Monday, August 22, 2011

The Mid-Size Conference

I have attended two conferences this summer that I would classify as mid-sized conferences: Screen had about 100 scholars presenting, Visible Evidence between 2-3 times that many. Both were terrific events and academically nourishing - good papers and panels where conversations actually emerged from the debates the papers engaged with. And the schedule was not too crowded. From what I gather, other regular conferences have similar benefits: Flow, Visible Evidence, Media in Transition, and Console-ing Passions.

As much as I do actually enjoy and look forward to SCMS Conference, it suffers in comparison with the smaller conferences on many grounds. I don't know the solution or even if anything needs to change. I would probably be happier with a variety of conference sizes, types, and themes, if there were a couple more mid-sized conferences for film studies in the US.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Visible Evidence 18

Tomorrow I will be going to New York to attend the 18th Visible Evidence conference, devoted to the study of nonfiction film and media. I have promised to contribute the conference blog. I may also post here.

I look forward to seeing colleagues and (potentially) some readers there.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Vernacular and Formal Expression

This Virginia Heffernan post on overhauling eduction to meet the demands of the future has gotten a bit of attention. Tim Burke chimes in his support for the idea.
So educators can argue that their immediate job is to ensure an even distribution of experience with new media practices and a richer exploration of interpretative and expressive work in those media.

Of course, to do so, educators themselves would have to have widely distributed skills and be practiced in those richer possibilities. This is not my sense of the current norms in higher education in the humanities and social sciences, nor do I necessarily see incoming faculty as being markedly closer to that goal, only that there are tendencies in that direction.
I always value Burke's reflections on liberal arts eduction. Even if I tend to be more slanted toward traditional disciplinary education, I admire his sense of purpose and ability to articulate it.

I'm left scratching my head here, though. I can't help but feeling that the academy is being set up as the fuddy-duddy straw man. What exactly is being proposed, either by Heffernan, Cathy Davidson (whom Heffernan is drawing on), or Burke?

From Heffernan: "When we criticize students for making digital videos instead of reading Gravity’s Rainbow, or squabbling on Politico.com instead of watching The Candidate, we are blinding ourselves to the world as it is."

It happens I have taught in the context of an intro class both The Candidate and internet political culture. I don't see these as mutually exclusive. Both benefit from ideas about mass media and from ideas about civics. Each has its historical context, so by nature The Candidate is less obviously relevant to contemporary culture than, well contemporary culture. That said, at least some of my students have found The Candidate an eerily prescient commentary on President Obama's star image. It's not as if TV culture or the political party apparatus has gone away.

Then, there's this claim: "Ms. Davidson herself was appalled not long ago when her students at Duke, who produced witty and incisive blogs for their peers, turned in disgraceful, unpublishable term papers.... Ms. Davidson questioned the whole form of the research paper. [She] concluded, 'Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.'”

I have used blog writing in the classroom, sometimes to great effect, sometimes not. Whatever the merits of students' blog writing (which does tend to have a more assured voice than the average term paper), is the proposal to spend more instructional time on vernacular expression and less on formal expression? The reason that blog writing is less tortured is that it comes closer to daily speech. Formal expression is valuable precisely because it is abstracted away from verbal speech - abstracted in the mechanics of written language, abstracted in its logical structure, abstracted in its ultimate ideas, and abstracted in the readership it imagines. This makes it difficult to teach, and the missteps painful to read sometimes, but expository prose is valuable precisely on all of these counts. The ability to deal in these abstractions is closely related to the formal expressive abilities that form the basis of professional life and specialized knowledge. I can't predict the jobs of the future, but they may be important then, too.

If this is a status and resource battle between literary and media studies, fine, I guess. Beyond that, I'm not sure what the overhaul being suggested means specifically.

Monday, August 01, 2011

The Foxes of Harrow

Foxes of Harrow (2oth-Fox, John Stahl) is a historical drama set in antebellum New Orleans. At initial blush it seems to fit the genre formula: dynastic melodrama set on a Southern plantation; an Irish immigrant (Rex Harrison) who comes to America and moves from gambler to businessman in attempt to overcome his illegitimate status; his wife who is too guarded sexually to be able to deal with her husband; and tragic events that threaten to bring down the slave-owning patriarch.

A couple of things are unusual about Foxes of Harrow, though. First, it lacks the visual style we associate with the antebellum or historical melodrama. The black-and-white cinematography looks downright low-key and realist in comparison.

It's probably more accurate to call Joseph LaShelle's cinematography romantic minimalism than realist. Romantic, because its set ups provide washes of etherial light; minimalist because like Shamroy's work (also at Fox) it tends to be sparse with the number of lighting sources.


Fitting with the Fox style, the result exploits a deeper and darker spectrum of grayscale than other studios' cinematography.

The second unusual aspect of the film is that the novelist for the source book, Frank Yerby, was African-American. As a best-selling writer of popular romance-historical novels, his work does not fit comfortably in the canon of African-American writing. Foxes, after all, has slave-owning white characters as protagonists. In the film version, there is a depiction of the dark side of the slave trade, as in an auction early in the film, during which the wandering camera emphasizes both the inhumanity of the spectacle and the complicity of the spectator of Old South movies who does not watch the forced labor propping up the lifestyle of the slaveowners.


As in many late 40s films, there's a self-conscious critique of film representation and a sense of making films unlike the "Hollywood film."