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Reflecting on “Screening Politics”

This year’s FSGSO conference, “Screening Politics: Affect, Identity, and Uprising” addressed a number of critical and emerging issues in both film studies and related fields of inquiry. The panels and keynote that comprised the conference were all characterized by thoughtful research and dialogue on the role of scholarship in understanding identity, affect, and moving image culture. For me, one of the most striking panels was “Us vs. Them: (Re)appropriating the Narrative,” which included a group of presentations that critically engaged with the relationships among race, gender, sexuality, and political power. These presentations particularly focused on how power’s ability to manifest in the moving image is reliant on the historical and cultural contexts in which production happens. I want to briefly reflect on some of the work that the panelists presented here, and begin asking questions about what their work might mean for future understandings of the field of film studies and its ability to engage meaningfully with activism and advocacy.

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Fall 2015 Cinematheque: Now In Theaters

It goes without saying that the act of viewing in a movie theater or screening room has long been left behind as the sole means of experiencing film. With the ease of home viewing and online streaming, format-specific viewing has also altered dramatically even within the last decade. One of the most significant ways in which this has affected our viewing habits is through binge-watching – not films, but TV and episodal narratives. Many people watch episode after episode of Orange is the New Black or Breaking Bad, but claim not to have the attention span to sit through a ninety-minute film. By this logic, it would seem that seeing a film at the movie theater is now considered a feat of attention and patience. But does the act of viewing in a movie theater truly determine that we will pay attention – and did audiences of previous decades truly devote their undivided attention to the spectacle on the screen? Read more

Queer Transpositions: Censorship and Desire in Andy Warhol’s 13 Most Wanted Men

13 Most Wanted Men, 1964

I recently visited The Andy Warhol Museum to take a look at Warhol’s 13 Most Wanted Men (1964) before it was returned to its home in the Queens Museum. I couldn’t miss catching a glimpse of the World’s Fair mural that was so famously painted over with silver paint a few days after its reveal. The exhibit included the individual mug shot prints alongside Warhol’s work that surrounded its production, World’s Fair materials, and newspaper reports of the controversy. In one exhibited interview, in true Warholian fashion, the artist quipped that he liked the painted censorship because “silver is nothing”—one could use it to cover furniture or, in the case of 13 Most Wanted Men, people that one no longer wants to see.

Shoe ("Tony"), ca. 1957

Before I made my way to the Most Wanted Men exhibit, however, I discovered something else. The museum was recently reorganized as a timeline, and thus more comprehensive view, of Warhol’s work. The top floor begins with his early art, including his commercial fashion drawings and blotted line illustrations. This inclusion foregrounds his early kitschy aesthetic that is typically effaced in the portrait of Warhol the Pop Artist. And importantly (for my purposes anyway), the museum’s choice to exhibit this work foregrounds Warhol’s identity as a gay artist. As I explored the top floor, I was delighted to see work like High Heel Shoe and Shoe (“Tony”), but I let out a little gasp of excitement when I turned around and saw the likes of Reclining Male Torso.

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Beautiful Views, or The Wind in the Trees

It’s one of the most persistent anecdotes of film studies that the first audiences of motion pictures were awe-struck by what Dai Vaughan has called the “incidentals” of scenes: “smoke from a forge, steam from a locomotive, brick dust from a demolished wall.”[1] Most famously, during exhibitions of the Lumieres’ Repas de bebe, audiences were reportedly more interested in the distant tree leaves blowing in the wind than the baby eating breakfast in the foreground.

Most interpretations of the phenomenon tend to explain the attraction as a symptom of a particularly modern epistemology based on chance, ephemerality, and spontaneity or as an effect of cinema’s novel ability to show the autonomy of the world unfold independently of authorial control. In each case, the spectatorial attraction to incidental motion is explained by invoking the contingency of the moving image. Dai Vaughan points out that because the first film audiences would have been familiar only with the painted backdrops of the theater, they were astonished not by the moving figures in the foreground (they’d seen people on stage before) but by the seemingly uncaused, unplanned movement of the previously inanimate background. The surroundings, subject to a thousand spontaneous variations, come to life in a way that threatens to dwarf the actors.  And Mary Ann Doane, less interested in the why than in the so what, associates the attraction to cinematic contingency with a host of then-emerging epistemological discourses that similarly privilege singularity, particularity, and chance (e.g. literary realism, statistics, psychoanalysis, physiology).[2]


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On Montage and Ideology in Alexander Kluge’s Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike

In one of his latest works, Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike – news from the ideological past or antique – Alexander Kluge, a friend and protege of Theodor W. Adorno, uses the medium of the DVD to engage the question of how we can perceive and think of Marx’s Kapital in a time that claims to be post-ideological.

Nachrichten was originally planned as a tribute to the renowned Russian filmmaker and theoretician Sergej Eisenstein. The project is inspired by Eisenstein’s work on Kapital, which he planned to set into film. Although he started planning the project and took a lot of notes on it, he never started to film his ideas. Kluge’s approach to montage as a technique and his idea of montage as a dialectical art form show similarities with Eisenstein’s approach to montage. Kluge, however, translates the concept of the dialectics of montage from the analog to the digital: It is no longer the contrast between image and the black frame as a non-image that builds up montage as a dialectic art form, but rather the contrast and the mutual relations between the images themselves. Kluge uses interview scenes (talking heads), recitations of Marx’s Kapital and Eisenstein’s notebooks, as well as theater performances and archive material to create a very diverse filmic landscape that connects with the texts provided on the booklet as well as the DVDs.

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“Nowhere Space:” Sonic Materiality and Sites of Reading

In Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound, Don Ihde writes: “Sometimes there is a ‘singing’ of voice in writing. I have often been shocked at ‘hearing’ a friend’s voice on reading his or her latest article or book” (xx). For the last year or so, I’ve been investigating the role of the ear in processes of reading and writing. As a grad student, my project, broadly, has been to bring the field of sound studies into dialogue with the discourses of rhetoric and composition. In doing so, I have needed to confront slippery aural modalities—when sound itself seems to toggle between vibrating physically in the air and echoing off the page into the minds of readers. Investigating these sonic slippages has led me to see the body as implicated in writing in unexpected ways. Ihde puts it this way: when we “hear” a piece of writing, “the other shines through in an auditory adherence to what is ordinarily soundless” (xx). How is it, after all, that a written text can at times be so strongly “heard,” even during silent reading?

In the introduction to his 1990 book, Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext, Garrett Stewart asks, perhaps for the first time among literary theorists, where reading occurs: “what…precisely,” he wonders, “is the site of reading, and why?” (17). From here, he goes on to suggest that reading may take place not in the “brain” but in the body, or rather in a delicate and complex combination of the two. This suggestion is notable for bringing the reader’s sensorium to bear on literary interpretation, a field in which readers and texts at times seem to be disembodied. Adriana Cavarero calls this a “strategic deafness to the plural, reciprocal communication of voices” that “devocalizes” written texts and the bodies that they come from (530). More recently, Brandon LaBelle takes up Stewart’s idea of a mixed physical and mental space in Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetic and Politics of Voice and the Oral Imaginary.

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Facsimile: A Love Letter

The etymology of the word facsimile holds no surprises, but only reminds us that it carries the word simile—a word you learned in elementary school—preceded by the Latin imperative make: “make like.” There is, however, this seductive note following the etymology: “The form factum simile, occurring in quote 1782 sense 2a, is often stated to be the original; but of this we find no evidence.”

Facsimile has been around as a technique and term since the seventeenth century. The facsimile that I refer to here is digital facsimile reproduction, descendant of the lithograph— the invention of which, according to Walter Benjamin, heralded a new age of reproduction in the nineteenth century (216). In the span of time since, there has been a lot of critical anxiety about the facsimile—its deceptions, its proliferation. Either this, or the facsimile is transparent, unremarkable. For example: In Walter Benjamin’s Archive: Images, Texts, Signs—a book compiled of full color facsimile reproductions of postcards, lists, notebook pages, diagrams, manuscript drafts, and other items from the remains of Benjamin’s archive—not one of the essays around which these images are organized comments upon the potentially sensuous experience of lingering over the facsimiles of these things. There is some observation, it is true, of the type of labor involved in deciphering Benjamin’s tiny handwriting: “It bars the reader from direct access to what is written, and initially it can only be experienced sensuously, through the expressive power of the writing’s image; only once it has been deciphered can its contents unfurl” (52). But this is a comment with a different object—and a different excitement—than a comment attuned to the sensuousness of the facsimile, itself, of Benjamin’s open notebook (156-157), a sensuousness that resides not in the fact that this is Benjamin’s notebook, but in the curling layers of tissue-thin pages, on which the undersides of cramped, dark handwriting rise up through the surfaces of verso and recto.

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Cinematheque Presents: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Director Michael Powell and writer Emeric Pressburger created films together as The Archers. Their mutual legacy under the aegis of this production company is a string of films from the 1940s and 1950s, from One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) to Ill Met by Moonlight (1957). Taken together, their films are at-once typical of British cinema (frequent topics and subtexts include national identity, melodramatic love, and the idea of duty) and highly abnormal. With The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I’d like to briefly clue you in to its importance and centrality to its culture, and then spend slightly more time dwelling on its abnormality, the many ways in which it is strange, unsettling, and singular.

Blimp was a pop cultural mainstay, a creation of David Low for first appeared in cartoons in the Evening Standard: a pompous, stereotypical military figure recognizable as much for his high Tory politics as for his rotund shape. To be a “Colonel Blimp” means to be a certain sort of old timer, outraged and out of touch. Powell and Pressburger’s film takes this type and brings it to bear of Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey, in his best performance), an old man during a new war. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is about the life, loves, and military service of Wynne-Candy, told mainly in flashbacks, as he navigates his youth during the Boer War, sees service in World War I, and, in the frame story, tries to find his place in the “People’s War” of the 1940s, a desperate, yet more egalitarian conflict that does not observe the old codes of conduct and civility. On a quite obvious level, then, the film is about how an establishment figure in British cultural life looks back on the empire’s legacy of military honor and achievement, in the process coming to terms with aging, death, and the mores of a new generation. This is a movie about how “official” culture changes and about how the eccentric gentleman finds his place in a brave new world.

It was also a scandalous film. Although produced and distributed independently, the movie had to pass wartime censorship standards (in brief, it was like all British films about war released during the war: at least partial propaganda). It did, but Prime Minister Winston Churchill, probably the most famous Colonel Blimp figure in the world, tried to suppress it on grounds of ideology and appearance. Nonetheless, it was a success in Britain, providing humor and heroism in well-measured proportion. The afterlife of the film seems to follow Criterion’s favored trajectory: it initially circulated in several cut versions, but their release restores it to intended length. Their painstaking restoration must be seen to be believed.


Powell and Pressburger are known in British film historiography for being the flipside to the nation’s typical associations with realism. Using lush cinematography, sets, deeply felt space, the visual suggestion of psychological subjectivity, and unconventional structures (here, a flashback model that uncannily captures some of the muddle and idealization that happens with time), they are usually read as everything that John Grierson and Ken Loach are not. This is a slightly unfair distinction–my larger academic project looks at genres and filmmakers who hold realism and fantasy in tension, which means admitting, at least in certain circumstances, that Grierson was never quite as timid, nor Powell and Pressburger so untethered from lived experience, as commentators would often suggest. As you watch The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, though, keep an eye on things that are typically missing from conventional British cinema: characters in multiple roles (a Brechtian effect achieved without Brecht); space and landscape invested with psychic and psychological significance; an unusually introspective sense of what it means to belong to a nation (or to differentiate one nation from another); and the sense of real depth in characterization. Most of the central characters are three-dimensional such that they give the impression of thinking-through real struggle, and arriving at real compromise or change. This was as rare then as it is today.

Most of all, rest easy in the knowledge that Powell and Pressburger (once rank outsiders to a cinematic establishment) have finally been embraced for all their idiosyncrasy. This film serves both as a representative introduction to their collaboration and as possibly the most moving feature film made by the Isles during the war.

Kevin M. Flanagan