Saturday, November 27, 2010

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 inexorable and situational. Jinny is destined not to fit in with small-town society; Cass is destined to be mismatched to big-city life; Bradd is destined to be unable to act independently. There's been a good bit of scholarship on 1930s women's films and maternal melodramas and their exploration of class politics (especially since the overriding crisis of the women's picture is the navigation of financial prospects in the marriage market). But Cass Timberlane is interesting - "novelistic"? - because it places multiple characters, male and female, in positions of understanding the cause of their situation but unable to change it.

3. Divorce

Cass Timberlane is a judge in a small Minnesota town. The film opens with Cass ruling against a request for divorce - which Cass is categorically opposed to. Over the course the film, of course, his own marriage starts to face the very strains that he had blithely discounted earlier. Ideologically, the film attempts to straddle the contradictions of marriage in early 20th-century America by seeing the older moral order as unfounded while ascribing to its practical directives.

4. Postwar adjustment

As in The Unfaithful, divorce potentially allegorizes the changes of the War and adjustment to a postwar social order. The conversation between Cass and Bradd explicitly references the change in mores after the War; more broadly, the film deals with the status of small-town values in a largely urbanizing national culture. Its thematics aren't necessarily specific to the late 1940s (other Sinclair Lewis novels explore similar ideas, for instance), but the subplot of the war profiteering give a topical spin to them.

5. House Genre and Studio Allegory

MGM films sometimes shift locale between the small-town and the big city, but the Lewisian thematics here give the studio a chance to play 20th-Fox in drag, as the characters consider leaving the MGM genre of the small-town moralizing drama to the big-city sophisticated drama. This is marked by a shift between Victorian and modernist mise-en-scene. Of course, the MGM small-town milieu is reinstated at the end.

6. Realism

Realism is admittedly a relative term. And much of the harder-edged cinematographic look could be written off as a general visual fad in late 1940s Hollywood and the technology of new lenses, faster film stock, etc. By the same token, MGM did not specialize in a realist look in the way 20th-Fox did, so by comparison to the studio's house style, Cass Timberlane is markedly realist in its lighting and overall visual look.

7. Trompe l'oeil

The film does not open with a pseudodocumentary aerial shot, but it does give one halfway into the film, as the story moves to New York City. Only the camera zooms out to reveal it to be the actual aerial view of the main characters. Or, rather, a screen within the screen that the characters are watching with us.

8. Cameo

Walter Pidgeon makes an appearance as Walter Pidgeon, attending a New York party. I can't say the film is the only one to do such a cameo, but it's a little unusual to see one outside of a Bob Hope comedy.

9. Magical Black Person

In general the "magical black person" is a trope of contemporary, not classical, Hollywood - a way of reinscribing stereotype in a representational moment revising away from an older regime of stereotyping. At first blush, Mrs. Higbee (played by Jesse Grayson) seems a typical mammy figure - domestic and asexual. All the same, something is different. Richard Dyer (in his essay "White") identifies a "liberal" version of African-American representation emerging in late 1930s Hollywood, and Cass Timberlane fits that mold: Mrs. Higbee is smart, not buffoonish; her accent lacks an exaggerated dialect; and her provenance is New England, not the South. She partakes of low-culture radio serials but knows more than Cass at crucial moments in the narrative. If not exactly a "magical black person," her character is certainly a prototype for one.

10. The Between-the-Legs shot

I confess to be unfamiliar with George Sidney's oeuvre, who might be classified as more a house director than an auteur. As with other MGM prestige films, though, there's a sophistication in the style. Arguably, as Andrew Sarris would probably argue, it represents the style unfettered to substance - but that's a tendency common to the late 1940s. If there's any directorial stamp here, it would seem to be the between-the-legs shot, which repeats at various points in the film.

Friday, November 26, 2010

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 say "animation."

Issue #69 of The Velvet Light Trap, "Recontextualizing CGI, Animation, and Visual Effects," thus seeks to engage the intersections between these techniques in all aspects of the labor practices, production, exhibition, distribution, and reception of media. It is critical that this scholarship challenge traditional views, while suggesting new avenues for scholarly pursuit. This includes re-reading and reassessing traditional histories of animation, as well as examining the aesthetic, economic, and technological ways in which visual effects and animation impact contemporary cinema and television, especially with regards to (though not limited by) the following topics:
  • cinema of attractions
  • changing standards of realism
  • global and Local Labor practices
  • pre-production and post-production
  • 3-D technologies
  • motion capture and rotoscoping
  • video games and media convergence
  • historical perspectives
  • earlier visual effects practices, such as mattes and process shots
Submission guidelines and details available at the journal's website.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

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 2011 conference and themes we’d like to see continued from previous conferences; proposals in keeping with these directions will be especially welcome. Possible themes include (but are not limited to):

¶ Life during wartime: in/visible evidence (photography, film, video, sound, print, and new media documentation) of the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as on the "home fronts” and the "black sites” of the "War on Terror” since 2001; local and global activist documentary responses to the September 11th attacks and their aftermath; documentary media of witness, testimony, and memory in the service of cultural and political movements for and against war; censorship, the law, and the sound or image of war; the un/authorized circulation of documents of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the "War on Terror” at large, or wars of other eras.

¶ Archiving, preservation, and the material of actuality and documentary: lost and found documentary film, television, and recording; issues of storage, censorship, access, copyright, acquisition, appropriation, circulation and re-circulation of artifacts and records of documentary culture and practice; regional, national, and transnational collection and transmission of documentary history; museological, curatorial, technological, legal, and financial technics in documentary archives; new critical and creative approaches to visual, auditory, and print records and documents.

¶ Talking heads and other documentary sounds: voice, music, noise, scoring, and audition in/and/of documentary radio, video, film, theater, performance.

¶ Radical/experimental New York: individual, collective, and institutional practices of non-mainstream documentary and non-fiction art and media in New York City, 1890s to the present; New York as topic, source, location, and crucible of oppositional and avant-garde documentary practice; the city symphony in the five boroughs; New York City and state in the history of alternative, community, and public access television and video; the New York avant-gardes in international context.

¶ Transnational cities: New York and other urban spaces as loci of im/migration in documentary; urban documentary as form of intercultural practice; terrains of nation and ethnicity in documented cities; the "undocumented” citizen and the ethics, politics, labor, or aesthetics of documentary.

Panel, Workshop, and Paper Guidelines and Deadlines

o Each panel or workshop session will be allotted one hour and forty-five minutes.

o Panels will consist of three papers of no more than 20 minutes each. Panel chairs will ensure that at least thirty minutes is available for questions and discussion following paper presentations.

o Workshops will consist of between four and six opening statements, in which workshop leaders can present up to thirty minutes collectively of prepared or informal material. However, the emphasis of workshops is on the open and unstructured exchange of ideas and techniques between all workshop participants, and topics suited to this format will be given priority.

o Individual paper proposals may be submitted to the open call (see below).

o Proposed panels and workshops may be preconstituted, either through public calls for submissions or individual solicitation. Panel and workshop calls may be posted publicly until December 15, 2010 in the Panels and Workshops Forums area of the Visible Evidence website ( Chairs of proposed panels and workshops must accept proposals until January 1, 2011. Prospective chairs are encouraged to require standard formatting of individual proposals (250-300 words; descriptive title; bibliography; brief bio, including history of VE participation) to streamline panel submission process.

o Proposals for preconstituted panels, workshops, and papers for the open call may be submitted for consideration at the Submission area of the Visible Evidence 18 website by January 15, 2011. Standard proposal formats will be expected for both individual presentations and workshops/panels.

o Participants may present in a workshop or on a panel, but not both. Chairs may present only on their own panel or workshop. Prospective participants may submit to a panel or workshop, or to the open call, but not both; prospective members of rejected panels may opt to have their individual presentation proposals reconsidered for the open call.

Complete submission instructions for each category of participation can be found at and the dedicated conference website. Sign up at the VE18 conference website to submit and register.

Questions? Email conference coordinator Jonathan Kahana, Department of Cinema Studies, NYU (jonathan.kahana -AT-; subject line: VE18 question.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

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 become interested in Paramount's 1947 films because a) these are among the toughest to find, since they've not had much home video release and b) the studio has such an uneasy mismatch between the changing cinematic fashions of the postwar years and the brand of sound-stage luxury that had distinguished the studio in its heyday. For instance, the cinematography of William Mellor draws extensively from the "Europeanized" glamour lighting in its use of North light in its romance scene:

This contrasts to the otherwise brighter tonal register of the high-key scenes. As well as the thematics of nostalgia that I have noted elsewhere in 1947's output. Here we the spectator are invited to know that the MacDonalds are on the right side of history (aviation will in fact take off) but at the same time vicariously experience historical innocence as a superior state.

Friday, November 05, 2010

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

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 (Kojak: 50 Seconds of Television Music; Ten Little Title Tunes). Streaming video of the presentations will be available only at NYU from May 20-30, 2011.

The Program Committee includes Philip Tagg (see credits above); K.J.Donnelly (The Spectre of Sound, British Film Music and Film Musicals); Elsie Walker (Conversations with Directors; editor of Literature/Film Quarterly); and coeditors of Music and the Moving Image, Gillian B. Anderson (Haexan; Pandora’s Box; Music for Silent Film 1892-1929: A Guide); and NYU faculty, Ron Sadoff (The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation; Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood). The conference will run in conjunction with the NYU/ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop in Memory of Buddy Baker (May 24-June 2, 2011).
MaMI Conference website:

Abstracts or synopses of papers (250 words) should be submitted to: Dr. Ron Sadoff, chair of the program committee, by no later than Dec. 11, 2010. E-mail for more information.