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Showing posts from May, 2009

The Movie Poster

Dan Kremer notices the lack of originality in movie posters. My initial thought is that the template quality reveals the absence of high concept material and is a way to communicate genre without it. And like genre, the difficulty is that while too much repetition is not optimal in selling films, neither is too much originality.
A broader point: I'm left wondering what work has been done on the movie poster. And what work on the movie poster should do. Very often, film scholars will read through the film poster for what it says about the presumed appeal of a film; Rick Altman (Film/Genre) examines the poster for Only Angels Have Wings as an indication for what studios thought of the generic elements of the film. At other times, scholars study posters as bare fact of marketing: for Justin Wyatt (High Concept), the movie poster, say Jaws, is index of the changing place of marketing in the production process. I wonder if anyone studies them as expressive forms in themselves. Such an a…

Nightmare Alley

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A film like Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, Fox) makes me wish my literary history chops were a little more developed. For it seems to be part of a cycle of noir adapations of novels centered not on hard-boiled detectives but on ordinary protagonists (or anti-heroes) in contemporary settings. Along with writers like Cornell Woolrich and Kenneth Fearing, Nightmare Alley author William Lindsay Gresham is drawn to the allegorical. The plot is a rise-and-fall narrative about a carnival worker Stanton Carlisle (played by Tyrone Power in the film) who uses a special code to make it big as a mentalist in the big city. 

Not satisfied with the nightclub entertainment circuit, he decides to play con artist among New York's socialites. What's unusual about the narrative is the ambiguity around the paranormal (Stanton is clearly a con man, yet the fatalism ) but also the commentary the con game makes about class. 

Though packages among the Fox Noir DVD series, the film is unusual for a 20…

CFP: Feminism/Culture/Media in Practice

Camera Obscura is (re)starting up a regular focus on feminist media practitioners. Given the seeming regression for the inhospitable industrial environment facing women filmmakers today, the addition couldn't be more timely.

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Camera Obscura is happy to announce the renewal and reconception of a section devoted to the types of questions and formats, productions and receptions that the journal once featured under the title “Women Working.” This section will also continue the work of remarking on the ever-fluid shape of “feminism, media, and culture” that more recently appeared in our “Archive for the Future” section.

When the “Women Working” section originally appeared in the 1970s, contributions included book and film/video reviews, conference and festival reports, interviews and personal reflections, and accounts of large-scale works-in-progress by female producers. In “Feminism/Culture/Media In Practice,” we would like to include similar work and more — that is, work th…

Lady in the Lake/Dark Passage

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It's probably not a stretch to say that either because of Hitchcock or because of larger formal trends, subjective narration became more prominent in 1940s Hollywood. But two features in 1947 were extended experiments in subjective camera. The most infamous is Lady in the Lake (Robert Montgomery, MGM), which has the reputation of an exemplary failed experiment. For critics and scholars alike (and I'd recommend Pascal Bonitzer's essay "Partial Vision: Film and the Labyrinth - Wide Angle 4.4 for a theoretical reading of the film), Lady in the Lake exemplifies the inability to directly translate 1st person literary narration into 1st person cinematic narration. 

An adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel, it tries to create the book's 1st person literally. "We" see what Philip Marlowe sees. The narrative frame is shot with objective camera (albeit with a direct address and a 2nd person "you" in the dialogue). 

But the remainder of the film is ent…

Intro book links

Catherine Grant rounds up intro-textbook chapters available as samples or for free. I continue to be amazed at her internet searching efficiency. 
I have a number of things on the to-do list this summer, but high on them is to revisit my intro textbook post and update for new books and new editions. I also hope to do a comparison of film history textbooks. I'm curious: are there any textbook areas in need of review?

Complexity and Documentary Narration

In the previous post, I griped about scholarship that facilely dismisses other viewpoints under the guise of "complexity." But it's worth pointing out a rhetoric-of-complexity example that is not facile (at least I don't find it such) and in fact appears in a useful, well thought-out book. The introduction of Paul Ward's Documentary: The Margins of Reality (part of Wallflower's Shortcuts series), contains this caveat:
"'Documentary' in the twenty-first century is a complex set of overlapping discourses and practices, and we need our theories, critical approaches, and – perhaps most of all – our documentarists equipped to recognize and deal with this fact." (3)What interests me about Ward's claim is that in general he does not commit any of the sins I complained about yesterday. He does provide something positive, namely, a case for the importance of documentary animation as an object of study. Later, he sticks up for Nichols' typologi…

What He Said

I will give a hearty second to this point from David Bordwell: "Literary humanists sometimes talk as if they want explanations to be as complex as the thing being explained. But that would be like asking for the map to be as detailed as the territory." If there's one critical move I find tiresome it's the recourse to complexity. As in "any history will fail to grasp the complexity of how audiences actually respond to movies" or "this reading fails to grasp the contradictions of gender as an intersectional identity." Now, if a model, idea, or scholarly argument can better capture an object of study in its complexity, great. There is a version of the previous examples that would do just that.  And some approaches are reductive. But usually the rhetoric of complexity simply discounts the hard work it takes to make complex phenomena a little more understandable. I think a good rule of thumb is that if you criticize another scholar or lay person for ha…

Theory-Praxis Divide

Tim Burke takes up a student's question: if academic cultural critics understand expressive culture so expertly, why can’t they create it? He maps out the variants of answers that cultural critics give. 
I myself have had very limited filmmaking experience (essentially one class in college making silent super 8 films) and, teaching in a production department, I'm keenly aware of the asymmetrical expectation I have of my media-making students to do some version of what I do when I am not really able to some version of what they do. My own reasons encompass a number of the reasons on Burke's list. Of these, reasons #3 (the autonomous logic of criticism), #5 (criticism's emphasis on explaining phenomena external to the cultural work), and #7 (the money and technology required for creative work) loom large.
I would add, for most media production, there is no single "maker's perspective." Division of labor means that writers, gaffers, production sound mixers, an…

The Defenestration of Visions of Light

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I finally got around to watching Visions of Light. Belatedly, because my research has increasingly taken up the history of Hollywood cinematographers and because the film is so frequently used in film analysis classes to show students the art of cinematography.
On the latter point, I'm a little mystified. I don't find the film remotely ideal as a pedagogical aid. Set aside the oxymoron of a film about cinematic art having the most pedestrian documentary shooting, scoring, and editing style possible. I suppose there's a case to be made for a nondescript frame to make the art work shine that much more. What concerns me more is its hagiographic approach to film history and its historical bias.
There's a deeper point to be made about the "great man" approach to film history - c.f. Gomery and Allen's Film History textbook. My disposition as scholar is to favor the contextual, the typical, the disjunctive, or the accidental. Others with even a more poststructural…