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Posts from the ‘Film’ 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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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


  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

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 (

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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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

On the Nonessential Beauty of Legos

The general consensus on The Lego Movie seems to be that it shouldn’t be as good as it is.  A better way to put this might be that it shouldn’t be good in the way that it is.

There is nothing hidden about its pleasures.  It doesn’t somehow succeed in spite of being a product-placement film (in some accidental or self-parodic way).  Its success depends fully on the product being placed.  In fact, the product is the place, literally and thematically.  It does exactly what a feature-length commercial should do: it sells its brand as a way of life.

On the one hand, this is a wet dream of franchising and ancillaries.  It naturally extends the Lego brand’s licensing of properties (like the Marvel universe) and its video game series.  There is an awkwardly-titled The Lego Movie Videogame, and a sequel to the film is already in the works.  One can imagine The Lego Videogame Movie; The Lego Movie Videogame Movie; and on and on.  All this would be fully in the spirit of Legos themselves, placing units together into ever-more complex and unpredictable relations.

On the other hand, the movie’s very ability to sell a way of life sets it along a sensory and conceptual life of its own.  Because the film uses Legos to be about something more than just Legos, that “something more” has its own contours.  To describe what the film does requires more than just admiring its cleverness or expressing surprise or claiming that it’s subversive.

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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. []

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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