Thursday, October 28, 2010

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 histories
  • Issues of preservation and restoration
  • Archival theories and practices
  • The impact of digital technologies
  • Decentring European Cinema and Television in the context of global media (cross-cultural influences, cooperation, distribution, reception, the impact of migration)
  • Film History, Pedagogy, and Disciplinary Identity
Please submit your proposal using the submission template to screen - AT -, marking the email subject box 'Conference 2011', to arrive no later than Friday 7 January 2011. For updates, please visit the conference website.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

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 sound stage shooting and rear projection.
So the stylistics are typical of Poverty Row noir, and the characterization, too: the title character Shabunka (Barry Sullivan) is psychologically disturbed (even though his paranoia has some just cause) and there are existentialist undertones to his success drive. At the same time the narrative is an inverted American Dream trajectory, much like a classic gangster film. Even the femme fatale character (played here by the one-named Belita) is closer to the gangster-moll characterization than to, say, the vamp in Out of the Past.

Finally, on another note, I found myself intrigued by the painting in Shabunka's apartment. Done in some expressionist-meets-Goya style, it seems to comment on the character at key points, yet its message seems mysterious and oblique. People often read Ulmer's films as commenting on the clash between mass and traditional culture, but here too we have a purposive use of art within a B movie context.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday Giallo Blogging

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

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

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 Production
  • Children's Media and Gender
  • Women, User Generated Content and New Media Economies
  • Digital Games
  • Archival Research
  • Women, Sport, Broadcasting
  • Media Education
  • Indigenous Women and Media
  • Media, Scale and Mobility

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

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 mastered by those outside the field. Consider political economy arguments about media industries. They're an incredibly valuable model of historical change for film, television, and media historians. I've used a version in my argument that prestige films shift because of economic conditions in the film industry. You can find excellent coverage of political economy work at Alisa Perren's Media Industries blog.

But note that film and media scholars are not the only ones to employ it. Edward Jay Epstein, for instance, writes well-researched but thinly-referenced popular-readership books on the contemporary movie industry. Consider his post on why TV is replacing cinema as prestige entertainment and Alex Tabarrok's follow up at Marginal Revolution. These posts present arguments that are familiar to historians studying contemporary television and film: competition with video pushes cable movie channels to diversify offerings, cable TV is able to pursue quality audiences, etc. In the process these posts demonstrate that media and film specialists don't have a particular monopoly on political economy arguments. (In fairness, Tabarrok is an economist.) I don't mean this as a slight on Epstein's writing, but as a question for what a PhD and research specialization bring to the equation.

But I have a methodological point, too: the political economy approach has its limits. Tabarrok references a "lowest-common denominator" aesthetics of the movies and free TV, which have to speak to a mass audience and sacrifice things like character and dramatic weight. This would explain the relative status of prestige TV v. film (some people like the idea of watching quality programming and "serious" films), but I don't buy it as a full explanation. Classical Hollywood, for instance, had a mass audience and some of the dramatic qualities signaled out as prestigious today. Epstein also notes that international distribution creates this common-denominator effect. True in one way, but that raises other questions. Why can't studios green light both Global Hollywood projects and prestige material meant primarily for a domestic US/Anglophone audience? Well, in fact they do just that, only their attempts (Assassination of Jesse James, for instance) get good reviews but little popular-press buzz. The sociology of reception matters a great deal with prestige product.

In my mind, political economy is best thought of as a fulcrum for rather than a driver of historical change. It effects, catalyzes, thwarts, or exacerbates both supply- and demand-side cultural changes taking place - it can even suggest the relative weight of supply and demand sides of cultural influence. But it does not substitute for culture itself.

Monday, October 18, 2010

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 and specific case studies with an inductive eye. I might quibble with some of the observations but in all find the account quite persuasive.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

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.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

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) becomes the basis that movie producers use for their comedy.

In the process, the film plays with the history of silent film, both real, as in this reference to films like The Black Hand (1906)...

and apocryphal, as when Merton thinks he's going to be run over by a train.

It's a mainstay of ideological criticism to say that movies reconcile contradictions, and it's hard for me not to read this film as speaking to a recently urbanized America, who find themselves as on the other side of the changes of modernity and dislocation and therefore like to look back to a simpler time and a more sincere culture. There are similar ideological tensions later (c.f. Jim Collins' reading of the "new sincerity" in 1990s culture), but the 1940s strikes me as the last decade in which the small-town rube can function as a sympathetic figure.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

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 no monolith of "70s theory." To use one of my favorite essays, in Christine Gledhill's reading (1978) of Klute, she disagrees with the favor for strict political modernism by arguing for a progressive realist practice. So while her conclusion differs from the 1970s take, her agenda belongs to it. Other theory - for instance Dudley Andrew's championing of phenomenology - adopted a different agenda but was still part of the discipline.

So... there's always a danger that when I'm trying to take a temperature of the field that I'm actually reifying it. Disciplines do not move in lock step, but they do move.

Second, why do disciplines reject past approaches? Certain disciplinary change may be mere faddishness. It can reflect professional ideology. But it can also be a way to build knowledge collectively. If we have to debate every point at every turn, it becomes much harder to form research agendas which are useful. For instance, it's useful to have textual analysis as a methodological tool without having to debate what the director intended or whether a film made for profit can express greater ideas. At its best, consensus closes off discussion but also opens up areas of inquiry. I would champion a Thomas Kuhn-model of how the discipline works but have to acknowledge that film studies is not a truly scientific field.

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 explicit or implicit representations of Iran but rather in the complex philosophical state that the film puts the spectator in because of its formal strategies and b) that this philosophical state is a more nuanced and political relevant disposition than learning from any direct message.

What interests me is that a discipline that at first blush seems to have "moved beyond" the 1970s Screen theory style of political modernism has formulated a theoretical variant that in some regards (not others) is not too different.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

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.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Heritage of Political Modernism

Alex Juhasz did not like The 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 hard to live well).
Like Juhasz, I value what a good documentary can do and recognize that documentary has, among other things, an economy of analysis impossible in even the most intellectual of narrative films. I mostly disagree with her assessment of narrative, because I think narrative film has a value, both as an aesthetic form and as popular culture.

Disagreement aside, I was drawn to Alex's post because it so clearly expresses a political modernist critique, very much of the sort championed by 1970s film theorists like Colin MacCabe, Laura Mulvey, or Stephen Heath. You do occasionally see it today - E. Ann Kaplan's work on historical trauma is a good example - but not all that often. Cultural studies and the historicist turn in film studies each from their own direction challenged the monolith of the spectator and the model of the classic realist text. Arguably, newer theoretical readings are sneaking political modernism in through the back door by privileging art cinema and a certain philosophically-inflected spectatorship. But rarely do I see scholars explicitly argue for political modernism.

Which does not necessarily make Juhasz wrong, of course, since unfashionable ideas can be right. Rather, it makes me wonder if I overestimate the consensus in the discipline on these matters. What is the heritage of political modernism in film studies today? This might be a good occasion to revisit D.N. Rodowick.

Monday, October 04, 2010

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 dominant in the 1930s and the newer culture-invoking form emerging in the postwar years.

Stylistically, the film interests me for similar in-between qualities. Here, we have the visual style so typical of the 1940s prestige-drama: the cluttered mise-en-scene suggesting the "realist" domestic space, the low ceilings, cookie-heavy set lighting, and a relatively damped illumination on main characters.

The glamour photography is certainly less shadowy, but even here there is a flattening diffusion and a move to the middle of the gray scale, as on Walter Pidgeon here.

What I increasingly gravitate to - both on level of style and screenplay/narrative - is the paradoxical invocation of "realism" and the "emotional" as two sides of the literary and hence of the prestige film.