Showing posts from 2009

The Influence Fallacy

There is a tendency in some cultural criticism – it's rife in rock music criticism – to claim that some art work or artist is important because it or she/he influences a later art work or artist. Almost invariably, the latter is a consecrated, acknowledged “great.”

Just recently I saw on TCM one of those remembrance pieces on Sidney Poitier, claiming that his importance is the influence he had on future black actors. The piece gave the influence argument a “pioneer” spin: Poitier, in its version, allowed Denzel Washington to happen.

I'm left scratching my head, not because Poitier does not offer performances worthy of imitating or because I think contemporary actors do not think themselves in debt to Poitier. But because if I entertain the counterfactual I can see a few possible avenues of historical causation:

1) Without Poitier, American cinema stays suspended in the race-representational regimes of the 1940s and in the labor practices of the studio years. A Denzel Washington o…

Conference Calendar

In order to better keep up with relevant conferences myself, I have set up a Google calendar. A listing from it is embedded in the right sidebar. If anyone finds this of use, it is a public calendar, so feel free to add it to your own calendars.

TV and Vernacular Social Critique

I find the Sirkian system argument a productive one for thinking about films' relation to their social milieu. Even if one does not subscribe to a Category E reading, the versions of those readings suggest the complexity that interpretation can bring to the table.

But one critical tendency gives me pause: the narrowed ascription of what middle-class life means in postwar America. There is a particular critical readings (such as McNiven's argument about architecture in Ray and Sirk, or for that matter Fassbinder's reworking of All that Heaven Allows) that reads Douglas Sirk as a critical commentary on television in middle-class life.

Fine as it goes, only Sirk was not alone in critiquing television. It seems that the middle class – or certain fractions of it and the mainstream culture addressed to it – loved to see TV as a problem. This is true in a social problem film like Face in the Crowd, which centers thematically on the corrupting role of mass media on the public sphere…

Film Studies Journals

I am curious: is Framework dead? The website declares it a bi-annual publication, but the last issue is from Fall 08.
To be honest, I've had a hard time keeping up. Lately I've been wondering if I read enough journals (I suspect not) and if I might be missing a significant read (very likely). I keep up with Cinema Journal and Screen upon each issue's release and regularly check out Film History, Camera Obscura, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, and Velvet Light Trap.
From there it gets spottier. The popular-academic crossover journals like Film Quarterly and Jump Cut I do not get to as much as I'd like. Some I consult to rejuvenate my perspective with neighboring disciplines: Flow, Journal of Television and New Media, or Journal of Visual Culture. Film and History, Film Criticism, Scope, Journal of Film and Video, and Journal of Popular Film and Television all seem to speak directly to my scholarly interests, yet I rarely find myself reading them, in part because som…

CFP: On Not Looking

Essays on Images and Viewers

Call for Papers

Submissions are invited for an edited book with the working title On Not Looking: Essays on Images and Viewers. Contemporary experience presents us with a contradiction: while we are at a historical moment when images have never been so readily available and circulated, we increasingly ”don’t look” at images. The collection of essays will explore the myriad ways that not looking at images — as opposed to not seeing — is manifest in our burgeoning image culture today.

Contributions are sought that address practices and representations of “not looking,” “turning away,” and other manifestations of physical and mental distraction from material images.

Our relationship to the glut of images that saturate the world is characterized by an ever-expanding contemporary form of iconoclasm. Again and again, while documentary images are touted as a reliable form of visible evidence, or as commensurate with the every day life they depict — du…

Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival

For those in the New York area, the Margaret Mead festival offers a terrific-looking lineup this year:

Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival
November 12-15, 2009
Located at the American Museum of Natural History
Once again, the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival brings together a collection of gripping stories told from unique perspectives. For our 33rd edition, we continue to honor the legacy of famed anthropologist and American Museum of Natural History curator Margaret Mead, showing documentaries that increase our understanding of the complexity and diversity of the peoples and cultures that populate our planet. The Mead Festival has also expanded its horizons to reflect the ever-evolving art of storytelling. New technologies and greater access to all the longitudes and latitudes of our interconnected world have amplified the possibilities for film made in the documentary tradition.Steeped as we are in our daily lives, the Mead gives us a chance to step outside our own s…

Hollywood Plagiarism

I have been rewatching Humoresque for an essay I'm working on. I must have seen it the first time before I ever watched The City, because this time around I was completely caught off guard by the montage sequence a third the way through:

Not only does the film recycle documentary footage, seemingly at first as B roll, but the montage sequence maintains the original intellectual montage, only integrating John Garfield's character into the parade of anonymous social types of the "urban worker."

I have long held a suspicion of explanations of Hollywood's postwar documentary-infused style as being merely the holdover from wartime documentary/propoganda/newsreel practice. Yes, the war does have a catalyst effect on the public sphere aspirations of Hollywood, but those aspirations stretched wider than is often acknowledged. Grierson and Ivens wrote for American Cinematographer, and film critics judged Hollywood narrative against the seemingly new nonficiton language. The…

CFP: Blackwell Companion to Film Noir

Companion to Film Noir
edited by Andrew Spicer and Helen Hanson
Blackwell’s ‘Companions to Film Genre’ Series

As a disputed category, film noir has generated a lively interest and debate ever since the term was first used post-war France. The films that constitute the (contested) canon of film noir continue to be highly valued and enjoyed, and to produce a formidable body of commentary. Although American ‘Classic' noir (1940-59) continues to create intense interest, in the last fifteen years the understanding of film noi has widened to include neo-noir (American film noir produced after 1959), film noirs in other countries (in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Australasia), and noir in other forms: comics and graphic novels, posters, radio, television and videogames, all of which now constitute what James Naremore in More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (1998/2008) identifies as a global and interrelated ‘noir mediascape’. Since its tentative beginnings in the late 1970s, critica…

The Film History Textbook

[See 2014 Update]

As a companion to my review-overview of introductory textbooks, I wanted to take a look at the major textbooks for the film history survey course. Again, I have my own opinions about these, but I also want to lay out the pros and cons for each.

The intro course has a structuring choice between the film-appreciation approach and the intro-to-the-discipline approach. The film history course faces a number of choices, too: coverage versus depth, restriction to narrative versus inclusion of experimental or documentary, or internationalization versus canonical national cinemas. But the main dividing line between the introducing film history as an academic field and surveying great masterworks. These are not entirely mutually exclusive: academic film history has a canon, and the masterworks approach relies on historical scholarship. Nonetheless, differences between the books emerge along these lines.

These are listed in rough order of popularity in the field. I will add to…

Film Frame Illustrations

Readers will note that I use frame captures to illustrate this blog. And, like many, I use them in teaching, especially in lecture classes for which visual examples go a long way to aid explanation.

US copyright rulings have cleared the way for academic fair use in such frame illustrations, yet DVD software remains encrypted to prevent such captures. So I get a lot of questions about the process. What is the easiest to get good illustrations?

I have only done these with a Mac. PC users can contact me or share their experiences in the comments. There are some programs designed for the process. DVD Capture (freeware: download) I have used before, but it also runs into hardware problems on some Mac, so can be problematic.

The easiest route is to download VLC player (freeware: download), a buggy but good all-purpose media player application. To make the capture, put in your DVD. Very likely, Mac's built-in DVD Player will start running. Quit out of it and open VLC player. From the menu, …

CFP: Velvet Light Trap on Seeing Race

FP Velvet Light Trap #67 - Seeing Race: Our Enduring Dilemma

"You lie!" Rep. Joe Wilson shouted during President Barack Obama's speech on health care reform in the halls of Congress. Media pundits were quick to point out that the 19th century was the last occasion of such an egregious breach of protocol took place in Congress. Members of both Houses urged the Republican congressman from South Carolina to apologize for his misconduct--and he did. Soon after, though, the discourse shifted to the reasons for Wilson's outburst. The factor of race became one major point in attributing blame, but that fire was never allowed to flame because of the overwhelmingly hegemonic ideology of colorblindness that currently saturates our culture. This same story could be told in relation to the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the pop culture firestorm that singed Isaiah Washington and the cast of Grey's Anatomy, or the discourses surrounding First Lady Michell…

World Picture 2009

I'm currently heading back from this year's World Picture conference, in Oklahoma State. I may write up a little more substantively on the talks I heard, but for now I'll note the conference has been a reminder of the pleasures of small conferences - the sociality, the extended dialogue across panels, the shifting sense of purpose that develops over two days. Moreover, World Picture is a remarkably hospitable example of the small conference.

Disciplinary Imperialism

It has been a goal of mine lately to read more outside of my field. Not that I have remotely caught up with everything I should be reading/should have read in film and media studies. But it's useful to get beyond the disciplinary blinders and to get out of one's comfort zone a little.

My current reading is Kieran Healy's sociological study of blood and organ donation, Last Best Gifts: Altruism and the Market for Human Blood and Organs. The book is remarkable in a number of ways - for instance, if you want a pithy 1-paragraph explanation of commodity fetishism, I don't think you'll get one clearer than the one on page 4. But the book also strikes me particularly useful as an ideal in how to assert the primacy of one's disciplinary knowledge. For Healy takes a subject that one might on one hand seem the realm of the philosophy of ethics (since it involves individuals' moral decisions) or else of economics (since there is a clear problem of supply, demand, and …

Cinema Journal and American English

A trivial thing to be concerned with I know, but I'm rereading Daniel Martin's essay on Ringu from the Spring 09 Cinema Journal and am struck by the British usage and spelling. Does the journal not enforce a style guideline? Or is does it explicitly allow for both American and British English? I don't believe I've seen another major journal so flexible.

1919 Film conference at Yale

Those in the Northeast Corridor might want to attend the upcoming conference at Yale on After the Great War: European Film in 1919 (.pdf flier). Running December 3-5, it is organized around 8 panels, each devoted to a European national cinema and featuring screenings of archival or restored 35mm prints - these are followed by panels by film scholars, historians, and other experts. It's a fantastic lineup of films and and a great organizing rubric.

Star Systems

Leaving aside the formal delineation of a classical or a postclassical style, I'm wondering if one quantitative index of the postclassical film industry is the likelihood that secondary actors appear in major roles in later films. It does not seem to happen all that much in 40s cinema, that I can tell. Character actors have a distinct role and secondary actors remain pretty much anonymous to us looking back historically. The credits of a Hollywood film post-1960, on the other hand, contains several names of future stars down the cast list, to the point where the fun of watching these films is seeing the star as non-star.


I believe this is the first time we see the title sequence over a static photograph (instead of book or drawing or live action shot).

Fiesta (Richard Thorpe, MGM) is a film that makes me want to visit those major genre studies of the musical (many of which I've regrettable still not read) to see how they discuss the mainstay classical Hollywood musicals that fall outside the canon. MGM in particular made a number of films that featured musical performance prominently and are now marketed in DVD box sets. Yet many of these fail to match the ideal types we have of either backstage or integrated musical.

The Esther Williams films are interesting on this count. Here, she makes one obligatory diving appearance. And, as in her other films, she is surrounded by characters with musical or dance inclination, in this case her twin brother Mario (Ricardo Montalban) and his love interest Conchita (Cyd Charisse). The new twist here, is a gender-bending narrative, with Maria (Williams) cross-dres…

Fall Cleaning

I'm in the process of updating my RSS feeds for daily and more occasional blog reading. Any suggestions? (Film, media, or other otherwise in subject matter.) Hopefully, too, I will get around to updating the blog roll in the process.

Documentary Reenactment

I have heard the critique of Bill Nichols' work that he is excessively invested in taxonomy. (See Stella Bruzzi's book on New Documentary, for instance). And it's true that his latest article on documentary reenactment (Critical Inquiry Autumn 2008) is yet another taxonomy. But it's worth reading, I think, precisely because it articulates the differences that often get elided in claims that pseudodocumentary reenactment does X or Y. There is a real inductive, descriptive spirit in Nichols work that I think is worth emulating.

Studio Library Rights and Film History

It's no new observation that our understanding of film history depends in part on the availability of films, which depends in part on the distribution rights and willingness of media companies to circulate older films. One of the amazing boons to our understanding of Hollywood's studio period, at least those in US and Canada, has been cable rebroadcast of titles, first on AMC (back in the 90s) and now on TCM. Before, scholars could collect prints or VHS, or visit archives, but the new mediascape opens up accessibility to an extent previously unimaginable.
But it's easy to equate TCM with "Classic Hollywood" without recognizing that what it really refers to is MGM + Warner Bros. +UA, with some RKO and a little Fox thrown in. Noticeably sparse is Paramount's library, which has been held back from both home video release and cable broadcast.
A quick tabulation of what's showing on TCM this fall suggest that about 2% of their 30s and 40s films are Paramount pr…

Sea of Grass

Back to 1947...

Sea of Grass (MGM, Elia Kazan) is just the kind of film that fascinates me as a scholar but gets almost universally ignored by all but the most hardcore of Classic-Hollywood cinephiles. (Much of my 1947 viewing would fall into this category.)

To begin with, the film is almost a test case in auteurism. It is both an outlier in the Kazan ouevre – much like Kubrick with Lolita, Kazan reputedly disavowed Sea of Grass. It is different from his other work and would suggest the importance for the studio as a major determinant of film aesthetics. For Sea of Grass is decidedly an MGM product, in distinction to Kazan's normal 20th-Fox home: Standling's cinematography seems a world apart from

Tonally, the film is an awkward mishmash between safe MGM programmer style and new directions in 40s and especially postwar film stressing realism and complex characterization. The lyrical shots of prairie grass are followed by much more typical studio lot shots.

The narrative is not too…

CFP: 20th Screen Conference

20th international Screen Studies Conference
University of Glasgow, Scotland, 2-4 July 2010

Organised by Screen journal and programmed by Screen editor Karen Lury.

Confirmed plenary speakers:

o Chris Holmlund, University of Tennessee
o Andrew Klevan, University of Oxford
o Jacob Smith, University of Nottingham
o Lesley Stern, UC San Diego

Screen performance will be the subject of the plenaries and will form a strand running throughout the Conference. However, papers on any topic in screen studies, i.e. cinema, television and digital media, are welcome. Submissions for pre-formed, three-person panels will be considered but not prioritised.

Please send your 200-word proposal to arrive no later than Friday 8 January 2010, marking the subject box 'Conference 2010', to

For updates, please visit

Shamroy on Shamroy

One difficulty in researching cinematography is that for the studio period especially there's not a lot of record of the aesthetic dimensions of the shooting process. Trade periodicals like American Cinematographer are invaluable, of course. (Incidentally one of the things I appreciated in Scott Higgins' book is his use of trade press as evidence without treating it as a transparent window into what the “industry” as a whole did or thought.) And there are a few scattered interviews and published accounts from cinematographers, or about them.One useful account is Charles Higham's Hollywood Cameramen: Sources of Light (Indiana UP, 1970), a collection of interviews with seven cinematographers: Leon Shamroy, Lee Garmes, William Daniels, James Wong Howe, Stanley Cortez, Karl Straus, and Arthur Miller. These sketch in biographical details, but also give insight into their aesthetics. Shamroy for instance noted, "My signature became established as high-contrast: they'd …

The Shamroy Style

What is the signature Leon Shamroy style? In short, it's an aesthetic in which paradoxically realism and romanticism (at least as these tendencies were understood at the time) are not at odds. This is especially true of his work at Fox, but even in independent productions. A few tendencies stick out:

Undiffused, overexposed light. To generalize, the prevailing practice in the 1930s was to heavily diffuse light, to glamorize the star and to deal with the background, whereas the prevailing practice by the late 1940s was to use harsh light to increase contrast and render rich ink-black tones.

Shamroy seems to be doing both. Light in his image has a harsh intensity yet also a fuzzy glow. The best I can tell, he does not diffuse the light (at least not entirely) but instead overexposes the image to create a similar effect. (You Only Live Once/Lillian Russell)

This goes along with his tendency to underexpose part of the set/frame so that modest illumination will glow.

Spotlights. The star c…

The Technicolor Challenge

In some ways Technicolor solves the grayscale problem, in which different colors will render indistinguishable in black and white. On the other hand, it poses its own challenge, since background color, even out of focus, could compete for the specatator's attention with the foreground.

Also, famously, Technicolor required high key lighting and limited the dynamic range between highlight and shadow. The difference between two Shamroy musicals, Lillian Russell and That Night in Rio, is striking:

I would recommend Scott Higgins' terrific book Harnassing the Technicolor Rainbow for an account of the challenges Technicolor presented and the ways Hollywood cinematographers adapted their practice to color. He argues that after an initial showcasing approach to color, two alternatives developed: a restrained style downplaying hue in favor of variations in saturation and intensity and an expanded palette selectively varying hue in complementary fashion.

Leon Shamroy's Technicolor work…