At the peripheries of SCMS 2014, all screens led to basketball. SCMS took place March 19-23, a slice of time spanning the first three rounds of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual tournament. I’ve watched college basketball since I was a kid, and those early days of March Madness are always my favorite: pre-tournament narratives crumble in the face of expectedly unexpected results, and sports media are too caught up in reacting to this or that upset to fashion new favorites out of the ruins. I was consequently wary of this scheduling convergence, sure I’d miss out on basketball Madness in the rush of its media studies counterpart. As it happened, I shouldn’t have worried. We’re past the days of broadcast sports’ necessarily couch-bound consumption, and the tournament permeated the spaces of SCMS Seattle: I watched SportsCenter recaps in the Sheraton’s lobby, saw North Carolina top Providence at the bar where my panel met for drinks, and even caught other conference-goers following games on their smartphones during presentations.
This last mode of watching is most relevant to my purposes here, for it speaks to a recent trend: the proliferation of non-televisual ways to consume live sports. There has been work done on the relationship between sport and broadcast media, but the focus tends to be radio and television. Less analyzed are newly emergent ways of watching and listening, which restructure the relationships between body and spectacle, viewer and viewed. I don’t presume to give a thorough treatment of this topic in the space of a blog post, but I do hope to point towards some implications of consuming live games via mobile screens. And there are more and more ways to watch on-the-go: many applications for a number of sports. I focus here on March Madness Live, the dedicated streaming service for NCAA tournament basketball, both because I’m familiar with it and because it ties itself to television in a way many such applications don’t: it comes free with a cable subscription, and so reinforces economic investment in broadcasting even as it displaces the living room as primary scene of broadcast viewing.
Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in "First Blood" (1982)
In her important 1994 Book, Hard Bodies, Susan Jeffords writes that in the 1970s Hollywood masculinity was in crisis. Increasingly, she writes, Hollywood cinema was concerned with narratives of “disintegration and breakdown”, especially of traditional sociopolitical orders, and especially of patriarchal masculinity. By 1980, she argues, audiences were hungry for “spectacular narratives about characters who stand for individualism, liberty, militarism, and a mythic heroism” . Jeffords uses this premise to mount her broader argument that during the 1980s, and especially during the Reagan administration, the cinema was engaged in a Reagonian project of remasculinization in the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, and the women’s movement, which had shattered the nation’s faith in masculine authority figures. Jeffords situates this masculinizing project within the blockbuster action films of that era, and especially within its muscle-bound superstars: men such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. These bodies, she argues, came to stand “not only for a type of national character – heroic, aggressive, and determined – but for the nation itself” . Read more
The general consensus on The Lego Movie seems to be that it shouldn’t be as good as it is. A better way to put this might be that it shouldn’t be good in the way that it is.
There is nothing hidden about its pleasures. It doesn’t somehow succeed in spite of being a product-placement film (in some accidental or self-parodic way). Its success depends fully on the product being placed. In fact, the product is the place, literally and thematically. It does exactly what a feature-length commercial should do: it sells its brand as a way of life.
On the one hand, this is a wet dream of franchising and ancillaries. It naturally extends the Lego brand’s licensing of properties (like the Marvel universe) and its video game series. There is an awkwardly-titled The Lego Movie Videogame, and a sequel to the film is already in the works. One can imagine The Lego Videogame Movie; The Lego Movie Videogame Movie; and on and on. All this would be fully in the spirit of Legos themselves, placing units together into ever-more complex and unpredictable relations.
On the other hand, the movie’s very ability to sell a way of life sets it along a sensory and conceptual life of its own. Because the film uses Legos to be about something more than just Legos, that “something more” has its own contours. To describe what the film does requires more than just admiring its cleverness or expressing surprise or claiming that it’s subversive.
Caveat: I don’t see enough movies to compile a remotely comprehensive or responsible best-of list. I never saw Gravity, Spring Breakers, or The Bling Ring, and, sadly, missed fest-hyped releases A Touch of Sin, Leviathan, Like Someone In Love, etc. What this list catalogs instead are some of my viewing year’s cinephiliac highlights, many of which stem from films released in 2013, with several anachronistic exceptions.
And I should say, I like this better. My default mode of spectatorship tends toward enlargement and fixation; selective, romantic, it preserves images and patterns at plot’s expense, with negligible concern for real-life plausibility. Given all the various aspects of a movie eligible for eye-narrowing critique, it can feel like such pressure to clarify the relations between whether or not I “liked” a film and whether it was (any) good, especially when I prefer to be attentive and grateful for the moment that’s visually interesting or makes affective sense. I loved the Clint Mansell score for The Fountain (2006) years before I came around to a more expansive affection for the film. I still think of the scene in Peter Jackson’s otherwise unremarkable The Lovely Bones when Mark Wahlberg’s Jack Salmon, briefly receptive to his dead daughter’s suggestion, hallucinates the resuscitation of a desiccated rose and so recognizes Tucci’s Harvey as her murderer. That may sound suspiciously random–The Lovely Bones has no place on the map of my preferences, has little to do with what I study or gravitate toward; I probably watched it on cable at my parents’ house. But it’s actually an apt example: often what elicits my strongest response are imaginings of something like recognition or realization–moments when the mental process is rendered not only visible but somehow sensible, and the diegetic concern with what “happens” is temporarily displaced by a spectatorial grasp of what the film is, or hopes to be, about.
I’ve read and heard a lot of back and forth regarding how one might assess whether 2013 was a “great year” for cinema. It was the year I saw the most films alone, like Upstream Color on closing night, and for the first time I taught different simultaneous film courses, frequently fearing I’d allude to Attack the Block in my violence class or reference The Wild Bunch in the seminar in composition (how do people not do this?). Rather than evidencing a great year of cinema, the following, in order of ascending impact, samples from points of this year when cinema felt great, or when I felt cinema “greatly.”
Over the summer some of the film studies classrooms at Pitt got equipment updates. Blu-ray players were added to the bank of other devices in the media cabinet, which also houses DVD, VHS, and LaserDiscs players. The media cabinet itself reads like a short history of evolving media formats in late twentieth century institutional education where the adoption of new technologies isn’t always swift. As a case in point, only last summer were Blu-ray players installed just as video on demand and other forms of digital download are making it easier to access content on many different kinds of devices, rendering the players themselves somewhat irrelevant. As delightful as it is to imagine toting LaserDiscs to class – flipping and switching the discs halfway through a screening – I do wonder when all of the bulky equipment in the cabinet will be jettisoned to make room for a streamline digital interface. But before I get ahead of myself complaining about how institutions sometimes seem behind themselves, it might be interesting to think a little about that bank of forgotten devices.
image of a Grateful Dead tape, via trahscanbear
About a decade ago, I believed I witnessed the inevitable and expected death of the cassette (both audio and video). The last major motion picture released on VHS as a matter of course was (get this!) David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005). Major retailers stopped carrying the format years ago. Cassette tapes were seemingly supplanted even earlier. My personal flirtation with the format ended with the widespread availability and unbelievable cheapness of CD-R media. I jumpstarted my music obsessions by trading Grateful Dead tapes. But my tastes and contacts quickly embraced the digital. Music could now be shared, mixed, and distributed in a fraction of the time, with “better” audio quality. With the spread of broadband, such physical media lost even more of their centrality. Fast internet meant music a-go-go!
Sure, there were late-game cultural touchstones that tried to keep these media alive. For example, generational favorite High Fidelity (2000) was a paean to analog media and material loss of all sorts. But aside from a few eccentrics, most of my friends gleefully got rid of their tapes. Inevitably, audio cassettes and VHS tapes became dirt cheap. They remain the bread-and-butter of thrift stores. Those without much money, collectors, and the curious would remain well served.
Woton’s Wake; Directed by Brian De Palma; Produced by Cinema d’Arte; Written by Brian De Palma
Brian de Palma is currently enjoying one of his frequent periods of revival and rediscovery. His film Passion (2013) is receiving mixed reviews, with some considering it a return to form (others call it a bankrupt retread). Whatever its quality, this film’s release prompts us to look back. I’ve always been a fan of “early” De Palma, which I consider to be his work up-to-and-including The Phantom of the Paradise (1974). I’m sure that others would periodize it differently. That said, one of his earliest extant fiction films, Woton’s Wake (1962), has always proved elusive. I’d seen The Responsive Eye (1965) and have long admired Murder A La Mod (1968), The Wedding Party (1969), Greetings (1968/1969), and Hi, Mom! (1970). Taken together, these films showcase De Palma at his most cosmopolitan. The Responsive Eye situates his interests as being firmly ensconced within contemporary art worlds (the film investigates the emergence of Op Art). Murder, The Wedding Party, Greetings, and Hi, Mom! are lively, inventive, loose, and political. Put another way, they are the singular creations of a filmmaker who had filtered, processed, and added to the French New Wave, with specific attention to creating a new popular vernacular out of Godard’s sense of formal play. From 1965-1970, De Palma was one of the freshest voices of the New York underground. Maverick enough to eschew the visual logic static Hollywood cinema, he aspired to feature length narratives that drew most of their stylistic cues from the sudden availability of what world cinema–specifically international art cinema–had to offer.
Woton´s Wake, Brian de Palma, 1962 from Csiger Ádám on Vimeo.
The University of Pittsburgh FSGSO is getting ready to host our annual conference. This year’s theme has to do with lost, forgotten, obsolete, unlucky, or outmoded media. In the spirit of this topic, the next month or so will feature short essays that compliment such cultural detritus. Some of the films/objects/ideas to be discussed deserve reevaluation and first-time validation, while others, even when dredged up, are probably best left to the past.
Dust off your 8 mm projector, queue up some mixtapes, and get digging. Special Affects salutes the old, forgotten, broken, and lo-fi!
Orange Is the New Black (2013- ) has generated a lot of discussion. Its success through Netflix seems to cement the wide-ranging industrial changes in adapting to and supporting binge-watching. Its ensemble of complex female characters has been celebrated as a corrective to male-dominated quality television. But if Orange means something for contemporary television, it’s important to examine how the show’s formal features might compare with other media forms. Such comparisons can offer hints about how some of television’s pleasures are being figured today. Spoilers follow.
I. The Prison as Network
The comparison I have in mind is to Jules Dassin’s 1947 prison film, Brute Force. The film concerns Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) and his efforts to escape from a prison that operates under the thumb of Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Beyond the superficial similarity of being set in a prison, Brute Force shares two key features with Orange. The first is its narrative structure. The second is the way our sympathies and pleasures are managed along that structure.
While Joe Collins is nominally the main character of Brute Force, he shares nearly equal screen time with a variety of characters – prisoners and prison authorities – who have relative independent storylines of their own. Collins fits the mold of the goal-oriented protagonist typical of classical Hollywood at the time. He needs to escape because his girl needs an operation and she will not go into surgery without him by her side. But the film spends precious little time expanding on this. Dassin’s real interest lies in the consequences that Collins’s plan has for the other characters and the structure of the prison. Collins disappears from the story for long stretches while messages are carried out and intercepted, inmates privately struggle over whether they want to risk escape, and authorities struggle with each other over how to control the inmates.
Werner Herzog’s latest project is an eighteen-minute, five-channel video installation entitled Hearsay of the Soul, featuring the landscape etchings of 17th-century Dutch painter Hercules Segers–known for his expressive, un-peopled landscapes replete with jagged peaks and barren valleys –in tandem with the contemporary music of Dutch composer Ernst Reijseger. The project seems both a personal homage to these artists, especially Segers–whom Herzog regards as “the father of modernity in art”–and a humble experiment playing with the relationship between music and image.