Showing posts from 2016

What Makes Film Sociological?

I’m belated in responding to this, but several months ago, sociologist Jeff Guhin raised an interesting question in relation to The Wire: what makes a novel or movie or television program sociological? As he notes, “the problem is that if sociology is the study of the social, then what show or movie or book isn’t sociological?” As the question implies, we’re torn between a strict definition of the sociological and a sense that sociology has particular attitudes in the study of the social.

But I thought this was a question I would be qualified to weigh in on, at least partly. My new book, Sociology on Film: Postwar Hollywood’s Prestige Commodity, explicitly takes up this question, and its publication now has made me think more about the questions Guhin raises. After all, my book circles around this problem without answering it outright. I am basically concerned with how Hollywood social problem films in the 1940s began popularizing academic sociology. And I argue that this change was n…

Book announcement

I am pleased to announce that my book, Sociology on Film: Postwar Hollywood's Prestige Commodity, is out now from Rutgers University Press. The shipping date will take a few more days or so, but you can order the book now. Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other book retailers should have it. Or you can order it directly from Rutgers University Press. In past years, Rutgers has had a good holiday sale, and I will update if they offer one this year.
I'm very pleased to see the final product. The press's production team did a great job, and it's just gratifying to see the end result of a long process, from dissertation to the final form this book took. I'll have a few more posts to talk about the book and give some preview of its contents.

For those who have helped along the way, you're probably in the acknowledgments but in any case I appreciate all the support. It's a paradox of academic writing that it is both a profoundly solitary exercise and reliant on the …

Conferences Fall-Winter 2016/7 edition

Here is my current list of English-language conferences of interest to those in film studies (and some for TV and media studies). Upcoming conferences are listed in order by date or, for open calls, by abstract due date. Please let me know if I should add anything.  I will update this post when the NECS call for papers is posted.

Closed calls:
MLA - Philadelphia, January 5-8, 2017  [website]
SCMS - Chicago, Mar 22-26, 2017 [website]
ICA 2017 - San Diego, California, 25-29 May 2017 [call]

Current calls:
due date: November 1, 2016 Women and the Silent Screen - Shanghai, June 16-18, 2017 [website | call]
due date: November 4, 2016 Visible Evidence XXIV - Buenos Aires, August 2-5, 2017 [website | call]
due date: November 30, 2016 Circuits of Cinema (Histories of Movie/Media Distribution) - Ryerson Univ., June 22-24, 2017 [website | call]
due date: January 15, 2017 Screen - Univ of Glasgow, June 23-25, 2017 [website]
due date: January 16, 2017 Console-ing Passions - East Carolina Univ., July…

Machine Gun or Typewriter?

Machine Gun or Typewriter
Dir. Travis Wilkerson, US, 2016
Genre: doc-fiction hybrid

I’ve been overdue reporting on my time at FIDMarseille this year, taking in a festival that has a dual distinct niche on the European documentary film festival circuit. First, its programming has a pan-Mediterranean orientation, including a good number of works from the Maghreb and from the Levant. Second, it gravitates toward “difficult” works, particularly slow-paced contemplative docs or rule-breaking essay film style works. However, my biggest surprise in encountering the FIDMarseille program was seeing the inclusion of fiction films amid a program of documentaries, essay films, and hybrid works, and absolutely no marking of films according to genre.

There are some disadvantages of this approach (which I’ll get to in another post), but it had the advantage of making me encounter each film on its own terms, to gauge not only its facticity but also its narrational system in the process of watching. I…

CFP: Visible Evidence XXIV Buenos Aires


Visible Evidence XXIV
Buenos Aires
2-5 August, 2017

Visible Evidence, the international conference on documentary film and media, will convene for its 24th year in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, August 2-5, 2017. VE2017 is hosted in collaboration with the National University of Tres de Febrero (UNTREF), Revista Cine Documental and the Argentine Association of Cinema and Audiovisual Studies (AsAECA). The conference will take place at the Centro Cultural Borges (Borges Cultural Center) above the traditional Galerías Pacífico and at the Margarita Xirgu theater in the historical neighborhood of San Telmo.

Visible Evidence Buenos Aires (2017) coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and marks fifty years since Che Guevara’s assassination in Bolivia. These two transcendental events compel us to contemplate anew the relationship between documentary film and revolutionary movements. In the 1960s, Argentina and other Latin American nations were at th…

CFP: Symposium on Structural Documentary

I am pleased to announced that our department is hosting this event in October.


Temple University’s Film and Media Arts department invites proposals for its 2nd Documentary Theory-Practice Symposium 
on the topic of Structural Documentary
One-day symposium, Friday, October 14, 2016 Temple Performing Arts Center Temple University, Philadelphia
Keynote speakers: Pacho Velez, co-director of Manakamana Catherine Russell (Concordia University), author of Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video
One of the most striking trends in nonfiction film over the last decade has been the intersection between documentary and what has been called “structural filmmaking,” an approach to experimental cinema with a lineage back to the 1960s. Whether in the art gallery context or in feature documentaries geared toward theatrical or film festival release, documentarians have experimented with appropriating elements of structural film: repeated structures, arbitrary…

CFP: Documenting the Visual Arts


Documenting the Visual Arts 
(edited collection)
deadline: Nov 1, 2016

The proliferation and popularity of visual arts documentaries are a major component of the recent international documentary boom, but they tend to be overlooked in film criticism and scholarship in favor of documentaries framed more explicitly in social and political terms. Yet visual arts documentaries remain on the cutting edge of documentary innovation, from 3D cinema (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) to questioning documentary truths (Exit Through the Gift Shop). Moreover, visual arts documentaries have long played significant roles in various historical formations around documentary politics (e.g. USIA films in the Cold War, the Left Bank essay films of 1950s and Channel Four programming in the 1980s).

This edited collection will examine the significance of visual arts documentaries from a range of critical perspectives and methodologies. The book will explore not only how documentaries from around the…

Resources for Documentary Releases

I have occasionally been asked how I hear about recent documentaries. I try to be open to a number of sources, but it's worth highlighting a couple of news sources and a few streaming sources:

What Not to Doc. Basil Tsiokos maintains an incomparably complete and amazingly useful blog with documentary release news and festival roundups. This should be a regular read for anyone with a strong interest in documentary. His Twitter feed mirrors the site for those who prefer to access it that way.

POV. The Public Broadcasting System's documentary showcase has a good blog with weekly updates, including links to doc-oriented magazine features and festival news. The site also has regular streaming of documentaries that have broadcast. [Twitter]

Netflix. This is obvious, but I'm surprised how many documentary gems I stumble across on Netflix, both mainstream doc releases and more obscure fare. While the streaming site has given up on its former cinephile offerings in favor of television…

Character-Driven Variations

The Successor (Il successore)
dir. Mattia Epifani, Bosnia-Herzegovina/Italy, 2015
Genre: Character-driven
Not currently in wide distribution

I mentioned in a recent post that there are important variations on the character-driven format. This is especially true in European documentaries and those oriented toward the festival circuit. There’s a wide range of experiments with the character-driven template, and the creativity with the form interests me in some ways more than the form itself. That said, it’s worth pointing to a common variation in the European/festival context.

The Successor is a documentary about the aftermath of land mines from the Bosnian war of the 1990s. It follows Vita Alfieri Fontana, a former owner of Tecnovar, the Italian company that produced the mines used in Bosnia and elsewhere. Eventually, Fontana had a sense of guilt about the use of his company’s products, shut down the company, and spent the following decade helping the mine removal process.

The documentar…

Aesthetics of the Festival Documentary

Roundabout in My Head (Fi rassi rond-point) dir. Hassen Ferhani, 2015, Algeria/France/Qatar/Lebanon/Netherlands Genre: Poetic-Observational
There is one shot in Roundabout in My Head that encapsulates for me so much of what makes watching contemporary festival documentary exciting. The film is a composite portrait of workers at a slaughterhouse in Algiers. Unlike other famous documentaries of slaughterhouses, Ferhani shows very little of the carnage; rather the film focuses on the worker’s interactions and unguarded moments. 
The shot in question is an interior long take of a television screen visible at the threshold of a doorway. Close to the camera, and partially captured at the frame’s edge are an older adult and a younger worker, watching what turns out to be a soccer match on the TV. Other workers walk between us/spectators and the television and more and more activity develops in this hallway until a group of workers is holding a rope, pulling on something heavy and urging other…

The Character-Driven Documentary

A Young Patriot
dir. Du Haibin, 2015, China
genre: character-driven documentary
not currently in video distribution (though may have upcoming ITVS screening on some PBS channels in the US)

By now I have seen a few character-driven documentaries coming from China, and of those, A Young Patriot is one of the more gripping. The documentary follows Xiao Zhao, a patriotic and ambitious teen from Pingyao, Shanxi as he goes to university and comes of age. I know a lot of filmmaker and documentary students bristle at the formula-oriented nature and funding strictures of the character-driven doc (and maybe many more embrace it, I don't know). But to me, A Young Patriot shows how at its best the formula can be a template for strong works. One thing I found so powerful about the film is that it works on levels beyond the central conceit (in which Zhao's conflicts speak to broader issues of Chinese politics). Like other longitudinal docs, this one captures the coming of age process with o…

Stylistic Bricolage

Trading Germans (Pașaport de Germania)
dir. Răzvan Georgescu, 2014, Romania/Germany
available as Romanian imprint DVD (w/ Eng. subtitles) here

I had mentioned in my post on Tea Time, the unusual status of the enactment footage rather than the reenactment. But watching Trading Germans, I noticed a different variation of enactment/reenactment. Trading Germans is a documentary about the emigration of ethnic Germans (Saxons and Swabians) from Romania as well as the diplomatic negotiations between West Germany and Romanian government to achieve the permission to emigrate. At times the latter takes precedence, and like many other theatrical documentaries, Trading Germans borrows from fiction and lends a suspense quality to the international intrigue segment. We see German negotiator Heinz-Günther Hüsch pack money in a suitcase, get on a plane and stay in a brutalist Bucharest hotel. Clearly, the actions mirror the events described in the voiceover narration and in many respects substitute fo…

The Documentary Pretext

Tea Time
dir. Maite Alberdi, 2014, Chile
genre: longitudinal/observational-portrait documentary
screening free on PBS website through June 21

This is a type of documentary with an understandable hook - the juxtaposition of a documentary about Chilean culture and politics with an avowedly feminine and middle-class space of a domestic tea. And it combines a somewhat unusual observational style (heavy on tight framings) with a portraiture of engaging "characters," the women who are friends and keep in touch despite the changes that aging brings into their lives.

But one thing the film underscored for me is how one production convention of the doc is to create a situation to film. Nothing happens in Tea Time other than gatherings filmed by the filmmakers and possibly convened by the filmmakers. In other words, a documentary pretext organizes the filming and the profilmic. This is common to other films, as well, but Tea Time at times foregrounds this, using transition shots of the…

Conferences Summer 2016 edition

Here is my current list of English-language conferences of interest to those in film studies (and some for TV and media studies). Upcoming conferences are listed in order by date or, for open calls, by abstract due date. Please let me know if I should add anything.  I will update this post throughout the summer and early fall.

This is the slow season - lots of conferences being held, but few calls. The big exception of course is SCMS

Closed calls:
The Annual Conference of the Film Studies Association of Canada May 31 -June 2, 2016 the University of Calgary, Theme: “Energizing Communities” [website]
Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Images (SCSMI) Cornell Univ, Ithica, NY, June 1st – 4th, 2016 [website]
ICA - Fukuoka, Japan June 9-13, 2016 [website]
Console-ing Passions, Notre Dame University, Indiana, June 16-18, 2016 [website]
Screen - Univ of Glasgow, June 24-26, 2016 [website]
NECS - Potsdam, July 26-30, 2016 [website]
UFVA - Las Vegas, August 1-4, 2016 [website]
Visible …

CFP: Production Cultures


The Velvet Light Trap
Issue #80 - "Production Cultures"
Submission deadline: August 15, 2016
Submit to:

In the introduction to their edited book on production studies, Vicki Mayer, Miranda Banks, and John T. Caldwell argue that “the off-screen production of media is itself a cultural production, mythologized and branded much like the onscreen textual culture that media industries produce.” This has never been more true than in the current moment.

The production process – aided by the proliferation of social media – has become increasingly visible. Long before movies, games, comic book issues, or television series are released, audiences have already been exposed to, and have opined over, casting choices, false starts, locations, script drafts, and various other aspects of the production process. Additionally, the development of cinematic universes has caused the cultures of production to become increasingly complex, resulting i…

The Auteur Bias of History Textbooks

I will need to update my reviews of film history textbooks, but now that I'm wrapping up a semester of teaching a film history survey, I would like to circle back to two general complaints I've had about film history textbooks. First, they are often too completist and not well suited for many undergraduate pedagogical contexts. Second, they are often too auteur-oriented, listing major director after major director.

The good news is that I've been fairly happy with the book I've been using this semester, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon's A Short History of Film, which seems to have the right balance of coverage and concision. But even here, I can point to an example of the limitations of the auteur bias in textbooks.

I'm setting aside the bigger debates about auteurism here. What I mean is that the granularity of film lists and auteur profiles gets in the way of the bigger picture that a good film history survey can provide. In their discussion…

The Other Archive Effect

dir. Jonathan Perel, 2015, Argentina
Genre: Poetic; experimental documentary

In her book, The Archive Effect, Jaimie Baron argues that appropriated nonfiction footage, i.e. archival footage, relies on and invokes an archive effect, a spectatorial experience of presentness in relation to the cinematic past.

Here, as in the general use of the term “archive footage,” the archive is in fact any collection of older moving-image or audio-visual footage accessible. But watching Jonathan Perel’s Toponomy, I wondered about the other kind of archive, namely an official repository of documents in which a knowledge system provides an archival context for the documents’ meaning.  It’s not a hard and fast distinction, but in comparsion to the more official kinds of archiving, the loose invocation of the "archive" to refer to a totality of older moving-image material is different than localized archiving of such material.

Toponomy is structured in four segments, each corresponding …

Classical Hollywood SIG at SCMS Atlanta

This year will be the first for a new scholarly interest group (SIG) devoted to Classical Hollywood studies in SCMS. The following is information on the activities and meeting planned for the upcoming 2016 SMCS Conference in Atlanta.


The Atlanta conference will be the occasion of our first SIG meeting, on Saturday, April 2, 5:00pm, currently planned for Room 410. Given the packed schedule, it was impossible to avoid conflicts, but I tried to pick a day and time that most members would be able to make. The meeting will give a chance for members to meet in person and discuss the group's key business:

- Election of Co-chairs and a graduate student representative

- SIG priorities for 2016-17

- Social media presence

- Professional alliances

- Classical Hollywood scholarship news and announcements

After our annual meeting (6pm-ish), will have an informal happy hour gathering for those interested in sticking around. Gibney's Pub should be a convenient option, a block we…