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Showing posts from January, 2009

Middlebrow Self-Diagnosis

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My work on the prestige film has read a broader reception of middlebrow taste (or more precisely, a shift in middlebrow taste) for Hollywood films mid-twentieth century. Increasingly, I've been noticing that Hollywood films themselves slyly comment on a highbrow/lowbrow or high/middle/low distinction. So much so that I feel the need to ask how, when, and why it does so.

No profound answers here, but I'll point for now to Presenting Lily Mars (MGM, Norman Taurog, 1943), wherein the eponymous Judy Garland character has a throughly middlebrow understanding of the theater. As Bourdieu writes of the middlebrow ("cultural goodwill"), "The whole relationship of the petite bourgeoisie to culture can in a sense be deduced from the considerable gap between knowledge and recognition" (Distinction 319). Lily Mars inhabits this gap: she recognizes the art of acting and the legitimate theater, yet has no knowledge beyond Professor Eggleston's histrionic guide. But wha…

Semiotics of the Loafer

As if to confirm and elaborate my point on Laura and formalized dress, Frost/Nixon has a key distinction between the loafer and the lace-up oxford. Yet this time, the narration must foreground the distinction self-consciously, both through the visuals (close-ups) and through exposition in the dialogue. The shock of breaking with the oxford has to be explained for the contemporary spectator as thoroughly as the film gives a schematic history of Watergate.

Liveness Not Dead

Setting aside the first-order reasons for enjoying watching the inauguration, to me there's an interesting second-order issue that many people seemed to experience television in a public and communal manner that's not been the norm in the US. Or maybe because I'm not generally a viewer of sporting telecasts in public venues. Something about the Obama inauguration does seem on different level of public televisual culture - it is the disruption of daily routine to aggregate into makeshift audiences around available television sets. It's an unusual sight to me because a) this country has a proliferation of TV sets - probably more than one for every individual ; b) as a culture we tend to associate television with the domestic setting; and c) technology and social practice alike mean people often watch television well after its moment of broadcast.

Yet here is a moment in which liveness matters. It is not alone in this, of course (think September 11 as one prominent example…

PCMS: Rosalind Galt on the Decorative

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Please join us for the next Philadelphia Cinema and Media Seminar talk:

Pretty Things: Cinema's Geopolitics of the Decorative
Rosalind Galt, University of Sussex

Respondent: Elena Gorfinkel, Bryn Mawr College

Friday, January 23, 5:30PM
Temple Univ. Center City room 420

Part of a book project on the “pretty” in cinema, this paper analyzes the aesthetics and politics of the decorative, focusing on the Orientalist mise-en-scène of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001). Luhrmann provides an case study of the fate of pretty films; relatively popular, his work is nonetheless often dismissed as superficial and lacking authenticity, while his melodramatic emphasis on production design and color accrues technical awards rather than critical or scholarly interest. Historicizing this mode of critique, and drawing on Moulin Rouge’s many intertexts, this paper locates cinematic decorative style within nineteenth and early twentieth-century discourses on aesthetics, art history and interior design, part…

Hollywood's Inadvertant Modernism

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Well, I shouldn't be ascribing intention or lack thereof so casually. But I was struck by the following shot transition in Arrowsmith, a film made during a period when classicism was not typically stretched to stylistic excess (or so my understanding goes) - and directed by the "classicist auteur" John Ford. When Martin Arrowsmith's wife Leora implores him to forget his lab, he replies, "Don't worry, I have." Dissolves take us to testtubes in the lab, then back to the Arrowsmith home again:


It may well be that the narration was perfectly readable at the time, but at least today - and based on what I've seen from classical Hollywood - the sequence is unusually ambiguous.

Most logically, the dissolves and sound mixing suggest a scene transition - that the next scene will be in the laboratory. But since the dissolve returns the film to the original scene, the dissolves come across as an insert that comments on the action - Arrowsmith in fact is thinkin…

The Way Histories are Written

I try to stay positive on this site (OK...not always successfully, I know), but I do have a legitimate gripe to air: Peter Lev's volume on 1950s is so frustrating. Not for lack of what I'm sure is a ton of work, time, and research. The bar admittedly is raised by the high quality and outright thoroughness of other volumes in the History of American Cinema series. But the value of this series has been that it carries a deep knowledge of industrial history of the period to challenge some of the complacent historiography that film studies still perpetuates.

Lev's The Fifties, however, minimizes industrial argumentation in order to make the canonical arguments already familiar to the field's conception of the decade. Take the films noirs he discusses: Asphalt Jungle, In a Lonely Place, The Big Heat, Kiss Me Deadly, and Touch of Evil. He mentions a couple others (not many others) in the summary of "genre and production trends" but it's clear these films' in…

Fair Use and Media Pedagogy

Henry Jenkins has an interesting (and a little depressing) interview with Temple's Renee Hobbs.

Meanwhile, Catherine Grant laments the yanking of some online YouTube film essays.

Jason Mittell raises a cry for greater policy activism among media academics.

Formalized culture/formalized reading

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Laura and the semiotics of the pocket square...

This is, in semiotic fashion, a binary and systematic opposition. Waldo is rumpled, rule-breaking, dandyish; MacPherson geometric, straight (in multiple senses of the word), petit bourgeois. The pocket square reinforces the broader distinction in costume between the two characters (compare their ties above, or the cut of their waist), and an even broader distinction in character. It's even a detail that gets some attention, as the narrative dwells on Waldo's dressing and frames the pocket square stuffing near frame center. Laura's also a film deliberate in its details to convey character visually and economically. My favorite examples it the handheld game MacPherson plays, above and below...


Yet as much as it's part of the film's meaning system, the detail of the pocket square relies at least partially on a formalized culture of dress. Historically, American male dress has become much more informal. One can apprehend th…