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Showing posts from March, 2009

Miracle on 34th Street

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If any film exemplifies the idea of "house style" it's Miracle on 34th Street (20th-Fox, George Seaton). Many, of course, are familiar with the film as a Christmas-movie staple, rebroadcast regularly on TV. For my part, I had not rewatched the film since my childhood – or at least teen years – and what I had in my mind was cued by the genre and the sentimental tone. Imagine my surprise to be face to face with the same realist style I've grown accustomed to in the 1947 films, right from the credit sequence:



Much of the film, in fact, is shot in a remarkably similar way to other films from 20th-Fox, both the pseudodocumentaries, with their hard light, fast film stock, deep focus, and location shooting...



and the mature dramas (like Daisy Kenyon) with their charcoal-gray rendering of human figures:



In short, the "childhood" and "fantasy" genre-thematics do not interfere with this film getting the typical Fox cinematographic treatment. Not only does hous…

Forgotten paths

Rereading Stuart Hall ("Encoding/Decoding") last week, I was struck by this passage:We identify three hypothetical positions from which decodings of a televisual discourse may be constructed. These need to be empirically tested and refined. The social science orientation of Birmingham-school cultural studies is not entirely forgotten - the mass-comm side of the School of Communications I'm housed in, for instance, fully inhabits it. But the passage was a surprise to me because for film studies, humanities-oriented TV studies, and much of what is called "cultural studies" in English departments across the US, the sociology gets written out of the cultural studies approach. It gets written out because the American cultural studies approach does not see itself as doing empiricial work, since "cultural studies" becomes generalized to a hermeneutic, a reading sensibility, but also it gets written because certain of the intellectual touchstones of the Birmi…

Studio-era Expenditures

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I'm still exploring the "snapshot" dimensions of the 1947 project. For instance, looking at budgets from 1947 films allows me see both product differentiation (different genres and prestige levels got different budget allocations) and system similarity (studio filmmaking systematically minimized expenses that later would explode; technological constraints required expenditures that would later be minimized). To take the example of RKO, I chose three films and charted out exactly where the budget money went:

These show the top expenditures, by category - minor categories, of course, add up to a substantial portion, between a quarter and a third of costs. Note that these are relative budget comparisons, not absolute. The direct-cost figures for the budgets are as follows:

Sinbad the Sailor $1,911,138.36
Mourning Becomes Electra $1,800,320.86
A Likely Story $475,545.01

For Sinbad (a Technicolor film), film and laboratory costs run 3 percent, where they do not rank in the top exp…

A Likely Story

A Likely Story (H.C. Potter) is another RKO comedy of the studio's genre template: one-half knowing sophisticated screwball, one-half hokum romance. In the column of the former, the film toys with sending up advertising language (when a character contemplates jumping off a bridge, a giant neon spectacular urges, "Do It Now") and with destabilizing the official patriotism of the war years. In the latter column, the narrative retreads the drama of the small-town Wisconsin girl come to the Big City to make it as an artist; the ideological side chosen is not clear-cut, but at the very least.

What's especially interesting, though, is that A Likely Story adds a social problem angle to the light comedy. Bill Baker (Bill Williams) is a shell-shocked ex-vet whose spells drive the plot's machinations. Driven to suicidal tendencies by a misunderstood medical diagnosis, he gets taken in by the artist (Barbara Hale) and her younger guardian brother. (Again the orphaned and mis…

This Time for Keeps

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The more I watch MGM films, the more I'm drawn to what one might color Technicolor modernism. The set design for its color films in the late 40s tended toward extremely bare surfaces painted in desaturated pastels: grays, pinks, and pale greens. My favorite parts in Cedric Gibbons' design for This Time For Keeps (Richard Thorpe, MGM) are the rendering into this color palette of the high Victorian resort town of Mackinac Island. Ornate wallpaper becomes an abstract pattern – one doubled by the watercolor-y opening and closing credits.

The film itself features a triangular ideology: Dick Johnson is the son of a controling opera star; instead of following in his father's footsteps and plans, he prefers popular singing to opera, "Dick Johnson" to Richard Harrell II, and swimmer-performer Leonora Cambaretti (Esther Williams) to his society-girl betrothed. In other words, the kinds of vernacular modernism we see in New Orleans gets repeated here.

The supporting character…

Discipline Synopsis

All of sociology in four bullet points.

Anyone want to try for film studies?
ADDENDUM: I don't like to write such non-post posts, so I'll try to answer my own question. With two caveats. First, Richard Dyer's introductory essay to the Oxford Guide to Film Studies is the best one-shot summary of the field I've seen, and I'm not sure what more concision offers, other than bloggy parlor game. Second, looking at the levels of Fabio Rojas's schematic, I realize that a similar schematic for film studies would not be, well, all that similar. The levels of inquiry are on different levels, in large part because film studies is a field whose inquiries and explanatory tools are borrowed from other fields. 
Which may help schematize the field:
1. Film studies as a literary-interpretive project: Deeper meaning is embedded in literary-style devices and cinematic devices and capable of being reclaimed through interpretive argument. The style of argumentation may change with the d…

VHS-Only Titles

There's been a recent conversation about VHS-only film titles jump-started by Anthony Kaufman's article on the death of the format. My favorite quote:As the entertainment industry focuses on improvements in quality, in the move from DVD to Blu-ray, for example, cinephiles will ironically face increasingly restricted viewing options, because the technology requires pristine 35mm negatives. The whole article is worth reading (apparently, the cost of digitization is $30,000 per film), as is Peter Martin's post. I can reiterate that the issue has been particularly pressing for me as I go through my 1947 project. Mind you, not even half of the titles I'm considering got an official studio video release in any format. Out of about 230 titles, only 45 have official DVD releases; on top of that, I was able to find official studio VHS releases for about a dozen additional titles. 

Kiss of Death

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Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway, 20th-Fox) is perhaps best known as a breakout role for Richard Widmark, who plays a psychopath gangster-hitman. I myself am still unsure how some of the over-the-top violence (e.g. the famous wheelchair scene) got past the Breen office.


What most interests me is its position in the pseudodocumentary cycle that 20th Century Fox put out in the 40s (including two other films released in 1947, Boomerang! and 13 Rue Madeleine – both also lensed by Norbert Brodine). There is the usual formula, with the usual gesture to documentary authenticity, as in the opening "disclaimer" and montage:



The montage transitions seamlessly into the fiction, with a shot of the main character (Victor Mature) framed in a narrationally excessive shot (through the doorway) but with key markers of "documentary" realism: the length of the take (the shot does not form a coherent part of a scene analysis), the fastness of the film stock, the blocking of the extras to g…