Friday, January 29, 2010

Blessing in Disguise

I'm teaching Robert Allen and Douglas Gomery's Film History textbook this semester. They devote a considerable amount of space to a polemic for a distinct film historiographic practice. Some of it is dated (film history is no longer brand-spaking new), and some of it still holds. Reading past the substance of their argument, though, one can detect an underdog fetish:
We estimate that nearly half of the theatrical-length motion pictures made in the United States are lost forever. Consider the enormity of this loss for the historical study of cinema. It is difficult to construct even a hypothetical analogy on the same scale in another branch of history. To do so we would have to propose, for example: What if two-thirds of all the paintings done in the twentieth century were destroyed, and most of the remainding one-third were saved through happenstance rather than through systematic preservation?
Well, for all we know, two-thirds of all paintings painted in the 20th century were destroyed. Not every painter is famous or later becomes famous or shows work in respected galleries or museums. Certainly work of a certain caliber has had a leg up in surviving because of fine art's consecration as a cultural good, much more than cinema's status as ephemeral and popular commodity status in the first half of the 20th century. And, yes, film poses distinct archival and preservation challenges.

But there is an advantage to this situation: we are in a position where the field has an open mind that all films are interesting on some level and worth preserving. We actually are concerned with those destroyed or lost 2/3 of cinema. Our handicap is also a strength.

Monday, January 25, 2010

CFP: 50 Years of the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research

On, Archives!: A conference on media, theater and history
Celebrating 50 Years of the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research
July 6 - 9, 2010
Madison, Wisconsin

In 2010 the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research celebrates its 50th anniversary. Formed in 1960 as a joint project of what was then the Department of Speech at the University of Wisconsin - Madison and the Wisconsin Historical Society, the WCFTR was one of the earliest institutions in the United States to perceive the value in preserving and collecting archival materials in American film, radio, television and theater. Conjointly with the WHS's extensive Mass Communication collections, the WCFTR has continued to build a resource used by scholars, researchers, students, and the general public alike to keep the history of media and the dramatic arts alive and to aid in our understanding of cinema, radio, television, drama, and popular culture as globally vital phenomena.

In this its 50th year, the Center will celebrate by hosting a conference focused on film, radio, television and theater history, and on the challenges of archiving in these areas. We invite a broad range of scholarship touching on the concerns of the collections here at Madison, and particularly invite those whose work has brought them here to consult our papers, films, recordings, and graphic materials in the course of their work. Equally important are considerations of archiving popular, aural, and visual culture. We invite presentations of historical work – and contemporary work with roots in the historical – in the fields of film, theater, and broadcasting, and in archival issues and debates, for a four-day celebration of the study of media and performance culture in America and around the world, July 6 - 9, 2010, in Madison.

We invite you to submit papers in any of the following areas, or on related subjects. We are particularly interested in work that makes use of the Center's or the Society's collections, or that of other archival venues.

* The history of film production, exhibition, and distribution in the US and abroad
* The history of broadcasting in the United States, and its transnational influences
* The history of American theater production and performance
* Issues and challenges of media archiving, including the digital future
* The role of history in the study of media and popular culture
* Historiographical methods and theory
* Creative authorship in film, broadcasting, and theater
* The future of media and theater history

Send paper, panel, or workshop proposals of no more than 300 words to Michele Hilmes at wcftr50 - at - Details of the proposal process can be found on the Conference Details page.

Deadline: January 30, 2010

The "On, Archives!" conference will also host a symposium on Broadcasting in the 1930s: New Media in a Time of Crisis. This is a conference-within-a-conference, with its own submission process. Conference attendees are invited to attend all sessions at both events.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday Giallo Blogging

The ideological trope of J&B scotch...

This example from The Bloodstained Shadow. One of the things I love about giallos is their inventiveness in finding new visual means to achieve conventional generic ends. Take this shot of the killer entering the apartment building:

Normally, suspense films withhold the information of the killer's identity by a) keeping the killer offscreen; b) framing part of the killer's body but never the face; or c) illuminating so that shadow falls on the face. Here, inspired no doubt by the low-light cinematography of Gordon Willis, the camera points directly at the killer and the key illumination of the scene. I cannot claim this is the first film to do this, but in some ways that's beside the point - the generic pleasures of giallo is the systematic rule-breaking.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Spring 2010

I have also uploaded syllabi for this semester's versions of my Intro to Film/Video Analysis class and the graduate Film Theory class.

I see that Alisa Perren has shared a syllabus for her grad Media Industries class - the course looks great. I am hoping to collect any shared syllabi in the field. Pointers welcome.

Reality TV genre

Watching Tabitha's Salon Takeover, I kept think of Rick Altman's genre syntax/semantics model, since the show has the semantics of a interior-design makeover show (any of the HGTV programming, but even more Restaurant Makeover) but the syntax of Supernanny. I don't claim it's necessarily the first such combination (I never watched Kitchen Nightmares, which clearly is in the mix), but the syntax/semantic combination does distinguish the show from other Bravo shows which otherwise seem comparable stylistically.

Which makes me wonder what scholarship has addressed the genres of American reality TV. I know there's a tendency in popular discourse to treat it as one genre, but either a format might be a better way of conceiving of it or else if it is a genre then the subgenres bring important distinctions. Yes, I know some searching around some databases and a few hours reading can answer my question, but that's a project I'll have to put off for now.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Hollywood Cinematography syllabus

The semester is starting up soon, which means getting syllabi in order. I am teaching a new class this Spring, an Advance Film History class focusing on Hollywood cinematography. I've uploaded my draft syllabus of the readings and films. If anyone has suggestions, I'm all ears.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Unsuspected

Here we see Warners taking a page from Fox's true-crime pseudoducmentary book for a credit sequence:

In general, if I had to pick one film that exemplified the trends of the late 1940s, I could do worse than The Unsuspected (WB-Curtiz Productions, Michael Curtiz).

In house independent production. The 1940s was a period in which tax structures encouraged independent production, often with stars or directors producing their own films and releasing them through a parent studio. The Unsuspected is both a Warners film and not. It was produced by Curtiz, a WB director and relied heavily on the studio's talent. Consequently it looks and feels like a Warners film, yet it departs in its imitation of Fox and others.

Noir and gothic narrative. The Unsuspected borrows liberally from Laura, with a literary radio host and a haunting portrait. It also suggests other noir sources, like Nightmare Alley. It takes the noir hallmark of pushing the enigma of the narration to its stretching point in the opening scene, in which all of the major characters and scenarios are introduced, yet without the clarifying exposition that situates them for the spectator.

At the same time, there is a strain of the women's gothic: the cavernous house, the young woman in distress, and windows that suddenly fly open. Oh, and there's the Laura-esque portrait:

The portrait is of Matilda (Caufield), a young heiress who lived in the family house with her beloved uncle Victor/Grandi (Raines) and her cousin Althea (Totter). It is not giving too much away to say that Matilda returns from the dead - the narrative here departs from Laura by turning into a gothic story focused on the danger to Matilda.

Noir Style. Most obviously, this opening scene partakes of noir style and iconography - it feels to me like Warners is doing RKO drag...

This includes the subjective camera. The film is not an extended experiment in subjective narration, like Lady in the Lake or Dark Passage, but clearly Notorious has had its influence in the scene in which Matilda gets drugged.

A-Film Stylistic Flourish. The Unsuspected is not pure noir, though, not even pure A-film noir. Curtiz's style here is only part Mildred Pierce - the rest of the time it is the elaborate, fluid style common to the decade's prestige product. Roving, emphatic camera and complex blocking abound. And lots of mirror shots with confusing spatial implications.

Deep-focus spatial articulation. Patrick Keating has argued that tenets of classical cinematography became default because of their functionality. Watching some of the late 40s films, I am inclined to think that deep-focus and deep-space arrangement became a new default, only one not always keyed to functional ends. It feels to me as faddish as the use of zoom in 1960s cinema.

Realist location shooting. The interiors are done in studio, but the film breaks out for exterior scenes shot in New York and its environs. The cinematography is contrasty and fast, reminiscent of Fox's pseudodocs.

Coded sexual perversion. Missing here is Laura's gay subtext (at least I don't see one), but like Laura the film paints its heterosexual pairings as pathological. Matilda is too attached to her uncle, who in turn seems to fester with a desire he can not consciously allow. But even the "proper" match, Matilda and Steve, is odd, a pairing based on chance and duplicity.

Amnesia. There are a crop of 40s films depicting amnesia. Instead of a shell-shocked soldier, here it is Matilda who cannot remember the crucial accident. But Steve too seems without a past, a soldier who may have been in love with a murdered woman, but did not know her well. With so much backstory that is minimally explained, The Unsuspected seems paradoxically unconcerned with the past.

Critique of the Public Sphere. The film borrows the device of the radio broadcast from Laura, but here the emphasis is different. Where the former played up the effete literary quality of Waldo, Victor represents the mass public in its middlebrow-ness. Here the film is more in line with the representations of radio in Letter to Three Wives and other 40s films which implied cinema's medium superiority.

Come to think of it: Some people ask me what I am looking for when watching these 1947 films. The above list is as good as any of my preoccupations.