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Posts from the ‘Film’ Category

Obsolescence and After: The Road to Second Chances, Final Glances

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!

Seen in Los Angeles: Werner Herzog’s Hearsay of the Soul

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[1] –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. Read more

Le Tableau and the World of a Painting

My favorite parts of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) are those moments that lay out and define the parameters of the Toon world. They tell us what is physically possible and socially conventional for the Toons, beings whose corporeality is unthinkable and whose autonomy is questionable. These moments can be revealed in grand spectacles, like the opening sequence– a “live-action” shooting of a cartoon in which all conceptions of Euclidean space are thrown out the window. They can also be revealed as big punchlines, playing on the social expectations of the genres these cartoons emerge from, like when we learn that, for Toons, a lurid extramarital affair can turn out to be a rousing game of patty cake. Or, these moments are revealed in subtle, clever gestures, like when the detective, at a Toon-staffed saloon, orders a scotch “on the rocks,” and then, remembering where he is, yells “I mean ice!” Toons, we intuit from the joke, tend to literalize our metaphors because they can, and the sheer capability of exploding human conventions, of showing us how arbitrary they are, is funny (at least to them).

Handcuffs, we discover, don't work on Roger Rabbit (a fact he can only reveal at the funniest possible moment).

These moments are interesting because they imagine how our artistic creations, still bound by conventions and the limitations of their medium (in this case, children’s cartoons from the Golden Age of American animation), might live autonomously. But these moments, I feel, simply provide a gimmick, a backdrop to a familiar plot-heavy film noir, albeit with a smart, but flawed, allegory for midcentury American race relations. If the majority of the film follows a set of narrative possibilities resulting from the imagination of sentient cartoon figures living and working in show business, I was always more curious about the particular nature of the Toon world’s difference from the real world rather than the dramatic consequences of that difference. That being said, Jean-Francois Laguionie’s Le Tableau (2011) seems to me the film I wanted Roger Rabbit to be. An animated children’s film about the social conflict and existential crises of painted figures living inside an artist’s paintings, Le Tableau never lets go of its interest in the myriad possibilities of its ontologically separate worlds–that is, the worlds within the paintings and the real world outside them. The film seems to be genuinely concerned with how we experience different artistic media–paintings, photographs, films, digital and hand-drawn animation–and persists in its imagination of what constitutes the worlds contained therein. Read more

Drift Space

It makes a certain sense that reviews critical of Pacific Rim are disappointed with its politics. The global disaster films of the last decade have primed us to judge them by their treatment of themes of globalization – and Pacific Rim’s is decidedly oblique. The contemporaneous transnational ‘mosaic film’, as Patricia Pisters has called it, invites a similar response. Though the latter genre is less spectacular and more narratively complex than the former, both promote a conception of the world as a single, claustrophobic, interconnected space; because ‘everything is connected’ – culturally and politically no less than environmentally and spatially – the fates of the ‘structurally unequal’ are rendered equally precarious. Local events have immediate global repercussions, the mass media mediates, space and time feel dramatically tight and measured – by flight paths and time zones, longitudes and elevations. Pacific Rim is not this kind of film, however – though it is careful to make the gestures necessary to thwart and mock these expectations. Read more

Book Review: To Each His Own Dolce Vita

To Each His Own Dolce Vita by John Francis Lane Cambridge, UK: Bear Claw Books, 2013 Cinephiles of recent vintage may not immediately recognize the name John Francis Lane, but his face will certainly be familiar to devotees of Italian cinema. Lane had supporting roles or cameos in many of the most important Italian films of the 1960s and early 1970s, including Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 ½ (1963), and Roma (1972), and Pasolini’s La Ricotta (1963, a segment of the anthology film RoGoPaG) and The Canterbury Tales (1972). Of course, his experience goes beyond films by internationally renowned auteurs: he also appears in genre fare like Maciste all’inferno (1962, known Stateside as The Witch’s Curse) and Lucky Luciano (1973). But while Lane now has recognition for his participation in these films, it is as a cultural correspondent, journalist, and film critic that he really makes his mark. To Each His Own Dolce Vita is Lane’s memoir of his first 15 years as an English expatriate in Rome, where he was uniquely poised to chronicle the ups and downs of a particularly turbulent period in the Eternal City’s history. Lane was born in Orpington, a suburb of London, but never quite felt comfortable there. Quickly realizing that his ambitions in the arts were not compatible with the regimented austerity of postwar Britain, he left for Paris, where he studied French and film. By 1950, however, he had traveled to Rome, which was to be his material and spiritual home base over the next two decades. By the time of his move, Lane had already contributed to Sight & Sound, and was soon to be appointed the Rome correspondent to Films & Filming, for whom he would cover festivals and the rise of neorealism during the 1950s. Meanwhile, he covered news and celebrity events for the News Chronicle, eventually graduating to more prestigious publications like The Times. He is still active today, writing obituary, memoir and appreciation pieces for The Guardian, many about Italian friends and acquaintances. Read more

Disillusions: What Keeps a Writer Writing?

I spent five days hearing papers on a broad variety of cinema-related topics at the SCMS conference in Chicago recently. It was a terrific, stimulating experience. When I first sat down with the conference program I circled the sessions that featured writers whose work I already knew and admired, like Victor Perkins, Lesley Stern, Gilberto Perez, Dan Morgan, and a few others. Then I turned my attention to other sessions whose topics sounded intriguing, featuring scholars whose work I didn’t know. The sessions in the former category turned out to be reliably great, but I was surprised by the latter category – specifically, the high number of graduate students who delivered dynamic, well-researched and memorable presentations.

Surrounded as we are today by a conversation about the ‘crisis in higher education’, I couldn’t help wondering: What percentage of these students will have the opportunity to devote the rest of their lives to teaching and researching cinema/media studies? To make a statistical prediction: that number is likely to be low. Which seems deeply unjust. Veronica Fitzpatrick provides the valuable, much-needed graduate student perspective on the conference experience in her recent blog post. She calls for a discussion on the theme of “disillusions”: on “the bad feelings associated with carving out a life in academia: discouragement, disenchantment, faltered hope, insecurity.” Her post is essential reading.

And so, if a distressing number of current PhD students in the field are unlikely to get a full-time position doing what they truly love, what will that mean for their continued interest in writing about cinema for the rest of their lives? Doesn’t moving image culture stand to lose an enormous amount of potential thought and writing in the decades to come? Which makes me wonder: What are the cultural conditions necessary to recover some of this potential that is on its way to disappearing forever? Under what circumstances might scholars continue to write about cinema even if they were condemned to the slave labor of a system that exploited them as adjunct faculty for the rest of their lives – or if they ceased to be professionals in the field altogether?

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Soderbergh Mania! A Side Effects (2013) Double Feature


Side Effects poster art, with added warning

NOTE: Given that Side Effects might be Steven Soderbergh’s last theatrical  feature, two Special Affects contributors, Natalie Ryabchikova and Felipe Pruneda Sentíes, thought they’d do a double post for the occasion, which hopefully will set the stage for an open-ended conversation. Indeed, the conversation is yet to happen, as the following pieces were written independently of one another, so that coincidences and differences will surprise the authors as much as the readers. A piece of advice: if you have not seen the film and don’t want too much information about the story, skip to Natalie’s piece. Otherwise, the plot description in the first piece will prepare you in some ways for the second.

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Roger Ebert and the Joyful Necessity of Criticism

When I was thirteen, my best friend’s family bought a home entertainment center.  As an extra, Best Buy threw in a copy of Roger Ebert’s Video Companion, 1995 edition.  I sometimes perused the book while I was at my friend’s house.  It was a morbid curiosity, an 800-page behemoth with gaping holes in it that made it a poor reference guide.  Leonard Maltin’s movie guide was more concise and more exhaustive.  I was puzzled at why it took Ebert so many words to recommend a movie.  I was puzzled at the principles of selection: where were the Monty Python movies, and why would I want to read about Henry and June or My Favorite Year?

I found myself returning to the book repeatedly, without really knowing why.  I re-read reviews of movies I’d already seen multiple times (The Shawshank Redemption was a particular favorite).  I read reviews of movies I’d never seen and never would see – like Exit to Eden, in which Ebert included his grocery list.

It took several months for me to learn that I actually enjoyed reading the book, and it took even longer for me to figure out why.  It was not a reference guide to pick up and discard at my leisure, but a companion for silent conversations.  Talking about why certain movies were better than others seemed to extend their powers over time.  The sadness I felt when a movie I loved had to end could be lifted; good words about good films let them live on.  He seemed able to say why I liked Shawshank better than I could.  But talking about movies also had powers over and above the movies themselves.  Talking about why bad movies were bad was fun, in a way that went beyond “I hated…hated hated hated hated hated this movie” into more subtly sarcastic articulations like, “The parents have provided little North with what looks like a million-dollar house in a Frank Capra neighborhood, all on dad’s salary as a pants inspector.”  From such combinations of plot summary and judgment, I could build a miniature movie in my head, complete with my emotional reaction to it, regardless of whether or not I’d seen it.

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Disillusions: On Conferencing

My first time attending the Society For Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference in 2011, I was thrilled to have been accepted from the still-mysterious open call submission pool in the first place, and doubly so to be randomly placed on a panel chaired by Rosalind Galt, whose writing on both space in contemporary European cinema and queer aesthetics I knew and so admired. Hours within arriving to New Orleans, I had spotted Steven Shaviro at the one cafe within walking distance of the Ritz, given my talk on masculinities in zombie apocalypse films to a fullish room, and was dodging dreamy gusts of wind-borne sugar at Café du Monde. The latter is a memory that returns in darker moments, such as waking to emails concerning misprocessed travel reimbursement forms and final deadlines on degree progress – at a different time, in another life, there was Rosalind Galt and beignets. Read more

Soderbergh Mania! – Ocean’s Twelve (2004)

Ocean’s Twelve is about as cool and cosmopolitan as they come. While still beholden to the heist concept of Ocean’s Eleven–though this time, the crew has to get together in order to make monetary amends for their previous job–it expands the canvas, stretching it comfortably, without ripping apart the fabric that made the first film work so well. The largely American cast is expanded to include Welsh (Catherine Zeta-Jones), French (Vincent Cassel) and British (Albert Finney) stars. Their world of opportunity has moved away from the Vegas strip, into the dazzlingly beautiful vistas of Lake Como, the streets of Rome, and the canals of Amsterdam. This time, the explanation for the impossible job is even more unbelievable, yet Soderbergh nicely withholds just the right amount of information to keep things grounded in the warped plausibility that seems natural to the Ocean group.

I watch Ocean’s Twelve several times a year, but I don’t keep revisiting it for the story. While the landscapes and the elliptical style keep my attention, the real star is the film’s soundtrack. When I mention the Ocean’s Twelve soundtrack, people immediately think of the memorably electronic song that accompanies Francois Toulor’s evasive dance through the security laser field. Where Catherine Zeta-Jones’ storied laser scene from Entrapment (1999) had been about maximizing her sensuality, Cassel’s show-stopping scene is meant to suggest the perfection of his body in relation to the impossibility of the job. The music–Nikkfurie’s “The a La Menthe”–corresponds to the random, manic nature of the lasers. It’s worth noting that “The a La Menthe” does not appear on the soundtrack album to the film: an instance in which a film’s most famous music doesn’t get “official” recognition! Despite the omission, the Ocean’s Twelve soundtrack (officially, a CD labelled “Music from the Motion Picture”) remains a bright star indeed. It is part original score, part compilation disc. Read more