Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Movie Poster

Dan Kremer notices the lack of originality in movie posters. My initial thought is that the template quality reveals the absence of high concept material and is a way to communicate genre without it. And like genre, the difficulty is that while too much repetition is not optimal in selling films, neither is too much originality.

A broader point: I'm left wondering what work has been done on the movie poster. And what work on the movie poster should do. Very often, film scholars will read through the film poster for what it says about the presumed appeal of a film; Rick Altman (Film/Genre) examines the poster for Only Angels Have Wings as an indication for what studios thought of the generic elements of the film. At other times, scholars study posters as bare fact of marketing: for Justin Wyatt (High Concept), the movie poster, say Jaws, is index of the changing place of marketing in the production process. I wonder if anyone studies them as expressive forms in themselves. Such an approach might fall outside the disciplinary purview of film studies proper, raising some of the same issues that film music does, or at least takes the perspective of the graphic designer rather than her bosses. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Nightmare Alley

A film like Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, Fox) makes me wish my literary history chops were a little more developed. For it seems to be part of a cycle of noir adapations of novels centered not on hard-boiled detectives but on ordinary protagonists (or anti-heroes) in contemporary settings. Along with writers like Cornell Woolrich and Kenneth Fearing, Nightmare Alley author William Lindsay Gresham is drawn to the allegorical. The plot is a rise-and-fall narrative about a carnival worker Stanton Carlisle (played by Tyrone Power in the film) who uses a special code to make it big as a mentalist in the big city. 

Not satisfied with the nightclub entertainment circuit, he decides to play con artist among New York's socialites. What's unusual about the narrative is the ambiguity around the paranormal (Stanton is clearly a con man, yet the fatalism ) but also the commentary the con game makes about class. 

Though packages among the Fox Noir DVD series, the film is unusual for a 20th Century-Fox film. For its crime dramas, the studio tended toward the murder mystery or the police procedural. Nightmare Alley defies typical genre expectation and is notably downbeat; apparently (according to the DVD commentary at least) only the influence of Tyrone Power convinced Zanuck to support what was an A-budget for a film that seemed to be B material better suited for another studio. 

Lee Garmes' cinematography exemplifies the stylistic hybridity of the film. The variety of lighting approaches and tonal schemes is astonishing. To take just one instance, one shot early on exhibits much of what one might characterize as a quintessential 40s noir look, hard-edged with ink blacks, staged in deep focus, undoubtedly shot with a fast film stock:

This is followed immediately by a shot that, while also recognizably 40s and also shot with fast film stock, conjured the shadowy romantic style of 30s cinematography, with one plane in focus and a gauzy softness in the background. 

At times, too, there is what I would consider a distinctly Garmes shot, with different actors lit in different amounts of grayscale to set them out as distinct two-dimension planes  - something he would pursue more in The Paradine Case

All of this goes to show, as James Naremore has argued, that what passes as "noir cinematography" is actually a wide range of practices. The variety is only confounded when a studio adapts material outside of its typical generic territory, or when it brings on an outside cinematographer, who adapts to the house style but not without showing his own distinctive style.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

CFP: Feminism/Culture/Media in Practice

Camera Obscura is (re)starting up a regular focus on feminist media practitioners. Given the seeming regression for the inhospitable industrial environment facing women filmmakers today, the addition couldn't be more timely.


Camera Obscura is happy to announce the renewal and reconception of a section devoted to the types of questions and formats, productions and receptions that the journal once featured under the title “Women Working.” This section will also continue the work of remarking on the ever-fluid shape of “feminism, media, and culture” that more recently appeared in our “Archive for the Future” section.

When the “Women Working” section originally appeared in the 1970s, contributions included book and film/video reviews, conference and festival reports, interviews and personal reflections, and accounts of large-scale works-in-progress by female producers. In “Feminism/Culture/Media In Practice,” we would like to include similar work and more — that is, work that may even broaden the scope of those previous subjects and subjectivities, textual forms, and cultural events. We invite the submission of short essays (750 – 2,000 words maximum) on current media practices, practitioners, projects, resources, events, or issues — particularly those that highlight new work, fresh perspectives, and emerging material in a contemporary feminist media studies context.

As “Feminism/Culture/Media In Practice” will enable the continuation of short-format pieces like the assessments and appreciations included in our “Archives for the Future” and “Fabulous! Divas” special issues, we encourage authors to invoke a tone that veers between playful and rigorous, speculative and conclusive in order both to address their specific subjects and media and to experiment with form in a critical context. We will publish solicitations and open submissions, with the intention of enriching dialogue between feminist media scholarship and the practices — production, distribution, exhibition, organizing, research — that sustain it. Submissions or proposals should be sent to

Camera Obscura
Department of Film and Media Studies
University of California, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93106

Please also submit a cover letter with complete contact information, and send an electronic version (saved in Word document format) either on CD along with the hard copies or via e-mail attachment to Submissions will only be considered complete once both the electronic and print copies have been received. Please direct inquiries to

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Lady in the Lake/Dark Passage

It's probably not a stretch to say that either because of Hitchcock or because of larger formal trends, subjective narration became more prominent in 1940s Hollywood. But two features in 1947 were extended experiments in subjective camera. The most infamous is Lady in the Lake (Robert Montgomery, MGM), which has the reputation of an exemplary failed experiment. For critics and scholars alike (and I'd recommend Pascal Bonitzer's essay "Partial Vision: Film and the Labyrinth - Wide Angle 4.4 for a theoretical reading of the film), Lady in the Lake exemplifies the inability to directly translate 1st person literary narration into 1st person cinematic narration. 

An adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel, it tries to create the book's 1st person literally. "We" see what Philip Marlowe sees. The narrative frame is shot with objective camera (albeit with a direct address and a 2nd person "you" in the dialogue). 

But the remainder of the film is entirely in subjective camera. 

with occasional glimpses into a mirror or of Marlowe's body part (these of course are impossible spatially)...

So much written about the film has emphasized the narration, though, so let me highlight a few other points.

First, the film reveals how near-sacrosanct the unity of time and place is in the classical Hollywood scene. The uninterrupted long take and the continual subjective camera draw attention to the ellipses between scenes.

Second, the genre is an odd accommodation of Chandler-noir to the MGM house style. Much of what be considered the awkwardness of subjective narration per se is in fact the mismatch between controlled dolly shots or pans and the subjective perception we might expect. (Handheld camera of course does not reproduce human vision, of course, but it may disguise the differences better.) The script, too, layers on Christmas references not in the novel (see the credit titles). I have not researched when this film was released, but it must have been either December 1946 or early 1947, since Montgomery soon left MGM to make Ride the Pink Horse for Universal. Likely, the genre reworking was a half-hearted attempt for seasonality. To be honest, I'm not sure how often studios tried to time film releases to seasons. (Of course, release dates were not simultaneous nationally then.) 

Finally, some of the subjective camerawork is interesting, as when Marlowe gets slapped around or kneels down in the grass to hide.

In general, though, Dark Passage (Delmer Daves, Warner Brothers) shows how much difference handheld cinematography makes for subjective narration. Here, the main goal is to hide Bogart's face until his plastic surgery. We never see the main character's face until then. Instead, the opening is a vertiginous combination of objective shots, subjective shots, and uncommunicative narration. 

Dark Passage, therefore, gives the spectator the occasional objective view lacking in Lady in the Lake; after the turning point, the film switches to mostly objective narration.

Stylistically, the film straddles the surrealistic expressionism of other Warners' films, like Dead Reckoning....

... and the studio's forays into harsh, fast-film stock pseudodocumentary style, as in Possessed.

Its credit sequence in fact is one of the few I've encountered not only to show live-action footage behind glass-plate titles, but also to activate narrative exposition in its title sequence. It's not quite the in media res fashion that would develop by the 1950s (The Defiant Ones, say), but it's a significant development nonetheless.

Intro book links

Catherine Grant rounds up intro-textbook chapters available as samples or for free. I continue to be amazed at her internet searching efficiency. 

I have a number of things on the to-do list this summer, but high on them is to revisit my intro textbook post and update for new books and new editions. I also hope to do a comparison of film history textbooks. I'm curious: are there any textbook areas in need of review?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Complexity and Documentary Narration

In the previous post, I griped about scholarship that facilely dismisses other viewpoints under the guise of "complexity." But it's worth pointing out a rhetoric-of-complexity example that is not facile (at least I don't find it such) and in fact appears in a useful, well thought-out book. The introduction of Paul Ward's Documentary: The Margins of Reality (part of Wallflower's Shortcuts series), contains this caveat:
"'Documentary' in the twenty-first century is a complex set of overlapping discourses and practices, and we need our theories, critical approaches, and – perhaps most of all – our documentarists equipped to recognize and deal with this fact." (3)
What interests me about Ward's claim is that in general he does not commit any of the sins I complained about yesterday. He does provide something positive, namely, a case for the importance of documentary animation as an object of study. Later, he sticks up for Nichols' typologies against complaints that they do not explain everything. ("In disagreeing with some of Nichols' points or conclusions, some of his critics appear to go overboard and reject the categories themselves." [21]) Finally, there is a case to be made that the forms of what counts as "documentary" have multiplied since, say, the 1970s.

Yet the recourse to complexity raises my skepticism. Is documentary so impossibly complex today? For the scholar, perhaps: we have more kinds of films we need to understand as "nonfiction" and we have some good reasons to resist the centrality of the Griersonian definition. But for the maker, documentary can be as straightforward or complex as she wants it to be. There continues to be a finite number of hegemonic documentary forms that we can identify as such. Those working in reality TV or making for PBS are certainly aware of other "overlapping discourses" but know as a matter of professional practice how to suppress those discourses. Moreover, even those working in a counterhegemonic vein adopt shared stylistic devices and thematic tropes. Our models may need to change, but I still believe the field of doc studies undervalues simplifying models.

This applies even for Ward, who after extolling Nichols' taxonomy, urges revising it in favor of a dialectic model and assessing "how these modes are taken up and used in specific contexts" (which he seems to analyze on the level of the individual film). We do need to break the shackles of canonicity in documentary studies. And we do need a revision of Nichols' taxonomy (which, mind you, I find useful enough to teach in my intro to film analysis class every semester). But rather than dialectics or infinite contextual hybridity, my preference – and one goal of my research – is to find typical narrational patterns in documentary. These patterns are related to the documentary canon and the Griersonian definition yet are not reducible to it. They will by nature exclude many examples of nonfiction film, but will provide explanatory power for a large subset.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

What He Said

I will give a hearty second to this point from David Bordwell: "Literary humanists sometimes talk as if they want explanations to be as complex as the thing being explained. But that would be like asking for the map to be as detailed as the territory." If there's one critical move I find tiresome it's the recourse to complexity. As in "any history will fail to grasp the complexity of how audiences actually respond to movies" or "this reading fails to grasp the contradictions of gender as an intersectional identity." Now, if a model, idea, or scholarly argument can better capture an object of study in its complexity, great. There is a version of the previous examples that would do just that.  And some approaches are reductive. But usually the rhetoric of complexity simply discounts the hard work it takes to make complex phenomena a little more understandable. I think a good rule of thumb is that if you criticize another scholar or lay person for having an insufficient complex view of something you better offer that workable, more complex view. Even then, realize your complex model may lack certain explanatory power of a simpler one. 

Monday, May 04, 2009

Theory-Praxis Divide

Tim Burke takes up a student's question: if academic cultural critics understand expressive culture so expertly, why can’t they create it? He maps out the variants of answers that cultural critics give. 

I myself have had very limited filmmaking experience (essentially one class in college making silent super 8 films) and, teaching in a production department, I'm keenly aware of the asymmetrical expectation I have of my media-making students to do some version of what I do when I am not really able to some version of what they do. My own reasons encompass a number of the reasons on Burke's list. Of these, reasons #3 (the autonomous logic of criticism), #5 (criticism's emphasis on explaining phenomena external to the cultural work), and #7 (the money and technology required for creative work) loom large.

I would add, for most media production, there is no single "maker's perspective." Division of labor means that writers, gaffers, production sound mixers, and assistant producers all have specialized jobs and abilities. Moreover, even within one role, the scale of production may be crucial: one can learn about framing with either a portable video camera or a 35mm camera, but in most respects these are radically different arts. Which activity should a film or media scholar do to best get the creator's perspective? This question needs not necessarily negate the utility of gaining a creator's perspective, but it suggests that there is no obvious starting point or scope for theory-praxis ambidexterity.
Note that most of the reasons Burke gives are ideal, not practical, while in fact the structure of educational paths and academic professions tend to provide a better ultimate reason for why cultural scholars so rarely gain knowledge as creative producers. On one end, all but the most ambidextrous of creators will find themselves discouraged in the path of graduate education for having an incompatible sensibility with pure scholarship. On the other end, the incentives of the profession do not reward scholars with production/creative experience, and to the extent that professional activity is a finite resource, the time and effort spent on creative work takes away from that spent on scholarship.

The Defenestration of Visions of Light

I finally got around to watching Visions of Light. Belatedly, because my research has increasingly taken up the history of Hollywood cinematographers and because the film is so frequently used in film analysis classes to show students the art of cinematography.

On the latter point, I'm a little mystified. I don't find the film remotely ideal as a pedagogical aid. Set aside the oxymoron of a film about cinematic art having the most pedestrian documentary shooting, scoring, and editing style possible. I suppose there's a case to be made for a nondescript frame to make the art work shine that much more. What concerns me more is its hagiographic approach to film history and its historical bias.

There's a deeper point to be made about the "great man" approach to film history - c.f. Gomery and Allen's Film History textbook. My disposition as scholar is to favor the contextual, the typical, the disjunctive, or the accidental. Others with even a more poststructuralist bent will criticize the teleology of film progress. But even before we get to the more advanced critiques, there's some major problems with the AFI approach. 

Most strikingly, Visions of Light doesn't do all that much to show the spectator what makes for cinematographic art; instead, the DPs and experts interviewed tell her/him in voiceover. Admittedly it's tough in an excerpted clip to show how Hud tells its story in pictures rather than dialogue and acting, but that's partly the point. The documentary throws up clip after clip as if the art of cinema is self-evident. The effect is not too different from an Oscars montage. Fine for those already versed in film and film history, and maybe OK as a listmaking exercise for viewers who want a best-of list, but not much instructional value.

A better approach would be to show alternatives. contrast competing styles, or show instances that do not work, that are banal, or that fail to tell the story visually. One can learn as much from failures as from masterpieces. And the film should give some explanation: What makes Adventures of Robin Hood a crowning achievement of color cinematography? If George Barnes is a quintessential romantic, what about the image makes it so? If Arthur Miller had a distinctive style, then why does the clip from How Green is My Valley look so different from the ones from Grapes of Wrath? I'm pretty well versed in these matters and I sometimes have a hard time getting the message from the clip they show. 

My other main objection with the film is its lopsidedness. Europe and the rest of international cinema only appear in a token, predictable manner: German expressionism as influence for noir and camera movement, French New Wave as liberator, Abel Gance as godfather of handheld. Does not the art of other countries' films deserve appreciation as something other than an influence for Hollywood? The Hollywood Renaissance looms large here, comprising two-thirds of the running time and dwarfing anything the film might have to say about classical Hollywood. There's an unchecked assumption that realism, spontaneity, and freedom are good. The film wants to celebrate the classical Hollywood masters, then spends the rest of the film undercutting their work. 

The result is a film that gives surprisingly pat narratives of cinematographic art and relies on praise over genuine explanation. To take a counterexample, a documentary like Helvetica not only captures something of a serious debate within an artistic field in an accessible manner, it actually guides the spectator through a new way of seeing design. In contrast, the clips in Visions of Light are a collection of admittedly pretty images, but the film provides little context to ask us to see these images differently. They are static masterpieces, "Art" rather than art.