Monday, March 28, 2011

World Picture Conference: Distance

2011 World Picture Conference
October 21-22
University of Toronto


Keynote speakers:

Lorenz Engell, Bauhaus University, Weimar
Elizabeth Povinelli, Columbia University

The annual World Picture Conference gathers scholars from a range of different disciplines to address the relation between critical theory, philosophy, and aesthetics. For this year’s meeting we welcome papers on questions of distance. Such considerations might include (but are in no sense limited to):
  • Distance and mediation (technological and otherwise)
  • Distance as abstraction (or alienation, estrangement)
  • Travel
  • Simultaneity
  • Spatial allegories of distance
  • Vision (as the prime sense organ of distance)
  • Modes of translation
  • Geopolitics (of distance)
  • Distance and/as interval (distance as time, not just space)
  • Distance and unknowing/ignorance
  • Critique of proximity/propinquity
  • Ecology and distance (global footprints, carbon calculations, etc.)
  • Scale
  • Emotion
  • Critical distance/objectivity
Please submit proposals (250 words, plus brief bio) by June 17 to:

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Web

Once again, a documentary-inflected opening - a tracking shot taken on a Manhattan street.

As I've alluded to in other posts, noir as an idea tends to impose a mythological consistency on top of divergent generic content. That said, The Web (Universal, Michael Gordon) encapsulates key elements of noir fiction that formed the backbone of film noirs: the petit bourgeois detective figure on the right side of the law yet sucked into illegality despite his integrity; the critique of moneyed classes and interests; and the sexual repartee as power play between the detective figure and the femme fatale. Here, the detective figure is actually a small-time lawyer (Edmund O'Brien), but the narrative pattern is the same as the detective story.

I find the film instructive for what it says about production values in 1947. Compare a shot from Gentleman's Agreement...

... with a shot from The Web.

Both are trying to visualize the same thing: the milieu of the upscale, modern Manhattan office. Both use white-washed studio-set walls with occasional furnishings (doorframes, plants, lamps, signs) to give the illusion of a more luxurious decor. But Gentleman's Agreement uses not only a more complicated scene coverage but also a lighting scheme/lens choice that gives the illusion of depth and of a sense of space. The difference reflects the gap between the high A and the near-B. Universal was upgrading itself at this point, sometimes with stylistic verve, but here it could put more emphasis on script than shooting and in any case had difficulty competing in the same leagues as Fox.

That is not to say that cheapness was merely simple. Much as in David Bordwell's description of classical blocking, the arrangement of characters in the frame communicates the narrative subtext of the scene, in which the romantic pairing between the Ella Raines and Vincent Price characters gets interrupted by the confidant who introduces the plot line of an embezzler released from prison. Raines remains in the background, outside of the dealings between the men, yet clearly affected and concerned by them. This will foreshadow her position in much of the narrative.

Which is to say that The Web is a highly classical film and conventionally so. Even the lighting effects seem akin to counterparts of the 1930s, as when Price gets a north light in a moment of sinister action.

So while I started off by noting that The Web perhaps fits the ideal type of noir, I would have to except the visual style.

Friday, March 18, 2011

My Wild Irish Rose

I normally don't program seasonal screenings at home for every occasion, but My Wild Irish Rose (WB, David Butler) has been sitting on my shelf waiting to be viewed, and with St. Patrick's Day upon us yesterday I figured it was a good time to watch. And, wow, the film was packed with as much Irish-themed kitsch as you could imagine.

To my knowledge, Warners wasn't a studio known much for their musicals in this period (there seems to be only one other example from 1947). And, too, the studio produced only one other color feature in this year - a low number compared to other studios, even given the relative rarity of color in the 1940s. So it's arguable that the film lacks a clear anchoring to a studio house style, either generically or visually. Its cinematography is more in line with the MGM high-key look, a fact in stunning relief for me having just seen the underlit Forever Amber.

Also, like the MGM musicals, the mise-en-scene combines a minimalist background set design (usually in gray or neutral shades of brown) with a candy-pastel color palette. Particularly when the effect is to caricature the nostalgic version of Americana.

Generically, on the other hand, the film is not an integrated musical but rather a musical biopic very much in the 20th Century-Fox vein, with a fin-de-siecle setting and a protagonist based on a famous songwriter/singer. In this case, Irish songwriter Chauncey Olcott (Dennis Morgan) struggles his way to fame and, secondarily, to requited love. Lillian Russell (on whom Fox based an Alice Faye biopic) even is a key character. As with the Fox films, the narrative structure is more peripatetic than goal-oriented.

Also, the film borrows from 1946's The Jolson Story (Columbia) in its narrative of ethnic generational conflict (downplayed a bit) and in the extensive use of blackface. Perhaps this is impressionistic, but I found the use of blackface here to lack even the historical or thematic resonance that it serves elsewhere and to feel like a throwback to an earlier cinematic period. (The Jolson Story is ideologically suspect in a lot of ways, but at least it is trying to interrogate identity.) I have not come across much use of it in 1947 yet, and it will remain a worthy point of inquiry to see what future viewing holds.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Forever Amber

I occasionally get questions about the status of my 1947 viewing. I'm about half-way through watching the Hollywood features for the year, with a good majority of the A films under my belt.

Forever Amber (20th-Fox, Otto Preminger) is one of those films that are fascinating objects while the genre material is out of step with even classic-Hollywood cinephilia. In short, the film has the genre syntax of Duel in the Sun with the genre semantics of the period piece and swashbuckler films (say, The Black Swan).

The film was, in fact, 20th Century-Fox's attempt to duplicate the box office success of Duel in the Sun and Gone with the Wind with their own roadshow Technicolor melodrama. Based on a best-selling novel, the story follows Amber Sinclair (Linda Darnell), a young woman of a Puritan town who escapes with the kindness of strangers, only to be trapped by her own impossible love for a privateer (Cornel Wilde). Historically, the film is notable for the censorship battles it faced and for the out-of-control budgets that hindered the film for Fox, despite a $6M or so box-office return. Censorship and boycott aside, th e return of a sleep-to-the-top narrative (nearly as forthright as Baby Face) does signal a softening of the Production Code in the postwar years.

Forever Amber is also a Preminger film. There are even neat little flourishes like the car window shot that the director was fond of in the 40s. Compare Daisy Kenyon with a carriage scene:

There are also some complicated camera movement and character blocking, though to be honest this a relatively straightforward directorial entry for Preminger. What's more typical is Leon Shamroy's cinematography, which uses trademark setup minimalism, atmospheric light on backgrounds, and intense cool-warm color combinations. The film is also very dark.

Perhaps because of the constraints of shooting Technicolor in low-light conditions, the focus tends to be fuzzy in focus frequently.

Such blurriness of the image may be the result of the source print or digital transfer, but in this instance it makes sense as a result of Shamroy's mood lighting.

The "and Media" Problem

By which I mean the pretense of equality of film and media studies when in practice television, non-film mass media, and new media are frequent afterthoughts for film scholars. Yes, I'm guilty of this as much as (more than?) anyone. See the banner of this blog and compare to my posts.

Mabel finds another example, the "the strangely designated and equally broad (but I suspect more narrow than its title suggests) 'Nontheatrical Film and Media' group (I can’t imagine that includes radio and TV and computers, but those are nontheatrical media…)." I wouldn't be surprised if the SIG did include things beyond the realm of cinema in its purview. But "nontheatrical" as a term makes perfect sense in the context of film culture but none, really, in the context of other popular and moving-image media.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

SCMS2011 wrap up

Chuck Tryon writes of this year's SCMS conference, "Ultimately, conference reports like this are grounded in the personal. Although I attended at least part of a panel during pretty much every session from Thursday through Saturday, given that there were usually 20-25 concurrent panels, others saw a much different conference." I agree that attendees' conference experience differed wildly. I'd venture that this is truer this year, as the conference continues the trend toward both methodological pluralism and tracking along subfield lines.

I do not have a full report of the presentations at this year's SCMS conference; while I did attend my share of panels, this conference was for me mostly about connecting with friends, talking with colleagues, and meeting new people in the field. In retrospect, I think the decision to focus on socializing and networking was a somewhat conscious decision, as an antidote to the somewhat isolating nature of my work and writing lately. For next year, I do have a goal of doubling the numbers of papers I see.

Justin Horton observes a big gulf between the Cinema Studies and Media Studies parts of SCMS. First, on account of the panel formats:
The 20-minute presentation model of SCMS was called into question numerous times on Twitter and in conversation around the conference, and, by and large, this sentiment seemed to come from the TV and media studies folks. In its stead, most preferred the workshop and shorter presentation format of FLOW. Most seemed to complain of being “read to” and the lack of interaction and collaboration, and I certainly understand where they are coming from—panels can be exhausting, especially when the arguments are tight and the presentation lacking. However, I think there is a place for both models.
I tend to side with Justin here and if anything be more in favor of the traditional conference format. Yes, it can be exhausting to listen to a dozen 20-minute papers in a row, but it would be more exhausting to listen to two-dozen 10-minute papers in a row. And there is a value to the formal expository essay form. That's not to discount dialogue or roundtables, but these formats can fail or be tedious just as easily as the 4-paper-plus-questions format.

If I were to make any sweeping change, it would be to have attendees submit full papers instead of abstracts and to have peer-reviewed conference proceedings published afterward. Yes, a gargantuan task for the Program Committee, so it's probably not going to happen. Barring that, my one complaint about the conference was the odd scheduling: panels on similar topics were programmed opposite one another frequently. I know scheduling is a tricky and thankless job, but it seems to me that minimizing such conflicts should be the overriding goal.

Justin and Noel Kirkpatrick also point to the (sub)discipline divide for Twitter usage. Indeed, I was one of those film studies people for whom it didn't even occur to check the Twitter back-channel until well after the conference. (I'm not a Twitter user.) I don't have anything profound to say about this, but it does seem a real difference in scholarly culture. Meanwhile, I am glad to see the Society commissioning, so to speak, a few blogs on the conference, even if I got to them only afterward.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

SCMS bound

I'm heading to New Orleans today for the 2011 SCMS conference. I look forward to the event every year as a chance to catch up with friends and meet new people. But, just as importantly it really is the most economical way to get a current snapshot of the field, however imperfect. Hope to see some readers and fellow bloggers there.