Monday, March 30, 2009

Miracle on 34th Street

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 house style cut across genre, but it informs the work of DP Charles Clarke, not normally one of Fox's prestige cinematographers, and someone normally slotted for "outdoor" high-key pictures.

Meanwhile, I was struck this time by how the film's humor relies on subverting the "discourse of sobriety" (to use Bill Nichols' term) that marked the social problem films and pseudodocumentaries. The post office scene, for instance, plays out like the FBI scenes in House on 92nd Street; the repetition of typewriter typeface inserts is not accidental here. And a year before The Snake Pit, the film up-ends the psychiatric discourse that would dominate so much postwar cinema.



Finally, this was the film that gave Thelma Ritter her start. Clarke's memoirs state that she was initially an extra but after seeing the rushes, Seaton decided to increase her role.

Monday, March 23, 2009

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 Birmingham school get played up (Raymond Williams, Althusser) while others get downplayed (Garfinkel, social-theorist Habermas). 

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Studio-era Expenditures

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 expenditures for the other two, B&W features. Here are the actual film/lab costs:
Sinbad $52,113.86
Mourning $20,237.10
Likely $9,323.23

Mourning has twice the running length of A Likely Story and I would not be surprised - given its prestige, independent production and long take aesthetic - if it had a higher shooting ratio, as well.

But perhaps the biggest lesson is how much lighting costs in studio filmmaking. I have no idea how much it costs now to light a film, but the relative portion of lighting costs must be miniscule in comparison.

By the way, an RKO B-Western, say Under the Tonto Rim, cost only $143,855 in direct cost.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

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 missing family!) At one point, looking for his shoes, Bill makes reference to The Lost Weekend: "Once I saw a picture where a man hid a bottle on a string outside the window." Indeed his shoes were hidden in the overhead light.

Tonally, the film is not a problem film, but neither is it a send-up like Sullivan's Travels. Rather it seems to insert a filmmaking mode known to audiences as part of a generic mix. It's precisely the sort of find that continues to thrill me with the 1947 project – the discovery of a film directly related to my object of study yet one previously not canonized as part of it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

This Time for Keeps

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 characters, however, do not fit neatly into the manichaean struggles common to such treatment: Jimmy Durante's friend of the family who looks out for the performer while harboring a secret crush (as in Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer, the intergenerational material is oddly both dealt with aot dealt with); Leonora's neice, who overcathects to the couple's union; and Mr. Gordon, a self-proclaimed "doormat" sugar daddy. What's unusual – yet typical – is the absence of traditional nuclear family, yet presence of substitutes, all in a narrative ideologically arguing for the nuclear family and break from tradition as much as Marty would ten years later.

The "old country" stands in for a lot here, but so, too, does the turn-of-the-century. I'm fascinated by the way "Americana" in MGM's world has a specific referent: the moment when industrial ascendancy coincided with small-town life. Mackinac Island represents the idealized smalltown milieu, but it's also the sort of resort that could only come into being with train travel and mass tourism. Getting at that contradiction seems to get at the heart of the MGM ideology.

Friday, March 06, 2009

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 discipline, from humanist-thematic (the auteurists) to semiotic-psychoanalytic (70s film theory) to a sympathy with resistant ideological positions (cultural studies, broadly speaking). 

2. Film studies as a historical-explanatory project: Films (and all the phenomena we associate with "the movies") provide traces of broader or related phenomena.  Or film as a mass medium is significant and distinctive enough to merit charting its development. To either end, the historical project insists on a) retrieval and verification of historical fact or b) increasingly adequate causal relationships to make sense of  the empirical. Note that while history is the ur-discipline here, economics  or more rarely sociology or political science can help foster causal relationships.

3. Film studies as an aesthetics-systematizing project: David Bordwell uses the term historical poetics to designate for film studies generalizing schemata to make sense of the wealth of cinematic expression and the aesthetic possibilities for makers within such aesthetic systems. Arguably, too, much of classical film theory (Arnheim, Kracauer, Bazin, et al.) does something akin, particularly in its central concern to articulate the aesthetics of the medium. Possibly cognitivism deserves a separate category, but I think there's a good argument for including it here, not simply because the historical poetics scholars are often against psychoanalytic film theory, but because a substantial portion of cognitivists are not psychologists studying

4. Film studies as a philosophical project: Maybe "project" is too strong a word, since the scholars do not always seem themselves as "studying" film in the way the above three do. And maybe "philosophy" is misleading, since other theoretical approaches have their philosophy, too. What distinguishes this realm of scholarship, though, is the operating assumption that films present or inhabit complex philosophical ideas. The work of the scholar is not to use ideas to illuminate (and in the process temporarily simplify) an object of study, but to articulate and present the ideas in their full complexity. This sounds similar to#1 but is different in sometimes subtle ways. Deleuze and some phenomenology-infused theory is the ideal type of this approach. To my eye, for all the conceptual abstruseness, it's the least methodologically self-reflexive. Is that because it's relatively new in the field? Or because it is anti-heuristic in aim? I will have more to write about this, as I get my head around it.

Monday, March 02, 2009

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. 

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Kiss of Death




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 get in between camera and actor.


But Kiss of Death departs from the formula, too. Already in 1947, Darryl Zanuck was pushing against the March of Time strictures and toward increased "showmanship." Kiss of Death, notably is pure fiction and discards the pretense of being based on a true story. Even the real-locations title refers; the title card shows a shooting script, not a report file. The biggest change, however, is that the voiceover narration is embodied. Sarah Kozloff in her study on the voice-over in fiction film takes issue with Mary Ann Doane's gendered reading of voiceover omniscience. It's a useful reminder that disembodied omniscience need hardly be male; in the late 40s, however, it was. From the start of Kiss of Death, the female voiceover lends a different sense to the narration, a foreshadowing confirmed when the narrator identifies herself and role in the narrative.

I will need to research the script's development, but this narrational shift is a particularly Zanuckian touch. It would take only a couple of years before he would push the documentary style without the documentary narrational apparatus.

On a side note, there are a couple of zoom shots in the film, including in the above title shot. I am not sure when and how the zoom lens comes into practice, but it's striking because I'm not sure the documentary original for the simulacrum used zooms as we associate post-verite. Nonetheless, something about the aesthetic rule-bending of ultrarealism allowed cinematorgaphers room to adopt practices that would have to be downplayed in a more straightforwardly classical film.