Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Closing the door on a career in professional film criticism

I'm not a strong believer in meanings arising from cycles or circles in life, but it would be impossible to ignore the symmetry of recent activity on the film blogging circuit. About a week after a one of the great professional critics has entered the film blogging cycle (Roger Ebert), another will be departing. Today I heard the news of Matt Zoller Seitz's retirement from the print criticism; a shock to us all. It's not initially a comforting thought knowing that film criticism is losing one of its best practitioners, but after reading the conversation between him and Keith Uhlich, now the lone editor of The House Next Door, I feel only happiness for Matt as he enters a new stage in his life. His criticism won't be in print anymore, but it will be alive in his filmmaking.

Below is the comment I left for Matt over at The House Next Door:

"I guess there isn't too much I can say in the way of gratitude and best wishes that hasn't been said here already. But I would like to wish you the best of luck anyway! As many here have said, you will certainly be missed, and it's to our good fortunate that you'll still be around as a commenter and sometimes poster.

Unfortunately, I haven't participated as much in these forums/discussions as I would have liked. But if there's one thing I've learned from reading your work here and elsewhere, it's that this form of writing requires participation and devotion to accompany the written thoughts of one person. I have learned that this right here -- the community, the discussion, and the real-life critical dialogue -- is criticism. Like filmmaking, criticism is really a collaborative effort in some capacity, and I've learned that in my own writing, and especially in my initial visits to this site several years ago before I even knew what film blogging was.

I am saddened that you will be leaving this "great experiment"
[of blogging] that you've had such a strong hand in building. Although, much to my regret, we haven't interacted much over my time in the blogosphere, your comments on my blog and links here at The House mean a great deal to me. Knowing that you drop in over at my place from time to time, I consider it a privilage to keep pushing myself to be a responsible participant in this format of criticism. Who knows where we'll end up taking this thing, but whether you're actively part of it or not, you'll be a great presence in it."

Best of luck to you in your filmmaking endeavors, Matt! I look forward to your future criticism, whether that's in words or images. And don't forget, your comments are always welcome here.

Links and linkages: Michael Mann, George A. Romero, and Ben Stein

Although my own writing has been admittedly lacking of late, due to the unexpectedly steep rise of of academic, social, and personal engagements, there has been no shortage of great writing on the web. (I don't mean to suggest that film writing in the blogosphere is generally rising in quality; this is both impossible to support, and plainly a boring idea.) While browsing some of my blogroll links this morning, I found myself caught in a seemingly perpetual whirl of thought and response, link after link. Of course, I admire the consistent quality of all of those whose sites/blogs are linked on my blog, but rarely do I encounter an streaking crest of great writing about such different topics. Today, though, I had the benefit of wtinessing an influx of potent ideas and sensations. Aside from the lucidity of these writings/postings, many of the subjects discussed represent critical debates and filmmakers that personal significance to me, i.e. mediation and re-mediation, digital cinema, Michael Mann, George A. Romero, and, oh yeah... Ben Stein.

Below are some highlights and reflections:

First, I visited Reverse Shot (via the indispensible "Links for the Day" at The House Next Door), where this month's issue focuses exlusively on digital cinema. In particular, each article in the current issue focused on a filmmaker who has worked with film and digital video (or effects). Filmmakers covered include Robert Altman, David Lynch, Robert Zemeckis, Terrence Malick, and so on. I haven't gotten to all or even most of these yet, but I did read Ryland Walker Knight's essay on Michael Mann. I was drawn to it immediately for two reasons: First, Michael Mann's Miami Vice is one of the most significant movies in digital filmmaking, and contemporary cinema on the whole, so naturally I anticipate reading something about it. Second, Ryland Walker Knight is a unique voice in film blogger-demia. So forgive me for expecting to like this piece. Although it's short, Ryland's description of Mann's ability to shrink and expand cinematic space evokes similar sensations as the images themselves. His description of Mann's films is direct, yet elusive, capturing the director's binary fixation as well as his aesthetic fluidity. He writes:

"Mann does not move his (often handheld) camera for the same aesthetic reasons as always on-the-go Paul Greengrass, who means to splinter space; despite all that shattered glass in Collateral and those brutal shoot outs in Miami Vice, Mann’s cinema is after a boundlessness, not a fragmentation. Video affords Mann an endless skyline, where things collapse and collide, day or night."

Mann is a pioneer of DV in commercial cinema. His films are commercial in numbers only. He is essentially making hugely budgeted experimental films. Proving the cinema has very little to do with plot, Mann is making cinema "collapse and collide." It's not about digital or analog technologizing or storytelling, but a massive shift in the construction and consumption of images. For Mann, cinema is about sensation. Thought, memory, and experience are images drifting away in front, behind, within, and around you.

Ryland goes on to discuss Miami Vice, effectively evoking the sensuous nature of the film's images and sounds, and how it compresses and expands time:

"The whole opening sting sequence is characterized by this urgent dynamic, this insistent movement of bodies in space. One might see the entire film in miniature in this club: each body pushing its neighbor, everything tactile and in flux, compacted in Mann’s digital camera, speed not a byproduct of the mise-en-scène but a fact of life in this world of collapsed boundaries/spaces/timelines. Miami Vice is, by nature, a fast film. Mann rarely pauses and when he does it’s not for exposition—it’s to look outside the story (as if there is one) and its relentless movement (if not forward then sideways; never backwards). The most obvious moment of reflection comes early when Sonny looks out a window at the ocean and the sound drowns out for only one line of dialogue. Even rest ends quickly here. Where Collateral draws a single night out, stretching time forward, Miami Vice says “Time is luck” and stretches time in every direction, forcing viewers to play catch-up from the get go. (The “director’s cut” compromises the film’s argument by slowing things down.) The frame is collapsed not strictly in the climax but immediately, from the first shot—the field of the dancer and the splay of light behind her made one image—because of digital video’s omnivorous capabilities to devour light."

Digital images don't just devour light, but redefine its properties and effect. Miami Vice shatters the binary of form and content. It epitomizes digital culture and demands the viewer become an active participant in its processes of sensation. These processes seem to be elemental, and yet they are always mediated and situated by the fluxes of the greater culture of which one is apart. My own reflections on Miami Vice have been long in waiting, but whenever I do get around to offering my own opus on the film, I will likely be returning to this one.


The next article is from Steven Shaviro, whose academic prowess continues to inspire me. Although his ideas are often challenging and complex, he streamlines them in such a way that makes it seem easy. Typically, the intricacy of one's argument correlates with its presentation (in terms of complexity), but Shaviro has mastered the art of the argument and the art of writing so well, and his blog is evidence that academic writing isn't necessarily "for its own people," but can be both relevant and accessible. The cinema-related topics he discusses also helps in that regards, as he reviews films of all kinds and usually advocates a positively fresh perspective about them. (His gushing review of Southland Tales is particularly memorable.) His most recent posting is an in-depth analysis of George A. Romero's latest film, which, despite the best efforts of some critics, slipped into critical oblivion.

Sometimes, the selection of films that make it into the film criticism contemporary canon seems completely arbitrary, unfortunately, and Diary of the Dead is among the many interesting films that caught the short end of the stick, so to speak. That doesn't stop Shaviro, though. He rips through the film's themes, dynamics, and moments in one of the best pieces of criticism of an invidual films I've read in a while. He argues that the movie, despite its apparent broad thematic strokes, offers a nuanced perspective of media saturation in the digital age. Here is an excerpt:

"We have moved from being a “society of the spectacle” to being a society of participatory and interactive media. And Diary of the Dead is thinking about this change — not to say that the new media regime is either better or worse than what came before, but to try to delineate just how it is different. The great unitary spectacle of which Guy Debord wrote has been shattered, and replaced by new forms of distraction and activity in what Deleuze called the “society of control.” We are no longer passive, voyeuristic spectators; instead, we actively both give ourselves over to surveillance, and eagerly surveil (is that a word?) both others and ourselves. We fragment, multiply, and network both ourselves and whatever we encounter. This no longer falls under the dipolar schema of subject and object; but rather has the form of a network in which everyone and everything is a node. This also means that we have moved on from representation to simulation: instead of trying to capture the Real via mimesis, we actively produce bits and pieces of a reality that is directly composed of images, rather than merely being captured or reflected in images. The regime of simulacra is not an “extermination of the real” as Baudrillard claimed; it is rather a state in which the real is effectively being micro-produced and virally disseminated. In consequence, the real and the imaginary have become, as Deleuze puts it, “indiscernible”: reality pushes toward a “point of indiscernibility,” as a result of “the coalescence of the actual image and the virtual image, the image with two sides, actual and virtual at the same time” (Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 69). Every imaginary simulation becomes altogether real, even as every reality is dissolved in simulacral multiplication."

The most intriguing notion in this paragraph is that representation may have morphed into simulation, in the sense that the relationship of the signifier (representation) and that which it signifies (object of representation) is completely obliterated. We have endured innumerable waves of representation that it is now impossible to distinguish between the two. Subject / object relations, therefore, hold little significance in the debate of agency, identity, and culture.

Although the above quote is denesely theoretical and philosophical, you'd have to read the whole piece to understand that Shaviro seamlessly interweaves these concepts with his descriptions of the film itself. A true Deleuzian, he takes on the image in its most pure state and with complete disregard for easy distinctions.


Finally, the last piece I'll mention here is by Chuck Tyron (whom I had the pleasure of meeting at SCMS several weeks ago). His blog is a great source of a variety links on media and cultural affairs. From time to time, he will provide his own lengthy commentaries, sometims on individual films. His latest is a review of the new, pro-Intelligent Design documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, starring everyone's favorite pop intellectuallist, Ben Stein. Part of the reason I enjoyed reading this is that it was refreshing to read the perspective of a film and media scholar/critic rather than a so-called pundit. As many are aware journalistic critics were shut out of the movie, which picked up the bulk of its momentum from promotions on Fox News and others members of the so-called liberal news media. In the following excerpt, Tyron cites the film's biggest atrocity:

"The critique of the theory of evolution would be bad enough on its own, but Expelled is also one of the most transparently manipulative films I’ve ever seen, with Frankowski comparing an utterly homogeneous scientific community to the Communists and the Nazis at various points and referring to scientists who study evolution as “Darwinists,” as if Darwin is just another ideology on par with these political philosophies. One of the film’s structuring elements involves black-and-white footage of the building of the Berlin Wall alongside color stock footage of the major Washington, DC, landmarks in order to position intelligent designers on par with the founding fathers, Lincoln, and conservative hero Ronald Reagan, virtual freedom fighters on the front in the battle against tyranny and totalitarianism. Darwinism becomes or at least logically leads to eugenics, the film seems to argue, and Stein drops a couple of ominous passages from Darwin’s research to reinforce this point, as if all scientists accept Darwin’s theories to the letter. In fact, Expelled crosses a line that few films do in establishing its analogy between evolutionary theory and Hitler’s theories of eugenics by actually entering the concentration camps and showing the ovens where hundreds, if not thousands, of victims were cremated. Such a manipulative use of the Holocaust dead to score relatively cheap political points should not be tolerated."

In light of all of the anti-war, anti-corporation, and anti-Bush documentaries, I suppose it's natural that conservative fire back with their own ammunition. And pretty soon our film artists may embody the same rhetoric of politicians, meaning that film lover will be treated to hours and hours of slanted, essentialist views. This notion is fascinating, as is the booming popularity of these political documentaries. Opponents of this kind of filmmaking are arguing that filmmakers are abusing the term, "documentary," but, in my mind, that's the wrong argument to make. Of course, these are documentaries. Who ever said anything about documentaries representing objectivity? The images and information presented in them are situated and partial, but are often handled more recklessly than the situated, partial information within scientific literature.

More interesting is the notion that media are continually employed for exploitive ends, despite the capability of achieving so much more. New media provide us new ways of thinking. And yet, even in the most progressive atmosphere for the development of knowledge and media, a large majority of people seem to view media and knowledge as little more than a means to a political end. It's tragic, really. Documentary filmmaking is a rare art that demands empathy, vision, and immense courage from its makers, evident in films such as Helvetica, Manufactured Landscapes, and even the politically-charged (in terms of subject matter) Lake of Fire. Hopefully someday these are the types of movies stirring so much debate and interest. But if the current presidential campaign and media coverage is any indication, that day is a long way off.


Interestingly, the content of the above pieces --despite covering a diverse span of films and concepts-- oddly reflects the awkward phase we as film critics and cinephiles find ourselves in. Media are converging, morphing, and expanding in manners that challenge the structured, linear means by which we could previously separate and categorize knowledge, memory, and experience. As a medium constituted by countless other media, cinema is not just affected by these changes, but is the locus of that change. However, the subtle reminder with all of this talk of change that runs through all three of these articles is that although the landscape is changing, many of the same sociocultural conventions and assumptions are preserved in spite these morphings and alterations and sometime they are reified by these apparent changes.

Who would have thought a discussion Michael Mann, George Romero, and Ben Stein could ever result in such a twisted synthesis?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall... and most other women

With the recent success of Forgetting Sarah Marshall (unseen by me), Hollywood's love affair with Judd Apatow shows no signs of letting up. I must admit that the Apatow phenomenon interests me a great deal, but I don't count myself among the legion of critics who have deemed him one of the more important American filmmakers today. His films collectively make for great discussion about trends in current filmmaking, gender issues, and "the contemporary male," as can be seen in enormously interesting pieces written about them. (Most recently, Jim Emerson offered his thoughts on the Apatow machine. If you haven't read it, check it out.)

Despite the spirited discussion about this budding comedy auteur, there is something irksome about all of these Judd Apatow comedies that are now storming the multiplex, as well as with the critical reactions to them. I don't have a problem with Apatow's earlier films (as producer and director) individually --Anchorman is brilliant, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin is almost equally good, and Superbad was one of my favorite movies from last year-- but the more I think about them as an emerging brand of comedy entertainment, I am less interested in their individual virtues and more discouraged by the implications of the popularity of Judd Apatow.

David Edelstein hits the nail on the head in his review of Apatow's latest production, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which is getting great reviews from critics and audiences. Edelstein says:

What makes Apatow-produced sex comedies more vivid than most of their ilk is that they actually feature sex—awkward, relatively realistic sex—and that the men hit authentic notes of psychosexual weirdness. But even with bits that are crazily inspired, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is depressing. The Apatow Factory is too comfy with its workers’ arrested development to move the boundary posts. If they could find scripts by female writers that dramatize the other side of the Great Sexual Divide, it might be a place of joy—and embarrassed recognition—for everyone.

Despite their fixation on women and their honesty about sexuality, Apatow's films elucidate a sad reality that plagues both Hollywood filmmaking and mainstream film criticism: masculinity. Some (mostly female) critics picked up on this last year, when Apatow took over the summer with Knocked Up and Superbad. At the time, some critics weighed in with commentaries regarding the absence of Female in Apatow's work. This has been mostly shut down by Apatow defenders, who cited that his films frequently feature "strong" and "intelligent" women. And they do... right?

Aesthetics and formal film appreciation aside, Apatow's films are often cited as being progressive in matters of gender and (straight) male / female relations. And while they are not dastardly by any means, the problem some critics have with Apatow as much related to the overwhelming positive response to the films as the films themselves. Taken together, the movie are a reflection of the current state of affairs on gender, wherein commentators proclaim that so much progress is being made when that progress appears to be an illusion, as some critics have argued. That we are still referencing the roles of women as "strong" and "intelligent" is evidence of this.

No doubt, Apatow has a keen sense of comedy and character, but I'm not sure his movies or his current popularity reflects progress on the state of gender in cinema. If anything, it more clearly teeses it out. While the Apatow women are certainly "strong" and "intelligent," among other things, Edelstein is right to point out that they are still the object of the men's fixation, and not much more. Movies that reverse this scenario are mostly hypothetical, since they rarely get made. But if they were made, they'd be seen by few. When you have an honest movie about male sexuality involving women, it's a $100 million dollar smash; simply a successful movie with raw honesty about sex. But an honest movie about female sexuality involving men? Well, that's just a "chick flick."

Now, a more interesting perspective might be that Apatow's emotional, but fearing men --of women and growing up-- are byproducts of the patriarchal, male-dominant culture in which we all live, where movies about freaks and geeks who "get the girl" can achieve such popularity.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Roger the blogger

I was disheartened once again to hear the news that another setback has besieged Roger Ebert recently. The man doesn't seem to catch a break. In light of these events, I hope I am not alone in wishing him a safe a speedy recovery! But that's not the only story about Ebert that should catch our attention. Many of his readers and film bloggers alike will likely be pleased to see that Roger has officially joined the blogging circle of film critics -- making him one of several professional (and respected) film critics to begin writing in this medium.

As a blogger, I see this as great news, because it signals a peak in the movement to digitize film criticism; to re-calibrate and re-position it in the changing environment of cinema and journalism. I don't know what he plans to write about, or in what capacity he will be able to write for his new blog (entitled Roger Ebert's Journal), but I will look forward to his forthcoming contribution to the film blogging circle. Given the circumstances of his recent medical ailments, the blog may enable him to write more freely and openly than in the more structured and constricting format of writing several film reviews a week. But no matter how he decides to play in this world, his voice will almost certainly deepen the ever-growing dialogue amongst cinephiles and bloggers, professional and non-professional alike. As Matt Zoller Seitz remarked several weeks ago, blogging may not represent "the future" of criticism, but it is a necessary and tangible next step in the continued evolution of criticism. No one knows what lies on the horizon for film criticism, and although the ranks of professional criticism are currently shaken up, the increasing relevance and prominence of film blogging reminds that there is reason to hope.

Welcome, Roger, and I do hope you make it to your essential "Ebertfest" film festival.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

City of cinematic love

Although Philadelphia is not a premiere film city (which may have inexplicably contributed to why I've opted not to go to local events), it is becoming the center of some buzz on both the film production and studies fronts. But when it comes to events here in Philadelphia, I'll admit that I've squandered plenty of opportunities to reap their benefits and involve myself in the local film scene and University-sponsored film studies events. Only recently have I realized and subsequently taken advantage of the many film resources the city has to offer. Within the past six months I was fortunate enough to spread the word and even participate in a number events (where time allowed), from visits by Werner Herzog and Laura Mulvey at Penn, to the recent SCMS conference, and it's been very enriching to my study and appreciation of filmmaking and cinema studies.

For years I've wanted to attend a film festival. I managed to write about last year's Toronto Film Fest when that kicked off, but that was more of an outsider's take. I've wanted to become an insider; I just haven't found the time. But now I can finally add a film festival to the list. The 17th Philadelphia Film Festival just recently wrapped, and although I only made it for one day, I managed to see three very interesting films, one an American independent, another an Argentinian drama, and a particularly outlandish and psychoerotic horror film.

The first was Emily Hubley's feature debut, The Toe Tactic, starring Lily Rabe, Jane Lynch, and David Cross, among others. Hubley's background is in animated shorts and various other producer and designer animation in films such as Hedwig and the Angry Inch. She once again uses animation as a key narrative device in this film, which follows its central character, Mona, and her series of chance encounters with strangers, friends, and her deceased father. The film has a very independent feel in its compositions and editing patterns, but Hubley gets wonderful performances from the solid assembly of actors, which includes the wonderful Daniel London (Old Joy, Minority Report).

The animation sequences are absurdist, even child-like, and they feature a continuous dialogue among animals who are influencing the events of Mona's life. Juxtaposed with and woven through the live-action sequences, the animations lends itself nicely for surrealistic tone that Hubley creates within the free-flowing narrative design of the film. The problem is that Hubley's live-action compositions are somewhat stagnant, despite some moody lighting through the film. Also, while the film manages to be both straightforward and pleasantly disorienting, Hubley frames the majority of the story around Mona's grief over the death of her father; while this provides a nice visual flair to the picture, it doesn't stand strong enough as the central focal point of Mona's narrative and encounters.

The movie runs around 85 minutes, I would estimate, and it ultimately works because it has a unique airyness about it that was once a staple for innovative independent filmmaking in the 1990's, but which seems to have dwindled since then. Hubley captures a naive sense of wonderment and strangeness in her contrasts of random people meeting and the simple, but mesmerizing animation sequences. Were it not for the somewhat pedantic compositions and editing rhythms, however, the film would be far more memorable. As it is, The Toe Tactic is a pleasant, subtle film that probes the the idiosyncrasies of human connection and memory. Its simplicity grants it opportunity to explore those intricasies in fresh, inventive ways.

Next up was Ana Katz's A Stray Girlfriend, a film that has been on the festival circuit since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. Katz stars as a woman in her thirties who is abandoned by her boyfriend at a resort on the weekend of their anniversary vacation. The remainder of this short, 90-minute film intimately follows Katz in the days that follow at the resort, where she meets several people, calls her boyfriend non-stop, and nearly has a meltdown. It's a simple story, simply told with contemporary hand-held aesthetics. The film builds a natural atmosphere in terms of the characters and locations, and finds rhythm in small, quiet moments. An early scene at a night-time party in the woods is particularly evocative, capturing all the awkward discoveries one makes when in the company of complete strangers.

In the early scenes, A Stray Girlfriend is methodical and compelling. It has a distinct neorealistic tone that goes well hand-in-hand with the narrative of a lonely, almost desperate person. The film understates the loneliness and self-loathing of the central character, in doing so unlocking the space between the viewer and the woman. Unfortunately, however, I found myself less invested as the film went on. The pauses, silences, and expressions that hooked me so strong in the first half of the film lost a bit of their luster, not because "it doesn't go anywhere," but because it constricts itself to a particular path that is not nearly as compelling as when there was no path. The film's understated drama and comedy works so well when it focuses more on encounters rather than budding and fading relationships. Nevertheless, Katz's film is still one of small beauties, proving that there's nothing more cinematic than the human face.

Finally, I had the unique opportunity to see the world-debut of Frank Henonlotter's new film, Bad Biology, a twisted horror (romantic?) comedy involving a man and a woman who are seemingly blessed with overactive or oversized sexual organs. Jennifer has seven clitorises (clitori?). (She informs us of this in her rather blunt opening voiceover, "I was born with seven clits.") Due to her unique disposition, Jennifer can experience seven times the amount of pleasure during sex, causing her to often kill her sexual partners in a fit of sexual ecstacy; if it's not during sex, the murder immediately follows, since her emotional state can be fragile as well. But that's not all. Because of her sped up reproductive processes, she then gives birth to "mutant" baby, which she either throws in a trash can or in a bath tub.

The plot becomes more unbelievable as it goes on, especially when it introduced the plot thread involving Tom, a man with an uncontrollably large penis. While most men might be envious, Tom cannot live with himself because, simply put, it has a mind of its own. Jennifer and Tom's conditions reveal themselves to be a curse for both individuals, until they finally meet in a climax --pun intended-- of epic proportions.

With this film, I was expecting something more along the lines of May, inasmuch that the material seemed to lend itself nicely to commentary on sex, gender, and violence. Although the film had a strong recurring theme of addiction, it was ultimately more content only to suggest such commentaries in passing and focus more on the absurdity of the tale. The packed house (of presumably horror afficianados) seemed to enjoy the film more as a comedy than anything. It definitely provides a fair share of laughter and gross-out gags, but rarely does it amount to much more. What irks me about that is that it's a much smarter film than one would expect in light of its content. The undercurrents of addiction are perhaps most intriguing.

I have never seen Henonlotter's previous films, but having seen his latest film, I now understand why his films have gained a cult status. Bad Biology wears the "bad horror movie" label with pride, but it provides enough shocks and comedic insights that save it from being the abomination that I'm sure many filmgoers would deem it. But perhaps the highest compliment one can give it is that there is nothing else like it. When Henonlotter introduced the film, he summed up it up best. He said, "I hope you laugh, and I hope you're appalled. Enjoy."


Overall, I'd say my day at the festival was a very good one, especially as a first-time festival experience. I saw three very different films, none of which were brilliant, but none which were loathesome. Two of the three films were followed by Q&A sessions with the directors, which is always an added plus. I wish I had attended more screenings, but I guess part of the beauty and frustration of film festivals is that you can never see everything that looks worthwhile. As I noted at the beginning of the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, the fact that one can only see so many films is what makes festival-going so fun.

"What I've learned about TIFF as an outsider is that the festival is sort of a microcosm for (or physical representation of) cinema. A critic or film lover can only see so many movies, and the list of movies that one person sees will differ from the next, despite probably sharing a few. What you have are a bunch of different people seeing different films, all with the potential to inform each other with their own unique experiences with them."

Monday, April 7, 2008

Kong at 75

For some, it marks the beginning of Man's curious, sexual gaze upon Woman on film. For others, it signifies everything absurdly perfect about a narrative brought to life through sight and sound. Studied, analyzed, and debated heavily to this day, King Kong is the personification of cinematic fantasy. Seventy-five years after its theatrical release, it remains one of the most influential, awesome visions committed to celluloid. It is a massive spectacle, an unfiltered vision of American capitalism, racism, and masculinity, and one of the great, defining treasures of this medium. For better or worse, King Kong has been cinema's own for 75 years.

A blogger amongst scholars (SCMS Part II)

As I said in the first account of my experiences at the Society of Cinema and Media Studies annual conference, my day at the meeting was was so overwhelming that it was almost too much to process all at once. I wish I had been there for a couple of days, if only to digest all the lectures, workshops and encounters. But I had just one day. And at the end of that day (4:00 PM), I was to present first in a workshop called The Presence of Pleasure: The Work of Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction. I was asked on to the panel by co-chairs Scott Balcerzak and Jason Sperb, who were seeking the input of a "prominent, academic blogger," even though I may boldly disagree that I am academic or prominent. Nevertheless, I was more than honored to receive the invitation, if a bit nervous. Panel members included myself, Jason and Scott, as well as Catherine Russell and Robert Burgoyne, both respected figures in film scholarship.

As both a student and as a blogger, I felt out of my league. But my presence alone at this workshop may be a reflection of some of the issues I've decided to talk about. Unlike most other presentations on the workshop, each of whom took on the notion of cinephilia in a uniquely focused manner, I elected to speak more broadly about the institutional frameworks that influence the variety of outlets for film criticism. Connecting this discussion with distinct proposal for a kind of digital criticism, i.e. blogging, I tried to examine specific film criticism both as a practice and as a concept, specifically addressing the question of what defines film criticism at all. What interested me most in this discussion was the odd prominence of binary structures in influencing forms of content and expression of film criticism. Working from the idea that film criticism splits into two kinds --academic and journalistic-- I examined the rhetorical and critical styles of both, as well as their respective interfaces and formats.

Given that this was a workshop, presentations were expected to be shorter and so I spoke for about 15 minutes roughly on these topics. While I tried to cover as much as possible in outlining the odd place within which blogging is situated as a medium for communication and a possible model for film criticism, ultimately, I could only introduce a lot of these concepts. My development of them will probably take place over time, perhaps in my thesis preparation and proposal next semester. But for the moment, at least, I had to keep it broad and simple. Which was extremely difficult to do because I was appealing to a particular audience with my presentation. I didn't adopt a distinctly academic or journalistic rhetorical style, and many of my observations I was able to make because of my unique involvement in many facets of film journalism and criticism, as both a reader and performer. I was more interested in the inter-relations among the variety of film criticism modalities, which is not a discussion in which many film enthusiasts seem interested. Depending on our training and expertise, many of us can address conflicts and issues within a particular body of criticism, which is useful and important, but to understand the larger social policies of film criticism, one must extend that discussion to external factors.

As it turns out, varying levels of professional criticism are not just at war with themselves --i.e.. journalistic criticism becoming ever-cutthroat, and academic criticism factioned off into so many theoretical viewpoints-- but also with each other. Academic critics rip into journalistic critics routinely, critiquing their critical values and structures. The same is true vice versa. So what we have are a number of "pockets" of film criticism, each with its own language and rhetoric, engaging views that are designed to fit that scheme (positively or negatively). These are concepts I mentioned in a blog post last October, in which I made many sweeping, mostly unfounded claims, but may have found the beginnings of a larger, more signicant argument:

"[T]he end result is a spectrum of sectioned off critics, scholars, and writers, all subscribing to different norms and practices within that larger spectrum, engaged in masturbatory dialogue wherein those who subscribe to the same theories, views, and opinions love the sound of their own voice, and those who disagree simply do not associate. And never once is the makeup of that larger spectrum that keeps them so divided ever challenged."

These systems have been in interaction for quite some time, as each has evolved over many decades and developed their own styles and sub-styles of critical commentary and theorizing. So how does blogging situate in this discussion? Rather intriguingly, it seems. The following paragraphs strike more to the core of my argument, or at least my articulation of the problem:

"These pockets of film writing culture rarely breach other, but they have nearly unanimously made certain to frame the debate over web discourse and critical validity as if it must "earn" some respect via the same means that enables published writers to lay come claim to validity or qualitification. The blogging debate is continually engaged on the level of asking the question as to digital democracy, which is indicative of publishing trends that too many writers and readers have bought into. Proponents of digital media and blogging are forced to enter the dialogue by defending this supposed wasteland that is the internet. In doing so, they are immediately handicapping themselves to the dominant underlying assumptions as set forth by published writing. The only way of seemingly entering this dialogue is to accept the pre-established position of skepticism regarding digital media and web interaction.

That's not to say that blogging is a "whole new realm", since this too is a rhetorical device emerging as the fierce alternative to the "internet is inherently bad" mindset that permeates the debate. Those who blindly sing the praises of the internet, hailing it as a bold new medium of communication, are essentially playing right into a dominant deology to which they are positioning themselves in direct contrast, thus sustaining a binary level of discourse that is required to preserve that ideology."

I expanded on this notion, in particular, observing that blogging as a form of criticism subject to many of the same problems and conflicts of the existing models of criticism, plus a whole other series of questions with regards to its status as a discursive medium. Speaking more to the connection of blogging and professional criticism, I noted that the model of journalistic/academic has undeniable set the course of criticism, and that won’t change. Digital criticism doesn’t displace other forms of criticism. It should, however, changes how they function and facilitates growth via reflexivity and re-calibrates our modes of vision and analysis for the ever-changing medium of cinema.

For instance, it is possible that the blog embodies a more immediate, flawed, and urgent criticism, one that is arguably more in-demand given the shear amount of cinema that is now available to critics and consumers. Of course, we need to take care not to resort to the "brand new frontier" approach and claim the blog as the site where true critical democracy lives. This is dangerous rhetoric, because, after all, the majority of blogs offer no insights or perspectives than that of mainstream journalistic criticism. Some do, definitely, but the majority of them do not. Furthermore, as Matt Zoller Seitz recently pointed out in a discussion over at the House Next Door about the fragile state of journalistic criticism, the only blogs with high readership and prominence are ones that are commercialized, displaying the same homogenized styles of the media to which they should be an alternative. On my best day here on this blog, I may get 300 hits, most of which come from image searches.

But getting back to this notion of the immediate, flawed, and urgent criticism I mentioned at the beginning of the last paragraph, there seems to be something developing on the non-commercial blogging front that's particularly interesting. For bloggers with or without professional experience, the blog in many ways represents the sort of bare bones criticism that is sorely needed. It's criticism without the gloss and glean of the finished product. it's more about the process of engaging ideas and challenging concepts, wherein we all the flaws of the perspectives are on display. But if we don't engage perspectives at this stage, we would become too attached with the conventional theories and styles of criticism that have become so internalized amongst professional critics of all types; which may partly account for the degree of fierce division I mentioned earlier. With the blog, we are seeing an erasure of line of professionalism between so-called "critics" and "cinephiles." With digital criticism, the meaning of those terms is not all that far off, and depending on your position as a critic and/or cinephile, your comfort with this notion will vary.


These were a few of my talking points during my presentation. In retrospect, I wish I had provided a more focused argument about the state of film criticism, because it felt like I was rushing through a lot of it. But when you're dealing with a subject matter such as this, there's no easy way to streamline it. Regarding the discussion afterwards, I should first note that it was a pleasure meeting some fellow bloggers: Jason and Scott, obviously, but I also met Zach Campbell and Chuck Tyron, with whom I talked further about blogging and criticism. I was also struck with the amount of attendees who were almost completely oblivious to the goings on of the film blogging community, let alone journalistic crticism. The disparity of reactions --from those who have not read a blog to those who do so adamantly-- is fascinating, as some of perspectives from those who have "dabbled" on blogs seemed to embody that academic elitisim of which I was so critical. The responses from people who do not associate with journalistic criticism, or the internet for that matter were equally interesting as firsthand evidence of a popular critique of blogs as a self-enclosed community lacking relevance to the overall discussion of film criticism. Although I did discuss the question of relevance earlier in my talk, I wish I was able to articulate my concerns about it; because it's a question not only facing bloggers, but film writers of all kinds.

Despite my own shortcomings and feeling like we only scractched the surface, I was pleased with the presentation and discussions. As I said, the goal was to illuminate central questions and concerns facing critics and cinephiles of all professional backgrounds as we move into the digital age of cinema and criticism. I've tried to explain why it’s become essential that we evaluate different modes of criticism and cinema, as well as the implications for the ever-changing relationship of cinema and criticism. Catherine Russell's comment regarding who specifically is writing for blogs is one we will always have to deal with, but as myself and others pointed out, the more serious (i.e. smaller) circles of film critic blogs are not as male-, white- dominated as one would think. Again, though, these are concerns for all of criticism, not just blogs. The willingness to raise skeptical questions about blogging demonstrates, in my mind, the "otherization" of new forms of discourse, wherein blogs and other new media must rise to the standards of established modes of communication. These concerns are absolutely essential to any discussion of the blog's validity as criticism.

One of central concepts in Gilles Deleuze's writing that informed his increasingly relevant and indispensible logic of cinema is the notion that people should become foriegners to their own language, as well as multilingual with their use of language. Deleuze routinely spoke of making language "stutter," of forming new relations within our systems of signification. That includes not just language, but all media. In doing so, we may thus understand movement in the more nuanced way it demands. This idea applies to cinema, but also to discourse and criticism. We shouldn't be looking outside the binary of academic / journlistic model of criticism, but within it. We need to find the "lines in between," as Deleuze might say. For that is the essence of digital cinema, criticism, and culture.

Moving ahead and advancing these Deleuzian notions of digital criticism will not be easy, since that would requires a fair amount of reflexivity about what we do as film spectators and critics. But if we expect to enact a digital criticism that transcends discursive formats and technological capacities of media, that reflexivity is necessary.

I’ve always thought of criticism as a discovery of thought and ideas, not a vehicle for conveying them. Good criticism, like good art, is always in the process of constructing itself. Like the cinematic image, criticism should be in the perpetual state of becoming. Sometimes all that separates critics and cinephiles is the rhetoric associated with them. And as digital culture and media become more constitutive of our critical, analytical, and professional capacities, we must constantly challenge ourselves to widen our perspective and understanding of the media with which we actively construct these models of criticism.

We are all students of cinema, and our own perspectives will grow only when we are open not just to new perspectives in criticism, but also new modes of it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Laura Mulvey and other film events in Philly

As those who follow the academic side of film criticism know, Laura Mulvey is a distinguished figure in film theory. Her development of psychoanalytic film theory greatly influenced a whole body of thought and research in the areas of gender, representation, and cinema, starting with the seminal essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975). Although my most recent project critiques her theories as functioning among the very modes of representation and analytical frameworks that she seeks to bring down, Mulvey's importance as a feminist and a film scholar has left an indelible mark on cinema studies and enabled the development of a variety of feminist film theories over the past three decades.

She is currently in Philadelphia, participating in a lecture series at the University of Pennsylvania.

Here is the information from Penn's Cinema Series web page:

Tuesday, April 1, 3:00 pm

Penn Cinema Distinguished international Scholar Series Presents


Lecture on Kiarostami's transition to the digital

401 Fisher Bennett-Hall
3440 Walnut Street
University of Pennsylvania
Tuesday, April 1, 7:00 pm

Penn Cinema Distinguished international Scholar Series Presents


Public screening of Riddles of the Sphinx,
Frida Kahlo & Tina Modotti, and Amy!

International House
3701 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
Tuesday, April 1, 8:00 pm


You Talking To Me? America Remakes Movies... a film series

Wings of Desire
Wim Wenders, Germany, 1987

Sky Lounge Harrison College House
3910 Irving Street
University of Pennsylvania
Wednesday, April 2, 5:00 pm

Fourth Annual Film and Pedagogy Colloquium

Laura Mulvey on Teaching Formal Film Analysis
William Boddy on Teaching Television Studies

401 Fisher Bennett-Hall
3440 Walnut Street
University of Pennsylvania Thursday, April 3, 5:00 pm

Penn Cinema Distinguished international Scholar Series Presents


Lecture on Under the Skin of the City

111 Annenberg School for Communication
3620 Walnut Street
University of Pennsylvania

This marks the second impressive catch for this quickly up-and-coming program, which also featured a series on Werner Herzog for several nights last Fall. (Although I regrettably missed out on seeing Herzog talk, I did catch a screening of his latest movie, Encounters at the End of the World.)

Unfortunately, I won't make it to this lecture series. But for those in the Philadelphia area with an interest in film studies, I strongly encourage attending. Besides, it's free! Distinguished Scholar Lectures just don't get much better than that. It's sort of like a pre-Festival treat for film lovers in Philly.

Which reminds me: I will be attending the Philadelphia Film Festival this coming Saturday. Anyone interested in meeting downtown, let me know.

Losing my SCMS virginity (Part I)

I have been in graduate school for two and a half years, and I regret to admit that (until recently) I have not attended an academic conference in media or communication studies. I've read abstracts, paged through programs, and read reports, but I've never actually been to one. Had I not been asked by bloggers and PhD students Scott Balcerzak and Jason Sperb of Dr. Mabuse's Kaleidoscope, I still would not have been to one. Being only a part-time student with a full time job makes traveling and preparing a presentation unrealistic in most cases. But with Society of Cinema and Media Studies annual conference taking place in my hometown of Philadelphia this year, and having the unique opportunity of being asked onto a workshop panel (which I will discuss in my second of two posts on SCMS), the situation was ideal for my first conference attendance and presentation.

The workshop in which I participated was slated to begin at 4:00 pm on Saturday, March 8th, but I arrived at the conference around 10:30 in the morning so as to gain familiarity with the atmosphere of the participants, attendees, and the minglings in the hallways. I made sure to attend a variety of panel presentations to get a sense of the overall flavor of the conference -- its academic and social policies. Although I initially paged through the program with the intention of attending as many panels as possible with presenters whose work I've read, I stuck to my guns and wandered in and out of different presentations.

I brief poked in to a panel on documentary filmmaking, entitled "Claiming the Real: Documentary as Practice." Chaired by Shilyh Warren of Duke University, this panel examined the ways in which documentary filmmaking not only provides voice, but enables a kind of agency that is elsewhere non-existent, such as in mainstream news media. I didn't stay long, but found the presentations provocative, especially in light of my increased viewings of documentaries, which are desperately in need of greater study, not so much as a separate kind of cinema, i.e. Cinema B to narrative cinema's Cinema A. Documentaries are wide-ranging, and very accessible now. As more films become available and more people become aware of them, it's nice to know there is a devoted body of scholarship out there. It's not my focus of study, but it's one that interests me greatly, as it should any student of cinema.

I then attended a textbook writing workshop, where Louise Spence, Jeremy Butler, Kristin Thompson and others gleaned social and economic issues of text book writing. I felt I was in the company of other text book writers, mostly, which is a shame because I found their dialogue especially enlightening. The central question that kept coming up was, "How can text book writing remain relevant?" and it's an important one for non-text book writers because text books are the vehicles through which professors teach. They are physical manifestations of canonized film criticism. Writing one requires great care and knowledge, even though none of the topics discussed in these books do not provide the in-depth commentary to which most text book writers and other film professors are accustomed. Their design is such that real, analytical film criticism is not possible. And yet they are utterly essential as tools for guiding and reflecting the pulse of film scholarship.

One of my very favorite lectures from the conference was the panel entitled "More Notes on Soundtracks," chaired by Carol Vernalis, who, despite proudly "taking on Bordwell" (in her own words), was arguably the least interesting of the four presentations. Her central premise --that "music video aesthetics" represent a new kind of cinematic aesthetic, one that is less based on intensified variations of continuity established by classical cinema-- is intriguing, but ultimately works better as a conceptual model than the proposal for a new direction in sound and image studies. What she fails to consider, in my judgment, is that there may be an inherent rhythm to cinematic images made in the classical tradition, with or without music. I'm sure she didn't present her whole thesis, and that time did not allow her to really articulate this music video aesthetics model. But, however interesting it was, it seems that she, like many contemporary scholars, is too quick to draw a line between contemporary aesthetics and classical aesthetics.

Also on that panel, Jeff Smith examined the significance of music in cinema, specifically detailing the function of music and the manners in which film scores are situated in a film depending on the genre, time period, and setting. His exploration of the deviation from the classic tradition of symphonic film scoring was very noteworthy, especially in an age of pop cinema in which the film score is but a distant memory.

Finally, I attended Malcom Turvey's panel on Noel Carrol's influential work in cognitivism, Mystifying Movies, which featured two wonderfully articulate presentations (neither by Carroll himself, who spoke after them) on contemporary film theory. Turvey's analysis of cognitivism and critique of criticism aimed at it was challenging and provocative. In particular, his musings on the spatiotemporality of cinema I found most interesting. He noted that most scholarship seeking to overturn the common bias of space over time to favor time over space ultimately fails because it presupposed a spatial order within which any conception of time is brought forth.

The last panel, on Carroll's Mystifying Movies was one of the few panels providing an in-depth look into film form. I'm not referring to neoformalism or cognitivism, specifically, when I invoke the term "film form." I use the term as a broader notion for the audiovisual relations of cinema. Where a great deal of scholarship seems to look at form of content, there seems to be little of it (at least at this conference) focused on forms of expression, and the relationship between forms of expression and forms of content. Too often that binary is honored in film scholarship, as if form and content can be isolated from one another.

Despite this qualm, I was overall mostly impressed with the diversity of the presentations, even though I didn't see 90 percent of them. Paging through the program gave me a sense of the overall conference, especially when situated against the panels I did attend. One of the panels on Sunday I would have loved to attend was the panel entitled, Untimely Bodies: Towards a Comparative Film Theory of Human Figures, Temporalities, and Visibilities.” Steven Shaviro, a respondent on the panel, recently posted his three-page piece from the panel on his blog. Having read it, I only wish more that I had attended this panel on Sunday. Here is an excerpt from his presentation:

"The speakers on this panel all point, in one way or another, to the hauntological dimension of the movies. They testify to the ways that -- as Gilles Deleuze puts it in a different context -- the cinematic image is never simply in the present: for it contains, rolled up within it, virtual dimensions of pastness and futurity. But beyond this, they suggest that film is itself the hauntological art par excellence. It is not just that a certain practice of cinema might be described as hauntological; but more importantly that hauntology itself, in its evanescent yet more-than-real spectrality, is inherently cinematic. Film does not capture and reproduce the real, so much as it always already haunts reality, sapping its apparent solidity from within. Film is implicitly an art of specters: of what Brian Wall calls “spirit,” and what Chika Kinoshita designates as “the passive regime of the image.” The presence of the movie star involves an uncanny doubling of physical presence and ghostly evanescence, of fiction and lived experience, as Prakash Younger shows in his discussion of the career of Meena Kumari. In the most general sense, and from its nineteenth-century origins to its twenty-first century actuality, cinema is most essentially what Tom Gunning describes as a phantasmagoria of “invisible bodies” and “intangible images.”


I discuss Tom Gunning's talk last, because it engages in a more general consideration of the issues that the other three panelists raised in relation to specific films. Gunning traces the ways that spectrality has been crucial to film from its very beginnings. The familiar concern with vision and the gaze, with the powers of surveillance and visual control, has always been doubled and undermined, within the cinematic apparatus itself, by the play and display of a resistant opacity. The very thickness of material reality disrupts the perspectival organization of the world by the gaze. Material density and embodied vision find their correlates in “a rhetoric of invisibility and a very complex form of disembodiment.” This is less paradoxical than it might seem at first. For the depth of bodies – and one might also say the sheer givenness of matter, or of what we characterize as “objects” – exceeds and exhausts the capacity of even the most phallic and penetrating gaze. Or to make the same point in an entirely different register, the temporality of the body-as-image is irreducible to the spatializing logic of “the model of vision as total transparency and surveillance.” which Gunning rightly dismisses as an “ultimate fantasy of totalitarianism,” but never an actuality.

What's crucial to Gunning's account, as to those of all the speakers on this panel, is the way that invisibility, impalpability, disappearance, and disembodiment are by no means opposed to an insistence, not just upon the materiality of the film itself, and of the cinematic apparatus, but also upon the embodiment of the spectator, and the materiality of the images or bodies or things that appear onscreen. That is to say, spectrality is not an effect of “lack,” or of the supposed gap between representation and its referent. Rather, we encounter the specter at the very heart of materiality and presence. Or – if a phenomenological manner of speaking be preferred – spectrality is a supplemental dimension of manifestation and appearance themselves. Cinema is not a Platonic cave of illusions, as the old-style film theory would have it, but a hauntological apparatus, a machine for raising ghosts."

One could only hope that Shaviro more explicitly focuses his future writing on some of the issue he talked about on the panel. Although I have not personally read or seen any of the individuals' work he cites, Shaviro is after a new way of thinking about cinema. Whether he was aware of it or not, his piece broadly functions in some way other another of the beginnings of a model for a new kind of film criticism: one not focused on "form" or "content," but of figures, temporalities, and visibilities.


In wrapping my thoughts on my experience at SCMS as an observer, I'd say the overall experience was overwhelming. It took place more than three weeks ago, and there are still ideas bouncing around in my mind; some totally random asides I picked up from conversations, others are gestating critiques and/or expansions on theoretical inquiries put forth by the variety of presenters whom I saw give their presentations.

If there's one thing I learned --or at least was reminded of-- from my wanderings, it's that there is no end to the amount of ways for thinking about (and with) media, specifically cinema. Some of these theoretical frameworks were built and maintained over decades, such as Lacanian psychoanalysis, Marxism. These are the old reliables of media theorizing; but for as lucrative as each of these established bodies may be, they are perhaps employed too often and stringently to reveal anything about media and cinema. Other theoretical bodies are relatively recent, such as cognitivism, post-modernism, and post-structuralism, all of which lend significant insights into film scholarship. The problem with these schools of thought is in how proponents of them position themselves as the extreme reverse of established theories like psychoanalysis. In other words, many of these more trendy contemporary theoretical inquiries tend to be substituting one Grand Theory for another. This idea is the central argument of my own presentation, and is currently the topic of the project I'm working on right now in my independent study of Deleuze and media. (More on this in the next post...)

Although film and media scholarship has fractured into countless factions and schools of thought, there was a distinct flavor to most of the proceedings I witness at SCMS. Based on the the sessions I attended and reading through the program, I gathered that the conference errs on the conservative side (for the most part) with regards to modes of theoretical inquiry. I can't say that for certain, since I'm basing this observation on one day of attendance at one conference, but I get that feeling.

What this year's offerings lacked in terms of media content, however, it somewhat made up for in media content. This may not so much be to the credit of the Society itself, but to media scholarship as a whole in the last 15 to 20 years. Nevertheless, I attended a few panels and workshops representing diverse interests and inquiries into world cinema, documentary filmmaking, many of which were well versed in cultural studies. One hopes that this is not a short-lived trend, but instead the beginning of a larger movement within scholarly cinema and media research that will blossom into a greater understanding of various forms of content and expression reflected in and enacted by new and old media.

I acknowledge my overtly optimistic attitude toward cinema, concerning its limitless aesthetic and communicative possibilities, but the shear diversity of the kinds of films, social policies, and and modes of cultural agency that is currently being explored by students and scholars is wide-ranging, and inspiring to say the least. I do not envision this "cinema of tomorrow" as a much-needed cultural convergence through the various forms of analogic and digital media now available. Rather, electronic and digital media that have re-calibrated individual and collective means for participating in social policies and institutions. And since these forms of media are increasingly constitutive of our cultural agencies, cinema's relevance as an aesthetic means of communicating, sharing and experiencing narrative, and a form of discourse. This last notion is perhaps most intriguing, but the extent to which it is realized and developed hinges on necessary paradigm shifts which have yet to play out.