Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Normative Analysis and Political Economy

Alisa Perren has launched a new and promising blog on the media industries titled, appropriately enough, Media Industries (and other stuff). In a recent post, she takes up the looming crisis of the "big media" corporations:
....the writers' strike combined with the larger economic crisis has moved much of the talk from anxiety to calamity..... 

An initial response for some might be to say "huzzah! bye bye big media!" However, as someone soon to speak to many an undergraduate eager to make a living in a world in which downsizing and bankruptcies are the new state of being, I can only feel distressed by the emerging state of the media world.
Alisa touches on a couple of issues I find worth reflecting on. First, pedagogically, what adjustment should a scholar make in teaching in a pre-professional context. I teach in a production department, so I'm always wondering how much an instrumental context alters the pure scholarly pursuit of knowledge.

Second, she opens up the question exactly what our attitude to media companies should be. In some ways it's a moot point, since those media companies are going to live or die or meet whatever in-between fate despite our hopes, scholarship, or teaching. But political economy critique does have a heavy normative undertone (starting with the Marxian codeword of "political economy") alongside any descriptive analysis. It's worth asking what the normative attitude should be.

I, too, resist a simple "bye-bye big media" attitude, though for slightly different reasons. My main concern, normatively, is for the industry organization that encourages the maximum creative expressive and entertainment capability and an ideological disposition closest to my own. It's hard to be a scholar and a fan of classical Hollywood without being aware of positive feedback loops that large companies, monopolistically organized, can provide (and here I'm swayed by Thomas Schatz's "Genius of the System" argument). And one need not be a corporate-cheerleader to recognize that massive capital and resources go to providing American audiences well-made entertainment television on a weekly basis. Of course, there's plenty to chafe at with the current media oligopoly  - not least their predilection for rigging copyright law in their favor over that of any other stakeholders - but I myself would prefer a political economy critique that would specify what industrial conditions enable as well as foreclose.

Do Romantic Comedies Indoctrinate?

The LA Times writes up some research (done by some UK researchers in the field of psychology) on the media effects of Hollywood romantic comedies. (Hat tip: Kevin Drum). Arguing that these films reinforce or contribute to romantic ideals in viewers. 

Set aside the methodological difference between quantitative research and the qualitative, even belletristic, methods honed by humanities film studies. I'm wondering how seriously we should take the media effects position as a model for spectatorship. My gut instinct is to refuse it and to retreat back into a cultural studies model of spectatorial negotiation (and I still think that's especially important for feminized genres like the romantic comedy, where the scholar seems particularly eager to see the spectator as manipulable.). And maybe that's what we should do. 

But does media effects have anything to tell us? If so, what? For the humanist film scholar, media effects is the ultimate heterodox approach - the thing that preceded our field and against so many of its interventions are defined. Yet we, too, make deterministic claims about ideology, and hedging the bet by refusing measurement or quantification does not change the underlying model.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

SATC photo essay

Sex and the City as fort/da structure....

(Forgive the spoilers ahead.)

1. Wedding Dress [1]

2. Wedding Dress [2] - da/fort

3. Apartment [1] - da/fort

4. Apartment [2] - fort/da

5. New Year's Eve

6. fades

7. Auction/gift

Samantha loses auction for flower ring, it appears again when Smith gives it to her.

8. Rented/real
Louise gets designer handbags by renting them, but they inevitable have to disappear again, until Carrie gives her the real thing.

9. Cinderella motif

Not only the photo above, but the numerous references: Louise "squeezing" into Carrie's shoes, Carrie reading Cinderella to Lily. The shoe moment, though, captures the transformation from "not" to "is."

10. Miscarriage/birth

Charlotte goes from barrenness to fertility, but fears that any moment she could lose the baby. She overcomes these fears, but it is only the birth which provides the final narrative resolution of the threat of loss.

11. Sale/nullification

Real estate is never just sold. Louise checks to see if Carrie really wants to go through with the 5th Avenue apartment sale. Carrie does not in fact go through with the sale of her former Village apartment. The only transaction that is final is the Mexico honeymoon suite, though Samantha tries to get Carrie out of that one.

12. Brooklyn Bridge

13. You-and-I-only/Friends

I don't know that I'd realized before the Sex and the City movie how much the TV show is based on this structure. I suspect it's the effect of condensing televisual narrative arcs to a cinematic screenplay that makes the rollercoaster more striking.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The 1950s

Ignore the digital interlacing blur. The above's a momentary glimpse of DP or director Nicholas Ray as James Mason shuts a bathroom mirror in Bigger Than Life (1953). It seemed a fitting metaphor to me of the thematic complexity of the film - an undercurrent that ever since the Cahiers critics has been part of the Nicholas Ray text, but still runs against an overpowering reading formation.

Namely, the historical ethnocentrism that assumes naivete in 1950s cinema. By now, there's a range of critiques we see of 1950s domestic ideologies, especially as Hollywood trafficked in them. Some of these critiques are profound, some facile, many in between. But I think we underestimate how much Hollywood offered at least some kinds of contemporary social critique. These critiques could be distinctive (the Cahiers version suggests Ray as auteur on this basis), but the auteur production was merely one form of wider grappling with social critique. There's a larger interest I have: some scholarship on American melodrama has hinted at this (Barbara Klinger, Marianne Conroy), but the popularization of sociology forms a key thematic backbone of 1950s melodrama.

Friday Giallo Blogging

The ideological trope of J&B scotch.

From The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh.

A reader helpfully points me to a discussion on J&B. Apparently the scotch maker had a product placement with Italian production companies. None of which obviates, in my eye, the ideological significance. On which I'll have more to say.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Film studies blogs A-Z

Catherine Grant has taken the recent alphabet meme as an opportunity to compile her favorite film and moving-image studies blogs. Her list gives me new fodder for my blogroll and RSS feeds... hopefully I can make some of the additions regular go-to reading. Category D made the list, so I also thank Catherine for the kind words.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Springtime in the Sierras

The 1947 Project has paid dividends in making me aware of the unexpected places where a social problem mentality met more traditional genre production. But still nothing prepared me for the surprise of a Roy Rogers B film adopting a social problem approach. Well, Springtime in the Sierras (William Witney, Republic) is a typical B Western: "Western" only in the setting and iconography, not in its narrative structure; Manichaean in its characterization (the brunette vamp is over-the-top evil); and external in its action. The externality of action keeps it from being a problem film in the manner that Gentleman's Agreement or even Crossfire are.

The narrative premise is that poachers are running a racket in the small-town West and are starting to kill to protect their business. The narrative starts off as an individual narrative (Roy Rogers stumbles on a wounded animal and takes her to a local rancher) but quickly the dialogue points out that poaching is a national problem. What follows is a documentary sequence that steps back from the narrative, as a voiceover relates the problem of poaching in the U.S. It ends with a judge admonishing "the lowest form of criminal" (!) in a setup reminiscent of the 1930s Warners topicals.

The film dissolves back and the narrative continues as before. The only thing I've seen quite like it is the "beef to feed a nation" montage in Red River, which also departs from the diegesis.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Friday Giallo Blogging

The ideological trope of J&B scotch.

From What Have They Done to Solange?

PCMS: Ellen Scott on Anna Lucasta

The December Philadelphia Cinema and Media Seminar talk will be next Thursday:

Ellen Scott, University of Pennsylvania
"Acting Fresh: Civil Rights, the Black cosmopolitan theatrical aesthetic, and the reception of Anna Lucasta (1959)”

Respondent: Homay King, Bryn Mawr College

Thursday, December 11, 2008, 5:30 PM
Temple University Center City
Room 420

This paper explores the cultural resonances of and patterns of identification
with the urbane black melodrama Anna Lucasta (1959), a relatively unexamined film that significantly included African American input into the processes of production and contributed to the development of an cosmopolitan black aesthetic and style of characterization for Hollywood cinema. In this paper, I use both theater and film production history and the responses of reviewers of the Black press, who linked the film to “modernity”, to tease out the meanings of Black, mid-century cinematic cosmopolitanism, its citations of the vernacular visual style of noir and its relationship to the emergence of civil rights. This paper joins with previous work that seeks to reexamine the films of the 1940s and 50s to better understand their racial meanings and continuities with Black-authored films of the 1960s and 70s.

Ellen Scott is a Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in the Department of Cinema Studies. Her research is on the cultural meanings and reverberations of film in African American communities and her current work is on the dialogical historical intersections between Black film reception and the censorship of films with racial themes during the 1940s and 1950s. Her research and teaching interests include African American cultural history, film theory, American film history, sound theory, the history of film censorship, and cultural studies.

Homay King is Assistant Professor of History of Art at Bryn Mawr College. Her fields of speciality include American cinema, film theory, psychoanalytic theory, and feminist film theory and criticism. She received her doctorate from the Department of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley in 2002, with a dissertation entitled "Effaced Figures: Authorship and the American Cinema." She has published articles on the films of John Cassavetes (Camera Obscura 56), Valie Export (Discourse 22.2), and Michelangelo Antonioni (Fort Da 6.2), and on the photography of Jeff Wall in relation to film theory (Jeff Wall: Photographs, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther K├Ânig, 2003). Her book Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Projection, and the Enigmatic Signifier is forthcoming from Duke University Press.

The full PCMS listings can be seen at its website.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Conference: Rethinking Sex

If the 2007 Screen conference hadn't convinced me that queer theory is enjoying a new energy and resurgence in the field, there's the upcoming queer studies state-of-the-field conference at Penn, titled Rethinking Sex: Gender and Sexuality Studies. It's taking place March 4-6, 2009, and has a star-studded roster, even if it's a little short on film and media scholars.

More information at the conference website.