Tag Archives: Reading

#13 – “At the Picture Show” wrap-up / “Beyond the Box” beginning

Fuller’s decision to end her book with an account of the generation that grew up surrounded by movies both proved remarkably appropriate and provided a great way to link her ideas to the present day.  After all, a frequent focus of the media discourse about my generation is the fact that we’ve grown up with constant access to new information technologies, and that we consume all media differently because of this.  In the intro and first chapter of Beyond the Box, Sharon Ross certainly touches on this, noting that television is consumed differently now that many have widespread access to internet forums and fan sites and the like, and that this change in consumption likewise affects the actual production of these products.

The number of ways in which this chapter mirrors the story being told presently is remarkable.  I especially liked what she described as a “loss of local intimacy, flavor, and control…but gain of glamor, luxury, and higher production standards” that comes with the maturation of an industry/technology.  Also, it never occurred to me that movies “dying out” as just another “amusement fad” could have been a possibility, but it’s fascinating to think that a slightly less compelling version of moving picture technology might have just vanished, if it had never quite caught on in the public consciousness the way movies did.  Finally, this idea that even a generation of “born moviegoers” still had to be “educated” in how to view and understand movies was very compelling to me, because I’m very interested in the cause of teaching media literacy today.  Reading about how children and adolescents interact with and “learn to watch” movies was very interesting, and it also showed how their experiences defined the next generation of “fandom”…a word which has changed much since then, and the word which is the primary concern of Ross in her book.

In Chapter 1, Ross focuses on two shows generally considered as having a “cult” fanbase: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess.  But one thing that occurred to me is how, in some ways, the internet allows any show, no matter how mainstream, to have some core following that consumes these shows in a cultlike way.  Obviously, some shows simply don’t encourage this sort of fandom (I don’t know, Two and a Half Men always jumps to mind here), but the internet allows members of even the smallest and most dispersed cult to find each other and share their ideas.  I think this is linked (the cause and effect I am unsure of) to the trend in cable broadcasting that Ross mentions: more and more channels cater to specific demographics — think Lifetime, Sci-Fi, BET, N (which I hadn’t heard of before this), etc.  In an age where the cost of “broadcasting” or “publishing” (this applies to TV as well as blogs/fan sites) keeps going down, the capacity for splintering fandoms and niche marketing increases exponentially.

#12 – “Singin’ in the Rain”

I’m not exactly sure what to say about this reading because it’s a pretty straightforward dissection of the film (not much you couldn’t discern on your own) but goddamn is that film great.  I haven’t seen it for quite some time and maybe it’s just because I’ve been watching two classes worth of classical Hollywood films and I’m just mentally embedded in that style right now, but I thoroughly loved watching Singin’ in the Rain just now.  It’s just so packed with clever little conceits for the scenes, and each number just packs in more and more spectacle when you think it can’t get any more extravagant than it already has.  And that “imagined” scene (within the “Broadway Rhythm” medley) with the expansive set and the super-long sash is insanely beautiful.

It’s really interesting to see that Hollywood could rather cleverly and insightfully comment on itself while still presenting that perfectly packaged, seamless, assembly-line entertainment that the classical era is known for.  And narrative here often halts for spectacle (they LOVE tap dancing), but it never feels jarring as in 42nd Street.  Now I loved that film as well, but it does something much more abstract and surreal (these aren’t the right words…I almost want to say subversive…at least against the norm), and Singin’ in the Rain presents copious amounts of dazzling spectacle without straying from it’s incredibly sense of craft and charm.  I realize this isn’t really a response to the reading, but mostly the reading is just an analysis of how the movie comments on history…so I think I addressed this.  Anyway, looking forward to writing a screening response on this one.

#11 – Fuller Chps. 7 & 8

Perhaps what interested me the most in these two chapters were the themes of consumerism and marketing linked to the creation and evolution of the “movie fan”.  It’s obvious that these two would be linked — movie fans are consumers of movies, after all, and movies are a business.  But it was still thought-provoking to see how closely linked the two were, and how much fandom itself can even be determined by marketing, perhaps as much as the actual films.

I particularly noticed this in the first chapter, discussing “Motion Picture Story Magazine”.  In showing the ways this publication was partially responsible of te construction of the movie fan, one can see a potential chicken-and-egg cycle start to arise — obviously the advertisements appearing in this magazine are determined by who the publishers think the magazine is catering to, but could it be possibly that the very readership is actually determined by the advertisements?  Looking at ads is always the most efficient way to tell who a magazine (or a television show, or a website) is being catered to, but it never occured to me that perhaps those selecting the advertisements based on certain assumptions end up forming the demographic to fit those assumptions, whether they were correct in the first place notwithstanding.  This is especially important when said publication is essential in determining the very meaning and identity of something as broad as a “movie fan”.

It seems that James Quirk, who came on board as editor of “Photoplay” magazine, had a deep understanding of the way demographics and identities can be shaped, bought and sold.  He catered to an audience of moviegoers who considered themselves sophisticated and appreciative of “good” qualities in movies (innovative plots, snappy dialogue, strong acting), but he turned around and “sold” these fans to marketers as a mass of “perfect consumers” who were completely dependant on movies and would bend to his every whim.  Seems like he was quite the savvy dude.

#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.