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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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Lost/Forgotten/Found #7: Woton’s Wake (1962)

Woton’s Wake; Directed by Brian De Palma; Produced by Cinema d’Arte; Written by Brian De Palma

Brian de Palma is currently enjoying one of his frequent periods of revival and rediscovery. His film Passion (2013) is receiving mixed reviews, with some considering it a return to form (others call it a bankrupt retread). Whatever its quality, this film’s release prompts us to look back. I’ve always been a fan of “early” De Palma, which I consider to be his work up-to-and-including The Phantom of the Paradise (1974). I’m sure that others would periodize it differently. That said, one of his earliest extant fiction films, Woton’s Wake (1962), has always proved elusive. I’d seen The Responsive Eye (1965) and have long admired Murder A La Mod (1968), The Wedding Party (1969), Greetings (1968/1969), and Hi, Mom! (1970). Taken together, these films showcase De Palma at his most cosmopolitan. The Responsive Eye situates his interests as being firmly ensconced within contemporary art worlds (the film investigates the emergence of Op Art). Murder, The Wedding Party, Greetings, and Hi, Mom! are lively, inventive, loose, and political. Put another way, they are the singular creations of a filmmaker who had filtered, processed, and added to the French New Wave, with specific attention to creating a new popular vernacular out of Godard’s sense of formal play. From 1965-1970, De Palma was one of the freshest voices of the New York underground. Maverick enough to eschew the visual logic static Hollywood cinema, he aspired to feature length narratives that drew most of their stylistic cues from the sudden availability of what world cinema–specifically international art cinema–had to offer.

Woton´s Wake, Brian de Palma, 1962 from Csiger Ádám on Vimeo.

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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!

“Orange Is the New Black” Is the New “Brute Force”: Prison Melodrama and Network Aesthetics

Orange Is the New Black (2013- ) has generated a lot of discussion.  Its success through Netflix seems to cement the wide-ranging industrial changes in adapting to and supporting binge-watching.  Its ensemble of complex female characters has been celebrated as a corrective to male-dominated quality television.  But if Orange means something for contemporary television, it’s important to examine how the show’s formal features might compare with other media forms.  Such comparisons can offer  hints about how some of television’s pleasures are being figured today.  Spoilers follow.

I.  The Prison as Network

The comparison I have in mind is to Jules Dassin’s 1947 prison film, Brute Force.  The film concerns Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) and his efforts to escape from a prison that operates under the thumb of Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn).  Beyond the superficial similarity of being set in a prison, Brute Force shares two key features with Orange.  The first is its narrative structure.  The second is the way our sympathies and pleasures are managed along that structure.

While Joe Collins is nominally the main character of Brute Force, he shares nearly equal screen time with a variety of characters – prisoners and prison authorities – who have relative independent storylines of their own.  Collins fits the mold of the goal-oriented protagonist typical of classical Hollywood at the time.  He needs to escape because his girl needs an operation and she will not go into surgery without him by her side.  But the film spends precious little time expanding on this.  Dassin’s real interest lies in the consequences that Collins’s plan has for the other characters and the structure of the prison.  Collins disappears from the story for long stretches while messages are carried out and intercepted, inmates privately struggle over whether they want to risk escape, and authorities struggle with each other over how to control the inmates.

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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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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

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