Thursday, September 30, 2010

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 deceptively simple question that has proved to be a challenging theoretical problem." Many of the essays are more applied national-cinema case studies than theoretical explorations, but essays like those from Michael Chanan (who assesses the legacy of the underdevelopment thesis in a postmodern film-festival culture) and Lucia Nagib (who critiques Miriam Hansen's vernacular modernism thesis) supply valuable theoretical interventions. What makes this volume seem distinctive to me is its attempt to find conceptual means to deal with contemporary film culture - namely the invocation of "world cinema" in film criticism and film festivals.

World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, Natasa Durovicova and Kathleen Newman, eds. Routledge, 2009
As the title suggests, this volume compiles various arguments grappling with models of transnationality. As the editors note, the transnational signals cultural exchange above the level of the national but below the global. Moreover transnationality suggests a power relationship somewhere between parity ("international") and core-periphery ("global"). Not all of the essays theorize the nation state as directly as Newman's or Frederic Jameson's but the contributions to tease out theoretical implications, even when dealing with case studies. There are many strong and useful essays in this book, including those by Olivier Barlet (on popular African cinema), Mette Hjort (on Dogme), and Yingjin Zhang (on Chinese cinema), but I will single out as indispensible Dudley Andrew's essay on the concept of national cinema (he has contributions to the other two volumes as well) and Miriam Hansen's version of her vernacular modernism argument.

Global Art Cinema, Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover, eds. Oxford, 2010
In full disclosure, I do know the editors and have seen their work on this volume at various stages. This volume is as much a participant in newer studies on art cinema as in the scholarship on world cinema; where a generation of film scholars (with the notable exception of David Bordwell) were busy with putting art cinema in defensive quotation marks or marginalizing its study on sociology-of-taste grounds, with the assumption we already know enough about it, more recent studies have taken art films as a serious object of study, theoretically and historically. Contributions here, like Aneglo Restivo's on The Conformist, Dennis Hanlon's on Jorge Sanjines, and Patrick Keating's on Gabriel Figueroa all make me see the familiar in a new light. Mark Betz's updating of Bordwell's category of parametric cinema seems very useful to me. Like the Durovicova/Newman book, Global Art Cinema is particularly valuable for suggesting how transnational cultural exchange has always been operative, especially in the realm of art cinema, yet the transnational dimensions do not negate the importance of national policy and film cultures. Similarly art cinema has never been merely a European and Japanese phenomenon, though each have played a crucial role in its development.

In short, I have found all of these productive in challenging my understanding of national cinema and world cinema. These books have just one major drawback for me: I realize I need to watch many more films.

Monday, September 27, 2010

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 allowed if it served another function (storytelling emphasis, say). But what we see here is the acceptance of a previously unacceptable amount of stray shadows in order to accommodate two mutual exclusive goals: cheap budgets and luxurious, "artistic" lighting effects.

In addition to change in visual style, Born to Kill takes a sang-froid approach to its sexual subtexts. There's the psychosexually-disturbed killer, Sam, played by Lawrence Tierney and the sadism of the relationship with Helen Brent (Claire Trevor), who is turned on by his psychopathic nature. On top of that, there is the connection between Sam and his roommate-friend Marty (Elisha Cook). Marty covers for Sam and gets jealous at appropriate points; as the image above shows, they share a bed in the boarding house. Unlike the exoticized queerness of Laura, House on 92nd Street, or Gilda, the implied gay/trade relationship here seems seedy and mundane.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Political Economy of Film Festivals

Perceptive sentence, from Manohla Dargis, in a New York Times article about film festivals:
It may be that the Toronto International Film Festival has emerged as one of the biggest, most influential festivals in the world specifically because it learned how to bridge that art-cinema world and those conglomerate-owned movie studios we nostalgically refer to as Hollywood.
There's been a boomlet in scholarship on film festivals, so Dargis's observations are not uncharted territory. All the same, while I've seen some discursive, ideological, and industrial readings of film festivals, including on the TIFF, I think there's still room to bridge micro- and macro- levels of this cultural exchange.

On top of that, there's two broad tendencies in the field of film history. The Gomery appropriation of Chandler-ite business history, with a goal to understand how corporations actually work (governance, structure, and behavior in markets). And the Marxian tendency to critique corporate culture as an ideological form. The two don't always talk to one another. I get the sense, admittedly off the cuff at this point, that there's more investment in the sell-out thesis of film festivals' corporate leanings than a close analysis of what corporations mean for film culture.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Arnelo Affair

The Arnelo Affair (MGM, Arch Oboler) is another crime drama about marital infidelity. Anne Parkson, a dissatisfied wife of a workaholic lawyer, gravitates toward the advanced of Tony Arnelo (John Hodiak), only to get caught up in a murder. It's proof that Hitchcock films weren't alone in the transference-of-guilt theme that the Cahiers critics liked to point out. I would say that a close examination reveals a difference; whereas the Hitchcockian transference is largely metaphorical, here Anne's guilt is literal, and the script makes explicit the sense that a wrong accusation of one crime is the (just) punishment for another.

Even though this film, like The Unfaithful, thematizes redemption and forgiveness of the cheating wife, it lacks the self-conscious invocation of a historical past. That said, the dialogue does venture surprising into social problem territory, as when the detective enters an argument on the seriousness of murder (!) with a retort that , "If we've learned anything these last few years, it's that harm done to anyone in the world is harm to everybody." This from pre-Dore Schary MGM could come from an Adrian Scott-unit film at RKO.

Stylistically, the film borrows extensively from radio aesthetics, as director Arch Oboler was known primarily for his work with radio thrillers. The Arnelo Affair uses extensive internal monologue with voiceover narration. But what most interests me is how it reveals the influence of Hitchockian subjective narration. Very few, if any, subjective shots mark the shooting and editing, but there is another, often overlooked attribute of subjective narration: the refusal to cut away from the reaction shot. Combined with many tight close-ups, this suggests a psychologically heightened state for the main characters. For most viewers, perhaps, the effect will not be a successful style - the equivalent of an exclamation point after every other sentence - but in its failure it shows the broader shift in stylistic practice in the 1940s.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Specificity of Critical Vocabulary

One of the goals of my intro class is to introduce critical vocabulary that not only allows students to analyze movies but also allows them to do the readings in the field that an upper-level class might require. One distinction I make to that end is between the viewer, the spectator, and the audience. In my mind these are three distinct concepts.

However, if you read in the field, scholars often use these terms interchangeably. So from a certain perspective, my usage is overly prescriptive - if the field does not as a whole distinguish between these, why should I or my students? From another perspective, though, there's a good case to be made that analytical clarity for critical vocabulary is a worthy goal.

But raises the problem of critical words that are not precise. The concept of ideology, for instance, is just the sort of idea that intermediate to advanced scholarship in the field relies on heavily. Yet anyone who's taught the concept before will realize how several definitions comprise what we call "ideology." Part of this is the subject of explicit debate (Stuart Hall v. Louis Althusser) but part of this goes unremarked, since the assumption is that scholars can apply their own fuzzy logic to determine what model is being invoked.

Do we teach that kind of fuzzy logic or the precision of definitions and models?

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Unfaithful

I often get asked in regard to my 1947 project: why that year in particular?

I have a few answers. There is the initial reason I picked it, as a barometer for the industry the year some major social problem films were released. And there's a sense of constructing the typical but resisting the canonical (1947 sees few canonical films). But the answer that I've developed after starting the project is that 1947 seems a pivotal year in the transition from the wartime (and the New Deal) to postwar life.

It's not just me. The films themselves seem self-conscious about the transition. None more than The Unfaithful (Vincent Sherman, WB), a noirish story about a murder whose initial appearance of self-defense by a housewife is complicated by a past infidelity she had with the victim.

The film's opening begins with a shot of a Los Angeles house, which pans right to reveal the street in pseudodocumentary fashion, while a voice-of-god narration intones, "Our story takes place in Southern California. The problem with which it deals belongs not to any one single city, town, or country, but is of our times."

The narrative, it turns out, literalizes the "crime" of wartime infidelity in a trial not only about the murder charge but more broadly about the legacy of World War II. "Have we forgotten the war so quickly?" Chris Hunter's defense attorney asks the jury. The jury - and the spectators - are put in the position of how to balance looking backward to the war's experience and looking forward to the postwar future.

Stylistically, too, the film looks both forward and backward. The Warners' house style revels in cookie-heavy lighting and shimmering surface on minimal set design yet also follows the vogue for deep focus.

Location shooting has a pseudo-doc feel at times, a romanticization at other times.

It's remarkable that a film so much a copy of the WB Mildred Pierce mold should evince its historical moment in such a distinctive way.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

CFP: Rendering the Visible

The deadline is approaching fast on this one....

Rendering the Visible
Feb. 11-12, 2011
Moving Image Studies Program at
Georgia State University

The doctoral program in Moving Image Studies at Georgia State University welcomes paper proposals for a meta-disciplinary conference on the state of “the digital turn.”

Keynote speakers:

Akira Mizuta Lippit (University of Southern California)
Vivian Sobchack (University of California at Los Angeles)

One of the most pressing questions facing studies of the image today is how to theorize visuality as more and more moving images are given over to the digital. This conference proposes that the notion of “rendering” might provide a useful entrée for an exploration of theoretical continuities and discontinuities in our understanding of the technologically reproduced image, from Benjamin's “Short History of Photography” to CGI.

With regard to image and sound, “rendering” has both a technical and a theoreticalcurrency. It is a term that emphasizes layering, enveloping, and reversibility. In the processing of the image, rendering has the technical sense of the application to a sketch of various effects of “luminence” (transparency, translucency, etc.) under the assumption that light doesn't simply “strike” the object, but rather “envelops” it. Michel Chion relates “rendering” to sound theory with his notion of “rendu,” which describes the spectator as being “seized” by an immersive sonic environment.

If “rendering” presents us with a “point of no return” (in which layers must be permanently merged), it simultaneously implies the slippery act of bringing into being.

That is, when understood as a process, “rendering” shifts our attention to reversibility, oscillation, and becoming of the visual, which occur prior to the moment in which image layers are fixed. In this way, “rendering” emphasizes not the image but the image-state,which takes the digital as its “raw material” and embodies it, analogizes it, and thickens it in new and uniquely post-cinematic (and theoretically post-classical) ways. The inbetweenness of “rendering” may offer ways to understand new affects of visual images (across the photochemical and the digital) and their hybrid ontologies.

The conference organizers offer “rendering” as only one provocative tool but welcome paper proposals using any number of frameworks to consider how the digital turn might reconfigure fundamental (“classical”) concepts such as inscription, photogénie, the punctum, the gaze, the body, materiality, aura, analogy, contingency, the virtual, the archive, the uncanny, the labor of imaging, indexicality, visuality, visibility, and decay, as well as how “rendering” or, indeed, other innovative theoretical tools might enable us to think through more recent concepts such as reversibility, the fold, becoming, topological figures, post-humanism, the interface, and the glitch.

Send paper proposals (300–500 words) and short bio by 15 September 2010 to Queries can be directed to conference organizers Angelo Restivo, Alessandra Raengo, or Jennifer Barker. E-mail addresses at