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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

Locating the Lesbian Spectator in Arzner’s The Wild Party

One of my major interests in studying film has been locating the lesbian or lesbianism(s) in film. I have previously gravitated toward trying to locate the lesbian(ism) in the translation process of films adapted from novels which contain lesbian characters or allude to lesbianism in someway. In writing my MA thesis, “From Haunting the Code to Queer Ambiguity: Historical Shifts in Adapting Lesbian Narratives from Paper to Film,” I discovered that the invisibility of lesbian characters depends not on textual images but rather on the reading strategies of spectators themselves. Thus began an avid interest in understanding the impact and importance of spectatorship theories.

Most of the theorists I examined focused on the ways in which queer spectators use their marginalized identity positions to see things as visible and foreground what other non-marginalized, uninitiated and un-invested spectators cannot or will not see. By utilizing extra-filmic materials and reading against the grain, perverse spectators[1] read as visible representations of queerness or lesbianism that other spectators only perceive as invisible.

Judith Mayne, was one theorist whose work, Cinema and Spectatorship, provided a useful entry into the concept of queer spectatorship. Mayne emphasizes the need for textual analysis of individual films while simultaneously recognizing the myriad identities that individual spectators can belong to and how this impacts “the hypothetical quality of any spectator imagined by film theory” (8). Of most interest to me is Mayne’s concept of “critical audiences.” One major example of this is gay and lesbian audiences who hold what Mayne terms as a “critical” position; because of their capacity to be both inside and outside dominant ideology, they are inside and outside representations of dominant ideology (ie, they are both represented and not represented by its cultural productions). Read more

Footnotes

  1. Janet Staiger, Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception (2000, NYU Press.) []

The Element of Surprise in Anthology Horror Film

The subset of films commonly known as anthology horror is comprised of many lesser-acknowledged films within the genre, judging by their absence in most academic works that address the horror canon. Yet anthology horror films have maintained a steady, if understated, presence within the genre: in recent years, films such as Three…Extremes (2004), Trick ‘r Treat (2007), VHS (2012), The ABCs of Death (2012), and even the forthcoming Free Fall (2014) incorporate the segmented structure of anthology horror. Fitting somewhere in between shorts and features, these films remain a covert, but potent, counterpart to the generic tendencies of horror film. My current investment in anthology horror film is not to expound on the reasons for its diminished and overlooked status within the horror genre, but to highlight its idiosyncrasies and situate elements of its unique vocabulary alongside standard (or non-anthology) horror. Since this is an ongoing topic of interest for me, I intend to pursue this study in more detail along several different paths.

Anthology films, also known as portmanteau or omnibus films, can be described as films that consist of short, autonomous segments running anywhere from a handful of minutes to nearly an hour. In his book Hammer and Beyond: The British Horror Film, Peter Hutchings describes two general categories of anthology horror films. He writes, “In the first group are those films in which the separate stories are not related directly to each other” (135). Films such as Three Extremes… (2004) and Spirits of the Dead (1968), which contain segments connected only by a common theme, fall into this category. The second type “connects its story segments via a link-narrative” (135) – that is, a narrative that unites and simultaneously exists apart from the segments that comprise the bulk of each film. Link-narrative anthology horror films enjoyed brief proliferation in the 1960s-1970s and were primarily associated with the England-based Amicus Productions. The most striking aspect of link-narrative anthology horror is its tendency to downplay horrific or frightening elements in favor of humor, irony, or “fun,” a term borrowed from Linda Williams. While standard horror strives to push the boundaries of shock and fear, anthology horror (unless specified otherwise, any mention of anthology horror from now on will refer to link-narrative) eschews these horrific and frightening elements to prioritize humor and silliness. As a result, it shies away from the extremities of standard horror, still incorporating many stylistic features of most genre films but producing a vastly different effect. In this way, anthology horror films offer a rich tonal contrast to standard horror. Read more

Book Review: Six English Filmmakers

Recognize anybody?

Six English Filmmakers by Paul Sutton

(with additional material by Kevin Brownlow, Brian Cox, Bernard Cribbins, Philip Harrison, Jocelyn Herbert, Murray Melvin, Brian Pettifer, Vivian Pickles, Brian Simmons, and Rupert Webster)

Cambridge, UK: Buffalo Books, 2014

Paul Sutton’s Six English Filmmakers is full of stories, and reads as an extended love-letter to a group of directors whose reputations have suffered periodic neglect. While Mike Hodges is still alive (though seemingly retired), most of the filmmakers discussed are now dead. And, while most will agree that Charlie Chaplin is a major figure of world-historical importance, not everyone will recognize the shifting fortunes of directors like Lindsay Anderson, Clive Donner, Ken Russell, and Michael Winner. But, for those of us who have been paying attention to such filmmakers–indeed, to anybody with a specific interest in 1960s and 1970s cinema–Six English Filmmakers will be a welcome addition to the bookshelf.

It should be mentioned from the outset that this isn’t the type of film book that one often sees. Six English Filmmakers isn’t a critical study (after reading it, I don’t think it had given me any strong reasons to change my evaluations of the films discussed). It isn’t a history of the industry, though it does shed plenty of light on the production contexts of specific films, on issues of film censorship, and on the reception of films around the world. It doesn’t offer “close readings” of films, or the kind of shot-by-shot formal analysis that prevails in the age of screen capture (though it does feature plenty of still images, many with choice compositions). It certainly isn’t a work of film theory. Instead, the book focuses on bringing to light new, previously unpublished, obscure, or otherwise unknown facts, images, battles, tales, and anecdotes about many of the films made by the directors in question. Most of this material is revealed in conversations with the collaborators or friends of these directors (or from discussions with the directors themselves) and much is supported by choice primary source documentation. The book’s biggest hurdle is the barrier of entry for the contextual appreciation of its strengths. While never condescending, the book addresses the reader as if they have some knowledge of the life and careers of the featured directors. This probably won’t be anybody’s first book on Chaplin or Anderson. But, for those interested in something new, it will fit the bill. Read more

Snapshots of Bollywood Masculinity in the Age of Hindutva

The year 2013 marked the centenary of Indian cinema and as a result the country saw multiple celebrations through the year commemorating this event—film festivals, government funded programs, special films made to mark the occasion and of course tributes in the forms of books, journals, conferences etc. In this paper I want to focus on two song and dance numbers that were performed at the popular Hindi cinema award shows Filmfare and the International Indian Film Awards (IIFA). The first of the two was performed by actor Hrithik Roshan at the Filmfare awards, while the other was by the upcoming actors Sushant Singh Rajput. Both performances were set to songs dedicated to the Hindu lord Ganesha; while Roshan danced to a song from his own film Agneepath, Rajput performed to a medley of songs, all of which were invocations to Ganesha in some capacity. I want to use these performances as illustrations not just of the communal politics of the Bombay film industry, but also of the male body as it performs or is made to stand in for an aggressive religious identity. This paper will try to demonstrate that these are not isolated events, but are instead visible evidence of the masculinization of what is being projected as the Hindu nation.[1]

A Bollywood Map of Masculinity

Shah Rukh Khan

Since the early 1990s, the most popular actors of popular Hindi cinema, known unfortunately as Bollywood, have been the three Khans—Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir. All three hail from the Pathan group, who in India are Muslims originating from the Northwest frontier (near the border of Afghanistan). While Aamir Khan is crafting his image as a “serious actor”, Salman Khan has been categorized as the “brawns” of the industry. A middle ground of sorts is in Shah Rukh Khan, who is arguably the most popular of the three as his popularity cuts across classes and regions. Shah Rukh (I will refer to him as such to avoid confusion), was arguably the actor with whom there was a change in the image of the male lead’s masculinity.

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Footnotes

  1. Hindutva is a term that is associated with the sectarian politics of the Hindu right-wing in India. []

Introduction to Applied Airport Studies

As I began reading Christopher Schaberg’s The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight (2011)–a book I’d already thumbed through on several occasions, and one that I knew quite a bit about after editing a colleague’s thorough review some years before–I was struck by just how much the opening pages caused me to think about how much I’d been lapsing into extended reveries about airports over the preceding months. Schaberg, the critic-laureate of airport studies, lays out strategies for the semiotic analysis of airports, a task which he performs quite consciously and most intriguingly. What struck me upon reading his book from the beginning, with the attention that it demands, is just how much I (and, I suspect, many of you) have been doing some of the things mentioned in the book, in some cases for years, but usually in an unconsciously selective or ambient way. Like most of the best books of criticism, Schaberg’s reveals the layers, and probes the depths, of the things that most of us skim, take for granted, or ignore.

Dulles: By Jérôme (CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Airports and the culture of flight are ripe for textual analysis. Roland Barthes’s “The Jet-Man” is a widely known example of a “reading” of a figure that, characteristically of this type of discourse, uncovers an inherent contradiction in this new type of person (in this case, the pilot-hero is at-once a man of speed and the ultimate in repose and retarded movement). Or, consider interpretations of two monumental architectural works by Eero Saarinen (carried out in Schaberg’s book, but familiar to a wide audience because of their canonized, iconic pedigree). His TWA Flight Center (1962), a stand-alone concourse at JFK Airport, and his main terminal of Dulles Airport (also 1962), are as much abstract evocations of dynamic bird-shapes as they are post-Bauhaus public spaces that actualize ascendant ideas about concrete, steel, light, and the outward projection of power and plenty.

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Covering All the Angles: March Madness Live and Mobile Spectatorship

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,[1] 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.

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Footnotes

  1. Though I don’t get into this here, I think there’s something to the foregrounding of “live” in mobile broadcasting. Liveness has been linked to television since Raymond Williams’ seminal work, and its persistence in sports discourse in an age of delayed series viewing seems important. []

Using Rodney Dangerfield to Rethink Masculinity in Reagan-Era Hollywood

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” [1].  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” [2]. Read more