Friday, November 28, 2008

TCM cinephilia

Self-Styled Siren has a fun list of 10 Things she loves about old movies. She does not specifically mention this, but I wonder if her list could serve as the start of a list of tenets for TCM Cinephilia. Many of us know folks who watch TCM nonstop - and in the process may be amassing more raw film historical scope than your never-hard-working-enough film scholar. What's remarkable is that the network markets "old movies" (generally classical Hollywood films) to cinephiles who have criteria for appreciating cinema that's neither formalist nor popular. This cinephilia, like other cinephilia, latches onto the detail, but it's often detail that signals nostalgia for the aesthetics of a historical period. 

I both share and don't share TCM cinephilia. If my top films list did not tip my hand already, my cinephilia is one part 60s auteurism-art cinema cinephilia, one part academic-driven film selection. But if I could take Campaspe's exercise in the spirit it was written (well, sorta... she specifies no "big artistic stuff"), I'd offer a few things I like about old movies:

1. Tracking shots. I'm a sucker for the well executed tracking shot. Particularly on a large screen, but even on video, they give me a visceral sensation that's part perceptual and part emotional. That's why I gravitate to directors like Fuller. The steadicamed and handheld following shots in vogue in postclassical cinema do not nearly have the same effect.

2. Sonic hiss. 1930s Hollywood for me gains a surprising lyrical quality because silence is never silent. This matter (to me at least) because the best classical directors used silence so deliberately. The placement of silence in Only Angels Have Wings, for instance, punctuates the moments of emotional intensity in the narrative.

3. No credits at the end. Call me anti-union, but as a viewer I prefer the simple finality of "The End."

4. Songs and poems. This is more academic interest and historical curiosity on my part, but it's remarkable to see how the communal song and the poem was central to so many film and the kind of community they imagined.

5. Presentational acting. Brando may well represent the greatest divide in American cinema. The dominance of Method and naturalist acting in postclassical cinema has led many viewers to see classical cinema as immediately stilted and artificial. People don't act that way, after all! Well, the more presentational acting style of classicism is merely a convention that as soon as one gets used to is a useful blank canvass for a range of expressive possibilities. I wouldn't say it's superior to what followed it, but it's undervalued today.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

1947 Films, by alphabet

In the comments, Thom asks for my A-Z choices among my 1947 viewing. I'd originally discounted the utility of choosing the "best" from a small pool of films (I've seen about 90 features so far) and in particularly for a year as aesthetically undistinguished as 1947. Like I've said before there are very few canonical films from the year. But a quick list of some highlights might be the best introduction to the year, especially those who have not been reading my film-by-film review. It's even reminded me I need to write up the films I'd seen already before starting the project. So, by alphabetic conceit, here are a sample of what I think are among the more interesting of the year's offerings (* denotes official DVD availability):

The Arnelo Affair
Carnegie Hall*
Daisy Kenyon*
The Egg and I*
The Farmer's Daughter
Good News*
The Hucksters
It Had to Be You
Johnny O'Clock
Kiss of Death*
The Late George Apley
Magic Town
Nightmare Alley*
Out of the Past*
The Paradine Case
Ride the Pink Horse
The Two Mrs. Carrolls
The Unconquered*
Voice of the Turtle
Where There's Life*

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Film Theory e-Books

Catherine at Film Studies for Free has a terrific round up of classical film theory first-generation history books available in free, online versions. The Paul Rotha is particularly exciting to me, since I don't have a print copy. It's in less graphic-friendly format, but I'd add Munsterberg's Photoplay study to the list.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Best Film List, by Alphabet

Thom at Film of the Year tagged me for the Alphabet Meme. I've posted a list at Dr. Mabuse's Kaleidoscope, in the comments to Dave's post, but will go ahead and list the films here.

Here are the rules:

1. Pick one film to represent each letter of the alphabet.*

2. The letter "A" and the word "The" do not count as the beginning of a film's title, unless the film is simply titled A or The, and I don't know of any films with those titles.

3. Thanks to some clarification by The Siren, movies are stuck with the titles their owners gave them at the time of their theatrical release.

4. Films that start with a number are filed under the first letter of their number's word. 12 Monkeys would be filed under "T."

5. Link back to Blog Cabins in your post so that I can eventually type "alphabet meme" into Google and come up #1, then make a post where I declare that I am the King of Google.

6. If you're selected, you have to then select 5 more people.

To these I added the guideline that with foreign titles I would rely on the original title if in Roman alphabet, the translated title otherwise.

L'Année Derniere a Marienbad/Last Year at Marienbad
The Big Clock
Crimson Kimono
Dead End
Faustrecht der Freiheit/Fox and his Friends
Happy Together
In the Year of the Pig
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Late Chrystanthemums (1954)
La Noire de… /Black Girl
Only Angels Have Wings
La Pointe-Courte
Le Quai des Brumes/Port of Shadows
Rebel Without a Cause
Twice a Man
Underworld (1927)
Les Vampires (1915)
Written on the Wind
The X-Files
Y tu mamá también
Zorn's Lemma

Not surprisingly, the list skews canonical. And I will admit X-Files, while I like the film, would not make any top-26 list of mine were it not for the alphabet conceit. And other choices were affected: of Pakula's work, I like The Parallax View and All the President's Men better than Klute, but competition for K was not as still as for P or A. I originally had Querelle for Q but Thom reminded me of the Carné film, which I love.

OK, as far as tagging others goes, well it always feels a little chain letter-y, but if they're so inclined as to share, I'd be curious to see what Paul Harrill at Self-reliant Film, the Cinetrix, Bob Rehak, Catherine Grant, and Channel Zero's "Zolok" would put in their list.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bond and Beyond

The recent James Bond blogathon made me think immediately of a book I return to frequently: Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott's Bond and Beyond. It's a study very much part of its 1980s intellectual moment, yet one, I think, that has aged very well.

A key work in British cultural studies, the book examines "the Bond phenomenon" across the novels and the films, up to the mid-1980s, both situating the texts ideologically and opening them up to their receptive contexts. Bennett and Woollacott's notion of reading formations is, perhaps, their most noted contribution to the field. In this instance, they examine two distinct reading formations, the first initial reception of the Bond novels in the British imperialist spy novel, the second the accommodation to spectacle and irony by force of the film adaptations.

Bond and Beyond makes some interventions in 70s film theory approaches (e.g. a critique of Mulvey), but one part that I think is particularly worth revisiting is their production case study. Written without much consideration of the film history work by Gomery, Bordwell, et al., it nonetheless calls for a closer examination of production history. Worthwhile, from my vantage, it its exploration of "occupational ideologies" of producers, directors, writers, etc. It's an issue I'm increasingly hopeful to apply to the house style of 1940s Hollywood.

In their postscript (from the vantage of 1987), the authors try to speculate what has happened to the Bond franchise and what will happen:
While A View to a Kill attests to a further attenuation in the ideological currency of Bond and, we would guess, a consequent narrowing in the scope of his appeal, his personal qualities are not appreciably enhanced in the process. For all that... it will not doubt make a reasonable profit. It will do so, however, less because of the cultural and ideological resonances of the hero or because of the Bond formula than because it is, simply, a Bond film. James Bond, well past the twilight of his career, is now, more than anything else, a trademark which , having established a certain degree of brand loyalty among certain sections of the cinema-going public, remains a viable investment in the film industry. (294).
In other words, by the 1980s, the Bond phenomenon went from being a first-order phenomenon (it reflected contemporary ideologies) to being a second-order phenomenon (it served merely as "Bond movie" event). From what I gather reading the Blog-a-thon entries, one might see emerging a third-order reading formation of the Bond films, a diagnosis and celebration of the particular spectatorial experience associated with 1980s multiplex cinema.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Jack Armstrong

My 1947 viewing has focused on feature films, but of course shorts and serials were very much staples of film production and exhibition in the classical period. Jack Armstrong (Wallace Fox, Columbia) was typical of both B film production and the serial format. Adapted from a radio serial, it centered around the eponymous character, the "all-American boy" in collegiate dress...

Narratively, it synthesizes elements of the fantastic with a non-thriller crime format (much like the Big Town B films I've discussed here). In fact, I'm left wondering if more has been said about the B film narrative and its typical form: an identifiable villain disguised as ordinary, the externality of action, etc. Formally, the Jack Armstrong serials are the most rudimentary exemplars of classical style, with a heavy reliance on fixed setups and B roll. The moments of expressive analytical editing, such as in this closeup, are rare and therefore shocking when they do appear:

What's perhaps most interesting about this serial (and others?) is the expression of science fiction tropes in a year and decade when the genre was seemingly missing entirely from A and B features.

As these shots show, the problem of both figuring technology visually (the plot centers on cosmic rays) and of imagining "science" not yet created are harbingers of the B-film science fiction boom of the 1950s. If Jack Armstrong has the iconography/semantics of science fiction, though, it does not exhibit the structure/syntax of the genre, appending technological utopia/dystopia to the small-town crime film (it's not too different than the Nancy Drew Bs for instance). Still, the serial presents hints at some of the thematic negotiation of science in the atomic age - something one does not see directly in much, if any, of the other 1947 films in any direct manner.

Friday, November 07, 2008

PCMS: Jonathan Auerbach on film noir

Jonathan Auerbach, University of Maryland, College Park
"The Un-Americaness of Film Noir"

Respondent: Michael Tratner, Bryn Mawr College

Temple University Main Campus
Anderson Hall 8th Floor (Women's Studies Lounge)
Tuesday, November 11 , 2008
5:00 PM

Jonathan Auerbach's book in progress Dark Borders offers a political reading of American film noir as a Cold War genre centrally concerned with redefining citizenship. It begins with questions of affect and aesthetics--the strange tone of disenfranchisement or non-belonging that haunts so many of these mid-century crime movies. Freud's notion of the unheimliche links the uncanny mood of these important films with fears that "Un-Americans" and un-American values might overtake or undermine the homeland. These anxieties surface during a series of wartime and post war emergency measures, beginning with the anti-sedition Smith Act (1940), the Mexican migrant worker Bracero Program (1942), the domestic internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry (1942), and the HUAC hearings in 1947 that sought to criminalize native-born communists (the CPUSA). This talk will be discussing one key scene in the anti-communist film The Red Menace (1949) in conjunction with a little-known but very striking movie (arguably the first film noir) Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), starring Peter Lorre, that imagines the rule of fascist law in the USA and that conceives of madness as a foreign country.

For further details, consult the PCMS website.