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Books

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online

Video

Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay

Essays

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema

Articles

Book Reports

Observations on film art

Archive for the 'Internet life' Category

The Celestial Arthouse: FilmStruck and Criterion Channel with an offer hard to refuse

DB here:

Here’s the big news. FilmStruck has instituted a student rate for subscriptions: 35% off the monthly rate, which means $39.99 for six months, or less than $7 a month. The Criterion Channel is included in this deal. Not only students but educators are eligible; it applies to anyone with an email address ending in .edu. You can get more information here.

In the current context, this seems to me a real bargain. Cord-cutting and cord-shaving are making streaming more and more common. But at least your cable subscription bundled a lot of channels offering movies from a wide range of sources. Now we face the prospect of each “content owner” setting up a dedicated streaming service.

Netflix and Amazon and Apple and YouTube are funding and buying exclusive rights to films and TV shows. Hulu remains as a source of Disney, Fox, and Warners properties, but that bundle is coming untied. Disney is planning to claw back most of its films for its proprietary streaming service. How soon before other studios mount their own streaming services?

The total cost of subscribing to your favorite services may rival a cable bill. Recognizing this, the studios have banded together to merge access to several of these sources in an app called Movies Anywhere. But that’s for convenience; you’re still paying out to many providers.

Ten years ago, Kristin and two major archivists expressed skepticism about the arrival of the Celestial Multiplex. Never would everything–really, everything–be available. In fact, as licenses expire and Peak TV drives streaming, Netflix and other services have trimmed their foreign and classic libraries.

This makes film FilmStruck an even more stupendous opportunity for film lovers. It remains a big, fat aggregator. Where else can you see, on a single night, a cache of 80s indies, eight movies by Phil Karlson, seven by Herzog, seven from Tunisia, Toshiro Mifune slicing and dicing his adversaries, a rare trove of French films made under Nazi Occupation, and several debut films by major filmmakers? And that’s before you get to the Criterion Channel, which currently offers Belle de Jour, Kore-eda’s Still Walking, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (with a unique le Carré interview), The Color Wheel, and hundreds of other titles. Not the Celestial Multiplex, but close to a Celestial Arthouse. It’s what the prophets of cable TV told us to expect, but never arrived: access to world culture, at the time and place of your choosing.

 

I get it, dude. Movies.

Criterion’s new deal comes at the one-year anniversary of our series, “Observations on Film Art.” Kristin, Jeff Smith, and I have posted twelve installments, with more in the works. You can access them here, if you’re a FilmStruck subscriber. Several of these are developed further in blog entries; just go to our FilmStruck tag.

The anniversary set me thinking about streaming as a way of accessing movies. For home viewing I prefer discs, but more and more I watch streaming, usually to help my research. Several obscure 40s films I studied for my new book were available only on Amazon Prime, so those got my attention. Likewise, while revising our film history text, we checked on foreign-language titles not available on disc. But now I realize that to keep up with independent films I need to stream. The quite good I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore didn’t get a theatrical release and doesn’t seem to be on DVD.

What startles and sort of dismays me most is the way Netflix and other services let recent releases swamp the classics and imports they still have. I’m also a bit put off by the vastness of the choice, the grid of thumbnails like stamps in a huge album. A friend told me of her husband browsing titles for so long that they give up deciding on a movie and opt for the latest episode of a TV show.

Video stores were also vast, but they came with benefits. Rereading Tom Roston’s enjoyable I Lost It at the Video Store: A Filmmakers’ Oral History of a Vanished Era, I was reminded how important gatekeepers and tastemakers are. The best rental shops had knowledgeable clerks, wild categories, and displays that highlighted choices by staff. What we now call “curation” was in place, sometimes in a gonzo way, to guide people through the mass of VHS boxes. Kevin Smith:

I’d try to tell people what to rent even if it was the same stupid shit over and over. I was like, “I get it, dude. Movies. Who gives a fuck what they are.” I loved talking with people. There was no Internet, so you couldn’t jump on a message board or Twitter. “This is what I loved about Guardians of the Galaxy. I am Groot! #fuckin’thismovierocks.” You didn’t get to do that. You gotta do that in person with people.

FilmStruck, while offering hundreds of titles, has regained some of that curatorial function. You can still wander freely through the catalogue, but there are also interviews, talking-head introductions, categories both obvious and imaginative, and video essays of the sort you’d find in DVD supplements. For our series, we try to hold onto a personal touch. The installments are monologues, but we think we’re steering you toward what to appreciate in the movies we talk about. At least there’s a little more sense of human contact that way. And we hope our enthusiasm shows that analyzing film aesthetics doesn’t have to be dry and bloodless.


Thanks as ever to our collaborators at Criterion: Kim Hendrickson, Grant Delin, Peter Becker, and their colleagues.

 

OBSERVATIONS goes all FILMSTRUCK

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DB here:

In light of the cataclysm that struck on election day, to return to talking of films can seem frivolous. We’ve delayed posting this blog because we, like millions of other people, are seized with a dread as to what may come for our friends, our neighbors, our country and the world.

At least for the moment, though, we can’t stop living other aspects of our lives. Judging by the attention our entries continue to get in these days, we think that we should keep trying to provide ideas and information about film. Art is important too.

 

Thunderstruck by FilmStruck

You probably know that Turner Classic Movies has partnered with the Criterion Collection to create a streaming service called FilmStruck. There’s a comprehensive overview of the service on Variety, and Peter Becker has an invigorating introduction on the Criterion site.

The library includes many hundreds of films, mostly foreign imports and independent features and shorts. Many of the titles come from US non-studio distributors, but a vast number are from the Criterion library. Many will be titles not available on DVD.

It’s an all-you-can eat subscription service. For $6.99 per month you can get a basic membership in FilmStruck, and that will provide hundreds of titles, including many Criterion ones. For an extra $4, you can add on the Criterion Channel, with a huge additional selection (about 500 titles at any moment). There’s an annual rate covering both for $99. You can sign up for a 14-day free trial here.

Both wings of Filmstruck include the sort of bonus materials found on DVDs: background information, archival footage, talking heads, and video essays. The Criterion titles include voice-over commentary you can play while watching. I’m especially excited by the prospect of having the filmmakers’ commentaries from out-of-print laserdisc editions (e.g., Boogie Nights). And the FilmStruck site is already hosting, for free, a rich array of blog entries by experts (Pablo Kjolseth, Kimberly Lindbergs et al.) offering perspectives on the library titles.

The films can stand singly, but they’re also gathered into groups by theme, director, nation, or whatever.

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The Criterion Collection is richly curated too, with new groupings and titles highlighted every day. There are even Friday night double features, and new releases constantly refreshing the pool. And there are special events, like an evening at Manhattan’s wonderful Metrograph theatre.

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This double feature is introduced by Michael Sragow on the regular Criterion website, so the synergy is tight.

In addition, there are new introductions and appreciative discussions of films. For example, our friend Sean Axmaker has some coming up. And there are continuing series with film-struck partisans.

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At present, FilmStruck can be streamed on any computer or laptop, Amazon Fire, recent generations of iPad, and other devices. But not on your iPhone, pleeze. Roku and Chromecast access are coming early next year.

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In short, this is a treasure house for fans of classic foreign and American films. Some older Hollywood studio films are available (e.g., Brute Force from Criterion), but I bet more of the TCM library studio will migrate to the service. I’m itching for those beautiful Warner Archive items.

 

FilmStruck and us (and you, we hope)

We are honored and happy to be involved with FilmStruck. Under the blog rubric, “Observations on Film Art,” Kristin and I and Jeff Smith, our collaborator on Film Art have launched a series for the Criterion Channel. We offer short appreciations of particular films and filmmakers.

There’s a video introduction to the three of us…

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… including some potentially embarrassing vintage images.

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Here’s our first entry, featuring Jeff Smith.

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Coming up are Kristin on Kiarostami, and me on L’Avventura and Sanshiro Sugata. We hope to post about one per month.

Our discussions are analytical, focusing on particular techniques of style and narrative. They don’t contain crucial spoilers, so most can be watched before the film as well as after.

Of course we’re tremendously excited to get our ideas out there in a new platform. We conceive the series as like our blog—applying our research into film form, style, and history to films in a user-friendly way. We hope that we’ll find an audience among cinephiles as well as among more casual viewers who simply want to get more out of the films they see.

As the installments go online, we hope to post blog entries that flesh them out. Jeff will soon be posting an entry that supplements his Foreign Correspondent analysis.

My email address is still visible on every page of this site, so if you have responses to the FilmStruck versions of “Observations on Film Art,” we’d welcome hearing them. We look forward to working with our colleagues at Criterion—Peter Becker, Kim Hendrickson, Grant Delin, Tara Young, Penelope Bartlett, and all their associates. This ought to be plenty fun.


Thanks to Mary Huelsbeck and Amy Sloper of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research for letting us prowl the premises for our introductory video.

At Stream on Demand, Sean Axmaker reviews the FilmStruck project.

P.S. 15 November: Peter Becker talks with Scott Macaulay of Filmmaker about the ambitions of the Criterion Channel, with many details about films and filmmakers to be showcased.

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The end of Theatoriums, too

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Moving Picture World (February 1908), 135.

DB here:

Vis-à-vis the last post, all of three hours ago, Alert Reader and arthouse impresario Martin McCaffery sends the above.

Actually, it’s much in the spirit of current jeremiads: Movies and their theatoriums better shape up, or they’ll be finished–like bicycles and Ping-Pong.

History is so cool. Full text here and below. There’s also a 1908 rebuttal, in the spirit of movies-are-doing-just-fine-thanks, here. Both courtesy the prodigious Lantern.

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Good, old-fashioned love (i.e., close analysis) of film

Kristin here:

On April 10, I received a message from Tracy Cox-Stanton, the editor of a new online journal, The Cine-Files. This journal is run out of the Cinema Studies department of the Savannah College of Art and Design. The message was an invitation to contribute to the fourth issue of the journal, of which, I must admit, I had been unaware until that time.

The invitation included two options. One was: “Offer a brief (1000-2000 word) reading of a film “moment” that considers how some particular detail of a film’s mise-en-scène (a prop, an actor’s gesture, an aspect of costume, a camera movement, etc.) illuminates the film as a whole, helping us understand the relationship between a film’s details and the overall “work” of cinema.  We encourage the use of film stills.”

Having lived for decades in an academic publishing world which tended to discourage the use of film stills, I found this a cordial invitation indeed. Still, my initial thought was, if I had an idea for a study of a film “moment,” I should put it on our blog. We bloggers tend to become selfish about ideas for compact, easy-to-write analyses.

     

The other option, however, seemed more feasible: to respond to three questions as an online interview. It seemed a simple way of encouraging a promising new journal, and I accepted.

The Cine-Files is an appealing project. In place of the recent focus on cinephilia , which has often encouraged self-absorbed pieces in which film-lovers ponder the nature of their own love of film, “Cine-Files” implies good, hard study, with research resulting in files full of data that can result in informative, meaningful history and analysis.

It reminds me of The Velvet Light Trap in its heyday, though its format is quite different. In 1973, when David and I first arrived at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, graduate students in the young cinema-studies program and coordinators of film societies (showing 16mm prints by the dozen each night) published this extraordinary magazine. It was a combination of auteur worship, studies of studios, and genre analysis. The Velvet Light Trap was a film journal in an era when such things were rare and graduate students could be tastemakers.

The Cine-Files is similarly focused on films in their historical context. It is semi-annual and alternates open-topic and themed issues. Its first themed issue was on the French New Wave. Remarkably for a new journal, it attracted comments from experts such as Dudley Andrew, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Richard Neupert. The newest issue, to which I contributed, is on Mise-en-scène. The topic for interviews, however, was a bit broader: “close readings.” The new issue, #4, has recently been posted, and my interview is here. There is also a call for papers for the fifth issue, an open-topic one, here.

Tracy has kindly agreed to our re-posting my responses to the three questions about close readings here. We have slightly modified the original post to suit this venue. We thank Tracy for a set of questions that provoked what we hope are interesting responses.

What is at stake in close reading?

To begin with, I don’t use the phrase “close reading.” I prefer “close analysis.” The notion of close reading is presumably a holdover from the 1970s and 1980s, when semiotics was a popular approach in film studies. Cinematic technique was thought to be closely comparable to a language, with coded units and grammar. Although there are some comparisons to be made between the techniques of cinema and a language, I don’t think the similarities can be taken very far.

“Reading” to me implies that interpretation is one’s main goal in looking closely at a film. I usually use interpretation as part of analysis, but it is seldom my main goal. Analysis, loosely speaking, to me means noting patterns in the relationship of the individual devices in a film (devices being techniques of style and form) to each other and figuring out why those patterns are there. What purposes do they serve?

    

What is at stake in close analysis depends on what sort of analysis one is doing. I’m assuming here that the subject is scholarly or semi-scholarly analysis intended for publication. My own purposes for analysis fall into at least these categories:

1. The simplest reason to analyze a film would be to find out more about it because it’s appealing or intriguing.

I’ve written essays on Jacques Tati’s Les Vacances de M. Hulot and Play Time, in both cases because I admired them and wanted to be able to understand and appreciate them better. I go on the simple assumption that we can only be entertained and moved by films to the degree that we notice things in them. Complex films can’t be thoroughly comprehended on a single viewing or even several viewings. Sometimes you may need to watch them more closely, not in a screening but on a machine, like a flatbed editor or a DVD player, that lets you pause and slow down the image.

2. One might analyze a film in order to answer a question, often to do with the nature of cinema in general.

My essay on “Duplicitous Narration and Stage Fright,” as the title suggests, arose more from my interest in a particular, unusual device, the “lying flashback,” than from a particular admiration for the film.

3. You might want to make a case that a film is significant and suggest why others should pay attention to it.

One example would be the rediscovery over the past few years of Alberto Capellani’s French and Hollywood silent films. On this blog site, I posted two entries, “Capellani ritrovato” and “Capellani trionfante,” analyzing some scenes to support the claim that Capellani was one of the most important stylists and innovators of the era from 1905 to 1914.

A very different case came with The Lord of the Rings trilogy by Peter Jackson. I had written a book, The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood (University of California Press, 2007), primarily on the marketing and merchandising surrounding the film and on its many influences. I would not claim Jackson’s film to be a masterpiece, but there was such a great backlash against it, mostly by literary scholars of Tolkien, that I thought it might be worth counterbalancing their opinions. I wanted to make a modest defense of the film as containing some excellent passages and effective decisions concerning the adaptation process. So I wrote two essays based on that argument. (See the codicil to this entry for references.)

4. Close analysis can be vital for writing about film history.

For example, David and I have studied films closely to determine the stylistic and narrative norms of specific times and places. We’re also interested in finding films that were innovative in relation to those norms. Rather than examining a single film closely, such an approach involves analyzing many films to find commonalities and divergences. For example, David has studied the norms and innovations of modern Hong Kong cinema (Planet Hong Kong, Harvard University Press, 2000; second edition available online at Observations on Film Art).

     

Another such project was my Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique (Harvard University Press, 1999). There had been many claims in academic and journalistic writings that the norms of Hollywood storytelling had declined after the end of the studio era and that we were now in a post-classical era. Such claims didn’t tally with what I was seeing in the best Hollywood films, the ones held up as models within the industry. I did case studies of ten such films, dating from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, going through each scene by scene. I showed how classical techniques like protagonists’ goals, dangling causes, dialogue hooks, redundant motivation, and other traditional norms were still pervasive in modern Hollywood. I chose the ten films because I liked them, but others would have made my point equally well.

Please tell us about something that couldn’t be understood without a frame-by-frame attention to detail.

I don’t think most close analysis goes to the minute detail of examining a film frame by frame. Sometimes it’s necessary, especially with French and Soviet films of the 1920s or with some experimental work. There can be lots of ways of looking closely at the parts of a film and relating them to other parts.

Take a simple example, in my essay on Late Spring, I reproduced eleven shots across the length of the film that include a sewing machine off to one side of the frame–or, in one case, the space where the machine had been. No two of these shots are the same, though they often are only small variations on each other, with the machine closer or further from the camera, sometimes on the left, sometimes the right, and so on. I even missed a couple, the second and third shots immediately below, so there are actually thirteen variants. (DVDs do have their advantages. It’s not so easy going back and forth across a film looking for such repetitions in a 35mm print.)

     

The series culminates late in the film, after the daughter has married and left her widowed father living alone. We see a similar framing along a corridor, and the space formerly occupied by the sewing machine is empty. (See below.)

The daughter doesn’t use this sewing machine in the course of the action, and no one mentions it.  Many viewers probably vaguely notice that there is a sewing machine in the house. A few may notice its eventual absence late in the film. But even someone who watches the film over and over and at some point notices that there is a meaningful pattern of the sewing-machine shots would not be able to describe it. I suspected that the sewing-machine shots were small variations on each other, but were there some repetitions? How many were there? I was only able to get a good understanding of how the motif worked by photographing all the shots (or so I thought at the time) and comparing them side by side—and having the luxury to reproduce all eleven frame enlargements in my book.

What point is there in analyzing such a motif in detail? If we admire Claude Monet for taking infinite trouble to capture tiny changes of light on haystacks or lily-ponds, why not devote the same respect to one of the cinema’s greatest directors? To go back to my point at the beginning, we can only appreciate a film to the extent that we notice things about it. I take it that the critic’s job is to notice such things and point them out for the enrichment of others who don’t have the time or inclination to do close analysis.

How do digital technologies allow us to engage in “direct” criticism that bypasses traditional written criticism?

One obvious answer is that digital technologies allow anything that could be published in printed form to be offered online. Whether written for consumption via the internet or already published and then scanned to be posted, online criticism offers some obvious advantages. There is no lag in publication time and no need to hunt for a press. Of course there are disadvantages too: no real guarantee of long-term survival, often no academic reward for publishing through a non-refereed process. David and I have posted many entries involving close analysis on this blog. (I discuss the history and approach of Observations on Film Art in an essay for the first issue of the online journal, Frames Cinema Journal: “Not in Print: Two Film Scholars on the Internet.”)

Perhaps more interesting is the question of what critical tools digital technologies offer for analysis itself. In past decades, David and I had to rig up elaborate camera-and-bellows systems to photograph frames from prints of films—as well as to travel far and depend on the hospitality of archivists to gain access to those prints. Nowadays DVDs and Blu-rays bring hitherto rare films to the critic, and readily available players and apps allow for easy capture of frames for illustration purposes. If the essay or book based on close analysis using such tools is to go online, it also becomes practical to reproduce a great many more frames as illustrations than would be possible in a print publication. David’s e-book edition of Planet Hong Kong permitted him to publish most of the illustrations in color, an option that would have been prohibitive in a university press volume.

The possibility of using short clips as illustrations in an article or book is very promising, especially once electronic textbooks get past the trial stages. I made a modest contribution to the use of clips as examples for introductory students with “Elliptical Editing in Vagabond”; this was done with the cooperation of the Criterion Collection and posted by them on YouTube in 2012. Other extracts appear as proprietary supplements for Film Art: An Introduction. Since then, David has offered three online lectures analyzing editing, the history of film style, and the aesthetics of CinemaScope; see our Videos listing on the left.

Video essays analyzing films are still a new format but show great potential. Their usefulness will depend on how the issue of copyright plays out. At this point, I’m hopeful that showing clips as part of an analytical study will become established as fair use, as clearly it should be. Being able to use moving images complete with sound as well as still frames from films will be an extraordinarily useful tool.

I hope that critics using digital tools will take the trouble to create analyses as complex as one can achieve through description in printed prose. This would mean editing together stills and short segments from across a film, recording voiceover comments, adding graphics where useful, and so on. Close analysis of this type will always be a labor-intensive process.


The analyses mentioned in this article have been published in collections. “Boredom on the Beach: Triviality and Humor in Les vacances de M. Hulot,” “Duplicitous Narration and Stage Fright,” “Play Time: Comedy on the Edge of Perception,” and “Late Spring and Ozu’s Unreasonable Style” appear in Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis (Princeton University Press, 1988). “Stepping out of Blockbuster Mode: The Lighting of the Beacons in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003),” was published in Tom Brown and James Walters, eds., Film Moments (British Film Institute, 2010), and “Gollum Talks to Himself: Problems and Solutions in Peter Jackson’s Film Adaptation of The Lord of the Rings” appeared in Janice M. Bogstad and Philip E. Kaveny, eds. Picturing Tolkien: Essays on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Film Trilogy (McFarland, 2011).

Late Spring (1949).

David Bordwell
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