Showing posts from October, 2009

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.