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Archive for the 'Film' Category

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

William Guynn on Film’s Depiction of Historical Trauma

Unspeakable Histories. William Guynn

“Recovery of experience can be harrowing and is particularly so in films that speak about traumatic events in the catastrophic twentieth century. All the films evoke unresolved historical situations—unresolved for the communities that experienced them and for the historians who attempt to understand them—situations that continue to inflict individual and collective pain.”—William Guynn

The following is an interview with William Guynn, author of Unspeakable Histories: Film and the Experience of Catastrophe

Question: How does film portray history in ways that are unavailable to more conventional historical accounts

William Guynn: Unspeakable Histories is my second book on historical film. In the first, Writing History in Film, I wanted to show that film is capable of representing historical events, authentically and in its own terms. A good many historians are loath to take seriously any historical representation in film. Historical films, they contend, always lapse into the mode of fiction, and historians have plenty of evidence in the historical film genre to support their allegations. To make my argument, I selected a body of historical films to analyze which did not adhere to fictional models and did not fall back on the easy tactic of a dominant voice-over narration. What I found was that, unlike written history, these films used symbolic strategies and artful editing to transform the concrete images and sounds of film into the basic characters of historical narration: social groups, not individuals, involved in collective actions that occur in a space and time that is more cognitive than material.

I was very much aware that film does not lend itself easily to historical representation. Images are not words and have none of the discursive power of language. Indeed, the innovative forms developed by the filmmakers I studied subverted, so to speak, the relatively effortless narration of the fiction film. I began to ask myself: Is there another way that film can relate to the historical past? Is the medium, with its tangible connection to the world it “captures,” capable of depicting the past in modes that are even more authentic than what historical interpretation can give us?

Q: What was the role of Frank Ankersmit’s work in shaping your view of film’s possibility to represent history

WG: In Sublime Historical Experience, Ankersmit makes a radical gesture: he sections off the two putative components of historical discourse that historians had always considered inseparable. On one side he places historical interpretation—historiography proper—in which the historian, from his “objective” perspective, produces finished narratives extracted from bodies of facts. On the other side he exposes what supposedly lies “underneath”: raw experience, that immense domain infused with emotion and mood, historical sensation, to use Johan Huizinga’s concept. Liberated from the constraints of interpretation, Ankersmit suggests that experience can speak its own “language.” Indeed, that is what I found in the films discussed in Unspeakable Histories—where the return of the past occurs in fragmentary images and sounds, embedded in concrete places and subjected to the unfolding of time. Historical experience speaks in intuitive flashes, disturbingly primal and atavistic.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on films that speak about the catastrophic events of the twentieth century?

WG: Because those events are still alive! Despite the passage of time, the gradual disappearance of witnesses, and all that historians have written, the Holocaust, Stalinist atrocities in the West and the East, the brutal Pinochet coup d’état, the Cambodian and Indonesian genocides are still massively unresolved. Not only for those who experienced them directly but for the generations that inherit them. Historically speaking, trauma is a social possession. Footage of the Warsaw Ghetto shot by Nazi propagandists, for example, reawakens terror and desire in the hearts of survivors, who are driven to recover their experience through the concrete traces the images provide. And trauma can be contagious. Subsequent generations of Jews often share the victims’ sense of dread when confronted with the traces of a still living history. Moreover, these same images may burn in the consciousness of the spectator who is exposed to something like an unmediated experience of the past. Historiography orders and classifies events, but it cannot neutralize those events that continue to smolder in collective consciousness.

As W.G. Sebald eloquently suggests, the past is not over and done with; it lies in wait for us. It is enough to enter a courtyard in Paris neglected by time to be struck by objects from the past that protrude into our present—this Sebald gives as an example of a triggering experience. The films I study are full of objects that trigger such uncanny moments: a desacralized monastic church alive with the spiritual yearnings of Polish officers held prisoner there; solitary women combing the Atacama desert for the bones of their massacred loved ones; the desolate walls and the neon lights of a Khmer Rouge prison; the rooftop terrace where Indonesian gangsters murdered countless victims by garrottage.

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Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

Dismantling Fantasies of Consent and Violence: Three Excerpts from Hunting Girls

Hunting Girls

“From fairytales to pornography, popular culture is filled with girls and women, unconscious or sleeping, “enjoying” nonconsensual sex. And until we change our fantasies, it is going to be difficult to change our realities.” — Kelly Oliver

This week, our featured book is Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape, by Kelly Oliver. Today, we have a few excerpts for you, all of which testify to Kelly Oliver’s gift for drawing connections between literature, film, popular culture, and rape culture. In the first excerpt, Oliver traces a distressing (and frighteningly current) male fantasy back to a fourteenth-century Catalan tale. In the second excerpt, Oliver considers the fraught relationship between the law and consent, exposing the dangers of focusing on one moment of affirmative consent in what is, in fact, an ongoing negotiation between sexual subjects. Finally, in the third excerpt, Oliver examines certain representations in recent literature and film of girls who “give as good as they get,” and shows how these representations send mixed messages–are our Katniss Everdeens and Tris Priors feminist revenge fantasies, or do their actions on screen normalize and valorize violence toward women?

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Hunting Girls!

Excerpt 1

Excerpt 2

Excerpt 3

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

Girls as Trophies: Introducing “Hunting Girls”

Hunting Girls

“Life imitates art, and vice versa. Thus, art often revolves around the objectification and assault of girls and women. Unfortunately, increasingly, life imitates pornography, particularly creepshot photographs of unsuspecting girls and women. With uncanny regularity, college and university officials are discovering Facebook pages, and other social media, used by fraternities, or creepshooters off the street, to post photographs of women, sometimes unconscious, naked, or in compromising positions.” — Kelly Oliver

This week, our featured book is Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape, by Kelly Oliver. To start the week’s feature, we have excerpted part of Oliver’s introduction, in which she uses an episode of America’s Next Top Model from 2012 as a way into her discussion of how popular culture affects how women are both perceived and treated in reality.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Hunting Girls!

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

Book Giveaway! Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape

Hunting Girls

“Kelly Oliver’s brilliant analysis of how young girls’ path to womanhood is filled with beating, battery, abuse, and sexual assault is shocking and timely. Oliver’s meticulously researched volume moves back and forth between myths and fairy tales linked to rape, contemporary films, television shows and ads featuring violence to girls, along with studying rape culture, and ambiguities of ‘consent,’ on college campuses. It is essential reading, showing that women may not have liberated themselves after all.” — E. Ann Kaplan

This week, our featured book is Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape, by Kelly Oliver. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Hunting Girls. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, August 26th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Wednesday, August 17th, 2016

The Man in the Middle

Projecting Race

“Sponsored cinema – produced by governmental agencies, NGOs, and industry groups – is otherwise framed as the disposable other of film studies, lacking the aura of more conventional and artistically rendered films. And yet such works, thanks to their immediacy and ephemeral nature, help us recuperate lost or repressed historical experiences and thwart ingrained narratives about the uniqueness of present day dilemmas.” — Stephen Charbonneau

The following is a guest post from Stephen Charbonneau, author of Projecting Race: Postwar America, Civil Rights, and Documentary Film:

The Man in the Middle
By Stephen Charbonneau

Stan Hamilton (left) in The Man in the Middle (d. George Stoney, 1966)

It’s an unexpected moment in a police training film from the sixties. The film image features an African American youth organizer named Stan Hamilton from South Jamaica, Queens pleading with school officials to treat young people with respect, to “listen to them…and let them tell you…what may be the underlying causes” for the social unrest in their community. Additional footage unfolds featuring Hamilton with the 103rd Precinct’s Youth Outreach and Community Officer, James Wren, as the film’s narrator urgently calls for collaboration between police and “street level leaders.”

The scene comes from The Man in the Middle (1966), one of a handful of training films produced by George Stoney for various police departments in the sixties. While most police training films function as mere inscriptions of proper police behavior, Stoney’s film embraces contemporary documentary techniques to pressure the police audience for this film to see local activists as collaborators rather than adversaries. In the film South Jamaica is positioned as a community that reflects a national crisis. By 1966, American cities are torn asunder by entrenched inequalities around race and class. Many communities of color were bereft of redress as the realities of structural racism continued to hold strong even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This historical background fuels the film’s urgency to imagine a new paradigm of community policing, one that is collaborative and sees young African Americans as partners in resolving conflict.

The cinematography of the film is energetically spontaneous and improvisational, catching interactions as they occur. This approach compels the film to specify the historical actors documented: who they are, where they work, and the specific circumstances at hand. But it also – at times – modulates the representation of reality by moving it away from the ideal and towards the ambiguity of the real. Stoney’s film – particularly once it focuses on the 103rd Precinct – allows key moments of observation and participation to silence the narrator. Perhaps the most important scene in the film features Hamilton’s direct address to the camera. Seated in his office, surrounded by several young African Americans, Hamilton compels the film’s audience to see Jamaica through their eyes. As he speaks, he directs our attention to a series of photographs published in Life magazine.

Now when you speak of a police department here in Jamaica, you must look at it as young folks would…For example, here you have scenes in a magazine and just about every daily paper of police attitude and action done unto black folk throughout or somewhere in the United States. Now we’re not going to identify where in the United States, why in the United States, because this is no different – you understand? – to the viewer who sees this in South Jamaica. He isn’t going to worry whether it’s in Selma, Alabama or wherever. All he sees is [pointing at photos of riot police] there is a policeman, there is a dog, and there is abuse.

“There is a policeman, there is a dog, and there is abuse.” From The Man in the Middle

Hamilton’s use of the photograph compels the audience to see a reality they might not otherwise see, through the eyes of a young African American in South Jamaica. If showing us the photograph weren’t enough in and of itself, Hamilton specifically guides our look by pointing (‘there is a policeman, there is a dog, and there is abuse’). In doing so, the national scale of police violence and its inescapable racial inflections is both acknowledged and implicated at the local level of South Jamaica. For minority youth in Queens the events of Bloody Sunday in Selma are not bound by a particular geography. Rather, the ‘actions and attitudes’ exhibited by police in Selma traverse the country and constitute a national problem that links South Jamaica to other American cities. Lastly, the photographic spread draws our attention to mediation and the stakes of recording history as it happens. The imagery here retain their authenticity and document a crisis in process, one unfolding and overtaking the country at the moment of filming.

Nontheatrical films from the past – training films, community development films, educational films – have traditionally been overlooked (or mocked) for their presumed lack of artistry and utilitarian streak. Feature length documentaries and narrative films are the forms that are typically positioned as discrete works that endure. Sponsored cinema – produced by governmental agencies, NGOs, and industry groups – is otherwise framed as the disposable other of film studies, lacking the aura of more conventional and artistically rendered films. And yet such works, thanks to their immediacy and ephemeral nature, help us recuperate lost or repressed historical experiences and thwart ingrained narratives about the uniqueness of present day dilemmas.

The immediate visual evidence that has accompanied police abuse in recent years is echoed by an array of archival materials, like The Man in the Middle, that record and speak to a broader history of police misconduct towards persons of color. The experience of past police abuse in South Jamaica and the struggles highlighted in Stoney’s film were brought to the fore more recently in the mainstream media. A year and a half ago Eric L. Adams – Brooklyn Borough President and former police captain – authored a powerful op-ed for the New York Times, entitled “We Must Stop Police Abuse of Black Men” (12/4/14). While the piece closes with practical recommendations for curbing acts of police brutality towards African Americans, the opening is an unforgettable confessional about what it felt like to endure physical violence at the hands of police in South Jamaica, Queens as a fifteen-year-old: “I can recall it as if it were yesterday: looking into the toilet and seeing blood instead of urine. That was the aftermath of my first police encounter.” Adams was later determined to “make change from the inside by joining the police department,” although he encountered numerous cultural and institutional obstacles throughout his career. This testimony from the past echoes Hamilton’s pleas and contextualizes more recent acts of police abuse and violence as hallmarks of a long legacy of police abuse and distrust in communities of color.

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016

When Movies Were Theater — William Paul

When Movies Were Theater, William Paul

“If we can now divorce movies from any specific architectural space, we still need to see the extent to which architecture in the past not only shaped our individual experience of movies, but helped shape the movies themselves.”—William Paul

The following post is by William Paul, author of When Movies Were Theater: Architecture, Exhibition, and the Evolution of American Film:

I open When Movies Were Theater by describing my own experience of movies: “What does it mean to say, ‘I saw a movie last night’? When I first began teaching film studies about four decades ago, students and I shared a common understanding of this phrase. Nowadays, I’m uncertain. Where my imagination still determinedly conjures up visions of a theater at night, lights, lobbies, crowds, the student was more likely domestic, snugly ensconced in a dorm room with, in the not too distant past, a VCR, a DVD player, or, most recently, a laptop, tablet, or even a phone.

Previously, the actual experience of seeing a movie always meant something more than just seeing the film itself. In first-run theaters in the United States, it meant a luxurious waste of space, ornamentation and opulence in excess; it meant a full proscenium stage and curtains; and it meant balconies, loges, sometimes second balconies, and a sea of seats. In short, viewing a movie in the past was also an experience of architecture, an experience of both the film image and the grand theatrical space that contained it.

This primal experience of movies in a specific architectural context inevitably conditioned how I thought about them subsequently. This is most evident in a personal quirk: while I can easily forget the plot of a movie, I never forget where I saw it. More recently, the moving image seems to have liberated itself from a specific architectural space to float freely through every conceivable space. This change has made me ponder how context might determine text, the central concern my book.

When I was a child, downtown New Haven had four picture palaces. Dating back to the 1920s or earlier, all were fairly large-scale for a small city and designed for stage-show presentations as well as movies. These cavernous spaces held a special fascination for a small child, somewhere between formidable and embracing. The very size of the theaters made movies seem all the more magical, originating as an intense stream of cold white fire from some distant blinking star that could never be approached. The space of each theater created its own drama as every interior possessed its own character: the Italianate style and eerie purple lighting of the two Loew’s theaters, the burnished white and gold deco surfaces of the local Paramount, the looming dark brown Gothic of Warner’s Sherman (named after Roger), a complement to the Yale buildings only a few blocks away.

Like most people of my generation, my brightest moviegoing memories are inescapably attached to these large, luxurious spaces, making it easy to be¬come nostalgic over what today’s audiences are missing. The sheer scale of the architecture made these theaters quite simply more theatrical than our current movie venues. And it was scale that ignited a movie experience that remains brilliant in memory: when Bill Haley began to sing “Rock Around the Clock” under the opening title of Blackboard Jungle (1953), the first time rock music was heard in a Hollywood movie, the entire Loew’s Poli set to rocking, more than three thousand teenagers cheering, clapping, bouncing in their seats, and dancing in the aisles. Something of this sort might happen now at a rock concerts and sporting events, but here it was preamble to a dramatic narrative and shaped our experience of the narrative, creating a primal theater, theater as communal ritual.

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Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

Interview with William Paul, author of “When Movies Were Theater”

When Movies Were Theater, William Paul

“How to arrange a movie theater might seem a fairly simple matter: a projector at one end, a screen at the other, seats in between. But it turned out not to be so simple after all.”—William Paul

The following is an interview with William Paul, author of When Movies Were Theater: Architecture, Exhibition, and the Evolution of American Film:

Question: Nowadays, we are used to watching movies anywhere and everywhere. Why should the space in which we view a movie make any difference?

William Paul: Beginning with the rise of television in the 1950s, the moving image became progressively divorced from architecture, but before that movies were for the most part associated with a specific architectural form. Given that early movies ran for less than a minute, showing a collection of them in a row could fit very nicely into the modular programming of the vaudeville theater. And so, in the United States, movies initially became associated with vaudeville, with each of the short films in the collection chosen for the sake of variety. Consequently, variety became a strong concern in American film exhibition. With the decline of live performance in the sound period, variety nevertheless continued to be an important concern in movie exhibition: programs of short films and double bills, two features for the price of one, made up in variety what was lost in live performance. And variety might well have been a governing aesthetic in American film production, leading to odd things like song numbers in gangster films or in film noir.

Q: So, theater programming at the time had an impact on film exhibition, but in what ways did the space of the theater impact on movies?

WP: How to arrange a movie theater might seem a fairly simple matter: a projector at one end, a screen at the other, seats in between. But it turned out not to be so simple after all. Vaudeville theaters in the 1890s, for example, were built on the dominant horseshoe form, which put a large proportion of the audience at extreme angles to the movie screen. The early design for purpose-built movie theaters recognized the problem of side-view distortion by an understanding that long and narrow was the best configuration for viewing a flat image.

The increasing dominance of the feature film throughout the teens coincides with the building of the great movie palaces. Architecturally these invoked live-performance theaters, but on a scale that went far beyond anything used for drama. While the theaters built in Times Square in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century ranged from about 600 to 2,000 seats, the palaces ranged from 2,500 to 6,000 seats. These enormous sizes were based on the belief, actually mistaken, that the optics of the motion picture image presented the same view to every audience member and democratized theater in the process. While early film theory sought to distinguish movies from theater, the architecture of these spaces announced that movies were an extension of theater, drama for the masses. These theaters stressed the continuity between movies and live drama in one other regard: the screen was located upstage, anywhere from twelve to twenty feet back from the curtain line, and placed within a theatrical set rather than the now familiar black cloth surround. The set was often a variation on a window in a garden, with the window being replaced by a screen when the show began, but it also might be a set specifically related to the content of the feature film. So, for example, performances of Quo Vadis (1913) had the image surrounded by a set that invoked ancient Rome. Although the image would be the brightest area on the stage, the set would be visible throughout the show and necessarily had an impact on how movies were shot.

Q: Does this mean that the theaters impacted on film style?

WP: There is ample evidence, from contemporary observers as well as the films themselves, that these palaces did have an impact on the development of American film style. Even as the architectural spaces kept getting bigger and bigger, the screen itself remained fairly small in order to keep the image sharp and brightly illuminated. In the early store theaters and nickelodeons that preceded the rise of the feature film, the screens generally ran from twelve to fourteen feet wide. In the palaces the screens grew somewhat larger, ranging from twenty to twenty-four feet wide, but they would be located on stages with proscenium openings from about forty all the way up to one hundred feet. Aside from emphasizing the theatricality of movies, one of the functions of the “picture settings,” the theatrical sets that surrounded the film image, was to make the image seem less small by expanding the visual field. Locating this small image on a very large stage had a number of consequences, but let me isolate the most obvious one here: as the architectural spaces got progressively larger, the camera throughout the teens got progressively closer in. The resulting style which became dominant in the twenties privileged close-ups as a way of making story points or revealing character. Clearly this style was in part a consequence of the grand spaces in which these movies were shown.

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Monday, February 29th, 2016

The Story Behind “Spotlight” — Roy J. Harris on the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-Winning Story

Pulitzer's Gold

Before Spotlight, the movie, won the Oscar for Best Picture, the Boston Globe won the Pulitzer for its remarkable investigative journalism. Below is the chapter “Epiphany in Boston: 2003: The Globe and the Church,” from Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism, by Roy J. Harris. In the chapter, Harris examines the challenges confronted by the reporters and shares the perspectives of the reporters on confronting the Church:

Monday, January 4th, 2016

Book Giveaway! With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

“In three lively and beautifully written movements, Colin Dayan offers a memorable tour de force that threads together memoir and an analysis of the deprivations of life, human and nonhuman and human with nonhuman, that so pervasively characterize our neoliberal world-historical moment. Intelligent and moving, With Dogs at the Edge of Life is an extraordinary book, a courageous and compelling intermingling of arresting cultural critique and autobiographical reflections of a life lived in the company of canines.” — David L. Clark, McMaster University

This week, our featured book is With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of With Dogs at the Edge of Life. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, January 8th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Friday, September 4th, 2015

Emanuel Levy on the Politics of Gay Films

Gay Directors, Gay Films?

“All five filmmakers have spoken against reductionism—namely, the reduction of gay artists (and gay screen characters) to sexuality as the single, or most prominent, aspect that defines their personalities.”—Emanuel Levy

In the following excerpt from the conclusion of Gay Directors, Gay Films?: Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters, Emanuel Levy examines the political aspects of the directors’ work and their influences:

All five filmmakers have spoken against reductionism—namely, the reduction of gay artists (and gay screen characters) to sexuality as the single, or most prominent, aspect that defines their personalities. They have also refused to reproduce dominant stereotypes of homo­sexuals, such as the Sissy, the Suicidal Youth, the Gay Psychopath, the Seductive Androgyne, and the Bisexual. Instead, they have tried to present “more real” or “realistic” gay men and lesbians. They real­ize, as Anneke Smelik has suggested, that for straight viewers, using old, negative stereotypes confirms prejudice and that for gay specta­tors, their use might encourage fear, self-hatred, and anger. On the other hand, these directors also realize that presenting only positive images is not the solution and that images of gays and lesbians can­not be seen as simply “true” or “false.” Gay Directors, Gay Films? has focused on the social contexts and the conditions under which vari­ous entertainment institutions have created, maintained, and per­petuated ideological and cinematic stereotypes that gay directors have set out to challenge and abolish.

Aiming to establish connections between gays and other marginal­ized minorities, Haynes destabilizes the division between dominant and subordinate individuals by disturbing the usual space allotted to “others” in society’s broader structure. Like Almodóvar, he avoids any form of labeling because labeling permits those in power to feel secure and to perpetuate the status quo by drawing boundaries that separate those who have from those who have not. Moreover, to label is to judge, and to judge is to limit the range of possibilities of his characters and the range of interpretations of his viewers. No char­acter in his films can be adequately understood or fully contained through sexual labeling; in most cases, socioeconomic status is more important as a defining criterion. He empowers his disenfranchised individuals in fantasy worlds, which they create apart from their oppressors. In Poison, nothing that the jail’s wardens do can prevent the prisoners from engaging in imaginative sexual intercourse (a plot device that served as a climax in Martin Sherman’s Holocaust drama, Bent). In Velvet Goldmine, Arthur rehearses in his imagination the bold declaration of his sexuality to his parents.

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Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

Emanuel Levy on John Waters, Camp, and Pink Flamingos

John Waters, Divine

“From the start, Waters politicized camp, using it as a deliberate assault on mainstream culture. He employed gay camp as a counter-cultural means, as an oppositional standpoint and active force.”—Emanuel Levy

The following is an excerpt from Emanuel Levy’s chapter on John Waters from his new book: Gay Directors, Gay Films?: Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters. In it, Levy explores Waters’s notion of camp and his cult classic Pink Flamingos Also, at the bottom of the post is a recent photo of Levy and Waters!

The brand of camp that prevails in Waters’s output is what the scholar Barbara Klinger has called mass camp. Media products qualify for camp enjoyment because they exhibit exaggerated exotica in their historical outdatedness. Mass camp depends on a thorough knowledge of pop culture and a familiarity with the conventions of established genres (e.g., Mae West comedies, Busby Berkeley musicals). Mass camp sensibility does not necessarily result in a coherent rereading of a film—it’s more of a hit-or-miss sensibility. The viewers’ interaction with a particular text always bears some effects, but the effects may be temporary—that is, discernible only in the short run. Thematic and visual pleasures come in a sporadic manner as viewers dip in and out of a particular text, selecting specific moments: witty dialogue, quotable lines, lavish musical numbers, and physical appearances and costumes.

Gay camp usually relies on (or imitates) the hyperbole of movies and pop culture through overstated décor, fashion, and cross-dressing. In verbal terms, it’s reflected in quotations, mimicry, lip-synching, gender inversion, put-downs, and witty puns. Gay camp is of real value to its practitioners because it enables them to demonstrate their insider status, their very cultural existence, and often their superiority over straight outsiders, who don’t dig what they dig when they experience the same movie or TV show.

From the start, Waters politicized camp, using it as a deliberate assault on mainstream culture. He employed gay camp as a counter-cultural means, as an oppositional standpoint and active force. For him, camp attacks acceptable values, normal physical appearances, and conventional modes of behavior. It could be either a mild or a
radical rejection of essential tenets of traditional aesthetics. Waters’s brand of camp thrives on exaggeration, theatricality, and travesty, as is evident in the glorification of the characters in his texts and the particular actors who play them. The elements of his aesthetics are deemed cheap, sleazy, vulgar, and crude because the plots of his features transgress the bourgeois sense of decency and morality. Instead, they loudly extol bizarre and grotesque sexuality that’s considered appalling by standards of middle-class taste.

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Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Emanuel Levy on Todd Haynes’s “Carol”

In the following essay, Emanuel Levy, author of Gay Directors, Gay Films?: Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters, discusses Carol, Todd Haynes forthcoming film:

Carol, Todd Haynes’s sixth feature, is his most fully realized film to date. Now this is a bold statement to make about a director who has only made thematically and artistically interesting films, even if they didn’t always find appreciative audiences. The movie adds a striking panel to a small (only six features in twenty-five years) but distinguished oeuvre.

A logical follow-up to his former movies, Carol may also signal a new point of departure. For starters, Haynes didn’t originate this project, which has been around for a decade. At one point, John Crowly was to direct with Cate Blanchett and Mia Wasikowska. For another, it is the first film in which he wasn’t involved as writer or co-writer (he had collaborated with Oren Moverman). World premiering at the 2015 Cannes Film Fest, his second appearance there after Velvet Goldmine in 1998, the film was eagerly anticipated. Adapted to the screen by Phyllis Nagy, it’s based on The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, featuring two great actresses, Blanchett, fresh off from Oscar-winning turn in Blue Jasmine, and Rooney Mara, best known for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Though he didn’t write its script, Carol continues to explore ideas and characters that have preoccupied him over the past three decades. Like other indie directors—Soderbergh, David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, all roughly his age—Haynes is an auteur in the thematic rather than stylistic sense of this concept, as formulated by the great critic Andrew Sarris. Carol belongs to Haynes’ provocative films about deviance, all astringent explorations in theoretically infused feminist and queer cinema. Like most of his oeuvre, it deconstructs sexual politics, centering on role of the housewife. The 1995 critically acclaimed Safe offers a perceptive portrait of a San Fernando Valley housewife who’s a product of stifling suburban existence and rigid patriarchy. As a screen character, in class and emotional malaise, Carol, an elegant upper-middle class femme, is closer to the leisurely heroine of Far From Heaven than the protagonist of Mildred Pierce (Haynes’s HBO series).

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Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

An Interview with Emanuel Levy, author of “Gay Directors, Gay Films?”

Gay Directors? Gay Films?

The following is an interview with Emanuel Levy, author of Gay Directors, Gay Films?: Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters

Question: What was your motivation for writing this book?

Emanuel Levy: The notion that a distinctly gay gaze and a distinctly gay sensibility are reflected in the work of openly gay directors has not been thoroughly explored in the fields of cinema studies. Gay Directors, Gay Films? deals with one central issue: the effects of sexual orientation on the career, film output, and sensibility of five homosexual directors: Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, and John Waters. I wanted to show that these directors have perceived their sexual identities as outsiders in complex and varied ways, that the impact of sexual orientation may differ from one director to another and from one phase to another within the career of the same director.

Q: Please explain the book’s title and the question mark at the end?

EL: The book centers on five openly gay directors and their work, from the first film to the present. It raises a series of interesting, not easily answerable questions. Is there a distinctly gay mode of looking—gay gaze as it were—at social reality, at sexual politics? Do gay directors make specifically gay-themed films that are targeted at mostly gay audiences? How do we define a film as gay? By its explicit contents (text) and/or by its implicit meanings (subtext)? If a film contains one gay character, surrounded by straight figures, and does not deal with the standard issue of coming out (very popular in films of the 1980s and 1990s). These are some of the intriguing questions, which are theoretically-infused an and have pragmatic implications, that have guided me in this book, and are still at the center of film, feminist, and gay and queer studies.

Q: What was the perspective guiding your research and writing?

EL: I chose a comparative socio-cultural perspective, namely, placing these directors, their films, and their careers in the sociopolitical, ideological, and economic settings in which they have lived and worked. The five directors share two things in common, sexual orientation (they are all openly gay) and biological age, all five directors were born after World War II and thus belong to the same age cohort. At 69, Davies is the oldest, and Haynes, 53, is the youngest. In between, there are Van Sant, 62; Almodóvar, 65; and Waters, 68.

Q: Why did you choose these, and not other, directors?

EL: I wanted to examine the impact of national identity and indigenous culture on the film oeuvre of these directors, three of whom are American (Waters, Van Sant, and Haynes) and two European (Almodóvar (Spanish) and Davies(British)). Originally, the book proposal also included the gifted French director, Francois Ozon (Swimming Pool, 8 Women), but the scope of the research and space consideration (the book’s length) have presented some constraints.

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Monday, August 31st, 2015

Book Giveway! Gay Directors, Gay Films?

This week our featured book is Gay Directors, Gay Films?
Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters
by Emanuel Levy.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Gay Directors, Gay Films? to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, September 4 at 1:00 pm.

Molly Haskell writes, “An impressively informative treatment of five prominent gay directors who represent a wide range of differences within the gay spectrum. Emanuel Levy’s background in gay cinema, independent cinema, and traditional Hollywood cinema make him the ideal author for this significant and original study.”

For more on the book you can read the introduction:

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

Two Early Chicago Films Heading to Blu-Ray

The following post is by Michael Smith, co-author with Adam Selzer of Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry

In the introduction to Flickering Empire, Adam Selzer and I quote film scholar Susan Doll who said that it is Chicago’s “best kept secret” that it served as the nation’s filmmaking capital prior to the rise of Hollywood. That the vast majority of the films made in Chicago prior to 1920 have been either lost, destroyed or are otherwise difficult to see partly accounts for Chicago’s neglected status in the official film histories. Fortunately, the two most important Chicago-made silent films discussed in our book have both been recently restored and will receive re-releases on home video in HD in the next year. These releases will hopefully go some way towards giving Chicago the credit it deserves for the important role it played in our nation’s film history. The two films in question are:

His New Job—The one and only film Charlie Chaplin made in Chicago is this delightful 20-minute comedy short, the first he made for Essanay Studios (before fulfilling the rest of his contract at the company’s California branch). The plot sees Chaplin’s familiar “Little Tramp” character showing up to audition for a part in a movie at “Lodestone Studios.” The interior stages at Essanay in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood essentially play themselves as Lodestone and the movie thus becomes a fascinating peak into the process of silent moviemaking, at times achieving a near-documentary quality. The Tramp gets a job first as Production Assistant, then as a carpenter and finally as an extra in what appears to be a prestigious “period” film set in 19th century Russia. Of course, he wreaks havoc on the set and the entire production soon devolves into a state of slapstick anarchy. His New Job will be released on Blu-ray by Flicker Alley in Summer 2015. In the meantime, you can watch an unrestored version of the film here:

Within Our Gates—The earliest surviving feature film directed by an African American is this incendiary drama by the legendary Oscar Micheaux. Evelyn Preer plays Sylvia Landry, a young black woman from Chicago who tries to raise money to save a school for black children in the rural south. Micheaux’s story alternates between scenes taking place in the north and south as well as the past and the present in order to generate a suspenseful climax — a lengthy flashback to the events that led to Sylvia’s adoptive parents being lynched by an angry mob. This lynching scene is intercut with an equally horrifying scene where a villainous middle-aged white man attempts to rape the young Sylvia before recognizing a scar on her chest that identifies her as his own illegitimate daughter. The clever intercutting of this climax intentionally unpacks the racist ideology of the climax of D.W. Griffith’s similarly constructed The Birth of a Nation. Within Our Gates will be released on Blu-ray by Kino/Lorber in February 2016. In the meantime, you can watch an unrestored version of the film here:

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

Interview with Michael Glover Smith, Co-Author of “Flickering Empire (Part 2)

Flickering Empire, Michael Glover Smith and Adam Selzer

The following is the second part of our interview with Michael Glover Smith, co-author of Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry. (You can read part 1 here.)

Question: Oscar Micheaux also was part of Chicago’s film history. In what ways was Chicago important for the development of African-American or “race” movies?

Michael Glover Smith: A lot of the early films dealing with race offer “comical” racial stereotypes that are offensive. Even the first Essanay film, An Awful Skate, features a white actor in blackface makeup. William Foster, an enterprising African-American theater manager, founded the first black-owned film production company in 1910. Foster has been quoted as saying, “Nothing has been done so much to awaken race consciousness of the colored man in the nation as the motion picture. It has made him hungry to see himself.” In addition to the earliest shorts by the Foster Photoplay Company, Chicago was home to many other early “race films,” including Peter P. Jones’s The Slacker in 1917 and Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates in 1919. The latter, which we discuss at length in our book’s post-script, is the earliest surviving feature film directed by an African American. It’s not only a great film, it’s a rare and invaluable document of black American culture from that era.

Q: As you mention in the book, Chicago played a role in the censorship of films. What was the legacy of Major M.L.C. Funkhouser in determining what Americans saw at the movies?

MGS: Learning about the role of Chicago’s censorship board in doing research for the book was really eye-opening. The local censorship board, under the auspices of Funkhouser, was actually stricter than the national censorship board. There are a lot of fascinating and funny stories about the board and so that ended up becoming an entire chapter in our book. Funkhouser was reactionary in harshly censoring sex, violence and political content deemed inflammatory but he was also a politically corrupt hypocrite who would throw parties and screen the naughty bits that he had ordered cut from the films. He also allowed the Chicago Tribune to print descriptions of scenes that had been censored, which resulted in him getting favorable publicity from that particular paper. He was quite a character.

Q: So, what happened? What explains the decline of the Chicago film industry?

MGS: There were a complex combination of factors that resulted in the decline of Chicago’s film empire. But, basically, it can be reduced to: 1) the two major Chicago studios were part of the Motion Picture Patents Corporation (or MPPC), a trust that Edison had established in an attempt to monopolize the industry; this trust was sued and forced to disband by the U.S. Justice Department in 1913, 2) most of the independent (i.e., non-MPPC) filmmakers had fled to southern California in order to make movies as far away from Edison and his patent-enforcing “Goon Squad” as possible and 3) the weather and geography of southern California were ultimately deemed more conducive to year-round shooting than Chicago.

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Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

Interview with Michael Smith, co-author of “Flickering Empire”

Interview with Michael Smith, co-author of

“A lot of innovations came out of Chicago. There were a lot of ‘famous firsts’ for the American film industry and for movies as an art form—including the first pseudo-documentaries, the first two-reeler, the first slapstick comedy to feature a ‘pie-in-the-face-gag….’”—Michael Glover Smith

The following is part 1 of our interview with Michael Glover Smith, co-author of Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry:

Question: Why does Chicago get left out of the history of early cinema in America?

Michael Glover Smith: The story of American film production begins in New York and New Jersey (where Thomas Edison was headquartered) in the late 19th century. Hollywood didn’t really become the nation’s film-producing capital until about 1915. All official histories are somewhat reductive and I think it’s been convenient for scholars and historians to just skip over the story of Chicago’s contributions to film history, which mainly occurred in in the late 1900s and early 1910s. Even though the contributions of Chicago filmmakers were enormous by any objective standard, it was a fairly narrow window of time when the film industry in Chicago was at its peak and, also, the vast majority of Chicago-made films of that era no longer exist. They’ve been destroyed or lost and it’s never been fashionable to write about films that people can’t see.

Q: How does Chicago’s role in the development change the way we think about the history of movies in America?

MGS: I think a lot of innovations came out of Chicago. There were a lot of “famous firsts” for the American film industry and for movies as an art form—including the first pseudo-documentaries, the first two-reeler, the first slapstick comedy to feature a “pie-in-the-face-gag,” the first films made by African-American directors, etc. We give a rundown in the introduction to the book. It’s entirely possible that movies as we now know them would look very different if not for the contributions of studios like Essanay and Selig-Polyscope and also the independent filmmakers (especially the aforementioned black directors).

Q: What was the role of the 1893 Columbia Exhibit in popularizing film in Chicago and the rest of the country?

MGS: The World’s Fair of 1893 had an enormous influence on the developing film industry. There were several important prototypical movie-exhibition devices that premiered there—including Eadweard Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope and Otto Anschutz’s Tachyscope. A lot of the early Chicago filmmakers went to the Fair and were inspired to start making films based on what they saw.

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Monday, March 23rd, 2015

Book Giveaway! “Flickering Empire”

This week our featured book is Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry by Michael Glover Smith and Adam Selzer.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Flickering Empire to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, March 27th at 1:00 pm.

Flickering Empire tells the fascinating yet little-known story of how Chicago served as the unlikely capital of American film production in the years before the rise of Hollywood (1907-1913). Flickering Empire illustrates the rise and fall of the major Chicago movie studios in the mid-silent era (principally Essanay and Selig Polyscope). Colorful, larger-than-life historical figures, including Thomas Edison, Charlie Chaplin, Oscar Micheaux, and Orson Welles, are major players in the narrative—in addition to important though forgotten industry titans, such as “Colonel” William Selig, George Spoor, and Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson.

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Interview with Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler

Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler

“Up until 1938-1939, there were really no anti-Nazi films from the major Hollywood studios….For most of the 1930s, the major studios were missing in action.”—Thomas Doherty

The following interview with Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, which is now available in paperback:

Question: Hollywood celebrities today are associated with a variety of different social and political causes. How was the situation different then and how did it curtail film stars’ anti-Nazi activism?

Thomas Doherty: In the 1930s, motion picture stars were typically very timorous about expressing their political opinions in public, especially if the sentiments were in any way controversial or left of mainstream opinion. Why alienate a potential customer at the ticket window? For their part, the studio heads considered the stars their own personal property, not unlike the costumes and props in the studio warehouses. They didn’t want anything to deplete the value of their investments. At first, only the most stalwart and secure actors and actresses defied convention and broke ranks.

Q: What effect if any did their activism have on shaping American attitudes towards Hitler?

TD: It’s hard to say, but the anti-Nazi activism of popular stars like James Cagney, Melvyn Douglas, John Garfield, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford not only brought publicity to the cause but served to normalize the sentiments. The mere fact that movie stars—who more typically sold their faces for commercial endorsements—were now speaking out against Nazism, for free, made at least some people think about the reasons for the transition.

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Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Read Excerpts from the Diaries of Hollywood Legend Charles Brackett

It's the Pictures That Got Small

The following are some excerpt from Charles Brackett’s diaries, portions of which have been published in It’s the Pictures That Got Small: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age. Charles Brackett was the longtime writing partner of Billy Wilder. In the following passages he recounts working with Wilder and interactions with a variety of Hollywood notables.

August 18, 1936: Worked with Billy Wilder, who paces constantly, has over-extravagant ideas, but is stimulating. He has the blasé quality I have missed sadly in dear Frank Partos. He has humor—a kind of humor that sparks with mine.

[At this point, Charles Brackett adds the following note to the typed tran­scription of his diary.]

(It’s time to examine him as he was then: 32 years old, a slim young fellow with a merry face, particularly the upper half of it, the lower half of his face had other implications. But from his brisk nose up it was the face of a naughty cupid. Born some place in Poland [“half-an-hour from Vienna,” he used to say, “by telegraph.”] he has been brought up in Vienna and schooled there, the Lycée—which means he had just about the education of a bright American college graduate. He’d gone to Berlin, worked at various things, among others he’d been a dancer for hire at fashionable restaurants. And he’d written an article about his experiences in that capacity. He’d then become a successful screenwriter: Emil und die Detective [1931] was a delightful and successful picture he wrote.

Because he was Jewish and had an acute instinct for things that were going to happen, he had slipped out of Germany as Hitler began to rise.

In Paris he had written and directed a picture in which Danielle Darrieux played the lead. One great advantage was his: he had cut the teeth of his mind on motion pictures. He knew the great ones as he knew the classic books. He’d been brought to Hollywood by a German producer and set to work on Music in the Air. Music in the Air was a real abortion. After it ap­peared, other writing assignments were not easy to come by.

There was a time when, due to the protective affection of a woman who ran a conservative apartment house on Sunset Boulevard, he was allowed to sleep in the ladies’ room, provided he was out by the time the tenants began to appear.

Discouraged and just about to go back to New York, he called his agent to an­nounce his departure. His agent had been trying to get hold of him for days: he’d sold three stories.

This all sounds improbable, but it was the kind of improbability that was built into Billy Wilder. Before we were joined in collaboration, I’d known him as a jaunty young foreigner who worked on the fourth floor at Paramount, where I worked. He had been a collaborator of Don Hartman’s. Only one anecdote about him at that period sticks in my mind:

I’d gone to meet somebody with whom I was to have dinner in the Holly­wood Brown Derby. While I waited, Billy came in and I asked him to join me for a drink. As we sat together, the swing door was opened on the wintry evening to admit a luminous figure. “Look who’s coming in!” I breathed.

Billy gave a cursory glance over his shoulder. “Marlene!” he snorted. “That excites you?” I admitted that it did. “She’s old hat for us,” he said. “Let me tell you if the waiter were to wheel over a big covered dish with her in it stark naked, I’d say, ‘Not interested,’ and have him wheel her away.”

I was enormously impressed with this world-weary man. It wasn’t for years that I came to know that Marlene had been an idol of his, worshipped since he first saw her.)

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