Inquirer (mostly on zoning/permit battles) is worth putting in the vertical file:
Built in 1905, the theater had its heyday in the 1920s and '30s. The last movie shown there was "The Perils of Pauline," in 1947. The building was converted into a warehouse in 1965 for Fox Electric Supply Co., which still owns it.
Not sure what to make of my magic year. I need to research more to see how the exhibition market fared in '47.

[also: my write up of Perils of Pauline]

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

From the Archives

Fun tidbit from American Cinematographer Jan 1942:

"...the 'Ripple and Wave-machine' by Warner art-directors Anton Grot and Leo Kuter... permits projecting on a cyclorama-backing the images of suitable sets of transparencies in a manner which give a remarkable illusion of moving waves extending to a considerable distance."

Now I need to track down an instance of its use.

Monday, September 22, 2008

PCMS: Roderick Coover on the Digital Panorama

This Friday begins the year's Philadelphia Cinema and Media Seminar.
Roderick Coover, Temple University
"The Digital Panorama and the Cinematic Image: Contiguity, Continuity, and Aesthetics of the Electronic Image"

Respondent: Bob Rehak, Swarthmore College

Temple University Center City Campus (TUCC)
Room 420

Friday, September 26, 2008

Among the changes brought about by computing technology are the ways in which digital tools enable the integration of temporal and spatial imagery on a common surface and, the ways they both minimize and maximize a fundamental dialectic of cinema, that of continuity and montage. For example, one thing that is new about new media is the potential to maintain an illusion of temporal continuity and spatial contiguity, while, at the same time, allowing also for montage, collage, layering, compositing, and other forms of media-mixing. Once dialectically opposed methods of panoramic art and cinema, such as those of continuity and montage, of close-up and long-shot, and of exposition and narrative, now co-exist. This paper takes up these issues through a discussion of contiguity, continuity, rhetoric, and aesthetics, wth examples drawn from works by the Labyrinth Project, Jeffrey Shaw, John Cayley and Roderick Coover.
For more on the seminar, visit the PCMS website.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

While Rome Burns

You know, if I was an orthodox Marxist media critic - or even a more old-timey lefty - I might be inclined to make something of this television review appearing on the NY Times' website's front page while our financial system threatens to implode.

But I'm not that sort of critic.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Craft of Research

The Craft of Research (Wayne Booth et al) is probably one of those books that many scholars and students read at some point in their graduate or undergraduate careers. I did not encounter it then; I somehow learned how to write and conceive academic research by some combination of trial-and-error, teachers' intervention, and a process akin to whole language acquisition. But a colleague in my writing group this summer recommended it, and I've become a fan. 

At this stage, the joy of the book is putting in concrete terms some of what scholars practice but do not always reflect on. Moreover, there's what I'd call the Top Chef effect: by revisiting an earlier stage of entering the field, those in the field are reminded what excites them about it. 

Finally, need I say?: my writing can always use encouragement for focus and for teasing out the main ideas buried underneath the theoretical apparatus and empirical detail.

UC Press sale

Once again, University of California Press is having a major sale. Tons of great film studies titles for a good price. 

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Bob Rehak has an excellent post up on the floating 3D film title, using David Fincher's Panic Room as an example of how the titles confound the normally separate registers of film discourse:
The work of visual-effects houses Picture Mill and Computer Cafe, Panic Room’s embedded titles make us acutely uneasy by conflating two spaces of film spectatorship that ordinarily remain reassuringly separate: the “in-there” of the movie’s action and the “out-here” of credits, subtitles, musical score, and other elements that are of the movie but not perceivable by the characters in the storyworld. It’s precisely the difference between diegetic and nondiegetic, one of the basic distinctions I teach students in my introductory film course.
Moreover, it seems likely (and hopefully I'm reading Bob correctly) that the use represents both auteur statement - Fincher famously relishes in "impossible" effects allowed by the digital - and a larger change in expectations about what cinematic representation can be (under pressure from digital forms, video games, etc.)

I don't have much to add to this analysis other than to express a desire for a fuller history of the title sequence in Hollywood. I've seen some good conference papers on the topic - often focused histories of technological processes  - and as usual Bordwell, Thompson, & Staiger's CHC has useful observations on the title. But it would be great to see a sustained study of film titling (am I missing one that's already written?) 

For instance, in my viewing, I've noticed a crucial shift in the title sequence that takes place sometime in the early-to-mid 1950s. Where classically, the titles were presented as something like a cinematic equivalent to a book's title page, in the 1950s Hollywood films begin in media res, with the titles intermixed over action that's narratively significant but not so laden with dialogue or action that a true contrapuntal effect emerges. The Defiant Ones is a good example and maybe an ideal type for this practice, but you can see it in films as safe as Picnic. The art film and the commercial art film could push this practice to its extreme by withholding film titles to the end, e.g. Il Posto:

Incidentally, recent American television dramas use this effect to signal their prestige, "cinematic" quality (c.f. the delayed credit sequence of Brothers and Sisters). 

So in short, there is a history of the shifting relation between the diegesis and the nondiegetic credits. A simple point to make, perhaps, but I think there are implications to be teased out. For instance, does the same shift leading to in media res beginnings also put pressure on the more traditional title sequence? The Saul Bass approach, for instance, might be seen in a larger context, even as it clearly had its own generative impact.

Meanwhile, I do need to revisit Classical Hollywood Cinema to see how much I'm reinventing the wheel. I often do. At his blog, David Bordwell reflects on film titles - the words themselves, not the titling on screen, though he has some nifty screen captures to illustrate his thoughts.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Stallion Road

So far I've been noticing a fondness not only for credit sequences based on a book or formal note but also the use of suggestive shadow (compare this to It Had to Be You).

If Song of Love showed the Warners' biopic given the MGM treatment, Stallion Road (Warner Bros., James Kern, an uncredited Raoul Walsh) shows the genre in transmutation as the studio changed in the postwar years. The film opens up with the iconography of the gothic film or the mannerist drama (say, Humoresque):

However, an open-nested flashback structure shifts the genre and the formal treatment to a high-key style normally associated more with RKO or MGM than Warners:

The narrative is a love triangle between ranch veterinarian Larry (Ronald Reagan), neighboring rancher Rory (Alexis Smith), and Larry's visiting college chum Steve (Zachary Scott). Reagan as usual plays the bland wholesome type, Scott the fey urban snob. What's remarkable about the narrative is its stealth gender subversion. Larry and Rory are clearly romantically destined for one another, while "cad" Steve and "trampy" Daisy (Peggy Knudsen) are the odd couple left out. (Sort of like Kyle and Marilee in Written on the Wind). At the same time, Rory is clearly masculinized, from her dress to her demeanor, while Steve edges toward gayness. On top of this, the horse serves a clear metaphorical function for sexual desire, with a parallel comparison between Larry and his horses.

Whether from Raoul Walsh's involvement or from Warners' approach generally, this Freudian potboiler threatens what might otherwise be a straightforward biopic about Larry's research into anthrax. 

I should also point out an instance of the typical here; at some moment of relative narrative lull, the film includes music sung by the characters. It's a scenario so utterly common to films of the 1930s and 40s and yet so foreign to commercial cinema today. My colleague Dan Friedlaender has pointed my attention to these moments as a reflection of the communitarian use of music. Which makes sense, given that the commodity-form of studio-created popular music has changed our relation to music and that the changes have worked their way through soundtrack practices in cinema (c.f. Jeff Smith's book The Sounds of Commerce).

Friday, September 05, 2008

Song of Love

Song of Love (MGM, Clarence Brown) is an uncharacteristic Katharine Hepburn vehicle, a fairly static supportive, suffering wife role as Clara Wieck, a pianist-composer married to Robert Schumann. (below, left) Still, we do get the typical Hepburn emotion-bursting-through-restraint in parts (below, right). 

The material and tone would best be described as MGM's take on the WB biopic formula. Like in the typical biopic, Schumann's genius is unrewarded in his lifetime, yet the dialogue signals his enduring contribution to musical history. And as in the typical biopic, personal tragedy, in this case the composer's mental illness, challenges the characters' happiness. What MGM provided was the utter tastefulness, the high culture milieu, and the wistful emotional sweep of the melodrama.

It's the sort of film that could have been made in 1937, except for the subjective treatment of Schumann's mental illness. Of course, the postwar films were preoccupied with mental illness, either as social problem (The Snake Pit, Possessed) or as the result of the war's effect on veterans (Best Years of Our Lives, The High Wall) [see my post on Deep Valley for more.] This may be in the background of Song of Love, but the rendering of illness as an atonal ringing on the soundtrack points to the playfulness with transparent style that the 40s directors entertained.

I'm embarking on a new project analyzing these MGM films. One thing that's struck me - and that I need to think more about - is the recurrence of a certain shot of the onlooking character in the theater wings. It's an image and composition hauntingly evocative, yet quotidian at the same time.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Disciplinary Terrain

At the last SCMS, I saw a paper from an art historian arguing for the value of considering artworks within the mise-en-scene as art, not as "art." I'm not fully sure of the utility of such an approach (or even what it would look like), but it least it struck me as a novel way of thinking about the cinema.

That paper came to mind when I saw this blog post about using 12 o' Clock High to teach military history. 

I don't know that there's any grand point here, but it's a nice reminder that in film studies we tend to bracket out all that's not necessary for an interpretable object. That includes, say, a few students'  judgments on whether the female lead should have left her man long ago, but it also includes content that other disciplines might have a genuine scholarly interest in.