Wednesday, January 15, 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 more frustrated than I have and has written up some suggestions on how to make SCMS a better conference. His whole post is worth reading (as are the comments), but I'll give the bullet point suggestions:
  • Limit the formal conference to four days
  • Allow for pre- or post-conference events
  • Eliminate open-call for papers
  • Tracking topics by room/programming via scholarly interest group (SIG)
  • Increasing the number of workshops vis a vis traditional panels
  • Publish paper, panel, and workshop abstracts online
  • (and from the comments) Form networks with overseas academic networks like NECS and ASEAC
I wholeheartedly endorse some of these: posting abstracts online, for instance, would improve both the substance of the papers and the conference-going experience. I also support restricting the conference to 4 days, acknowledging there are some tradeoffs there, either fewer papers accepted or more concurrent panels. Either way, there's an economic price to pay, and fees or dues would have to rise.

I don't feel an especial need to increase the proportion of workshops - I have fewer complaints about traditional papers than Jason and have seen too many workshops where each speaker talks on for 20 minutes anyway. And I would argue for the value of open-call. It's not only junior scholars I'm thinking about but also the ability to forge connections across existing networks. I could get behind Jason's compromise of open-call submitted through SIGs.

So there are some points I'm enthusiastic about and some I decidedly don't support. But the trickiest issue for me is the role of official tracks or SIGs. Increasing their role in programming would give clarity about the selection process (where submitters can feel their proposals are discounted on the basis of subject matter or methodology alone) and give a sense of a smaller-conference-within-a-big-conference, which actually is what most of Jason's proposals seem to be about. In all, I think SIG programming/tracking would be beneficial. However, this raises a sticky question: just what would these tracks be? What about the areas that are not currently constituted as SIGs? Let's say we have 20-25 rooms, how do we apportion the SIGs/tracks? That apportionment has great implications.

If we're using MLA as a touchstone here, film studies (I can't speak for TV studies) simply does not have the clearly defined subfields that literary studies has. Maybe we can't continue on as a generalist field and maybe it's time to impose some structure now that the discipline is better established and the medium is over a century old. But I suspect I'm not the only one apprehensive about moving into a more silo-ed conference and discipline.

The proposal for international cooperation is a terrific one. I'm not sure about the logistics, time, or labor that would be required to make that happen.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

That Way With Women

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 snobbery. The working class needs to reimagine itself as middle-class.  

This is all beneath the surface, but not that far. These class conflicts make this for me a good example of the light comedy: borrowing from 1930s screwball models but less anarchic.

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, it's hard for me not to read Greene's critique as a proxy battle for a particular kind of documentary. He's making the case for hybrid and otherwise formally innovative docs.  That's great, and I could see how he could be frustrated with New York Times critics. But maybe the problem with mainstream critics is not that they don't understand documentary but that they have a competing notion of what documentary does. In other words, this seems like just an ongoing struggle between the more aesthetically and more journalistically oriented parts of the documentary field.

I do think the whole discussion is (usefully) symptomatic of two deeper issues. First is that those who, broadly speaking, form the core of documentary culture - makers, critics, scholars, film buffs - face a dilemma versus the wider film culture.  On the one hand, they don't want documentary to be ghettoized. Tom Roston, blogger at PBS's Doc Soup, for instance, has been militating for inclusion of docs at the Golden Globes and for a recognition of the best documentaries as some of the best films proper. On the other hands, documentary has a distinctive community, canon, and (usually) production process. Ideally, we want film critics accustomed to fiction films to be aware of the documentary traditions.  Greene's complaint is twofold: he wants critics like Dargis to be more aware of the specificity of documentary, and at the same time he wants critics to recognize documentary as merely one version of a common cinematic experience, with "documentaries as movies first." I don't mean this as a gotcha statement but rather a paradox we all face in thinking about documentary as either autonomous or integrated with a dominant fiction film culture.

Second, I think Greene's polemic and the discussion around it is a delayed reaction to the proliferation and qualitative change of film criticism on the internet. It's a useful project to see the energy devoted to discussion fiction film and ask for the extension of this meta-critical energy to nonfiction cinema.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Undercover Maisie

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'd call the light comedy, but I lack a good genre term for it.

The main subplot has to do with a charlatan named Amor, whose racket Maisie is trying to infiltrate. By its iconography, one would see similarities with the orientalism of a Bob Hope movie, but equally interesting are the resonances with noir, and the racket seems like it could belong in a Hammett or Chandler novel, or Nightmare Alley.

And just when I think I'm watching a film without topicality, it turns out there's a returning veteran and housing crisis angle!

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

15 Recent European Documentaries I Like

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 show a range of aesthetic approaches, issues, and documentary sensibilities. There's an element of a "genius of the system"  behind some of them, and I could easily have picked alternatives in the same style.

And of course, there is still so much to watch, so I welcome viewing suggestions.

Sofia's Last Ambulance (Ilian Metev, Bulgaria / Croatia / Germany, 2012, German-release PAL DVD, theoretically with English subtitles) The film follows a trio of ambulance drivers around Sofia and is an understated portrait of the civil servant. Of all the documentaries I've seen over the last few years, this one has stuck with me and impressed me the most with its formal rigor (framing devices almost akin to structural film) and affective politics.

The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear (Tinatin Gurchiani, Georgia-Germany, 2012, Icarus DVD) This is probably the critical darling of the bunch, partly because of its doc-fiction hybrid conceit. Ultimately, for me, the "casting call" frame device was merely a hook for what's a terrific observational composite of contemporary life in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Camp 14: Total Control Zone (Marc Wiese, Germany, 2012, streaming on Netflix) Since it's a film about the total-control prison camps of North Korea, the intended audience seems to be largely a human-rights-film audience. However, rather than approaching the topic with journalistic instrumentalism, Wiese has a purposive directorial hand, appropriating the now in-vogue use of animation for recollective and historical trauma, and the film teases out thematic layers from its disturbing material and its social actors. There's even a smart critique of human-rights discourse along with a trenchant criticism of the North Korean regime. If anything my second viewing of this was more rewarding than my first.

Work Hard, Play Hard (Carmen Losmann , Germany, 2011, German-release PAL DVD, with English subtitles) By now documentaries about design and planning have become their own subgenre. A study of corporate work spaces in Germany, Work Hard Play Hard, follows in the footsteps of Hustwit's Helvetica in reading design as ideological but goes even further in exploring the power-money-design nexus. If anything, I'm surprised at the access the filmmakers got for the film.

Winter Nomads (Manuel von Stürler, Switzerland, 2012, Swiss-release PAL DVD, with English subtitles). Winter Nomads is probably the closest example I can think of from the observational tradition represented by documentarists like Nicolas Philibert (whose latest I've not seen.) It follows two Swiss shepherds in their annual winter transhumance. Like many recent documentaries, it traces the impact of modernity and globalization, but here the emphasis is equally on the social actors - their personalities and their interactions. It's as much portraiture as observation.

The Grocer (Dimitris Koutsiabasakos, Greece, 2013) is in a similar vein - it's about the decline of rural life in the face of modernity, it's observational in style, and it's structured around the seasons. But where Winter Nomads keeps a directorial distance, The Grocer is a remarkably warm, humanist portrait of mountain village life. It's one of my favorite films from 2013.

My Fathers, My Mother and Me (Paul-Julien Robert, Austria, 2013). It would surprise me if this film does not land a decent theatrical distribution, given its subject matter -- the autobiography of someone who grew up on the Friedrichshof Commune. Of the filmmakers here, I got the sense that Robert is self-taught as a documentarian and not natively a cineaste. That said, it's a smart and surprisingly measured treatment of the subject -  a difficult feat for what's ultimately an incredible personal story. I for instance, like the film far more than My Architect and other similar documentaries. And Robert has a lot of primary video footage to work with.

Here... I Mean There (Laura Capatana-Juller, Romania, 2012)  A character-driven issue documentary about a Romanian sisters split from their guest-worker parents, this film is probably the least aestheticized of the bunch. That said, it has a wonderful rapport with its subjects and a good hand with editing and structure. The problem is well-known in Romania and elsewhere, but I was unfamiliar before the film. Like many good documentaries the film explores the general through the personal and vice versa. 

Two Furnaces For Udarnik Josip Trojko (Goran Dević, Croatia, 2012) A film that has not seen wider distribution and perhaps never will, this documentary about a steelworks plant in Sisak, Croatia succinctly captures so many of the political, economic, and affective issues of the transition from Communism to a liberalized economy. I was impressed how a found-footage and sound montage technique could rise above the cliché and go somewhere else, formally and thematically. And personally, it was the film that first piqued my interest in post-Communist documentary and led me on my current film-watching project.

Image Problem (Simon Baumann and Andreas Pfiffner, Switzerland, 2012, streaming-purchase via Vimeo) I thank Marcy Goldberg for making me aware of this Michael Moore-ish satire of Swiss national identity. Her Visible Evidence paper gave a good reading of the film's politics and argued that it's worth looking at European documentaries beyond the festival styles, even if they're more commercial or "American" in their style. It's a polemic I can get behind and would apply as well to agit-prop docs like Married to the Swiss Franc (Arsen Oremović, Croatia, 2013). Image Problem definitely has some ethical problems and, even though it's aimed for a Swiss audience, airs dirty laundry for the rest of the world. That said, it's a savvy and funny takedown of political consensus.

Snow Crazy (Laila Pakalniņa. Latvia 2012, streaming or download-purchase via Doc Alliance) There are a number of minimalist place-portrait documentaries focusing on abstracted processes of business, places, or institutions, sometimes with their human subjects in the background. There is something about Snow Crazy's subtly ironic tone that made the short film stand out for me.

Abendland (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Austria, 2011, streaming or download-purchase via Doc Alliance). Another poetic rumination on places, this is probably the most aestheticized and least Griersonian of my list, a poetic reflection on nighttime labor across Europe. Like many of the more art cinema-style documentaries, this one has slow editing and a lack of exposition, but it also asks the spectator to connect the actions and spaces it depicts. For me, the sum is greater than its parts.

Sons of the Land (Edouard Bergeon, France, 2012, available streamed online) A gut-wrenching documentary about French farm families, drawing parallels between the filmmaker's father and a young farmer whose life and struggles the film follows. In other words, the character-driven format and the autobiographical genre work as foils to one another.

Praxis  (dir. Bruno Moraes Cabral, Portugal, 2011, streaming or download-purchase via DocAlliance Films) Another observational short, about student life at a Portuguese university with a hazing tradition. It's a great example of a simple, focused subject matter with deep allegorical resonance.  

Pura Vida/The Ridge (Pablo Iraburu and Migueltxo Molina, Spain, 2012, Spanish-release PAL DVD, with English Subtitles) By far the most commercial and narrative of my list, Pura Vida recounts a mountaineering expedition gone wrong and the multi-national rescue team assembled to save the mountaineers. Within its genre, it's quite effective, and the presence of other films on the same subject matter should ideally not keep this one from being seen.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

What I Look For In Documentaries

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 I look for in documentaries, both in the sense of what I'm attuned to watching them and in the sense of the judgments I form.

Cinematic form. Formal rigor, beauty, and creativity are not necessarily the same thing, but they are the dimensions that make documentaries aesthetic works in addition to informative, expository or theoretical works. A cinematically interesting approach is not enough to make me like a documentary but a complete lack of rigor or creativity can make me dislike one. In fact, this is probably one reason why I don't consume a certain genre of American left-political documentaries all that much. Fortunately, a number of trends, not least among them the availability of affordable HD video, are leading to more and more documentaries that are enjoyable to watch visually. It's not just pretty pictures, either: the documentary field has increasingly prized formal innovation.

The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear

The public sphere. My preference for formally interesting documentary puts me in good company with filmgoers and critics who like non-traditional, non-Griersonian documentaries. But, equally, I generally value films that engage spectators as civic subjects, and in that sense I'm more Griersonian in my expectations. To me, part of the excitement of a lot of documentaries from post-Communist states is the way they depict personal and institutional stories as occasions for national, collective self-understanding. But you see civic engagement anywhere there's a robust documentary culture (or maybe it's vice versa).

The Sons of the Land (photo thanks to Screen Zone's review)

Negotiation of transcultural and specific. Public spheres, however, are nationally specific. Some films - like Disease of the Third Power, an indictment of judicial system corruption in Slovakia - require prior political knowledge and do not provide extensive exposition for non-national spectators. Other films - like Wrong Time, Wrong Place, on the 2011 Norway attacks - downplay national issues in favor of universalist thematics. Each approach has its benefits and drawbacks, but I particularly like films that speak between the two levels - that can engage domestic and international spectators alike and can explore complex relationships between individual and collective.

Wrong Time, Wrong Place

Ethical treatment of the spectator. Public sphere aspirations should not mean an overly didactic or manipulative approach.  I do not require political modernism or self-reflexivity and in fact do not think either necessarily lead to a better engagement on the spectator's part. But something about the documentary's argument should be experiential rather than spoon-feeding. And it should trust the spectator to grasp complexity. I think my wordy response to Blackfish boils down to this, since the film does not trust the viewer to deal with the complexities of orca release.

The labor of production. I put a premium on documentaries that take more work to make. Developing and maintaining rapport with a social actor or getting observational footage over a long period of time takes much more effort than lining up experts for talking head interviews, which in turn takes more effort than doing a video diary. The labor involved does not necessarily make observational cinema better than expository or autobiographical documentary, but like good historical or social science research such labor is a contribution that should be encouraged and rewarded. And, simply, it impresses me as a viewer.

One thing I've not specified is entertainment value, and some narrativizing approaches rub me the wrong way because they work against the above goals. But I would be dishonest if I did not admit that showmanship had an effect on me.

These criteria do not all coincide and some films will be stronger in some areas than others. That's fine, and I don't have a prescribed sense of how these aspects should interrelate. Within limits, I try to take documentaries on their own terms, to want to see them successful in their project, all the while I value some projects more than others.