Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Body, Excess, and Pathos

I'm rereading Linda Williams' "Body Genres" essay for class today. It's a deservedly influential essay, both for how well it encapsulated a number of theoretical strains to that point and for how it pushed the research agenda to a closer consideration of corporeality, affect, and spectatorial experience. Still, something this time gave me pause. Does melodrama really rely on the spectacle of the excessive, sobbing woman? Sure, you can find examples, and Williams privileges them: Stella Dallas or Steel Magnolias. But pathos often works by not showing - whether in art-cinema de-dramatization (Mizoguchi, Fassbinder) or in commercial melodrama's narratives of communication breakdown.

Take for instance the Sex and the City episode in which Miranda's mother dies (season 4, ep 8, "My Motherboard, Myself"). There are two strains of pathos: Miranda at first cannot grieve because of the pent up issues she had with her mother, Samantha at first cannot be supportive for Miranda because of her inability to deal with mortality. Both eventually do cry on screen, but it's not excessive display of them sobbing that drives the pathos; instead, it is the repression that eventually breaks.

Or, for a classical example, one of the films I'm working on, The Green Years (Victor Saville, 1946), follows poor orphan Robert Shannon as he excels as a science student and takes a test to try to earn a scholarship to learn to be a doctor. Unfortunately, an illness leads him to perform poorly and he ends up just shy of a scholarship. It's a gut wrenching moment not because Robbie cries, but because he doesn't and instead shoulders the fate of working in a foundry, his dreams of class aspiration dashed. Nor does the family react with excess, but instead an icy knowledge of what has been lost.

These moments strike me as more typical than the Williams argument lets on.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Narrational Ambiguity in Commercial Film

I found myself fascinated by 7 Pounds, if only because of its unusual genre project: half melodrama, half puzzle film. And by melodrama, I don't mean the generalized form that we might say most Hollywood dramas invoke; by that definition, Eternal Sunshine or Memento are also melodramas. I mean a specific story type heavy on moral message, pathos, and intersecting fate. At almost every turn 7 Pounds is a Will Smith Drama. Moreover, Smith's presence certainly activates reading cues to interpret this strange film (narrationally speaking) as a conventional one (generically).

The puzzle-film narration is aggressively ambiguous. Take for instance, the flashback insert during the shower scene:

In many ways this kind of flashback is both typical of the 60s-era Euro art film and the postclassical thriller or crime film. (c.f. The Limey for typical puzzle film mixing of these impulses in its flashbacks.) What's remarkable about the flashback in 7 Pounds, however, is that it occurs quite late into the film and in many ways is more readable than the otherwise "straight" narrational style we have seen up to that point. The flashback, in effect, hints at the causal connections the film has consistently elided til then.

Of course the puzzle is not simply in the text but also in the way the film was marketed (promotion materials refused to say what film was about, suggested a payoff twist). Then, there's the chapter menu on the DVD, which dispenses with the usual chapter "title" and presents instead a succession of images themselves offering no coherent narrative progression:

Of course the film by many measures failed. Some prominent critics hated it. It garnered lackluster boxoffice returns. I'd be surprised if it made as much a dent on the Will Smith star-text as Pursuit of Happiness did.

The failure itself interests me. Both as curious armchair observer of the industry (when and why do some producers take risks like this? do they see the projects as risky?) and as someone interested in genre. As puzzle film, 7 Pounds is not groundbreaking, but its (failed?) experiment suggests to me how much the puzzle film predicates itself on certain genre territory, especially the thriller, the supernatural/horror film, or science fiction. Maybe this is not too surprising: modernist experiments of the 60s and 70s art film found fertile ground here, too (Don't Look Now; giallo; La Jetee; Je t'aime, je t'aime...). But as much as the modernists among us complain that post-classical, commercial uses of narrational ambiguity commit the cardinal sin of tying everything up at the end, post-classical narrational ambiguity still fights against some strains of moral order in narrative.

Either that, or demographically, there are two constituencies for puzzle films and melodrama, and each will tend to dislike the halfway attempts that compromise their favored genre.

Friday, April 03, 2009

PCMS: Documentary Studies symposium

I'm pleased to announce the April event for the Philadelphia Cinema and Media Seminar:

Documentary Studies: A State of the Field Symposium

Saturday, April 11
Temple University Center City (TUCC)
room 320
10:30 AM - 5:15 PM

This one-day symposium will gather area scholars and media makers in a conversation about documentary studies today. Documentary studies has often held a minority but important position within the larger field of film studies. During the 1980s and 1990s, post-semiotic interventions into the truth and meaning of documentaries dominated the research agenda. Lately, newer concerns – from a social theory of cinema to the phenomenology of spectatorship – have supplemented this agenda. How do we best characterize documentary studies today? How has the subfield responded to wider changes in the discipline and to changes in documentary itself? How has the relationship between documentary makers and documentary scholars changed?

To address these questions, the symposium will comprise panels and workshops, allowing for both substantive scholar or artist presentations and wider dialogue. Contexts and Institutions will ask in workshop format how have documentary institutions evolved, particularly in the contemporary mediascape. Documentary Studies: Traditions and New Directions will explore new methodologies and research agendas in the discipline and weigh them against an impressive body of scholarship already existing. Non-Griersonian Genres will theorize nonfiction filmmaking that departs from the Griersonian documentary model: experimental documentaries, essay films, etc.


10:30 – 12:00



D.B Jones (Drexel University), on film policy and the National Film Board of Canada

Patricia White (Swarthmore College), on distribution and Women Make Movies

MarĂ­a Teresa Rodriguez (University of the Arts) on public broadcasting and community video

Ellen Spiro (Mobilus Media), on activist documentary

Ben Kalina (Temple University) on environmental production practices

1:30 – 3:15

Documentary Studies: Traditions and New Directions


Jane Gaines (Columbia University), on documentary cinephilia

Jonathan Kahana (New York University), on reenactment

Warren Bass (Temple University), on fictionalization and Leacock

Chris Cagle (Temple University), on documentary reception studies and Grey Gardens

3:30 - 5:15

Non-Griersonian Genres


Nora Alter (University of Florida) , on the essay film

Elisabeth Subrin (Temple University), on conceptualism and experimental appropriations of documentary

Rod Coover (Temple University), on the artifact and the found footage film

Jason Zuzga (University of Pennsylvania), on the nature documentary

In addition, Ellen Spiro will be showing her latest work Body of War at 7pm in LPAC Cinema at Swarthmore on Friday, April 10.

And Haverford is screening a documentary film series called Strange Truth. The first has already shown, but this next Tuesday is Jeanne C. Finley, a screening and lecture on her work as video artist and documentarian: Tuesday, April 7, 4:30pm, Sharpless Auditorium, Haverford College