Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Expanded Canons


Following up on Friday’s post about the canon, I’d like to elaborate on my half-baked idea of an expanded canon. That could mean any number of things, many of them unremarkable, but I do have a few specific qualities in mind.

The half-canon I imagine would avoid superlatives. To use a variation on the cliché of “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” the search for the best and the masterpiece gets in the way of appreciating merely good cinema – or films that are vital or worthwhile in sometimes surprising ways. In the process a half-canon can make viewers aware of new masterpieces but that is not effectively its main goal.

The half-canon is based on discovery. As we gain historical distance on prior movements, we can reappraised prior critical priorities. And digital technology makes a wealth of movies more easily accessible, across national borders, than they were previously. Sometimes the discovery process will be a dead-end but just as likely it will yield surprising results.

There are several alternatives to the traditional film canon: 1) the anti-canon, which resists claims of aesthetic distinction and in any case is completely omnivorous in consuming texts. I see some of this in non-theatrical film studies and orphan-film cinephilia; 2) Pluralistic canons, e.g. those of national traditions, women filmmakers, or the avant-garde. ; and 3) expanded canons, which militate for including more and more films in our canon.... something like David Cook's history of film textbook. 

However, there are several limitations to these current alternatives. The anti-canon is good for certain kinds of critical practice but not others. These alternative canons would often be happy if a larger critical public adopted them and they do exert a useful pressure on dominant canons, but they can also be subdisciplinary practices cut off from larger dialogues in the discipline (through no fault of their own). And while expanded canons are ideal, there's a limit to our attention and critical practice. I’m always impressed by someone like Bill Nichols or David Bordwell, who have watched incredibly broadly and voraciously. But I'm not one of those people.

So a half-canon would be a way of going beyond traditional canons without dissolving aesthetics or trying to do the impossible. And unlike pluralistic canons they would seek an explicit incorporation into dominant dialogue. The half-canon would combine the sensibility of all three above approaches, but would present a model in which each scholar is a generalist  who does not presume to know everything, but rather who can explore a few surprising areas outside her/his expertise and the general canon.  Canonicity would be multi-nodal and a way of thinking two separate levels simultaneously.


The half-canon is a process of translation and popularization. This is where area scholars, film critics, and film historians can be especially valuable. I always value the scholarly, programming, and critical work of others to point me to new films. In turn, I can discover and share works through my research and teaching.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Conference Calendar 2013-14 edition

Please let me know if I should add anything, and I will update this post. Also, I plan to do an update post around mid-year. [Updated 11/29/13]

Closed calls:
Magic of Special Effects: Cinema - Technology - Reception Univ de Montréal, Nov 5-10, 2013 
World Picture Conference - Univ of Toronto, November 8-9, 2013
MLA -  Chicago, Jan 9-12, 2014
Rendering the Visible - Georgia State Univ, Feb 7-8, 2014
CAA - Chicago, Feb 13-16, 2014
SMCS - Seattle, Mar 19-23, 2014

Console-ing Passions - Univ of Missouri, Columbia, Apr 10-12, 2014 [website]

Due date: Oct 31, 2013 BAFTSS 2014 conference London Apr 24-26, 2014 [call]
Due date: Nov 1, 2013 What is Documentary? Univ of Oregon Apr 24-26, 2014 [call]
Due date: Nov 4, 2013 ICA - Seattle, May 22-26, 2014 [website | call]
Due date: Nov 7, 2013 At the Borders of (Film) History Udine, Italy Apr 2-4, 2014 [call]


Current calls:

Due date: Dec 1, 2013 Domitor - Chicago/Evanston, June 21-25, 2014 [website | call]
Due date: Dec 16, 2013 The Annual Conference of the Film Studies Association of Canada - Brock University (St. Catharines, ON), May 27-29, 2014 [website | call]
Due date: Jan 10, 2014 Screen - Univ of Glasgow, June 27-29, 2014 [website]

Due date: Jan 31, 2014 NECS - Milan, June 19-21, 2014 [website and call]

Due date: Jan 6, 2014 Symposium on Stephen Dwoskin - ICA London, March 8, 2014
Due date: Mar 1, 2014 The Wizard of Oz and the Western Cultural Imagination (75 years of the MGM Musical) - Brighton, England

Upcoming calls:
Flow 2014 - Austin, TX, September 11-13, 2014
Visible Evidence XXI - New Delhi, December 2014 (unannounced)
MLA - Vancouver, Jan 8-11, 2015

Friday, September 20, 2013

After the Canon Wars

I've written about the canon before but one thing worth pointing out is that the discipline has largely moved beyond the canon wars. By that I mean that in the 1980s, film studies explicitly took up theoretical debates about the canon that were raging in literary studies; Janet Staiger's 1985 Cinema Journal essay "The Politics of Film Canons" (or Gerald Mast's reply) is a good example. It's not fair to say that the debate was settled since scholars still held cinephile tastes and since Citizen Kane hardly disappeared from college syllabi. That said, the anti-canon forces could be said to carry the day on several key fronts of scholarship. Even canonical auteurs like Nicholas Ray were examined on the basis of historical-ideological reading, not aesthetic exegesis - I'll call this the Category E camp. Cultural studies, particularly in its dealing with contemporary cinema, privileged objects of study with historical-ideological importance, with aesthetic importance secondary. And Wisconsin school film historians gave a method to film history that did not always take the canon as the starting point.

Approach #3 is still going on strong, in fact I'd say its fruits are just starting to bear, but within the discipline there's been a little bit of a turn away from the first two. The Deleuzian and New Theoretical work is frequently canonical and auteur-oriented. Moreover, the explicit debates of the 1980s seem largely absent: scholars have their working assumptions about the canon and what they should be researching but don't seem to be debating those assumptions.

I guess I'm wondering where this all leaves me. I still find many of the 1980s critiques of the canon persuasive and productive, yet I am trying to be more honest in acknowledging my cinephile taste and background. I currently teach in a largely production program, where aesthetics and aesthetic models are very important, and my teaching context has reoriented me to the aesthetic dimension of cinema. And then there's the excitement I find in the reintegration of film theory and film criticism that canonicity and the New Theoretical Turn has brought.

I do not want to return to 1960s style auteurism and canon-building. To my eye, there are too many theoretical reasons not to do so, but even more than that, there are too many movies worth seeing. As our available knowledge of film history continues to fill out and more titles become accessible, the more impoverished that our previous canon seems.


For instance, last night I watched a terrific program of Lithuanian documentaries, many from the 1960s period inspired in part by Free Cinema. It was a revelation to me, not only historically, as a national cinema I was unfamiliar with, but also for the distinctive poetic approach the documentaries took. They were beautiful, evocative, and difficult films. And largely absent from the documentary canon, much less the broader film canon. In fact, I'd say they've been largely absent in the American academy because they don't quite qualify with the canon as we've followed it. They were not trailblazers like Free Cinema makers, nor were they formally rigorous - there was something messy about them. And yet, they were and are gripping films that beg to be watched on their own terms.

I don't want to argue that these films need to be in the canon. After all, there may be dozens of national cinema movements equally worthy of reevaluation. Nor do I, if I'm honest, want to give up the pursuit of looking for aesthetically distinctive films. Rather, I'd like an expanded or supplemental canon, or a half-canon or canon-prime if you will, a broader set of films that encourages us to think and watch broadly while giving us some guidance in the process.

Maybe this is not a satisfactory compromise but it's the one I keep gravitating toward.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

CFP: Velvet Light Trap on Media Distribution


Call for Papers
The Velvet Light Trap
Issue #75: Media Distribution

Deadline: January 15, 2014

Although distribution has long been known as the economic linchpin of the media industries, it remains the least studied aspect of that industry, conjuring images of dour economists combing through dusty ledgers. But scholarly attention is shifting.

As recent technologies upend older distribution models, they both facilitate alternative media cultures and drive traditional stakeholders into new conflicts. Media distribution, once the invisible link between production and exhibition/reception, increasingly reveals the major struggles over cultural and economic power that have long invigorated the field. Scholars studying contemporary media have energetically responded to the implications of the rapidly transforming landscape of media distribution, where new agents reroute industrial circuits and burgeoning networks of often “illicit” circulation form. As a result, the study of distribution now encompasses a range of methods and approaches including not only economic analysis but also cultural criticism, ethnography, and geo-mapping.

The last decade’s upheavals have sensitized media historians to the long-standing effects of and struggles over distribution. Scholars have re-explored historical subjects with newfound contemporary relevance, such as the emergence of copyright, film libraries, labor’s attempts to intervene in licensing content, and Hollywood’s analysis of its audiences. Moreover, new research tools have provided access to new sources and methods that encourage us to scrutinize received wisdom about the emergence of the commercial film industry, classical Hollywood’s mass audience and easy domination of world markets, and the formation of broadcast networks, as well as the historical existence of alternative distribution networks.

Issue #75 of VLT, “Media Distribution,” seeks to further address the complex effects of and determinations shaping forms of media distribution. The editors are particularly interested to bring together historical and contemporary case studies, as well as theoretical work, investigating the implications of struggles to control the conditions under which media circulates.  To that end, we invite submissions that explore the economic, political, social, and aesthetic effects of media distribution.

Suggested topics include, but are by no means limited to:

  •         The emergence, maintenance, and transformation of commercial distribution
  •         Audience identification, segmentation, and marketing
  •         Screen quotas, cultural difference, and international censors
  •         Reformatting for new technologies and translating for foreign markets
  •         Historical studies of noncommercial or alternative distribution networks
  •         Infrastructures of distribution
  •         Scales of distribution: global, regional, national, local
  •         Subcultural networks, dispersed communities, and diasporic identities
  •         Distribution workers
  •         VOD, streaming video, web television
  •         Geo-blocking and transnational online distribution
  •         Peer-to-peer sharing, black markets, and pirated content
  •         Self-distribution, viral video, and social networking

Submissions should be between 8,000 and 10,000 words, formatted in Chicago style. Submission guidelines at the journal website. Send electronic manuscripts and/or any questions to velvetlighttrap.austin - AT - gmail.com.

CFP: Console-ing Passions 2014


Call for Papers
Console-ing Passions conference

April 10-12, 2014
University of Missouri, Columbia, MO

Keynote speaker: Angela McRobbie, Professor of Communication, Goldsmiths, University of London

Founded by a group of feminist media scholars and artists in 1989, Console-ing Passions held its first official conference at the University of Iowa in 1992. Since that time, Console-ing Passions has become the leading international scholarly network for feminist research in television, video, audio, and new media.

The 2014 conference invites individual papers, pre-constituted panels, and workshops that consider the breadth of feminist issues on television, video, audio, and new media. We seek proposals that address the broader aims of Console-ing Passions: gender, race and ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, class, and (dis)ability. Possible topics include:

  • media production and industries 
  • media audiences and fans
  • textual analysis and criticism 
  • gaming and virtual worlds
  • feminist and queer theory 
  • neoliberalism and the economy 
  • transmedia and convergence culture 
  • music and sound studies 
  • transnational cultural flows 
  • history and theory of media 
  • social media and the Internet 
  • theories of post-television 
  • social movements and media activism 
  • religion and media 
  • youth culture and media

Submissions can include individual papers, pre-constituted panels, workshops, and screenings. Detailed instructions on submission and further information available at the Console-ing Passions website. Deadline for submissions is 11:59 PM (Central) on Tuesday, October 1, 2013.

Great-Man Historiography

In my research and teaching, I have tended to resist explanations dependent on individuals as historical agents. There are clearly two theoretical impulses behind this. One is the poststructuralist critique of the individual subject, though I am hardly a strict constructionist. The other, probably more influential in my thinking, is the Marxian tendency to look to structure and historicity. "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past."

But set aside the arguments from principles. I want to use a specific example. Rereading Memo From Darryl F. Zanuck, I came across this memo from the producer regarding Jesse James (1939):
I am definitely convinced that the entire location trip was, to a great extent, a financial mistake.... Everything I have seen has been fine, but there is nothing in the way of scenery or background that we could not have photographed near here at far less expense and trouble.... I blame no one but myself for not actin on my original hunch, and realize that in the history of our industry there has never been a successful location trip that lasted longer than two weeks. (17-18)
This from a producer who would be one of the advocates for location shooting in the postwar years. What makes this quote so juicy to me is that Zanuck is probably the best case for a "great man" agent of Hollywood history. He's one of the central producers Thomas Schatz uses for his Genius of the System argument: someone with both supreme managerial power and intimate involvement in storytelling and aesthetic decisions. And many developments at 20th-Fox can be explained as the result of Zanuck's decisionmaking.

But what changed between 1939 and 1946? Zanuck clearly changed in his attitude toward location shooting, but his personal change of opinion is merely a proximate cause, the ultimate cause being a shift in the historical context. The economics and professional practices of the film industry changed in the 1940s, and along with them a discursive shift informing the desirability of location shooting.

Now, structural explanation can have its own distortions, and there are times when particular local histories flesh out our bigger understanding. I would not avoid explanation by individuals entirely. But these need to be argued for, not assumed.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The New Literary (Film) Studies

I'm currently reading James Chandler's Archeology of Sympathy and it's reminded me of something I've been noticing: there's a new wave of literary scholars who are writing on film in medium-specific ways. There was a time when I'd bristle at the dilettantism of literary studies people who'd decide they wanted to write on film without engaging in film studies or the basics of cinema as a medium. The upshot was a strong tendency toward content reading.

The new cohort, though - in addition to Chandler, Jonathan Auerbach or Max Cavitch come to mind - has a familiarity with cinema specific ways of analysis, even if they still read texts a little differently or have different heuristic priorities than those more fully ensconced in cinema studies.

It's probably an understandable result of the growth of cinema studies, both in the impact of broader undergraduate education of intro to film classes and the continued spread of departments mixing literary and film-studies faculty.

It's an interesting trend and I'm not sure it's one that's been remarked upon much.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Documentary Provincialism

I flagged this on Twitter, but about a month ago, Anthony Kaufman had a terrific column at the Sundance blog attacking US provincialism concerning documentary film.
The U.S. media’s provincialism is nothing new, and clearly extends to the subset of film journalism, as well. At Sundance, year after year, critics rightfully crow about the superiority of the festival’s American competition docs, but often short-change the festival’s superb World Cinema documentaries. We can’t entirely fault the press—at festivals, there’s never enough time to see everything. But in the media’s coverage of docs, there continues to be a gross under-appreciation of the innovation and artistry that thrives in docs from overseas.
Kaufman articulates, probably better than I could, a sentiment I've been feeling since stumbling on a strain of recent festival documentaries in Europe. There are two separate issues here. On hand, American film culture is provincial in general, so that for instance, the local art cinema in Philadelphia will play foreign films but only occasional ones of a certain genre and production value. While the academy provides a counterpart to this tendency, particularly in area studies, US film studies tends to relegate many national cinemas to the periphery. I'm guilty of much of this, and claim no ability to rise above it.

A second issue, alongside this, is a short term devaluing of national cinema movements which really deserve additional attention. And this is the level that Kaufman's article really speaks to me. There really is something vibrant going on in European festival documentaries right now - both in aesthetic innovation and a reinvigorated public sphere sometimes lacking in US documentaries. While their fictional counterparts of the major auteurs and the "slow cinema" movement are central to the discussions of US cinephiles, I don't see a corresponding engagement in documentary film culture.

It's a matter of time and attention, to be sure, and I'm faulting film-culture more systemically, not any individual. But thankfully it's a matter also rectifiable.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Corporate Authorship vertical file

"Yet the more I looked, the more I found that the situation couldn’t be reduced to the daring director versus the philistine producer."

- Words of wisdom from David Bordwell. This strikes me as a stubborn antimony that film histories should work at breaking down.