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Posts from the ‘New Media’ Category

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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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. []

Rewinding the Cassette

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.

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Towards a Minor-Key Cinema: Phil Solomon at Melwood

As a child I would listen to oldies radio stations, and certain songs would draw me in. Songs by girl groups were often hard to tell apart: bright instrumentation, sunny harmonies, always about love. But some girl group songs added something indelibly sad to that sound that I couldn’t place. The way the background singers would turn their notes downward in the chorus of “Be My Baby” just before the main vocal came in and the melodic line in “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” made the songs rich and full of longing. Some years later, taking music lessons, I surmised that these and other songs that had made me feel the same way (like “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”) used minor-mode variations: minor chords, changes, and keys that flattened the third and gained a romantic depth borne of some prelinguistic pain. The recent work of Phil Solomon, screened at Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Melwood Screening Room on April 4th, seems to be after something of a piece with these episodes in popular music, looking for a combination of image and sound that will overpower with epic, aching beauty. (Given his acknowledged debts to 60s artists like the Beach Boys and the Beatles, who learned a great deal from Spectorized pop, this is hardly surprising.) Solomon’s Grand Theft Auto Works and his Corcoran-commissioned American Falls, though widely divergent in subject matter, share this basic sensibility. They feel too familiar to seem properly avant-garde. This isn’t because he deals with popular materials, but because he recalls and continues familiar experiences with popular culture. Taking the cinematic qualities of Grand Theft Auto to their logical (yet unexpectedly moving) conclusions and boiling American iconography into a liquid monument of loss are as roughly familiar to New Sincerity as they are to the experimental film tradition. (And both carry on the concerns of Romanticism, albeit in different ways.) Read more

Searching for Kahlil Joseph: How one learns about a {good} short film director on the Internet

As I watched the Academy Awards last month I began to wonder about what happens to all of those nameless people who’ve won big name film making awards for short films at big name events. I don’t just mean the Oscars, but also Cannes and Sundance. What does a short film award afford these filmmakers? Certainly it offers limelight, prestige, and a foot in the door to future funding. They have a title now, gosh darnit! They’ve won at Sundance! Cannes! They have an Oscar! For one, I don’t understand the impetus behind the category at the Oscars. Let’s be honest, aren’t these usually the categories in our Oscar party ballots that most of us vote for based on title alone? Some of us may see an Academy shorts presentation at the local art house, or are industrious enough to find these films online and have our own private screening. But for the most part, we’re doing this to have some extra edge on our voting competition. But after they win, or lose, where do these filmmakers go? I don’t mean this to be snarky. I do wonder about the future of these filmmakers after such momentous wins. Is this really the road to success? Or is this part of a PR move by these separate institutions to re-inscribe the myth of total Hollywood that making a solid, story-grounded film will open more doors and will guarantee continued rewards in the industry?[1] I became interested in one such director out of chance. After years in film school making and watching a number of good, mediocre, and out right bad student short films, I’m hard pressed to force myself to watch short films nowadays. I’ve done my time with this genre, and I’m not easily impressed by its niceties, its cute characters, or stylistic rip-offs. So, when my alma mater advertised that one of our own had just won a special jury award for short film at Sundance, I grudgingly felt obliged to watch. Kahlil Joseph’s 2012 short film “Until the Quiet Comes” is totally bizarre. Its lyricism, its poetic movement (bodily and via the camera), its heat and its cold, its tonal shifts and rhythmic shifts, and its description as a “music video”. This last claim is hardly fair, because ‘Quiet’ is not a music video but an interwoven meditative narrative or images from a day, a week, or summer in the Nickerson Gardens housing projects in Watts-Los Angeles set to three different selections from the Flying Lotus album “Until the Quiet Comes”. In a genre that so often has the tendency to be obvious in style, pandering in tone, and weighty with significance, Joseph’s film both avoids and embraces moments of realism with the mystical and moments of pain with joy. This film does not linger, but seems slow, it does not describe but is full of detail. This is where I get caught up in Joseph’s work (because like most of the aforementioned filmmakers, this ain’t his first rodeo). Read more

Footnotes

  1. OK, OK, I’m sure there a number of special cases to prove me wrong on this position, my curiosity in asking this question is how many of us take the time after these initial awards to do more digging into these filmmakers []

“Teachers and Researchers and Something Else”: Cooper and Marx Confront the Future of the Humanities

Mark Cooper (University of South Carolina) and John Marx’s (University of California Davis) lecture “Crisis, Crisis, Crisis: Big Media and the Humanities Workforce” represents part of their on-going collaborative project to “reappraise key arguments about higher education in light of media history.” As their title suggests, Cooper and Marx open their talk with the question: Have the humanities always been in crisis? If so, what makes this crisis different? They set out to analyze how today’s crisis qualitatively differs from the others and from there, explore how we can train our students (and ourselves) to inhabit the digital. Although they aim to find diagnostic solutions, they first work through the history of Film Studies, paying particular attention to the challenges film posed for the humanities, its disciplining into English, and the university’s efforts to define the role of media. Cooper and Marx work through this history because film stands as a prime exemplar of mass media; this conception of film as mass media slides into a contemporary digital mass media—a digital mass media for which traditional visions of the humanities prove inadequate. Accordingly, Cooper and Marx call for us all to envision the future of the humanities differently. With their bemoaning of “enough with the English Department,” it appears their vision of the digital humanities’ future is not in English disciplining. They, instead, urge universities to use humanities training in creative, marketable ways, increasing diversification and deliberately building a humanities workforce.

Speaking as a Ph.D. student in Film Studies/English, I find myself feeling uncomfortable with many of Cooper and Marx’s proposed solutions. Throughout the latter half of the lecture, I continually wondered what exactly they mean by workforce—where do they position professorial careers in this mystical marketplace? What about students who pursue humanities degrees for an intended future in academia? I do not plan to use my degree for something “marketable” (I want to teach) and I wonder where I fit into their schema. While sitting in the audience, I could not help but feel like I was not their intended audience. Yet, I ultimately have a certain sympathy for their project. While I find some of their solutions like “unifying culture and professional management” a bit clinical, it is difficult to say that other scholars offer better, more ideal answers to the crisis. Even if I do not share their perspective, their work provokes specific questions and productive conversations. In light of other critics who accept the humanities’ death, their project emerges from a place of optimism for the humanities’ future. While at times prescriptive, Cooper and Marx’s project seeks to understand the humanities as an integral part of the social and carve a space for the digital humanities in both the university and the marketplace.

Printmaking for Scholars of Film and New Media

I originally intended to view the Frick Art & Historical Center’s exhibition “Three Centuries of Printmaking” (featuring The Prints of Jacques Callot) for purely recreational reasons. I often find that prints are as detail-oriented and beautiful as oil paintings, but give greater flexibility because of their less extensive initial investment and potential for reproducibility and massive circulation. Prints are a great means of gaining familiarity with a wide variety of aesthetic experiences, as they give us a sense of an individual artist’s taste and experience of the world. They provide a means of experiencing the paintings, sculptures, geographical views, and historical fantasias that obsess that particular artist. Moreover, they tell us something about a society’s taste (they verify what genres a given society found valid at a given historical moment) and about the personal taste of patrons and collectors (seeing which royal or ecclesiastical figure originally commissioned a work, and which monied industrialist later collected it, tells us a bit about the transmission of class values throughout the centuries). Further, exhibitions of prints are a great way for smaller venues to display a wide-variety of images of art historical interest without going bankrupt. These exhibitions bring some of the images that are stranded in the art centers of the world to less trod regional centers.

The Frick exhibition is split into three main rooms. One contains Callot’s work, which is here thanks to a package put together by The Reading Public Museum (of Reading, PA). In fact, much of Callot’s work has been collected in Pennsylvania. The University of Pittsburgh has an extensive collection (thus making Pittsburgh this Summer’s mecca for his work). A second room contains a series of mezzotints from the Frick’s permanent collection. These 18th century prints are mainly of aristocratic subjects, and a few are directly after painted portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The third room contains a complete series of chromolithographs (one of the first color print processes) from Thomas Shotter Boys’ book Picturesque Architecture in Paris, Ghent, Antwerp, Rhouen, Etc. While the idea for this post mainly comes from my encounter with the Callot prints, I will reference the others as well.

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In Praise of Album Covers

While the topic of album covers is obviously not film (or even moving-image media), I do think it speaks to concerns in film studies about media convergence, obsolete forms, and the open-ended relation of images to sounds.  I haven’t thought about the album cover as an artform for a long time, but I was struck recently by the Dum Dum Girls’ new release, Only in Dreams.  Had I not bought this album on vinyl, I don’t think I would have any appreciation for it.

The music itself on Only in Dreams is a disappointment.  The lyrics are vague and awkward, filled with pronouns and lazy rhymes (at one point Dee Dee, the band’s creative force, rhymes “right” with itself.)  Nearly every song has exactly the same midtempo, backbeat-heavy rhythm that groups use when they want to sound like the Beatles.  You know this beat when you hear it (see Nirvana, the Wonders).  Eight of the ten tracks on Only in Dreams repeat it.  Dum Dum Girls’ first album, I Will Be (from last year) also used that pulse a lot, but in fresher ways.  It felt like a groundwork for playing with varied tempos, thicker song structures, sharper guitar hooks, and meatier lyrics.  Songs had a sense of humor (“Oh Mein M,” “Jail La La”) and a surprising emotional depth (“Lines Her Eyes,” “Everybody’s Out”).  Only in Dreams sounds more like a clockwork imitation of 1960s  British beat bands and girl groups than a renewal of their spirit.

I Will Be, however, doesn’t have a very interesting cover.  The cover of Only in Dreams is phenomenal.  And it’s phenomenal in a way that needs the enlarged scale of a long-play record sleeve to be seen and felt as phenomenal.  (Which is why I don’t think a picture of the cover would be helpful here.)

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