Thursday, July 28, 2011

Edited Volumes

Some thoughts from another discipline on the relative lack of weight given to edited volumes in academic research standards. I think much of what Fabio Rojas applies to the humanities as well, though there are also some culture differences around publishing between sociology and film studies.

But beyond the matters of professionalization, I would pose the question of what role edited volumes and essays in such volumes play. Rojas poses "dumping ground," heterodoxy, and lit review as three basic functions, but I think there are plenty more.

- Applied scholarship. Film studies (and to some extent, I think, television studies) has the peculiarity that one former branch of the discipline - film criticism - is now subsumed into the branches of film theory and film history, which have more prestige and purport to tackle more complex questions. Interpretation and textual analysis are still part of the methodological toolbelt, but for journal articles, the expectation is often for bigger stakes than mere textual reading. Yet there are many, many films that merit close study and edited volumes give rooms for articles weighted more toward the film criticism side.

- Pedagogy. Edited volumes are rarely pedagogical in a way that textbooks are, but they can be organized and edited with an eye toward use in the classroom. Where monographs are too long and specialized and where journal articles are too oriented toward the vanguard of the field, the edited volume allows for a more accessible writing tone and fuller coverage of a topic. Rutgers' Star Decades and Screen Decades series are good examples.

- Agenda setting. Certain volumes capture and even christen scholarly agendas by pulling together work in a heretofore forgotten area or under a new rubric. The recent studies in world cinema are good examples.

- Compilation. I take it the compilation volume is going out of fashion because of the expense of negotiating and paying rights, but there's a real value for the reader to have influential and/or smart essays on a subject together in one book. Examples: Caughie's Theories of Authorship or Elsaesser's Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative.

- Collective work. Humanities scholars are notorious lone wolves. The edited volume, however, can bring together scholars in a larger study, dividing up tasks or parts of the coverage. von der Knapp's volume on Night and Fog's reception is a good example.

- Synopsis. This refers more to individual contributions than to entire volumes, but frequently scholars use volumes as a place for work that condenses and excerpts a larger argument developed more elsewhere. Similarly, they may use the volume to riff off their more established argument in the context of a new subject or theoretical emphasis.

Are there other functions I am overlooking?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Film History syllabus

I will be teaching a film history survey this Fall - the second part, form 1945 onward. I have a draft online - at this point I'm probably more concerned about weeding out possibilities in the interest of time constraints, but I'd happily hear comments and suggestions for what has worked for you before in such a class.

Monday, July 25, 2011

13 Rue Madeleine

I had mentioned 13 Rue Madeleine (20th-Fox, Henry Hathaway) as part of a semi-documentary trilogy that Fox made in the postwar years. Actually, I tend to prefer the term pseudodocumentary for a general fictional style that mimics documentary, but contemporary usage (producers and critics) referred to these films as "semi-documentaries."

Fox and other studios made films in this vein beyond these 13 Rue Madeleine, Call Northside 777, and House on 92nd Street, but these three adhere to a strict formula:

1) a focus on government institutions, in this case Army Intelligence. Along with this comes the foregrounding of governmental buildings and the mise-en-scene of bureaucracy.

2) a foregrounding of technology, especially the technology of mechanical reproduction or communication. Overhead projectors, PA systems, film projectors, microfilm, etc.

3) use of a variety of actuality footage, whether documentary in nature, from newsreels, or simulated in 16mm filmmaking.

4) Narratives of espionage and/or detection alternated with footage organized according to intellectual-rational logic.

Jesse Lerner remarks of the semi-documentary that it "saved studios money by beefing up low-cost narratives shot on a studio sound stage (mostly typically noirs or tabloid crime dramas) with stock B-roll filmed on location and an authoritative, documentary-style voice-over." (F is for Phony 19). I can see where Lerner is coming from, since these films initially seem cheap and stilted and the realism-on-the-sleeve ham-handed. But I think he underestimates how the addition of "newsreel" impacts both filmmaking style and narration.

First, the indoor shooting (potentially sound stage, but likely location) uses drastically different lighting style and sound design. These involve fewer attempts to dispel background shadow (generally a sign of having to light in a room with a ceiling)

... and using flat front lighting.

Second, at least in 13 Rue Madeleine, the film goes out of the way to flaunt its location shooting, showing James Cagney in Le Havre or in a real car.

Third, the narrative structure departs from the usual cause-effect chain of a fictional narrative. Much of the screen time is devoted to montages of agent training and much of the film's narrative moves only through the information provided in the voiceover. Most striking of all, the ending is abrupt and departs from the typical climax-denoument structure.

In all, I see a real attempt to adapt to new cinematic vocabularies and to do so with an experimental élan.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

SCMS 2012 Panel Proposals

Regular SCMS members who are regularly consulting the forum on the SCMS website will already be looking over the panels proposed for the 2012 conference in Boston. But others may be interested in submitting a proposal to one of the panel proposals below. You do not have to be an SCMS member to submit, but if accepted you need to join to present at the conference. Deadline is August 15 for the panels (you should contact panel organizers much sooner) and Sept. 1 for open call.

I have not listed additional information on the panel topics. You can consult the SCMS website or Google them to see if calls for papers are posted on listservs elsewhere. In all this has to be the longest list of panel topics I've seen at this stage. A sign for a banner crop of proposals?

3D, Giant Screen and the Natural World: Collision or Collusion?
Active Women: Historical Understandings of Female Heroes
American Indians and Re-appropriations in Contemporary Media
Animating Space and Scalar Travels
Animation, in Theory: Film Studies' Special Relationship with Animation
Approaches to production design (including set dressing, props, costumes)
The Audiovisual Life of Biotechnology
The Autobiographical I/Eyes of the Cinema
The B-Film: History and Contexts
Il Bandito/a: Class, Crime and International Film Noir
Belly of the Beast: Queer Studies on Conservative Campuses
Beyond Backdrop: Psychological/Allegorical/Cultural Uses of Natural Setting
Beyond the Sunday Night Lineup: 40 Years of HBO (1972-2012)
Black Swans, Bridesmaids, & Barbarians: Extreme Bodies in American...
Bob Fosse
Bodies that Matter: Representations of Motherhood in U.S. Media
The Body Electric: The Search for the Corporeal Indexical in the Age...
Bollywood Does Hollywood
Brian De Palma Reconsidered
Buddhism and Cinema
The Camera's Share: Camera Practice and Cinematic Innovation
A Case for Criticism: Journalism, TV Studies, and the Television Critic
Celebrity Activism: Industry, Culture, Society
Cinema and Community, Cinema As Community
Cinema and Multilingualism: New Perspectives
Cinema and Subjectivization: Moving Images and the Production of History
Cinemagoing and the City before 1930
Cinematernity - Representations of Motherhood
Cinematic Cities: Beyond the Metropolis
“Cinematic Time” Today
Circulations of the Flesh
Confronting Change: Media Industries at (Various) Crossroads
Contamination, Trash and Dirt in Visual Media
Contemporary Exploitation Cinema
Dealing with the Devil: Horror and Trauma in the Classroom
Deleuze from Behind
Depictions of Poverty in American CInema
Designing the House: Regulation and Disorder in Cinematic Spaces
The ‘Disciplinary History’ and the Identity of an Academic Discipline
East Asian Cinema, Urbanism, and Globalization
Exploring Indigenous Cinemas in Canada
A Face Was Not Born, But Made: Physiognomies in Cinema
Fictions of Reproduction: Representations of Contraception and,,,
Film Comedy and the Limits of Representation
Film Criticism: Medium, Cinephilia, Value
The Film Festival as Film Course/Pedagogy
Film Festivals in Latin America, Latin America at Film Festivals
Food for Thought: the cultural significance of food in Film and TV texts
Forms of Violence in Latin-American Cinema
Fragmented Nightmares: Transnational Horror across Visual Media
Framed Lives and Screened Deaths: Representations of Honor Killings... 6/30/2011
Gender and Fan Studies/Cultures
The Gendered Cyborg Reconfigured: Technology, Body & Gender..
Gendering Animation/Animated Gender
Ghost in the Machine: Technologies for Creating, Conjuring...
Girls' and Women's Media Production
Global Sports Media
Historical Fiction Film: Questions of Form and Ethics
Histories of Portability
Hitchcock and Adaptation
Home Noir: Domestic Space in Women's Melodramas of the 1940s-50s
The “Host City”: A Place-Centered Consideration of the Media Festival
Image Culture and the Environment
Imagining, Imaging, and Remembering the Method in the 21st Century.
Inner/Outer Space: Experimental Cinema, Interiority, and the Cosmos
Issues in Contemporary Geek Media
Issues of Age
Laughter that “encounters a void”?: On Humor & Cinema in the Middle East
Lensing Labor
LGBT Youth Identity, Media Representations, and Performances
Lifestyle, Taste, and Media Publics
The Logic of Cultural Boycott; or, To Buy or Not to Buy: Is That the Questi
Media Industries in the 1950s
Media Textures: Haptical Themes, Onscreen and Off
Men in Motion: Masculinity, Agency, and the Moving Image
New Media and Transgender Networks
Non-Theatrical Films during World War II
On the Job Training: Media Industries and the Cultivation of Labor
The Pedophiliac Imagination, Take 2
Perspectives on Kelly Reichardt
Places of American Horror
Playing with Feelings: Video Games and Affect
Political Marriage in American Media
Popular Music and Memory in Film
Psycho-Cinema: Technologies of Modern Affect
Realism and Film History: 21st Century Perspectives
The Renaissance of Ideas in Media Studies
Representing Queer Time, Engaging Queer Theory
Representing the Post-Industrial City: Film, Television, and...
Rethinking Space: Theory and Practice
Revising Classical Assumptions: New Takes on Classical Hollywood Film
Sex and Television
The Shifting Valence of Verité: Documentary in Distinct Cultural Contexts
Silent-Era Hollywood
Something Missing: Transnational Discourses and Practices of War, ...
Sound in Genre
Specialty Film Distribution
State Power, Media Technology, and New Forms of Documentation...
Stylized Moments—Film Style as Foreign Language
"A Take on the Ballet": Investigating _Black Swan_ (2010)
Teaching Film Studies in a Broadcast Environment
Teaching Genres Workshop
Televising the Apocalypse: Race, Gender, and Disaster on TV Dramas
Theorizing Mock-Documentary Television
The Transformation of the Chinese Film Industry and Film Market (1980-2011)
Tuning In: What is/was Television Sound?
TV Myths and the Writing of Television History
Violent Images
Women and Comedy
You are What You Eat: Media and Diet

Friday, July 22, 2011


At the end of his supremely useful book, Hollywood Lighting, Patrick Keating uses T-Men (Eagle-Lion, Anthony Mann) as an example of "classicism at the margin" or, as I would phrase it, the peripeteia for the shift from a classical style to post-classical ones. Cinematographer John Alton is famous for extreme low-light and low-key setups and slightly off-kilter compositions. It's tough to approach T-Men without considering first as an Alton opus, one which helped define the ideal type of film noir's visual look.

The elements are all here: the inky blacks, the use of existing light sources, the transformation of locations, and the keeping of characters in the dark. Alton also foregrounds what the exaggerated style and technological changes allow that previously was not possible:

Equally interesting, however, are the less flashy choices, like the contrast in exposure of foreground and background subjects.

The visual choices mark a departure from the generic material, which adheres slavishly to the pseudo-documentary formula that Fox developed with the Henry Hathaway institution trilogy (House on 92nd Street, 13 Rue Madeleine, and Call Northside 777). There is the Reed Hadley-esque voiceover narration (with excessively expository copy written for it). The opening pan shot in demonstrative manner.

And the mise-en-scene of technology and bureaucracy framing the police procedural narrative.

But where Hathaway's DP, Norbert Brodine developed a look that at times mimicked newsreel and 16mm film and at other instances drew inspiration from them for a new realist style. Alton's work, however, operates with a looser and more expressionistic conception of "realism."

There is a case that the semi-documentary style became transformed into a generalized realism, but here the narrative exhibits a schizophrenic relationship between the Fox/Hathaway template and the sadistic-experiential approach of the Marlowe-influenced detective noirs.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Egg and I

I never know how much the received notion/industrial discourse of the "hix pix" matched what non-urban audiences tended to prefer in the classical years, but from a glance The Egg and I (Universal, Chester Erskine) seems to be the kind of "hayseed comedy" that American television would specialize in during the late 1960s. The narrative follows the newly-married MacDonalds (Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurry) as they live the city to follow Bob's dream of becoming a chicken farmer.

Its humor satirizes the city-slickers lost in the pre-industrial world of the American farm, though there are suggestions of the increased mechanization of farming, too. Hijinks ensue in what's a reverse Our Daily Bread, as the film sends up the romanticism of the back-to-farm mentality while ultimately also siding with it.

The film also introduced the characters of Ma and Pa Kettle, whose popularity spawned a series at Universal. (Despite their status as secondary characters, they are featured prominently in some video cover art.) Stereotypical hillbillies, the Kettles and their fifteen children provide the other target of humor, of the rural from the viewing position of those who have become more urbanized.

There are also two Native American farm hands, whom Betty MacDonald confuses with marauding Indians, after Hollywood Westerns.

Her naivete is the butt of the joke, but of course these are movie Indians. Stereotype aside, the incident gives a good window into the comedic style of the film, which in the style of a Bob Hope film progresses from one self-conscious joke to another. The soundtrack comments comedically on the action, and characters show both awareness (Bob chides, "You've been watching too many movies") and lack of awareness (the Indians seem unaware that Betty's reaction is racist hysteria).

There are other self-conscious touches too, like the POV tracking shot from the vantage of an imaginary person (after the film treats schizophrenia as a gag):

The film, unusually, does not open with the credit title but rather a preamble (again, with gratuitous racial stereotyping) ending in direct address to the spectator.

David Bordwell has maintained in Classical Hollywood Cinema that such moments of self-conscious address were frequent for comedies. Interestingly, though, I have yet to come across many examples in 1947. Perhaps the studios I have watched more extensively - MGM, Fox, WB, and RKO - were the ones least likely to adopt such tongue-in-cheek rapport with the spectator. I look forward to seeing more from Universal, Paramount, and Columbia.

Monday, July 18, 2011

CFP: Velvet Light Trap issue on Media Materiality

The Velvet Light Trap Call For Papers
#70, Fall 2012—Stocks, Screens, and Servers: The Materiality of Media

Submission Deadline: September 15, 2011

As culture becomes increasingly digitized—from downloading and streaming videos and music to digital film production and cloud computing—arguments for the "dematerialization" of media are becoming commonplace. However, media have always been, and remain, embedded in and structured by material objects, networks, and practices that constrain their uses and meanings. Any cultural artifact bears traces and consequences of the material conditions of its production, distribution, and reception, whether this be a result of the size and weight of the camera that shot a film's images, the geography of the shipping or cable network through which it was transported or transmitted, or the spaces occupied by physical record or DVD collections. Even ostensibly "dematerialized" digital media find material existence in hard disks, server farms, and wires—as well as in the proliferation of new interface devices, from smart phones to iPads.

The perception of the diminished materiality of media presents us with an opportunity to reconsider (and reaffirm) the material dimensions of media, both in terms of the present moment and from an historical perspective. To this end, The Velvet Light Trap seeks articles considering the implications of the materiality of media, welcoming studies of film, broadcasting, and new media from a range of approaches—including historical, theoretical, ethnographic, and/or textual.

Potential areas of inquiry include (but are by no means limited to):

- the effects of technological and other material factors on film/media craft practices and style,
- screen technologies and other exhibition devices, old and new,
- issues in the political economy of the manufacture and disposal of media objects and devices (e.g., labor conditions and e-waste),
- logics and operations of physical networks of distribution and transmission,
- media infrastructures and cultural geography,
- physical interactivity with media interfaces,
- the imitation of material objects in the digital realm (e.g., album art and liner notes),
- the resurgence of physical formats once presumed 'dead' (e.g., vinyl, cassette tapes),
- material dimensions of reception and fandom (e.g., collecting, scrapbooking),
- the aestheticization of media commodities,
- materiality, memory, and nostalgia,
- material media objects, cultural capital, and taste,
- material collections, archiving, and media historiography,
- the exploration of materiality by particular artists and/or texts,
- materiality and avant-garde cinema, and
- media materiality and policy.

Submissions should be between 6,000 and 7,500 words (approximately 20-25 pages double-spaced), in MLA style. Please submit one electronic copy of the paper, along with a one-page abstract, saved as a Word .doc file; remove any identifying information so that the submission is suitable for anonymous review. The journal's Editorial Board will referee all submissions. Send electronic manuscripts and/or any questions to All submissions are due September 15, 2011.

Desire Me

Desire Me (MGM, George Cukor) exhibits many of the trends of the postwar cinema, with a complicated flashback structure, in which Greer Garson's character Marise, tells the story of waiting for her husband Paul (Robert Mitchum) to return from war only to hear of his death from a war compatriot, Jean, who tries to woo Marise in her loneliness. It's an unusual love triangle in which tense and geography separate Paul and Marise for much of the film. Within Marise's flashback, there are objective scenes that Marise did not witness as well as subjective flashbacks from both Marise and Jean. There are also a couple of points of subjunctive voiceover, in which the image does not serve as the past of the voice but rather as the enactment of it.

Where a film like The Unfaithful makes explicit the soldier's wife's adultery as part of a larger issue of wartime dislocation and postwar readjustment, Desire Me does so implicitly, often through the visual look of the film, which oscillates between I Know Where I'm Going-like invocations of Brittany...

to newsreel documentary...

French poetic realism...

and finally a stylized low-key "action" style - see for instance a scene between Paul and Jean which avoids usual coverage and cross cutting in favor of complementary and oblique framing.

I'm not sure if this is Joseph Ruttenberg trademark style, but it's notable in a Cukor romantic drama.

The shift in visual style as well as the flashback structure and the star images of Garson and Mitchum (an unlikely pair) serve to invoke and contain wartime dislocation. Moreover, I'd read this film as yet another attempt at MGM invoking topical and "modern" sensibility within the constraints of studio house style and genre preference.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Trail Street

One surprise I had first encountering B-film Westerns from the 30s and 40s is how they often don't fit my generic conception of what a Western is. They may possess the syntax of the genre (ranchers, cowboy hats, and frontier towns) but lack the usual themes and narratives. Rather, they tend to be melodramas in the older sense of the term - gangster-film-style battles between criminal elements trying to monopolize business illegally and forces of law-and-order. They lack the outsider-hero function and man-vs-nature thematics of the A Western.

Trail Street (RKO, Ray Enright) occupies a middle position between the A and B ideal types. Even stylistically, it has both the cheapness of lighting setups that are too hasty and minimal to disguise the multiple shadows cast by unmotivated lighting sources.

... while at other points camera movement and cookie-lighting common to A films give the scenes depth. (DP is Roy Hunt).

Narratively, it contains elements of both the crime melodrama and the A Western, with a narrative that starts off centered on the battle between ranchers and farmers but then explores the themes of overcoming nature, through Robert Ryan's concern to discover a way to work the land, and of social belonging, especially with the introduction of the Randolph Scott outlaw hero. Along the way, the film evokes the genre iconography, from the high-key wedding to the low-key shootout to the villain dressed in black.

Where Trail Street seems most ambitious, modern even, is in its transformation of the usual Manifest Destiny ideology implicit or explicit to the Western into a commentary on postwar prosperity. In this it predates Red River. The film opens with a documentary-style scene of drought facing Kansas, complete with voiceover narration, shots lifted from Pare Lorenz, and Soviet-style montage/framing:

The battle of farmers to eke an existence out of the inhospitable soil figures the American economy coming out of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. There are multiple heros in the film, but the most alluring one is the structurally-absent Kansas agricultural university, who provides the scientific knowledge that resolves the narrative.

One of my running convictions through the 1947 viewing is that the films of this period reveal surprising connections, aesthetically and ideologically, if we're just willing to look more closely.