Showing posts from 2010

Ngram and Inference

Google's new ngram word mapping has been making the blogging rounds. Basically, it charts the frequency of words that occur in Google Books scans. I think Kevin Drum aptly suggests "the potential here for timewasting disguised as scholarly research." But let me take seriously as scholarly research for a moment, because the ngram simply puts a quantitative face on a key practice that humanities scholars adopt regularly: the historicization of ideas. It's Raymond Williams' Keywords with numbers. See for instance, Aaron Bady's discussion of concepts of race.
My book-in-progress is historicizing both the concept of the "social problem" and consequently the "social problem film." This has involved an intellectual history of the former and a reception study of the latter. The word-mapping is a good, if very partial, check to see how representative either pursuit is.
The rise in "social problem" usage does at least correspond, roughly to…

The Red House

What is the relationship between the film noir and the B movie? Some, clearly, were B movies, but not nearly as many as commonly thought. The Red House (UA/Sol Lesser-Thalia Productions, Delmer Davies) for example runs 100 minutes and was released through United Artists, a non-integrated, non-block-booking distributor. I have plenty of B films to watch in my 1947 viewing, but so far the plurality of my noir viewing has been A picture.

But if many noirs were not B films then arguably a B-film aesthetic pervades all but the most prestige-leaning noirs (Laura, for example). There's a prevalent notion that equates this with a post-noir understand of the exploitation film, but I'm also interested in the impact of classical B filmmaking, beyond cheap budgets.

The Red House is an interesting missing link. The credit shot above borrows the iconography and titling design of the B Western (compare). The cinematography at times is evocative, but it relies on day-for-night shooting (not sol…

CFP: Volume on Special Effects

Call for Papers
Special Effects: New Histories, Theories, Contexts

Edited by Michael Duffy [Towson University], Dan North [University of Exeter], and Bob Rehak [Swarthmore College]

Deadline for Abstracts: 1 March 2011
Deadline for Submissions: 1 January 2012

Recent decades have seen ever more prominent and far-reaching roles for special and visual effects in film and other media: blockbuster franchises set in detailed fantasy and science-fiction worlds, visually experimental adaptations of graphic novels, performances in which the dividing lines between human and inhuman – even between live action and animation – seem to break down entirely. Yet the cinema of special effects, so often framed in terms of new digital technologies and aesthetics, actually possesses a complex and branching history, one that both informs and complicates our grasp of the “state of the art.” At stake in studies of special/visual effects is a more comprehensive understanding of film’s past, present, and future in …

All Roads Lead to Genre Criticism?

I was discussing the 1947 project with a colleague at another school. One point she raised was the promise the project held for understanding genre in the studio years. It's interesting because I didn't start out conceiving of the project as primarily a study in genre. But that's been one consistent thread of it, largely because I keep seeing patterns of film narratives that don't fit the received genre histories.

Cass Timberlane

1. Literature
From the opening credits, Cass Timberlane (MGM, George Sidney) foregrounds its status as adaptation. We can consider this both as marketing strategy (MGM exploits its pre-sold property) and middlebrow culture (the earlier ideal-type of prestige in my categorization). What I still need to research and explore is the culture status of Sinclair Lewis's work circa 1947. I receive him as a second-tier author in the American literature canon, but Hollywood also gave the glowing book-cover treatment to authors no longer canonized. The title touting its serialization in Cosmopolitan magazine highlights its in-between status: both mass-market and literary.

2. Melodrama
To a casual (modern) eye, the film will seem less prestigious or literary than melodramatic. Not only do major traumatic events (stillborn childbirth, infidelity, car accident) happen with relative suddenness in the narrative development, the overall pathos of the narrative is of social conflict that is inexorabl…

CFP: Velvet Light Trap on CGI, Animation, and Effects

Call for Papers
The Velvet Light Trap
Issue #69, Spring 2012
Recontextualizing CGI, Animation, and Visual Effects

Submission Deadline: January 30, 2011

Has animation overtaken "live-action" as the dominant form of production practice?

As contemporary film and television increasingly relies on digital imagery, CGI, animation and visual effects have been seamlessly integrated into "live-action." The recent popularity of films such as 300, Avatar, Inception and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World suggests an atmosphere in which audiences may expect to find more digital, visual effects and animation in live-action media. At the same time, as animation has become a staple in the corporate bottom line, they also constitute their own major category of film and television products. It seems that animation, visual effects, and cgi have been significant to the way that all films are made. It is therefore important that we recontextualize animation studies to rethink what we mean when we s…

CFP: Visible Evidence 18 (NYC)

Visible Evidence 18
New York City
August 11-14, 2011

Call for Proposals

Visible Evidence, an international conference on documentary film and media, now in its 18th year, will convene August 11-14, 2011 in New York City, at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, and other locations around the city. Visible Evidence 18 will feature the history, theory, and practice of documentary and non-fiction cinema, television, video, audio recording, digital media, photography, and performance, in a wide range of panels, workshops, plenary sessions, screenings, and special events. Proposals for panels and presentations are invited, according to the following suggestions and guidelines:

Threads and Themes

As in previous editions of the conference, proposed panels and presentations may address any aspect of documentary and non-fiction film, media, and performance, or any theoretical or historical approach to documentary. At the same time, Visible Evidence 18 will draw upon both the location of the…

Blaze of Noon

Blaze of Noon (Paramount, John Farrow) is proof that the surface genre of many of Hollywood's films differs from its ultimate genre - or, in Rick Altman's terminology, that their genre syntax is at odds with their genre semantics. Semantically speaking, Blaze of Noon is a flying adventure film, much in the mold of Only Angels Have Wings. The plot focuses on four brothers MacDonald who trade in barnstorming for a growing industry of air mail delivery.

But, in the context of Paramount's 1947 releases, the film has less in common with Calcutta than it does Dear Ruth. Ultimately, the adventure gives way to romantic comedy between Colin MacDonald (William Holden) and his love interest (Anne Baxter), with some detours in melodrama. It's a genre hybrid that suggests that hybridity was often more the norm in the classical period than genre consistency (a point Altman has made).
The hybridity was probably a strategy noticeable in Paramount's output. I've increasingly be…

CFP: Music and the Moving Image conference

Conference: Music & The Moving Image May 20-22, 2011 NYU | Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development (conference website)
The annual conference, Music and the Moving Image, encourages submissions from scholars and practitioners that explore the relationship between music, sound, and the entire universe of moving images (film, television, video games, iPod, computer, and interactive performances) through paper presentations.

In addition, this year’s conference will include a special session on teaching students about soundtracks. We invite those who teach within film, media, and/or music curricula to submit abstracts about applying particular theoretical approaches to the practice of teaching soundtracks. (For this special session, the faculty member should include with their abstract submission the courses they teach, their departmental affiliation, and the majors represented by their students.) The keynote address will be presented by Philip Tagg (Ko…

CFP: Screen Conference 2011

This sounds right up my alley...

Call for Papers: 21st International Screen Studies Conference 1-3 July 2011 University of Glasgow, Scotland

We invite papers on any topic in screen studies, i.e. cinema, television and digital media. Submissions for pre-formed three-person panels will be considered but not prioritised.

Repositioning Screen History will be the subject of the plenaries and will form a strand running throughout the conference.

25 years after the 'historical turn' in film studies, we want to explore what new approaches and theoretical models for the study of screen history have been emerging over the past decades, and how changing environments and contexts have altered fields of study.

To this end we encourage submissions addressing the following questions and issues:
Rethinking the Canon (directors, genres, movements, institutions, periodisations)New sources for new historiesIssues of preservation and restorationArchival theories and practicesThe impact of digital technol…

The Gangster

One thing I like about the inductive approach to film viewing is that it shakes many received narratives I have about film history. Canonical genre histories, for instance, tend to treat the gangster film as a cycle that dies out by the end of the 1930s, to be supplanted by noir crime films, procedurals, and thrillers. There's some truth to this, but The Gangster (Allied Artists/Monogram, Gordon Wiles) is a classical gangster story, with some noir twists.
First off, key noir visual elements are here. One tracking shot in the ice cream parlor/rackets headquarters, for instance, exemplifies the Poverty Row noir stylistics, perhaps borrowed from Detour:

The language is borrowed from theater: spotlighting suggests a psychological interiority while the spatial separation of the characters at the end of the shot points out their isolation.
The set design, lighting and deep-focus cinematography create unusual, off-kilter compositions.
This is in addition to the B-movie production values of …

Friday Giallo Blogging

Lifestyle voyeurism: monochrome set design in The Killer Must Kill Again.

CFP: Console-ing Passions 2011

Console-ing Passions, the leading international scholarly network for feminist research in screen cultures, will hold its 2011 conference in Adelaide, South Australia, 21-23 July.

Organisers are now seeking proposals for individual papers and pre-constituted panels. Proposals are due November 30, 2010 and may be submitted online.

Paper proposals must include the paper title, the author’s contact details and a 300-word abstract. Panel proposals must include the panel title, names and contact details of all participants and chair and a summary statement of no more than 1500 words to include abstract for each paper and panel concept statement. Panels may have a maximum of three papers each.

Below is a list of possible streams for the conference; these are suggestions, not limits. We strongly encourage contributions from across the Asia Pacific with an emphasis on regional issues, activities and trends.
National Screen Cultures and Feminism(s)Women in Media ProductionChildren's Media and …

1947 Project, Outsourced

The Self-Styled Siren continues her thorough and fascinating write-ups of classic Hollywood movies with a post on a 1947 film, Ivy. This is in addition to her other 1947 entries Crossfire, The Man I Love, The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, Dead Reckoning, and Nightmare Alley. There is a difference between her approach and mine, but a lot of overlapping interests, too. And in general, I'm humbled by the knowledge of many film enthusiasts.
UPDATE: And here's Catherine Grant compiling online writing on Black Narcissus.

Political Economy Arguments

In a coda to Making Meaning ("Film Interpretation Revisited" Film Criticism 27, no. 3), David Bordwell argues that textual interpretation is a skill predictable in its rhetoric:...[Making Meaning] suggests that within the profession, film interpretation has become routinized. One can quicken undergraduates' interest with critical moves that are long-practiced, but one's students are not one's professional peers. I don't want to cede the value of textual analysis - nor the ease of teaching it to undergraduates! - but the point is taken that disciplines shift the difficulty degree of scholarship as the field develops. It's no accident that film criticism today usually needs to be put to the ends of a theoretical or historical argument and that single-film readings are not as common as they used to be.
Moreover, though interpretation raises special hermeneutic issues, I don't think it's merely textual analysis that becomes a first order skill readily …

Post-Classical Cinema

I've written at various points about post-classical cinema, but I want to highlight a recent book that I've found useful in thinking through the subject. Eleftheria Thanouli's Post-Classical Cinema: An International Poetics of Film Narration (Wallflower Press, 2009 | press website) tries to define what postclassicism is. As the subtitle suggests, its main intervention is a) continuing the Bordwell-style history of style approach of generalizing about formal systems as historical artifacts and b) understanding post-classicism not simply (or even primarily) as a tendency of blockbuster Hollywood but also a style that cuts across national cinemas. Thanouli uses 14 films (a few examples: Amelie, Trainspotting, and Million Dollar Hotel) to identify key changes in story construction, spatial construction, temporality, and narration. Despite some lit-review-heavy writing style, the strength of the book is that provides both a broad model for understanding the historical shifts an…

1947 Cross-Index

I decided it would be handy to catalog the blogging I've done so far on the 1947 films. So I created this reference list of all the films from the year, with links to posts on this blog. Right now, it is pretty basic in listing films by studio. Eventually, I'd like to list by genre and maybe other categories.
Incidentally, the list is a reminder that while I've seen a good number of films, especially from the major studios, I still have a lot of viewing to do.

Merton of the Movies

Merton of the Movies (Robert Alton, MGM) is a perfect companion piece to The Perils of Pauline. I wrote of that film that it is "neither a remake of the silent serials nor a biopic about the star Pearl White, but rather a backstage melodrama that purports to do both." Similarly, Merton of the Movies creates a slapstick comedy out of an aspiring dramatic actor for the silent screen (Red Skelton in the title role) being cast in a satirical slapstick comedy, unbeknownst to him.
The film opens with a typically 1947 documentary montage about Hollywood, with voiceover narration.

There is a Vorkapich-like self-reflexive montage in the middle, too.

To all but the most nostalgic of fans, I suspect, much of Red Skelton's comedy comes across as a dated variant of rube-goes-to-the-city schtick. What is more interesting in the film is the way the film's reflexivity reinforces his star performance, so that the misrecognition he has of the world (and of what "acting" is) bec…

The Nature of Disciplines

An anonymous commenter riffs off my observations about the way the discipline has "moved on" from a 1970s moment.
Why are we so quick to refer arguments and claims to disciplinary consensus? Why do we stop short of making evaluative claims about the quality of scholarship, and of the objects it addresses, preferring instead to (implicitly) dismiss certain scholars for being "out of date"?I'm pretty much in agreement with her or him. I want to be generous to the newer theoretical approaches - in part because I value conceptual innovation and in part because some of the work, such as the Langford essay I mentioned, is quite smart. All the same, I too think that some debates aren't as dead as people would like to act.

The comment raises a couple of good questions. First, how well can we characterize a discipline? Academic fields are large, messy collectives of scholars, with competing points of views and different movements. As the comment implies, there is…

Political Modernism (cont)

Alex Juhasz responds to my post, and she explains the value she sees in connecting formal self-reflexivity to political critique. One thing I find intriguing is her attempt to see an inadvertant political modernism of examples in contemporary networked nonfiction culture.
To clarify, I don't put Juhasz in the "sneaky" camp. I was drawn to her post because she seemed clear in her political modernism. I think the arguable "sneaking through the backdoor" applies to the new theoretical readings that privilege art cinema or experimental work as a site for a superior kind of spectatorship. One can point to any number of examples, but if I had to pick one, I'd say that Michelle Langford's reading of The Day I Became Woman (Camera Obscura 64) demonstrates this type of reading. Never does Langford directly claim that realist representation lulls the spectator into ideological complicity, but she does argue a) that the value of The Day I Became Woman is not in the…

Something in the Wind

Something in the Wind (Universal, Irving Pichel) was a Deanna Durbin vehicle as Durbin's star image was starting to change. No longer strictly the girl-next-door teenager, she began to adopt a more sexualized, grown up image. However, Something in the Wind manages the contradictions of the changing image by bracketing it as the character's dissembling. Mary Collins is an ingenue whose identity gets mistaken as a kept woman for a diseased wealthy man. Her ire raised, she plays the part of seductress and gadfly for the wealthy Read family, shown here at a fashion show:

What emerges is a combination of social satire and screwball comedy. Like other light comedies, the narrative mocks mass culture, in this case radio. Mary is an on-air singer, and her profession sets up a few jokes at the expense of radio narratives.

I still want to explore more the generic workings of the Universal output and the light comedies which span across studio.

The Heritage of Political Modernism

Alex Juhasz did not likeThe Social Network:
I’ve written extensively here about the mis-steps of the usually celebrated terrain of convergence: the too easy, sloppy, ill-conceived contemporary media moves between documentary, fiction, and hybrid back again. To my mind, Social Network is a textbook case for why I’d rather wait for what can be best delivered by a plain old doc....

In fictionalizations of contemporary real-life, even with great screenwriters and directors in charge, and fine actors playing the parts, or perhaps because of them, the complexities and contradictions of the real social networks of daily living, business codes, and personality get conveniently and conventionally condensed into types (nerd, socially adept entrepreneur, playboy), themes (unsatisfied sexual desire, male bonding), and (three act) structures that gut people and activities of the confusing, amorphous messiness that defines real life—and makes it so pleasurable to watch in a good documentary (and so h…

If Winter Comes

I don't often analyze these title shots that I include in these 1947 posts, but the opening of If Winter Comes (MGM, Victor Saville) says so much. Most literally, the map of the British Isles points to the film's English setting. The parchment-like quality of the map signals historical or literary genre material, but the sleek, sans-serif font suggests both modernity and stateliness. (Bernhard Gothic - the synthesis of European modern design and American organic warmth).
The blurred historicity is also the narrative's. It adapts a novel set during World War I and recasts it as a World War II film. Generically, it is hard to describe a film like this (historical drama? literary adaptation? home-front film?) other than to note that it has close similarities with other adaptations of left-leaning 20th century novels like So Well Remembered, The Green Years, and Valley of Decision. I see films like this as a key bridge between the older, culture-citing form of prestige film do…

New Studies in World Cinema

The adage about newspaper feature writing is that three instances makes a trend. What better indication of a scholarly emphasis than the recent edited volumes devoted to world cinema? Each has a different focus, but taken together they signal new directions and new theoretical concerns. There have been books on the topic before: ones on national cinemas other than the US, on globalism, or on film trade. But the latest interventions are notable for a few tendencies. They combine film theoretical concerns with film history. They turn away, even if with reservations, from a cultural imperialism model. And they respond to developments in contemporary world cinema.

Remapping World Cinema, Stephanie Dennison and Song Hwee Lim, eds. Wallflower Press, 2006.This is the first of what I see as new world-cinema studies, in no small part because of its introduction which interrogates the category of world cinema. As the editors/authors write, "'What is world cinema?' This is deceptivel…

Born to Kill

If I had to point to any one film that marked a new sensibility in film noir, it would be Born to Kill (RKO, Robert Wise). Of course, one can categorize noir according to genre (gothic v. police procedural) or production category (A film v. B film), but the sensibility shift I'm talking about is one from the (mostly) romanticized noirs of the 1940s to the "realist" style more dominant in the 1950s.

In true 1947 fashion, this film opens with location shots of Reno, Nevada:

Born to Kill is no Naked City, however, and such location shooting is contained to a few transition scenes. (The rear projection work is not too bad, incidentally). What marks the visual style as realist is its flatness: relative lack of diffusion and glamour lighting lend a harsh look. On top of that, the lighting set ups are complex but disordered in their placement.

Patrick Keating's recent book on Hollywood lighting notes how certain violations of rules (an extra shadow on the image) might be allo…