Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ngram and Inference

Google's new ngram word mapping has been making the blogging rounds. Basically, it charts the frequency of words that occur in Google Books scans. I think Kevin Drum aptly suggests "the potential here for timewasting disguised as scholarly research." But let me take seriously as scholarly research for a moment, because the ngram simply puts a quantitative face on a key practice that humanities scholars adopt regularly: the historicization of ideas. It's Raymond Williams' Keywords with numbers. See for instance, Aaron Bady's discussion of concepts of race.

My book-in-progress is historicizing both the concept of the "social problem" and consequently the "social problem film." This has involved an intellectual history of the former and a reception study of the latter. The word-mapping is a good, if very partial, check to see how representative either pursuit is.

The rise in "social problem" usage does at least correspond, roughly to first progressive discourse and second to functionalist sociology. Correlation does not equal causation, but at least it's not contradicting my main argument. The map of the "social problem film" is interesting because it suggests the genre term has become more solidified in the last few decades.

One caveat though: the ngram viewer maps only books, meaning that popular periodical usage is not present. I can attest the term is more prevalent in the 1940s than in the 2000s.

There are some other problems to consider. The search is case sensitive; to use an example from Bady's post, chart "negro problem" and "Negro problem" and you will get two very different timeframes. The chart also does not track tone or context. For that I would recommend the Corpus of Historical American English, which does more or less the same thing Google's service does, but with the context preserved. The COHA gives some further limitations of the Google charts and critique of their accuracy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Red House

What is the relationship between the film noir and the B movie? Some, clearly, were B movies, but not nearly as many as commonly thought. The Red House (UA/Sol Lesser-Thalia Productions, Delmer Davies) for example runs 100 minutes and was released through United Artists, a non-integrated, non-block-booking distributor. I have plenty of B films to watch in my 1947 viewing, but so far the plurality of my noir viewing has been A picture.

But if many noirs were not B films then arguably a B-film aesthetic pervades all but the most prestige-leaning noirs (Laura, for example). There's a prevalent notion that equates this with a post-noir understand of the exploitation film, but I'm also interested in the impact of classical B filmmaking, beyond cheap budgets.

The Red House is an interesting missing link. The credit shot above borrows the iconography and titling design of the B Western (compare). The cinematography at times is evocative, but it relies on day-for-night shooting (not solely a B stylistic choice, but much more common in B pictures).

And there is minimal coverage, as in this 30 second transition scene done entirely in one take:

The gothic material lends itself to low-budget treatment (it does not have to show the horror). But, as I mentioned, The Red House is not a B film. There is Edward Robinson's star turn (even in a gothic version). There is the Davies script, rich in Freudianism and allegory about sexual repression. And, most of all, a complex narrative construction. Some of these traits would become staples of the noir-exploitation film.

Finally, I'm interested in how the opening once again begins with documentary-style voiceover narration, which never reasserts itself.

Friday, December 10, 2010

CFP: Volume on Special Effects

Call for Papers
Special Effects: New Histories, Theories, Contexts

Edited by Michael Duffy [Towson University], Dan North [University of Exeter], and Bob Rehak [Swarthmore College]

Deadline for Abstracts: 1 March 2011
Deadline for Submissions: 1 January 2012

Recent decades have seen ever more prominent and far-reaching roles for special and visual effects in film and other media: blockbuster franchises set in detailed fantasy and science-fiction worlds, visually experimental adaptations of graphic novels, performances in which the dividing lines between human and inhuman – even between live action and animation – seem to break down entirely. Yet the cinema of special effects, so often framed in terms of new digital technologies and aesthetics, actually possesses a complex and branching history, one that both informs and complicates our grasp of the “state of the art.” At stake in studies of special/visual effects is a more comprehensive understanding of film’s past, present, and future in an environment of shifting technologies and media contexts.

We seek contributions to a volume focused on special effects as aesthetic, industrial, and cultural practices, moving beyond formal analysis to a wider consideration of special effects’ historical roots and developmental paths, their underlying technologies and creators, and their intersection with other domains of art, commerce, and ideology. We are particularly interested in essays that elaborate on specific periods of change that special and visual effects have undergone over the course of their history. Although we welcome work that deals with digital technologies and contemporary cinema, we encourage contributors to contextualise recent developments in relation to broader histories of visual illusion and spectacular artifice.

The book will integrate an online forum to develop an extensive bibliography, web links to further reading, and a scholar/practitioner directory.

Possible topics might include, but are not limited to:

● Theoretical approaches to the study of special effects history and technique, including (but not restricted to) ‘ontology’ debates surrounding the interplay between analogue and digital technologies.
● Theories of spectatorship, visual illusions, and special effects.
● Critical histories/analyses of individual processes, e.g. matte paintings, compositing, bluescreen, the Independent Frame, miniatures, stop-motion animation, animatronics, prosthetics, motion capture, etc.
● Pre-visualization techniques, including production design, concept art, and animatics.
● The ongoing influence of effects pioneers including Georges Méliès, Segundo de Chomon, James Stuart Blackton, Emile Cohl, Albert E. Smith, R.W. Paul, and other makers of early ‘trick films’.
● Changes to studio structures and the evolution of the special-effects ‘house’.
● Industry “stars” such as Stan Winston, Douglas Trumbull, Richard Edlund, Tom Savini, Eiji Tsubuyara, Rick Smith, Ray Harryhausen, Willis O’Brien, John P. Fulton, John Gaeta, etc.
● The uses of special effects and spectacle in the experimental or avant-garde works of film-makers including Peter Tscherkassky, Stan Brakhage, Norman McLaren, etc.
● The significance of special effects in non-Hollywood, low-budget and independent cinema.
● Special-effects fandom, connoisseurship, and critique
● How animatronics, puppetry and make-up are adapted/reconstituted/re-contextualized for studio/franchise rebirths.
● Visual effects in television, video games, and transmedia.
● Spectacular uses of colour, widescreen, IMAX, and 3D processes.
● Self-reflexive uses of special effects as a commentary on the history/ontology of media.

Essays should run between 3000 and 6000 words in length.

Send abstracts (title, 500 word description of project, and author bio) or requests for further information to:

Editors can be contacted individually at:

Michael Duffy [mduffy - AT -]
Dan North [D.R.North - AT -]
Bob Rehak [brehak1 - AT -]

Sunday, December 05, 2010

All Roads Lead to Genre Criticism?

I was discussing the 1947 project with a colleague at another school. One point she raised was the promise the project held for understanding genre in the studio years. It's interesting because I didn't start out conceiving of the project as primarily a study in genre. But that's been one consistent thread of it, largely because I keep seeing patterns of film narratives that don't fit the received genre histories.