Friday, February 27, 2009

The Effort of Effortlessness

Phil Rosen has a theoretical reading of the detail in the Hollywood film – see also Tom Brown's recent Screen article – but for a basic sense of how much time, money, and energy the studios put into the detail, I love the accounts in the trade publications. This is what cinematographer Charles Rosher wrote about The Yearling:
To keep the Baxter farm in green crops, 27,000 stalks of corn and 4,200 tobacco plants were raised in cans and hothouses to replace those withered by the sun.... On Stages 15 and 30 of the MGM lot, the Baxter cabin and part of the farm... were recreated. To insure authenticity, the Florida cabin was dismantled and, together with rail fences, was shipped [from Florida] to Culver City. Forty tons of Spanish moss... was loaded in a refrigerated car to keep it alive...." (American Cinematographer May 47)
The final product of this labor?

The amazing thing, mind you, is not that Hollywood would spend so much money then (they still spend lots of money), but that technological and production reasons made shipping a cabin and Spanish moss across the country so much more cost effective than location shooting.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer

Nicholas Musuraca was director of photography on The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (RKO, Irving Reis), but what an aesthetic universe apart from Out of the Past! True, there is some interesting shadowplay on the minimal interior sets

... and some occasional lighting setups hinting at the romanticism of Out of the Past:

Generically, though, the film is almost an ideal type for the light comedy that RKO specialized in for their mid-A productions. High-key, star-driven, and a variant of the screwball formula, only overlaid with more traditional social mores. (Paramount's Dear Ruth is comparable, though perhaps a little more "sophisticated" in its connotations.) In this instance, Richard Nugent (Cary Grant) is the eponymous bachelor, an artist whose profession immediately stands in for bohemianism, and Susan Turner (Shirley Temple) is the bobby-soxer who has suffered a teenage crush on Nugent, to the chagrin of her older sister and guardian, Margaret Turner (Myrna Loy), a rationalist judge. Complications ensue of course, and soon Nugent is "sentenced" to dating Susan to cure her of her crush.

The oddness of the screenplay is that perversity abounds – the intergenerational romance, the intimations of both father and mother substitutes, the implication that the law is requiring a relationship with a teenage girl – while the film plays it all straight. It is not the matter of a subtext or of containment, as in the 30s screwballs. Rather, Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer cites the 30s template only to rely on the insistence that impropriety is illusory. Temple's star image in particular militates against sexual desire, and it's understood that her girlish crush can be only that – an innocent delusion devoid of sexuality. For his part, Grant's star image paints Nugent as a philandering bachelor, but the age and distance suggests that this is how Grant "used to be." In all, the film seems most conservative (and dated) for suggesting that teenagers are devoid of sexuality and independence - the pretense they have to being adult (again, comparison to Dear Ruth is instructive) only underscores their ultimate innocence.

Of course that's an ideological assumption that the 50s and 60s melodramas (Written on the Wind, Spendor in the Grass) would have a field day with.

The Humanities

The recent New York Times article on a putative crisis in the humanities has been talk of the town lately. Tim Burke, as usual, has a nice, measured response. He does seem to agree that there is a legitimation crisis of sorts in the humanities fields - a crisis in the discipline model borrowed from science and a crisis in justifying humanities to a broader public (mass public and policy public).

While I'm happy for better scholarship and better salesmanship, I don't tend to see the system as broke, only able to be improved. For starters, where others see boilerplate in the notion that humanities scholarship and teaching develops critical thinking, I, well, think that the humanities fosters better thinking skills that help for both instrumental reasons (white collar workers with those skills really do their jobs better than those without them) and for only quasi-instrumental reasons (a representational democracy is better off having a wider slice of the population capable and willing to take in information and synthesize it). Certainly, there have been certain trends in my field that do not immediately further these, but in general I do take seriously the charge that humanities build both the instrumental and the general competencies.

In particular, I stress the following:
- the wonderful economy of expository writing and argumentation in presenting abstract ideas
- the sharpening of logic in reading and making arguments
- the necessity and challenge of translating ideas from one field to another - the possible role of ur-disciplines (history, philosophy, economics, sociology, etc) in fostering other knowledge
- the sociology of knowledge and the boundedness of various conversations/public spheres

All this may seem abstruse and precisely the sort of tautological discipline-because-the-discipline argument Burke complains about. But an illustration may help: in a course on Race and Ethnicity in Film I taught last semester, I assigned for one week the film Marty and as reading Herbert Gans's Urban Villagers. It's a texts-in-context pedagogical approach popular in film and literature departments. It opens up the text, illuminates it, but in the process asks what sociology can tell us about film, what a primary text is (is Gans primary or secondary?), or what Marty can tell us the more official accounts we use as American History. Merely an academic concern? Yes and no. Lippmann reminds us that a central challenge of democracy is that we as citizens cannot know everything - a reminder particularly stark in the age of macroeconomic crisis and financial meltdown - yet a democracy needs tools for dialoguing between technocratic, specialized discussion and lay discussion. The technocratic knowledge may lie firmly in the realm of the scientific and social-scientific. (There is no appreciable policy branch of film studies - in fact, the discipline in the US designed to segregate those concerns out to communications and econ. departments.) Humanities, however, can help in the translation and dialogue.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Film Technology

For my critical methods class this evening, I revisited Duncan Petrie's summary chapter in The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. What's remarkable is a) that Petrie deals mostly with the history of the big technological shifts in cinema (sound, color, widescreen), and b) while that summary does not capture nearly all the work on film technology that gets written, it does capture how the debates on film technology are often characterized.

Which makes me wonder how best to write a history of film technology - or an aesthetics of film technology. I confess no especial technical knowledge - and many in the field lack it. Many on the production side do have this knowledge but have no incentive to write scholarship on it - and may well ask other questions anyway.

I myself have been trying to reapproach the studio "house style" and in the process am asking how best to grapple with the technological.

In short, I have a few intuitions about history of technology:

- the humanist tendency to call "technological determinism" and read merely cultural impetus misses what's interesting about the problem

- film historians often have a large-scale understanding of technological change, but tend to downplay shorter-term developments

- film historians still privilege the "great transformations" over the secondary changes

- we have not filled out the history of contemporary and post-classical film technology

- we have delved even less into the technological practices of non-American contexts

These are generalizations posed more as intuition than fact-of-the-field.

I'd highly recommend, by the way, Paul Ramaeker's recent article in Film History on the split-field diopter. In my eye, it's the nice, solid essay that connects technology to its perceptual dynamic and its aesthetic uses.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

1947 Exhibition Snapshot Week 6

Week 6
(Variety returns 2/11/47)

Aldine (WB; 1,303; 50-94c): Temptation (Univ.) $9,500 3rd wk
Arcadia (Ind-Sablosky; 700; 50-94c): Boom Town (MGM) $7,500 2nd wk reissue
Boyd (WB; 2,350; 50-94c): Nora Prentiss (WB) $38,000
Earle (WB; 2,760; 60-99c): Blind Spot (Col.) $33,500 with live music show
Fox (2,250; 50-94c): 13 Rue Madeleine (Fox) $26,000 2nd wk
Goldman (Ind; 1,000; 50-94c): Secret Heart (MGM) $14,000 5th wk
Karlton (Ind-Goldman; 1,000; 50-94c): Show-off (MGM) $11,000 3rd wk
Keith's (Ind-Goldman; 1,500; 50-94c): Blue Skies (MGM) $9,000 2d run
Mastbaum (WB; 4,350, 50-94c): Till the Clouds Roll By (MGM) $20,000 4th wk
Pix (Ind-Cummins; 500; $1.95-2.50): Henry V (UA) $10,000 6th wk
Stanley (WB; 2,950; 50-94c): It's a Wonderful Life (RKO) $24,500 2nd wk
Stanton (WB; 1,475; 50-94c): Lady Luck (RKO) $8,500

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Metz on the Intellectual Position

From Imaginary Signifier:
To be a theoretician of the cinema, one should ideally no longer love the cinema and yet still love it.... Not have forgotten what the cinephile one used to be was like, in all the details of his affective inflections, in the three dimensions of his living being, and yet no longer be invaded by him: not have lost sight of him, but be keeping an eye on him... This balance may seem somewhat an acrobatic one. It is and it is not. Of course no one can be sure to attain it perfectly, everyone is in danger of slipping off on one side or the other. (15).
Forgive the gender non-neutral language here (is the cinephile coded male?). I cite the passage because it captures much of my own scholarly desire and sensibility - I'm not sure if Metz is even responsible for it and didn't even notice this imperative until rereading IS this week.  And like he describes, I find my acrobatic act a little tricky and teetering from one side to the other.... lately I've had to embrace/enjoyed embracing the cinephilic since I've been teaching in a production department, one defined against mainstream industrial practice, and am responsible for generalist courses. 

Ongoing I am trying to wrap my head around the newish reading formations of film theory - I do think them distinct - and suspect one difference I have with some of these readings is that they purposefully and/or unconsciously collapse the affective and experiential dimensions of the films they discuss with the study of those texts.

Of course, this is a discussion with a parallel in the social sciences: the opposition between objectivist scholarship and subjectivist. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Out of the Past

Once again, we have credits over live action footage - a minority practice in 1947, but apparently gaining some favor.

When I describe my 1947 project to people, I'm hard pressed to name many films likely to be familiar. 1947 was a remarkably unnotably year for the film canon. Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, RKO) is a major exception. As James Naremore notes, the film actually has a style quite distinctive: "Interestingly, Musuraca's work involves no night-for-night scenes, no distorting lenses, no extreme deep-focus compositions, no 'choker' close-ups, and very few radical angles - in other words, it manifests almost none of the traits that Place and Peterson claim are essential to the visual atmosphere of film noir." (More than Night 175).

His claim seems to be corroborated for the film's unusual abundance of fill. Hollywood style of the 30s might wash out facial features in selective moments, but here new and often unreal effects appear.

Mind you, in the first still, the lighting is premised on gender asymmetry. Yet it violates the portraiture conventions for achieving this symmetry (cf. Patrick Keating's "From The Portrait to the Close-Up" Cinema Journal).

And, yet, Naremore's choice of film seems likely because it ranks high in the noir canon: its flashack structure, its femme fatale, its corruption-under-the-surface-of-perfection theme, its Mexico-as-other motif, its romanticism. And some of its cinematography/lighting practices seem influential or at least indicative of trends to follow, namely, harsh low-lighting, innovative use of practicals, and low angles.

The opening of The Naked City, for instance, seems remarkably resonant of the discovery-of-the-body scene in Out of the Past.

Finally, Naremore writes that 1947 was the height of "noir" - "During that year, it was estimated that only 12 percent of U.S. films were photographed in color." Hopefully I will be able to do more than estimate! Moreover, the project has helped me contextualize noir - it's less significant to the film industry of the late 40s than the disproportionate amount of scholarship and criticism would suggest and yet Naremore's right: "noir" films seems to outnumber those of other genres. At least so far in my viewing.

CFP: MLA 2009 film and media panels

Here are some film and media panels proposed for the 2009 MLA Convention, to be held in Philadelphia.

Play the Movie: Digital-Video Games and the CinematicTurn
Topics include gaming's appropriation of cinematic aesthetics as play elements; cinema's appropriation of gaming codes; these media's genres, narratives, formal overlap, etc. 1-page proposals by 1 Mar. 2009; Anna Everett (everett and Homay King (hking_AT

Time(s) for (Media) Theory
Explores theories of or produced through engagements with film and media, the contemporary possibilities for film and media theory, and questions of temporality and media. 1-page proposals by 1 Mar. 2009; Kara Keeling (kkeeling

Eric Rohmer: The Moral Tales
I am seeking 20-minute papers that address any aspect of the films that make up Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales for an MLA special session proposal. Send 250-word abstracts and a brief vitae by 1 March to Leah Anderst (leah.ganderst Notification of acceptance will be made by 20 March. Accepted panelists must be MLA members by 7 April (

Quotation, Sampling, and Appropriation in Audiovisual Production
Papers that address film and other media's formal strategies of quotation, appropriation, sampling, version, remixing, etc. as methods of critique. 250-word proposals by 1 Mar. 2009; Nora Alter (nma and Paul Young (paul.d.young

Monday, February 09, 2009

Film Music: A History

It was great excitement that I noticed James Wierzbicki's new history of Film Music (Routledge). First, because film music is a subject on which I'm poorly schooled; second, because it looked like a great potential addition to a film history class, with nice periodized divisions between "silent" film; the transition to sound; classical film music; and post-classical developments. The intro lays out the promise: "I wanted to concentrate on film music's norms, not its wonderfully aberrant masterpieces. This is not to say that Film Music: A History is a celebration of mediocrity. Rather, it is simply an effort to explain the development of the film music that at various times was considered by both its practitioners and its audiences to be respectably normal" (xii).

The book, it should be noted, is more monograph than textbook. For the classical period, in particular, I was disappointed to find not much detailed discussion of how film music works in a particular film or of the how exactly the noted film scores "are just notable drops in a very large bucket." There's a version of the genius-of-the-system argument here, and I as a newcomer to the topic could have used more explanation. Instead the account emphasizes the intellectual history of changing musical aesthetic arguments about film music and specifically musicological questions (does Hollywood use leitmotifs in the Wagnerian sense?). The specialized knowledge is welcome, but Wierzbicki, a musicologist, may simply be speaking to a different scholarly readership than me.

The book's biggest and strength lies in its impressively extensive research, which I think will especially interest scholars of the silent period. Also, its account of the driving forces (industrial and conceptual) behind the changes in film music is worth teasing out in how we write film history more broadly.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Cinema Journal on Digital Scholarship

The latest Cinema Journal (48.2) devotes its In Focus section to digital media-studies scholarship. The roundup includes some usual suspects, all contributing insightful entries - Kathleen Fitzpatrick on scholarly publishing, Alex Juhasz on YouTube pedagogy, etc - but in this context, I find it curious that there's no active academic blogger writing on the practice. On one hand that doesn't matter - Santo and Lucas's discussion of blogging is pretty good - but on the other hand there are not many scholars in our fields blogging, so to see non-bloggers make utopian claims about digital scholarship seems a little odd to me.

Also, Tara McPherson may well be right in her sense that "who better to reimagine the relationship of scholarly form to content than those who have devoted their careers to studying narrative structure, representation and meaning, or the aesthetics of visuality?" I'd just offer the counter-example that architects are sometimes the least self-aware of the role photography does in rendering an aestheticizing abstraction of buildings.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

CFP: Visible Evidence XVI

Call for Papers

Visible Evidence XVI
August 13-17, 2009
School of Cinematic Arts
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California

Visible Evidence is an international conference that, since 1993, has brought together documentary scholars, artists, producers, curators and enthusiasts to investigate all aspects of documentary practice and culture. The 2009 conference, to be held in Los Angeles at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, will help celebrate the school’s 80th anniversary and the completion of our new state-of-the-art buildings housing multiple screening rooms, production facilities and teaching spaces.

The content of Visible Evidence conferences over the years has been dictated by the prevailing interests of their participants. To that end, there is no “theme” for this year’s conference, no suggested or preferred topics.

With this first call – deadline January 31, 2009 – we invite panel proposals only. These proposals will engage with specific topics and should include a one-paragraph description outlining the significance of the research area inviting submissions from interested parties, a brief bibliography and the chair’s biographical statement in demonstration of expertise on the topic.

A second call will go out in mid-February with a listing of panels and panel chairs. Submissions for papers for specific panels will be sent directly to panel chairs with a March 1 deadline.
By mid-March, panel chairs will have made their selections and informed all applicants. A third call will then go out for “open call” papers with a March 22 deadline. Those whose proposals were not selected in the earlier round can submit their papers for open call panels.

Please note: The conference will also include workshop sessions, screenings and installations as determined by the host committee. The January 31 deadline is for panel proposals only.
Further details on registration fees, housing options and the like will follow.

Send all panel proposals to Michael Renov [renov- AT -].