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Showing posts from January, 2014

SCMS Conference at Crossroads?

I'm usually not one for crisis-talk, as I think the rhetoric has a way of ignoring the fact that institutions can and do continue on, often with underlying functionality. And when it comes to the SCMS conference, I've always enjoyed the conference so in that sense don't feel anything is urgently wrong with it.

That said, the conference is seeing some growing pains. The discipline grows and so does the conference, now sprawling across five days. I've heard from many people that they find the number of attendees overwhelming (to me less of a problem) and what's worse very little attendance at panels. Some of this may be the law of large conferences, whereby the more people there are the less academic conversation and networking actually occurs. But there seems to be something specific, as SCMS is caught between two stools, no longer the small community it once was but not yet coming to terms with being a large MLA- or CAA-sized convention.

Jason Mittel has been even …

That Way With Women

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I have not seen The Millionaire (1931), the Warner Bros film that became the basis for the 1947 remake as That Way With Women (Frederick de Cordova), but it's not hard to imagine which elements were in the original: the enlightened millionaire, the mixup-turns-to-romance plot, and the manichaean politics (a dishonest competitor and a protection racket). 
Much of this is here in That Way With Women, in which Dane Clark and Martha Vickers are the unlikely couple from opposite sides of the tracks, and Sidney Greenstreet reprises his avuncular plutocrat role as the automobile magnate who slums as a gas station owner.

Despite plot overlaps, though, That Way With Women is resolutely a postwar film in iconography and ideology. The result is an ideological palimpsest.

Here, modern architecture signals the way forward for business. Capital and labor need to be in a mutual dialogue with one another. The upper class needs to atone for their wartime profiteering sins and its hidebound snobbe…

The State of Documentary Criticism

A couple months back IndieWire (hat tip: Full Frame festival) pointed me to a going discussion about whether critics fail to understand documentary films or documentary aesthetics more generally. Robert Greene's polemic seized on a Manohla Dargis review to make the case that "there is a clear bias against discussing documentaries as movies first." I can't do full justice to Greene's argument, which is worth reading in full.

I happen to agree with Greene's fondness of Only the Young, a film I found well-made and affecting. And I do agree with his basic case for a) more discussion of the aesthetic implications of blurred doc-fictions lines; and b) more championing of formally interesting documentary work.

But would push back some against the notion there's a systematic problem with documentary criticism. Film critics do sometimes see things differently than filmmakers; they have different interests, different motivations, and different audiences. Moreover, …

Undercover Maisie

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Undercover Maisie (MGM, Harry Beaumont) was the last film in the series built around Ann Southern's girl-detective series. I have to admit that I've not seen any of others, and have to presume the earlier films were more famous and perhaps were fresher in their formula. As is, Undercover Maisie is an interesting example of something between B-movie and A-movie aesthetics. As an MGM film, it has decent production values, yet often with simpler setups than more dramatic material. The script is almost episodic, and I kept trying to get a handle on the narrative structure, which is looser than one would expect from a crime genre film.


Of course, Maisie is not entirely a crime film, but a comedy based on Maisie's brash Brooklyn showgirl character (picture Barbara Stanwick's Stella Dallas) becoming an undercover police officer. The fish-out-of-water that seems to be a common trope in 1940s comedy. It's this narrative and the gender twist that keeps this from being what I…

15 Recent European Documentaries I Like

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I've written in some generality about US documentary culture's provincialism as well as my own critical preferences for documentary. But it's worth fleshing out these broad pronouncements with a discussion of specific films. In particular I've been drawn to a range of recent European documentary work that straddles festival auteur cinema and public sphere-oriented documentary. I can sometimes (not always) see why these can get overlooked, but I do think they should receive more widespread critical engagement, particular in the US, where distribution and even video release remain sparse.

In fact, only one of the titles below has a US home video release. All were released in the last year or two. I've tried to list films that have DVD or streaming sources, but some are not available at all, either still on the festival circuit or caught up without distributors.

This is not a best-of list, but rather a list of works that I think are excellent in some fashion and that …

What I Look For In Documentaries

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It's been a great year in documentaries and also a good year in documentary criticism. The number of year-in-review blog posts and best-of lists (and HotDocs has been retweeting many on Twitter) has made me reflect not only on the films that have come out but also on my own critical dispositions. Part of it is my reckoning of why works like The Act of Killing and The Stories We Tell, while worthy films, have moved me less than they have other critics and why the films I have been struck by are either overlooked or face mixed chances of an American release. Paradoxically, my tastes tend to be both canonical and idiosyncratic.

One tendency I do not find helpful is the tendency of critics to impose a very limited notion of what documentaries should do in their critical practice. At the same time, any critic does have preferences and judgments. So in the spirit of walking the line between omnivorism and discernment, I thought I'd lay my cards on the table and specify exactly what …