Monday, November 30, 2009

TV and Vernacular Social Critique

I find the Sirkian system argument a productive one for thinking about films' relation to their social milieu. Even if one does not subscribe to a Category E reading, the versions of those readings suggest the complexity that interpretation can bring to the table.

But one critical tendency gives me pause: the narrowed ascription of what middle-class life means in postwar America. There is a particular critical readings (such as McNiven's argument about architecture in Ray and Sirk, or for that matter Fassbinder's reworking of All that Heaven Allows) that reads Douglas Sirk as a critical commentary on television in middle-class life.

Fine as it goes, only Sirk was not alone in critiquing television. It seems that the middle class – or certain fractions of it and the mainstream culture addressed to it – loved to see TV as a problem. This is true in a social problem film like Face in the Crowd, which centers thematically on the corrupting role of mass media on the public sphere. But it is elsewhere, too, as in The Last Hurrah (John Ford, 1958), the cinema looks at television and sees it as lacking.

The bemusement at televisual political marketing comes from the novel, but I think the film version does something different than the literary source. In the book, the prime axis of difference is between the mass mediated and the unmediated, between marketed politics and retail politics. In the movie, the prime axis is between TV artifice and (implied) cinematic reality. TV becomes a problem not because it replaces an unmediated sociality but because it is crasser and inferior to movies.

So a number of things get collapsed:

- the fairly widespread anxiety and critique of mass mediation. Academics were not the only one to read Mills' The Power Elite.
- Hollywood's anxiety about an ascendant culture industry.
- the transformation of the public sphere, toward newish modes of legitimation.
- narrational problems of a film that tries to show the objectifying social knowledge the novel so effortlessly presents.

This is just another version of two critical impulses I like to champion. First, a broader, more inductive view to film selection in the histories, even interpretations, we write. Second, a refusal of a historical chauvinism that sees the past as mere retrograde simplemindedness.

What I'm asking for is less a history of TV-in-film (though that's certainly interesting) than a more generous sensibility we have as scholars interpreting the past. This sensibility would build in the subjective understanding of the historical agents into our objectifying world view of the past. To this end, I'm interested in how a vernacular social theory informs popular culture.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Film Studies Journals

I am curious: is Framework dead? The website declares it a bi-annual publication, but the last issue is from Fall 08.

To be honest, I've had a hard time keeping up. Lately I've been wondering if I read enough journals (I suspect not) and if I might be missing a significant read (very likely). I keep up with Cinema Journal and Screen upon each issue's release and regularly check out Film History, Camera Obscura, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, and Velvet Light Trap.

From there it gets spottier. The popular-academic crossover journals like Film Quarterly and Jump Cut I do not get to as much as I'd like. Some I consult to rejuvenate my perspective with neighboring disciplines: Flow, Journal of Television and New Media, or Journal of Visual Culture. Film and History, Film Criticism, Scope, Journal of Film and Video, and Journal of Popular Film and Television all seem to speak directly to my scholarly interests, yet I rarely find myself reading them, in part because some of them publish scholars housed in other fields. There are, too, the specialized journals dedicated to subfields like animation, adaptation, audience studies, or screenwriting - interesting, but harder to devote time to for generalist purposes.

ScreenSite has a useful, comprehensive list of screen studies journals, yet an inclusive list in this context can actually have disadvantages compared to a more restrictive list. In general, I tend to privilege peer-reviewed or at least rigorous academic journals (since there are professional and practical reasons to focus on that) and not to put much emphasis on open access (since I have a university affiliation and a good library at my fingertips). However, one needs only read bloggers Girish Shambu or Catherine Grant to see the appeal of an alternate stance on either count.

What makes readers' regular and occasional reading lists?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

CFP: On Not Looking

Essays on Images and Viewers

Call for Papers

Submissions are invited for an edited book with the working title On Not Looking: Essays on Images and Viewers. Contemporary experience presents us with a contradiction: while we are at a historical moment when images have never been so readily available and circulated, we increasingly ”don’t look” at images. The collection of essays will explore the myriad ways that not looking at images — as opposed to not seeing — is manifest in our burgeoning image culture today.

Contributions are sought that address practices and representations of “not looking,” “turning away,” and other manifestations of physical and mental distraction from material images.

Our relationship to the glut of images that saturate the world is characterized by an ever-expanding contemporary form of iconoclasm. Again and again, while documentary images are touted as a reliable form of visible evidence, or as commensurate with the every day life they depict — due to their apparent mimeticism and their potential to be seen simultaneous with the event — we don’t trust them, we question them, we continually go back to written words as a way of understanding and confirming what we have seen. This scepticism involves a looking away from the image. Even as the means of production become increasingly available, even as images are exhibited, published, seen and watched everywhere, we are either discouraged to turn away, or we are unable, or unwilling to look at what is pictured before us.

Not looking often comes as a result of privileging the other senses. Thus, we are directed to listen where we might want to look: in museums and art galleries, institutions apparently devoted to the idolatory of images, we are continually coaxed away from looking – we are enticed into following the audio guide, reading the texts on the wall, believing the written catalogue at the bookstore. Our eyes are constantly distracted from the supposed purpose of our visit: to look. Alternatively, looking with the eyes is devalued in the world of virtual reality: touching, hearing, smelling, even tasting challenge visual perception as the measure of our bodily experience of the visual world. In another example, never before have the images that document the modern battlefield been so abundant and readily available — on television, the World Wide Web, Instant Messaging and so on. Yet, again and again these images are censored, prohibited, manipulated and disguised in an effort to quell their power and blind their audience. Like the turn away from the deceptive documentary image as evidence, the press and the powers they represent force us to look elsewhere for the truth.

Despite the wont to “not look,” to look away, to look elsewhere, scholarship in the more traditional disciplines of art history, cinema and media studies, and the relatively recent interdisciplinary fields of visual and image studies have focussed on discussions of “practices of looking” “how we see,” and, for example, the precision of vision in modernity. Within the fields of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and other critical studies, scholarship tends to understand iconoclasm as a form of blindness or metaphysical distraction, not seeing when we look. Artists and imagemakers today, however, continue the preoccupation with the habit of “not looking” “looking away,” “turning elsewhere” in analogue and digital media. On Not Looking will bring the concerns of critics and philosophers together with those of artists and imagemakers: the essays will reinstate the image to its position of primacy in an interrogation of the contemporary tendency to look away. As such, the anthology will contribute to ongoing debates about the politics and aesthetics of looking, and better assess the role of images, and our relationship to them, within contemporary history and culture more generally.

The collection will be divided into a number of sections with essays from different theoretical perspectives that focus on the image, and our relationship to it, as sites of “not looking”. Potential areas to be discussed might include:
  • Politics of institutional exhibition and perception of images (including museums, schools, prisons, and so on);
  • Censored, repressed, and banned images;
  • Transformations to practices of not looking as a result of new media interventions;
  • The image in history and memory;
  • Not looking at images of bodies and cultures on the margins;
  • Religious and cultural prohibitions about looking at certain types of images;
  • Responses to images of trauma;
  • Images in everyday life (eg. Reality TV, the role of the image in travel and tourism, YouTube interventions; advertising, home movies and family photo albums);
  • Embodied vision and visceral imagery (e.g. acts of violence and the mutilated body);
  • Political interventions (including public protest, Photojournalism, ecological imagery, and so on).
Submissions that focus on a variety of material images are welcome. These will include but are not limited to: painting, architecture, film, photography, video, television, museum exhibitions, the World Wide Web, cell phone images and the printed press. Essays that explore contemporary images that follow our habit of not looking, as well as the way older works have been revised and displayed within the contemporary moment are sought.

All inquiries, and/or 400-500 word abstract, and current CV can be sent to Frances Guerin: fjguerin - AT - by December 15, 2009. Full essays of 5,000-7,500 words will be due September 30, 2010.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival

For those in the New York area, the Margaret Mead festival offers a terrific-looking lineup this year:

Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival
November 12-15, 2009
Located at the American Museum of Natural History

Once again, the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival brings together a collection of gripping stories told from unique perspectives. For our 33rd edition, we continue to honor the legacy of famed anthropologist and American Museum of Natural History curator Margaret Mead, showing documentaries that increase our understanding of the complexity and diversity of the peoples and cultures that populate our planet. The Mead Festival has also expanded its horizons to reflect the ever-evolving art of storytelling. New technologies and greater access to all the longitudes and latitudes of our interconnected world have amplified the possibilities for film made in the documentary tradition.

Steeped as we are in our daily lives, the Mead gives us a chance to step outside our own struggles and routines, to consider not only what divides us but also all that connects us. We are also reminded of how our lives affect those half a globe away. A Native Alaskan community comes together to mourn the impending loss of their land to climate change. We follow the length of a race track through Africa, pausing to become acquainted with the communities along the way. A school in Brooklyn becomes a battlefield in the War on Terror.

Beyond the stories are the way they are told, and the filmmakers featured this year marshal their talents to employ new modes of storytelling. Claymation sequences illustrate the epic struggles of indigenous Bolivian female wrestlers. Staged readings and dramatic re-creations expose the wretched secret of the Ukrainian Holodomor. An intimate camera and innovative editing evoke the rigorous schedules of overachieving high school students in China. Rather than relying solely on traditional documentary techniques—archival footage, interviews, voiceover narration—these filmmakers embrace poetic observation and reenactments, humor and subjectivity. They allow their cameras to linger on their subjects and the surrounding landscapes, permitting the narrative to reveal itself.

We invite you to sit back and watch. From the dilapidated communal apartments of St. Petersburg, Russia, to backyard tiger breeders in Flat Rock, Indiana, these 33 films will enlighten you, hearten you, and enrich you. We hope you’ll join us.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Hollywood Plagiarism

I have been rewatching Humoresque for an essay I'm working on. I must have seen it the first time before I ever watched The City, because this time around I was completely caught off guard by the montage sequence a third the way through:

Not only does the film recycle documentary footage, seemingly at first as B roll, but the montage sequence maintains the original intellectual montage, only integrating John Garfield's character into the parade of anonymous social types of the "urban worker."

I have long held a suspicion of explanations of Hollywood's postwar documentary-infused style as being merely the holdover from wartime documentary/propoganda/newsreel practice. Yes, the war does have a catalyst effect on the public sphere aspirations of Hollywood, but those aspirations stretched wider than is often acknowledged. Grierson and Ivens wrote for American Cinematographer, and film critics judged Hollywood narrative against the seemingly new nonficiton language. The City, too, suggests that government-documentary intellectual montage could be as important as superficial stylistic markers like the handheld camerawork or grain of 16mm photography. It's all the more stark appearing in a film like Negulesco's, a highly mannered drama with lush production values. (Standard master-shot scene analysis is pretty rare, for instance.)

The other point to make is that this is merely an unusual instance of a typical practice. At the World Picture conference, I saw a paper (by Chelsey Crawford, OSU graduate student) that raised the interesting question of how one understands quotation and allusion in cinema. I mentioned afterward the particularity of nonfiction quotation, but the Humoresque example raises another practice: Hollywood's tendency to reuse or borrow footage in a seamless integration of story. It is quotation without acknowledging it as such. From my understanding wartime filmstock shortage put some demands on studios to do this, and of course the bare-budget Poverty Row studios always had an incentive.

Filmmakers did not stop lifting footage, of course. What changed was a sense of historical archive for Hollywood films. The underlying footage all of a sudden became visible. Plagiarism became quotation.

Wild River's integration of documentary footage of river flooding might be an interesting in-between case, a moment of transition between two representational regimes. It's not Humoresque's use of The City, nor is it The Limey's use of Poor Cow.

CFP: Blackwell Companion to Film Noir

Companion to Film Noir
edited by Andrew Spicer and Helen Hanson
Blackwell’s ‘Companions to Film Genre’ Series

As a disputed category, film noir has generated a lively interest and debate ever since the term was first used post-war France. The films that constitute the (contested) canon of film noir continue to be highly valued and enjoyed, and to produce a formidable body of commentary. Although American ‘Classic' noir (1940-59) continues to create intense interest, in the last fifteen years the understanding of film noi has widened to include neo-noir (American film noir produced after 1959), film noirs in other countries (in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Australasia), and noir in other forms: comics and graphic novels, posters, radio, television and videogames, all of which now constitute what James Naremore in More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (1998/2008) identifies as a global and interrelated ‘noir mediascape’. Since its tentative beginnings in the late 1970s, critical (and populist) discussion of film noir has become so extensive that a major overview is now necessary.

The ‘Companion to Film Noir’ will treat noir as a dynamic cultural form that is a global phenomenon that exists in multiple contexts, and will attempt to map this wide terrain by situating film noir within its various historical, political, social, cultural and industrial contexts. The scope of each essay is intended to be wide-ranging, the exploration of a topic rather than a particular film-maker or film, and thus to scrutinize critically existing debates and develop them further, extending analysis into new areas. We wish to encourage contributors to take intellectual risks rather than repeating the tried and tested, and to be guided by the overarching question:

what is the current state of play in film noir studies and how could it be developed most productively?

By bringing together approximately 30 essays from an international range of scholars, it is intended that the Companion will become a central text in film noir studies, one that consolidates existing work in a number of important areas, but also develops and extends that work and sets the agenda for future studies.

General areas the book covers:
  • Theoretical approaches to film noir and neo-noir
  • A cultural history of film noir: film noir’s hybrid histories/influences
  • American film noir and neo-noir
  • Production and reception context
  • C2) Subject matter, themes and representation
  • Noir in other media forms/global noir
For a list of identified topics, see the full call for papers.

Each essay should be a maximum of 8,000 words; due date: 31 January 2011. If you would like to be considered for inclusion in the volume please send a short abstract (c. 300 words) on one of these suggested topics by 31 December 2009. We are also open to alternative suggestions and modifications of the topics as outlined.

Please send to:
Dr Andrew Spicer (University of the West of England): Andrew2.Spicer - AT -
Dr Helen Hanson (University of Exeter): H.M.Hanson - AT -