Monday, January 26, 2009

Middlebrow Self-Diagnosis



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 what of the film? It presents Lily's/Eggleston's middlebrow as comic fodder, even if a sympathetic foible. In Lily's case, the cultural naivete is both feminized and marked by age, as in countless other classical Hollywood films that use the naivete of teenagers as humor. So the film has some critical distance to the middlebrow. And yet, Lily seems to stand in for the spectator, a spectator who is both aware of her/his own middlebrowness and unselfconsciously inhabiting a particular taste formation. Some scholars have discussed a camp sensibility in the MGM films, and this may in fact be part of what is going on, but I'm not sure it explains it all.

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.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

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), but it is remarkable to see both the liveness and a communal viewing create a televisual experience not too different, from say that in the 1960s - only without any trace of nostalgic reworking.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

PCMS: Rosalind Galt on the Decorative

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, particularly in regard to the question of Orientalism. The decorative and Orientalism have frequently been linked, and the colonial critic’s rejection of Oriental style as inferior is strangely echoed in postcolonial
criticism’s rejection of it as colonialist. This uniformity of rejection is striking, given the ideological opposition of the discourses, and suggests an intriguing persistence of the decorative as a formal figuration of troubled politics. This paper seeks to explore this figuration in cinema,
and suggests that in Moulin Rouge’s production of Orientalist décor, we find an articulation of femininity, geopolitics and the desirable object of exchange that makes it a uniquely useful meeting point for understanding the sexual and racial economies of cinematic spectacle.


Rosalind Galt is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at The University of Sussex. Her broad research areas include film theory, comparative European cinemas, global cinemas since 1945, critical theory and studies of gender and sexuality. She has written widely on European cinemas post-World War II, with a focus on how film histories and forms intersect with political histories and geopolitics. This research includes both popular international films (for example from Italy and former Yugoslavia) and avant-garde movements (such as the Catalan Barcelona School). Her current projects include a book on film theory, aesthetics and sexual politics (addressing directors such as Christopher Doyle, Derek Jarman and Claire Denis), and a co-edited collection re-conceptualising the category of 'art cinema' in the era of globalisation and 'world cinema'.

Elena Gorfinkel is an instructor at Bryn Mawr College. Her dissertation, "'Indecent Desires': Sexploitation Cinema, 1960s Film Culture, and the Adult Film Audience,"is a history of low budget American sexploitation films of the 1960s. Her essay on the first erotic film festivals in the early 1970s, published in Framework, received honorable mention in the Society for Cinema
and Media Studies' Katherine Singer Kovacs Essay Award (2008). She is currently co-editing a book of collected essays on the materiality of place and geographical location in cinema and media titled The Place of the Moving Image with John David Rhodes (Univ. of Minnesota Press, forthcoming.) Elena's research and teaching interests include feminist and queer theory, gender and sexuality studies, women's filmmaking practice, outsider and "marginal" cinemas, 1960s film culture, international art cinema, theories of taste & high/low culture, cinephile criticism, histories of film reception and moviegoing, and film historiography.

Hollywood's Inadvertant Modernism

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 thinking of the lab and the spectator visualizes his thoughts. So rather than an objective presentation of narrative information, we have a subjective shot. However, something is bubbling in that middle test tube and the development turns out to be significant when the Arrowsmiths walk over to the lab.


It's not the sequence fails to mean - the sheer forward narrative thrust and the otherwise clear communication of the filmmaking means the moment does not remain an unanswered enigma. Yet's it unclear to me exactly what the shots say about the subject matter.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

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' inclusion is based simply on their canonization, not their typicality as cycle examples. Moreover, he takes the typical explanations (color kills low-key noir) at face value.

It's frustrating because the 1950s are so ripe for reevaluation, in part because the field has considered them explained for so long (usually a sign that a Kuhnian revolution is imminent) and in part because video and cable re-release of 1950s films poses new questions about the narratives that has previously been told.

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.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Formalized culture/formalized reading

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 the meaning of the pocket square only a few ways: a) belonging to an increasingly rarified social circle/occupation where these details are ritually observed; b) learning the knowledge in hobbyistic fashion; or c) deducing from other films or cultural representations what dress codes were at the time. In any case, what's missing is d) a widespread everyday, intuited meaning of what formalized dress means. One need only read Erving Goffman's Presentation of Self in Everyday Life to realize that while the general principles of social interaction may be the same today, we now lack much of the everyday knowledge that once was taken for granted. (Presumably we may have learned other things in the process.) Some readings have to reconstitute this knowledge; in any case, it becomes a challenge for teaching older films.

Or, in other terms, it occurs to me that to read classic Hollywood is to grapple with connotations lodged somewhere between Roland Barthes' semic and cultural codes. Which, after all, is Waldo's pocket square?