Friday, December 20, 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 century, and how will its tools continue to shape the study and critical analysis of media and culture?

„Critical Theory, Film and Media: Where is ‘Frankfurt’ now?“, an international conference organized by the Institut für Sozialforschung and the Institut für Theater-, Film- und Medienwissenschaft in cooperation with the Permanent Seminar on Histories of Film Theories (, proposes to address  these questions through a series of panels, keynote lectures and panel discussions.

Contributions are welcome on various aspects of critical theory, film and media, from the impact of critical theory on the history of film theory and media studies and film and media practice to debates about media and politics and the continuing relevance of critical theory to postcolonial, queer and other recent strands of cultural theory.

In particular, the conference proposes to address, but will not limit itself to, the following areas of study:

  • From the critique of the culture industry to the “creative industries”
  • Essayism, Criticism and Critical Theory
  • Philosophy of History and the History of Media
  • Critical Theory, Feminist Film Theory and the Politics of Desire
  • Critical Theory, Artistic Practice and the Category of the Art Work
  • Critical Theory and the Critique of Institutions
  • Critical Theory and Gesture as Interruption
  • Critical Theory and the History of Media Technology

A fuller call and submission instructions are available at the conference website.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

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 rather than the John Ford-style A western. That is, a melodrama (in the turn-of-the-century sense) between law-abiding property owners on the frontier and a crime racket. In this formula, romance and/or family is played up and thematics of civilizaton v. outlaw freedom are played down or nonexistent. I've come across a few examples already in my 1947 viewing.

Bush Christmas follows a conflict between horse thieves and a middle-class rancher family they've stolen from. But along with the Western/melodrama narrative, the film overlays a children's story narrative. I can't recall reading much about the children's film as a genre, but one staple seems to be a dual misunderstanding: children fail to follow the Law of the parents, but parents fail to understand the emotional fragility of children. In this case, this dual misunderstanding leads the group of children to go into the wild and search for the horse thieves. Throughout, too, animals serve not as a threat but as a double for their rightness and innocence.

Like other Westerns, Bush Christmas prominently features dramatic landscape cinematography, generally of the sort that iconographically stands in for the Australian bush. I would be curious to know how films not geared toward an export market would figure the landscape, differently or not.

Monday, December 16, 2013

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 in the cinephile imagination.

But maybe what interests me most about the film is the narrative about stock leveraging. Dekker's character is a stock broker whose stock shorting gets him into trouble. In some ways, this is merely a McGuffin, since the narrative ultimately takes a turn. But it's easy to read as allegory about finance capitalism, and in any case I cannot think of many late 40s films dealing with asset leveraging or finance in such an explicit way. They may have anti-business messages or critique owners or profiteers, but I do not recall specificity about finance.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

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; problems seem more pressing here.

Which brings me to an ongoing point: histories of Hollywood romantic comedy act as if nothing exists between the heyday of 30s screwball and 50s sex comedies, other than the auteur vision of Preston Sturges. But 1940s comedy both continued and adapted the 30s screwball formula. 
On one hand, Her Husband's Affairs has elements of the screwball, from the overlapping telephone dialogue or courtroom showdown to the Lubitsch-like opening done entirely with visuals.

On the other hand, the film's satire of the ad man and advertising practice goes beyond the 30s equivalent, and is comparable to films like The Hucksters. Similarly, the film sends up postwar industrial science and the culture of invention. 

Finally, two small things to note. First, Columbia gives itself a little plug with a Larry Parks cameo.

Seconds, there's a nifty optical printer transition from the courtroom to the newspaper. I'm not sure when or how often this effect was used in other films, but it struck me as novel.

Saturday, December 07, 2013


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 fact production designer here, as well.

Of course the other referent is Hitchcock. The Siren draws a comparison between Ivy and Fontaine's performance in Suspicion. More broadly, I'm interested in the way that the direction uses the gothic as an occasion to play with narration and highlight character subjectivity. For instance, the music swells in one scene to suggest Ivy's state of mind, in the manner of Hangover Square's score.

But it's worth pointing out that if Hitchcock is a key influence here, the narration is not strictly subjectivist, filtered through Ivy's point of view. Rather, the film straddles the subjectivist and objectivist strains in 1940s cinema.  A key example is the scene in which Ivy encounters the poison. The editing at first is pure Hitchcock, with a montage of ever tightening shots of poison and Ivy's reaction...

... before returning to a long shot of both Ivy and the poision (just like the example in Bazin's "Limitations of Montage" essay).

Here the subjectivist montage takes on an objectivist tone, whereby the spectator is denied Ivy's subjectivity just as the lighting performs a highly stylized and subjectivist shift.

.... before returning back to the "objective" lighting.

It's quite a remarkable shot in that it both suggests Ivy's psychological state without actually providing the spectator the key information she/he really wants to know: is Ivy really considering poisoning her husband or is she just being driven by a primal emotion that she her self is not fully aware of? This narrational ambiguity is key to the film's portrayal of a protagonist who is guilty but the nature of whose guilt is open to some interpretation.

As such, Ivy is the kind of film that complicates our understanding of melodrama as a genre. Like other melodramas it presents a character caught in a rigid moral universe that leads to her downfall. Yet the film has a moral complexity that is on the surface - more akin to the prestige drama than the melodrama per se. (Or, perhaps better to say, the relation between the prestige drama and melodrama needs reexamining.)  Similarly, the film has some attributes that canonically have been understood as melodramatic (the acting style, the love triangle, the scoring) while the film formally does not fit neatly in that category (too gothic, not cathartic enough).

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


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 dialogue cannot be taken at face value. By denying that the police are more interested in prosecution than guilt, the film raises the possibility that they would be. Particularly because the screenplay offers, by accident and design I surmise, no other plausible explanation for their gullibility.

This is why films like Railroaded have fared well in the film historical canon, a testiment to low-noir's social criticism. And then there's the low-high mix, with the low production values of Poverty Row sets...

and cheap rear projection...

... as well as key noir/crime genre elements like the high class gambling hall with the rich yet shady owner.

All of this next to Anthony Mann's baroque direction, full of chiaroscuro lighting. (This is before his collaboration with John Alton, which makes me wonder if Alton's stylistic genesis is autochthonous as sometimes is presented).

The film also has less flashy, well-composed scenes that show the kind of careful blocking and composition David Bordwell is always signaling out as a defining quality in Classical Hollywood. For instance, this shot repurposes the foreground to maintain a balanced composition with secondary characters, rather than cut to a different shot.

Finally, even if this is a quintessentially "low" noir, there are elements common to more establishment crime films at Fox, like the fetishization of forensics technology.

Ultimately, my emphasis as a scholar has been to argue that there so many things interesting about late 40s Hollywood beyond film noir, but that's not to deny that films like Railroaded are historically fascinating and aesthetically rich works. Self-Styled Siren has recently made a list of classical Hollywood films that can appeal to a general public, and while as a scholar I'm looking for new narratives and new ways to appreciate an overly familiar period, it's healthy for me to step back and remember that some films are justifiably accessible to a more modern aesthetic.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

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 rhetorical effect of the "new." What we have is a confluence of a few trends: increased self-consciousness about cinema history aided by national film schools; lowered filmmaking costs so that robust film production is within the grasp of nations formally unable to support much; and the spread of national film policy to nations who for economic and political reasons did not participate as fully in film production before, say, the year 2000. Existing networks of television coproduction and film festival circuits have expanded and have aided the foment of new national cinema movements.

So maybe what's happened is that the industrial conditions have reached a tipping point for these "new waves" while there's been a series of aesthetic directions that, while hardly unified, have given an invigorated form to the industrial trends and to a series of nation-state conditions in a post-Communist-state and globalizing era. A sweeping view, I admit, but I do find the Stephen Crofts' model persuasive from a certain vantage.

Or to put it in a less abstract way: there seem to be a number of national contexts for whom the frisson of realist/contemplative art cinema depictions go hand in hand at a self-examination of national identity in a transitioning time. Think of Romania as a good example. These films get marketed in a superficial way (festivals, critics, etc) as "new" but at their core the films are grappling with a new reality.