Monthly Archives: September 2010

#10 – Pattulo – “Narrative & spectacle in the Hollywood musical”

Normally, I wouldn’t think I’d be too engrossed in the discussion of the style of two classical Hollywood musical choreographers, but I actually found this article fascinating.  In addition to our concerns with narrative & spectacle, she manages to address a wide variety of issues, including realism vs. illusion in art, the way art accesses our emotions, Mulveyan concerns about sexuality and cinema, and the societal contexts of musicals in different eras which affect their content.  I felt like there were so many ideas packed into this (relatively short) article, I’m not sure where to begin.  I suppose I’ll try to stick with the themes that are most germane to our class and the screening for the week.

42nd Street is quite obviously a product of Berkeley’s choreographic style discussed in this article, though that fact that Pattullo never mentioned this film got me wondering.  I suppose it’s because all the classic Berkeleyan spectacular numbers are contained at the end of the film and thus are not quite as obvious a break from the “realist”, narrative content of the rest of the film.  It seems somewhat more natural that we would view these scenes, “unrelated” to the narrative though they are, at this point in the film, because the whole movie has been building up to the opening of this play.  Furthermore, these elaborate numbers are not completely independent of narrative, because we are watching Peggy to see how she is faring in her last-minute starring role; this association with the film would not exist if not for the narrative context leading up to the spectacle.

Still, the last fifteen minutes are detached from narrative and realism in many ways.  We almost never see anything from the story world beyond the isolation of the stage; even when we do, it is usually a rare glimpse of the orchestra in the pit and almost never the audience.  The sets are clearly too large, elaborate, and rapidly changing to be part of a feasible stage production.  And the most jarring thing is the sudden jumps in camera angle to an extreme close-up, or even more so, a bird eye view in which the dancers form abstract geometrical patterns that would not even reveal themselves to a real audience.

#9 – Fuller – “At the Picture Show”, Chs. 4-6

In the next three chapters of Fuller’s book, she continues to portray the evolution of cinema exhibition and the struggles and conflicts inherent in this — namely the disparities in viewing between classes and between urban and rural residents.  In Chapter 4, she points to the resistance in some smaller towns to the complete takeover by narrative cinema.  As she says, many wished to still view many kinds of films that were non-narrative; these include educational films, such as ones about new inventions or manufacturing processes, religious films, the first advertising clips, and films like the “scenics” which were a simple portrayal of some beautiful natural landscape or phenomenon.  We can see, in these “scenics” especially, the survival of the appeal of “attraction” and “spectacle” even in the era considered to be the beginning of narrative dominance.  This ties back into one of the key threads I’ve been following throughout this course — that spectacle and narrative have always coexisted in cinema, even when we think one is the dominant force.

In chapter 5, she really delves into the disparity between urban and rural viewing patterns, and uses it as a lens through which to view the maturation of the young “film industry”.  Centered in urban areas, savvy cinema entrepreneurs were building the production/distribution/exhibition that is still somewhat prevalent today.  Furthermore, I noticed here a few other facets of cinema arising that still exist today.  First, there was that urban middle class unwilling to admit that they went to the movies, saying rather that they didn’t “need” to go to the picture show.  More interestingly, we can see in the rise of the picture palaces the rise of this idea of “serious” movie-watching that still exists today.  In these theaters, the goal was for it to be as dark and as quiet as possible, and comfortable enough so as to not distract from the film.  We can still see this mindset very much alive today, when, for example, cinema purists decry the horrors of watching movie on computers and, even worse, phones!

In Chapter 6, she discusses the “rise of the movie fan”, which is a topic that I think is central to our class, and I’m sure we will discuss much in the next few weeks.  The center of her argument here is that the idea of a “quintissential” movie fan is always socially constructed, and although one type of fan became the most prevalent one (feminine and overly engrossed in movies — like in Purple Rose of Cairo), there were many others that were pushed to the periphery as this identity was being formed.

#8 – Amelie Hastie – “Louise Brooks, Star Witness”

Something really fascinates me about the self-mythologizing of moviefolk.  Just today in our Video Essay class, we were talking about the relative self-consciousness of directors before and after Cahiers du Cinéma and the French New Wave days – I think we all know that the general consensus is that this is when “cinema became aware of itself”, so to speak, and that later directors were much more aesthetically self-aware (and prone to self-mythologizing) than those previous.  (I’m sure this is violating our anti-historization mandates, but just accept that and bear with me for simplicity’s sake.)  I could go on and on about this, but let me just leave it at the fact that I love David Lynch’s insistence that he’s a normal, hamburger-lovin small town American boy despite his 4.5 marriages and the relentless Freudian weirdness of his films.

Well as far as the self-mythologization game goes, it seems Louise Brooks was way ahead of those pre-French New Wave directors.  According to Hastie’s article, Brooks played an active and ingenious role in the creation of her complex public identity.  I suppose the question remains as to whether she was intentionally crafting a specific persona or was just instinctively adept at throwing rumors about herself around in the right way.  But something about all her little contradictions and claims about veracity and sexuality seem intentional to me.  I particularly like the idea that the pseudo-memoir she later published (after saying that writing her memoirs would be useless) was just another “performance”, except this time she had switch from being a cinematic object to a cinematic spectator and critic.  Perhaps she felt conflicted about being “looked upon”, just like her character in Prix de Beauté feels, and decided to become a “looker” herself, meanwhile throwing sand in the eyes of those who would seek to mythologize her by doing the mythologizing herself.  In the end, it’s all almost like a little lesson on the dangers of historicization, but trying to fit her many-layered persona into a coherent historical narrative is exactly what’s so interesting to me.

#7 – Fuller – “At the Picture Show”, Chs. 2 & 3

The next two chapters of Fuller’s revealing book delve deeply into the patterns development of the nickelodeon industry, first in the density and placement of these theaters and then into the more audiences-centered study of what actually went on inside these theaters, and the differences from nickelodeon to nickelodeon.

I’ve found all her writing about the relationship between movie exhibition and patterns of population geography extremely interesting because it provides a lens through which to view patterns of settlement in our country right before it began to urbanize very rapidly.  I know this is an oversimplification, but patterns of movie viewing in the 21st century seem so homogeneous in comparison with the geographical diversity of these practices in the nickelodeon era.  Regional characteristics, like Puritan worldviews in the northeast or poverty and racism in the south, were absolutely essential in determining how exhibitors chose locations, and I find this fascinating.

Near the end of chapter three, we can see this regional variation disappearing and a more monolithic, “industrial” film culture arising as the nickelodeons begin to fade, due to epics like Birth of a Nation and the rise of bigger, more ostentatious and pricier theaters.  Fuller mentions that the theater operators who survived were the ones who bought out their competitors and started to form chains, and from there it’s easy to imagine the chain of events that would lead to the way things are now.

#6 – Altman – “Silence of the Silents”

So far, this class has been a systematic breaking down of the myths and assumptions we hold about the early years of cinema.  Like Tom Gunning’s theories about early audiences and Kathryn Fuller’s dissection of the early developments in exhibition, Rick Altman’s lengthy essay about theatrical sound in the ear of the silent film takes an issue we thought was simple and shows its complexity.  He begins by refuting the loose notion that “silent film constitutes a single, homogeneous period,” and goes on the show that the practices of providing sound to accompany silent films were extremely diverse.  Some exhibitors used mechanical devices like phonographs or player pianos, some used like orchestras or fiddlers or pianists, some used scripted music and some improvised, some used sound effects, and some simply allowed silence.

He is sure to point out that the practice of silent film music had precedents in folk musical and the musical theater of the previous century, but simply trying to base our understanding of it on previous practices is another oversimplification.  Basically, we can never talk about the history of a century ago in completely concrete terms because even an idea as basic as “film” meant a totally different thing to those audiences than it does to us now.  We can’t spend all our time second-guessing ourselves and overqualifying every statement, but we must recognize that in areas like cinema, the terminology is always more fluid than we might think.

#5 – Burian on Lanterna Magika

I must be honest: this essay on an obscure Czech performance medium was one of the most brutal gauntlets of an article I’ve ever read.  Perhaps the frazzled state of my brain after this past week and a half is causing me to exaggerate, but between this article’s sheer length, level of technical detail (not aided by the unintelligible black and white photos), commitment to historical comprehensiveness, not to mention the hard-to-keep-track-of Czech names getting constantly throw around, made it quite an overwhelming slog.  I’m interested to see how we bring this into play in class, because it felt rather tangential to me, but for now I’m going to strive to extract something from it.

I suppose what felt like the heart of the article to me was the quote from Marshall McLuhan and the qualification Burian added after it.  McLuhan said: “the moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed on them by our senses,” to which Burian adds that new multimedia forms must still possess some sort of technical mastery or finesse in order to captivate.  I’m not sure I agree with this, but it certainly holds true for the needlessly complex technology of Lanterna Magika, and it also plays into our discussions of the aesthetic of astonishment and the degree to which the technology itself played a major role in the enjoyment of early cinema.  Also, the article included the great quote “there are no happy marriages in art, only successful rape,” so that was fun.

#4 – Kramer on Keaton “at the Crossroads”

One thing I found oddly comforting about this article was seeing that there were needless, snobby, hierarchical relationships between different media at the beginning of the century, just as there are now.  The judgments flung around, especially by recalcitrant old-school academics, about the absolute value of certain media above others (usually with the oldest being the most “valuable”) irks me to no end.  And it especially bothers me when people dismiss an entire medium as artistically baseless, never capable of aesthetic greatness.  I think television has received less and less of this shabby over the last, say, fifteen years, but video games still often get the shaft.  It seems obvious to me that any medium is capable of aesthetic greatness if the right people just get their hands on it.

Anyway, what I mean about this article being strangely comforting was that it is proof that this is not a new phenomenon – it’s simply the way things are, and people will always be resistant to new technologies.  Because let’s face it, people will always be resistant to new things – first of all, it means they will have to work to adapt, and people are lazy – but new things mean change, and change reminds them of the passage of time, and this reminds them that they will eventually die…or something.

So many people were as resistant and snobbish towards film in the 1910s as they are now towards, say, the New Internet Technology of the Week, but that eventually faded away.  And what’s more, this article traced out how the more adaptive people allow different media to interweave with each other and bolster each other’s success, in a way (because while cinema caused trouble for vaudeville as a whole, it was a boon to vaudevillians like Keaton).  And I think not much has changed in that respect.

#3 – Fuller – “At the Picture Show”, Preface and Ch. 1

One of the ideas I was most attracted to here, outlined by Fuller in the preface of her book and then artfully fleshed out over the course of the first chapter, was the prominent culture clashes that occurred in cinema’s nascent stages.  Where we now think of the blockbuster Hollywood industry films as fairly unifying (at least across urban/rural and economic demographic divides), this was certainly not the case when moving images were taking off at the very beginning of the century.  Films certainly began as an urban phenomenon, and even when “itinerant exhibitors” (like Cook and Harris) began to bring moving images to smaller settlements, the content was initially still urban.  The scenes portrayed were urban ones and the places where people gathered to watch them were often the types of places were city people would be more inclined to gather.

This urban/rural clash was equally strong in the contrast between nickelodeon viewing and the style of the traveling exhibitionist—a dichotomy that Fuller fleshes out near the end of the chapter.  Nickelodeons first started appearing in tenement areas in urban centers populated by poor immigrant, but when these marquees started migrating to smaller and smaller towns, their affordability began to muscle out the business of Cook and Harris-type operations.  The stories like these that Fuller offers present insights not only into the history of audiences, but also into the changing patterns of residence occurring at the same time.  In fact, in her examples, we can see how the history of film exhibition offers many insights into, and is inextricably linked with, the rapid growth of urban centers during the 20th century.

#2 – Fuller – “Boundaries of Participation”

A common theme already seems to be emerging in our readings (and I suppose this theme is one of the foundations of our class), and Kathryn Fuller sums it up perfectly near the end of her “Boundaries of Participation” article: “We may have come full circle.”  We saw this concept appear in the essays from Gunning, and discussed it in class, with regards to the idea of “exhibitionism” or “shock and awe” returning in recent years to a cinema that had long been dominated by narrative.  At the time that Fuller wrote this article, she saw a similar phenomenon occurring in the realm of our interaction with and participation in moviegoing at the theater.

But while both Gunning and Fuller initially point out that we may be “coming full circle” in certain aspects of our relationship with movies, what they really get around to saying is that those aspects which were suppressed as cinema swung towards narrative never really went away; they simply weren’t as prominent before.  It’s a well known critical tendency to exaggerate the scope of certain changes in any given field and proclaim this or that definitively “dead”.  And Fuller points out that many theorists posited that the days raucous and participatory movie audience ended completely as narrative took over and cinema was professionalized, the theaters darkened and the crowds “tamed”.  But while cinema’s participatory culture was never as strong as in the early days of live sound in the theater and open invitations to send scripts to studios, nor did it completely die away.  And according to her, that participatory culture is once again on the rise.  I’m inclined to agree.

Virtual Notebook Post #1

I’m fairly certain I’ve read these Tom Gunning articles before—or at least I’ve read so many articles about the period in cinema’s nascent stages known as the “cinema of attractions,” that they’re all starting to bleed together.  For the most part, I found Gunning’s writing pretty dry and the ideas presented in these two articles somewhat familiar.  He points out, in both articles, that these earliest of films were not driven by any sort of narrative impulse, and rather placed an emphasis on “shock and awe” rather than any relation of information or formation of story.  Perhaps Gunning was the first to put forth these ideas, but they must have been repeated in every piece of criticism ever written on cinema’s first few years of existence.

Still, he proposes a couple ideas which I had not previously considered.  Though it seems like a rather semantic point to make, he suggests that “the first spectators’ experience reveals not a childlike belief, but an undisguised awareness of (and delight in) film’s illusionistic qualities,” which fills in point in the development of our cognitive ability to “read” cinema.  He also notes (in both articles, I might add) that the position of the audience in early cinema is more exhibitionist, as opposed to the role of an unacknowledged voyeur that the audience would take on as cinema made more of an effort to seem “realistic”.

I found Perkins’ blog post interesting, fun, and much more digestible than Gunning’s writing.  Still, though his acknowledgement of the similarity between some early comedic films and early video games is astute, I felt unsure what to take away from his post.  Is he saying that video games could benefit from looking back towards the vibrant visual simplicity of their early days?  Perhaps the informality of the essay indicates that he simply saw the similarity between these two bodies of work and wanted to point it out, without the pretense of some grand statement behind it.