Showing posts from 2013

CFP: Critical Theory, Film and Media


Critical Theory, Film and Media: Where is “Frankfurt” now?
Conference of the Permanent Seminar on Histories of Film Theories

Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt
Aug 20-24, 2014
deadline: Feb 28, 2014

With a combination of social philosophy, philosophical aesthetics, political economics and a particular focus on technology the Frankfurt school and its kindred spirits Benjamin and Kracauer have paved the way for film and media studies as a critical discipline.

Now, at a time, when the generational project of 1968, the march through the institutions under the assumption that a revolution in Europe is possible, has largely run its course, it is time to sift through the rubble of history, collect the tools, pick up on unfinished projects and think about new beginnings.

What, then are the analytical instruments that the Frankfurt school provided that will be useful going forward? How did the Frankfurt School of critical theory shape the course of film and media theory in the 20th c…

Bush Christmas

From its title and genre (children's movie), I had assumed that Bush Christmas (Ralph Smart, Smart Productions-Rank-Universal) would be a sentimental holiday movie, and it's true that it's set during the Christmas holidays in Australia. But Christmas figures only marginally in the narrative, partly as a self-consciously local color element in what is ultimately an Australian film geared toward Northern Hemisphere Anglophone audiences.

I do not know much about the history of Australian cinema, at least before the 1970s new wave, so I don't know how this compares to other films made in the country. I can gather that the western had long held a role in the national cinema (c.f. Peter Limbrick, “The Australian Western, or, a Settler Colonial Cinema par excellence” Cinema Journal 46.4), and it's worth thinking about the ways Bush Christmas both conforms to the US genre of the western and ways it's distinctive.

By US genre, I'm referring more to the B western ra…

The Pretender

The version of The Pretender (Republic/Wilder Productions, W. Lee Wilder) that I watched clearly came from a television 16mm print, so I cannot fully know how it would compare with the theatrical version. And aesthetically, the film embodies both the best (visual panache and narrative economy) and worst (wooden acting and wild narrational shifts) of the Poverty Row B film. But it has a few things to commend it. First, as a curiosity, it was directed by Billy Wilder's brother, and shares some of the Wilder sensibility both in its acerbic view of wealth and stylistic elements borrowed from The Lost Weekend (hyper-subjectivism, for instance, or the theremin scoring). 
Perhaps more canonically, the D.P. was John Alton who, while not having free rein as in the Anthony Mann films, does show both the baroque touches in suggesting Albert Dekker's paranoia....

... and the low-light minimalism that he's best known for and that has come to define the Poverty Row noir look, at least …

Her Husband's Affairs

Her Husband's Affairs (Columbia, S. Sylvan Simon) will seem notable to most viewers as a Lucille Ball comedy just a half decade before I Love Lucy made Ball the classical Hollywood star who had best navigated the move from film to television. There are significant differences between Ball's character here and her TV persona, but key elements are already in place: the madcap narrative, the husband-wife tension, and Ball's wide-eyed performance as a smart-but-naïve character.

Much as Ricky and Lucy's relationship figured the ideal of 1950s domesticity (and showed undercurrents of discontent), Her Husband's Affairs deal with the marital tension between a patriarchal yet ineffectual ad man/inventor husband and Ball's supportive but not-too-housewifey character. In this, it was part of a broader late 40s trend of films depicting challenges in marriage.  While the trajectory is similar to the divorce-and-reconciliation screwballs, the tone is decidedly different; pro…


I've been eager to see Ivy (Sam Wood, Universal/Interwood Productions) ever since reading Self-Styled Siren's appreciative review of the film. I agree with the Siren that it's a terrific gothic film and Fontaine star vehicle, and she highlights a lot of the stylistic flourishes that caught me eye as well. But I'd like to focus on some on a couple other stylistic dimensions to the film.

First, I can't complain to be an expert on Sam Wood's output but some critics do discuss him as a kind of non-auteur, a director associated with some big-name and at times successful projects but without an organizing artistic personality. Todd Rainsberger for instance argues, somewhat plausibly, that William Cameron Menzes and James Wong Howe provided the visual style of Kings Row. What's interesting is the Wood replicates much of Kings Row, with brightly exposed arc-light cinematography (thanks to Russell Metty), low angle shooting, and stylized outdoor sets. Menzies is in…


Like many Poverty Row crime/noir films, Railroaded! (Anthony Mann, PRC/Eagle-Lion) is not built around a mystery and detection thriller narrative but a modified police procedural. At the very least, the title sets us up for a presumed-guilty narrative. In this case, a young middle-class-acting truck driver gets framed by two men pulling off a gambling joint heist. Hugh Beaumont plays the detective in love with the framed man's sister and ultimately convinced there's more to the story than the obvious.
"I'm not trying to eager-beaver someone into the gas chamber," the police chief says. "I'm interested in making someone pay for O'Hara's murder, but it's got to be the guilty party." I've seen a lot of ink spilled lamenting that film scholars spent too much energy on deconstructive or category-E readings that do not speak to how ordinary filmgoers would understand movies. But here's an instance in which the official message of the …

Rhetoric and Reality of "New" National Cinemas

It's hard not to be cynical about the proliferation of "new" national cinema movements: New Argentine Cinema, Russian New Wave, Iranian New Wave, New Serbian Cinema, New Arab Cinema, New Mexican Cinema, and so on. These terms range in their application and stature, and the historical period they designate varies. But they have in common a sense of neologism, of creating an entity out of disparate works through the naming process. This can come from the filmmakers, in manifesto-like fashion, or (more likely) from journalists and critics.

They also have in common in being distinguished from the new waves of the 1960s and 70s. Those waves were hardly a singular phenomenon but they were a connected group of movements. And in comparison, the new "new" waves seem less coherent and more neologistic. And the naming seems aspirational to the prior 60s/70s moment.

I would argue (and maybe others already have) there's something substantial going on behind the rhetori…

NECS Conference 2014


Creative energies | Creative industries:
The NECS 2014 Conference
(European Network of Cinema & Media Studies)
Milan, Italy, Hosted by Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore
June 19-21 June 2014

Submission Deadline: January 31, 2014

Reflecting on creativity has been central to a great deal of philosophical speculation, production practices and forms of reception of the artistic experience. Notions of creation and creativity concern crucial elements in media industies. Moreover, recent developments in institutional policies refer to the pivotal role of creativity in evaluating and promoting cultural production (see the EC’s most recent cultural program “Creative Europe”).

The 2014 NECS Conference, held in Milan, aims to revise and challenge assumptions on media creation and creativity, by looking at them as discursive formations, sociability instruments, power networks, modes of production and reception undergoing historical, political, theoretical and technological tran…

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

No, not the upcoming Ben Stiller version, but the 1947 Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Norman Z. McLeod, Samuel Goldwyn/RKO). Adaptation is probably too strong of a word, since about the only thing that the film takes from the James Thurber story is the premise of a daydreamer who's a somewhat hen-pecked milquetoast in reality. 

However, with barely 2000 words in the source, the screenplay for the feature film needed to invent a more sustained narrative. It ends up what I've been calling a light comedy (along the lines of The Hucksters or The Senator Was Indiscreet) with a parade of genre parodies: war film, plantation drama, Boris Karloff spy film....

And the narrative conceit is that Mitty is a writer for a comics and true-romance publisher, and like other light comedies from the 40s, the film playfully reference taste culture battles of the day.

Even though it is a Goldwyn film, McLeod brings (or even was hired to bring) an MGM sensibility to the project, and the film alterna…

CFP: Domitor 2014 conference

The Image in Early Cinema: Form and Material
Thirteenth International Domitor Conference

Chicago and Evanston, Illinois, USA
21-25 June 2014

Early cinema emerged within a visual culture that comprised a variety of traditions in art and image making. Even as methods of motion picture production, distribution, and exhibition materialized, they drew from and challenged practices and conventions in, for example, photography and painting. This rich visual culture produced a complicated, overlapping network of image-making traditions, innovations, and borrowings amongst painting, tableaux vivants,photography, and other pictorial and projection practices. Film and media scholars have created the concepts of “intermediality” (Gaudreault) and “media archaeology” (Mannoni, Zielinski, et al) in order to account for such crisscrossing traditions and to work against an essentialist notion of film, while other disciplines have suggested ideas, such as “image-system” (Barthes) or “an ecology of image…

The Mighty McGurk

Like many scholars, I've found Rick Altman's syntax/semantics model of film genre a productive one. And watching The Mighty McGurk (MGM, John Waters), I found a good example of a film with the genre semantics of the sentimental drama I've written about. There's the turn-of-the-century setting...

and the figure of the European orphan (Dean Stockwell again), whose pathos is mirrored in his adopted animal.

The narrative also shares some relation to (melo)dramas like The Crowd Roars. And yet, the film's grammar is closer to a hayseed comedy, built around Wallace Beery's star turn as Slag McGurk, a past-his-prime boxer whose delusional phoniness is pretty much evident to everyone and which provides many of the film's gags.

If the screenplay did not impress me aesthetically (it exemplifies the obviousness some 1940s critics railed about in Hollywood films), the ideological implications of the narrative fascinated me. Just a decade and a half after the repeal of …

High Barbaree

High Barbaree (Jack Conway), is what I would consider a typical MGM picture: good production values, a somewhat fanciful narrative, a theme thick with Americana, and a strong reliance on its stars (Van Johnson and June Allyson). And it's an MGM-ish spin on the war movie, in which a World War II pilot, Van Johnson, is shot down in the South Pacific and has to survive afloat in the doldrums with only his memory of childhood sweetheart Allyson and a (highly orientalist) childhood tale his uncle had told of the lost island of High Barbaree. 
The whimsical nature of the narrative, in which High Barbaree does seem to exist, reaches the pinnacle in one of the dream sequences. Johnson's character is stuck running on a road but seeming to get nowhere. Bob Rehak has for some time made me more aware and interested in special effects in Hollywood and I know one of his interests is the perceived narrational artifice of devices like rear projection. Here, the rear projection, for the first …

Graduate Student Conferences

[UPDATED] I've been lamenting the lack of smaller film studies conferences in the US or Canada, but there are some really interesting graduate student conferences that might be of interest to some readers.

Fields of Vision: Observation, Surveillance, Voyeurism

Yale University February 21 and 22, 2014 abstract due December 15, 2013
Keynote speaker: Jonathan Crary (Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University)
Closing remarks: Brigitte Peucker (Professor of German and Film Studies, Yale University)

Vision has held a privileged position as the sense most associated with notions of truth, knowledge, and power throughout the history of Western epistemology. Optical technologies have for centuries been bound up with enhancing our ability to observe and investigate the surrounding world; from the camera obscura to the telescope and the x-ray, technologies of vision have been central to the development of ways of knowing …

CFP: Music and the Moving Image conference IX

Music and the Moving Image IX
Conference at NYU Steinhardt
May 30, 2014 – June 1, 2014

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.

This year’s conference will include a keynote speech by the film orchestrator Patrick Russ (King Kong, Far From Heaven) and we invite abstracts that focus on the role and function of orchestration. The Program Committee includes Patrick Russ, Elisabeth Weis (Film Sound: Theory and Practice, The Silent Scream: Alfred Hitchcock's Sound Track), Philip Carli (Synergy in America's Early Talking Machine Industry and original orchestral scores for Captain Salvation [1925; Turner, 2005], Stella Maris [1918; Milestone, 1998]), and coeditors of Music and the Moving Image, Gillian B. A…

CFP: Film History section on Ephemera


Film History: An International Journal

“Ephemerata” section 

The upcoming issue of Film History (Vol. 25, No. 4) inaugurates the first installment of “Ephemerata,” a new semi-regular section. Motivated as much by the circulatory role of eBay as by the ease of digitizing documents for online posting and the research opportunities afforded by searchable archives like the Media History Digital Library and the Internet Archive, “Ephemerata” offers scans of photographs, postcards, pamphlets, brochures, and other long-forgotten, discarded, or simply overlooked print material. These orphaned items are here re-circulated with an eye toward expanding the scope—perhaps even generating debate—about what counts as “primary” sources and how ephemeral material might be interpreted, contextualized, and deployed. We hope that these otherwise obscure artifacts, once digitally re-materialized, spark curiosity and open up lines of inquiry concerning the history of cinema, broadly and in…

CFP: NECSUS issue on War


NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies 
#6   Autumn 2014

On the occasion of the centenary of the First World War, NECSUS is announcing a call for abstract submissions for a special section on ‘war’ to be published in autumn 2014. The First World War was called the ‘Great War’ and is often claimed to represent the birth of modern warfare. How can this modernity be related to the concurrent development of new forms of mass media in the early 20th century? How are military and entertainment technologies entangled in what Paul Vitilio calls a ‘logistics of perception’?

War has been a central topic for media of all kinds on a global scale. Can we re-evaluate the shifting terrain of aesthetics and ethics of war films and television broadcast series? The birth of modern warfare also means the birth of modern methods of documenting war. How has a rapidly-changing documentary impulse affected depictions and the reception of war? How has new media affected the …


From the title, I had assumed Ramrod (Andre de Toth, UA/Enterprise Productions) would be an application of noir aesthetics to the Western, perhaps with some Freudian psychodrama tossed in. And to be honest it does include Veronica Lake doing a femme fatale turn. What's interesting to me is that sometimes D.P. Russell Harlan shoots Lake in the iconic side profile famous from her Paramount films, but at other times gives her a harder, more frontal look.

And yet, generically, the film is essentially a B-western narrative given A-picture production values. Like other B-film Western, Ramrod is a Manichaean crime melodrama about a bad guy, Frank Ivey, trying to control a small Western town and run Connie Dickason's (Lake) life. Joel McCrea plays the good guy caught between his moral obligation and his disillusionment with Connie. What the 95 minute running time gives this programmer is a more developed romance subplot.
Even if fails to match the A-Western narrative, the film does i…