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Posts from the ‘Miscellaneous’ Category

A Year in Sensation: 10 Cinephiliac Moments

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.”[1]

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  1. Forgive the awkward adverb, meant to transfer some focus from the films themselves to the felt viewings, and to make room for instances when a viewing experience was intense but not necessarily positive, as the first entry illustrates. []

Towards a Media Cabinet of Curiosities

 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.

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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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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

Music Video Report: Chance the Rapper, “Everybody’s Something” (dir. Austin Vesely)

I suppose it’s not particularly revolutionary to posit that everybody’s a palimpsest, but the music video for Chance the Rapper’s “Everybody’s Something” sure makes that sentiment seem like a revelation. In the video, simple images of Chance, well, rapping, become a surface for other moving images. Here’s how it works: Chance’s chiaroscuro silhouette moves against a darkened background while images play across his body. The images don’t overtake his features: eyes, mustache, head of hair are all visible beneath the visuals. Additionally, the darkened background sometimes fills up with images, furthering the video’s density. These background images are usually, but not always, abstract—dots of light, blurring colors, cloudy wisps—while the images against Chance’s body are usually, but not always concrete.

Part of what’s fascinating about the video is the fact that the images playing across Chance’s body are culled from footage spanning a wide swath of cinema, television, and internet history. Here’s The Great Train Robbery. Here’s footage of Muhammad Ali (maybe fighting Sonny Liston). Here’s Fox News. Here are bits and pieces of an instructional film from 1948 called Build Your Vocabulary. All this is merely the tip of the iceberg: hundreds of images arise and disappear in the video’s three minutes and thirty-four seconds.

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Unfair Use: On Intimidation, Institutional Cowardice, and Academic Freedom

Two days after presenting a paper at the April 10-11, 2013 Homonationalism and Pinkwashing conference, held at the CUNY Graduate Center and presented by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS), I received a seemingly friendly, or at the least benign, email from Yariv Mozer, director of the 2012 Israeli documentary Invisible Men. I had discussed Mozer’s film as part of my critique of recent Israeli films that purport to tell the “untold story” of queer Palestinians who escape what Mozer calls the “ghettos” of the West Bank for Tel Aviv. I soon found out that Mozer’s polite request was set like a trap. Considering that the Homonationalism and Pinkwashing conference was decried as soon as it was announced, none of the organizers or participants could be too surprised by various forms of backlash that were exposed publicly or that, like my minor ordeal, happened mostly behind the scenes. I did not expect, however, that this clear case of politically-motivated intimidation would lead me to question the academic institutions and organizations I naively assumed had principles to match their institutional power, and who I previously assumed would act on these principles to withstand and counter intimidation and threats to academic freedom on behalf of their scholars. Invisible Men, like Eytan Fox’s 2006 The Bubble, had come under scrutiny well before my presentation. The film’s exhibition was supported by Israeli consulate funding in several of the cities it travelled to, violating the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions of Israel. Many Palestine solidarity activists, media producers, and scholars consider it to be a clear example of Israeli pinkwashing—the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s attempt to re-brand the nation’s image in a progressive and tolerant light, often representing Palestinian society as culturally backwards in the process. In my presentation at Homonationalism and Pinkwashing, I screened a brief clip from Invisible Men to underscore how the film’s conventional documentary style reinforced the logic of the “untold story” by under-emphasizing the construction and production of the confessional narratives of the Palestinian men in the film. In the clip, Israeli LGBT activist Shaul Gonen asks Palestinian Louie to tell the story that will corroborate Louie’s asylum request. Louie’s story bears striking similarity to stories that Gonen has in fact told to the press many times before (since the late 1990s Gonen has frequently served as the primary or sole source on gay Palestinian asylum seekers and runaways), and yet the 2012 film’s promotional materials insist this “untold” story was to be exposed “for the first time” in Mozer’s film. Read more

Disillusions: The Dunk Tank

There is a kind of humiliation particular to graduate school in the humanities. Graduate humiliation is unique because it is experienced solipsistically. In light of the fact that humanistic work requires the juncture of creativity—blending or concocting new concepts—and the need for analytical rigor, unfavorable feedback from advisors and committee members feels deeply personal. My analogies for the experience are completely clichéd: a blow to the guts; the rug gracefully, but unexpectedly, pulled out from underneath you; or, in the most acute moments, an experience of vertigo in which my relationship to points of reference in the world is just beyond grasp. Even before I entered graduate school doubts about my self-worth tinged my everyday experiences. So there must have been something particularly masochistic in my applying to East Coast and Midwest doctoral programs and turning my back on a climate I considered ideal for human bodies and an intellectually engrossing, if sometimes misguided, activism on the West Coast. In this previous context I felt I had finally come into my own, and I assumed a confidence lacking in preceding years. This self-assurance came across in the bombast of my first years in the PhD program during which I freely, and joyfully, denounced ideas I found suspect and other graduate students whose work seemed soft and without stakes. But as my dissertation writing group noted early in my drafting of my first chapter: this confidence is now “shot.” Read more

MoMA’s Uneasy Foray into Video Game Collection and Display

As some already know, MoMA’s design department has recently gotten into the role of acquiring video games as part of their permanent collection, a move that was of great interest to me as a gamer and someone who devotes much of a lot of my scholarship to video games. It so happens that last semester my girlfriend interned in MoMA’s architecture and design department and, as a perk, she was able to bring me along for an intimate, after-hours tour that included the exhibit of the recently acquired video games—a tour made particularly unique[1] because it was led by the senior curators themselves. In the exhibit, the 14 games are displayed with very minimal fanfare (aside from one wall covered in screenshots from Sim City 2000) and even the consoles are hidden behind a blank wall so that just the screens appear with a shelf underneath that holds a set of headphones, and, depending on the game, a controller.  About half of the games are playable while the other half run recorded demos of the games.  I had already read about the exhibit in the NYTimes and had gone to see it for myself, so now I was really excited to get to meet and talk to Paola Antonelli, a Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, who appears to have been the driving force behind the effort to start a video games collection.[2]

From my perspective, MoMA’s decision to begin acquiring and displaying games is another instance of the gatekeepers to high culture slowly aligning themselves with the increasingly accepted notion that video games should be talked about in the same category as other major forms of popular art. This should be a good thing.  For me, gaming still remains a guilty pleasure—a “guilt” that implies this layer of judgment projected on to those around me who still associate gaming with a juvenile pleasure for young males. Maybe it’s for this reason that my own avowed love video games actually makes me more self-conscious about justifying a scholarly engagement—it makes me feel like I have found a way to rationalize remaining a 13-year-old boy well into adulthood.  When MoMA or the Smithsonian starts including games in their collections I feel a little less judgment coming my way (and maybe my mom will be a little less embarrassed to tell her friends what I write scholarly articles about).  Yet, even as I am excited about MoMA’s and Ms. Antonelli’s efforts, I am also skeptical of the two main functions going on here: first, the idea of acquiring games into a permanent collection ostensibly for recognition and preservation and, second, the manner that these games are displayed.  Read more