Showing posts from February, 2010

Escape Me Never

Escape Me Never (WB, Peter Godfrey) is the sort of romantic melodrama that comes across as outdated today. In later 19th century Italy, Ida Lupino plays the role of Gemma, a gamine who's taken in by womanizing, underemployed composer Sebastian (Errol Flynn). She falls for Sebastian, who is busy chasing women, including his brother's fiancée. She decides to accept his errant ways but pays a price.

Such a narrative has especially retrograde implications by making the woman bear the brunt of "settling" in the marriage market. Yet I wonder if what's mostly come since - the downplaying of "settling" and the market - is not itself ideological. In other words, there's got to be some way to offer critique without slipping into historical chauvinism.

That the genre requires a high-key approach is no surprise. What surprises me is how fussy "polish" ends up being in much of the film. There's almost a Victorian over-adornment of the image with illu…

Truth Claims and Reality Effects

I know no issue seems more trodden than the issue of documentary veracity - or in particular the spectatorial investment in the real that documentary and documentary style engenders. I'm glad the field of documentary studies has found new research agendas and new angles of approach. Yet, like a moth to a flame, I return...

Post cultural studies, there's been a working consensus that the reality effect (to borrow Barthes' term) was overstated and even a straw man. Of course, viewers know that they are watching a film and are not just dupes to illusionistic filmmaking.

Well, two films I've seen lately have reminded me that I'm a dupe. The Hurt Locker falls short of being pure pseudodocumentary, but it uses a hand-held aesthetic to suggest a documentary-like veracity. There are a few moments when I was keenly aware of the camera's narrational presense, such as the racking of focus or the positioning of camera in a position in direct danger of gunfire. And intellectu…

The Bishop's Wife/Heaven Only Knows

I'm not sure, but I suspect that Here Comes Mr. Jordan was responsible for a cycle of afterlife comedies. Down to Earth was pretty much a direct sequel, but other 1947 films revolved around angels coming to earth to rectify human wrongdoing.

Heaven Only Knows (Nero Films/UA, Albert Rogell) grafts the western and the romantic drama onto the afterlife comedy. Angel Michael (Robert Cumming) comes down to earth and becomes the fish out of water, the good guy mistaken for a sharp shooting outlaw. His goal is to get outlaw frontiersman Duke (Brian Donlevy) to find his missing soul and become law-abiding citizen - the key of course is the love of schoolmistress Drusilla (Jorja Curtright).

Visually, a high-key A-picture style pervades the film. Shot by Karl Strauss, the film oscillates between undistinguished setups, the generically-motivated effects lighting, and visual inventiveness. Take one scene, in which an angered Drusilla storms across the street to confront Duke.

The first shot is a…

Technology and Aesthetic Adaptation

This week in the film history class I taught, not for the irst time, Paul Ramaeker's essay on diopter shots (“Notes on the Split-Field Diopter” Film History v. 19). In so many ways it's a remarkable essay, both for the quality of its research and writing and for the substantive contribution to cinema history. Plaudits aside, the essay interests me because it happens to be a well-executed example of an evolutionary model of technology and film style dominant now.

Essentially, this is an approach to film technology querying aesthetic adaptation of film technology and giving a somewhat dialectical picture. First, there is a stasis, generally defined by strong aesthetic conventions. Second, an external shock comes in the form of a new technology. Third, while some artists hesitate to embrace the new technology, others experiment with it, often through indiscriminate use. Fourth, artists learn how to reconcile the new technology to existing aesthetic conventions. Fifth, more assert…