Tuesday 28 September 2010

"Any Zombies Out There?" Undead Film Studies

Image from I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)
The zombies in these films are a kind of revolutionary force of predators without a revolutionary program. Their only concern is to satisfy an instinctual drive for predation; a drive which, as is pointed out in Day of the Dead, serves no actual biological purpose. They appear and attack without explanation or reason, violating taken for granted principles of sufficient cause and rationality. Because of this, they are especially threatening to the surviving human beings. Enemies such as Nazis or Communists are comprehensible in terms of their historical backgrounds, economic interests, religious, political or philosophic beliefs. But these zombies are a new breed of enemy in that they do not operate according to the same underlying motivations human beings share in common. They are a nihilistic enemy which, as lifeless, spiritless automatons, exemplify the epitome of passive nihilism. They wander the landscape exhibiting only the bare minimum of power that is required for locomotion and the consumption of living flesh. They must steal life from the strong because they possess such a depressed store of innate energy. They are, literally, the walking dead. [John Marmysz, 'From "Night" to "Day": Nihilism and the Living Dead', First published in Film and Philosophy, vol. 3, 1996] 
In [George Romero's films], antagonism and horror are not pushed out of society (to the monster) but are rather located within society (qua the monster). The issue isn’t the zombies; the real problem lies with the “heroes”—the police, the army, good old boys with their guns and male bonding fantasies. If they win, racism has a future, capitalism has a future, sexism has a future, militarism has a future. Romero also implements this critique structurally. As Steven Shaviro observes, the cultural discomfort is not only located in the films’ graphic cannibalism and zombie genocide: the low-budget aesthetics makes us see “the violent fragmentation of the cinematic process itself." The zombie in such a representation may be uncanny and repulsive, but the imperfect uncleanness of the zombie’s face—the bad make-up, the failure to hide the actor behind the monster’s mask—is what breaks the screen of the spectacle. [Lars Bang Larsen, 'Zombies of Immaterial Labor: the Modern Monster and the Death of Death', E-Flux, No. 15, April 2010
The fear of one's own body, of how one controls it and relates to it, and the fear of not being able to control other bodies, those bodies whose exploitation is too fundamental to capitalist economy, are both at the heart of whiteness. Never has this horror been more deliriously evoked than in these films of the Dead [Richard Dyer,  White: Essays in Race and Culture (London: Routledge, 1997)].

Film Studies For Free is quaking in its digital boots as a whole host of freely accessible zombie studies gathers menacingly on the online horizon and shuffles ever nearer.... No, no, no, nooooo...


Resistance is futile on this the Night of the Living Links.

(The only comforting thought is that film zombies also grow old and win the undying loyalty of their fans...)

    Monday 27 September 2010

    35 Open Access Film and Moving Image Studies Books from Amsterdam University Press

    Image from Rhapsody of Steel, a 1959 animated industrial film by John Sutherland, which you can watch online. You can read about industrial films in Vinzenz Hediger and Patrick Vonderau's remarkable collection Films that Work : Industrial Film and the Productivity of Media (Amsterdam University Press, 2009)

    What a remarkable start to the week! In one fell swoop, Film Studies For Free has almost doubled its already lengthy listing of openly accessible film and moving image studies e-books.

    Yesterday, FSFF heard that Vinzenz Hediger and Patrick Vonderau's marvellous 2009 edited collection Films that Work : Industrial Film and the Productivity of Media had been made freely available online as part of Amsterdam University Press's wonderful commitment to Open Access publishing.

    FSFF followed up on that news with its customary, industrial-strength, dogged meticulousness (that is to say, in its totally imitable fashion) to sort through the 640 plus e-books from AUP's collected OA offerings to single out the 35 film and moving image studies-related items you can see linked to below, which include many titles from its excellent "Film Culture in Transition" series.

    They've also all been added to FSFF's existing free e-book list, which is now approaching its first one hundred items.

    And this blog has learned how to say hartelijk dank!
    1. Allen, Richard, Malcolm Turvey (eds), Camera Obscura, Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson (Amsterdam University Press, 2004)
    2. Bay-Cheng, Sarah, Chiel Kattenbelt, Andy Lavender, Robin Nelson (eds), Mapping Intermediality in Performance (Amsterdam University Press, 2010) 
    3. Bergfelder, Tim, Sue Harris, Sarah Street (eds), Film Architecture and the Transnational Imagination: Set Design in 1930s European Cinema (Amsterdam University Press, 2007)
    4. Bijsterveld, K, J. Van Dijck (eds), Sound Souvenirs: Audio Technologies, Memory and Cultural Practices (Amsterdam University Press, 2009)
    5. Blom, Ivo, Jean Desmet and the Early Dutch Film Trade (Amsterdam University Press, 2004)
    6. Boomen, Marianne van den, Sybille Lammes, Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Joost Raessens, Mirko Tobias Schäfer (eds), Digital Material : Tracing New Media in Everyday Life and Technology (Amsterdam University Press, 2009)
    7. Clemens, Justin, Dominic Pettman, Avoiding the Subject: Media, Culture and the Object (Amsterdam University Press, 2004)
    8. Elsaesser, Thomas, European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood(Amsterdam University Press, 2005)
    9. Elsaesser, Thomas (ed), Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight-Lines (Amsterdam University Press, 2004)
    10. Elsaesser, Thomas, Noel King, Alexander Horwath (eds), The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s (Amsterdam University Press, 2004)
    11. Elsaesser, Thomas (ed), A Second Life : German Cinema's First Decades (Amsterdam University Press, 1996)
    12. Elsaesser, Thomas, Fassbinder's Germany: History, Identity, Subject (Amsterdam University Press, 1996)
    13. Elsaesser, Thomas,  Jan Simons, Lucette Bronk (eds), Writing for the Medium: Television in transition (Amsterdam University Press, 2004)
    14. Grønstad, Asbjørn, Transfigurations: Violence, Death and Masculinity in American Cinema Amsterdam, 2008)
    15. Hagener, Malte, Moving Forward, Looking Back : The European Avant-garde and the Invention of Film Culture, 1919-1939 (Amsterdam University Press, 2007)
    16. Hediger, Vinzenz, Patrick Vonderau (eds), Films that Work : Industrial Film and the Productivity of Media (Amsterdam University Press, 2009)
    17. Heide, William van der, Malaysian Cinema, Asian Film: Border Crossings and National Culture (Amsterdam University Press, 2002)
    18. Kester, Bernadette, Film Front Weimar: Representations of the First World War in German Films from the Weimar Period (1919-1933) (Amsterdam University Press, 2002)
    19. Kooijman, Jaap, Patricia Pisters, Wanda Strauven (eds), Mind the Screen: Media Concepts According to Thomas Elsaesser (Amsterdam University Press, 2008)
    20. Kooijman, Jaap, Fabricating the Absolute Fake: America in Contemporary Pop Culture (Amsterdam University Press, 2008)
    21. Lauwaert, Maaike, The Place of Play: Toys and Digital Cultures (Amsterdam University Press, 2009)
    22. Phillips, Alastair, City of Darkness, City of Light: Emigré Filmmakers in Paris 1929-1939(Amsterdam University Press, 2003)
    23. Pisters, Patricia, Wim Staat, Shooting the Family: Transnational Media and Intercultural Values (Amsterdam University Press, 2005)
    24. Schoots, Hans, Living Dangerously: A Biography of Joris Ivens (Amsterdam University Press, 2000)
    25. Simons, Jan, Playing the Waves: Lars von Trier's Game Cinema(Amsterdam University Press, 2007)
    26. Steene, Birgitt, Ingmar Bergman: A Reference Guide (Amsterdam University Press, 2005)
    27. Strauven, Wanda, The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded (Amsterdam University Press, 2006)
    28. Thompson, Kristin, Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood: German and American Film after World War I (Amsterdam University Press, 2005)
    29. Törnqvist, Egi, Between Stage and Screen: Ingmar Bergman Directs (Amsterdam University Press, 1996)
    30. Valck, Marijke de, Film Festivals: From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia (Amsterdam University Press, 2007)
    31. Valck, Marijke de, Malte Hagener (eds), Cinephilia: Movies, Love and Memory (Amsterdam University Press, 2006)
    32. Verhoeff, Nann, The West in Early Cinema: After the Beginning (Amsterdam University Press, 2006 [on the emergence of the  Western]) 
    33. Walker, Michael, Hitchcock's Motifs (Amsterdam University Press, 2005)
    34. Zanger, Anat, Film Remakes as Ritual and Disguise: From Carmen to Ripley (Amsterdam University Press, 2006)
    35. Zielinski, Siegfried, Audiovisions: Cinema and Television as Entr'actes in History (Amsterdam University Press, 1999)

    Tuesday 21 September 2010

    In authenticity: Douglas Sirk and the Sirkian Melodrama

    Image from Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)
    I first saw Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life in 1959 at The Yeadon, a neighbourhood movie house in a white working-class suburb of Philadelphia. I was 16. Imitation of Life was about four women, two of them black. When we came out afterward, most of us were crying. The theatre owner's wife was standing in the lobby with a box of Kleenex. Many people gratefully took a tissue to dry their eyes. This is what Sirk wanted, I believe. [Tag Gallagher, 'White Melodrama: Douglas Sirk', Senses of Cinema, Issue 36, 2005]
    [W]ith the reconsideration of directors like Douglas Sirk and the application of (gasp) irony, “melodrama” isn’t the dirty word it once was. Initially, film studies criticism used the term pejoratively to connote unrealistic, pathos-filled, campy tales of romance or domestic situations with cliché-ridden characters intended to appeal to female audiences. Understandably, these were considered to be lesser films, sentimental pap churned out by the Hollywood tear-jerk machine. And if one couldn’t look beyond these tropes – if the viewer were unable to see through them – they might find themself (like many critics of the 1950s) unjustly unwilling to give credit where credit is due.
         Sirk, for example, a contract director working mostly at Universal, was known for turning out dizzy romantic fiascos; glossy and kitsch, excessive and (sometimes) silly, these dependable studio projects were routinely panned by critics and “sophisticated” audiences. What these viewers missed was the subversive strain running through Sirk’s art. He wasn’t just making a melodrama, he was using it. Even the critic James Harvey admits to “missing” Sirk the first time around, remembering his biggest hits, Written on the Wind (1957) and Imitation of Life (1959), to be “unredeemably bad”. But twenty years after its release, Harvey returned to Imitation of Life and found himself overwhelmed.
         My awareness of even a possible ironic intention seemed to transform the movie for me. As it had, it seemed, for the audience around me, who were responding to it in a way no imaginable 1950s audience could have: being alert and to and amused by every hollow ring in Lana Turner’s multi-costumed, leading-lady performance, for example, just as I was being. We had become an audience for the “Sirkian subtext”, as it was called. And we were no longer (as we had been years before) jeering alone. This time even the director was on our side.
         And so there is the Melodrama and there is the melodramatic. The trick is to figure out which is which. [Sam Wasson, Bigger Than Life: The Picture, The Production, The Press', Senses of Cinema, Issue 38, 2006]
    The most important ironies in Sirk are those of so much film melodrama of the 1950s, namely the ironies of the failure of dominant ideology, the vast distance between how social institutions, gender roles, and other fundamental values are supposed to function and how they actually do function. Much of this “ironic” social critique of Sirk’s films is overt and uncomplicated (the country-club values in All That Heaven Allows or Lana Turner’s kitsch glamour in Imitation of Life [USA, 1959]). What the “irony in Sirk” debate is mostly directed to, instead, is the fact that the films often take up an attitude critical of ideological norms without overtly acknowledging that they are conducting such a cri- tique, and that they present characters in the grip of dominant values (therefore “good” characters) whose ideological conformity is objectively destructive but who are never overtly labelled by the film as hollow or destructive (the Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall characters in Written on the Wind are a clear example). The melodrama of Sirk and his contemporaries is quite different in this respect from most earlier forms of cinematic melodrama (Griffith for example), where all the values inherent in the films are plainly depicted as what the films think they are. But although the hollowness of some of Sirk’s “good” characters does indeed interfere with the overt ideological work of the narrative, it hardly disables the melodrama of these characters’ sufferings, or the pathos of their entrapment in ideology. Indeed, the reverse is the case: they are rendered more pathetic by their impossibility, and the film’s distance from their “false consciousness” then functions much like dramatic irony, and not at all like any kind of scornful detachment. [William Beard, 'Maddin and Melodrama', Canadian Journal of Film Studies, 14:2, Autumn 2005, fn 6, pp.15-16]
    [T]o understand what Imitation of Life is trying to do audiences have to trust in its distinction between authenticity and inauthenticity, between its evocations of real life and its manifestations of life’s imitations. The evocations of real life rely on emotional manipulation – the emotion of motion pictures. It is only by way of these moments of intense emotional involvement that the moments of authenticity in the film can be distinguished from those of pretence. And it is the moments of pretence, of escaping into falsifying theatres of one form or another, that Sirk is holding up for criticism. Finally, that is what is produced by Sirkian ‘ironic distanciation’: an acknowledgment of the inauthentic imitation of life.[Richard Rushton, 'Douglas Sirk’s Theatres of Imitation', Screening the Past, Issue 21, 2007]

    Film Studies For Free today celebrates studies of the work of Douglas Sirk with an almost melodramatically long list of links to online scholarly items on this director's films and some of the films they have influenced. The list builds on Kevin B. Lee's very valuable, existing webliographical work.
    FSFF knows, of course, that offering up such easy access to these resources means that there won't be a dry eye in the house. But if your tears are due to FSFF having missed a good Sirkian link, do please let us know by commenting below...

      Sunday 19 September 2010

      "A fusion of life and dream": In memory of John Orr

      Image from Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003). This  film topped John Orr's list of favourite films in 2003 (here are his 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2009 lists)
      What is trauma if not, as in the original Greek, a kind of wound? In cinema, though, it is something more: a wound that seldom heals, a deep wounding of body and soul from which, often, the subject does not recover. Hence, the critical formula for the outcome of the trauma picture: at the least, significant damage; at the most, violent death.

      If film horror often sources the supernatural, film trauma focuses on the fears of the natural world. What is out there as waking nightmare in a dangerous world is often a mirror of what is hidden in here, in the human heart. The monsters that horror films project onto the screen are often the monsters of our dream worlds. The wounding events of the trauma film are by contrast a fusion of life and dream.

      In film, there is no absolute borderline between these opposites – human trauma and supernatural horror  but the question of emphasis, one way or the other, is crucial: the threat of aliens, mutants, werewolves, monsters, robots, slasher killers, vampires et alia, or the threat of evil that is here and now, that is contingent and recurrent in the life-world, yet also seems onscreen to inhabit the world of dream. Horror is, thus, the popular genre of superhuman evil, trauma its human and dreamlike subset. [John Orr, 'The Trauma Film and British Romantic Cinema 1940-1960', Senses of Cinema, Issue 51, 2009]

      Film Studies For Free was very sad to hear, via Dina Iordanova's website, of the death of influential film theorist and scholar John Orr.

      Appointed as a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh in 1967, Orr began teaching film and cultural studies in that department in 1984. A few years later, he founded, with John Ellis, the joint honours film course for Sociology and English Literature. From 1998 onwards, he taught on the MSc in Film Studies, based in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures.

      Best known for his pioneering work on the sociology of film and art, Orr was author of Cinema and Modernity, Contemporary Cinema, The Art and Politics of Film and Hitchcock and 20th Century Cinema. He also co-edited important works on Andzrej Wajda and Roman Polanski and had written recent essays on Ingmar Bergman, Terrence Malick, and Dogme 95. His most recent book was Romantics and Modernists in British Cinema (Edinburgh University Press, 2010). He had recently retired from his post as Professor Emeritus in Social and Political Studies at Edinburgh, but was still very active in his research and publishing on cinema.

      Orr was both prolific and very generous with his work. In recent years, he published a number of significant essays online, many of which set out in depth his brilliant thinking on trauma, fright, and paranoia in the cinema. Below, in tribute to and with gratitude for his work, both on and offline, FSFF has gathered links to those essays.

        Thursday 16 September 2010

        100 (Plus) Online Film and Media Journals of Note

        Image from Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
        Film Studies For Free has enlisted the inimitable indexical services of Travis Bickle to flag up the very rough location of a permanent sidebar link to a handy new page at this blog. (Helpful hint: Travis is currently aiming a little high or low, depending on where this entry sites itself in your browser)...

        It's a page where FSFF 's adventurous readers -- perhaps, also, ones with lots of time on their hands -- can find a copious listing of Online Film and Media Studies Journals.

        This list of direct links to openly accessible journals and periodical websites will be assiduously maintained and excitedly added to over the coming months and years, so be sure to bookmark it for future use.

        Thrillingly, FSFF will very soon be adding further pages, housing equally essential Film Studies information. And, as usual, it won't be backward about coming forward about those...

        Sunday 12 September 2010

        Le Génie de la liberté: In Memory of Claude Chabrol

        Film Studies For Free was very sad to hear this morning of the death at the age of 80 of French film-maker Claude Chabrolone of the true giants of world cinema.

        David Hudson is gathering links to online tributes to the filmmaker. Below, FSFF has assembled an (updated/expanded) list of links to online and freely accessible studies of Chabrol's magnificent cinematic legacy.

          Friday 10 September 2010

          Screening 9/11 and its aftermath in film and media studies

          Image from In America (Jim Sheridan, 2002), the first film to be (partly) shot in New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, according to Seán Crosson's article "‘They can't wipe us out, they can't lick us. We'll go on forever pa, ‘cause we're the people'..." (2008)
          The absence of the Twin Towers from the post-9/11 New York City skyline posed a number of dilemmas for the creators and producers of television shows and movies that were ‘symbolically’ set in New York City after 9/11. Whilst the World Trade Center towers had been destroyed, editors in studio lots in California faced the prospect of the late 2001 ratings season commencing with stock reels of New York City that prominently featured the Towers prior to 9/11. This posed an odd dilemma for the producers of television shows such as Friends, Sex and the City, and Spin City, programs in which the Twin Towers often appeared as a backdrop and a powerful signifier of being in New York City. The response seemed universal – the Twin Towers must be removed from the tele-visual pop-cultural locations. They needed to be purged, exorcised and air- brushed out of the shot. But by airbrushing out the Towers, the producers have purged post-9/11 television of more than just the steel and concrete of the iconic buildings. I suggest that this purging is powerful, a little odd, and deeply symbolic. In order to recover, perhaps some space – and some forgetting, if only temporary – was needed. But I argue that the missing Towers also represented a missing terror, a missing city. It was as though the creators and producers of some post-9/11 television believed that the world’s viewers would have no stomach for seeing images of a pre-9/11 New York City – a city that in many respects no longer existed. Perhaps the problem lies in how the destruction of the Twin Towers was witnessed – live on TV, in real-time, as heinous, immediate and real violence. It was ugly, sickening, horrific, terrifying. Yet it was also difficult to look away. [Luke John Howie, 'Representing Terrorism: Reanimating Post-9/11 New York City', International Journal of Žižek Studies, Vol 3, No 3 (2009)]

          It is the eve of another anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America.

          Film Studies For Free respectfully remembers the tragic and traumatic events of nine years ago tomorrow, and other closely related ones since, with a list of links to important, insightful, and openly accessible studies of the cultural depiction and (re)media(tiza)tion of the 9/11 attacks, as well as of their aftermath.

          On Film Music and Digital Media

          Film Music and Digital Media 
          (Moderator: Martin Marks with Paul Seiko Chihara and Dan Carlin) MIT, April 2, 2009 (Running Time: 1:55:26)

          Film Studies For Free really enjoyed the above highly insightful and well-illustrated video and it very much hopes you will, too. The discussion covers, with wit and great intelligence, many of the practical considerations that are part and parcel of contemporary film scoring. As it is quite long, the below text will let you know a little of what you can expect.

          For more on film music studies, check out FSFF's entry "Music to the Eyes: Film Music Essays and Resources Online", as well as its other references to film music here.

          About the Lecture

          In a panel that at times resembles a late-night ramble and conversation, three film music professionals discuss changes in their industry, with some no-holds-barred dishing and kvetching.

          Martin Marks
          sets the scene historically, starting with the revolutionary introduction of sound to film. He plays a clip from the original 1933 film King Kong, which he describd it hopes es as both a technological and aesthetic landmark of soundtrack production. Paul Chihara continues the story, explaining that the score’s creator, Max Steiner, was part of the first wave of film composers, classically trained musicians, fleeing Hitler’s Germany. Steiner drew on the music he knew best, the kind performed by the Vienna Staatsoper, for his King Kong score, so we get a movie that’s “wall to wall music, filled with leitmotifs,” played by a giant orchestra.

          Cut to 2005, and the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong. In what he describes as “an electro-acoustic seminar on how digitally sound is enhanced,” Chihara plays several clips of the same scene that demonstrate the evolutionary leap in soundtrack scoring since 1933. The process involves the demo track, a score with digital sampling and no acoustic instruments intended to help the filmmaker imagine how music will work with the film; next an acoustic score; and the final dub version, where acoustic and digital music sources combine, and the rest of the sound elements are added in post production (dialogue and sound effects).

          The new scoring process can prove dangerous to composers, as Dan Carlin reveals. “We have a term called ‘demo love,’ describing how the director gets attached to the very first track offered by the composer.” This is a digitally sampled score often drawn from other composers’ work. The editor and director become accustomed to it, and test audiences watch films with demo tracks. “So the composer comes in with a new approach, and often gets fired at this point.” This has led to composers fearful of originality. Carlin says starting in the ‘90s, generic romantic and action scores began to emerge: “Everything starts to sound alike.” He also describes how composer Georges Delerue went to see Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, and heard one of his own themes, which had started as a temporary music cue but then was essentially plagiarized. This led to a very lucrative law suit. Marks notes that “one of America’s film music geniuses,” Elmer Bernstein, essentially dropped out of the business because of the insistence on demo tracks over original music.

          Panelists also bemoan the demise of orchestral recording sessions at production studios, as digital audio tools put the composer’s work in the hands of directors and editors, who play with increasingly authentic sounding software-based instruments. Companies are buying up the rights to the sounds of famous symphony orchestras, down to the staccato and legato notes of strings and horns in different keys and pitches. The craft involved in composing music, then conducting an orchestra through a movie scene, has become obsolete. Chihara concludes sadly, “It’s an unnecessary art.”